Archive for science

Tell Me Doctor…Where Are We Going This Time?

Posted in Comic Books, Entertainment, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2010 by Brandon Melendez

Science Fiction is full of paradoxes and parallels. Lots of stories rely heavily on the idea that, not only can history shape the present and present shape the future but also that there are simultaneous timelines existing where our every opposite choice exists chosen with subsequent branches from every choice made thereafter. This is probably most famously displayed in both “It’s a Wonderful Life” (though this is hardly a science fiction story) and the “Back to the Future” trilogy.

The happy ending

In “It’s a Wonderful Life” James Stewart’s George Bailey begs for his life to have never happened. George stops a pharmacist from making a fatal mistake; he saves the town by thwarting an evil bank stock holder, provides for his brother and his mother, and eventually saves the town again using his honeymoon money.  He takes over running the bank and years later loses eight thousand dollars that he desperately needs. He decides that suicide is a good solution because he has a fifteen thousand dollar policy. Through a series of prayers from friends and family for his well being George’s case is considered by the angels and Clarence the Angel is sent to show George his life without him. After seeing the positive effect he’s had on his town and the awful nature of both his town and family (his brother is DEAD!), he wishes virulently to be alive and walks away with a new appreciation for life. In fact he discovers that life is, ahem, wonderful.

The Back to the Future movies have a somewhat different approach to the idea of manipulating the time stream. I’ll try to keep my review of these movies short as I could probably write a dissertation on the series.  In the first movie Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown builds a time machine contained in a DeLorean DMC-12 automobile. His young teenage friend is Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly, gets a call to meet Doc in the middle of the night at the mall parking lot. At this time Marty’s family is barley getting by, his sister and brother are losers, his father is being bullied by Biff (as he has been his whole life), and his Uncle Joey is denied parole. After a crazy event involving a time machine, Libyan terrorists, plutonium, and a pine tree Marty finds himself in 1955.

In 1955 a series of events occurs stemming directly from Marty’s displacement in time he interrupts several events key to his existence: most importantly the parents of his meeting.  Through several events which were…most awkward with his teen aged mother making passes at him with liquor and cleavage…Marty is able to get his parents together and go, ahem, Back to the Future.

Once he is there he finds that his world is somewhat different. His brother and sister are successful business people (who still live at home…for some reason). His parents are in shape,

If you're gonna put a time machine in a car then I say put it in the car that will most exactly pinpoint the decade it was built in!--Doc Brown

his mother is no longer an alcoholic, and his father is a published science fiction writer! Biff works for the family, apparently as some sort of indentured servant; and Marty has his dream monster truck. And Uncle Joey! He’s unmentioned which really shows how well-to-do his family now is. Everything is good with Marty’s life thanks to time travel. Except his kids! Something has got to be done about his kids!

Doc shows up in the, now flying, DMC-12 and they go to the future to stop Biff’s grandson from beating up Marty’s son in a generational plot rehash…or so you’d think. Marty rectifies the situation, replicates his chase scene from the previous movie and buys a sports almanac so he can make some money when he goes back to the…past. Doc chides him, old Biff steals the almanac and the DeLorean while Jennifer and Marty find out a few troubling things about their future (Marty’s genes are really strong and besides a useless son they create a really ugly daughter, for some reason split pattern double ties become fashionable in almost four years from the time of this article’s writing and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers one day gets Marty fired on every television and fax machine in the house). Resulting from old Biff going to the past when Marty, The Doc, and Jennifer go to 1985 they find themselves in a radically different 1985 where Biff runs their town and the State and Federal government don’t seem to know or care.

See alternate/parallel timeline

This is the Jimmy Stewart moment of the Back to the Future movies. Time travel has changed the present. Though in the examples of It’s A Wonderful Life and Back to the Future everything gets either rectified to status quo or made better (at least for the protagonists).  With the minimal act of old Biff however we see a real potential here for villainy with time travel. It even seems to be the perfect crime- there’s no evidence of the crime occurring. Now, I know all about time paradoxes—as I said I know Back to the Future very well—in fact I know that logically speaking one can’t actually change the past. If you go back in time and stop Hitler from rising to power, for example, there is no Hitler for you (if you exist at all) to go back and stop; therefore your action never occurs and Hitler rises to power…resulting in you going back in time to stop Hitler…so time ends there in an endless loop.

