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S A N D I E G O C O M I C - C O N | J U LY 2 0 1 8 | D E N O F G E E K . C O M

SAN DIEGO COMIC-CON SPECIAL EDITION JULY 2018 / SIXTH EDITION

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS

BETTER CALL SAUL CASTLE ROCK 24 DEN OF GEEK THE PREDATOR

THE KING OF ATLANTIS GETS HIS MOMENT ALSO SUPERMAN’S 80TH ANNIVERSARY


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EXCLUSIVE FIRST LOOK AT SEASON 3 with JOHN C. McGINLEY, JANET VARNEY, NATE MOONEY, DEBORAH BAKER, JR. and DANA GOULD

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PRINT EDITOR Chris Longo

p BETTER

Assistant Print Editors Nick Harley, Alec Bojalad David Crow, John Saavedra, Kayti Burt

CALL SAUL

Creative Directors Lucy Quintanilla, Joshua Moore

PG. 16

Design and Illustration Hannah Kneisley, Haley Cepelak Jessica Koynock, Samantha Güt

AMC’s follow up to the story of Walter White is prepared to break bad in season 4.

IN THIS ISSUE

Copy Editor Sarah Litt

CEO Jennifer Bartner-Indeck

CASTLE ROCK

PUBLISHER Matthew Sullivan-Pond

Stephen King’s brand of horror comes to Hulu via a sleepy Maine town.

Editor-in-Chief Mike Cecchini

PG. 30

Deputy Editor Chris Longo Associate Editors Alec Bojalad, Kayti Burt, David Crow, Don Kaye, John Saavedra, Tony Sokol Founder & UK Editor Simon Brew

THE PREDATOR

One of pop culture’s most dangerous monsters is coming back to the big screen where he belongs. PG. 40

EVE ONLINE

The sci-fi MMORPG has an enormous universe that fans have made even bigger. PG. 58

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LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

WHERE IT ALL STARTED...

Why Superman still resonates with fans after eight decades. BY MIKE CECCHINI IF THERE IS AN ORIGIN STORY for the pop culture obsession that makes massive events like San Diego Comic-Con possible, look no further than Action Comics #1. In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two poor Jewish teenagers from Cleveland, channeled their own frustrations into the creation of Superman, a “champion of the oppressed… who has sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.” In those earliest stories, perpetrators of domestic violence, crooked landlords, arms manufacturers, and shady politicians all found themselves on the wrong side of a Superman who had no patience for bullies of any kind. Superman has evolved over the decades. He’s gained new powers, tested his limits, and worn different costumes. One thing hasn’t changed, though: Superman’s character has never just been about the ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” While there’s no flesh and blood Man

of Steel to ease the pain of crime, war, or climate change, the Superman of page and screen – and the countless heroes who have followed – serve as constant reminders for us to be our best possible selves. There’s something comforting about an immensely powerful individual who chooses to use that power not in self-interest, not to rule, but to lift up and celebrate humanity. That’s why Superman continues to resonate, decades after he ceased to be the most popular or highest-selling caped adventurer around. Superman’s strength isn’t that he can toss a car around, as he did on the cover of Action Comics #1, it’s that he inspires others to be better. Real power is reflected in values like kindness, empathy, tolerance, and forgiveness,

PHOT0 CREDITS: CHRIS LONGO

ON THE COVER Our gorgeous Aquaman cover was inspired by an illustration from DC Comics artists Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, and Marcelo Maiolo. “The inspiration behind this original work was those classic comic book covers that gave the reader a look at the characters involved in the story and also hints of, and a feel for, their worlds,” Aquaman producer Peter Safran says. “It was commissioned by James Wan in the very early R&D stages of pre-production as he was beginning to define the worlds in which our film would live. It was not originally intended to be a one sheet, but we all loved it so much that we had the idea to transform it into a photorealistic version and use it as a poster.” Sergio Grisanti of Little Giant Studios re-envisioned the art photorealistically to create the movie-accurate renditions of the characters you see here.

Den of Geek Editor-in-Chief Mike Cecchini holds a page from Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman

all of which are deeply ingrained in the stories and characters you’re here to celebrate. Remember this the next time you open a book, buy a ticket, press play, or pick your cosplay. Remember this the next time you feel yourself losing patience or perspective in your interactions with other fans. Remember this the next time you see people being treated unfairly because of their gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. There’s endless debate about whether Superman is really the “first” superhero. As far as the modern definition of the term goes, he most certainly is. A cheaply printed ten-cent comic book sparked a publishing and cultural revolution that soon spilled onto the airwaves, movie theaters, the collective unconscious, and ultimately, gatherings like San Diego Comic-Con, where tens of thousands of people come together to celebrate Superman, characters like him, and—whether they realize it or not—the values he represents. DEN OF GEEK 5


JOIN THE

BOOKS

SUMMER BOOK GUIDE

DEN OF GEEK BOOK CLUB! See info below

Curl up on the beach with a good sci-fi, fantasy, or horror read. BY KAYTI BURT

Ascendant

Catwoman: Soulstealer

OUT NOW The second book in Jack Campbell’s Genesis Fleet series picks up three years after former fleet officer Rob Geary and former Marine Mele Darcy first stood together to defend the newly-settled colony of Glenlyon. In that time, tensions in human-colonized space have only gotten worse. When Geary decides to take Glenlyon’s last destroyer to protect a diplomatic mission at nearby star Kosatka, they are again pulled into a fight to retain their freedom.

OUT AUGUST 7 The latest installment in the DC Icons Series, Catwoman: Soulstealer follows Selina Kyle two years after her escape from the Gotham City slums. In that time, she has transformed herself into the affluent Holly Vanderhees and, with Batman away on a mission, she is ready to take Gotham for herself. Luke Fox (aka Batwing), Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn all feature in this tale of unexpected friendships within a Batman-less Gotham.

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman

The Cabin at the End of the World

In this sequel to Theodora Goss’ The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll and the other daughters of literature’s mad scientists are off on an adventure to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in order to save Professor Van Helsing’s daughter, Lucinda, from the nefarious clutches of the Alchemical Society.

In The Cabin at the End of the World, Paul Tremblay pairs the home invasion subgenre with apocalyptic themes in this story that begins when a family’s vacation on a remote New Hampshire lake is interrupted by a group of dangerous men who are either trying to end the world or save it.

by Jack Campbell (Ace Press)

by Theodora Goss (Saga Press) OUT NOW

by Sarah J. Maas (Random House Books For Young Readers)

by Paul Tremblay (William Morrow) OUT NOW

Mother of Invention (Twelfth Planet Press)

The Calculating Stars & The Fated Sky

OUT IN SEPTEMBER Mother of Invention is an anthology of short stories that challenge conventions of gender and explore issues of artificial intelligence. Writers in this anthology include Jo Anderton, John Chu, Kameron Hurley, Rosaleen Love, Sandra McDonald, Seanan McGuire, E.C. Myers, Justina Robson, Nisi Shawl, Cat Sparks, Bogi Takács, and Kaaron Warren.

by Mary Kowal (Tor Books)

Record of a Spaceborn Few

FURTHER READING

by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager) OUT JULY 24

Introducing us to a new part of the Wayfarers world, Record of a Spaceborn Few follows several humans living as part of the Exodan Fleet, a group of spaceships built when Earth became uninhabitable, on the search for a new longterm home. This book is not plot-driven, but rather an exploration of the society and culture that has built up within this homesteader fleet over many generations—thoughtful science fiction at its best.

OUT NOW The two prequels are set in the world of The Lady Astronaut of Mars, explaining how a cataclysmic meteor strike accelerated the race to space in the 1950s and 1960s. These books follow pilot and mathematician Elma York in her efforts to become the first astronaut on the moon and, later, Mars.

THRAWN: ALLIANCES by Timothy Zahn (Del Rey) OUT NOW

HEROINE’S JOURNEY by Sarah Kuhn (Daw) OUT NOW

THE EMPIRE OF ASHES by Anthony Ryan (Ace) OUT NOW

LUNA: MOON RISING by Ian McDonald (Tor Books) OUT JULY 31

BALL LIGHTNING by Cixin Liu (Tor Books) OUT AUGUST 14

THE DEN OF GEEK BOOK CLUB features book giveaways and exclusive author interviews. Find us on GoodReads.com. 6 DEN OF GEEK


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TELEVISION

RETURN OF THE MACHINES

The legacy of BattleBots extends far beyond smoldering hunks of metal. BY CHRIS LONGO THE MOST IMPOSING FORCE IN BattleBots Arena might be the “BattleBox.” The competition’s stage, which looks like a greenhouse, is made of bulletproof plastic that can consistently conquer flame-throwing robots. To get it into the studio, pieces of the box were placed in nine trucks, maxing out the weight capacity on the largest trucks the BattleBots brass could find. As far as using its heavy-duty stage to create a spectacle, the box is the show’s answer to the shock-absorbing canvas of WWE’s ring or UFC’s streetfight inspired Octagon. Unlike those stages, the box itself is an inextricable part of the competition. To maintain the safety of the people controlling the robots and the studio audience, the box needs to win every match. “Over the years, the robots have gotten much better and stronger,” says BattleBots co-creator and executive producer Trey Roski. “We’ve been upgrading and making [the Box] better and better, and evolving with it.” Tweaking, updating, and upgrading are words you constantly hear when you hang around the set of BattleBots. The Box may always be one step ahead, but the series, now in its eighth season (and second revival), remains a showcase for our continued fascination with the advancement of robotics. In its latest incarnation, BattleBots operates more like a traditional sports league than ever before. When the Discovery Channel and Science Channel picked up the series for a new season (it was last seen on ABC in 2016), the creators tore down and rebuilt the concept. This time there’s an entire season of matchups with 54 robots 10 DEN OF GEEK

participating in up to four matches each. A ranking system then places the top 16 robots into a postseason winnertake-all tournament.

IT’S ALL PACKAGED AND SOLD ON TV with the macho-bravado of the WWE, with sportscaster Chris Rose and former UFC fighter Kenny Florian providing the color commentary. During an April taping, they cue Styx’s “Mr. Roboto,” a deliciously on the nose stadium anthem, to heighten the energy level for the ensuing metal-on-metal action. Fans peacock for the cameras with signage that ranges from the show’s catchphrase, “It’s robot fighting time,” to gems like “This Is How Terminator Starts” and “#BotLivesMatter.” “It’s like Comic-Con in there. People dress up as robots. They come with posters,” says executive producer Tom Gutteridge. Don’t let the rowdy audience and hype men fool you, this is a sport of brains, not brawn. In these robotic wars of attrition, the show’s reliance on the builders to quickly salvage and remedy damaged parts is key to keeping the production on schedule. “We have like two days on and then a day off to allow them to rebuild because these bots genuinely get destroyed,” Gutteridge says. “There’s nothing rigged about the show at all. It’s not like WWE or whatever, you know everything is absolutely for real, so when they break down or they get smashed or trashed, which they do all the time, they need time to rebuild.”

Witnessing a robot battered into a jagged hunk of metal and being carted off into a private builders’ area, which some call the “Botspital,” is a tough sight. Ray Billings, builder of Tombstone, the 2016 champion of BattleBots, says the repairs are crucial to making it through the season and tournament. “You have to design, build, drive, and repair well. But there’s a room full of smart people that are all trying to do that,” Billings says. “So some of it is just making sure you have enough spare parts to keep it running 100 percent match after match. Some of it is just luck and nobody wants to admit that, but when they hit and they’re bouncing all around, it’s chaos. You’ve gotta do all the pieces right but there’s a little bit of luck in there too.”


JON BENNETT; ILLUSTRATIONS: JESSICA KOYNOCK

It’s robot fighting time in a battle between Tombstone and Gigabyte.

BEHIND THE SCENES, THE BUILDERS and producers all agree: BattleBots is a sport. And like any sport, its long term health is dependent on engaging youth participation. “I hope that we start to really inspire people to build their own robots,” Gutteridge says. “I think that we will have really achieved something if we can substantially increase the builder base and that people are inspired to build bots that aren’t just copycats of what we’ve got already.” One team that stands out from the pack is Witch Doctor. The team built a configurable robot that can utilize different armor depending on the opponent, from the front wedge to the weapon assembly. It’s also one of the more stylish robots, with a green and purple paint job and skeleton decals. To match their robot, the team wears purple skeleton vests and decorative top hats.

“We do that to be more personable, especially to attract kids to the sport, because if you have a bunch of big, scary robots that are all bare metal and rusty, and kind of junkyardlooking, that doesn’t look like something accessible to kids,” says Witch Doctor builder Andrea Suarez. Suarez’s journey to BattleBots started when she attended an all-girls high school that had a prominent robotics program. Even though she had no idea she wanted to pursue a career in engineering, it was studying robotics that got her hooked. When she’s not wearing the Witch Doctor costume and causing destruction in the box, she’s a medical device engineer. “It’s a little different because we fix bones instead of robots for a living, but it’s a lot of the same elements and kind of the same high-stakes,” Suarez says. “Fixing the human body is the biggest responsibility you can have.”

Suarez’s team is hoping they can help put kids on the same path to productive careers in the engineering field. They opened a non-profit “maker space” to encourage kids in the Miami area to get involved with robotics. As ambassadors for the sport, they teach kids how to build one to three-pound robots and battle them in a small arena. For children who have trouble learning through traditional methods in school, BattleBots provides a realworld application to concepts that kids might struggle to connect with in the classroom. “When a kid learns pi building a BattleBot, that’s your wheel. That’s the size of your sprocket. That’s how you figure out how fast your robot’s going to go,” Roski says. If BattleBots is going to continue to evolve, it needs to inspire the next generation to see what’s beyond the box. In the new season, the producers placed a greater emphasis on showcasing the builders and the process of going from parts to robot-flipping machine. What gives Roski hope that BattleBots’ legacy will continue is that the competition requires little more than your brain. He recalls a contestant who had no use of his legs or arms but was able to design a robot using his chin.

“IT’S A SPORT OF THE BRAIN. WE’RE ALL EQUAL HERE.” “There is no handicap here,” Roski says. “It’s a sport of the brain. It’s a sport for smart people. We’re all equal here.” Billings often takes his champion bot Tombstone on the road to hold displays for schools and community groups. During an event a few years ago, a young man walked up to Billings and asked if the builder remembered him: “I didn’t, and he said, ‘Well you went to my school and did this display. I’m going to Berkeley in the fall. I’m going to be a mechanical engineer and I just wanted to let you know that I did that because of you.’” DEN OF GEEK 11


TELEVISION

COMING OF AGE IN THE MARVEL UNIVERSE Showrunner Joe Pokaski gives us a look behind Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger. BY KAYTI BURT MARVEL MOVIES MAY HAVE THE big action scenes, but Marvel TV has always had the jump on telling superhero stories that engage with real-world problems. While The Avengers work to stop an all-powerful alien supervillain from completing his jewelry collection, shows like Luke Cage or Agent Carter tackle real-world issues like racism and sexism. Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, which is currently airing on Freeform, continues this tradition. “I think we are at another time in our history where we need to see people that look different than Tony Stark or Reed Richards or Peter Parker on the screen,” showrunner Joe Pokaski says. Based on the Marvel comic book characters of the same name, Cloak & Dagger follows Tyrone Johnson (Aubrey Joseph) and Tandy Bowen (Olivia Holt), two teens growing up on opposite sides of the tracks in New Orleans After the two are saved by a mysterious force when they are only children, they are bound together. Years later, this manifests in their respective powers: the ability to teleport through the Darkforce dimension for Tyrone and the ability to create daggers of light for Tandy. The superpowers are cool, but, for Pokaski, the success of any good superhero story depends on emotion. “You don’t need to blow up a car, and you don’t need to lift the boat up telekinetically to save us from something,” he says of the superhero genre. For Pokaski, the reason we keep going back to these stories is because they are metaphors to help us understand ourselves emotionally. 12 DEN OF GEEK

Cloak and Dagger first appeared in The Spectacular Spider-Man #64 in March, 1982.

“We are also in a place where we are starting to learn that the kids are going to save us all,” he says. “Look at the Parkland students. In a world where they’re told nobody’s going to push the needle on gun control, nobody’s going to stop the NRA, they stand up and they’re heard. I think we need to

watch those stories and we need to be reminded that we can all be heroes. Particularly, the kids who are often told to sit down and be quiet, need to stand up and save the world.” Cloak & Dagger has its emotional throughlines down, and most of them have little to do with being a superhero.


IMAGE CREDIT: MARVEL

Tandy is a poor, quasi-homeless white girl struggling to maintain a relationship with her addict mother, while Tyrone is a black prep school kid struggling to make his parents proud following the death of this older brother. Cloak & Dagger does not shy away from exploring the complexities of these diverse, underrepresented identities. “We wanted to make sure we weren’t just telling white male stories with an actress or telling white males stories with a black man. We wanted to tell stories authentic to who Tandy or Tyrone were,” Pokaski says. Pokaski understands the limits of his own perspective as a white man in crafting this story, and that self-awareness comes across in the finished product. While the show draws parallels between the oppressions Tandy suffers as a young, poor woman and the ones Tyrone is forced to endure as a young black man in America, it also recognizes the vast differences. “In the pilot, we deal a lot with the fear you have of the police and the right to fear that you have and the right to skepticism,” says Pokaski. “It felt right to identify that story with Tyrone in an authentic way. With Tandy, the dangers she gets into towards the end of the first episode are representative of the dangers I don’t understand [as a man] every day when I’m walking on the street. I’m not looking over my shoulder the way a young woman might have to.” Much of Cloak & Dagger’s narrative power comes from the specificity of its New Orleans setting, where the series also films. The comic book is set in New York City, and Pokaski said he “breathed a sigh of relief” when Marvel TV’s Jeph Loeb suggested the series be set somewhere else. “New York has so many superheroes and we have told all these stories,” says Pokaski. “There is something about [New Orleans] that felt right. There was a sense of an underdog... we call it, in the show, the city that refuses to die and that felt very Cloak & Dagger. The more we have learned about the city, the more it felt like the only place to set the story.”

