Just forget the words and sing along

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Thoughts on What If...?

 Well, Marvel Studios just isn't stopping with cranking out the TV shows this year.  Their fourth series, and their first foray into animation drops this Wednesday, What If...?

What If...? Key Art


The original Marvel comic of What If...? would revisit key events in the Marvel Universe and simply ask, "What if A happened instead of B?"  For example, the one I had when I was a kid that I remember was What If Uncle Ben Had Lived?  In this retelling of the Spider-Man story, it was Aunt May who was killed by that burglar, and having Uncle Ben as Peter Parker's lone parent figure changed things in significant ways.  Uncle Ben found out that Peter Parker was Spider-Man, forced him to confess to J. Jonah Jameson, and Jameson then began blackmailing Spider-Man to do his dirty work.  

So, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe now a thing, why not use a TV series to similarly revisit key moments in the MCU?  And that brings us to What If...?

I was lucky enough to see the first three episodes, and I have some thoughts.

I think you know what Episode I is, and it's been all over the advertising.  Episode I goes back to Captain America: The First Avenger and asks, "What if Agent Carter took the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers?"  With a Union Jack emblazoned uniform, Captain Carter takes on the Red Skull and HYDRA.  But, Steve Rogers still gets into the fight, as Howard Stark builds him a World War II-era Iron Man-style armor dubbed the HYRDA Stomper.  It's Captain Carter and the HYDRA Stomper fighting for freedom across the European theatre!

Firstly, as episodes are only a half-hour long, this is a very fast-paced episode, as it feels like Captain America: The First Avenger condensed down to a half-hour.  This is the one that takes the least amount of deviation from its source material, as it does feel a lot like a Coles Notes version of The First Avenger.  But it was a very solid, action-filled outing.

Episode II has also been all over the pre-release hype.  This one swaps out one Marvel hero for another, asking, "What if T'Challa Became Star Lord?"  A frustrated young T'Challa wanders away from the Wakanda capital city one night...the same night that the Ravagers were sent to abduct young Peter Quill.  But, Yondu didn't exactly assign his best and brightest to the task, and they abduct T'Challa instead.  We then flash forward 20 years, and we find that, under T'Challa's mentorship, the Ravagers have become galactic Robin Hoods...robbing from the rich, and giving to the poor.  

This episode is just spectacular.  I know some people complained that Black Panther was a little too stoic, but here, Chadwick Boseman gets to quip with the best of them.  Feels like a real shame that we never got to see him do much comedy.  It takes some hilarious turns, like finding out how T'Challa defeated Thanos.  

I was just roaring with laughter throughout this one, as we learn that, no matter where he ends up, T'Challa is destined to be a king.

Episode III was the one where I went in with no prior knowledge.  I was completely flying blind, and it's an episode that completely blew my mind.  I don't want to say too much, because it's got a real twisty turny plot, and it'd be very easy to drop spoilers.  Set during Phase I, specifically that two-week period that Iron Man 2 and Thor takes place in.  Someone is murdering the candidates for the Avengers Initiative, and Nick Fury is desperate to find out who and why.  The episode evolves into a very solid whodunit.  

The animation is spectacular.  They use that "cel shading" technique to make everything look more like it's hand drawn.  You know, it's the technique that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse turned up to 11.  

The voice cast is amazing, as well.  Whenever possible, they brought back the same actors from the films to reprise their roles.  As already mentioned, it is a treat to hear Chadwick Boseman one last time as T'Challa.  I think this is going down in history as his final role.  I read somewhere that T'Challa variants pop up in a total of four episodes across this first season, so we're going to get to enjoy him a few more times still.  Josh Brolin doing a new twist on Thanos was, like most of the T'Challa episode, somewhat hilarious.  

The only notable absences in the first three episodes were Chris Evans as Captain America, Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man, and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.  Didn't catch who filled in for Downey.  Veteran voice actor Josh Keaton does Steve Rogers, and it's a pretty agreeable Chris Evan impression.  Actress/filmmaker Lake Bell takes over the role of Black Widow.  It's not a straight up Scarlett Johansson impression, but she's able to put her own spin on it, which is great.  