Unless you factor in Schrodinger’s Cat, that is. For those of you wholly unaware of even the most elementary concepts of quantum physics I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version of the theory. Imagine a box that cannot be seen heard, or smelled into. You put a cat in the box. You put a poison gas in the box. Until you look into the box you cannot be sure that the poison has killed the cat and therefore until you see inside the cat is simultaneously alive and dead.

Communist Superman

If you leave the theory there than you end up either with a dead cat or a resilient, possibly sick, but all the while live cat. As you delve deeper into quantum mechanics and science fiction you will find yourself in the boundries of “Many Worlds Interpretation”. Many Worlds Interpretation, in the Reader’s Digest version, suggests that for every decision you make reality splits at that point one branch for every possible choice made. When applied to Schrodinger’s Cat this means that the cat is alive in one reality and dead in another. Now, with all that said, you understand the basis for multiverses.

A multiverse, most commonly used in comic books, is a collection of parallel universes sharing some commonalities but have characteristics in histories that make them distinctly different. For  example in the DC Multiverse on Earth-30 Superman’s rocket landed, not in Kansas, but in the USSR. The history of events up to that point was as in the mainstream DC Universe (DCU) except with the change of 12 hours. The 12 hour difference (give or take) had baby Kal-El’s rocket landing in Russia resulting in a timeline where USSR wins the Cold War, Batman is a counter-communist terrorist movement (complete with Russian-hat Batcowl), and Lex Luthor becomes the savior of the United States. I won’t spoil the rest of the story for those who haven’t read it but suffice it to say it is phenomenal and worth your money and time.

The DC Multiverse is currently ordered in a 53 Earth System as illustrated in the epic and historic “52” maxi-series. The main Earth is called Earth-Prime and it exists at the bottom of an inverted-triangle. All of the other Earths (Earth-1 to Earth-52) stem from and rely on Earth-Prime’s existence. As I stated, the DC-Multiverse is an inverted triangle, or pyramid, if the Earth-Prime is removed all the other universes collapse into entropy around it. It is sort of a quintessence universe in that way. The Marvel Multiverse is organized in a very different way. The Marvel Universe we all know and love is Earth 616 and if you can think of a number there is a universe to correspond with that number. The Marvel Universe does exists on a spectrum but that spectrum is not ordered in any perceivable way. For example The Fault resulting from the end of “War of Kings” and encompassing “Thanos Imperative” that is a massive tear in 616 that acts as a tunnel to the “Cancerverse”. A hole that leads from “616” to “Cancerverse” does not pertain to an order that I can follow.

Multiverse

A Multiverse

Marvel has done quite a bit with the Many Worlds Interpretation directly where as DC has usually done so indirectly, accidentally, or not at all. Specifically I would like to talk about the tangled web that is Nathaniel Richards/Kang the Conqueror/Iron Lad/Immortus/Rama-Tut. There are some clarifications I have to make before I start talking about Kang. Depending on the moment in time that you are dealing with this individual that I will refer to, mostly, as Kang depends on the name uses—his nom du voyage as it were—at the moment the Young Avengers were founded he was a teenager who was time lost and became Iron Lad, in his personal old age he will be Immortus, and so on.

In Marvel 616 there are two men, probably, named Nathaniel Richards. It’s actually a bit of a mystery. There is the time-hopping universe-tramping Nathaniel Richards, father of Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) of the Fantastic Four and there is Nathaniel Richards who grows to become Kang the Conqueror. For all intents and purposes we will say that they are:

A)     Not the same person (there is some debate)

B)      Related, with Kang being named after Reed’s father Nathaniel which…

C)      …Makes him probably Reed Richards’ brother, or nephew to some degree, or direct descendant

Also Kang boasts a lineage to Victor Von Doom (Dr. Doom) which means that he possibly is:

A)     Descended from some descendants of both Doom and Mr. Fantastic that had a child together

B)      Descended from Kristoff Vernard (Von Doom) the heir presumptive (though cryogenically held in stasis) to Dr. Doom in which case he would hold a biological and adoptive heritage

or

C)      A liar

Kang utilizing his bean bag ray.

Kang goes through time conquering (hence the name) different places and establishing empires. When he was first introduced as Rama-Tut he had time travelled to ancient Egypt and was something of a tyrannical Pharaoh keeping advanced technology in The Sphinx. After a run in with a time-hopping Fantastic Four he was forced to retreat using his time travelling thingamadoo into some next time. He wasn’t seen again until he had an encounter with the Avengers as Kang.