Aubrey Joseph (Tyrone) and Olivia Holt (Tandy) star in Cloak & Dagger.

Much of the show’s visual language, which includes a lot of intimate handheld shots, comes from director Gina Prince-Bythewood (and director of photography Tami Reiker), who was behind the camera for the first episode. Prince-Bythewood is the writer-director behind films like Love & Basketball , The Secret Life of Bees, and Beyond the Lights. When Pokaski decided he wanted to do what he calls “a Sundance coming-of-age story set in the Marvel Universe” PrinceBythewood was at the top of his list.

WE NEED TO SEE PEOPLE THAT LOOK DIFFERENT THAN TONY STARK OR PETER PARKER ON THE SCREEN. “If you’ve seen any of her movies, particularly Beyond the Lights, which I think is brilliant, visually, it is exactly what we wanted to do,” says Pokaski. “We reached out to her knowing it was a long shot because I don’t think she has directed anything she hasn’t written. She responded to the material, she’s a mother of two boys who wanted to see more people like themselves on the screen.”

Another huge part of the Cloak & Dagger puzzle was finding its two young stars. It was a process, Pokaski jokes, that almost killed him and Prince-Bythewood. Eventually, they found Olivia Holt, perhaps best known for Disney XD’s Kickin’ It, and Aubrey Joseph, previously seen on HBO’s The Night Of. “Gina took a scene that I had written that wasn’t in the slide and just had them improv it and I’ve never had an experience like that in casting, where those two were on screen talking to each other, kind of riffing like jazz musicians, and I got chills,” Pokaski says. “I got chills. We all knew.” Early on, Tyrone and Tandy’s relationship is an intentional slowburn. They only come face-to-face briefly in the first few episodes, not getting a proper chat in until Episode 4. Pokaski says that, while the first half of the season is about Tandy and Tyrone “helping each other find their mission,” the second half is about “two very unprepared heroes trying to save the world and making mistakes along the way.” What will that look like? Pokaski teases: “The best intentions gone awry and, hopefully, a complex-enough story that, when [Tandy and Tyrone] get what they want, it’s not at all what they need.” DEN OF GEEK 13


TELEVISION

MARVEL’S NEW SUPER TEAM

ACROSS THE FANDOM UNIVERSE, THERE ARE LITTLE GIRLS dressing up as Squirrel Girl, buying their first Ms. Marvel trade, creating America Chavez fanart, and scooping up all the Spider-Gwen merch they can find. After years of demand from fans looking for more diverse superheroes, Marvel is not only listening, they’re creating something new with those fans in mind. Marvel Rising—a cross-platform, animated “event”—will launch with six digital shorts, and introduce a cast that includes the characters above as well as Quake, Patriot, and Inferno–and featuring stars from Freeform, Disney Channel, and The Descendants–followed by a full-length feature titled Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors. And, if Marvel has their way, this is just the start to a new company-wide franchise. Den of Geek spoke to two senior Marvel executives about the process of bringing Marvel Rising to life, and how it has been informed by input from fans previously left out of the conversation: young women and girls. From tracking trends and running focus groups to previewing the digital shorts with girls in the Midwest, Marvel is incorporating the feedback of girls to an unprecedented degree. It’s not that Marvel is seeking out a new audience; they are investing in one they already have. Marvel’s Senior Vice President of Animation & Family Entertainment, Cort Lane, was quick to point out the big numbers these books score in trade paperbacks and digital downloads, which are more popular with women and girls who might not feel welcome in a comic book store, as well as the incredible popularity of cosplaying as characters like Spider-Gwen, Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, and Quake. “Girls are finally getting to see kick-butt characters of all genders, all backgrounds, and all ethnicities in the sci-fi, and fantasy, and superhero genres,” Lane says. “It’s really exciting for them because they’ve always wanted that. It just wasn’t being delivered to them. It was always an assumption that those were boys’ genres.” As Sana Amanat, Marvel’s VP of Content & Character Development, put it: “Our characters are reflective of that 14 DEN OF GEEK

world outside your window and they should not only have different points of view and experiences, they should also look like the world outside.” This next generation of heroes still has some growing pains, something that Amanat thinks younger viewers will connect with. “It’s such a stark contrast, looking at a character like Captain America or Iron Man or Black Widow who are just always perfectly quaffed and shiny…These are younger heroes who are kind of looking at the Marvel universe and saying, ‘Well why do I get the weird powers?’” Marvel is quick to assure us that everything audiences already love about its universe is still present. “It’s still Marvel action on an epic scale,” Lane says. Comic book fans won’t be disappointed – Spider-Gwen (called Ghost-Spider here) is rendered in the style of co-creator Robbi Rodriguez, and Amanat is one of Kamala Khan’s creators. Audiences can expect more humor, which is evident from the first few shorts. And Marvel is hoping to run the shorts on a variety of platforms, though they’re still tight-lipped about the details. Will the focus on young, diverse heroes alienate the long-established audience of adult men? Lane doesn’t seem too concerned: “We think the audience is actually broader than just the female target that we’ve been talking about. And also, we’re very excited that this story is connected to the Marvel universe at large.” Lane describes that connection as, “synergy on both sides. We are using characters from the feature film universe, and even characters who might appear in feature films down the road.”

IMAGE CREDIT: MARVEL

Young fans will have a new generation of heroes with Marvel Rising. BY DELIA HARRINGTON


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TELEVISION

BREAKING

As Better Call Saul skews closer to the Breaking Bad timeline, the series explores the dire circumstances that cause a person to change their ways. BY NICK HARLEY BETTER CALL SAUL SEASON 3 SPOILER ALERT

16 DEN OF GEEK

P

EOPLE DON’T CHANGE. At least that’s the prevailing wisdom. Society tells us that people either find comfort in their personal status quo, or one’s environment keeps them from evolving. But Bob Odenkirk believes you can change—it just takes an extreme push. “I think one of the themes of Better Call Saul is that real, fundamental change is driven by some pretty hard and powerful forces,” Odenkirk says, measuring each word. “You have to really crunch the psyche of a person to get them to change fundamentally.” Odenkirk is of course no stranger to powerful, transformative forces. After navigating the perpetually shifting tides of Hollywood as a comedian/writer/actor/director since the mid ‘80s, the man once primarily known for the groundbreaking sketch comedy show, Mr. Show with Bob and David, experienced renewed acclaim after booking what he believed to be a small guest part in a (at the time) little-watched drama series on cable network AMC. The guest spot quickly turned into a series regular role, and that little-watched series, Breaking Bad, became a cultural phenomenon. Thanks to a fervent fanbase, and the show’s eventual availability on Netflix, Breaking Bad became one of the most watched and discussed shows of the 21st century. As Saul Goodman, Odenkirk served as comic relief for four seasons on the gargantuan hit, but viewers never got much information about the character. “We saw Saul at work. We didn’t see him at home. So we don’t know where he goes home to or how he behaves when


Bob Odenkirk returns as Jimmy McGill, a.k.a. Saul Goodman, in Season 4 of AMC’s Better Call Saul.

he gets there. It could be a Batcave-type deal where he goes down a pole and when he lands, he’s got the suit on and he’s got the hair, comb over and all that,” Odenkirk says with a laugh. “A little Batcave. A Saulcave.” That version of Saul proved to be only a sliver of the multifaceted man, also known as Jimmy McGill and later as Gene, that we’ve come to know through the spinoff Better Call Saul. Centering on everyone’s favorite criminal lawyer in the time before (and sometimes after) Breaking Bad’s timeline, Saul could have been a cash grab, a network banking on familiarity and fan service to add a surefire hit to its lineup. With Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and his coconspirator Peter Gould onboard to steer the ship, however, it was assumed that the project would at least be interesting, probably even good. Few expected it to be this great. It’s so great, in fact, that after three seasons, some critics publicly claim that it’s superior to the titanic Breaking Bad’s first three seasons, and avoid getting laughed out of the room. Better Call Saul transcends the shortcomings of prequels—foregone conclusions that ruin tension, overexplained backstories, associations with the source material taking priority over breaking new ground—by telling a more grounded story about people and their capacity to change. Breaking Bad was about transformation, too. Gilligan neatly described Walter White’s journey as taking the character “from Mr. Chips to Scarface.” On Better Call Saul, Jimmy’s transformation hasn’t been that drastic or linear, and the show is better for it.

“Not everything is a straight line with this guy,” says Better Call Saul co-creator and showrunner Peter Gould. “On Breaking Bad, the first time I met Vince [Gilligan], one of my questions was ‘What happens next to Walter White?’ and Vince said, ‘I don’t know. We’re gonna find out.’ He may not have known what was going to happen next but he knew who the character was [and] what the arc of the series was. In an odd way, we have that, and we don’t have that. We know Jimmy McGill will become Saul Goodman, but we also know he becomes Gene and we have no idea what will happen to Gene. It’s a combination of two very different approaches.” Gould tellingly adds, “He’s on this journey which goes through Saul Goodman. It doesn’t end with Saul Goodman.” Jimmy never started as Mr. Chips; he’s always been a brash huckster, and his embrace of the Saul Goodman identity isn’t a sign of power or hubris, it’s regression. He’s not embracing his true form or dark desires like Walter White, he’s resigning himself to a less than ideal fate, turning off the earnest, considerate side of his personality. “I think he becomes less of himself. He becomes a thinner, shallower version of this person that he’s been,” Odenkirk says. The humanistic exploration of Jimmy’s deep inner life isn’t Saul’s only draw. The series is blessed with complex characters, most of them new to the Breaking Bad universe. Jimmy’s domineering brother Chuck, played with venom and pathos by Michael McKean, is crippled by a psychosomatic allergy to electricity, as well as jealousy of his brother. There’s also fan favorite Kim Wexler, an ambitious workaholic attorney and somewhat hesitant love interest to Jimmy, played by the fantastic Rhea Seehorn. Kim has become such a compelling figure that Gilligan has suggested that she could potentially anchor her own spinoff someday. “I definitely get comments from people that love to see somebody struggling to get into the middle class and what that looks like,” Seehorn says. Self-reliant and hardworking, Kim resonates with millenials struggling in the workforce and single parents working long hours to make ends meet alike. Just like Jimmy, audiences feel for Kim as they watch her idealism slowly get trampled. “I think she thought she was going to be a crusader for right and wrong, and we keep seeing her moral line for herself move. That line in the sand keeps moving.” That line in the sand moved past Kim’s point of comfort last season, as she participated in a scheme with Jimmy that put Chuck’s mental illness so far into the public eye that Chuck was forced to retire from his law firm. That incident ultimately results in Chuck’s suicide in the final frames of season three. The fallout from his death is set to accelerate Jimmy’s descent into New Mexico’s criminal underworld, and have massive implications for Jimmy and Kim’s relationship moving into season four. “What happened with Chuck last season was probably the most difficult decision that I’ve ever been a part of in the DEN OF GEEK 17


“She can very much use this poker face,” Rhea Seehorn (left) says of her character Kim.

18 DEN OF GEEK

Giancarlo Esposito is returning as drug kingpin Gus Fring.

more in common than we thought,” Gould says. “So much of who Mike is and who he’s become is driven by his guilt for what happened to his son. Now Jimmy has lost his brother in physically and emotionally complicated ways. Both of these guys are reacting to terrible, catastrophic losses. The question of what their responsibility is and what that makes them, it’s an interesting echo.” As intriguing as it may be to get back inside of Gus Fring’s drug operation, many fans are far more interested in exploring the post-Breaking Bad timeline that’s been barely glimpsed in Saul’s first three seasons. Take solace then when Odenkirk says we’ll be revisiting Omaha to spend some more quality time with Gene. “We’re going to see more of Gene this year, and not just visit with him again. The story’s going to expand a little,” Odenkirk says. “What you’ve seen in season two and three is that he’s suffering. He’s kind of suffocating, you could say, inside that persona. And so if that pops, if he gives up the ghost on that, he’s in a lot of trouble. We’re going to see what happens when that thing gets tested in season four.” Things are surely going to get messy this year, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had. “There’s a feeling of confidence, and a feeling of freedom, to move from comedy to violence to manipulation, to just fly around from tone to tone and mode to mode,” Odenkirk says with palpable excitement. “We’ve established an incredible dynamic to the show. And now they’re having fun flying around within it. I can’t wait for you to see it.” Better Call Saul Season 4 premieres Aug. 6 at 9 p.m. et on AMC.

IMAGE CREDIT: AMC

writer’s room,” Gould says. “It’s an earthquake for us.” Seehorn echoes that sentiment. “We’re dealing with the grief of Chuck, and his passing, and so what that does to Jimmy and Kim, and any residual guilt and all that; it’s a total internal implosion, the passing simultaneously with this whole cartel side happening as well.” Though Better Call Saul has successfully carved out its own space in the pantheon of pop culture independent of its parent series, the dangerous world of Breaking Bad will encroach into season four. Bad supervillain Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) already made his presence felt in season three, enticing bereaved fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) to join his operation and battle against the Salamanca crime family, but now Gould and his team are interested in bringing the complications of Mike’s new line of work closer to Jimmy’s world. “The Venn diagram of the crossover between Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad has significantly increased this season,” Seehorn confirms, “and so that world had a danger element that starts to be pervasive in everyone. Kim doesn’t necessarily have to be in the cartel to have this pervasive organism that is greed and violence start to disrupt the whole world. It’s like the whole world is shaking with it.” The drug trafficking element of Saul has always taken a back seat to character development and Jimmy’s yearning for legitimacy in his brother’s eyes. But Chuck is gone, and season four could now see that balance tip in the other direction. “I think that there is action and suspense like nothing else we’ve done on this show,” Gould says. “When it comes to action, there is some action that rivals anything that we did on Breaking Bad.” Still, don’t expect Saul to skimp on the character-driven storytelling in favor of high-octane thrills. If Breaking Bad has taught us anything, it’s that high stakes action can bring out unexpected character revelations. On the surface, characters like Jimmy and Mike don’t appear to have much in common, but their personal journeys are rocketing them into each other’s orbits, bringing out surprising common ground. “This is a season where things get into a high gear for everybody. Obviously Jimmy has a very different kind of story from Mike, but we’re finding out that they have a lot


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PLAN YOUR TRIP TO NYCC PRESENTED BY

Don’t break your Comic-Con streak! New York Comic Con is just around the corner, from October 4th to October 7th, which means it’s time to start planning. Here’s how you can make the most of your stay in NYC and enjoy all the nerdy fun a con has to offer. Book your travel now on Expedia.com

HOTEL TIPS

CAR TIPS

If possible, try to pick a hotel in the Midtown West/Hell’s Kitchen area to be closer to the show… and Matt Murdock. The closer you stay to the big show, the less chance you’ll have to maneuver a crowded subway car while in full cosplay.

Any major con in a city the size of NYC can be pretty overwhelming. Consider renting a car or booking a train to get out of the city either before or after the show. Nerdy day trips outside of NYC include haunted fall celebrations in Sleepy Hollow or the Rocky steps in Philadelphia.

FLIGHT TIPS Consider getting into the city a few days early and/ or leaving a few days late. Not only does this give you time to stalk tickets for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but flights tend to be cheaper when you’re not directly competing with every other Comic-Con nerd trying to get into the city. Look at multiple airports! New York City is served by three major airports: JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia. All have their pros and cons, but that’s what you get for not having your own Millennium Falcon.


TELEVISION

20 DEN OF GEEK


#Lanceis

Bi

What do you do when there are so few characters that represent your identity? Voltron fans find representation where they can even if it isn’t actually there. BY SHAMUS KELLEY | ILLUSTRATIONS BY HANNAH KNEISLEY

Q

ueer people desperately want representation in media. Straight characters make up 93.7 percent of all roles on broadcast television, according to a report from GLAAD, which leaves a paltry 6.4 percent to represent the wide and diverse group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer, intersex, and asexual people in America. We’ll be using the umbrella term “queer” when discussing the community as a whole. There just aren’t enough queer people on TV and those that identify as bisexual feel especially slighted. “When I was a teen grappling with my own sexuality, I was desperate for LGBT content, especially if it involved bi/ pan characters,” says Enjayas, a genderqueer pansexual fan of various TV shows. “I’m over a decade older now and I’m still desperate for queer content because that’s how little of it there is in media.” Bisexual characters are especially hard to come by. Of the small number of queer characters on TV, only about a fourth of them are bisexual, and even that does not guarantee they’ll be positively represented. According to GLAAD, many bisexual characters are portrayed as inherently untrustworthy or lacking a sense of morality. Bisexual characters like Camilla on Fox’s Empire, who kills her own wife and then in the same episode kills herself, or House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, who regularly murders, betrays, and sleeps with anyone to obtain power, are the norm. Often times, those characters don’t even use the word “bisexual.” In addition to Camilla and Frank, Piper on Orange Is the New Black is one of many characters who seemingly fits the label of being bisexual... but the writers refuse to use the word.

