content by

Steven Padnick

How The Good Place Is Making TV Better, Smarter, and More Interesting

If you haven’t seen it, NBC’s The Good Place is a (Hugo Award winning!) fantasy sit-com about Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a morally mediocre (at best) woman who dies and finds herself in a sort-of heaven called the Good Place. Figuring that someone somehow made a cosmic mistake, Eleanor tries to learn how to be good before the Good Place’s architect Michael (Ted Danson) finds out and sends her to the Bad Place.

(If you have seen it, you’ll notice this article does its level best to avoid spoiling the wilder twists, but if you know, then you know.)

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What Puts the “Super” in Supervillain?

And when he planned to steal our sunlight, he crossed that line between everyday villainy and cartoonish supervillainy.

—Waylon Smithers

What is it that makes a villain a supervillain? What quality is it that defines an antagonist as more than a threat, more than a foil? As something extraordinary?

The easy answer is that a supervillain is a villain with super powers, but that’s not a sufficient answer. If you name three supervillains off the top of your head, I guarantee you two of them have no powers at all. And there are many monstrous villains in fiction that have powers that still wouldn’t ever be considered a supervillain.

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The Purge Franchise Leaves Its Most Interesting Questions Unanswered

As reviewer Danny Bowes stated in his discussion of the original movie, The Purge is a home-invasion thriller with a neat high concept: the Sandin family take in a bleeding stranger and then have to contend with the band of preppy murderers who want to kill him. And they can’t call the police because it’s the Purge: the one night a year when all crime in the United States, including (and primarily) murder, is legal.

If you’re thinking, “hey, the Purge sounds less like some kind of national Rumspringa and more like a way for the government to outsource killing off the poor to affluent thrill killers,” congratulations—as the film’s three sequels and upcoming spin-off TV series explain, that’s exactly the point. The government even goes so far as to send in military personnel disguised as citizens to make sure the kill count remains high.

It’s a great premise for pointed satire about how laws protect the rich from the poor but not vice versa, and how easily people explain away and justify cruelty as patriotism and piety. However, as long as writer-director James DeMonaco sticks to the survival horror genre, focusing on the moment-to-moment struggle to remain alive during the Purge itself, he’s leaving the most interesting parts of his own premise on the table.

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Miles Morales Is Not Peter Parker: Why New Characters Don’t Solve the Problem of Diverse Representation

In response to my recent article stating why Idris Elba playing James Bond would improve the character, some asked why anyone needs established characters to be portrayed with greater diversity. Why can’t we just be happy with new characters that are like the established characters that better represent a diverse world?

It’s a very common question that seems reasonable. On its face, it concedes that representation matters, that “Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” But this response is a dodge, a form of derailment. Yes, obviously creators should tell new stories with new characters—but that is not nearly enough.

New characters don’t answer the central question, which is: Is being white, straight, and male somehow intrinsic to the established characters, the iconic heroes, the role models for millions? I think that the answer is no, and I think that diverse casting is the way to prove that point.

A good example of this is Spider-Man.

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Casting Idris Elba as James Bond Would Change the Character in the Best Way

It’s been over ten years since Casino Royale and the debut of Daniel Craig as James Bond, which means we’re overdue for a new 007. The British tabloid the Daily Star published a rumor that Bond producer Barbara Broccoli thought it was time some diversity was brought to the role and director Antoine Fuqua suggested that Idris Elba was his top choice.

Elba himself has publicly campaigned for the role for years, in 2011 saying “I’d not only get in the cab, but I’d take the taxi driver out of the car, hostage. The taxi, jump out while it was moving, jump onto a pedal bike that was just past the door as I got on it, and then get onto a plane—on the wing—land on top of Sony Studios, slide through the air conditioning, and land in the office.” And he further added fuel to the fire on Sunday by tweeting, “my name’s Elba, Idris Elba.”

[There’s been no official announcement, but it’s hard to think of an actor better suited to play Bond than Elba.]

