Thursday, February 28, 2019

Unpopular Movies That I Like Pt. 2

So last time I began talking about movies that are generally considered (by some, or many), to be "bad movies", a stance in their cases I disagree with and dispute. And now, it's time to talk about some MORE such films, because there are several, trust me. And away we go!

Film: The Wizard
Year: 1989
Director:Todd Holland

Another late 80s gem that is often the butt of jokes, The Wizard, much like Mac and Me, is also accused of basically being a 90 minute commercial. In this particular case, for the classic Nintendo Entertainment System (Nintendo's first major console) in general. But also, for the extended preview, more or less, of their at-the-time upcoming new hit game, Super Mario Bros. 3, featured in the climax of the movie. And much like Mac and Me, that isn't a completely untrue or unfair assertion, as this game was in fact licensed and endorsed by Nintendo themselves, who hoped the film would further raise the profile of their system and games. But is it a BAD movie? Let's take a deeper look.

Directed by Todd Holland, a director mostly known for television, this film was the result of happenstance, with Nintendo agreeing to a proposal by Universal Studios to make a movie based on their games, as they wanted to keep momentum of their popular console going, in the face of some delayed game releases. The story features Fred Savage of The Wonder Years fame as Corey Woods, a boy whose seemingly autistic younger brother Jimmy, has remained very withdrawn from the world after the accidental drowning of his twin sister two years prior. Jimmy keeps trying to run away from home, so it would seem, and their mother and new step-father, want to put Jimmy in a home, as they feel they can't meet his needs. Not wanting to see his brother "locked away", young Corey takes his brother and really does run away, which kicks off the strange road trip the movie takes us on.

Underage gambling, by proxy.

The brothers soon meet up with a pretty young redhead named Haley, who thanks to traveling a lot with her trucker dad, is far more road-wise than they are. Together, Corey and Haley also soon discover that, as it turns out, somewhat like a so-called "Savant", Jimmy seems to be incredibly good at video games. Haley sees an ad in a gaming magazine, for the "Video Armageddon" tournament, held at Universal Studios (where else?), in Los Angeles. Not only does this align with Haley's desire for money, but it also aligns perfectly with Jimmy's own repeated desire to go to California. Meanwhile, not only are Corey and Jimmy's father Sam and older brother Nick (played by Beau Bridges and Christian Slater, respectively) out on the road looking for them, but so is a sleazy "runaway catcher" who their step-father has hired. And thus the movie is not only a road trip story, but also a race to get to California.

Childhood dreams.

The idea for the "Video Armageddon" tournament was based on the real life gaming tournaments Nintendo themselves had just begun doing, starting with a Canadian event called the Nintendo Challenge Championship, and later evolving into the much more famous 1990 Nintendo World Championship. For my part, as a kid in the late 80s, I was completely unaware of such events, but I was aware of Super Mario Bros 3. I saw this movie (like anything else) as a home rental, probably in 1990 or 1991, long after this film had released. But I had experienced Mario 3 (already becoming addicted to the original at a friend's house), very briefly, at my aunt's house at a family gathering. And regardless of whether I finally saw this movie before I got a copy of the game myself for Christmas 1990, or after, once I finally saw this movie, I was still excited by the whole reveal and set-up of the tournament. In fact I found the entire movie to be very fun and entertaining, not at all hindered by my growing love of/childhood obsession with video games. Just to name a few, games shown in this film include Double Dragon, Ninja Gaiden, Zelda II, Rad Racer, and more, and to a kid who loves video games, just seeing all those in a single film was pretty damn cool.

The thing is, I still find this movie fun and entertaining today, in my 30s. Part of it is nostalgia, both for the movie and for old video games on my part, yes. But I also think as films go, it is a perfectly decent, even fairly well made little movie. It certainly doesn't lack for acting, with the likes of Bridges, Slater, Savage, and even a cameo by the great Frank McRae. In fact as much as I like Mac and Me, and think it isn't at all a poorly made film, I can easily say that The Wizard is, all around, a better written, better acted, and more grounded movie. The story of the bond between brothers, their new friendship with Haley, the journey of their dad and brother chasing after them, the excitement of Jimmy's gaming skills and the looming tournament, even the memorable "villains" of kid catcher Mr. Putnam and the arrogant rival gamer Lucas (who loves the Power Glove). All of these elements combine to make what I think is actually a really great movie, for what it is. It tells an endearing story, and though this is a major *SPOILER*, the bit at the end where it turns out Jimmy wanted to go to California this whole time, to take mementos of his sister to one of the last places they were happy together, the famous Cabazon Dinosaurs (of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure fame), is a really nice, emotional touch.

Best Thing About The Wizard: To a childhood Nintendo nut like me, the games. In general, it's a good story about family and friendship. Centered around awesome games.

Worst Thing About The Wizard: The Power Glove. Lucas makes it look awesome, but anyone who's ever used the thing, knows that it barely works.

Film: The Avengers
Year: 1998
Director:  Jeremiah S. Chechik

As I've described before, perhaps partially as a means of making up for all the childhood years that I wasn't able to see movies in theaters, in my teens from 1996 through 1999 especially, I legitimately saw an average of around 30 films per year. But the other side of that, was that in all blunt honesty, in the mid-to-late 90s, there were just a lot more films coming out that I actually WANTED to see in theaters. Not everything I went to see was great, granted, some even outright stunk. But I'd also say that it is not hyperbole to state that Hollywood was quite simply pumping out a LOT better movies back then. Compared to, say, the last 10+ years, where I'm lucky if there are 5 or 6 films I want to see in theaters, per year.

Well, in the summer of 1998, at the very height of my theater going days, a now lesser-known film hit theaters, based on an old TV show I had never seen (or barely even heard of for that matter), called The Avengers. Nope, not THOSE Avengers, but rather, a duo of British super spies, secret agents, who were something of a campy send-up of James Bond and the like that was very popular in the 1960s. Not only did the 1998 Avengers movie not do terribly well at the box office, but it also seemingly wasn't overly well liked by critics. I have also heard that many fans of the original show hate it, as with many Hollywood adaptations, they simply deviated too much (unnecessarily) from the source material. That is something I can relate to and sympathize with, as I myself am more often than not a firm believer in sticking to source material, and I myself often hate it when Hollywood makes changes to adaptations for no good reason. But for me, a 16 year old in the late 90s, a young man really starting to come into my own as a person, and someone who had never seen the original show so I had nothing to compare it to, quite frankly, I absolutely loved this movie!

The stars of the film.

The Avengers is directed by Jeremiah Chechick, whose first film was actually none other than National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, one of my favorite holiday films and comedies of all time. As such, while I'm sure the original show had its own brand of humor as well, this film is not without its comedic elements, which I personally felt worked quite well. The stars of the show, as seen above, are Ralph Fiennes (of Harry Potter fame) as Ministry Agent John Steed, and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel, a scientist who also starts working for the Ministry. In fact, the Harry Potter connections don't end there, as the primary Ministry bosses in the story, "Mother" (a man) and "Father" (a woman), are played by HP actors Jim Broadbent and Fiona Shaw. And last but most certainly not least, the main villain of the film, and a delightfully mad turn of a villain as well, is the great Sean Connery as Sir August De Wynter, a scientist obsessed with the weather.

The core of the plot, is that Project Prospero, an ill-conceived attempt at manipulating weather patterns, has been sabotaged, and video evidence seems to show Emma Peel herself, former head of the project, committing the crime. Both to clear her good name, and to help get this power out of possible terrorist hands, Ms. Peel agrees to aid Steed and the Ministry in their investigation. As they go to meet De Wynter, and the plot begins to unfold, it is revealed that Sir August himself is the man behind the the sabotage, and he has what appears to be a clone of Emma Peel working for him. He has taken control of Prospero because he wishes to use it to threaten the world with massive, catastrophic weather if they don't pay him a huge amount of money. You know, typical maniacal villain stuff.

The film's odd style and quirky sense of charm on display.

Believe it or not, this is yet another movie to be included on a list of so-called "Worst Films Ever Made". A list which I hold in little regard, in part because it is a high form of film snobbery, but also because looking at many of the movies, such as this, put on it, while also considering the exclusion of an awful lot of ACTUALLY bad films, it just doesn't deserve much regard. Lists like those, like all opinions, are of course incredibly subjective. Even so, the very notion to me, regardless of box office performance, that this movie could possibly be considered, with any degree of seriousness, one of THE worst films ever made? Again, I'll echo what I said in Part 1 of this enterprise, that I have myself seen a LOT of movies in my life, and a LOT of really, earnestly shitty movies at that. Not only does this not even come close, but I really don't see where people would get off calling this "Bad" in the first place. Personal tastes aside, objectively, it is fairly well written, well acted with a pretty strong main cast, it has excellent flow and pacing, it tells an interesting story, and at the end of the day, it is a fun action flick with an above-average sense of wit and wordplay.

Me personally, upon seeing it for the first time in August 1998, sitting in that theater by myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. I was immediately taken by the film's playful sense of British humor, and general tone and style. I loved the way they played up the stereotypical British politeness and focus on good manners, no matter the situation, even from the villains. Ralph Fiennes does a fantastically suave and charming job as John Steed, including pulling off some very well-executed and convincing action/fight scenes. And Uma Thurman, who depending on the film I am not always a huge fan of, does an equally charming job as the mysterious and potentially villainous Emma Peel. The show is stolen, of course, in my humble opinion, by Sean Connery, as it so often is. To me, this is one of his most entertaining roles, as he rarely plays villains, and he absolutely owns the eccentric madness of the character. Not too over the top, but Shakespearean enough, in its own way, to make a truly memorably bad guy. This was during the mid-to-late-90s period where I was just beginning to fully discover Mr. Connery, in movies like Highlander, Medicine Man, First Knight, Dragonheart, and The Rock. I had previously seen him as a kid in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, but this was one of many films during this time that really cemented him as one of my favorite actors.

I liked The Avengers so much that I saw it one or two more times, at the very least dragging a friend to go see it with me a second time. He also wound up loving it. Looking at a list just now, that I had previously made of movies I saw by year, it would seem in 1998 I actually saw over 40 movies, probably more than any other year in my movie-going life. And that year was full of many really great films I loved, including What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams, Fallen, Dark City, The Truman Show, etc. But I have no reservations whatsoever about including this movie among them, as it was one of the movies, from a year of great movies, that I got the most enjoyment from seeing. Overall, again personal tastes aside, I think many films that "bomb" in theaters, not making money, get unfairly seen as "bad films", regardless of their actual quality. And this is one I am confident in stating, if you've never seen it (or even if you have), that no, objectively speaking, it is in no meaningful way a "bad" movie. And that is even in light of the fact that Warner Bros, as idiotic studio executives often do, ordered the film to be cut down and altered. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but that and being a "bad film" are two entirely different things, as could be said for just about every movie I'm here to discuss.

Best Thing About The Avengers: Aside from Sean Connery's awesome turn as August De Wynter, I would say the overall tone and "British Charm" of the film. It was just an incredibly pleasant, fun movie to watch.

Worst Thing About The Avengers: The entire sub-plot about Emma Peel's clone is never fully expounded upon, and is a bit flimsy and ridiculous. But it's also not super important, and doesn't really detract from the rest of the story.

Film: Die Hard With a Vengeance (Die Hard 3)
Year: 1995
Director:  John McTiernan

While I was vaguely aware that some people disliked this movie, thanks to a snarky conversation by co-workers overheard many years ago, I was not aware until more recently that some people actually seem to consider Die Hard With a Vengeance a "Bad" film. I myself didn't see this movie when it came out, as it was on the cusp of when I was able to start going to theaters at 13 years old starting slowly in the summer of 1995, but I did see it later on, likely in 1996 or early 1997, on VHS. It was actually the first Die Hard movie I ever saw, in fact, and one of the first Bruce Willis films I saw in general. But while I clearly am defending every movie on this ongoing list of mine as being a good film, I'm about to take a much stronger stance than that.