So without many bisexual characters to choose from what can fans do? Well, in the case of Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defender, many already see one character as bisexual, even if the show hasn’t said it outright. Premiering in 2016, Voltron: Legendary Defender is a reboot of the popular ‘80s franchise about a group of five space pilots swept up in an alien war. Shiro, Keith, Lance, Pidge, Hunk, and later Allura all pilot giant robot lions that come together to form the mighty robot Voltron. Depending on whom you talk to, Lance is bisexual. Many fans, like Angie Munoz, who livestreams in character as Lance on Instagram, read into the subtext of the character’s early scenes with team member Keith. In a season one episode, Keith reaches out to Lance after surviving an attack on their base, a possible sign of feelings developing between the two. Some fans see their connection as more than just a friend supporting a friend. Enjayas takes that a step further, seeing Lance’s competitiveness with Keith or his respect for their leader Shiro as unrealized crushes. Much of that comes from Enjayas’ own history of growing up and having to question her identity. “A lot of LGBT people go through their youth not quite being able to put their finger on why they feel different or, as in Lance’s case, why they idolize that one guy so much [Shiro] or why that other one really gets under their skin [Keith],” she says. “It’s not hard to read into those interactions as something more if you’ve literally walked that path yourself.” But if Lance isn’t confirmed as bisexual in the series, why do so many fans see him that way? Hazel, a bisexual Voltron fan who regularly cosplays at conventions, explains why fans write fanfiction or come up with theories about Lance being bi. “When there isn’t enough representation in mainstream media, we use what we have to project,” she says. DEN OF GEEK 21


That’s very much the case for Shardy, a bisexual fan who contributes to the fndom through fanfiction, artwork, and zines. Lance is her favorite character because he’s closest to her in personality, so she projects many of her experiences onto him. “If he were bisexual,” Shardy says, “maybe it could be because he’s nervous around his own gender? Maybe he doesn’t want to risk humiliating and outing himself by hitting on a straight guy?” This reflected her own realization that she was bisexual. “That’s exactly how I felt around other women. Nervous, scared, maybe I should just stick to guys since it’s safer, makes me less vulnerable?” With all these theories and projections onto the character, many fans have started to hope that Lance could be confirmed as bisexual in a future episode of the series. Much of that hope stems from the fact that members of the Voltron creative team previously worked on the Nickelodeon series The Legend of Korra, which ended with two of its main female characters (who had previously been in romantic relationships with men) in a relationship together. “There’s an expectation that Voltron will do the same thing,” Shardy points out. The idea of Lance actually being confirmed as bisexual in the series delights fans to no end. “He’ll still be the kindhearted, flirty, leggy boy we’ve come to know him to be,” Enjayas explains. “It wouldn’t define him. It’d just be another facet of his character— and that’s a really important message I wish I’d had more, or at all, as a kid.” “If they do, I will actually cry, “ admits Andy, who runs a Tumblr account dedicated to Voltron. “It’ll be such an amazing moment for the bi community.” The possible complication, however, is that there isn’t any agreement among the fanbase on how Lance being bisexual should be handled. Many fans feel that the only way for Lance to be confirmed as bisexual is if he ends up with one of the male characters, in particular Keith. That notion, of course, discounts any idea of polyamory, which in itself is a whole other can of underrepresented worms. The possibility that Lance could end up with Keith seems to run up against what’s presented on the show itself, specifically that Lance has a huge crush on Princess Allura. Some feel that if Lance were to end the series in a relationship with Allura, it wouldn’t be the best for queer representation. After all, if Lance dates Allura he’s not really bisexual, right?

Questions like that directly reflect prejudices from some corners of the queer community that bisexuality is just a phase—or that if you’re bi and end up with someone of the opposite sex, you’re really just straight. “I’m a bisexual woman but I married and had a child with a man,” Shardy explains. “It doesn’t sit well with a lot of people so I get told a lot that I don’t really count as a queer.” Shardy is sure that if Lance were confirmed bisexual but ended up with a female character, some fans wouldn’t be pleased. Many even see Lance as exclusively gay, only shipping him (“shipping” being two characters fans want to see together) with male characters, and do whatever they can to minimize his feelings toward the many female characters he’s flirted with. “Fandom has a pattern of rejecting female characters so [the fans] can have their ‘gay ship’, which is fetishizing male/male relationships,” explains Hazel, who admits to having done the same thing when she was younger. Some fans will look to any source they can as support for their headcanons (how they view the series). A recent example was an interview Den of Geek conducted with Lance voice actor Jeremy Shada. In reference to the popular Kelis song, “Milkshake,” and a season four scene where Lance helps make a milkshake, we asked if Lance’s milkshakes “bring all the boys and girls to the yard.” His response? “Oh, 100 percent. Lance’s milkshakes bring everybody to the yard, I can say that much,” Shada said. Social media blew up. Anywhere that Voltron fandom had a presence was deluged with posts quoting the article. Many fans were rejoicing. Finally, this was the confirmation they’d been waiting for. Bi Lance was now canon. Reactions like this frustrate some fans, including Shardy: “(Fans) tend to read too deep into every little joke and offhand comment made by cast and crew. To take [Shada’s answer] as confirmation someone is bisexual… that’s not how bisexuality works.” To Shardy, a true confirmation of Lance being bisexual should come from the character directly. It should be about his character growth and his story. “One issue with bisexuals is that it feels like our identities have to be determined by other people,” Shardy says. “Our own voices are never enough, and it’s exhausting. Lance being confirmed bisexual is because of a joke by his voice actor. The colors of the scenery behind him. Multiple genders being attracted to him instead of the other way

IT WOULDN’T DEFINE HIM, IT’D JUST BE ANOTHER FACET OF HIS CHARACTER— AND THAT’S A REALLY IMPORTANT MESSAGE I WISH I’D HAD MORE, OR AT ALL, AS A KID.

22 DEN OF GEEK


around. It’s not his own character that confirms his identity. That bothers me. That infuriates me.” According to Voltron fanfiction writer Taylor, this type of discourse goes on “almost daily.” Some of that discourse is fueled by fans who insist the production staff who work behind the scenes on the series are queerbaiting, teasing a queer character or relationship without actually confirming it. “They’ve been implying it slowly this whole time,” insists Riley, who runs a Voltron blog on Tumblr. “If [the creators] weren’t going to have LGBT-plus representation, they should come out and say it instead of getting everybody’s hopes up.” Isaac, a gay Voltron fan who regularly discusses the series online, also agrees that the people behind Voltron have been “dropping hints,” pointing out that members of the cast and crew have “either implied that Lance is bi or even dodged the question.” It’s true that some of the cast and crew have joked or mentioned shipping in various public appearances or on social media. Never in a way that assures it will happen but simply acknowledging fans passion for the series. That doesn’t stop a small group of fans from outright demanding DreamWorks and the producers behind Voltron make Lance bisexual. In one extreme case, a fan threatened to leak spoilers unless Klance (the pairing of Keith and Lance) was made canon. It should be noted that neither the team at DreamWorks nor the Voltron producers have ever openly promised fans that there would be queer representation in Voltron. DreamWorks did not respond to a request for comment for this article. As recorded by the Let’s Voltron Podcast at New York Comic Con 2017, executive producer Joaquim Dos Santos stated, in response to a question about LGBT representation in the series, “We’re fighting to create as open and as broad a spectrum of characters as we can.” Executive Producer Lauren Montgomery followed that up with, “We can’t give you any definite answers.” Several of the fans we spoke to for this article feel as though the fandom is basing its expectations on things that aren’t actually in the series itself. In fact, the fandom could be queerbaiting itself when the show hasn’t offered any hard evidence Lance is bisexual. Hazel puts it more bluntly, “Lance being bi is solely a creation in fans’ minds but, for many, it’s being taken as fucking word of God.” She totally understands why fans are so passionate about it though. “If you love something so much, you want to project as much as you can into it even with shows that may not represent (your identity) at all. Which I get it, but that’s also leading to expectations that may or will fail.” It may not even be up to the creators of Voltron whether they get to include queer representation in the series. Bryan Konietzko, co-creator of The Legend of Korra, admitted that, while Nickelodeon was supportive of ending the series on a queer romance, there were limits to how far they could go. Voltron could be under similar kinds of limits.

Voltron is airing all over the world and there are strict regulations on content featuring queer characters in many countries. In the UK, a Steven Universe episode censored out two female characters passionately dancing to a romantic song. A scene from The Loud House featuring two gay fathers was cut in South Africa. Fans like Enjayas understand these kind of constraints. “There’s a lot of bureaucracy that can hamper getting things like that on the screen. Even more so when it’s a show that has to sell toys to kids.” So what are fans left with? Well, the series is only a little over halfway over. There are still another 33 episodes to go, which is plenty of time for any of the characters to come out. So far none of the characters have directly come out as straight. That’s enough for some fans, according to Andrew, who runs a pop culture blog. “I truly think most #LanceIsBiers will be satisfied within that gray area of plausibility,” Andrew says. “Lance’s bisexuality is like a Schrödinger’s cat of both existing and not existing, if you will.” Fans who enjoy seeing Lance as bi don’t have to stop. Having your own headcanon can be very important, as Hazel points out, “[It’s] helpful for many who connect with the characters we love so much.” Also be sure to remember that there is media out there with confirmed queer characters. Series such as Crazy ExGirlfriend, Shadowhunters, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Legends of Tomorrow all have bisexual characters who are hilarious, strong, and relatable. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Shadowhunters are particularly noteworthy since they prominently feature two of the only 18 bisexual male characters on TV. There are also hundreds of webcomics made by independent creators that have all kinds of representation. It’s not enough, but bisexual characters are there. No matter what, fans will continue to love Voltron and see the characters however they want. As Enjayas says, “I’m just going to enjoy it for what it is and if things don’t go the way I’m hoping? I’ll always have my headcanons!” Andy puts it very simply: “Even if they don’t confirm it? Lance will always be bi in my heart.” DEN OF GEEK 23


TELEVISION

ANOTHER MUTATION

Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is bringing new weapons, new villains, and new voices to the long-running franchise. BY MIKE CECCHINI

24 DEN OF GEEK

MICHELANGELO Brandon Mychal Smith “When I auditioned, my mother sent me a photo of me as a sixyear-old dressed as Michelangelo, which was surreal in retrospect. [TMNT] was my favorite property growing up, so this was a dream come true… It felt like that young superhero that I was at six years old was actually being reincarnated later.”

APRIL Kat Graham “When I was younger, I had never imagined that April would be portrayed as anything other than this Caucasian redhead. It’s actually similar to what happened in Vampire Diaries, because in the book, my character was also Caucasian and a redhead. So gingers, watch out. I don’t think that the audience is necessarily different, but I definitely think we’re expanding when it comes to more girls watching it, expanding into more inclusion, expanding into a younger audience. But I definitely feel like adults can watch this and get a kick out of it.”

DONATELLO Josh Brener “I took a lot of heat as a young man for being a Donatello guy, because nobody wants to be the guy with the stick in purple, but… who wouldn’t want to be the nerdy, smart one? I have so much fun working with Brandon because he has such incredible, vibrant energy and spirit, and Donatello, a lot of times, just gets to very dryly [offer] one-word responses, which is a great back-and-forth that we get to explore.”

IMAGE CREDIT: NICKELODEON

NICKELODEON IS LOOKING TO create a new generation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans. This year will see the launch of Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the latest evolution (or mutation) of a franchise that has seen many incarnations over the last 30 years. The new series has a kinetic animation style, new weapons and tech for the team, and an original villain. We spoke with Brandon Mychal Smith (Michelangelo), Kat Graham (April O’Neil), and Josh Brener (Donatello) about their fresh interpretations of these iconic characters and what to expect from the new series.


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TELEVISION

THE MUTANT CAUSE

Showrunner Matt Nix on the future of Fox’s X-Men drama The Gifted. BY JIM DANDENEAU DURING THE GIFTED’S FIRST SEASON, Matt Nix and company hit on many of the things X-Men fans love about the franchise: good guys fighting bigotry and oppression; soapy, complicated interpersonal relationships; and badass power combos. And, like a Blink/Thunderbird teleported Fastball Special, the show’s ability to combine traditions of the comic stories with cultural relevance made it one of the most faithful X-Men adaptations yet. Nix told us about the core of his story and what to expect from season two. Q&A

matt nix: There are some big ideas that we’re exploring. One is the idea that there are a lot of different ways to fight for freedom, and they’re not all necessarily compatible. We didn’t want to go into next season doing a good guys/bad guys kind of thing, because that’s not what it’s about. We really wanted to explore different philosophies and perspectives, with the idea that everybody believes in what they’re doing and they’re going about it in different ways.

Are the Morlocks going to play an amplifying role or are they a separate angle on the mutant story? The Morlocks are going to come in in a big way, and Blink’s relationship to the Morlocks is going to be a big question. The Morlocks have created this community for themselves and the idea is, if you’re going to live with us, you’re going to live by our rules. We’re not running around saving people above the ground, unless it’s a pretty specific situation. There’s a distinction between the Mutant Underground and the Morlocks that involves the obligation 26 DEN OF GEEK

a group has to the wider world. Is a separate peace legit? That’s a big question that we’re going to explore, and the idea that there is a difference between someone who is philosophically committed to your fight but can bail out at any point. Is that person somehow less committed by virtue of not having scales or bright green eyes and pointed ears? That’s a divide that we’re going to explore.

The mutant metaphor is as timely now as it has been in the last 25 years. Did you feel added pressure when you were creating the show because the real world was creating a feedback loop on the X-Men metaphor? Yes. In the first season, when Thunderbird says we don’t stop helping desperate people because one of them might be dangerous, it wasn’t a coincidence. At the same time, I do think that one of the things that we’ve tried to do is make some efforts to humanize Roderick Campbell and talk about where he was coming from. We don’t want to turn it into sort of a straightforward political polemic. Gay rights has been a huge metaphor in X-Men, but we like the idea that maybe in our universe some gay rights

people are totally down with the mutant cause, and others might say, “Why are we identifying with this group that could be dangerous when we’re just trying to live our lives?” We’re not just saying that mutant rights fall onto a completely traditional left/right divide.

What are you most excited about for season two? I love exploring why the so-called bad guys might be right—digging in to some of the new characters and these different philosophies, and really challenging the Mutant Underground who, in their own mind certainly, have always been the good guys. In Grant Morrison’s X-Men run, one of the things that I was really struck by was how Magneto was struggling with what he was doing, what was right about it, what his goals were, what he really wanted, the compassion of the bad guys, and the ways that bad guys can be motivated by love. That’s reflected this year in how the Morlocks approach things. We’re going to see more of how the Purifiers approach things, and the idea of how essentially good-hearted people who feel they are helping, how can that lead to disaster? The Gifted returns to Fox this fall.

IMAGE CREDIT: FOX

The Andy/Lauren relationship was the linchpin of season one. Is there a similar hinge in season two’s story?


TELEVISION

ENTERING THE PHANTOM ZONE Nightflyers brings another George R.R. Martin world to TV. BY ALEC BOJALAD SYFY’S UPCOMING NIGHTFLYERS, A George R.R. Martin adaptation about a haunted spaceship, is a lot of things. It’s science fiction; it’s horror; and above all else, it’s big. “One of the things that struck me about Nightflyers is that even as a 100page novella it creates a huge world,” showrunner Jeff Buhler says. “That’s what was so thrilling and exciting about the story.” Buhler, who previously adapted Clive Barker’s The Midnight Meat Train, started as a writer on the series and was soon elevated to showrunner. It’s fair to say that he’s never shepherded a television project as big as Nightflyers because few people have. Nightflyers follows a group of scientists and one telepath aboard the titular ship the Nightflyer. The vessel is piloted by the mysterious Roy Eris (David Ajala), and is on a course for the celestial object, “The Volcryn,” in the hope of making first contact with an alien species that may possess enough energy resources to save all human life.

Aboard the ship are an astronomer, Karl D’Branin (Eoin Macken), the telepath, Thale (Sam Strike), Thale’s caretaker Dr. Agatha Matheson (Gretchen Mol), and several other scientists. While en route, the group never sees Captain Eris aside from via hologram. The Nightflyer’s crew is not fond of their science expedition companions. The mood is weird. And then people start dying. Lots of people. “There’s a lot going on, right?” Buhler concedes. Still, the central premise of Nightflyers is simple enough. All of the science fiction trappings are elaborate framing mechanisms for a straightforward horror story about being trapped in an unwanted place, particularly once people start dying. But those science fiction tropes still matter greatly to the show. It was important for Buhler to include details like “L-1” telepaths, human beings who have mutated into the most powerful and feared versions of telepaths. Buhler also enjoys the fact that cyber techician Lommie has a surgically implanted neuroport in her left arm to directly

Astro-physicist Karl D’Branin (Eoin Macken) leads the expedition to find the volcryn.