For the First Time in 15 years, Star Trek Moves the Story Where No One Has Gone Before

With the announcement that Sir Patrick Stewart will be reprising his signature role of Jean-Luc Picard for a planned Star Trek television series on the CBS AllAccess streaming service, speculation has run rampant about what that series could possibly be. Will he return to the Enterprise, or will the series be set planet-side? Will Picard join the admiralty, or will he be retired to his vineyard? Will he lead Star Fleet Academy—a series idea I’ve seen suggested for twenty years—or lead Picard’s 11, where Jean-Luc gets the gang back together to rob the heck out of the Ferengi?

There’s so much speculation because we know so little about the show at this point, just that Stewart is playing Picard and that it’s set 20 years after Nemesis. And yet, that’s enough to get me excited because it means the franchise is doing something it hasn’t done in 15 years: it’s moving the story forward.

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Paper Girls is Good and You Should Read It

When Paper Girls debuted in the halcyon days of 2015, it was justly well received, earning high praise from reviewers, a Hugo nomination for best Graphic Story, and a couple of Eisner awards. However, a lot of the praise for the first volume was based on promise. The story of four 12-year-old paper delivery girls in 1988 caught in the crossfire of a temporal war threw a lot of balls into the air—enough that it made sense to question whether writer Brian K. Vaughan, illustrator Cliff Chiang, colorist Matthew Wilson, and letterer and designer Jared K. Fletcher would be able to catch them all.

Three years, twenty-two issues, and four volumes later, I’m happy to report that they caught them with aplomb, while deftly throwing in two more balls, an apple, and a chainsaw. (End juggling metaphor.)

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Titans Exposes Everything Wrong with DC’s Gritty, Boring Approach to Live Action

The trailer for Titans, the first series exclusively on the new DC Universe streaming service, dropped last week to… less than positive reviews. Nothing about the trailer—not lead Raven, not Senegalese Starfire, not the Dove cameo, not the conspicuous lack of Cyborg—made more noise than ten seconds of Robin saying “F**k Batman” and killing a bunch of dudes. It’s intentionally shocking, a bold declaration that this is something new and edgy, nothing like the Teen Titans you grew up with. These are superheroes for adults.

The problem is, it’s exactly like the Teen Titans I grew up with. It’s not that “a gritty take,” as the official synopsis describes the series, isn’t faithful to the comics. It’s that it’s faithful to New Teen Titans and The Dark Knight Returns, comics that are over 30 years old, literally older than most of the cast. The new series looks dated. The whole trailer has the desaturated tones, melodramatic dialogue, and low production values of a circa-2000 WB drama, like it should be the lead-in for Birds of Prey.

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How iZombie Became a Show About the Birth of a Minority Subculture

Zombie stories are about dehumanization, about what makes an entire population less than human and a threat to civilization itself, whether that’s racism (Night of the Living Dead) or consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), apathy (Shaun of the Dead) or rage (28 Days Later). The CW’s iZombie, on the other hand, is more interested in how zombies get their humanity back.

The show is very clear on the cause of zombification: trauma. Like her predecessor Veronica Mars—the titular protagonist of another mystery show by series creator Rob Thomas—Liv Moore (yes, that’s her name, the show loves puns) survives a violent assault and finds herself disconnected and numb afterwards, withdrawing from her family and friends and subject to mood swings and violent outbursts: all classic symptoms of trauma. She also turns chalk white and needs to eat a brain a week to stay sane, so the metaphor only extends so far. Still… like Veronica before her, Liv finds purpose by solving crimes, using her skills as a medical examiner and ability to experience the memories of the people she eats.

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The Divine (Situation) Comedy: How The Good Place Is Making TV Better, Smarter, and More Interesting

If you haven’t seen it, NBC’s The Good Place is a (Hugo-nominated) fantasy sit-com about Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a morally mediocre (at best) woman who dies and finds herself in a sort-of heaven called the Good Place. Figuring that someone somehow made a cosmic mistake, Eleanor tries to learn how to be good before the Good Place’s architect Michael (Ted Danson) finds out and sends her to the Bad Place.