Released in May 1995, this film was directed by John McTiernan, who in addition to directing the original Die Hard, had also previously directed Predator, The Hunt For Red October, and Medicine Man, all movies I like. The writer, Jonathan Hensleigh, also has quite a resume, as while this was his first major film, he would go on to write Jumanji, The Rock, Con Air, The Saint, and Armageddon. Not only was this movie probably my first major exposure to Bruce Willis, but outside of his smaller side-role in Jurassic Park, this was also my first major exposure to Samuel L. Jackson. For what it's worth, it was also the second-highest grossing film of 1995, behind only Toy Story, and beating out the likes of Apollo 13, Goldeneye, Pocahontas and Batman Forever.

John McClain, looking as haggard as ever.

The set-up of this particular Die Hard, I feel, is actually fairly unique. Where the first two films essentially saw similar plots where a group of terrorists were laying siege to or holding hostage a specific place, this movie is more of a "wild goose chase", in a pretty literal sense. While the villains are once again a group of terrorists, the plot this time sees hero Detective John McClain back in his native New York City, and the main terrorist, "Simon", is literally messing with McClain, leading him around on a game of "Simon Says". He accomplishes this via the threat of bombing various NYC targets, such as schools. In that sense alone, "Die Hard 3" is a much more psychological story, as the villain seems to have a personal vendetta against McClain, and his machinations are more than merely trying to gain money, etc.

For his part, Jackson's character of Zeus Carver, is just an "Average Joe" civilian who owns his own shop, and he gets involved by happenstance. "Simon" instructs McClain to go to a predominantly black neighborhood, forced to wear a sign with the racist slogan "I Hate N******", as a means of messing with him and deliberately putting him in harms way. Thinking he's just some crazy asshole who's going to get himself killed by the local gangbangers, Zeus interjects to save his life. Watching the entire thing from afar, "Simon" demands that Zeus accompany McClain for the duration of his mad game. Fair warning about *SPOILERS*, but in an interesting twist, the villain turns out to be Simon Gruber, the brother of Hans Gruber, the terrorist leader that McClain killed in the first film.

 The Odd Couple.

Now I'm really not 100% clear on what issues precisely that some people seem to have with this film. The original 1988 movie is considered a classic of the action genre, which I agree with, though I personally contend the notion that it is a "Christmas Movie", let alone that it's one of the "Best Christmas Movies Ever". But that's besides the point. To me, the sequel, Die Hard 2, while a decent film, is a bit of a let down from the first, and I certainly wouldn't personally consider it a better movie than "Die Hard 3", by any stretch of the imagination. But I really struggle to think of the reasons people would consider this a "bad" film compared to the first two. In point of fact, when I said that I would take a stronger stance than merely pointing out that this is a genuinely GOOD film, it's because, at least in my opinion, I think this is the BEST of the Die Hard franchise. Yes, best. Why?

Because while the first movie is a classic, and a very entertaining action/thriller, to me the entire setup of sending the heroes all over New York City, having them do whatever crazy, dangerous shit you can think of, as a cover for the REAL crime you're committing right under their noses? All of this also being personal revenge against McClain? It's just a far more exciting and interesting plot, to me, than terrorists holding a corporate Christmas party hostage for money. Bruce Willis and Sam Jackson have great chemistry, in that "odd couple thrown together" kind of way, and this was actually the movie that made me both a Willis and Jackson fan. Jeremy Irons makes a great villain as Simon Gruber, and his motivations and schemes are more complex than his brother's (played by the late Alan Rickman). The stakes are obviously far higher, with terrorists threatening to blow up schools full of innocent children, etc., versus one room full of yuppy corporate partiers (even though one of them WAS McClain's wife). In general, I think this movie is every bit as classic an action flick as the first, and I would contend that overall it has more going for it, and going on within it, than it's predecessors do.

Best Thing About Die Hard 3: The teaming of Willis and Jackson, the more complex villain, and the more intricate, psychological plot.

Worst Thing About Die Hard 3: The fact that McClain is once again estranged from his wife, who he had seemed to have reconciled with in the first two films. I'm a sucker for good, lasting relationships, and I hate to see them fall apart (especially for no good reason other than plot convenience).


Well that's it for now. I'll be back with at least one more installment of this series, and a few more heavy hitters to discuss. Until then, go watch these movies, because they're actually pretty good!

Monday, January 21, 2019

Unpopular Movies That I Like Pt. 1

I have never been a stranger to having so-called "Unpopular Opinions" in my life. By and large, with few exceptions, almost exclusively from my youth, I like what I like, and don't what I don't, and tend to mostly not care where those opinions align with the masses. So-called "Popular Opinions", after all, are very often disingenuous, in the sense that many people tend to get swept up in the "Zeitgeist", so to speak. Meaning that many people, who might tend not to have strong or concrete opinions of their own, will instead just kind of go with whatever the general opinion on something seems to be. Thus, when it comes to things like entertainment, many such people who form "the masses", will tend to lean towards whatever popular likes and dislikes they have heard expressed. The idea being that, if some people put out there the notion that "Movie X is a Bad Film", even if that may not actually be true on many levels, through a form of the "Word of Mouth" phenomenon, the notion will just kinda keep creeping and spreading through the proverbial grapevine, until that thought is more or less planted within the so-called "Public Consciousness". The end result being that the "Popular Opinion", though most did not actually come to the conclusion on their own, or via their own time or effort, will inevitably be that "Movie X is a Bad Film."

Now in all fairness, sometimes Movie X genuinely IS a bad film. And in other cases, some people will feel that Movie X, while it is NOT a "bad film" on many levels, to THEM is a bad film, or they simply find reasons to dislike it. Not everyone who echoes a "Popular Opinion" is a Zombie of the Zeitgeist, if you will. It's just that many are, and that is how many opinions become popularized in the first place.

As for myself, personally, there are certainly popular opinions that I echo. But I also often find myself having contrary opinions to the popular norm. In fact, since childhood, there have been many times when a thing or opinion is popular, and I just sort of buck against it instinctually, as if "This can't be how it really is" or "This can't actually be that good". Sometimes I will reevaluate this initial gut reaction at a later date, such as when I experience said popular thing and come to the conclusion, for myself, that "Oh, it actually is pretty decent". But there are other times when my initial gut reaction in such cases, stands the test of time.

The bottom line being, I have always tended, more often than not, to be an individual and critical thinker. I am certainly not above having gut reactions to things that are more shallow or even petty, especially when it comes to entertainment related things. But by and large I typically try to form my own opinion of things, always attempting to be fair-minded, and striving to judge things as they are, on their own merits. And that of course extends to movies. There are many films I like or even love, that happen to be rather popular, such as Ghostbusters, Star Wars, The Goonies, and the list goes on and on. In fact I'd go so far as to say that it's entirely possible, that a majority of movies I like (let's say over 50%), are probably movies well liked and well thought of, in more general terms. But, I also have never shied away from liking, and defending, movies which have fallen into that unfortunate abyss of being "Unpopular". Any more than I have shied away, as evidenced by my own sub-series "Unnecessary Sequels", from expressing dislike for movies that may be more popular.

Today I am here with the express intent, to go to bat for several films which seem to be generally "Unpopular", or in some cases are even apparently thought of as "Bad Movies". All opinions of course being subjective, "bad" is more often than not a matter of personal taste, though there there are also films which are objectively poorly made. But I want to make it clear that I am not usually one of those "So bad it's good" people, I do not tend to like things because I think they're bad. Just to make it clear, that every movie I'm going to discuss today, while a few are hardly masterpieces, I myself DO consider them to be "Good Movies". I am here to discuss both why I personally like them, as well as on a more general scale, pointing out why I do NOT feel they are, in my view, "Bad Movies". So without further exposition, let's dig right in!


Film: Mac and Me
Year: 1988
Director: Stewart Raffill

I figured I'd start with an "easy" one, meaning that the general consensus on this film is easily the most negative of all the films I'm going to discuss today. Which also means that it's technically going to be the most "difficult" to defend. But I'm here to give it my best shot. Mac and Me was a film released in 1988, featuring heavy product placement by Sears, Coca-Cola and McDonalds, and was absolutely a fairly blatant attempt to cash in on the success of the 1982 Steven Spielberg classic E.T.:  The Extra Terrestrial. It is considered by many to be one of the "Worst Movies Ever Made".

Firstly, I'll get into what I personally like about this film. For one thing, in spite of the rushed nature of its production, and blatant highly corporate tie-in nature, in spite of these things, the story still comes off as fairly genuine and heartfelt. Much moreso, I'd argue, than many films with zero corporate ties, that take themselves far more seriously. I enjoy the cooky aliens, especially the titular M.A.C. (Mysterious Alien Creature), who is rather adorable in a mildly terrifying way. I also enjoy the family dynamic, both of MAC and his weird ass alien family, as well as the human single mother and her two sons (and neighboring girl next door) that they befriend. For another, the movie has, again in spite of itself, an undeniable charm throughout, and many genuinely funny and/or entertaining scenes within it. Not funny or entertaining merely because of the camp nature of the film itself, but, at least I feel, on their own merits. I especially like MAC's bizarre, malleable physiology, which lends itself to scenes of him bouncing or stretching all over the place, or his powers that seem to make things go haywire.  And the movie has some moments that I find to be genuinely touching, especially that scene near the end, in spite of its ridiculousness.

Secondly, I'll address this being considered one of the "Worst Movies Ever Made", and why I think that is incorrect. The primary reasons that this film has been widely panned are twofold: its rampant product placement, and its fairly obvious attempt at trying to be "The Next E.T.". To be perfectly fair, I would say the worst part about this entire movie, is easily the nonsensical "McDonald's Party" scene. Any scene where an entire movie/story stops, so that something else unrelated to the story can happen , is typically extraneous and unnecessary. I don't have a problem with product placement in a movie, such as Reese's Pieces candy in E.T., especially considering how big a part of general 80s culture Coca-Cola and McDonald's were (certainly if you were a kid, which I was). It is, admittedly, a bit silly and contrived that the aliens have weird whistle-mouths, which they can seemingly only consume liquids from, through the use of straws, and that they love Coke. But as far as I'm concerned, that fact is mild and forgivable, considering the rather surreal nature of the story in the first place. And I don't even think that a scene taking place at a McDonald's restaurant, even with Ronald making an appearance (which to kids at the time was a pretty cool thing) is bad on its own, because again, going to McDonald's was something most 80s kids would have loved to do (I did). The "cardinal sin" they committed, and where the film jumped the shark, was having a ridiculous, overlong music video type scene, rife with completely pointless elaborate dancing routines, etc., which had nothing to do with the plot, and disrupted the flow of the rest of the film. They 100% could/should have done without that scene, as even IF they wanted to get some McDonald's action into the film, there were far better ways to accomplish that.

Everybody dance now.

But as far as Mac and Me being one of "The Worst Movies Ever Made"? As in EVER? My overall response to that is pretty simple: not even fucking close. I've watched a LOT of movies in my time, and let me tell you, even on a purely objective level, disregarding my own personal tastes and feelings, this is not a "Bad" film. As in, badly made, badly executed, badly acted, badly edited, etc. I've seen a TON of genuinely shit-tastic films over the years, that were all of those things and more. And Mac and Me does not, in any reasonable sense, belong lumped in with those. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that, considering that this movie was hastily rushed into production, started filming without a script (the director had to hammer it out as the film was being made, basically), is an attempt at corporate advertising through film, and stars a kid with zero previous acting experience, the final product is actually RATHER good, in spite of itself.