And it's all anchored by Jeffrey Wright as the Watcher, who serves as our narrator.  He brings just the right amount of gravitas to the role.  Crank up that subwoofer, because his voice echoes throughout your room.  

What If...? is going to be another winner for Marvel Studios and Disney+, and continue their dominance of the streaming wars.  Definitely worth a watch.  

What If...? premieres on Disney+ on Wednesday, August 11, with new episodes every Wednesday after.  

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Thoughts on Behind the Attraction

 

Behind the Attraction Poster

I grew up in that era when The Wonderful World of Disney was event television.  Every Sunday night at 6, the family would gather around the TV to watch Disney.  And one thing that always stuck out in my mind were episodes that would take you behind the scenes at the Disney theme parks.  Seemed there was always an episode showcasing how they made the animatronic in Pirates of the Caribbean.  Heck, I remember when Splash Mountain opened up in the late 1980s.  Splash Mountain was a really big deal when it first opened.  

So that's been one of my disappointments so far with Disney+.   There hasn't been a lot of that "behind the scenes at the theme parks" stuff yet.  Yeah, we got The Imagineering Story, which was great, but it was more about the parks in general.  I want to see deep dives on the history of the Haunted Mansion.  I want the inside scoop on Star Tours.  Heck, I want those classic episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney to binge.  

Enter Behind the Attraction.

This was announced a year ago, as one of their big tie-ins to Jungle Cruise.  They even got Jungle Cruise star Dwayne Johnson on board as a producer.  But like a lot of things in our pandemic world, it got delayed.  It's finally dropping on Disney+, and my interest was piqued when I heard that they even had Brian Volk-Weiss on board as a producer.  Volk-Weiss was the man behind the Netflix sleeper hit The Toys That Made Us...the documentary series all about the history of your favourite action figure lines.  Volk-Weiss brought this wonderful, slightly irreverent tone to the proceedings, which made the end product fun and breezy, yet still educational.  So I went into Behind the Attraction thinking it was going to be The Toys That Made Us for Disney rides.  

And that's exactly what Behind the Attraction is.  

The same playful tone that Volk-Weiss brought to The Toys That Made Us is here in full force.  The same use of stock footage, the same kind of graphics, and the same kind of quippy narration (here provided by Della Duck herself, Paget Brewster).  

But, true to the show's name, this is more than just turning on the lights in the Haunted Mansion and showing you how the animatronics work.  This show really does take a step back and show you how the attraction fits into the Disney parks and it's history as a whole.  A great example is the episode on Star Tours.  Yeah, we get to hear it's well-known origins as a ride to tie in with the Disney film The Black Hole, but when that flopped, it was shelved until Disney CEO Michael Eisner reached out to George Lucas about getting the Star Wars license.  But then we start following the whole design lineage of how Star Tours eventually leads to Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, and how it all ties together.

Another new aspect that those Wonderful World of Disney episodes of yore could never get into was localization.  We've got Disneylands in Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai now.  So they also go in to how these rides had to be adapted for other cultures.  The more famous example is the Haunted Mansion.  They knew that the Haunted Mansion couldn't compete in France with things like the Paris Catacombs, so at Disneyland Paris, they put it in Fronteirland and gave it a Wild West makeover.  The Chinese people have an entirely different concept of ghosts and spirits, so at Hong Kong Disneyland, it's called Mystic Manor and has more to do with playful spirits than spooky ghosts.  

But the lesser known example comes from the episode on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.  Well, The Twilight Zone never made it to Japan, so when they opened it up at Tokyo DisneySea, they had to remove all connections to The Twilight Zone and make a completely original story.  And then the episode ends with another kind of localization...they go into how the Tower of Terror at Disney's California Adventure was refurbished into Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout.  

But it's not just the rides, oh no!  There's an episode that's all about Walt Disney's fascination with trains, so you think it's about the steam train at Disneyland and Walt Disney World's famous monorail.  But that eventually springboards into an analysis of Walt Disney World's mass transit system and Walt Disney's fascination with the subject.  Remember:  Walt Disney World consists of four theme parks, twenty seven hotels, a bunch of water parks and golf courses, and tons more stuff.  People need to get to all these places.  One of the imagineeers they talk to says Walt Disney World has a mass transit system comparable to the city of Atlanta.  It's one of those things that you think is going to be boring, but winds up being utterly fascinating.  