As Kang travels through time so do his alternate choices, or they did for a while. Kang himself split as he caused more timelines eventually leading to quite a number of Kangs all vying for the same role in the time stream. This is a great illustration of Many Worlds Interpretation. Every time Kang attempted anything using time travel it resulted in a split between a successful Kang and at least one other version. This eventually came to a point where the egocentric Kang decided to kill the alternate versions. To that end eventually one rose to the top, presumably the prime Kang but who could really know? From there on Kang was careful not to create these alternate versions when he traipsed through time.

Kang is probably the preeminent example of time travel in comics. There are others of course. Superboy was a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes who resided in the 30th Century. Being a part of the Legion helped Superboy learn how to be Superman and Superman in turn inspired the Legion to be formed. Booster Gold traveled back in time from the 25th Century and became a major hero of the 21st (formerly 20th via suspension of the present) and saved all of time. Cable was born in the present, raised in the far flung future, lived his life in a sooner future, returned to the present, raised a a girl named Hope incrementally through the future, returned to the present some 16 years later (by his reckoning), and died (for now). Rachel Summers was born in an alternate time line, brought into our time line, and actually raises Cable (her brother…or half-brother depending on your definition) in the far flung future which is also her personal old age. The Flash (Barry Allen) has children in the future, who have a child (Bart Allen),  who lives in the present as Kid Flash. It gets very complicated—always so complicated but Kang, good old Kang, he is representative of time travel with quantum theories.

As complicated as time travel in science fiction becomes it seems that there is a generally recurrent theme of you cannot, or should not, change the past. Quantum Physics seems to support this in the Many Worlds Interpretation insofar as no matter which event transpires somewhere the opposite, or shades of grey in between, has occurred. The paradoxes of time travel are often overridden by the presumption of fate. For example it is fated that Booster Gold will team up with Rip Hunter (his own son, but Booster doesn’t know that) to stop Mister Mind from destroying the multiverse but in order to do that he has to travel to the past and have a son—but he has the son after he travels to the past and after he stops Mister Mind. The proof of Booster’s success is that he was born in the first place. The only answer is fate; it’s the only thing that could explain the conundrum.

It’s all very difficult to swallow, I understand that but I’ve been trained over the course of my life to wrap my head around these things and accept them. The most important thing is to remember that when dealing with time travel you should never try to change the past because you don’t know what kind of future you’ll end up with. Also when you drive that car towards the drive-in movie screen remember you won’t hit that mural of the Indians, you’ll probably hit a real charge of Indians in 1885. You’ve gotta think Fourth Dimensionally.

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Three Villainous Superman Analogues

Posted in Comic Books, Entertainment with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2010 by Brandon Melendez

Superman is the most powerful being in all of comic books. You may argue that this is a debatable topic but the end result is simple- Superman always wins. You nay-sayers may want to quote the one time he lost—The Death of Superman—but remember not only did he simultaneously defeat Doomsday, he also returned from the dead. So the collateral damage of that loss is negligible.

Superman is the symbol of American morality combined with a power-set that is simply impossible to comprehend: flight, invulnerability, ice breath, several enhanced visions (x-ray, telescopic, and heat varieties being the most common), super strength, super intellect…the list goes on ad infinitum.

This has often posed a problem for writers. How can you possibly have such a powerful character and keep him challenged? What villain could possibly give Superman—a mortal more powerful than gods (see Superman slugging Darkseid above) a run for his money? Certainly, Lex Luthor has to be given a certain amount of credit in this respect; he is and always will be Superman’s opposite number—but what I am referring to here is blow-for-blow battle. It is very difficult to keep a character interesting when he can literally swat all opposition away like flies if he so chooses.

In rectifying this problem there are generally two solutions writers have come up with over the years:

1)    Invent a character with almost no back-story with a mysterious and amazing level of strength

Or

2)    Have Superman fight some analogue of Superman.

Neither of these approaches has developed any truly challenging or long lasting adversity for the Man of Steel. To avoid going into the depressingly endless list of Superman rouges that either don’t fit these two solutions or fit the bill for solution one lets just say the cream of the crop is Mr. Mxyzptlk and “kltpzyxm” that whole discussion. (I will discuss Mr. Mxyzptlk one day: how awesome he is, how poorly he has been used, and how sad it is that I didn’t have to look up how to spell his name…but not this time around.)

As far as analogues of Superman go there are three of worthy note: Bizarro, General Zod, and The Cyborg Superman.

In order to explain these characters one has to choose their history well—as it is with all things DC Universe these characters may have origins that have changed drastically over the years, without explanation, and occasionally without reason.