Director Stewart Raffill, who had just prior to this made the sci-fi cult hit The Philadelphia Experiment, and the fantastic (and underrated) sci-fi comedy The Ice Pirates, honestly did a pretty good job, given what he had to work with. I would hardly call this movie a GREAT film, let alone a masterpiece of cinema, but I think it does have a very slick, professional look, solid cinematography, good pacing (outside of that absurd McDonald's Party), special effects that are pretty decent considering the era and the film's budget, etc. The child actor who plays main character Eric, as stated, had zero previous acting experience. But they decided they wanted the character to be disabled, and the actor legitimately has Spina Bifida, and is wheelchair-bound for real, making him a rare case of a legit disabled character. Taking those facts into consideration, I think he actually did a pretty strong job. I also think that the actress who portrayed his mother, Christine Ebersole, did a very solid job with the material, and their relationship comes off as fairly organic and genuine. She has good chemistry with her movie sons, and with Eric in particular, she has some really nice scenes, like when she's out jogging alongside his wheelchair, where their relationship shines.

They just wanted to shop.

As far as being a blatant E.T. ripoff goes, I'd say the truth behind that is "Yes and No." On the surface, and when it was being conceived by the producer, yes, it absolutely was an attempt to cash in and get a piece of that sweet "friendly alien" pie. On the superficial level of "kid with a single mom meets alien with strange powers, who is stranded on Earth and being hunted by government types", yes, it is incredibly similar to E.T.  But beyond that, the movie does have its own personality and twist on those themes. Whereas ET himself is this wondrous alien with fairly mild powers, MAC and his family are wacky aliens with highly malleable (even somewhat invulnerable) bodies, and abilities that are actually quite powerful in comparison. MAC himself, basically being a child, lacks a great degree of control of these powers, hence leading to bizarre and even ridiculous mishaps. But he also manages to use his powers to fix things, and directly saves Eric's life more than once. The family dynamic also certainly is a unique twist, as opposed to ET being stranded on the planet alone, and as goofy and oddball as the aliens look and act, there are genuinely touching moments of familial care and survival, as they struggle to make it on a hostile world. And while I would of course whole-heartedly agree that E.T. is overall a better movie, I would actually say that, on that family level, Mac and Me does a somewhat stronger job of portraying the plight of a single parent, with more emphasis on showing the mom struggling to work and support her kids alone, setting up a new home and life for them, on top of dealing with all the weird goings-on.

I would definitely agree that this movie is very weird, and even outright corny and ridiculous at points. The nature of the aliens is a bit silly, but it's also pretty creative, and it lends them an oddball charm. I'd hardly call the acting "Oscar Worthy", but it's also not bad, especially the kid for whom this was his first role. In spite of cheesy product placement and a completely pointless McDonald's Dance Party scene slapped in the middle of the story, this film is far from poorly made. Mac and Me is a flawed film, most of its flaws coming from the nature of its conception and production in the first place. But overall, I would say it's a decent movie, that doesn't deserve most of its bad rep. I would argue that it is not merely a "bad" movie that I happen to enjoy, and I would strongly argue its status as being one of the "Worst Movies Ever Made". In fact I'd say that's flat out untrue, and anyone being honest with themselves, looking at the film on a purely objective level, would acknowledge that. There are many films that deserve to be considered some of the worst ever made, and Mac and Me is very far from deserving that odious distinction.

Best Thing About Mac and Me: Fun story and good family chemistry.

Worst Thing About Mac and Me: The infamous McDonald's scene, easily.

Film: Richie Rich
Year: 1994
Director: Donald Petrie

One of Macaulay Culkin's less successful mid-90s films, along with the likes of Getting Even With Dad and The Pagemaster (which I also really like), Richie Rich was not a box office success, and is generally regarded as being "not very good". Directed by Donald Petrie, who had just come off of his first big success, the 1993 hit Grumpy Old Men, this movie is a live action adaptation of the Harvey Comics character of the same name. Harvey Comics, of course, being the same origin for other popular characters, Casper the Friendly Ghost and Wendy the Witch. Unlike poor Mac and Me, Richie Rich was not widely panned, it just wasn't, and seemingly isn't, generally well regarded.

On a personal level, this was of course one of a great many films that I did not get to see in theaters, because my grandmother simple didn't "do" theaters. But unlike many films I missed out on as a kid, I did get to see this, thanks to the existence of VHS tape. In fact, oddly enough, I think we might have actually just bought this movie outright, versus renting it. Perhaps because my grandmother already knew Culkin from Home Alone, which she liked. Either way, I did get to see it, probably in early 1995, and I found it to be quite enjoyable. I still find it enjoyable as an adult, though the reasons for liking it as a kid were pretty obvious ones: the film is full of the kind of sweet gadgets and extravagant luxuries that most (especially poor) kids dream of having, imagining what it would be like to be super duper rich, like Richard "Richie" Rich Jr. is. The concept of being "The Richest Kid in the World", is very alluring to a child, not because of a love of money, but just imagining how bad ass it would be to basically have anything, do anything, or go anywhere you want.

The comics version Richie, and his dog Dollar.

Of course the idea of fabulous, nearly ridiculous wealth is not the core of the story. Even in the comics, Richie, in spite of BEING filthy rich, is not a spoiled or callous snob, but instead a caring and generous person. He gets that in part from his parents, Richard Sr. (played by the sadly departed Edward Herrmann) and Regina (played by Christine Ebersole), who themselves are huge philanthropists, spending a significant portion of their wealth on charitable causes. But the central theme of the film's story, is actually a very good one: money can't buy you everything. More specifically, while Richie is indeed the "Richest Kid on Earth", the one thing he doesn't have, are real friends. With his parents, especially his father, often being quite busy, and he himself being kept on a busy schedule, Richie finds himself to be very lonely, and longing for companionship. And I think at its core, that is why I like this movie, and what makes it so likeable, the pervading theme of the importance of friendship and family.

Unlike Mac and Me, the reasons why Richie Rich is regarded as a "Bad Film", are far less clear. It was, generally speaking, a "Box Office Bomb", meaning it didn't even make back it's budget, and that alone is often enough to give the general public a notion that a film "must have been bad", because it wasn't financially successful. Of course, there are many exceptions to that: films like Highlander, John Carpenter's The Thing, or Big Trouble in Little China, which were sadly not successful films in theaters, but later went on to be fairly highly regarded. I think perhaps part of the reason Richie doesn't share the same post-theatrical success, is because it is a "kids movie", which many snobby grown up film fans can very often be far more critical on. It would seem that another take on this film, is that it was just kind of "blah", not necessarily bad, but not terribly great either. A notion I would, of course, contend. otherwise I wouldn't have included the film in this article.

The great Jonathan Hyde.

To be perfectly honest, I have a bit of a hard time thinking of any genuinely negative points this film has. I wouldn't call it a GREAT film, though so few truly are. But I would call it a well done and entertaining film. The acting, especially by the many veteran adult actors, is I think, fairly strong. Herrmann and Ebersole do a good job portraying the eccentric yet good-hearted parents. Character actor Mike McShane has a great comical turn as the cooky Rich Corporation scientist (and Richie's tutor) Professor Keenbean. John Larroquette (of Night Court fame) as Laurence Van Dough, revels in the money-hungry slime-ball role that he's so good at. And in my opinion, the show is stolen by Jonathan Hyde, pictured above, as the VERY British family butler Cadbury. Not only is Cadbury a bit of a badass in his own right, but he also has good chemistry and a strong bond with Culkin's Richie. As Richie's parents are often so busy, the film has multiple scenes that really impress the fact that (not unlike Alfred Pennyworth with Bruce Wayne) Cadbury did his fair share of raising the boy himself, and thus he has a very paternal relationship, and protectiveness, towards Richie.

For his own part, Macaulay does a solid job as Richie. I don't know that he was ever a super dramatic, wide-range actor throughout his childhood career, though he was effectively sinister and creepy in The Good Son. But conversely, "Mack" has always had a magnetic screen presence, likeability and charm to him, that is still present in this movie. You definitely feel for him in the "lonely prince" sort of character, as for all his wealth and possessions, the only things he truly wants, are friends to play with, and more time with his parents. And the poor kids he eventually befriends, while initially scorning and rejecting him as "not belonging" in their world, later learn that he is a fun and "normal" kid underneath it all, and grow to like him. The "money isn't everything" theme rings consistent throughout the story, even to the point that when the villain Van Dough manages to force the Riches to open their vaunted "Rich Family Vault", he finds that it holds not a horde of money, but instead tokens of their life and Richie's childhood, things that only have sentimental value to them.

Overall, I would say that Richie Rich is a very solid, entertaining film with a unique personality and style. The theme of greed and wealth being trumped by friendship and family, is a strong and commendable one, yet not hammered home so hard that it's preachy or cheesy. The movie has a colorful and memorable cast of characters, and holds a lot of fun, and funny moments. It isn't as classic as, say, Home Alone, by any means. But I would personally say it's one of the best films Culkin starred in.

Best Thing About Richie Rich: Showing that even a rich kid needs (true) friends.

Worst Thing About Richie Rich: Could have used a bit more scenes with Richie and his parents together.

Film: Rocky V
Year: 1990
Director: John G. Avildsen

Widely considered to be the "Black Sheep" of the storied Rocky franchise, Rocky V is yet another movie that I feel has an undeservedly bad reputation. I think that it's a movie that was the unfortunate victim of several factors working against it. For one thing, after four Rocky films preceding it, I think the general public was getting a bit fatigued on the character, even though this did come out nearly five years after Rocky IV. I also think that, at the time it released in 1990, it was at a point in Hollywood where this type of film was being phased out for more action-packed fare. That isn't to say that the 90s didn't have dramas that did well in theaters, it absolutely did. But rather, this kind of action/drama hybrid was falling out of vogue. And finally, the Rocky series had gotten progressively more and more over the top, namely with the third and fourth installments, so to many moviegoers, this fifth, and at the time final film in the series, taking a step back and being more grounded and personal, like the original, was inevitably going to be a letdown.

After Stallone directed Rocky II-IV himself, for the fifth installment they brought back director John G. Avildsen, who not only won an Academy Award for directing the original Rocky, but also went on to find great success with the Karate Kid franchise. I'm going to imagine that it was at least partially Avildsen's idea to scale everything back, from the ridiculous excesses of Rocky IV, taking the series back to its roots, and getting back to being a more intimate, character driven story. Though to be fair, the film was written by Stallone himself, so perhaps he too felt like things had gotten a bit too over the top. For my part, I happen to like the fact that the story takes the Balboa family back to their old Philly neighborhood, as it not only puts more focus on the family again, but it also gives the series a bit of a "coming full circle" feeling. While it is an absurd contrivance that Paulie, whom Rocky and Adrian nonsensically leave in charge of their finances while they're off in Russia, makes a bad move that loses them practically ALL of their wealth, forcing them to move back to the "slums", it was also a bit absurd that they got so rich they had a futuristic robot butler, as well.

One of the best movie couples, ever.