Behind the Attraction is a wonderful series that will scratch that "behind the scenes at the parks" itch that you might be having at Disney+.  I didn't have a chance to watch every episode in advance, but I can hardly wait to binge the whole thing.

The first five episodes of Behind the Attraction drop on Disney+ this Wednesday, July 21.



Sunday, July 04, 2021

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Thoughts on Monsters at Work

 It's here!  Another one of the very first Disney+ originals has finally made it the streaming service.  And that's what was once hyped as Pixar's first original half-hour series for the streamer, Monsters at Work.


Monsters at Work Logo

I don't know what kind of politicking happened behind the scenes at Disney, but this is no longer branded as a Pixar production.  It's now listed as being produced by Walt Disney Television Animation.  Regardless, I'm still a Pixar junkie and anything that they're even tangentially related to gets my interest.  And when you're developing a series, the Monsters, Inc universe is just ripe for development, especially when you're getting into the workings of a power plant like Monsters, Inc works.  


Our main character is Tyler Tuskmon, the purple guy with the big horns you see in the picture there.  He just graduated top of his class at Monsters University and is all ready to become the next top scarer at Monsters, Inc.  Just one problem:  this takes place just a couple of days after the events of Monsters, Inc.  The Monster world is now switching gears to generating power by getting kids to laugh, and Tyler now has the completely wrong skillset.  When he shows up for his first day of work at Monsters, Inc, he's assigned to MIFT:  the Monsters Inc Facilities Team.  They're the maintenance crew, who spends most of their days in the basement waiting for the call to come fix something.  

So who are the wacky misfits that Tyler is now stuck working with?  We've got:

Fitz, the grey guy with the big nose.  He's the head of MIFT and just desperate to be liked.

Duncan is the green guy with bat wings and multiple eyes.  He's second in command and has his eyes on Fitz's job if/when Fitz retires.  He instantly sees Tyler as a threat and makes it his mission to destroy Tyler.

Cutter is the green one in safety gear.  Always has a morbid story about how a previous MIFT member was killed on the job.

Val is the orange, furry one.  She's an old college friend of Tyler's and is always cheerful and perky.  She's voiced by Mindy Kaling, so, yeah, it's Mindy Kaling being Mindy Kaling.  

But that's not all.  Also coming back from the Monsters Inc films are Billy Crystal and John Goodman as Mike and Sully.  Sully is now running Monsters Inc, and Mike is helping out the scarers become jokesters by teaching courses at Monsters Inc.  Of course, Tyler takes those courses, because he's desperate to adapt to this new world and get out of the basement.  

Also coming back from the films are Jennifer Tilly as Mike's girlfriend Cecile, Bonnie Hunt as Ms. Flint (the person running the simulator in the film), and John Ratzenburger as the Yeti.  Although, Yeti wasn't in the first two episodes.

Got to see the first two episodes for review purposes.  The first deals with Tyler showing up at Monsters, Inc and coming to terms with the new situation.  The second one follows his first day on the job as he realizes that MIFT has a pretty important role.  We also get to see Mike and Sully in their parallel journey as they adjust to being the ones in charge now.  There's a bit of a story arc that they're setting up as well, as there are mysterious power outages at Monsters Inc that they're trying to get to the bottom of.  

There's still a bit of Pixar charm in there.  One thing I really liked about Monsters University is how it's about the death of dreams.  Mike comes to the terrible realization that he'll never be scary enough to be a scarer, so has to adjust to the real world accordingly.  Monsters at Work very much continues that theme.  Tyler's journey is all about realizing that the real world isn't what you thought it'd be, and learning to adjust accordingly.  Even though it's colourful monsters in a fantasy world, it is still a very relatable story.  

With our cast of characters, it's easy to make comparisons to The Office.  Fitz is Michael Scott, desperate to be loved by his employees.  Duncan is Dwight, a stickler for the rules and desperate to advance.  And, well, Mindy Kaling is Mindy Kaling.  But just as A Bug's Life took its cues from Three Amigos and Cars took its cues from Doc Hollywood, it'll be interesting to see what new direction they can take these characters in.  