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interact with the ship’s computer program. Those details are part of a larger world. And few writers can build a world as large as George R.R. Martin. Martin is the writer behind the “A Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy series, which became the inspiration for HBO’s genre-defining Game of Thrones. The world of Westeros (and Essos) in both literature and television is a fantasy universe with cities, towns, geographical features, shipping routes, a complicated political landscape, extensive family histories, and even recipes. The world is so large that it seems fundamentally un-adaptable and unfilmable. And it was… until Game of Thrones. Now Buhler, along with his cast and crew, are trying to make the impossible happen twice by bringing every detail of Nightflyers’ 100 pages to screen. (Martin is not participating in the creative adaptation of Nightflyers due to his contractual commitments to HBO, however he remains an executive producer on the series.) Says Buhler: “That’s what George R.R. Martin is so good at. The worldbuilding. You want to go back and visit it


IMAGE CREDIT: SYFY

Enigmatic Captain Roy Erris (David Ajala) stands aboard the Nightflyer.

and see how your characters are doing. I didn’t want to lose that richness.” That richness includes the character of Melantha Jhirl. Mel is one of Martin’s most memorable sci-fi creations. She is a genetically engineered human being who is bigger, faster, and smarter than any traditional human. Originally Mel was the victim of whitewashing with the character appearing as white on both a 1980 book cover and in a nearly forgotten 1987 film adaptation. Upon seeing the casting of the statuesque Jamaican and British actress Jodie Turner-Smith, Martin wrote on his charmingly outof-of-date LiveJournal: “Maybe it took 30 years, but at long last I can say: now, that’s Melantha Jhirl.” It’s clear that every detail from Martin’s science fiction work is important to the show, but this isn’t a purely science fiction endeavor. Nightflyers is a horror story at heart. “I think it’s been a while since we’ve had a really good horror TV show— something that gets under your skin,” Buhler says. “[Martin] refers to this story as Psycho in space. There’s a lot of The

Shining in there. It makes it a lot of fun for fans of horror and science fiction.” The problem is horror and science fiction world-building don’t always go hand in hand. Nightflyers must capture the entirety of Martin’s sci-fi vision, for which 10 episodes feels too short, but also instill a sense of claustrophobia and terror in its viewers, for which 10 episodes feels too long.

“FEW WRITERS CAN BUILD A WORLD AS LARGE AS GEORGE R.R. MARTIN.” Buhler is confronting the paradox by focusing on “pieces” of the show, one-by-one. “When we’re breaking a new episode we try to find what the horror theme would be,” he says. “I see them all as interconnected pieces. Each piece has an opportunity to do something different from the last one. There are traditional horror scares but there are scares that fit only into this world.” It helps that the show has a secret weapon in combing aspirational

science fiction with its haunted spaceship premise: the spaceship itself. To a certain extent many outer space epics are only as good as their ship, a fact of which the crew behind Nightflyers appears to be aware. The in-universe nature of the ship lends itself to some bravura science fiction set design. The Nightflyer is a lumbering beast. It started out as a simple vessel but as the necessities of space travel changed, so too did the Nightflyer. Layers of the ship were added over time, leading to a haphazard sculpture that looks like a space station plopped on top of a rocket with some beads in-between. The almost-improvisational nature of the Nightflyer led to plenty of creativity from the production team. There are acres of the Nightflyer set in the Limerick, Ireland studio all recreating different parts of this unique spacecraft. “We have these sweeping, curving sets that are really fun to stage sequences in,” Buhler says. We have three stages here in Limerick. We have been adding sets on top of sets, behind sets, and under sets.” If this is a story of a haunted house in space, the Nightflyer makes for one hell of a haunted house. The ship’s many domes allow for different environments to exist on the ship, including one dome that is entirely forest land, something that Buhler teases could come in handy for a horror show. Nightflyers is a big, expensive gamble for Syfy and Netflix, the latter of whom is picking up the international distribution. Neither network has provided official figures but on his blog, Martin described the budget as “substantial.” This is a lot of imagination to fit into one show, something that Buhler acknowledges. “I think we bit off a huge world in a huge ambitious project trying to bring horror and science fiction together in a way that satisfied,” he says, before adding, “there are so many challenges but I do get to go home and remind myself that I’m working on a spaceship.” DEN OF GEEK 29


TELEVISION

WHAT FELT REALLY EXCITING TO US IS ADAPTING STEPHEN KING AS A GENRE.

Henry Deaver (Andre Holland) returns home to Castle Rock after receiving a mysterious summons. 30 DEN OF GEEK


CASTLE ROCK W E LC O M E TO

Stephen King’s twisted town of horrors has come to life as a TV series. BY DON KAYE

IMAGE CREDIT: HULU

T

HE NAME CASTLE ROCK CAN REFER TO MANY things: Towns in the states of Colorado and Washington. The moniker of a production company founded in 1987 by filmmaker Rob Reiner. Even the name of a mountain fort in the classic novel Lord of the Flies. To fans of Stephen King, Castle Rock is the fictional Maine town that has been the setting of a number of the writer’s novels and short stories, including The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Dark Half, Needful Things, “The Body,” “The Sun Dog,” and many others, not to mention countless references in his other tales. It’s a small town, much like other villages in King’s home state of Maine, but it’s a place where awful things seem to happen on a regular basis, not all of them easily explained by the laws of man or nature. Castle Rock is now also the setting of a new TV series by the same name, which debuts July 25 on Hulu. Created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason (Manhattan) and produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, the show will tell an original story with new characters over its initial 10-episode season, but will also “brush up against” characters and events drawn from King canon. Shaw recalls that he and Thomason initially conceived of a Castle Rock-type show that was not set in Castle Rock, since they did not at the time have the rights. “At some point recently,

I dug up this old email where I’m essentially laying out the parameters of the pitch for Castle Rock, always assuming that never in our wildest imaginations would we get the actual keys to the city and be able to set this show in the actual world of Stephen King,” he says. “Amazingly, here we are, and it’s sort of a dream as a writer to be able to play in that sandbox.” The show stars Andre Holland (American Horror Story: Roanoke) as Henry Deaver, a death row attorney who grew up in Castle Rock. Henry left the town years ago, after a mysterious, unexplained incident when he was a child in which he went missing for days while his father turned up dead. In the show’s pilot, Henry returns to the town after receiving a strange, cryptic summons that has something to do with a feral, unidentified inmate (Bill Skarsgård) who is discovered in a cage deep within the bowels of Shawshank Penitentiary. Of course, Shawshank is well-known not just to diehard King fans but to the general public, thanks to The Shawshank Redemption, the beloved 1994 film based on King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (the prison has cameoed in other King works as well). But Shaw is quick to stress that, despite the instant recognition of that setting, he and Thomason have developed a wholly new narrative for their show. “I can imagine a Stephen King show that could feel a lot like ‘The Avengers of Stephen King’—it’s Carrie, Danny DEN OF GEEK 31


Bill Skarsgard (It) stars as an enigmatic prisoner discovered in the bowels of Shawshank Penitentiary.

Torrance, and Cujo and they’re riding around in Christine fighting demons,” Shaw says. “But what felt really exciting to us is adapting Stephen King as a genre, and the entirety of the Stephen King library rather than any one work. We were both big fans of [the TV show] Fargo and thought the approach that Fargo takes to the library of the Coen brothers is so fascinating and a brilliant way of re-interpreting that material.” Thomason takes the Fargo analogy a step further, suggesting that, if Castle Rock runs for more than one season, it will start fresh each year with a new story and characters. “The basic idea is that it is an anthology in the sense that we’re going to tell a new story that gives you a different lens into Castle Rock and into Stephen King each season,” he elaborates. “Each story will stand alone, but that we will be circling back to characters whose stories intersect with the new stories.” Shaw says that Castle Rock will feature a plethora of Easter eggs for King’s constant readers. “There are people who will recognize Shawshank or who may perk up their ears when they hear a dog barking on our show,” he says. “And there are people who may have read Needful Things so they’ll know who Alan Pangborn is (Castle Rock’s former sheriff, played in the series by Scott Glenn). Then there are people who will find a whole bunch of really arcane, super-insidery Easter eggs and cross-references and setups and payoffs that we’ve spring-loaded into the storytelling that I hope will reward the PhD-level Stephen King fans as well.” There are also references to the King universe built into the casting. Sissy Spacek, who plays Henry’s adoptive mother in the show, is of course the grande dame of King movies for her unforgettable portrayal of the title role in Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic Carrie, the very first King-based film. Meanwhile, actress Melanie Lynskey (Two and a Half Men), who plays real estate agent Molly Strand on the series, starred in the 2002 King-scripted original miniseries Rose Red. A self-described King “super fan,” Lynskey says about Castle Rock, “To be honest with you, when I got the pilot, just the title was so intriguing I got a little bit of chills through my body. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is this?’ But because I am such a fan of his work, adaptations are always terrifying. It’s always scary because you’re like, ‘Oh God, I hope that people get it right.’ So there is kind of an amazing sense of freedom to have 32 DEN OF GEEK

Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey) finds herself surrounded by some, shall we say, unusually dressed children.

it be inspired by him and sit in this town that I’m so familiar with, but not have to be beholden to getting a story right or making fans feel like we did something the right way.” And then there is Bill Skarsgård, the Swedish-born actor who terrified millions around the world last fall as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the malevolent monster from the wildly successful film version of King’s epic novel It. Thomason acknowledges the marquee value of having both Skarsgård and Spacek appear on Castle Rock: “We felt grateful, not only because they occupy these special places in the King canon now, but also because they’re both just such phenomenal actors.” Skarsgård himself admits that, while he was familiar with the town of Castle Rock’s standing in the King canon, he was at first hesitant about taking the job after completing It. “I wasn’t sure what the show was, really,” he says on the phone from Sweden. “Going into it, I was a little bit skeptical. But as soon as I read the script, and I met with Sam and Dusty, I realized this is a completely original story set in the universe that Stephen King created. My character in this story is something completely separate from It or Pennywise or a lot of Stephen King’s books.”

Castle Rock’s Greatest Frights Stephen King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine is full of monsters and ghouls. Here are the dangers you’ll find there:

1

CUJO Cujo

A rabid bat bites a friendly neighborhood dog and sends him on a rampage that Donna Trenton and her son, Tad, will never forget.


Jane Levy (Don’t Breathe) doesn’t turn up in the first episode but describes her character, Jackie, as the “self-appointed historian of Castle Rock.” “She loves Castle Rock,” Levy explains. “She’s a bit younger than the regulars you get to know in Castle Rock and I think that she’s death-obsessed. She has great morbid curiosity and she grew up learning all the stuff about this town that she’s from, but nothing exciting has happened in her life so far, until the return of Henry and Bill Skarsgård’s character. It’s the beginning of the best thing that’s ever happened to her, basically.” It’s true that King, although perennially popular on bookshelves, seems to be going through a renaissance on both the big and small screens lately, giving Castle Rock the mandate of standing out from the sizable pack of King adaptations either already out in the world or on their way. “I think that it has really good writing,” says Levy when asked what could give Castle Rock an edge in the vast content landscape. “It’s maybe a little bit smarter than some of the other horror out there because it has really rich characters and storylines.” Shaw says a small town where everyone knows each other, with the place infested with secrets—some pretty nasty ones, in this case—is a template that is never short of storytelling possibilities. “I’ve always loved geography and place in fiction and in pop culture,” he says. “There is no literature of small towns or small suburbia that I don’t love, from Updike to Blue Velvet to Desperate Housewives. There’s something about the contradictions of a sense of order and community at battle with all of these subterranean human impulses and drives, and transgressive behavior and darkness and crime. Something about that head-on collision is really, really exciting to me.” For Thomason, the key to adapting King’s work comes down to the characters. “For us, Stephen King is as much a deep character writer as a horror writer,” he offers. “This isn’t just a horror show. This is a show that has the breadth of all of Stephen King’s work, from ‘The Body’ all the way to It… always with the undercurrent of character that drives so much of his work. When you come for the horror, you stay for the character. And that’s what we hope to do in Castle Rock.”

WHEN YOU COME FOR THE HORROR, YOU STAY FOR THE CHARACTER.

Skarsgård admits that, due to the secrecy surrounding the show even during production, he didn’t get a full grasp of his eerie character until the show was well into shooting. “He’s discovered in the first episode and nobody knows sort of how he ended up in that cage, how long he’s been there, and part of the big mystery throughout the season is finding out how he got there, who he is, and what he’s done,” he says. “I didn’t know really where the show was going up until we had shot three or four episodes already.” Although Lynskey appears briefly in the pilot, she also says that it will take a few episodes before viewers really get to know her character. “Episode three is a big Molly episode and you learn a lot about her history, which is pretty intense,” says Lynskey. “She’s a real estate agent trying to work in a town where nobody wants to move, which is such a strange, self-defeating job to put herself in. She has a sensitivity that I don’t know if I’m allowed to go into, a condition which is the number one thing that made me want to play her. It was really fascinating to me. She also has a kind of terrible coping mechanism to try and deal with that condition.”

2

RICHARD STARK The Dark Half

What begins as a simple pseudonym for novelist Thad Beaumont turns into a nightmare, as the long lost twin he absorbed in utero comes home to roost.

3

LELAND GAUNT Needful Things

Mysterious salesman Leland Gaunt has exactly what you need — as long as you’re willing to give him your soul.

4

GREG STILLSON The Dead Zone

Greg Stillson once kicked a dog to death and threatened a kid with a broken bottle, and if he’s not stopped, he’ll one day be our next president.

5

THE TRUCK

“Uncle Otto’s Truck”

Once used to crush a man to death, this truck now has a new victim in mind: the murderer himself.

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s i t n a l At

G N I S I R A FTE R AL L THE S E YE A R S , AQUAMA N GETS HIS MOM ENT.

AQUAMAN IS A STUDY IN CONTRADICTIONS. The character has been around for nearly as long as his Justice League teammates, appearing in some of the most successful superhero cartoons and TV shows ever made. And yet, despite decades of stories that depict him as a warrior-king able to go toe-to-toe with some of the heaviest hitters in the DC Universe, the prevailing pop culture image of the character involves him jauntily riding a seahorse through the depths. Warner Brothers’ upcoming Aquaman movie aims to change all that. The studio’s optimistic formula for success? An all-star cast led by a charismatic action star, a director who helmed the most acclaimed horror movie franchise of the modern era, and a devotion to worldbuilding not usually associated with superhero movies. “A huge part of why I love this character is the fact that he’s an underdog,” says director James Wan. “He’s a punchline, a joke in the superhero world, and the irony is that I love that about him.” There’s a reason Aquaman has endured for over 75 years. Comics luminaries

BY MIKE CECCHINI 34 DEN OF GEEK


Jason Momoa as Aquaman. DEN OF GEEK 35


Director James Wan on set with Amber Heard as Mera, Jason Momoa as Aquaman, and Willem Dafoe as Vulko.

I really wanted to make a superhero movie that didn’t quite feel like a superhero movie.”

IT HAS BEEN FIVE years since 2013’s Man of Steel marked the official launch of what has come to be known (unofficially) as the DC Extended Universe. With Man of Steel came the promise of a Justice League movie, a shared superhero film universe, and the first indications that Aquaman was becoming a serious priority for the studio. When he was cast as Aquaman, Jason Momoa was fresh off a star-making performance on Game of Thrones as Khal Drogo, leader of a barbarian-like tribe. His casting turned heads, as the most familiar Aquaman imagery depicts a clean-shaven, blond, blue-eyed monarch of the sea. But longtime comic book fans, and those familiar with the Justice League Unlimited animated series, also know Aquaman as a bare-chested, long-haired, harpoon-handed badass. It’s a vision of the character that may have also made an impression on Man of Steel and Justice League director Zack Snyder. Momoa recalls his first discussions about a role in a DC movie. “[Zack Snyder] had been a fan of Game of Thrones and he obviously had the idea of me playing Aquaman, unbeknownst to me—I thought I was gonna play a villain to fight Superman and Batman—and he dropped the A-bomb on me,” Momoa says. “He explained that he wanted to cover me in tattoos, that the character was kind of like The Outlaw Josey Wales, he came from these two different worlds, he lived in the tides as a lone wolf who didn’t take shit from anyone, and wasn’t really a part of anything until he joins the Justice League. Then he harnesses his powers.” Soon after Momoa’s casting was announced, director James Wan joined the project. Wan had a relationship with Warner Bros., having brought The Conjuring and its attendant sequels and spinoffs into the world, working with the studio

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to create the most successful horror shared cinematic universe in decades. “I let it be known to [Warner Bros. CEO] Kevin Tsujihara that I’m a big fan of the comic book world and that they had a few properties that I would love to play with,” Wan says of how he came to be involved in a superhero movie. It was while Wan was making Furious 7 for Universal Pictures that WB decided to make its move. “They reached out to me with a few DC properties,” Wan says. He decided on Aquaman. “I said, ‘If this is something that you guys are interested in, then I would be as well,’ and I told them, ‘This is how I see it. I love the idea of creating a visually unique world that

IMAGE CREDIT PREVIOUS PAGE AND THIS PAGE: JASIN BOLAND/ ™ & © DC COMICS

like Jim Aparo, Kurt Busiek, Peter David, Geoff Johns, and Ivan Reis have told epic stories filled with palace intrigue and interpersonal drama, in settings that defy what you would ordinarily associate with traditional superhero stories. Aquaman’s tale isn’t as well known as those of Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, but it’s no less compelling. Born of a human lighthouse keeper and the queen of a legendary underwater society, Arthur Curry is the rightful heir to the throne of Atlantis. His Atlantean half grants him tremendous strength and speed, both in the water and on land, and he can command all the creatures of the sea to do his bidding. As a superhero, he protects the world as a member of the Justice League. As King of Atlantis, he rules over a kingdom that encompasses two-thirds of the planet’s surface. And to think, all Batman has to do is keep the murder rate in Gotham City down and show up at a WayneTech board meeting every now and then.