The first I’ll discuss is Bizarro. Bizarro first appeared in an issue of Superboy during the 1950’s in which a scientist used a “duplicating ray” on Superboy. As all advanced technology was composed of rays and tubes in the 50’s this isn’t surprising. The character was devised to be a strange cross breed of Superboy and Frankenstein. He was later packaged and repackaged again during the Silver Age as being an “imperfect copy of Superman” eventually being reduced to his imperfect “Me no am Bizarro” style of speech. Besides having negative-Yoda syntax Bizarro also has “opposite” Superman powers…sorta. He has “freeze vision” instead of “heat vision” and “flame breath” instead of “freeze breath” or “super breath”. This is where Bizarro really starts to lose anything remotely resembling continuity. If he were to have reverse Superman powers the opposite of “flight” is “walking”, the opposite of “super hearing” is “deaf”, and the opposite of “invulnerability” is “weak as a kitten”. Also for some reason the kryptonite that effects Bizarro is blue even though the opposite color of green is red. Maybe this is where “imperfect” comes into play? So as to have the weight of “opposite” removed? There have been really great uses of Bizarro, I’m sure of it. The late 1990’s Superman show is one triumph, where as the Superfriends version is an utter fail. The best use of Bizarro in my opinion has always and will always be in the “Emperor Joker” storyline. While I will hopefully, one day, get to talking about this story in full I have to say it is one of my favorite Superman stories ever; the Joker has gained omnipotence by duping Mr. Mxyzptlk and runs amok with the entire universe. In the end though, Bizarro is a cheap laugh at best. Him is the best villain never. Or, I guess…well you get the drift—his usage is limited, his character development is impossible, and his backward “S” logo is…well that’s about all he’s got.

Next, let’s talk about General Zod. If you’ve ever seen Superman: The Movie and Superman 2 you know all about Zod and to KNEEL BEFORE ZOD. KNEEL BEFORE ZODGeneral Zod is a much better anti-Superman than Bizarro for a great variety or reasons. His characterization varies from being a Kryptonian Hitler to being a military leader concerned primarily with the protection of his people. At the end of the day both Superman and Dru-Zod (that’s his name by the way) are both holding an olive branch but while Superman will try to extend it, General Zod will use it as a switch and beat you into pudding. Most fans become familiar with General Zod, as I said before, from the start of Superman: The Movie. “You will bow down before me, Jor-El. I swear it,” these lines are burned in my mind more clearly than the pledge of allegiance, “No matter that it takes an eternity! You will bow down before me! First you! And then one day…YOUR HEIRS!” For me these are the most important lines Mario Puzo ever wrote and could have only been made better if Al Pacino were maniacally shouting them at Brando’s Jor-El. But I could also say that of the pledge of allegiance, or even the Mourner’s Kaddish—everything is better with Pacino maniacally shouting it…but I digress.

General Zod has been portrayed across several media besides the Superman movies. He has appeared in the novel “Last Days of Krypton” and, in some form, on “Smallville”. First and foremost Dru-Zod is a character from the early 1960’s and fell in and out of use. He was released from the Phantom Zone prison by Superboy but was quickly returned after he tried to…y’know…make everyone kneel before him. After the movies and DC entered the “Post-Crisis” era, Zod and his cohorts Ursa and Non were depicted as being from a pocket universe and Superman had to execute them using kryptonite which led to his vow “never to kill again” (except when he does so inadvertently, to protect his own life, or when killing sentient robots).

Recently, Zod was given quite an overhaul in the maxi series “World of New Krypton” in which 100,000 or so Kryptonians were found to be alive in the bottled city of Kandor. After all sorts of goings-on that kept them from living peacefully on Earth these Kryptonians decided to live on a planet they generated or garnered or whatever in a complete opposite orbit to Earth (see Marvel’s Counter-Earth of “Heroes Reborn” for another use of this concept). On “New Krypton” the surviving Kryptonians set up their society as it once was. Superman is drafted into the military guild and is forced to serve under its leader…that’s right Dru-Zod.

In this storyline General Zod was developed from being a one-dimensional character with meaningless and banal megalomania to being a complex and intelligent tactician with a paternal need to protect his people. This was one of the better Superman stories of the past twenty years—but only if you can cope with the fact that there are literally one hundred thousand supermen in it. The central characters are Zod and Superman as well as Superman’s aunt Alura, his cousin Supergirl, among other Kryptonians. I won’t spoil the story here but it is far more interesting to see Superman and Zod have character conflicts and not just super powered ones. By the end of the story you have a sense that Zod is not just Hitler with heat vision but a character with motivations, reason, and room to grow for future stories; but of course at the end of the day he is just an evil Superman…as evidenced as by his “evil twin” beard.