I think the primary reason this film is derided, however, is because it doesn't feature a "legit fight" as the film's climax, like every other entry did. The Rocky films were, seemingly, built around a big fight that Rocky was going to have, and the films would typically end after the climactic fight scene. So on that level, yes, I agree it would be natural for the audience/fans to assume that this movie would do the same. However, I would also point out two key facts that stand in contrast to that: 1. The entire point of this film was that Rocky couldn't fight anymore, and 2. The fights were only a part of the Rocky movies, at least initially, because Rocky himself was a boxer. The core of the Rocky franchise was never the fights, but rather the character of Rocky himself, his growth and evolution, and his relationships with the people close to him. Taken from the viewpoint that the Rocky movies, with the possible exception of part four, are character dramas that happen to have fighting in them, I would argue that Rocky V was a fitting, albeit imperfect ending to Rocky's original story arc.

Now, while I suppose me defending Rocky V as a good film would be, to some, mildly controversial, I'm going to step it up a few notches and say something truly controversial, though it is also my honest opinion: Rocky V is a better movie than Rocky IV. Yes, you read that correctly. To be perfectly clear, I LIKE Rocky IV, and I won't deny that in certain ways, it is definitely a more fun, entertaining film than Rocky V is. However, to me personally, Rocky IV is actually the worst of the franchise. Not to say it's a "BAD" movie, by any means. Just that, again, taken from the viewpoint of what the Rocky franchise was actually about, that character-driven core that made it so beloved in the first place, Rocky IV drifted FAR too far away from that. It became an almost generic, action-oriented spectacle, no longer much of a character drama. Again, I think Rocky IV IS a fun movie, taken for what it is, but it's also a perfect example of the pinnacle of 80s excess, from robot butlers, to music video style training montages, to the lack of character development and general leaps of logic. Rocky IV departed from the grounded, gritty foundations of the series, and basically became a live action cartoon, almost a parody of itself.

Tommy Gunn, from humble son to punk ass bitch.

By comparison, while it's hardly the best it could have been, I think that Rocky V did the right thing, toning shit down again, and getting back to what was good about the series to begin with: the character of Rocky Balboa. Rocky V sees our hero as an aging veteran who has taken too many blows to the head. As such, his doctor tells him he can't fight anymore, or he'll risk permanent brain damage, or even death. Something that, in the long era before people took things like concussions and brain damage more seriously in sports, I'm sure many boxers actually had to deal with. Rocky, of course, doesn't take the news well, as boxing is all he knows, and all he thinks he can do. In his mind, boxing is what makes Rocky Balboa who he is, though his wife Adrian disagrees. He winds up finding a young, promising boxer in Tommy Gunn, an underdog who reminds him a bit of himself, and so by agreeing to train Tommy, Rocky can still be around boxing, and in effect live vicariously through his new pupil. Unfortunately, he gets so into training Tommy, that he ignores his own son, Robbie. Eventually, Tommy is lured by the promise of faster gains and easier riches, by the Don King parody George Washington Duke, and corrupted by fame and fortune and the "wrong crowd", Tommy becomes a real asshole, turning on Rocky completely. He ultimately even wants to fight Rocky, because he feels like he's living under his mentor's shadow, but Rocky refuses, both because of honor, and because he promised Adrienne he wouldn't fight anymore. But Tommy finally pushes him too far, and while he definitely risks his health in doing so, he shows the kid a thing or two by beating him in a street fight.

I'll reiterate that I like Rocky IV, and I do understand why many people love it. It is the most outrageous and fun entry in the series. I also can see why fans of part four, could dislike part five, as people going into a film expecting an over the top action film, are naturally going to find a slower, more character-driven, more dramatic fare to be a bit "boring". The thing is, the first two Rocky films were exactly the same style, they were dramatic "slow burns", far more about the characters than the fights. And while Rocky III certainly upped the ante, with Rocky now champion, and the outrageous character of Mr. T's Clubber Lang as his new adversary, it still mostly stayed rooted in the core style and themes of the franchise. Therefor Rocky IV, which in many ways "jumped the shark", is the oddball of the series.

My personal vote for best of the whole series, would probably be the original, though Rocky III has some compelling arguments to be made. But while Rocky V is absolutely a comedown from the cartoonish heights of its predecessor, I do not agree that it is in any meaningful way a "Bad Film". It's well done, in the same tone, style and quality of most of Avildsen's works. And while I can certainly see an argument for it feeling a bit anti-climactic as the original end of the series, I still say that from a dramatic perspective, with Rocky's struggle to accept that his career is over, and the growth of his relationships with his wife and son, I think in that way it is a fairly strong final bow. Again, not the best final bow it probably COULD have been. But also far from the pitiful last gasp that many seem to make it out to be.

Best Thing About Rocky V: Grounding the series back in its roots, and giving Rocky a well-rounded character arc.

Worst Thing About Rocky V: The horrendous and hilariously un-mentioned age jump of young Robert.


So that's all for now! I wrote more about these three movies (especially Mac and Me), than I originally thought I would. But with me and these articles, that often seems to be the case, doesn't it? Since I was initially going to cover nine or so movies, I think I'll cut it up, and have this be the first installment. So with that said, if you're not already a fan, or even if you've never seen them at all, go give one or all of these movies a spin, and see if you can see a bit of what I see in them. Until next time!

Monday, December 24, 2018

Childhood Memories: Christmas Specials Pt. 2

It's that time of year again! So to bring you a little cheer for the season, here we go...

I started Retro Revelations in October 2012. Writing a "blog" then was something that was entirely novel to me, and something I realized I could have and should have been doing years before I finally got the idea to start one. Filled with a ton of enthusiasm, even though I started the blog around mid-October, I still managed to pump out several Halloween-themed articles before Halloween itself hit. And while not nearly as prolific in November, I even wrote two articles that month as well! But when it came to December and Christmas time, I found myself busy packing and preparing to move to a new apartment, and even managed to get pretty sick along the way. So I didn't actually write a Christmas article, or any December article at all, that first holiday season of RR's existence.

As such, the first Christmas article I ever wrote, came in December 2013. It was, appropriately, about some of my most beloved Christmas TV Specials from my childhood. Christmas has always been special to me, especially so as a kid. As I've explained in other articles, for me it wasn't merely the presents, though that was huge to me as it is with almost all kids. It was also just the general feeling and spirit of the Christmas season. I had a fairly poor and lonely childhood, but the Holidays always brightened things up, and I always looked forward to the traditions of the season. I adored putting up Christmas decorations, and decorating the Christmas tree. I loved the idea of stockings (even though we didn't have chimneys of any kind to hang them from), and the tiny toys and candy I would usually find in mine. I loved Christmas carols, and Christmas music in general, and even as I grew into my teens and adulthood, and out of my Christian childhood, I still to this day have a soft spot for many of those old songs, even some of the blatantly religious ones.

And of course, part of all that, especially for a kid who grew up watching a lot of TV, because I often had little else available to do, Christmas TV specials were a big part of all of that. There were ones that would come and go, never to be seen again. And there were others, perennials, like The Grinch, and Frosty the Snowman, and Charlie Brown and Garfield. In my first Christmas Specials article, I covered four fairly well known and universally loved specials. So today, I'm going to dig deeper, and explore a few specials that are perhaps lesser known. But still ones that I love. So let's get to it!

Can he get a hula-hoop?

A Chipmunk Christmas (1981)

The Chipmunks were a pretty huge deal when I was a kid in the 80s. I remember when the Chipmunks movie (which is still pretty awesome) came out in the late 80s, they had a Burger King promotion with dolls of Alvin, Simon and Theodore. And I remember when I was able to get two, but not the third because the one BK in our small town had run out, five or six year old me was pretty devastated. But as Fate would have it, for some reason, we went back to BK one day, and they just so happened to have the third missing Chipmunk I needed, and I was thrilled. I had those dolls for years after, until I was around 14, and then like many other things I wish I still had, in my teenage idiocy I gave them away or something.

The Chipmunks TV show in the 80s was a big part of my childhood, as was that movie. But every so often they would play classic Chipmunk cartoons, and at least once or twice they played this special, which came out the year I was born (AGE SPOILERS). In it, Alvin is being his usual rambunctious self, and like many kids, the thing he cares about most for Christmas, is what Santa is going to bring him. He's obsessed with presents, and thus ignores the larger meanings of the holiday. But then, after hearing of a very sick boy named Tommy, and how a Golden Echo harmonica might make him feel better, he decides to part with his own cherished Golden Echo, giving it to the boy.

But then of course Alvin has a dilemma, as Dave, their father figure, gave him that harmonica as a gift years ago. And it just so happens, that Carnegie Hall calls and wants Alvin to play his harmonica for a Christmas show. The three Chipmunks scramble, trying silly schemes to raise money to buy a new one, but at the final hour, Alvin still doesn't have enough. But then, a nice old lady appears at the mall, and offers to buy him a new Golden Echo, if he will sing her a song. He agrees, gets the harmonica, and then later finds out that Tommy did indeed get better because of his gift. The audience learns at the end, that the nice old lady, just so happens to be Mrs. Clause, Santa's wife, herself. All in all a very good special, embodying what's truly important about the season.

It should be noted that this special debuted several years after the death of Ross Bagdasarian Sr., the creator of the Chipmunks. So it marked the first time that his son, Ross Bagdasarian Jr., would voice Alvin, Simon and Dave, and his wife Janice would voice Theodore. They would continue doing so for many years, and through their work they reinvented and reinvigorated the brand.

"Ah Magoo, you've done it again!"

 Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962) 

Mister Magoo was one of the first big cartoon stars of the early days of television, originally debuting in the early 60s. And he received what would be the first animated Christmas special ever specifically produced for TV, in the form of his own adaptation of Charles' Dickens A Christmas Carol. The story itself is framed by scenes of Magoo as an actor starring in a Broadway play. The adaptation of the story itself is very faithful to the book, ending as many do with him celebrating Christmas with the Cratchit family (some depict him sending them a turkey anonymously, while attending his nephew's dinner instead).

There are of course many adaptations of this quintessential Christmas tale, including many animated ones. And while I'd hardly say this is the best, it deserves all due credit for being the first. And honestly, Magoo makes a pretty good Scrooge. For those who aren't familiar, Magoo was voiced by Jim Backus, who would go on to portray the wealthy Thurstan Howell III in the show Gilligan's Island. Magoo was, of course, way before my time, but I feel kids my age were very fortunate, because we lived in an era when we not only got tons of new cartoons to enjoy, but many older ones, such as Disney shorts, Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, Popeye, the many Hanna-Barbera cartoons, etc., as well as early TV stuff like Magoo and Rocky & Bullwinkle, which all saw re-run showings from time to time. I really feel that helped me develop a fuller appreciation for animation in general, being exposed to cartoons from so many decades growing up.

From comic strip to small screen.

A Family Circus Christmas (1979)

There is a rich history of comic strips, most often featuring in newspapers, being adapted into animated cartoons. This stretches all the way back to Little Nemo and Felix the Cat, and includes such luminaries as Popeye the Sailor, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Garfield, Heathcliff, and more. One of the true classic comic strips, which ran for many years starting in the 60s, was The Family Circus. Created by cartoonist Bil Keane, based largely off of his own family (the mother is based directly on his wife Thelma), this strip was classic "Americana", depicting a fairly wholesome American family, and often centering around the silly/crazy things that kids will say or do (hence the "Circus" in the title). When Bil passed away in 2011, his son Jeff, whom the character "Jeffy" is based on, took over the strip, and he continues to draw and write it to this day.

In this special, which played when I was a kid at least a couple of times, the children Billy, Dolly, and Jeffy (the baby P.J. is too young to really understand Christmas yet), are excited for the holiday to come, and the presents Santa will bring. A recurring gag is the belief that Santa can see everything you're doing, so he "knows when you've been bad or good", leading to the kids trying their best to be good in spite of themselves. Jeffy, the most imaginative of the bunch, even thinks he sees Santa around the house, watching him and taking notes. When the family brings the decorations out to put up the Christmas tree, the dad (Bil) is upset because they can't find the star, a decoration his own father made. Jeffy, being very young and naive, gets the idea in his head to ask Santa Claus to bring grandpa back to life for a visit to make his dad happy, and even has a dream in which he gets to ride in Santa's sleigh, and ol' Kris Kringle agrees to his request.