we’ve never seen in a superhero movie before, and that’s where my interests would be.’” Aquaman producer Peter Safran, who worked with Wan on both Conjuring films and the Annabelle spinoffs, agrees. “James was a bit of an underdog himself who succeeded massively,” he says, “[He] saw an opportunity to take Aquaman, who was the butt of every joke in the superhero community, and turn him into the ultimate badass.” MOMOA WAS ABLE TO USE his own history to tap into Arthur’s

conflicted nature. “I was raised in Iowa but I was born in Hawaii and spent my summers there,” he recalls. “Those are two different worlds. Not to say I was a king in either… It was just me and my mom a lot of the time, and I had a couple of buddies. But that’s something I could draw upon as an actor to use, kind of being an outcast.” Momoa has a personal reason he wants to do Arthur justice on the big screen, too. “It’s really cool to be a brown-skinned superhero of mixed race,” he says. “Just growing up that way, it’s kind of cool for kids who are like that; they can look up to that. It’s really special to be a Pacific Islander and represent that.” Just as Aquaman is forever between two worlds, Momoa is similarly caught between the expectations of an audience that knows him primarily from Game of Thrones and the Arthur who will be brought to life on-screen come December. “Nobody has ever let [Jason] play his charming, comedic side,” Safran says. “He’s always been the badass and, obviously, he plays that perfectly. But he’s also the most charming, funny guy who lights up a room when he comes into it. Instead of being a drinking-and-fighting badass, he’s a guy who has all those qualities but he’s also wry and self-aware, and he gets to play all of that in the movie. I think that that’s what makes it such a complete character.” “I really wanted to bring out this roguish charm that he has in real life to the screen, and that’s not usually what directors ask of Jason,” Wan says of Momoa’s performance. “I honestly believe that when this film comes out people will not think of him just as a tough guy, but actually see him as a potential leading man or romantic lead in other genres. He’s got so many interesting sides to him.” To do this, Arthur has to evolve from the character we were introduced to in Justice League. There, Yahya AbdulArthur was a reluctant hero, one who Mateen II as Black performs relatively small-scale good Manta, complete deeds, like making sure an isolated with iconic helmet. fishing village has enough to eat in the frozen winter or saving fishermen in rough water – especially when there’s a bottle of whiskey waiting for him at the end of it. Despite Arthur’s initial reticence, Momoa brought a hint of exuberance to the role once the action started, giving the impression that Aquaman revelled in the chance to cut loose with his powers in a big fight against an alien army. “We played him as the gruff hardass in Justice League,” Momoa says. “[In that movie], we don’t really know how he got to be that way, so I feel like now that we’ve done the solo movie, you really get to see where he came from, how his parents were treated and were separated, how he was raised, how he wasn’t accepted in Atlantis, how he wasn’t accepted on the land. I think you get a good vibe of what he was like, why he was the way he was in Justice League, and then you get to see him on his path to becoming the king and to believing in himself.” UNDERWATER ACTION MOVIES are nothing new in Hollywood, rare though they may be, but this is a profoundly different underwater epic than what we’ve seen in the past. Aquaman brings the legendary sunken kingdom of Atlantis and its remarkable inhabitants to life.

DEN OF GEEK 37


“There’s just no practicality to shooting humans underwater,” Safran says. “Atlanteans have to move with the same ease that we move with on land, and humans just can’t do that underwater so it’s almost always a situation where we shot dry.” Designing an underwater world and its citizens in a dry environment is a unique challenge, and Wan and his team had to do some aquatic homework to get it right. “I did a lot of underwater research,” Wan says. “We would shoot movement underwater and film it and study it. We would shoot costumes underwater and see how they would flow and move.” Wan points out that most underwater movies—such as James Cameron’s The Abyss—deal with a human entering the alien environment of the ocean depths, rather than a character who is perfectly at home there. It’s natural to expect things to slow down when dealing with underwater photography, but when you’re dealing with Atlanteans, who have unique abilities, that isn’t the case. “[Atlanteans] are incredible underwater, so nothing is slow motion,” Wan says. “If anything they move much faster when they’re surrounded by water as they’re designed for that environment. A lot of thinking went into how I wanted to design the movement, the look, the feel, and the aesthetic of that world, and how to get into the mindset of the characters [who live there].” The abilities of the Atlanteans, coupled with the challenges of simulating superhuman life under the ocean, somehow kept Jason Momoa mostly dry. “I was constantly in a harness, flying around in front of a blue screen,” Momoa says. “We trained hard not to have to hold our breath!” But special effects can only go so far, and the Aquaman team had to go to the source to make Atlantis and its people as believable as possible. “I really had to break that ‘surface human’ type of thinking and understand that it’s a very different [visual] language that I have to design with my stunt team and working with my actors,” Wan says. “We looked at a lot of documentaries, we visited aquariums, and we studied aquatic life. We watched a lot of dolphins. If you look at the comics, when Atlanteans move underwater, they move just as fast and powerfully as Superman in some ways. We went into this knowing that this world is slightly hyper-real and heightened.” “I don’t think that a movie like this could have been made even five years ago in this manner,” Safran says. “But thanks to the tremendous advances in technology and a combi-

A huge part of why I love this character is the fact that he’s an underdog.”

38 DEN OF GEEK

nation of unbelievable stunt coordination and special effects people, we were able to put it together so it looks 100 percent real.” As if the challenges of creating an underwater environment aren’t enough, there’s also all of the world building to consider. Atlantis, central to the Aquaman mythology, consists of seven kingdoms, each with their own unique look, feel, and history. “The mythology and the story in this film really lent itself to world creation and that’s one of the things that I really wanted to do,” Wan says.


IMAGE CREDIT: COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES

“I wanted it to be a journey movie where we get to see the different flavors and worlds and cultures in the world of Aquaman.” Fans will be pleased to know that one of those “different flavors” includes the Trench, a nightmarish undersea race, known to comic book readers as creatures who look like humanoid piranha. “That was a fun one for me, because it really lent itself to my horror movie background and it allowed me to bring a slice of what I’m known for into this world,” Wan says of the Trench. “I really wanted to capture that the ocean is majestic and magical on the one hand but on the other hand it’s a terrifying experience.” THE MOVIE ITSELF is caught between two worlds, too. The DC superhero movies of the last five years have been met with mixed results, with only 2017’s Wonder Woman finding the elusive blockbuster alchemy of near-universal critical acclaim

and box office success. Despite whatever baggage fans might expect from a shared cinematic universe, Aquaman is a standalone adventure, determined to tell its own tale. “[Aquaman is] a different character in a very different movie than what might have been conceived of five years ago,” Safran says. “Part of that is due to the shift in the philosophy of where DC would like to be in terms of their movies, [which is to] maybe move away from the darkness and grimness of prior movies and into a world of more fun, colorful, and bright films. I feel like Aquaman is at least a continuation of the first step that Wonder Woman made.” Whatever “shift in philosophy” that has gone on at the studio, the director seems unaffected. “I ultimately got to make the movie that I wanted to make,” says Wan. “I feel like I have had as much freedom to make this movie as any of my low-budget horror films. I had the freedom but I actually have the resources now to back up my vision.” But Aquaman is still part of that shared universe. “[Aquaman] occurs after Justice League in terms of chronology, but its very much a standalone movie,” Safran says. “The studio gave us tremendous freedom to tell the story as James saw fit in terms of the look and feel.” Safran and Wan both cite Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone as influences on Aquaman, two films that are known for a rollicking, high-adventure tone, with just the right touch of humor sprinkled throughout. “It has all the great characters and action that you would expect in a superhero movie, but it has so much more,” Safran promises. “It has great humor, great family dynamics, and it’s about a great Shakespearean dramatic story.” And make no mistake, there will be no shortage of action in the film. “Jon Valera was one of our fight coordinators and he had a whole fight choreography team that trained us in different styles of weapons,” Momoa says. “There’s a lot of wire work and there’s a lot of action. This is the first time I’ve ever had two stunt Jason Momoa as doubles, because one was constantly Aquaman with blocking out scenes while the other Patrick Wilson as Orm/Ocean Master. one was on set with me.” Wan feels confident that he has done something that changes the usual expectations about a superhero movie. “I just wanted this to be an action-adventure film,” Wan says. “The sensibility of the look and where it takes place really lends itself to a classic high seas action-adventure storyline that embraces the romantic nature of the nautical themes and aesthetics. I really wanted to make a superhero movie that didn’t quite feel like a superhero movie.” With any luck, the movie will show the general public what Aquaman fans have known for quite some time: The King of Atlantis deserves a blockbuster throne. “Hopefully we’re just a little different,” Momoa says. “The cool thing is we get a journey underwater, which we haven’t really done in superhero movies, but the technology is there and we’re ready for it.”

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FILM

E I V O M R E T S MON COMES A

DIRECTOR SHANE BLACK AND HIS CAST TALK REINVENTING THE MYTH OF THE PREDATOR.

BY DAVID CROW

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E LOCKS INTO MY GAZE, staring up with a blank fierceness that is both intimidating and strangely wistful—as if he is as aware as I of all the years that’ve gone by. It’s been a long time since the Predator’s good side was captured on screen in 2010’s Predators. Some fans might argue it’s been longer still since he’s been captured in a truly good film. And yet, as I hold those dense, rubberized dreadlocks in my hand, studying every crevasse and hanging mandible from a reliably ugly face, I find myself inexplicably moved, as if playing Hamlet to an intergalactic Yorick. Shane Black, co-writer and director on this sequel/semireboot, summarizes it well during our visit to The Predator set: Here is an iconic movie screen alien of mythic quality. He’s due a film that embraces that legacy and builds on it in a kickass way. Judging by the gargantuan set he’s assembled, the filmmaker is certainly intent on doing that. At Mammoth Studios in Vancouver, it’s the 34th afternoon of a 66-day shoot. While outside it’s raining, what’s falling within the soundstage is a different kind of precipitation. Actors sweat, rifles empty, and imaginary Predator dogs go down in a hail of gunfire. The scene that’s being filmed is one in which an 11-year-old boy, played by Room’s Jacob Tremblay, is cornered on his school’s baseball field by pit bulls, and then a far deadlier hellhound. The sequence is set on a warm Georgian night, but thanks to the miracle of multiple blue screens, only grass and bleacher seats surround the young actor. Still, his rescuers are real: Boyd Holbrook (of Logan fame) appears as his deadbeat dad Quinn while Olivia Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse) plays the scientist packing an assault rifle. They come flying out of a speeding pickup, running and gunning in an effort to save the child. Eventually this Predator’s version of action hero allstars charge into frame too; it’s a motley crew of PTSD-rattled soldiers played by genre vet Thomas Jane, comedian and theater stalwart Keegan-Michael Key, and newcomer Augusto Aguilera. Together they’re twitchy, determined, and perhaps a step behind what audiences expect. From its unconventional cast of heroes to the implications of a parkour artist like Brian Prince playing a more athletic Predator, it’s clear this movie has a different sensibility than the original 1987 film. And as Black appeared in that cult machismo classic in a small acting role, this difference is all the more striking. He’s returning to his franchise from a sideways angle. “If you bought a comic book that just said ‘genre shit’ and started reading it, it could very well be this movie,” Black says with a laugh. While sitting down during his lunch break, the filmmaker seems fairly at ease despite the weight of franchise expectations. In fact, he hopes to bring the same tonal dexterity that made his previous movie, DEN OF GEEK 41


The Nice Guys, such a hard-to-categorize gem. That kind of reinvention is also on everyone else’s lips, as cast and crew compare this to what Christopher Nolan did for Batman; The Predator is similarly described as a war flick, a Western, and an alien invasion epic. But above all else the film appears to be a homecoming.

HUNTING FOR THE ULTIMATE GENRE MOVIE

Nostalgia permeates the set and the way everyone speaks about the project, especially Black, who in addition to his history with the legendary beastie, is also revisiting his relationship with Fred Dekker, director of one of Black’s definitively ‘80s screenplays, The Monster Squad, and the co-writer of The Predator. Thirty years after the Reagan era and the many action tropes associated with it ended, The Predator is providing a reunion. “They say no matter how old you get that in your own mind, you’re never really capable of picturing more than 25-years-old as your current image,” Black reflects. “It’s been 30 years in the business for Fred and myself, and you look in the mirror, and part of you just says, ‘Geez, it’d just be nice to be a kid again.’ … I say, ‘I’d love to do a Predator with Fred.’” And so, for its director and screenwriters, a “Nolan”styled revival of The Predator appears to be throwing everything they loved from their youth into a blender. Says Black, “Spies, romance, mystery. Just stuff as much genre into one pack as we can. It’s sort of a stew that represents to us the genre movie we would have loved to see when we were coming up, when we were all still young and still felt 25.” From just a cursory tour of some of the sets, it’s obvious that “genre shit” is indeed stuffed to the brim here. Nevertheless, there is one rule Black says all Predator movies must maintain on some level—there must always be a hunt, and the scene we were on set for was evidently the moment where that bugle rang out. The level of gunfire in the soundstage is at times deafening, so much so that when Olivia Munn first came by to say hi with her rescue pup Frankie, she had to briefly depart when the lap dog suddenly attempted to bolt in abject terror from the sound of gunshots 50 yards away (she later clarified that Frankie “was running toward the gunfire because he’s a badass”). But it is all due to a different kind of pooch that humans need to be rescued from. During the scene, Jacob Tremblay’s Rory is wearing an obvious piece of Predator armor on his wrist, which marks him as chewable prey. And while the Predator dogs pursuing him will be completely digital in the final film, he and Holbrook are getting plenty of practice runs with stunt proxies (foam dog mannequins). “We try to get as much interaction done on set,” VFX supervisor Jonathan Rothbart explains. Emphasizing that the aim is to make the film grounded in the practical, he also admits that when you have alien mongrels, that isn’t always possible. Nevertheless, these Predator dogs will be nothing like the ones glimpsed in 2010’s Predators, but rather a new creation that reaches back to the 1987 designs of Stan Winston, Tom Woodruff Jr., and Alec Gillis. After all,

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Woodruff and Gillis’ company, Amalgamated Dynamics, are also returning to the franchise for the 2018 effort. “When we do the design in any film, but [especially] in this film, we try to baseline it off, in this case, the Predator,” Rothbart says. That desire to tie everything back to the first film seems to be a north star for the production, even as the movie aims for something a little more human than that ‘80s excess.

A DIFFERENT PRAY

The basic setup is that Boyd Holbrook’s Quinn is an absentee father to his 11-year-old special needs son, Rory. Quinn spends too much time enjoying his soldier of fortune lifestyle, working as a mercenary for hire. And yet, he sees something on a mission in Mexico that he apparently shouldn’t have; something alien. “That’s when Boyd gets thrown on the bus with us,” Thomas Jane says of how his legally committed character meets Quinn. “Because he’s seen an alien and they want to cover that shit up.” More precisely, The Predator appears to be set in a world where the U.S. government is aware that the Predator exists, and that due to countermeasures, its seasonal hunts are no longer the occasional bit of sport. “It takes it to the level of what happens when the Predator strikes, and these incursions are just not a once in a while phenomenon known to a few, but have come to the attention of an establishment,” Black says. “What happens


IF YOU BOUGHT A COMIC BOOK THAT JUST SAID ‘GENRE SHIT’ AND STARTED READING IT, IT COULD VERY WELL BE THIS MOVIE.

20TH CENTURY FOX

—SHANE BLACK

when the Predators get a little more ambitious? Maybe it’s just not a weekend anymore?” All of which appears to come to a head in the scene where Holbrook runs across the outfield toward Tremblay. It’s the moment where the focus narrows from the interstellar to the painfully intimate: A father getting back to a special needs son he never truly connected with. It also allows his character to bring a 2018 variation to the original’s menon-a-mission trope. Indeed, everyone helpfully describes Quinn’s accomplices as “the Loonies,” a seemingly patented term for VA hospital rejects with whom a crazed alien conspiracy theorist would fit right in. “I get into the VA, and I’m sort of teamed up with these guys–in my [character’s] opinion–unfortunately,” Holbrook says. “They’re a bunch of bozos, a bunch of maybe schizophrenic, maybe PTSD. Real issues.” Yet they’re as close to action heroes as the movie is going to get. It’s also a knowing contrast to the original film—which Black apparently had running on loop for two weeks in the production office before shooting started. “I think what Shane wanted to do for the entire story is to give it a complete freshness,” Holbrook says. “To give it a heartbeat, [getting] away from the machismo [and] guns.” Hence the second and complementary narrative led by Olivia Munn’s Dr. Casey Brackett. Swinging by between takes, she is aware that her character is the lone woman in

an action movie filled with male stars. But while discussing that issue, noticeably with a prop firearm attached to her leg, she is adamant that her character, an evolutionary biologist, offers an authentic scientific counterpoint to potentially archetypal male proceedings. The backstory she and Black developed is that of a woman who has waited her whole life to make contact with another world. “Seeing it is a very emotional experience,” she says of how her character interprets her first encounter with photographs of the Predator. “This is like seeing God to her. This is what she’s studying: How creatures change and evolve, and how it’s not scary. It is a very beautiful thing to see.” Offering this wider view of what a Predator alien could mean on Earth, Munn elaborates, “I’m an animal lover, and so is Shane... If you ever see a stray dog that’s growling at you, the thought is to run away. [But] for me, someone who loves animals and loves dogs, I’m like, ‘Where is its owner? What’s going on?’ You’re trying to understand it more.” That same level of empathy or awareness might apply to the film’s unique version of a military unit, too. Rather than playing stock roles, each of the actors on set discusses the freedom to build genuinely broken characters. For KeeganMichael Key, who once so perfectly satirized the usual clichés in Key & Peele, being able to deconstruct types with real sensitivity was all the difference. Amiably showing off a military memento he helped costume designer Tish Monaghan create, Key breaks down the creative flexibility he enjoyed, including the Vietnamera U.S. Marine jacket on his back. Unto itself, it simply resembles Travis Bickle’s jacket from Taxi Driver, but the fact that it is draped over a man who is supposed to be a U.S. Army dishonorable discharge from the Gulf War speaks volumes. This is how Key contrasts The Predator’s idea of men on a mission with that time Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers tried to outflex each other while out in the shit. “I’m really thankful to Shane for giving these guys that humanity,” Key muses. “There’s something deliciously two-dimensional about the characters in the original film, and I think there’s going to be something deliciously threedimensional about these characters.”