Then of course, there is the ever awesome if not poorly named “CyborgSuperman”. The Cyborg Superman is a big reason for why this article was written…but more about that later. His story starts in the early 1990’s as astronaut Hank Henshaw. Henshaw, his wife, and two compatriots go into space in a rocket ship and are effected by some kind of space radiation and start developing all sorts of abnormal side effects to that energy. If this story sounds familiar it should—its a heavy handed nod to the Fantastic Four. Except in this story things to horribly wrong. Their version of the Human Torch turns radioactive, loses his mind, and commits suicide in the sun. Their version of The Thing discorporates entirely. Henshaw’s wife phases out of this realm of reality and disappears. Henshaw’s body deteriorates and dies…but his mind lives on IN MACHINES!!! Somehow, Henshaw manages to blame the whole ordeal on Superman and vows revenge.

Some years pass and the Hank Henshaw character disappears into the open ended plot galaxy when he escapes into outerspace in some appropraited kryptonian technology. Superman dies in battle with Doomsday and four mysterious replacements show up after the funeral. One of these replacements is The Cyborg Superman who, unbeknownst to all, is actually the now villianous Hank Henshaw. Because of the kryptonian technology he adapted into his physiology all tests show that he is kryptonian. This leads to him being the “offically accepted” Superman for the United States Government.

Henshaw then calls in his alien force from Warworld with his lieutenant, Mongul, to destory Coast City. The Cyborg’s game is then relayed. He wants to tarnish Superman’s name and symbol forever and will kill all of Earth, and turn it into another Warworld at the same time. With millions dead under the banner of the House of El the other three Superman replacements along with the recently ressurrected (yet depowered) true Superman go to war with the Cyborg.

You would think this would be a set up for an amazing Superman villian for years to come but I have neglected to mention one little fact: Coast City was Green Lantern’s town. As a matter of fact the actions of Cyborg Superman in the Reign of the Supermen storyline leads to the fall of Hal Jordan. The Fall of Hal Jordan leads to the destruction of the Green Lantern Corps at the Hands of Hal Jordan, Jordan becoming possessed by the entity Parallex, attempting to destory all of time and rewrite it in his image (see Zero Hour: Crisis in Time), and the eventual undoing of all those things. Without Cyborg Superman the last sixteen years of Green Lantern stories would have NEVER happened while Superman stories would have by-and-large gone off without a hitch. This is what prompted me to write this article.

Cyborg Superman is barley worth mentioning in the Superman mythos outside of the ressurection of Superman. It is, however, arguable that until very recently with The Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night that Cyborg Superman had the more impact on the course of Green Lantern comics than any other villian. Even including the Sinestro Corps War because Henshaw was a member of the Sinestro Corps.

The success of this analogue of Superman in the arena of another superhero makes one wonder about the success of lesser chracters in Superman’s rogues gallery. Could it be that Atomic Skull is a great villian going up against unfair odds? How would he fair against Blue Beetle or even Green Arrow? Would Mr. Z or Shockwave give Firestorm a run for his money? Maybe Superman has a great rogues gallery that is just not great in comparison to the Pi-times-infinity of awesome that is Superman.

I have no doubt that most of them are not indeed great. Riot, for example, is Madrox the Multiple Man with a bad case of insomnia-induced-mania. He is defeated by sleep. I don’t even know why this character was created. It does however make you think twice about at least some of his villians. Perhaps against other heroes they may have had an impact, or at least a chance to be a quirky c-list favorite like the Mad Hatter.

At the end of the day Batman and Spider-Man have the best rogues gallery hands down— from classics like The Joker to The Green Goblin and The Penguin to Doctor Octopus along with The Riddler, The Kingpin, Bane, Venom, Hush, Sandman, Clayface and undeniably the likes Doctor Doom and Ras Al Ghul. You just can’t top them. (I don’t mention the X-Men because their foes aren’t rogues, they are most often political adversaries…its really a whole different thing with them.) By contrast Superman arguably has the worst; barring those mentioned here plus Lex Luthor, Metallo on a really good day, and Darkseid all of whom are easily derailed if not dispached—easily that is for a mortal that could smack the piss out of Zeus. But maybe they should have just stayed the fuck out of Metropolis and they would have been far more successful.