I think Monsters at Work has lots of potential.  I'll be tuning to see where this goes.  The first season is 10 episodes long.  The first two episodes drop on Disney+ on July 7, with new episodes every Wednesday after.  

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Thoughts on Loki

 It's been a pretty good year for Marvel.  Over on Disney+, they've given us two fantastic TV shows so far with WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  And now, their third offering for the streamer drops tomorrow, Loki.  

Loki Poster

Loki was the first Marvel Studios series announced for Disney+, way back when they first announced Disney+.  And it made sense.  Loki was one of the most unexpected breakout characters from the MCU, particularly with his villainous turn in The Avengers, and his redemption arc over Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok.  So why not gift the world with more Loki?  

I've been lucky enough to see the first two episodes, so I thought I'd share my thoughts.  

It all starts as we all predicted after seeing the events of Avengers: Endgame.  With the time heist to 2012 going sideways, Loki swiped the Tesseract and was able to escape.  But he doesn't get too far, as he's promptly captured by the TVA:  the Time Variance Authority.  The TVA are a police force that exist outside of time and make sure the the timeline stays pure, lest any alternate timelines be created that could destroy the multiverse.  

While awaiting his trial, Loki captures the attention of TVA Agent Mobius.  There's a variant on the loose ("variants" are what the TVA calls folks who are mucking about with the timeline) who's killing TVA agents, and Mobius believes that Loki is just the Hannibal Lecter-type who can provide insights into the variant's motives.  So Loki gets drafted as Mobius's reluctant partner, and he's off to save the timeline.  

Episode 1 is very exposition-heavy, as they lay out the rules of the TVA and who they are, and also bringing us up to speed on Loki.  There's some great character stuff for Loki.  Remember:  this is not the Loki who died in Endgame.  This is a Loki who escaped at the end of The Avengers, so he's still a bit of a villainous bastard.  Tom Hiddleston gets some great stuff to do, as Loki comes to grips with his new reality.  Owen Wilson is great, too, as Mobius.  I don't think I've ever seen Wilson this subdued, and it works great for the character.  

And I just love the whole look of the TVA, as you've seen in the trailers.  It's very much stuck in the 1970s...a 1970s vision of the future.  But it's a vision that's lasted well into the 90s, making it look very run down.  It's a bit of a soul-crushing bureaucracy, but I just love the whole aesthetic.  The music even compliments it well, with some 70s synths and even a hint of Theremin.  

Episode 2 is where we're off to the races, as Loki and Mobius get down to business hunting down our variant.  And this is just spectacular.  I felt a dash of DC's Legends of Tomorrow, in the way our heroes have such a lack of reverence for what they're doing to the timeline.  It also felt a bit like Doctor Who.  Can't quite place it.  They go back to one historical and, well, it just felt like Doctor Who.  But don't worry...it still felt like Marvel through and through.  

Episode 2 has a spectacular ending, with the revelation of who the variant is.  I won't say who, but I just smiled and said, "Aw man, that's great."  And now I've gotta wait two weeks for episode 3!

All in all, with Loki, it looks like Marvel Studios has another winner for Disney+.  

Don't forget, with Loki, Disney+ is trying something new.  Rather than drop new episodes every Friday, they're dropping every Wednesday.  Loki premieres on Wednesday, June 9, with new episodes every Wednesday after.  


Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Mark Tastes Dairy Queen's 2 for $5 Snack Pack


 For this Mark Tastes Random Things, we continue checking out fast food places and their value menus!  Today, we swing by Dairy Queen for their 2 for $5 Super Snack...specifically, the grilled flamethrower chicken wrap and a cherry Misty.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Nerd News Headlines: May 9, 20221


 

Time for me to catch you up on all the nerdy news you missed in the past week!  Marvel rolled out an amazing trailer laying out their slate for the next two years.  Loki's release is moved up...we've got some shake-ups on Team Flash.  The Spoiler might be coming to Batwoman, Night Court's getting a reboot, and Disney made actual working lightsabers!