OLD IS NEW

And again, it comes back to that mask. The visage of the Predator is seared into popular culture, yet the monster has probably only starred in one great movie—a movie that 2018’s sequel is intrinsically linked to, as well as constantly trying to reimagine. Technically it is the fourth installment in the franchise (sixth if you count the AvP movies), but it’s one Shane Black is convinced has more gas in the tank. Searching for the words for what drives that fascination, Black eventually finds, “I just thought that it was a great, iconic alien. And what separated it from other alien invasion movies is that it just wasn’t a space blob; it was an actual creature with a mythos behind it, and a sense of honor, in some respect. A mission. And a sense of humor, oddly.” Funnily enough, the filmmaker has those qualities too.

DEN OF GEEK 43


FILM

RESTORING A CLASSIC

Can Bumblebee take the Transformers franchise back to its roots? BY DON KAYE

Why go back and look into the origins of Bumblebee? We felt Transformers: The Last Knight was the last Bay movie, and if you tried to make a next movie in imitation of Michael Bay, you were going to fail. We consciously said, “Okay, we want to take a new direction.” [Producer Stephen Davis] always liked the idea of a girl and a robot. I think that was his original instigation, if you would, and it got in our brains. We felt like if we were going to make another of the Transformers movies that it would really have been two characters we could choose from, Optimus Prime or Bumblebee.

People toss around the term “Amblin-esque” a lot with movies, but was that what you were going for? No question. What’s interesting is that Charlie and Bumblebee, both of them are missing something in their life and both of them get something in this movie, so that it’s a dual coming-of-age, and they do it together. When you say Amblin, that’s accurate. When friends in the industry come in to just look and give me feedback, the two movies they mention are Iron Giant and E.T. Now, we have a little more action than either of those two, but the feel of it is that. 44 DEN OF GEEK

Could somebody who hasn’t seen the Transformers movies or know the mythology walk into this and enjoy it on its own terms? Yes. One of the reasons why we chose the 1987 setting was because it is an origin story. None of the events of the Bay movies have happened. We were definitely paying close attention as we were developing the script, and when Travis read it, his immediate reaction was, “Wow, you guys really—if you’re a non-fan, you won’t have any problem understanding this movie.”

Where do things stand now with the overall franchise? There’s been some implication that [Paramount] lost faith in Transformers. Well, if they did, I don’t see it, because they just spent a lot of money on Bumblebee, and they had every opportunity to pull out of it if they’d lost faith in the overall Transformers world. The last movie made $650 million. It’s not exactly dead. I think what we’re doing is we’re having a script written soon. We put it aside a little bit because we were all focused on Bumblebee, and that takes a lot of time and creative attention.

What do you think audiences can expect, and what would you like them to take away? What audiences will come away with is a really strong emotional relationship between Bumblebee and Charlie. It has dimension and has a lot of fun, but that is going to be the defining experience of that movie… There’s plenty of action for people. There’s plenty of humor. John Cena is really fun. But that’s the thing that will stay with them for a long time. Bumblebee is in theaters Dec. 21, 2018.

ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: HANNAH KNEISLEY

THIS DECEMBER SEES THE RELEASE OF BUMBLEBEE, the first spinoff film from the popular Transformers series. Set in 1987, the movie focuses on the origins of the titular Autobot, one of the most beloved in the canon, and his budding friendship with a young girl named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). Described as a family-friendly coming-of-age movie, Bumblebee clearly has a much different tone from the previous five Transformers movies. This one is helmed by Travis Knight, head of the Laika animation studio and director of Kubo and the Two Strings, making it the first of the live-action Transformers not directed by Michael Bay. Back as producer is Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who’s shepherded all of the franchise’s installments and who spoke with us about what makes Bumblebee different from those other movies. Q&A


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F ANDANGOF ANSHOP . COM/ PROPSHOP # F A ND A NGOF A NS HOP # P R OP S HOP


FILM

A CLASS OF EQUALS Pedro Pascal talks shaking up franchises with his new role in The Equalizer 2. BY DAVID CROW WHEN PEDRO PASCAL MET DENZEL Washington, it was his first day on the set of The Equalizer 2. As often seems the case for Pascal, he was coming into an established universe. The film is a sequel to the previous Equalizer, which, in 2014, was borne from the longtime collaboration of Washington and director Antoine Fuqua. A thoroughly adult and R-rated picture, it marked the first franchise in either the lead actor or director’s career. On the day when Pascal, a newcomer to the series, joined the presumable movie mayhem, it was 46 DEN OF GEEK

an actor who showed up at the door to Pascal’s trailer, as opposed to an action star. “I thought he was one of the production assistants coming to take me to makeup, and it was actually Denzel Washington,” Pascal says. Noting they spent 20 minutes breaking down the scene they were about to shoot later that day, Pascal marvels, “The rest of the next hour we talked about stage because I come from the theater as well.” Washington has famously said he considers himself a stage actor, and

“ONCE WE STARTED ROLLING, IT FELT LIKE I WAS WITH A CLASSMATE. A SUPERIOR CLASSMATE.” that theater will be his first and last love; it’s something Pascal vouches for after seeing Washington in August Wilson’s Fences on Broadway. But it was their ability to connect as actors—as opposed to action figures in an elaborate franchise of stunts and


IMAGE CREDIT: SONY

explosions—that made working with Washington and Fuqua unique. “That was what was so surreal,” Pascal continues. “Here I am working with one of the greats, and I was more nervous than I’ve ever been and, consequently, more prepared than I had ever been. And yet, once we started rolling, it felt like I was with a classmate.” He adds with a chortle, “A superior classmate.” Despite any self-effacement, Pascal has more than proven himself in recent years. Appearing as something like a franchise disruptor, writers and directors have learned a little secret: All stories seem to benefit from throwing Pascal into the proceedings and seeing what magnetic chaos ensues. Much a citizen of the world, Pascal cut his teeth as an actor in New York University’s coveted Tisch School of the Arts and the many regional theaters of New England before he helped create the last genuinely amazing new character on Game of Thrones, Oberyn Martell. Appearing only in the fourth season of the HBO fantasy flagship, Pascal made such a striking impression over eight episodes that the show mourned his loss by trying (and failing) to recreate his dead prince’s energy in the next season with the misguided introduction of his character’s daughters. For Pascal, it led to landing—through extensive audition processes—the chance to shake up one movie franchise after another. Prior to The Equalizer 2, Pascal played a whiskey-swigging American spy in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and he’ll appear in an undisclosed role in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984. “I’m all about the sequels, huh?” Pascal says with a sheepish chuckle. “Everything in threes, I guess.” But it makes sense because, like on Game of Thrones, Pascal’s energy can recontextualize what viewers might have otherwise taken for granted.

In the case of The Equalizer 2, it is by providing a new vantage on Denzel Washington’s enigmatic take on Robert McCall (an ex-CIA spook/ full-time fixer who was created by a 1980s TV show of the same name).

“I’M A FRIEND, MENTEE, AND COLLEAGUE ON THE BATTLEFIELD, AND HE’S SORT OF LIKE MY BEST FRIEND WHO HAS DISAPPEARED ON ME.” Returning to Boston—a homecoming Pascal welcomes after his years of regional theater there—Pascal plays McCall’s ex-partner and protégé from the agency… one who has been led to believe McCall is dead until the mentor shows up on his doorstep with information that their handler (Melissa Leo) has been murdered. “What’s so cool about Equalizer 2 is that, in the first one, you don’t know anything about this guy, and, in the second, [some of] his past is revealed to us; I am a part of that past,” Pascal says. “I’m a friend, mentee, and colleague on the battlefield, and he’s sort of like my best friend who has disappeared on me.” While reconnecting with Washington’s character is a source of joy for Pascal in the film, it also is a reminder of his character’s grief. It is, in fact, something tangible for the actors to play with, which is why Pascal jumped at the chance to work with Fuqua in the first place. In this vein, Pascal confides he was all too eager to go through the rigorous audition process for this part, as he has been a fan of Fuqua’s gritty aesthetic ever since he made an early exit from a screening of Legally Blonde in 2001 and wandered into Fuqua and Washington’s first collaboration, Training Day. “Nothing

against Legally Blonde or anything like that, but I guess I wasn’t in the mood, and I walked out of Legally Blonde and walked into Training Day when it was out in the theaters, and it was one of those completely unexpected moviegoing experiences that I’ll never forget.” A fan of Fuqua ever since, it is that director’s humanist touch that makes his action movies stand out from the pack. “There’s plenty of humor and violence,” Pascal says of the first Equalizer. “But there’s really good performances from really talented actors that are cast in this movie, so I think that that’s something that sets Antoine’s movies apart from other commercial fare… [Look at] how good Chloë Grace Moretz is, and David Harbour and Marton Csokas. It’s some of their best performances in these supporting roles.” It’s also something Pascal is likely intending to carry into the sequel, as well as his other projects. After all, during our interview, the actor was headed to the Hawaiian set of J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier. Following that, he is shooting Wonder Woman 1984, which finally reunites him with Patty Jenkins after she directed Pascal in a pilot that was not taken to series (one of the most “haunting” collaborative losses of his career). And perhaps while in London for that superhero sequel, he might even get to say goodbye to Game of Thrones one more time. “I plan on trying to make it over to Belfast, because we’re going to be shooting Wonder Woman in London, and I want to see if I get there in time before they wrap so that I can just go and insert myself into the closing of one of the greatest television chapters in history.” Of course, he already has, and considering the caliber of “acting classes” he’s come up with over the years, there is still more history yet to be written. DEN OF GEEK 47


FILM

Rebecca Ferguson and Tom Cruise face off.

Tom Cruise never lets go of his mission.

Henry Cavill and Angela Bassett will always have Paris.

GETTING THE TEAM BACK TOGETHER

How Mission: Impossible–Fallout put its A-team back in the field. BY DAVID CROW

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CHRISTOPHER MCQUARRIE DID not have gray hair until he met Tom Cruise. He doesn’t consider this a coincidence. In the last decade, the pair have collaborated on six movies (three with McQuarrie as director), and each time they’ve found a new reason to push their ambitions—and push new stunts that might include Cruise dangling from the side of a plane or, in the case of this month’s Mission: Impossible–Fallout, jumping from one at 14,000 feet. Over 100 times. Noting that the strongest steel goes through the hottest fire, McQuarrie says, “Every movie is a crucible that reveals people’s creative priorities and,


IMAGE CREDIT: PARAMOUNT

very often, their true nature. From the moment we met, Tom and I recognized someone with the same basic creative priorities. When you find people you’re that in sync with, you hold onto them and make another movie.” Hence why McQuarrie is the first director to sign up for a second go in Cruise’s signature franchise, Mission: Impossible. Ever since John Woo stepped in for Brian De Palma on a radically reimagined M:I2, the series has been a Rorschach test, allowing each filmmaker to bring their own energy and vision to the franchise. Yet McQuarrie, fresh off the best-reviewed entry in the saga, 2015’s Rogue Nation, ended that unspoken rule by accepting a follow-up Mission. “I doubt I’m the first director asked to come back,” McQuarrie demurs. “I’m certain I’m the first one crazy enough to say yes.” Be that as it may, the veteran filmmaker, whose writing credits include The Usual Suspects and Edge of Tomorrow, doesn’t consider Fallout to be a direct sequel to the previous entry, even if it is the first M:I film to retain most of the same team and supporting cast. “Rogue Nation was a very challenging movie to make,” the writer-director says. “When it worked, I had a strong urge to walk away from the table with my winnings… Tom urged me to come back, and I agreed with the understanding that I would not attempt to play on the success of Rogue Nation the way Rogue had played on Ghost Protocol.” The result is a film which McQuarrie and his crew repeatedly emphasize is more humanistic and intimate, derived from the perspective of its characters. There are, of course, always a few rules that must be preserved: the mission dossier selfdestructs; there is a mask, at some point; and Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is no daredevil (the actor, in fact, needs to look more scared doing the stunts than he would be off-screen). But everything else is fair game. That includes deconstructing why Ethan Hunt is considered “a gambler.”

McQuarrie suggests the films are really about everyone else speculating what makes him take risks, and Fallout is intended to answer that question by contextualizing his deepest regrets and fears—and by revisiting aspects of his character once thought buried. “Tom very much wanted to resolve the story of Julia, which people still ask him about,” McQuarrie says, referring to the return of Michelle Monaghan as Ethan’s ex-wife. “We thought that had been wrapped up nicely in Ghost Protocol, but apparently it wasn’t definitive enough.” Which also meant reintroducing her like a new character, and finally making Monaghan as integral to the on-screen crew as Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust and franchise stalwarts Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames. Still, the trick is keeping the family together while throwing them into harrowing, character-driven action—even when that action doesn’t draw solely from the script.

“I DOUBT I’M THE FIRST DIRECTOR ASKED TO COME BACK. I’M CERTAIN I’M THE FIRST ONE CRAZY ENOUGH TO SAY YES.” Indeed, Fallout is the first film in McQuarrie’s career where the demands of the locations and stunts dictated what the actual stunts would be. For the helmer, this is borne out of the realization that most of the time when scenes didn’t turn out the way he’d written them, it was because of a “shitty location.” The epiphany has in turn allowed his crew extraordinary freedom to fine-tune the picture’s aesthetic. Stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood, for one, felt liberated by how he could simply walk down the streets of Paris and let the cobblestones inform the type of car Ethan Hunt would drive while in pursuit. (It’s a classic BMW M5.)

“It drove the color of the car, the green of the car against the gray cobblestone,” Eastwood marvels. “Everything came alive before we thought about where we are going to slide and crash.” Nonetheless, sliding and crashing is the name of the game. Eastwood is also a longtime member of Cruise’s off-screen IMF team, even occasionally sharing adventurous weekends away from the set with the star. “If we have a laugh, we don’t go away and sit on the beach,” Eastwood says with his own bemusement. “We race cars and bikes, we skydive, we fly choppers.” All of which eventually disseminates into the series, including Fallout’s action triumvirate electing to have Cruise HALO jump out of a military plane in the UAE. (There’s too much red tape in the UK.) It’s the first time an actor has done the high-altitude dive himself, and Cruise did it for more than 100 takes. After practice runs. The old way of doing things is something all three men value, even if the tradeoff features downsides. “Ninety percent of the shots you’ll see of Tom running in Fallout, he’s doing so on a broken [foot],” McQuarrie recalls. It was the result of one of the simpler stunts (by their standards), which had Cruise leaping between buildings. Eastwood notes Cruise rehearsed it fine, but with the camera rolling, and as Ethan Hunt, a focus on the character’s excitement led to Cruise overextending his foot. Afterward, he continued doing his own stunts, with five hours of physical therapy every day. Eastwood even supervised Cruise doing physio on a bike before each take, so that the blood in his foot would warm. “Every time [we] paused camera, he literally hobbled back to the number one position and would have physio. It was only pure adrenaline and the desire to finish the film that made him run in the shot.” That, plus a desire to give moviegoers a throwback to real action spectacle. In this sense, it’s already mission accomplished. DEN OF GEEK 49


COMICS

READING GUIDE

CAN’T GET ENOUGH INFINITY WAR? These comics should keep you going until the next Avengers movie. BY JIM DANDY

The Infinity Gauntlet sees Thanos trying to win the love of Death. Yes, you read that right, the actual personification of Death, as a cosmic entity, is a purple-robed woman who holds the key to the Mad Titan’s heart. Furious that he was being friendzoned by an abstract concept, Thanos obtains the Infinity Gauntlet and decides to kill half the living beings in the universe in an attempt to win Death’s love. Adam Warlock and Doctor Strange gather a team of heroes together and the rest is comic book history. Jim Starlin’s writing is more thoughtful and introspective than your typical big summer blockbuster, and the art by George Pérez and Ron Lim is outstanding. This is a must-read if you’re a fan of anything Marvel at all. It has a sequel that’s actually called Infinity War, but that’s not as essential a read and doesn’t have anything to do with the movie.

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THE THANOS IMPERATIVE

Writing duo Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s time with the Marvel cosmic characters was foundational for both the future of Marvel Comics and for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Their Guardians of the Galaxy, which grew out of Annihilation: Conquest, is the basis for the MCU version of the Guardians. It also happens that this run of comics was incredible. This era sees Drax remade from a monosyllabic killing machine to... a slimmed down, knife-wielding killing machine, for starters. In the course of it all, Thanos is killed and resurrected by the Universal Church of Truth. He was revealed as an avatar of Death, the universal concept and his forever alone internet girlfriend, when the tear in the fabric of reality was discovered to be the point of entry for a parallel universe where death essentially no longer existed. Thanos quite predictably went crazy and killed everything in a universe where nothing could be killed.

INFINITY

Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers was enormous and wonderful, and as it turns out, extremely important to Avengers: Infinity War. The main component of this Avengers era that is crucial to Infinity War is the Black Order, Thanos’ memorable team of henchmen. The art from Mike Deodato and Jerome Opeña is gorgeous throughout, and it’s a strong visual influence on a lot of what we got to see on the big screen in Infinity War.