While his grandpa, who died before Jeffy was born, doesn't literally come back, Jeffy does wake during Christmas Eve night, to find that he can see grandpa's spirit. The spirit leads him to a closet where the star had been hidden away for safe keeping the year before, and dad catches Jeffy just in time, trying to reach it. The rest of the family wakes to see what the commotion is, and they put the star on the tree, and all sit together in awe of it. As a little kid, the bits about Santa and the star and grandpa's ghost really touched me, so I still to this day am somewhat sentimental about this largely forgotten special.

Yogi Bear and the Gang.

Yogi Bear's All-Star Christmas Caper (1982)

While I had two Yogi Bear Christmas specials to choose from, the other being 1980s Yogi's First Christmas, I chose this one because of it's sentimentality. In the other, Yogi and Boo Boo are awakened by their friends Snagglepuss, Huckleberry Hound, and Augie Doggie and his Doggie Daddy showing up to spend Christmas at a lodge in fictional Jellystone National Park. They get to experience their first Christmas, as they typically hibernate through it, and get into all sorts of funny antics, defending the lodge from the grumpy Herman the Hermit etc.

But in the "All-Star Christmas Caper", when Huckleberry and the gang return, this time joined by Hokey Wolf, Quick-Draw McGraw, and detectives Snooper and Blabber, they discover that Yogi and Boo Boo have, for whatever silly reasons, escaped Jellystone (again), and are hiding out in a department store in the big city. They are playing the local store Santa and his elf, because apparently no one realizes or cares that they're bears. Ranger Smith and the others look for Yogi in the city, getting into expected shenanigans. Meanwhile, Yogi and Boo Boo meet a little girl named Judy, whose rich father, she claims, is "too busy for her", so she's lonely on Christmas. They decide to help her rediscover her faith in the season by helping her find her dad, eventually being joined by the others, who have succeeded in tracking them down.

The special features cameos by many other Hanna-Barbera characters, including Fred Flinstone and Barney Rubble, Mr. Jinx the cat and Pixie & Dixie the jerkass mice, Magilla Gorilla, Wally Gator, and little Yakky Doodle the duckling. During all of the searching, the gang take Judy back to Jellystone to figure out what to do, as they can't find her dad's office, and in the meantime, her dad being unable to find her, has the police out looking for her. They track Judy to Jellystone, where they try to arrest poor Yogi for "kidnapping" the girl, but her father realizes she ran away because he doesn't spend time with her, the charges are dropped, and everyone ends up singing around a campfire, filled with Christmas spirit.

The pinkest panther in existence.

The Pink Panther in: A Pink Christmas (1978)

Among the many older cartoons before my time that I previously mentioned, was The Pink Panther. Originally part of the animated intro to the film The Pink Panther, in which the titular panther is actually a rare diamond, he proved so popular that he eventually got his own series of theatrical cartoon shorts. That animated sequence was directed by none other than Looney Tunes great Isadore "Friz" Freleng (who originally got his start on early pre-Mickey Disney shorts), and his new production company, DePattie-Freleng Enterprises, produced a long-running series of shorts throughout the 60s and 70s. The notable and unique thing about the vast majority of the Pink Panther cartoons, is that there is usually no dialogue at all, just sound effects, and the ever-present jazz "Pink Panther Theme" by composer Henry Mancini. In the 70s and even 80s, they would show Pink Panther shorts on TV, which of course is how I saw them, and that tune is forever embedded in my consciousness as a result.

In the half-hour Christmas special, Pink is a homeless panther around Christmas-time, cold and hungry, and the story if focused around his quest to find some food. Among other hijinks, he winds up somehow getting a job as a department store Santa, only to quickly lose it after taking a bite of a little girl's gingerbread man. Pink finally finds a donut, mislaid by a cop chasing a robber, but then runs into a dog who tries to take it. At first, Pink takes the donut back, thinking only of himself, but then realizes the stray dog is hungry too, and so feeling bad, he decides to share the donut. He heads back to the cold park, with the dog now following him, only to suddenly find a Christmas tree and a table piled with food. It turns out Santa dropped that stuff off, as a reward for showing kindness to the dog. So feeling that Christmas spirit, Pink and the dog share the meal together.


Gloopstick, the newest sensation!

The Great Santa Claus Caper (1979)

Another great and legendary animator, and Looney Tunes veteran, Chuck Jones, also broke off in the 60s, and found himself beginning to produce content for television. In fact, he was the director of one of the most famous animated Christmas specials of all time, the adaptation of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas. In the late 70s he produced a couple of Raggedy Anne & Andy specials (which ironically happened to coincide with the great late-70s Richard Williams feature film The Raggedy Anne & Andy Musical Adventure). The first, was a Halloween special called The Pumpkin Who Couldn't Smile, which saw them trying to redeem a fun-hating old grump named Aunt Agatha, and do so by uniting her and her nephew with a sad Pumpkin that no one wanted.

In the Christmas special, also starring veteran voice-acting talents June Foray and Daws Butler, an enterprising character named Alexander Graham Wolf, is scheming to take over Santa's workshop himself. His notion is that children always break their toys, so he has invented a kind of plastic shell to coat toys with, which he calls "Gloopstick", and he intends to seal all of Santa's toys in it, and charge families money for "unbreakable" toys. The reindeer Comet (depicted in this as female and also voiced by June Foray), discovers this plot, and flies off, finding Raggedy Anne and her brother Raggedy Andy. She implores them, and their dog Raggedy Arthur, to come to the North Pole and help end this nefarious scheme. Wolf tries to convince them of the genius of his plan, but they ultimately turn the tables on him, showing that the power of love melts "Gloopstick", and that Christmas is about more than toys and things. In a very Grinch-like way, much like with Aunt Agatha, the Raggedies manage to redeem the antagonist, and ol' Wolfy finds the spirit of Christmas after all!



There are many more old Christmas specials I could bring up, just animated ones alone, like Bugs Bunny's Christmas Tales, A Wish For Wings That Work, 'Twas The Night Before Christmas, The He-Man & She-Ra Christmas Special, etc. But these are some of my favorites from my childhood (along with Mickey's Christmas Carol), and ones that I felt deserved some spotlight. You can find many of them available to watch for free on sites like Youtube or Dailymotion, so in the spirit of the season, and for the love of great classic animation, I say go for it! I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas, and I'll see you all next year!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Comic Chronicles: Marvel Girl

While writing my previous "Comic Chronicles" article on Cyclops, at that time I was forced to really think about a question I'm not sure I had given a ton of thought to beforehand: "Who is my favorite superhero?" Cyclops had already long since been my favorite X-Men character, though even that had not always been the case. My very first favorite X-Man, even though he barely appeared in the 90s animated series where I first became a fan, was actually Archangel. Over time, after having finally gotten the chance to read a lot of comics myself, Scott Summers eventually took my top X-spot, for reasons I detail in that article. And while writing that article, and pondering the question, I discovered that, while I love many heroes, like Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, and far more, Cyclops pretty much IS my top favorite comic book hero of all time.

So now, I'm going to talk about my top favorite comic book HEROINE of all time. Because yes, back then, I thought about that too. And that was honestly an easier question to answer, because the truth is, I fell in love with this character from that first 1992 season of X-Men as a kid. And there hasn't been a single female comic hero, amidst many great ones, that has ever topped her or replaced her for me. I'm here today to tell you why Jean Grey, aka Marvel Girl, sometimes called "Phoenix", is in this man's opinion, hands down, the best heroine comics have ever produced.

90s classic Blue and Gold.

Back in September of 1963, after having prior success at the newly minted Marvel Comics with such creations as the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man, Thor, The Hulk, Spider-Man, and Iron Man, the great Stan Lee, along with his frequent partner Jack Kirby, created a concept of misfit teens with strange powers. At the time, teams of super heroes were fairly unique, and not often seen in comics, as opposed to today. There had been golden age, WWII era teams like the Justice Society of America and the All-Winners Squad. But it wasn't until 1960 that DC Comics created their new, longer-lasting super-team, the Justice League of America, which itself was direct inspiration for Stan Lee to create a different sort of team in the Fantastic Four. In fact, September 1963 was a banner month in comics history, as it saw the birth of not only what would come to be known as the "X-Men", but also the far more prominent Avengers.

The Avengers were Marvel's more direct answer to their rival DC's Justice League. And having spent the past couple years building up their own new world of characters (the golden age Timely Comics heroes mostly abandoned, except for Prince Namor, and soon Captain America), they now had the kind of "superstar" roster DC had, to pull it off. The Avengers was a big deal that featured big personalities, the original lineup consisting of Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, The Wasp, and even the unpredictable Hulk. That lineup would shift and change as time went on, but the comic was very often headlined by some of Marvel's top superheroes (barring Spider-Man), just as DC's Justice League was. But what then, about the tiny upstart team that could, these so-called "X-Men"?

The original X-Men.

The "X-Men", were so named because Stan Lee decided that instead of coming up with some elaborate, convoluted way that these kids got their powers (as others had for most heroes up to that point), he just decided "You know what? They're mutants, they were BORN with these powers". Or as he would establish, for most "mutants", their powers tended to kick in around puberty, though not all. The "X" in the X-Men, Stan figured, stood for the special "X-Factor", that little something extra, that mutants had in their genes, that gave them powers. And besides, they were also thematically in line with their founder, Professor Charles Xavier, or "Professor X" for short.

One thing to note about Jean Grey, before moving on, is that she was/is one of the few comic hero characters, who didn't have some kind of super tragic back-story. She experienced trauma at a young age, yes, but in general, she grew up with loving parents, and a sister who was like her best friend, in a stable and safe home. With the exception of her one traumatic childhood event, by all other accounts, Jean had a very happy, "normal" childhood, and thus she grew up to be a very happy, emotionally stable, and well adjusted person. This is important to point out, because it would very much lend itself to who she was as a person, and served as the foundation for her strong points as a character.

The character of Jean Grey, herself, was an exception to the "puberty" rule, as her powers had started manifesting themselves when she was a little girl. Notably, telepathy, the power to read and connect to other people's minds. This most prominently occurred when Jean's childhood best friend was hit by a car, and as little Jean held her dying friend in her arms, she subconsciously connected to her mind, which risked following her into death as well. As it was, it left Jean in a coma for some time. It was then that her parents, John and Elaine Grey, got in contact with Professor Xavier, a little known expert on "strange" cases like Jean's. He used his own telepathic powers to wake her from her coma, and because her young mind couldn't deal with the trauma she had endured, and she was too young to deal with telepathy, he mentally shut off that part of her powers.

Meanwhile, her other gift, that of telekinesis, the power to move things with only your mind, grew instead. Xavier coached her in her powers, though the notion of his "School For Gifted Youngsters" wasn't a thing as of yet. And years later, when he had finally founded the "school" at his mansion home, his first official student also being his ward, young Scott Summers, he finally invited Jean to become a part of his new vision. She agreed, even though she would be leaving the comfort of home and family behind, and in doing so, she entered a whole new strange, and often dangerous world. She was also, subsequently, the only female member of the original team of X-Men, joined by her new friends Iceman, Beast, Angel, and Scott "Slim" Summers, aka Cyclops. Jean herself took on the name Marvel Girl, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Mistress of the Mind

Of the original five X-Men, the distinction of who was the most powerful, at that time, was a tossup between Cyclops and Marvel Girl. Cyclops, on the one hand, had a power he couldn't control without the help of a special visor, but his eye beams, at full force, could level a building or punch a hole in the side of a mountain. Marvel Girl, on the other hand, was probably the most experienced at using her powers, outside of perhaps Beast, as Xavier had been psionically "teaching" her from afar, and she had years of practice. While her TK was not as strong as it would become later on, she still displayed many feats of raw power, such as levitating several people at once, or as seen above, more delicate touches, mentally taking apart a gun.