(If you have seen it, you’ll notice this article does its level best to avoid spoiling the wilder twists, but if you know, then you know.)

[Read more]

How Daddy Issues Drive the Marvel Cinematic Universe

From the moment Tony Stark put on power armor to slug it out with Obadiah Stane for control of Arc Reactor technology, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been about a generational struggle against Bad Dads for the fate of the world.

Each movie is the story of men (mostly) realizing that they can no longer rely on their fathers (or uncles, or other surrogate father figures) to fix their problems for them, and now must use their own sense of morality and ethics to decide what to do with the great power they possess.

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Superhero Fun on a Shoestring Budget: Caper

What if Pepper Potts had designed the Iron Man suit, and Tony Stark had just stolen the credit? What if, after stealing the suit back, a penniless Pepper had to move into a crappy apartment with her friends Thor, Superman, and Wonder Woman? And what if, to pay the rent, and maybe a little bit for revenge, the super powered roommates decided to rob Tony for all he’s worth?

That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Caper, Geek and Sundry’s web series created by Amy Berg and Mike Sizemore. Berg was a writer on Eureka and Leverage, and tonally Caper feels like a mash-up of those two shows. It’s a light, poppy take on a sci fi world filled with complicated, diverse people, but built on an engine of righteous outrage that drives the Robin Hood antics of Leverage and, well, the entire superhero genre.

[Fightin' crime don't pay my bills…]

“And So the Legend Begins”—Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood

I wanted to like Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood so much more than I did.

There are so many elements of the movie that I think are really clever, especially how Scott uses actual historical events to create a new plot for the familiar characters. Gone are tropes like the archery contest, dueling Little John on a bridge, wooing Marian from afar, and a climactic jail break.

In their place is the story of Robin Longstride, an archer returning from the Crusades, who impersonates a dead knight in the hopes of a free trip to England and maybe a small payday. But Robin impersonates the wrong knight, Sir Robert of Loxley, bringing him face to face with the new King John. Things get more complicated when, taking a page from The Return of Martin Guerre, Loxley’s father convinces Robin to continue the charade so that Loxley’s widow, Marian, can retain her lands. Now Robin, a thief at heart, finds himself responsible for a town, and in conflict with the local tax collector, the Sheriff of Nottingham.

That sounds like a pretty good Robin Hood plot, yeah? Unfortunately, it’s only the B plot. Because the A plot is “The Shockingly Bloody History of the Magna Carta, Oh And Also There Is Robin Hood.”

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Series: Rewatching Robin Hood on

“Funny Guy! Fun-ny Guy!”—Robin Hood: Men in Tights

On top of being a brilliant parody of other Robin Hood movies, specifically skewering Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Mel Brooks’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights works pretty decently as a Robin Hood story on its own. The mugging for the camera, anachronisms, and meta-humor about being a Mel Brooks movie remove the story from the specific setting of late 12th century England and make it speak to the experience of its contemporary audience. And the meta-textual satire recalls the spirit of the festival plays which popularized and developed the Robin Hood myths, where Robin would directly encourage the audience to boo the Sheriff and help him hide.

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Series: Rewatching Robin Hood on

“It’s Dull, You Twit. It Will Hurt More!”—Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a terrible movie. Much, much worse than you remember.

Most of the fault lies at Kevin Costner’s feet (and we’ll get to his lackluster performance in a moment), but the whole production is a splotchy mess. It’s nonsensical when it’s not racist, and that’s only when it’s not dull as dishwater—which, granted, is most of the time. All of the actors (with one shining exception) are utterly without charm. There are far too many subplots that don’t go anywhere. And everything is performed with an early 90s earnestness that ends up being super dour.

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Series: Rewatching Robin Hood on

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