THANOS RISING

Want to know how Thanos became an omega-level MRA? Jason Aaron and Simone Bianchi’s Thanos Rising is the place to go. This story shows Thanos’ origins as a Deviant (a mutant Eternal) on the moon Titan. It is there that Thanos’ mother had a nervous breakdown immediately upon his birth; he went through life a passive, almost passionately nonviolent person until he discovered his true calling: killing as many people as possible to get Death to notice him. This comic is dark and weird and beautiful to look at. Jason Aaron’s writing paired with Bianchi’s sweeping painted art make this a beautiful, must-read comic. ILLUSTRATIONS: SAMANTHA GÜT

THE INFINITY GAUNTLET


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COMICS

2018 EISNER AWARD PICKS We pick our favorites out of a field of worthy candidates. BY JIM DANDY

BEST CONTINUING SERIES Black Hammer, by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, and David Rubín (Dark Horse) Giant Days, by John Allison, Max Sarin, and Liz Fleming (BOOM! Box) Hawkeye, by Kelly Thompson, Leonardo Romero, and Mike Walsh (Marvel) Monstress, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (Image) The Wicked + The Divine, by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie (Image) Takeda and Liu have built a beautiful fantasy world that is a wonderful gateway into comics for readers of all levels. Monstress is great for new readers, and a rich, rewarding read for long-time comics fans.

BEST NEW SERIES Black Bolt, by Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward (Marvel) Grass Kings, by Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins (BOOM! Studios) Maestros, by Steve Skroce (Image) Redlands, by Jordie Bellaire and Vanesa Del Rey (Image) Royal City, by Jeff Lemire (Image) Nearly every Marvel comic nominated for an Eisner that isn’t a limited series has already been canceled, and Black Bolt is the best of the bunch.

BEST LIMITED SERIES Black Panther: World of Wakanda, by Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Alitha E. Martinez (Marvel) Extremity, by Daniel Warren Johnson (Image/Skybound) The Flintstones, by Mark Russell, Steve Pugh, Rick Leonardi, and Scott Hanna (DC) Mister Miracle, by Tom King and Mitch Gerads (DC) X-Men: Grand Design, by Ed Piskor (Marvel)

BEST WRITER Tom King, Batman, Batman Annual #2, Batman/Elmer Fudd Special #1, Mister Miracle (DC) The body of Tom King’s work over the last year should be what pushes him over the edge. He has been unbelievably good, and probably deserves to win on the strength of Mister Miracle alone.

BEST GRAPHIC ALBUM—NEW

BEST COVER ARTIST

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics)

Julian Totino Tedesco, Hawkeye (Marvel)

If I had to pick a big winner for the Eisners, it would be My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. Ferris, nominated for best coloring, lettering, and best writer/artist, seems poised to clean up.

This is a tough category, but it feels like Tedesco will win here. No covers are as well-matched to the books’ interiors as his Hawkeye covers are to Kate Bishop’s adventures.

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Grand Design has all the charm and effective storytelling that Hip-Hop Family Tree had, but with all the garbage X-Men continuity that I love. World of Wakanda brought fresh voices to the exceptional world that Ta-Nehisi Coates crafted. And while Mister Miracle is a mortal lock for our best comics of 2018, its best issue so far came out in March. Flintstones had absolutely no business being this good, but it was the fastest, funniest satire in almost any medium in 2017.

BEST PENCILLER/INKER OR PENCILLER/INKER TEAM Ramón K. Perez, Jane (Archaia) Ramón Perez is on the verge of being a superstar. Jane, which gives him a full graphic novel’s worth of pages to tell an art house romance adaptation of Jane Eyre, is as close to Eisner-bait as you can get.

IMAGE CREDIT: DC, ARCHAIA (JANE)

THE ONE CONSTANT AT EVERY SAN DIEGO COMIC-CON IS the Eisner Awards, the annual gathering of comics luminaries celebrating the very best that the industry has to offer. We took a look at a handful of headline categories to try to predict who we think will (or who we would like to see) win.


COMICS

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A SYMBOL OF

What does it take to write for the Man of Steel? Brian Michael Bendis tells us the secret. BY MIKE CECCHINI

RIAN MICHAEL BENDIS BELIEVES IN Superman. Twenty-five years into a comics career that includes a massive 17-year stretch with Marvel Comics, the writer moved to DC Comics. And like Jack Kirby and John Byrne, two other former Marvel creators who built new legacies at DC, Bendis went to work on the Man of Steel. “I wrote this seven-page Superman manifesto,” Bendis says. “I took a couple of months to really rediscover the character, not as a fan but as a co-author, as a steward. I dove in and found things that were truthful to me and things that surprised me about my connection to the character.” That “manifesto” covered story ideas, new characters like the villainous Rogol Zaar, plans to give Metropolis a more pronounced identity, and more. But the key is always getting Superman right. “The world has become so chaotic, and the news is sometimes so hateful and depressing that we’re not hearing a lot of hopeful stuff,” Bendis says. “I’ve been handed the character whose job is to remind you to be hopeful, through his actions and presence. I get to live in his skin and write him and remind everyone that the world is a great place worth saving and worth helping.” Bendis doesn’t buy the idea that a character as powerful as Superman isn’t relevant to modern audiences. “People

feel that Superman is all powerful, so you can’t relate to him. But he’s all powerful and he’s choosing to do the right thing with every breath he takes. That’s an almost impossible goal. As a member of society, isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? I’m writing a Superman reflecting hope in a world that desperately needs it.” The writer needed to find some hope on a personal level as well. Shortly after signing with DC Comics, Bendis was diagnosed with an MRSA infection. It was severe enough that he was hospitalized for three weeks, unable to write, and unable to even see for a portion of it. He made a full recovery, but admits “there were some dark days” as he waited for the doctors to release him. “Almost every day that I was there, Greg Rucka, who is a dear friend of mine and an underrated Superman writer, sat at the side of my bed and just talked about Superman with me in an almost quiet, meditative way,” Bendis recalls. “It was like he was Superman … It kept me hopeful and optimistic. When I got out of the hospital, I went flying right to my keyboard, because I was desperate to write the stories that you’re reading right now.” After a pair of short stories, Bendis’ tenure on Superman officially kicked off with The Man of Steel, a limited series which paired him with a different artist for each issue. “My overall philosophy as a collaborator that I’ve learned over the years is to not write for myself but DEN OF GEEK 55


to write for the artist, their strengths, their goals, towards what they want,” he says. “Every artist comes at you with a different energy.” The Man of Steel introduced a new villain, new supporting characters, and even a new status quo for Clark Kent’s home life. The next phase of the journey is this month’s relaunch of both Superman (with art by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado) and Action Comics (with art by Patrick Gleason). Each series will focus on different aspects of Superman lore. “Action Comics is about Metropolis, The Daily Planet, stories where Clark needs to be Clark and not Superman,” Bendis says. In addition to teasing guest stars like the Question and the Guardian, and an upcoming look at the various secret organizations within the DCU, Action Comics will prominently feature Lois Lane, who was sidelined during The Man of Steel. “There’s a mystery with Lois and it is something I’m very excited about,” Bendis says. “Ryan Sook is drawing Action Comics #1004. It’s so far the best script I’ve written for DC and it’s all about Lois and Clark.” Superman will take a slightly different approach. “Superman has the biggest adventures [and] the biggest villains,” Bendis says. “The first year of the book is a gigantic story that will land on a huge moment for the DC Universe. I’m very excited about introducing this.”

INSIDE THE

DC COMICS LIBRARY ARCHIVES An inside look at rare pieces of Superman history.

E

VER WONDER WHAT SECRETS are hiding in the vaults at DC Comics? We spent an afternoon with Benjamin LeClear, Manager of the DC Comics Library Archives, who showed us some remarkable artifacts from Superman’s 80-year history. All quotes are from Mr. LeClear.

The writer is well aware of the legacy built by other creative teams, citing Richard Donner’s Superman movie, Geoff Johns’ work on the character, Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” and others during our conversation. But he’s quick to note more recent contributions too. “Dan Jurgens, who kindly handed the baton to me after a 30-year run, has been so gracious and wonderful,” Bendis says. “And now I’m working with Patrick Gleason [on Action Comics]. His contributions to the Superman family are enormous so having him with me on this is brilliant and has made the transition so much fun. And, of course, Jim Lee was there to hold my hand on the first pages. He was a big deal, and it made it very special.” Superman #1 is on sale now. Action Comics #1001 arrives on July 25. 56 DEN OF GEEK

1 1) ACTION COMICS #1 “The copies in the DC Archives are original and have always been at DC. These are our own last remaining original copies of Action Comics #1 from its initial publication in 1938.”

2) ACTION COMICS #23 (1940) “This is the very first appearance of The Daily Planet. Before then, it was The Daily Star. But, there’s a problem when you’re doing a daily syndicated newspaper

2 strip where you don’t know who you’re selling it to in a town and you say that the paper they work at is The Star [which was a common name at the time]. What if that’s the name of a competing paper in the market? They had to find a generic enough name that no one would have, so this is where it becomes The Daily Planet... This is also Lex Luthor’s first appearance. Here, he has stringy red hair, and a giant flying dirigible city.”

IMAGE CREDITS PREVIOUS PAGE: IVAN REIS AND JOE PRADO, COURTESY OF DC COMICS (SUPERMAN), MITCHELL HADDAD (MICHAEL BENDIS)

I’M WRITING A SUPERMAN REFLECTING HOPE IN A WORLD T H AT D E S P E R AT E LY N E E D S I T.


5) SUPERMAN LITERATURE PSA (early 1940s) “During

4

the censorship movement of the 40s we were under attack by not just religious groups; even the publishers of children’s literature viewed comic books as competition and accused them of dumbing down kids. Now we’re the friends of the library. We’re the friends of literacy but from the earliest days we were putting out advertisements and saying, ‘here look, it’s a starter. It’s a primer. Go read other good books.’ We had an editorial advisory board and other things to show you these are not harmful for kids.”

6) NEW YORK WORLD’S FAIR (1940) “We had a

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IMAGE CREDITS THIS PAGE: MICHELLE FELIX (PHOTOS). COURTESY OF DC ENTERTAINMENT (SCANS OF ACTION COMICS #1, ACTION COMICS #23, AND THE SUPERMAN DAY PHOTO)

3) REPLICA HJ WARD PAINTING (early 1940s) “The original painting was over the main desk in the old DC offices. I don’t know the full story of how it left our hands but we do know that the original was donated to Lehman College and they had it on their walls for years without realizing what it was. They eventually sold it at an auction site. We believe that this copy was made because DC liked it so much that they did another one. I believe the reason this copy survived was because it ended up in Julius Schwartz’s office.”

7) FLEISCHER STUDIOS SUPERMAN ANIMATION TEST (circa 1940) “It’s

4) TEXTBOOK COVER (1949) “This is from the Institute for American Democracy, an offshoot of the Anti-Defamation League. Later on, this had a second life as a full color poster that was available. This... pre-dates the poster by a year and these were spread out all across America. The power of Superman is on your textbooks and he’s talking about racial and religious tolerance.”

special Superman day at the 1940 New York World’s Fair. We chose a day that was on discount, so as many kids could come as possible. We had actor Ray Middleton, who was appearing in a musical on the same fairgrounds, appear as the very first live-action Superman. Everyone from DC came out. They brought Siegel and Shuster out for it, all the editors were there... The comic available for sale at this event—actually created for sale for the full fair year—is really significant because it’s the first time that Superman and Batman were ever on a cover together.”

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extremely rare to find both a sketch and a cell together. This is even weirder because it’s not from any of the episodes that made it into theaters. It’s from a one minute test reel. The bid from Fleischer Studios for the Superman rights was so expensive that they weren’t even sure that they were going to be able to do it, so they made them do one minute of animation. I believe the test reel is completely lost at this point and so this is what we have of it.” DEN OF GEEK 57


GAMES

THE FARTHEST REACHES OF THE EVE ONLINE UNIVERSE AND FANDOM REVEAL A WONDROUS—AND DANGEROUS—MMORPG. BY JOHN SAAVEDRA

58 DEN OF GEEK

I

t’s not easy explaining what EVE Online is in a single paragraph or why it’s so important to the estimated 500,000 people who play it. On the surface, it’s a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that takes place in a galaxy populated by five empires vying for control of over 7,500 star systems. EVE, which launched in 2003, has its own governments, currency, economy, and religions, making it more complex and intricate than even the most popular MMO in the world, World of Warcraft. The game is full of political intrigue, space battles, and betrayal. But EVE Online is so much more than that. So picture this instead: Charles White, 58, lives in Los Angeles and has spent the last 30 years working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, analyzing the rockets that send our men and women into space. You could jokingly call this guy a rocket scientist and not be far off. But to the people of EVE Online, he is simply known as the Space Pope. White is the game’s most prominent religious leader and he plays the part gloriously, decked out in flowing red and white robes and a papal mitre, as he enters the Harpa conference center in Reykjavik, Iceland for EVE Fanfest, the largest gathering of EVE players in the world (approximately 1,000 players attend the three-day event hosted by CCP, the game’s developer). You can hear the Space Pope coming from 50 yards away, a procession of robed men and women lead him into the hall, singing something like a Gregorian


chant—as the other attendees watch in awe. EVE Online isn’t just a MMORPG you play on your computer, but more of a second life that allows you to go from NASA employee to space pope. Over the years, the line between the digital and real worlds have become more fuzzy, so that more and more people find themselves playing the game even when they’re not at their keyboards. For the Space Pope, that means handing out blessings to attendees (and their babies), performing sermons, marrying a couple dressed as their EVE characters, and sharing “the Truth” with his followers. The Truth is, in fact, a large flask filled with Brennivín, Iceland’s local schnapps, that he keeps inside a hollowed out book called the “Max Amarria,” named after his actual character in the game, Max Singularity. Before jumping into EVE, White had spent most of his life as an atheist despite growing up in a Christian household. He attended Sunday school as a kid but was kicked out for asking too many questions. Finding a sort of faith, thanks to EVE, surprised him. White describes his transformation into the Space Pope as a “metamorphosis.” “At first I was like, ‘You realize I’m not really a real pope.’ But then after a while all these sincere requests kept coming in and it literally changed me,” White says. “All of a sudden I was like, ‘Well, what is a blessing?’ What is the power of blessing and why do priests have this ability?” White says that the holy words of the Space Pope just

started flowing. His sermons are ruminations on the game’s lore, which emphasizes the ability to die and be born again as a clone, thanks to alien technology. “Learn to die,” White advises his followers. “You’re immortal.” The Space Pope preaches about “dying well,” citing the cyclical nature of death in the game. Yes, you die A LOT in EVE Online—and the consequences can be expensive. EVE Online allows players to buy a premium in-game currency, known as PLEX, with real-world money. PLEX is valuable because it can be converted into premium subscription time (the game is free-to-play, but a monthly premium membership gives you additional perks) or sold for ISK. Think of PLEX to ISK as gold to dollars. ISK is the game’s actual currency, which can be used to buy new ships as well as upgrades. The current conversion rate stands at about $1 to 72.5 million ISK. Therefore, when you’re robbed or your ship is destroyed in the game, the consequences can indirectly be measured in real money. The biggest battle in EVE history, known as the Bloodbath of B-R5RB, cost about 11 trillion ISK in damages, equal to $300,000-$330,000 back in 2014. More than 600 warships were destroyed in the battle, including 75 Titan supercapital ships, which cost thousands of dollars and take months to build. The battle was fought over 22 hours—some players took time off work to participate in the bloodshed—by 7,548 pilots, according to Wired. DEN OF GEEK 59


On January 23, 2018, EVE players gathered in a star system known as 9-4RP2 with the goal of fighting a battle that would cost $1 million in damages, including the potential destruction of a powerful, Death Star-sized fortress known as a Keepstar Citadel. That didn’t quite happen. Server issues prevented the more than 6,000 ships from successfully wreaking havoc in the star system. The total damages ended up being closer to $10,000. Still, this is just another example of the epic scale of EVE’s greatest stories. Of course, your experiences in EVE Online don’t have to be explosive to be meaningful. While you always run the risk of being blown up by an enemy ship or robbed by pirates, you could spend a large amount of your time simply exploring the beauty of New Eden space and learning its lore. Or you could become a space miner, or a trader, or a ship manufacturer, or an investor in the ISK market, or even CEO of your own corporation. But, as in real life, it often pays more to be bad, which is why many players choose to become bounty hunters, pirates, con men, thieves, and even drug dealers (they sell things like performance-enhancing combat boosters to players who want to perk up their ships). There’s a big question at the center of the EVE experience:

why are we so enticed by the possibility of living multiple lives? CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Petursson, one of the original developers who worked on EVE Online (surprisingly, he is notoriously bad at the game he helped create), thinks there’s something very human about role-playing. “I think people have always been interested in playing a role to explore aspects of themselves and life you cannot do through your own identity,” Petursson says. “This notion is a very fundamentally human one. I would even say it’s a mammalian thing, like if you look at lion cubs playing, monkeys playing. [It’s] a form of learning. When you have role-playing games, which maybe emphasize

Charles White, a NASA employee, is lovingly known as the Space Pope by the EVE Online fanbase — and he certainly dresses the part.