Going through changes.

Later into the 60s, once the X-Men had grown a bit, Professor X allowed them to "graduate" from being students in training, and as such they chose new costumes, which Jean helped design. Her own outfit, the now somewhat infamous "green dress" and gold mask look, wasn't very practical for superheroing, but it was visually striking, and VERY 60s. More important than mere aesthetics, however, Xavier also felt Jean was finally mature enough and experienced enough to handle her latent telepathic power, so he unlocked that part of her mind, and now possessing her full psychic faculties, you could definitely argue that she became the most powerful X-Man.

Animated Incarnations

The image above is how I first came to know the X-Men, as they looked in the 90s animated series. Their designs were heavily inspired by Jim Lee's 1991 designs for the comics, and that included Jean's "Blue and Tan" looking outfit (in the comics it looked more goldish). And while I instantly liked Jean, the one thing I can't figure, is why the hell they decided her hair should look like it does above! Seriously, the "short bangs, and lets have a pony-tail coming out of a hole in the back of her 'mask'" look is...puzzling. Especially because that's not how her hair was in the ever.

My initial impressions of Jean Grey, was that she was presented as a somewhat subdued character, but she was still awesome to me. For one thing, I've had a lifelong thing for redheads, I think natural red hair is almost magic. But beyond that, as a character, Jean was level-headed, thoughtful, compassionate, and from the get go I loved her TK powers. Something about moving things with your mind has always appealed to me, and while I would not personally want her telepathy, as who the hell actually wants to read people's icky thoughts, I did and DO think that having telekinesis would be bad ass! I'll fully admit to having an early crush of sorts on Rogue, but really, Jean was always my gal.

Proof that Jean didn't always like Logan.

Diving back into the comics, 1960s Jean, while written with some painful dialogue at times, as all the characters were because of the Comics Code era, was a strong character. She was intelligent, she had a strong will, a good sense of humor, and while Cyclops was always the leader of the team, she wasn't afraid to step up and take command of a situation if she needed to. She was also very brave, never shrinking from danger or fainting at the slightest sign of trouble, as was the stereotype of the day. While she was written, again partially because of stupid Code issues, to like "girly" things like shopping and "getting her hair done", she was also very witty, and very adept at dealing with not only the dangers her team faced, but of dealing with four hormonal teenage boys as well. After all, she WAS a gorgeous redhead, and the only girl they usually got to interact with (at first).

But while all of her teammates flirted with her or pined after her in their own way, initially, the one who didn't, the shy, serious Cyclops, was the only one who truly caught her eye. And mind you, they all, as boys, had something to offer. Iceman, while the youngest, was funny, and charming in his own goofy way. Beast was super strong, and incredibly intelligent, a potent combination. Angel was both very suave, but also very rich. But there was just something about ol' "Slim", even though he was usually too scared to talk to her outside of training or missions. Something about Scott Summers "spoke" to Jean Grey, and even in Stan Lee's earliest issues, the seeds were planted for their future relationship.

That relationship eventually bloomed, though a bit too late for readers, as the X-Men got cancelled by the end of the 60s. The comic stayed in print as re-prints of old issues, and when they were brought back with "Giant-Sized X-Men #1" in 1975, after that initial story, and the Chris Claremont arcs to follow, it got put on the back-burner a bit. As Claremont wrote it, which I do feel was mostly his choice, after a new second generation of X-Men saved the original group, the OG heroes, except for Cyke, called it a day. If you ask me, that move was incredibly out of character for them, as they had all chosen to be heroes, and had been fighting for Professor Xavier's dream at this point for at least a few years. For them to throw in the towel and suddenly be like "Nah, there's new X-Men to handle things now, we're good!", just seems like a lame cop-out excuse to make room for the new characters, while not having to manage a massive team.


Jean was one of those X-Men who walked out, in her case being written to stereotypically "go live in Manhattan and work as a model", because what else would gorgeous women do right? But Claremont did have some odd plans in store for her specifically, as not too long after the X-Men's rebirth, along came what you see above. A series of bizarre events, that involved fighting fake X-Men robots and killer Sentinels on a deep-space station observing the sun, ultimately led to the fateful situation of Jean in space. Volunteering because of her powers, to be the one to bring the X-Men safely back to Earth. Except even her powerful TK shield was not enough to protect her from the radiation around the planet, and she found herself dying. And close to death, she was approached by a brilliant ethereal spirit, calling itself "Phoenix", who offered to save her life.

Of course, there was a price, the full extent of which readers wouldn't learn about for years. But as it was originally presented in those 70s comics, as well as in the adaptation of this "Phoenix Saga" story in the 90s cartoon, it seemed very much that Jean had become possessed by this cosmic force. And in the comics, after beating the alien Emperor D'Ken and his mad schemes, Jean remained as "Phoenix" for a good stretch of time. By the time 1980 rolled around, Claremont wrote Jean/Phoenix to start becoming corrupted by her powers, by the human sensations that Phoenix wasn't used to, and she eventually became the now-infamous "Dark Phoenix". Simply put, one of the most powerful, and most dangerous villains in comic history. And the kicker, was that it was one of the most beloved, and most purely GOOD characters in all of comics, who became this fiend!

My pre-teen life.

Now, as a kid, first experiencing "The Phoenix Saga" and it's dark twin, by watching it all unfold in Saturday Morning Cartoon form, I was absolutely glued to the set. I would literally be excited and waiting for the following Saturday's episode the moment that the current episode was over, and I would often spend the week trying to imagine what would happen next. That X-Men cartoon was a huge part of my life at the time, one of the things I looked forward to most during its first three or four seasons. And at the time, I absolutely thought Phoenix was bad ass, and even imagined myself having the Phoenix powers and persona, in some form.

As an adult, having read the original comic saga, and having a lot of time and maturity to look back on it all, I have mixed feelings about the entire Phoenix thing. On the one hand, I do still think that especially Jean as "Good Phoenix", WAS bad ass. And her green and gold outfit was awesome looking, a really great design. On the other hand, I feel that the whole Phoenix thing overshadows Jean as a character. I think, because of the cartoon, because of stupid shit that's happened in more recent times in the comics I ignore, because of stupid shit that has happened/is happening in the awful X-Men films, etc., when people think of Jean, they think "Phoenix". And honestly, I think that sucks. Why? Because Jean Grey is a bad ass character on her own, without any cosmic super-force to make her something she's not.

Crush that bitch!

I have fond memories of watching that "Phoenix Saga" (both) unfold in 1994, at the age of 12. That year, Jean/Phoenix became my hero, and I came to like her and Cyclops even more because of those stories. I cried when Jean "died" as Phoenix, plunging into the sun. And I honestly hated when she came back and "turned evil", crying once more when the X-Men each gave a piece of their life-force to bring her back (something that only happened in the cartoon). I was happy that Scott got Jean back, and even then, at age 12, I loved their relationship, and wanted my own Jean, so to speak. But as stated, I also kinda hate that Jean is so closely associated with those stories, and is not respected and appreciated as her own self and own character, NEARLY enough.

Especially having read all the old comics (and I mean ALL of them), and having the insight, and my own personal suspicions, that Claremont and Marvel simply wanted to use Jean's "death" as a shocking thing to do, a cheap way to generate more interest and get people talking, and buying more comics. And it worked on that front, because the X-Men comic became one of the biggest sellers in the early 80s thanks in large part to that story. But it also seems like Claremont, as a writer, never really liked the original X-Men, and only kept Cyclops around to have that connection to the original group, because he was a good "serious leader" type. I also think it's obvious that he changed Jean into Phoenix, in his view, likely to "make her more interesting", and when she died in the "Dark Phoenix Saga", it was his full intent to leave her dead, forever. It was also his intent, I believe, to gradually emasculate Cyclops and phase him out as well. Because that's precisely what happened after Jean's "death".

Best. Retcon. Ever.

I am not, as a general rule, a fan of what is known as "retconning".  It stands for "Retroactive Continuity", and it means that an often new writer will come along, and change what a past writer has done, or they'll say "Well what actually happened was...", etc. There have been some notoriously bad "retcons" in comic history, and I'd say that most of them are typically for the worse, though not all. The BEST one that has ever occurred, however, is the one where Marvel editors decided to bring Jean Grey back to life in the mid-80s. In fact I feel so confident in saying that, that I'll put myself out there and state that there isn't a strong argument to be made for any OTHER retcon but this one, as being the best.

I say that, because while loving the Jean character I'm clearly biased, I also think she is one of the best comic characters of all time, and I think while "killing" her off was certainly a notable and tragic, poignant moment, it was also unnecessary, and shouldn't have happened. The compromise they came up with, was that Jean herself was NEVER the Phoenix in the first place. That the "price" Phoenix charged for saving her life, was to put her body in a protective cocoon, that would go on to rest at the bottom of the Hudson Bay for years, while the Phoenix itself took a piece of Jean's very soul, her essence, and used it to make itself a mortal shell, just like Jean's. It was such a convincing facsimile, that Phoenix actually started to believe it WAS Jean Grey, and thus took over her life, and eventually became corrupted. Is it a bit of a reach? Sure. But it's a damn good reach if you ask me, because it allowed Jean to come back, and with her, the original X-Men.

The Original X-Men, Gone Super Sayan.

Originally written for its first five issues by Bob Layton, before being taken over by one of my favorite comic writers of all time, Louise Simonson, the 80s comic "X-Factor" was, in my opinion, the best X-Men comic of that decade. To many fans, that statement would be sacrilegious, as many see Chris Claremont's work, especially in the 80s, as amazing. Many also really like his "New Mutants" teen spin-off. But for my money, the 80s run of X-Factor, especially as (mostly) written by Simonson, it just can't be beat. She really "got" those characters, and while the 80s X-Men were getting increasingly bizarre and warped, going off into space, and alternate realities, and fighting demons, and aliens, and whatever else, I feel like X-Factor deliberately brought the "old school" tone and feel of the original X-Men back.

Not only was X-Factor more grounded on Earth (with one exception, seen above), dealing in mutant issues and socio-political parallels, but it also gradually went about restoring those five great original characters. Beast had floated around, being an Avenger, a Defender, etc., while Iceman and Angel were scattered all over the place themselves. Second-fiddle characters, used in second-fiddle books. But X-Factor brought them back to the fore, and gave each of them quite a lot of needed character development and spotlight. And with Scott and Jean specifically, while there was a HUGE mess to wade through and clean up, having to do with Claremont writing Scott to meet a new wife who just so HAPPENED to look exactly like Jean, left the X-Men, had a kid with her, etc., Simonson did eventually "fix" them as best she could. Granted, it made Scott look like a grade A jerk at first, up and leaving his wife and kid the instant he hears about Jean being alive. But really...she was written to be a Jean clone controlled by Mr. Sinister anyway, and Scott belonged with Jean, period. So in my view, while it was messy, Simonson did her best to put right what Claremont had messed up in the first place.

80s Marvel Girl.