60 DEN OF GEEK

this more, then people are exploring aspects of their own person in a way that you cannot do in your natural environment.” “The thing about EVE is you can do whatever you want really,” explains Aaron Denyer, 22, who plays the game as a character named Jin’taan, one of New Eden’s most popular fleet commanders and a bit of a celebrity at Fanfest. He wears a money suit to the event -- that is, a suit covered in a pattern of $100 bills -- and big sunglasses. At a bar not far from the convention center, he orders Adios Motherfuckers (equal parts vodka, rum, gin, and tequila) for his friends. Like a rockstar. But every individual contains multitudes, which is why Denyer is also known for showing up to Fanfest with his grandmother, whom the community lovingly calls “Jin’gran.” She’s only recently started playing the game. Her character is a princess with flaming red hair and a nose ring. “She’s like 75 and loves video games. The best kind of person,” Denyer says. His grandmother is a special case, though. Most of the playerbase is still quite young, with a median age of about 35, according to Denyer. Denyer credits his closeness with his grandmother and the community he’s found in EVE as what helped him cope with the death of his mother when he was 16. The game has also helped him overcome mental illness. “You probably can’t tell but I’m very heavily on the autistic spectrum,” Denyer reveals. “I struggle a lot with interaction, especially when I was younger. And EVE’s given me kind of like this space where I can feel comfortable.” Denyer points to initiatives such as Broadcast 4 Reps as ways EVE can be a force for good. Broadcast 4 Reps is a group created by CCP and EVE players to help other users who are suffering from depression, dealing with addiction, or going through some other kind of hardship. “If you feel like you’re having problems with your life, or you know you need to get something off your chest, it’s this super nice place,” says Denyer. “I almost guarantee you it saved hundreds of lives.” The fact that EVE Online has such a tight-knit community—indeed, players enthusiastically come to Fanfest to meet up with friends, whether they’re allies or enemies in the game—is due to its size. 500,000 players is miniscule when compared to World of Warcraft’s millions of subscribers. Sure, EVE Online is still a pretty niche experience, yet it’s a game that’s still going strong while so many of its other competitors from back in the early 2000s have died out. And there are those who think that there’s still so much to do with EVE before the game meets its full potential. “It’s a new genre of human experience,” says Andrew Groen, a veteran journalist and EVE’s foremost historian. Groen has spent almost half a decade chronicling the history and studying the sociopolitical landscape of the EVE universe. His self-published book, Empires of EVE, tells tales of intense battles, shocking betrayals, and massive power shifts in rip-roaring detail. In fact, the book reads more like Star Wars than, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s histories of Middle-earth.


Tairon Usaro and Irma Amatin get married at Fanfest dressed as their EVE Online characters.

What draws Groen to this universe? The fact that EVE players treat the game like it’s a real second life. Groen sees huge potential in that sentiment, especially the way the real world and the game world will blur further in the future. “I have a very strong feeling that stuff like this is going to be how folks like you and I find meaning in our lives from our retirement homes,” Groen says. “When we are having a tough time and we’re going through all of the things that you go through in old age ... like feelings of isolation and loneliness. I imagine that we will reach out through the internet and have adventures, long past when you might have been able to do that in another age.” This is why Groen finds it so important to document what’s happened in the game so far. People will need a record of what came before, especially if having a digital second life does one day become a human activity as common as playing a mobile game or checking your Twitter feed. “I think the dynamics of a thing like EVE change very greatly when you take away some of the difficulties that prevent people from getting involved,” Groen says. He points out that people around the world are already constantly connected with each other, thanks to social media and streaming services. In a potential future where you don’t need accounts or logins to jump into a game, joining your friends in another world could become a seamless process. “Combine EVE with modern streaming and with modern streaming audiences and also social

media. You can then very easily imagine a situation in which a streamer who has 150,000 viewers can ask those viewers to come into the game.” Of course, you would need a hell of a server to host that many new players at once. As the battle of 9-4RP2 already proved, EVE is not quite there yet. But CCP definitely has its eye on the future. In 2014, the company erected a monument for the game in Reykjavik, the city where EVE was born. It’s an abstract structure that stands almost 16 and a half feet tall and features the character names of almost every active player at the time. (It’s actually become a bit of a pilgrimage for longtime EVE players to come to Iceland to find their names on the monument.) Buried underneath the structure is a “time capsule”—it’s really a laptop full of memories from the game, as well as video messages from developers and players—that’s to be opened in 2039, 25 years after it was buried. Will people still be playing EVE Online in 2039? “People kind of thought that it was cheeky and silly when CCP started talking about the second decade of EVE and stuff like that because people are like ‘Oh, it’s wrapping up. Most of the competition from the old days is now gone’ and stuff like that,” Groen says. EVE, which turned 15 this year, is well into its second decade. Petursson certainly isn’t joking about the game’s future. When asked what EVE Online will look like in 20 years, Petursson simply replies, “This game will outlive us all. That’s the plan.”

ROGER SIEBER

“I THINK PEOPLE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN INTERESTED IN PLAYING A ROLE TO EXPLORE ASPECTS OF THEMSELVES AND LIFE YOU CANNOT DO THROUGH YOUR OWN IDENTITY.”

DEN OF GEEK 61


GAMES M E M E S + I N S U LT S

THE MISUNDERSTOOD WORLD OF

We try to find the soul of competitive gaming in a sport where toxicity is a barrier to entry. BY MATTHEW BYRD

I

n a perfect world, the raw emotion and skill on display at the 2018 Call of Duty World League Open in Dallas would have dominated headlines about the competition. You would have read about groups of friends banding together to take on the pros. You would have heard stories about kids wistfully staring at the main stage, hoping to one day be good enough to compete themselves. Maybe you would have even seen reports about tearful winners being presented like rock stars with assistance from a lighting and sound system that would make old Pink Floyd concerts look like middle school plays. Instead, the headlines were dominated by threats of violence. Not the threats many of us have heard screamed over microphones during online Call of Duty matches but something far more sinister. The weekend’s competition was interrupted by calls from someone who claimed to have planted a bomb in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. As attendees made their way outside and reactions appeared online, shockingly few people seemed surprised at all. Instead, many saw this as another chapter in the familiar narrative of the toxic world of eSports. “Toxicity” is the catchall phrase used to define the staggering levels of hostility and hate among some of the stars, fans, and teams of eSports. It’s an attempt to apply some kind of understanding to the severity of the worst incidents. Incidents like when TerrenceM, a black professional Hearthstone player, took the stage at a 2016 tournament and was greeted by racist jokes on Twitch chat alongside the spamming of an all-too-familiar word. Those who spread hatred online have always had the luxury of doing so behind a wall of anonymity. Natalie Sest and Evita March, two Australian researchers, conducted an all-too-rare study on the psychology of online trolls. Their findings—that such actions can be attributed to poor social skills and low empathy—were remarkable in how unsurprising they were.

Recently, Overwatch pro Félix “xQc” Lengyel was kicked out of the Overwatch League for making offensive comments towards fellow players, league casters, and for using emotes in a racist manner during League streams. His excuse? “I was fucking born and raised by Twitch chat.” The scariest thing about that statement is the inescapable truth of it. The worst aspects of eSports culture are just that: a culture. They’re a series of beliefs and social norms that are shared by certain groups of people. Considering 61 percent of United States eSports viewers are between 18-34 years old and 55 percent of Twitch users fall into that same age range, it means that we’re talking about a lot of young, impressionable people who make up the average eSports viewership; they are then subjected to those who practice a culture whose values resemble messages of hate, ignorance, and negativity. Aspects of that culture may stem from the potentially dangerous competitive mentality of eSports players. Dr. Itzik Zur studied the mental health of eSports players and found that the mental and physical stress competitive gamers endure makes them prone to “frequent emotional

Los Angeles Valiant fan and cosplayer Queen Valla leads the team into LA’s Blizzard Arena for an Overwatch League match.

fluctuations, more so than athletes in other sports.” He also suggested that those feelings of anger can be utilized by trainers to increase a competitor’s performance. In Korea, it’s common for players to practice up to 14 hours a day. The mechanical nature of the most popular eSports games demands such intensity. Sometimes, players are even conditioned to treat socialization and emotional maturation as distractions.

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“In a Korean team house in StarCraft II, you’re waking up at 10 or 11 a.m., everyone practices the same hours per day, you have team lunch breaks,” said StarCraft player Ryan “State” Visbeck in an interview with Complex. “You play soccer as a team. You do everything as a team. There’s no time at all to actually have a life.” That’s a side of eSports that’s hard to process for those who look at gaming as a hobby. None of that excuses bad behavior from fans or players, but it does lend a level of understanding regarding the humanity that drives competitive gaming. A lack of understanding may actually be at the heart of the toxic eSports narrative. Competitive gaming is nothing new, but it has absolutely exploded in popularity in recent years. This has led to a gold rush for the mainstream media, as publications everywhere race to claim their share of eSports audiences. Some within the eSports community feel that the mainstream media has shed its integrity in order to hop on the eSports bandwagon. There are eSports fans who believe that certain reporters and outlets assigned to cover eSports are inherently cynical and even disinterested. Their perception of that industry is not entirely unfounded. “I got some really bad advice about how to get into the eSports scene,” says eSports journalist Kevin Hitt. “That advice was, ‘Go in with your guns blazing and be aggressive. Go in with your guns blazing because memes and insults are everything in eSports.’” That advice was given to Hitt in 2015 when he was transitioning from sports to eSports coverage. Since then, he has gone out of his way to learn the industry and form meaningful relationships with players and teams. However, doing so has required him to break through a thick protective barrier that surrounds the scene. “Organizations are basically telling [eSports players], ‘Don’t talk.’ They don’t want them to say something damaging to their personal brand or the organization they play for,” says Hitt. “Media can set traps for young people in the questions that they ask. We can set them off.” That distrust has manifested itself in unfortunate ways which have only broadened the gap between media and eSports players. The most notable of those manifestations is the traditional absence of all-inclusive post-game conferences in competitive gaming. “In traditional sports, even the losing team does interviews,” says Hitt. “In eSports, they don’t do that. Losing teams simply just leave. I think that has to do with the organizations not wanting somebody in a bad place between the ears speaking. Maybe that 17-year-old who’s not media savvy yet is going to say something perhaps damaging to himself and the organization.” The guarded nature of the eSports industry and professional gamers is more than speculation. Despite having reached out to several eSports players and organizations, we were unable to get anyone from professional gaming to go on record for this story.

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The Los Angeles Valiant celebrate their victory at the Overwatch League Stage 4 Championships in June.

While this is an aspect of eSports that is improving—Hitt credits Blizzard and the Overwatch League for allowing an impressive degree of media access—the lack of traditional channels of communication between media and players has contributed to an increase in articles about eSports drama. The worst of what is said is used to confirm larger— sometimes manufactured—narratives. Sometimes the bias is all too overt, as in the case of Chester King, founder and acting CEO of the British eSports Association. He told Gamesindustry.biz, “I was introduced at an event once after someone did a great speech about traditional sports as someone who was going to talk about ‘the dark side of eSports.’ That’s not the intro we want. Others describe us as ‘the biggest niche in the world.’ No, we’re not that at all. We are eSports. Those in the industry hate being classified and put in a box.” Team Dignitas manager and founder Michael O’Dell told Gamesindustry.biz that he’d “like to reverse the media’s thinking and show the cool stuff rather than the very tiny incidents of bad stuff that does sometimes happen to all sports.” Easier said than done. Hitt points out that preventing readers from flocking to the negative side of eSports isn’t always easy in the digital age, especially when a bad act is on social media or Twitch before it’s ever picked up by an outlet. “You have to understand that we’re in a technological age and that everybody is going to see when one person does something silly, and they’re going to extrapolate that and make the entire scene guilty by association,” says Hitt.


between the PC game stations and the barista’s bar to cheer “Reporting things like that needs to be accurate. It needs Overwatch’s NYXL. Clad in team jerseys and streetwear, the to make sure that it’s focused on the person that did the attendees spoke mostly through cheers, but found common egregious act, and try not to paint the broad brush that ground in conversation over their shared amazement of the everybody is like this person.” atmosphere. Even for eSports fans like Padro and Wu, events The fact that audiences tend to respond more to such as these felt different than anything that had come negativity, both on social media and through the news cycle, before. Even those who attended the event out of curiosity has led to those who say something ignorant on Twitter soon found themselves caught up in the energy. garnering more attention than eSports’ best players. Hitt believes that “the number one most important thing to “When we first approached the [new] venue (Mr. Wu’s growing the game is giving access to the media.” The great Basement) about this party, they were like, ‘What are you guys shame of the relationship between media and eSports isn’t talking about? You want to do a party for what?’” Padro says. limited to a lack of growth, though. It’s that those who only “Let me tell you, at the end of the night when all things are said know of eSports from what they read in headlines rarely and done, the whole staff is like ‘That was awesome. I don’t get to hear about the exceptional people who make up the even know what took place, but whatever that was, it was cool.’” majority of competitive gaming. Arina believes that the city element of the League makes it Consider stars like Sasha Hostyn, a transgender StarCraft easier for people to “have more stake in” the outcome. She thinks pro who recently became the first female competitor to win that helps them break down the walls that people sometimes a Majors tournament and one of an elite group of North have when they come to these events. As far as the group goes, Americans to do the same. There’s also Tyler “Skadoodle” they notice they’re attracting nearly every type of fan. Latham, who helped Cloud9 become the first North American “We have people ranging from eight years old to well into Counter-Strike team to win a Majors tournament. Over a million their professional careers,” Padro says. “It’s been really cool Twitch viewers watched him break down in tears during the to see how many women are in the room. You come to our post-game interview. And then there’s Jong-yeol “Saebyeolbe” parties, and the whole front row is women most of the time. Park, who has helped lead the New York Excelsior to a top spot You don’t always see that in other sports. With Overwatch in Overwatch League and did League, they come because so with a picture of his wife they play this game too.” on his keyboard. Despite the popular eSports connotation, If you truly want to neither can cite many appreciate the other side instances of toxicity at the of eSports culture, though, events. Wu believes there’s don’t look up at the stars a simple reason for that. but rather at its fans. Not “No one comes to these the people who spew venom events and says ‘Oh, I’m on Twitch, but rather the ARINA WU, FIVE DEADLY VENOMS going to be mean,’” Wu supporters who show up to cheer for their favorites and says, “People are just more live and die by their success. reasonable in person because you have a better read on who you’re talking to.” “I just moved to New York in August and I didn’t know anyone,” says Arina Wu, a member of the Five Deadly There it is again… understanding. John Hubert, a former Venoms, a New York Excelsior fan club for Overwatch League. Rutgers football player, was a participant in the first “It was just natural to say, ‘Ok, it’s time to make friends.’ It’s intercollegiate game of American football. He famously totally the city-based thing that Blizzard was going for. It said: “To appreciate this game to the fullest you must know helped them connect many of the people from that city to that something of its background.” Well, the background of team. Now I’ve got a great group of friends and family.” eSports is passionate gamers. People who want to come together to compete, but also to share their passions. Fellow FDV member Mike Padro’s love for the NYXL is “eSports fans that attend events are the most inclusive, tied to his love for the city and what it represents. wonderful human beings I’ve ever been around, and I mean “When you make it about a place that you’re so proud that in all sincerity,” says Hitt. “In the three years that I’ve to live in, people have that sense of camaraderie and gone to live events, I haven’t seen a scuffle. I haven’t seen a belonging,” Padro says. “Maybe the players aren’t from this fight. I haven’t seen a yelling match. All I see are high fives place, but maybe I’m not from this place.” and people rooting their team.” Most eSports squads don’t typically attract a traditional fan club such as the Five Deadly Venoms. Yet, Overwatch League’s Toxicity is present in certain corners of eSports, but that city format has brought out a sense of pride in some of the doesn’t prevent eSports fans from cheering for the home team, teams’ fans. The FDV club began as a small gathering at NYC’s the underdogs, the outsiders, the good guys, and promoting Waypoint Cafe. Supporters squeezed into a small section the idea that there is a future for eSports worth rooting for.

IMAGE CREDIT: BLIZZARD

NOW I’VE GOT A GREAT GROUP OF FRIENDS AND FAMILY.

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THE FOURTH WALL

ARTIST ALLEY FROM CONCEPT TO FINISHED PRODUCT: Below you’ll see the concept art for the Chupacabra character in Hotel Transylvania 3.

DIRECTOR GENNDY TARTAKOVSKY is booking a summer vacation for classic monsters in Hotel Transylvania 3. But don’t expect anything truly frightening. The Russian-born animator takes his horror comically, preferring Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to the original, which sent a young Mel Brooks running home from the theater screaming about “the knobs.” Tartakovsky is best known as the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and Star Wars: Clone Wars. So what’s it like to go from directing small screen classics to a major animated feature like Hotel Transylvania? “There was a big difference between TV and features as far as the timing and the pressure, where basically I draw something and then six months later it’s on TV,” Tartakovsky says. “There’s really not a chance to rethink it or overanalyze it. With movies, you have two or three years where you’re focusing on this one idea and you keep changing and adjusting it, trying to make sure that it’s going to stand up because basically; you have that opening weekend to lock in your audience or the movie goes away pretty quickly.”

SOUND OFF The 2018 fall network TV schedule skews older, safer, and easier because using both the massive demographic tools at their disposal and a general sense of the country’s direction the networks believe that older, safer, and easier is what we want.” — DEN OF GEEK TV CRITIC ALEC BOJALAD

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IMAGE CREDIT: SONY. ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: JESSICA KOYNOCK

— TONY SOKOL


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