With X-Factor, Jean as a character had a lot to deal with, such as the fact that the world, including all of her family and friends, thought her dead for years. The world had moved on without her, and that was a major struggle. She also had to deal with still loving Scott, but having to deal with the fact that he had a wife and child, and his own conflicted feelings of guilt and remorse over all of that. Combine that with waking up to a world that was becoming increasingly more hostile towards mutants, a world where Charles Xavier was off in space somewhere, and the X-Men's worst enemy, Magneto, was allegedly "reformed" and living in the mansion, training the next generation. It was a lot to navigate, but all things considered, she handled it pretty well, and that just further displayed the innate strength and power of her character.

The best thing that the X-Factor comic did, besides putting Scott and Jean back together, was really re-establishing the X-Men as heroes, fighting for Xavier's dream. By the mid-to-late 80s, Claremont's X-Men barely resembled the heroes of old, as the comic was very dark and chaotic, and the X-Men went from being morally questionable outlaws, to the world thinking they were dead, and living "underground", hiding from the mutant Marauders that wanted them dead for real. X-Factor, on the other hand, started out trying to pull off a convoluted double-identity deal, where they acted both as normal human "mutant catchers" who dealt with problem mutants for the public, but also acted as costumed heroes, fighting for mutants rights. Simonson eventually dropped that plot point, and they actually came to be known as public heroes, adored by New York, much like the Fantastic Four or Avengers. It was a breath of fresh air in an 80s that was increasingly obsessed with everything being "dark and gritty" (something that would carry over to the 90s for a lot of comics).


The other top thing that X-Factor accomplished, as illustrated in Part 1 and Part 2 articles I wrote some time ago, was it introduced a brand new major villain, originally exclusive to X-Factor, but eventually a foe for the X-Men in general: the ancient mutant Apocalypse. Originally presented as just another mysterious baddie, pulling the strings for other villains (in this case the generically named "Alliance of Evil"), he eventually evolved into a deeper character, obsessed with the natural order, or more aptly, "survival of the fittest", and thus he would toy with X-Factor, testing them to see if they were strong enough for the dark times ahead.

Most specifically, in the key Apocalypse storyline, "Fall of the Mutants", he is responsible for transforming Warren Worthington, the beautiful and fun-loving Angel, into the dark, hurting, instrument of Death, Archangel. Later still, his machinations would center around trying to kill Cyclops' son Nathan, a baby that Jean had become quite attached to. While she didn't give birth to Nathan Christopher, the "person" who did, was her exact clone, so genetically, he WAS her child, and she felt a natural, maternal bond with him. There was a nice span of time, after the mess that Claremont's "Inferno" story arc was, where the baby came to live with X-Factor, and he even developed the instinctual ability to protect himself from harm with a TK "Bubble". The baby could also somewhat read people's minds and feelings, a power Jean herself would eventually regain after having lost it in her Phoenix ordeal, and even when Jean couldn't access her telepathy herself, she could still feel baby Nathan in her mind, when he needed her.

Of course, Scott and Jean eventually had to send Nathan into the future, after Apocalypse infected him with a deadly techno-virus. And it would turn out that the dangerous mercenary from the future, Cable, was that baby, back in the time he came from to stop the villain who tried to kill him.

The 90s X-Men.

As good as 80s X-Factor truly was, I think the best thing that happened to ALL of these X-characters, took place in the early 90s. Charles Xavier was back on earth now, his school rebuilt and upgraded, and the various scattered X-Men, were mostly brought back under one roof. Cyclops was once again an X-Men leader. Storm stopped being stupid, "edgy" 80s Storm, and got back to being her old, compassionate, regal self. Wolverine FINALLY grew up and stopped pining after other people's women, and acting like a psychotic jerk all the time. The stories mostly got back to X-Men basics, grounded on earth, dealing with the social trials of mutant issues, dealing with evil mutants, corrupt humans, etc. It was a grand time, and it gave birth to the 90s cartoon, besides!

Speaking of the cartoon, one major criticism I would levy at it, even though I adored it as a kid, and still mostly love it now, was their treatment of Jean. Granted, they didn't necessarily treat her BADLY. But they didn't treat her all that great at times, either. Looking at the show as a whole, every single X-Men character, including Jubilee, and even guest stars like Bishop, Cable, Archangel, and Iceman, got episodes that are focused around them, and gave them major character growth. Even Cyclops, the "boy scout" that so many fans of the show claim to hate (for universally immature, misguided reasons), got three separate episodes that really put the spotlight on him as a character, looking at his past, etc. But Jean Grey? No such luck. I'm sure some would argue "Well she got a lot of attention during the Phoenix Sagas". And that's true. But PHOENIX got the attention, not really Jean as a character. Jean herself didn't really get a whole lot of character growth, she didn't get a spotlight delving into her past, her personality, etc. And I think that was a poor choice, and to the detriment of the show.

The Gold Team.

In 1991, when the X-Men first underwent their major overhaul, because they introduced a new, second X-Men comic per month (because who doesn't love more money?), and also because they now had something like 12 team members, they split the team into two groups. The "Blue Team" was led by Cyclops, while the "Gold Team", seen above, was led by (a much calmer, much cooler) Storm. And for whatever reason, Jean was put on this team. In fact three-fifths of X-Factor was put in the gold group. On one level, it does make sense though, as a little known fact to more casual X-Men fans, is that before Jean "died", she and Storm were actually great friends. In fact Storm considers Jean to be her best friend. So one thing the "Gold Team" helped re-establish, was that relationship.

Another major criticism I have, this time with the comics, is the fact that Chris Claremont, Jim Lee, Fabian Nicieza, whoever, made the genius decision, to drop the Marvel Girl codename, and just call Jean Grey...Jean Grey. Everyone ELSE on the top-secret, clandestine, outlaw X-Men team, had a codename and a secret identity. You know, to keep their private life HIDDEN, and so as not to, well, get arrested and stuff for acting as outlaw vigilantes. But hey, no one's going to notice that Jean Grey, who isn't even wearing a mask anymore anyway, just goes by her own REAL name. And nothing ever really comes from it! I call that just plain lazy, or even dumb writing. She would eventually be given the "Phoenix" codename, for convoluted reasons. But they should have either just kept calling her Marvel Girl as she had been since 1963, or found a cool new name for her. Calling her "Jean Grey", in my opinion, was unforgivably stupid. In fact, I think her not having a codename contributed to her "not being as cool" to many fans of the cartoon.

The mighty redhead!

But utter lack of a codename aside, 90s Jean was genuinely bad ass. 80s Jean had already established her as a much more powerful telekinetic, and regaining her telepathy finally, 90s Jean was easily one of the most powerful characters on the team. Again, the cartoon didn't always do a great job of showing this, but in the comics, Jean Grey was a force unto herself. She stood up to the likes of Magneto, Sabertooth, Sentinels, Apocalypse, even Charles Xavier's powers gone mad!

Mind Over Matter.

The two main writers of that amazing 1991-1997 period of X-Men comics, in my view THE best period of the series ever, were Fabian Nicieza, and Scott Lobdell. They were the chief architects when it came to grounding the series again, and after all of the 1980s loopiness that Claremont had progressively delved into, they were the ones who set the tone for what the stories would be. They made 90s X-Men great.

But while I've sung his praises before, I can't impress enough just how important, in my view, Scott Lobdell was to the success of the 90s comics, and the 90s cartoon it influenced. He really, truly GOT these characters, and he especially got Scott and Jean. He grew their relationship even further from where Louise Simonson did in the 80s, and he finally had them get married, which along with the marriages of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, and Clark Kent and Lois Lane, was one of the biggest events in comics.


I think that Lobdell had a lot to do with really firmly establishing what I explained in my Cyclops article, that Scott and Jean were basically the Heart and Soul of the team. While Cyclops was the experienced, methodical, tactical leader, who tried to keep everyone safe and made sure they were doing the right thing, "Phoenix" was the conscience of the team, she was the compassion and empathy, the truly human element driving Xavier's dream. Scott and Jean getting married was a pretty big deal, for many reasons, but none moreso than they really were like the "Mom and Dad", in a way, of that dysfunctional X-Men family.

Mother and Daughter.

Slim and Redd, and son.

Of course, while they had JUST gotten married in 1994, technically speaking, Scott and Jean already had a couple of adult kids floating around. When Jean first came back "from the dead" in the 80s, one of the things she struggled coming to terms with, was learning that she had a nearly grown daughter, Rachel Summers, who had arrived from an alternate grim-dark future. At the time, Jean couldn't deal with that, and kinda freaked out, rejecting her. But as you can see in the top picture above, she eventually reconciled with Rachel, and they embraced one another. Which is honestly both heartwarming and tragic, as right after the wedding, which Rachel was super excited to attend, the writers of the Excalibur comic she starred in decided they should shunt her off, lost to the timestream. What they did, in all honesty, was rob readers of a chance for Rachel's relationship with her parents, even if they weren't the version of her parents who literally made her, to grow. As a result of Rachel's disappearance, Jean decided to take on her codename of "Phoenix", to honor her.

As you can see in the bottom pic above, however, the newly minted Summers couple DID get that chance with their son. After they had sent baby Nathan off into the far future in the latter days of the original X-Factor comic, because people in the future had some means of saving his life from the techno-virus, he grew up in a hostile world ruled by Apocalypse, and eventually returned to the time from which he was born, a grizzled and bitter old warrior, named Cable. When Cable returned, he knew who his parents were, but never said anything. And right after the wedding, as oddball comic Fate would have it, Scott and Jean were shunted themselves into Cable's future, where they were afforded the opportunity to raise little Nathan themselves. They eventually returned to their proper time, barely any time having gone by at all, even though they had spent years in the future. And eventually, Cable finally acknowledged the fact that he knew them, and that he knew they had raised him.

The Age of Apocalypse.

Of course I would be remiss, if I didn't mention the major "alternate universe" story arc that occurred the year after they got married. From the months of February through June 1995, all of the X-related titles at Marvel shifted over into a super dark alternate timeline, wherein Charles Xavier died when he was young, before he created the X-Men. In his absence, Apocalypse rose to power and conquered North America, setting off a war that devastated much of the planet, and in the rubble, Magneto of all people leads a rag-tag group of X-Men as freedom fighters, trying to take down Apocalypse's mad empire.

As you can see above, things were quite different in that other world, including Scott and Jean. While Scott and his brother Alex (Havok) were raised by Sinister, and had become higher-ups in Apocalyse's regime, Jean Grey, briefly one of Magneto's students, was abducted by Apocalypse's forces, and kept prisoner, experimented on, because of her power (and Sinister's obsession with the Grey and Summers' bloodlines, just like in the regular reality). Wolverine, also once one of Magneto's group, went and tried to rescue her, getting in a fight with Prelate Cyclops, who was actually trying to free Jean from the pens at that very moment. Of course ol' Logan didn't listen to reason, and the battle wound up costing Scott an eye, but not before it cost Logan a hand.

Nate Grey

Basically, in the four issues of the AoA "Weapon X" comic, a lot of fanboys got what they had long (in my view idiotically) clamored for, which was seeing Wolverine together with Jean. To me, that never sat right, but I also realized it was a temporary alternate story. Even in those stories though, Jean did not truly love Logan, but stayed with him more out of loyalty and gratitude. He came for her when the rest of the young X-Men did not. But as you can see in the picture above, even in the darkest reality, true soul mates will find each other, and if Logan hadn't come along, it's very possible that Scott would have left his life raised as one of Apocalypse's servants behind, and ran away with Jean. Because even then, even as the head Prelate, he was not truly evil, and had compassion for the prisoners in the pens and the people that Apocalypse had slaughtered.

He saw something in Jean when he met her, and it drove him to risk everything to try and free her. And after she left with Logan, he kept on secretly releasing prisoners, eventually including a boy named Nate, who he didn't realize was technically his own "son". The genetic product of experimentation with he and Jean's, well, genes. Nate Grey was the Age of Apocalypse version of Cable, essentially, a version not hindered by the techo-virus. And while Scott and Jean didn't really get to know their "son", they did ultimately find each other. Jean left Logan to try to go back and warn people that the European Human Council was going to drop bombs on Apocalypse's New York, and Cyclops ran into her and joined her cause, freeing the slaves from the pens and trying to lead them to freedom. Of course, their story, as with the entire AoA story proper, didn't have a happy ending. But even in that darkest of timelines, they found each other, and wound up together, because they belonged together.

Soul Mates.

Even in my animated introduction to the X-Men, I was drawn to Scott and Jean, and to their relationship. She was in many ways my "dream girl", and still is, and Cyke was someone that I really respected, and in some ways could relate to. He was the broken loner orphan, who grew up without friends or family, in loneliness and pain, and she was the well-adjusted girl from a stable background, the light in his darkness that showed up to save him. Without Jean around, Scott still would have been loyal to Xavier and the X-Men. He still would have had that inner drive to be a hero, to do the right thing in spite of everything he'd been through. But Jean gave him something far more important: she gave him a reason to want to truly live, and not merely survive.

When push came to shove, there was no question at all which was ultimately more important to Scott, the X-Men, or Jean. It was Jean. When he thought she "died", he at least briefly left the team behind, lost without her. And even when he returned, he was never quite the same. Even when Sinister's wicked machinations led him to meet "Maddie", Jean's clone, it was never quite "right" to Scott. Deep down inside he knew it was all wrong, and deep down inside he still missed Jean. Maddie wasn't Jean and never could be. Which is why when the real deal popped back up on the radar, when Scott knew she was alive, he ran to Jean as fast as he could. She was his reason for living, and they needed each other.


In 1996, another of Jean's relationships was put to the ultimate test, that of her relationship with the man who saved her from herself as a child, the founder of the X-Men, Charles Xavier. After years of hardship and heartache, rising tensions and rising pressures, ol' Chuck finally snapped, in a major way, and his own subconscious power gave birth to a being who called itself Onslaught. The first of the X-Men that Onslaught secretly approached, was the first mutant child that Xavier had ever reached out to, Jean Grey. Onslaught tried to convince Jean to join his cause, but sensing malevolence within him, Jean refused, and even tried to fight him on the "Astral Plain", as you can see above. Naturally she lost, and she was left with a warning of things to come.

Jean didn't know, at the time, that it was actually Charles, though she definitely sensed something of him during that encounter. Over the coming weeks, she kept to herself what she privately suspected, that something was very wrong with Xavier, the man who had been like a father to them all. Jean's suspicions were confirmed, when she ran into a very frightened Juggernaut, Charles' villainous step-brother, who had himself been attacked by Onslaught. When he asked Jean to probe his mind for the truth of Onslaught that he couldn't remember, she learned too late just how wrong things with Charles were. The Onslaught being was fully born into this world, an amalgamation of Xavier's awesome mind powers and frustrations, and Magneto's magnetism and anger. Jean and the X-Men tried valiantly to stand against their founder, even eventually freeing Charles himself from the independent being that Onslaught had become. In they end, they defeated him/it, at a very high price, but things were more wrong with their world than ever, and Xavier gave himself over to government custody (or so he thought).

Dark Times.

In 1997, as his final big story arc, Scott Lobdell masterminded "Operation: Zero Tolerance", which literally saw the X-Men being kicked while they were down. With Xavier gone, in truth being taken into the custody of a mystery man Jean herself had previously encountered, a man known only as Bastion, the X-Men found themselves vulnerable. They tried to carry on without Chuck, and even managed somewhat, thanks in large part to Scott and Jean. But Bastion had bigger plans, and the X-Men were ripe for the picking. Bastion set into motion his "Operation: Zero Tolerance" initiative, the "Zero Tolerance" of course, being for mutants. Op. OT was an internationally funded "final solution", as it were, to the ongoing mutant problem. And the X-Men were at the top of that list.

With half the team off into space (which I wish Lobdell hadn't done, as the story would have been  stronger with all X-hands on deck), a handful of X-Men remained. Cyclops, Phoenix, Storm, Wolverine, and Cannonball to be precise. While returning from a mission in Hong Kong, they were attacked, and taken to the secret base of Zero Tolerance, unaware that Xavier was also being held there. They managed to escape, but didn't know two key facts: that in their absence their mansion had been totally picked clean, and that while prisoner, Cyclops had been implanted with nano-technology, that was going to coalesce in his chest as a bomb that would kill them all. With a combined effort, they managed to save Cyclops and get rid of the bomb, but the trauma left Cyclops severely injured, needing time to recuperate. So Scott and Jean decided to take temporary leave, going to live in Alaska, near Scott's grandparents.


Naturally, all of these ordeals had been very hard on Jean as well. The trauma with Xavier, then losing him, then almost losing Scott, and losing everything they had at the mansion, etc. In many ways, she needed the time away as much as Scott did. It was during this sabbatical that the writers decided to put her back in the classic green and gold "Phoenix" costume, which at the time I thought was cool, but Scott was understandably disturbed by. He came to accept it, but he was worried that perhaps some vestige of the Phoenix entity DID live in Jean, and that he might loser her to it again.

His fears were unfounded, as she was just Jean. And that is, I suppose, what I've really been writing this article for in the first place. To talk about "Just Jean". As I said earlier, most people tend to associate Jean with Phoenix, which is both understandable, but also unfortunate. Because Jean on her own is far more than enough. In much the same way as many fans and casual observers echo the stereotypical view that Cyclops is just a "boy scout" and a "boring" character, I also can't tell you how many times I've run into the misguided opinion that Jean is equally "boring", that she's a "goody two shoes". Once I even had someone tell me she didn't like Jean because Jean was "basically just a nurse". She said this, of course, because her only real experience with the X-Men, were the shitty live-action films. Even so, that kind of view really pisses me off, just as it does with Cyclops, because in both cases, most people who claim to dislike them, do so because they've never bothered to really delve deeper into the characters.

Popular opinion seems to be that characters like Wolverine (everyone's "favorite"), or Gambit, or Rogue, or Storm, are "the cool ones". With Logan and Remy it's somewhat understandable, albeit in a very shallow way, because those characters are "edgy" and don't always play by the rules. But even just looking at the cartoon, a lot of people look back on it and say "Yeah, Rogue and Storm are cool", because, well, I guess Rogue is also "Edgy" in her own way, a sassy smart alec who uses her stolen super strength to punch and smash things all the time. Storm is the more puzzling case, as especially in the comic, she too comes off like a so-called "goody two shoes", who always tries to keep herself in check, who always reminds others to act with honor, to be better than the bad guys, etc. Storm, when written properly, is in many ways a lot like Jean, a "conscience" sort of character, who abhors killing and prefers to not even hurt people if she doesn't have to. Yet to many, she is still somehow seen as "cool", whereas Jean is the "boring girl scout". And frankly, that just doesn't make sense, if you think beyond a junior high school level.

First meeting.

Ultimately, the reasons that I consider Jean Grey to be my favorite female superhero are simple. Yes, there's the fact that she is in a whole lot of ways the exact kind of girl, visually and personality-wise, that I have wanted to have for myself, in my own life, for a very long time. But deeper than that, looking at the character herself, I think it is fair to say, as is the case with Cyclops, that I am drawn to  heroes with innate "goodness". In this modern dark age we live in, most people seem to be drawn to "anti-heroes", basically good guys that act bad. And being a good guy that acts, well...GOOD, is largely seen as being "not cool". And I have to say...what does that actually say about us, as a culture, as a society, when we pretend to praise "genuine good guys" in real life, yet we shun them in our entertainment media? Frankly, the world NEEDS more "genuine good guys", badly.

The reasons I love Jean Grey, Marvel Girl, Phoenix, whatever you wish to call her, at the fundamental core, are pretty basic stuff. She is a good person, she doesn't just pay lip service to being good. She doesn't put on a "Good guy" facade, while acting contrarily. She will fight, viciously if necessary, but she isn't innately violent. She has the power to not only read people's thoughts, but control their minds if she wanted. She has the telekinetic strength to topple a building, let alone crush every bone in someone's body, with just a thought. But she doesn't do that, because that isn't who she is. She has certainly displayed a "firey temper" at times, and she hasn't been above lashing out in anger in the past. But she always knows it's wrong when she does, and she always makes amends. She isn't deceptive, or secretive, or manipulative, she doesn't make use of her "feminine wiles" to get what she wants. She's genuine, she's honest, she's loyal, she cares about others more than she does herself. She would give her life to save a stranger's, and above all else, she cares very much about doing what's right. Not what's easy, or most convenient.


Jean Grey is, in all brutal honesty, what most people would wish their child to grow up to be. She is a person who was raised properly, with love and wisdom, by worthwhile parents. And she grew up to be the person they tried their best to teach her to be. A good person, who helps others, who tries to make the world around her better. In other words, she acts like a hero. In spite of all the ridiculous shit she's been through, from "dying", to coming back to find the world changed, to discovering Scott had a whole other life, to her sister Sarah being (unceremoniously) murdered off panel, to all of the harrowing misadventures the X-Men have been through over the years. Through it all, Jean has been a pillar. She is every bit that "strong, intelligent, confident" woman that people these days like to pay so much hollow lip-service towards.

She's hardly "perfect", but she makes up for her shortcomings by always trying to be the best person she can be. She falls, she fails sometimes, but she gets back up, and she doesn't let all the horrible things in the world around her, and all the horrible things that have happened TO her, and to people she loves, corrode her soul. Through all of the madness and the bullshit, she always remained steadfastly Jean. She didn't let it all change her, or ruin her, even though it easily could have. Those who keep up on the modern comics might note that I'm not getting into what lesser writers who would come along, eventually did to Scott and Jean, and to the X-Men in general. I won't be going deeply into it, because frankly, it isn't worth going into. What matters to me, is the Scott and Jean, the X-Men, from 1963 through the late 90s. The 90s especially, were the perfect distillation of what the X-Men, and what Cyclops and Phoenix, were all about. Everything that has come since, is just bad ideas and bad writing, as far as I'm concerned, and doesn't matter.

But what DOES matter, at least to me, is that Cyclops and Marvel Girl are my two favorite superheroes of all time. Both individually, and as a couple. They are, in point of fact, my favorite fictional couple of all time, in any medium. The truth is that Jean Grey is a fantastic character on her own, and stands on her own quite well, as an individual, as a hero. Just as Scott Summer does (when written correctly). But to risk sounding cheesy, Scott and Jean go together like peanut butter and jelly. They're great individually, but together, they make an amazing combo. Together, they find their full power, and are complete. Scott isn't the same without his Jean, and Jean isn't the same without Scott either. So there you have it.


As a final aside, even though I'll never get to do so in person, as I certainly would have liked to, I want to thank Mr. Stan Lee, for his hand in creating all of the wonderful Marvel heroes and villains that he did. But most importantly, for creating Scott Summers and Jean Grey. For creating the original X-Men, and the X-Men as a concept, because as much as Cyclops and Marvel Girl are my top favorite heroes of all time, the X-Men is my top favorite comic of all time. And it all started with Stan Lee, and a kooky idea about hip teenagers with weird powers, all the way back in the early 60s. So for that, Mr. Lee, thank you, because you'll never know how much of an impact your creations would have on my life. Excelsior!

R.I.P. Stan Lee, 1922-2018