Why I’ll always be a Sylvester Stallone stan

The joke in 1982’s Airplane II: The Sequel flashes by briefly in a movie crammed full of them. There’s a scene early on with Sonny Bono in an airport terminal shop. In the background, you’ll get a brief glimpse of a movie poster – an aging bald man slumped in a poster advertising Rocky XXXVIII

At the time, Rocky III had just come out and the idea that Sylvester Stallone’s boxer would be punching away for years to come seemed hiiiiii-larious

That joke was made four decades ago, and there hasn’t been another Airplane movie since. But the butt of the joke, Sylvester Stallone, is still sneering and punching across the screens, in Rocky movies and more, with his latest project the enjoyably retro gangster TV series Tulsa King

It’s weird to say that one of the biggest movie stars of all time is underrated, but that’s how I’ve always felt about Stallone. Stallone has been a little bit of a joke in many circles. He’s easy to parody. Who hasn’t imitated a punch-drunk boxer yelling “Yo, Adrian” or Rambo’s monosyllabic grunts? 

But he’s also been a massive success, and despite how uncool it sometimes felt to admit, I can’t help but like the guy. 

I grew up as part of the Rocky III generation – the first of the franchise I ever saw and the one where it exploded into true ’80s excess. I got the wits scared out of me by Mr. T’s Clubber Lang, felt sad for Mickey, and pumped my pubescent fists along with Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” which 40 years on I still listen to whenever I want a jolt of pop-tastic rock anthem inspiration. 

I’ve always been more of a Rocky man than a Rambo man – while in the right mood I dig the heaving gung-ho machismo of John Rambo, his movies always felt a little more tangled up in right-wing politics and America-first jingoism. Few of Stallone’s movies are really subtle, of course. (The man did make an action movie about arm-wrestling called Over The Top, after all). 

Rocky, though, I’ll go to the grave defending, even Rocky IV, one of the most gloriously absurd ‘80s action movies. The series went from gritty uplifting realism with the first movie to steroid-pumped cheese and right back to some combination of the two with the excellent Creed sequels. Rocky, it turns out, contains multitudes. There’s a reason Airplane II made a joke about Rocky XXXVIII and not, say, Conan The Barbarian Part 33. Sometimes it seems he’d go on forever.

Of that ‘80s action hero pantheon of Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris and the like, Stallone is the only one who’s been nominated for Academy Awards.  His acting isn’t broad in scope, but darned if it isn’t effective when he works at it, such as his terrific performance in 1997’s Cop Land or the Oscar-nominated return of Rocky Balboa in Creed.

Looking back now at Rocky winning Best Picture over Network, Taxi Driver and All The Presidents’ Men in 1977, it perhaps wasn’t the most durable choice – I admit the other three are all objectively better movies – but still, I kind of love the underdog glory of Stallone winning Oscars for Rocky, a character who’d slowly move from realistic to cartoon and then back again. 

He’s also made a lot of terrible movies – Stallone’s worst movies are pretty darned bad, but often oddly fun to watch. The 1986 franchise non-starter Cobra (which originally began life as Beverly Hills Cop starring Stallone, of all things) is like a template for all the over-the-top bad-assery one things of when they think ‘80s action movies. A cascade of one-word thrillers starring Stallone dot the 1990s – Daylight, Cliffhanger, Assassins, The Specialist. They blur together, and many are dire, but then you get a gem like Demolition Man or the blunt, testosterone-filled throwback fun of the recent Expendables series. Still, whoever thought of casting Stallone as Judge Dredd is hopefully working at an IHOP today.  

Decades into his durable career, Stallone knows his strengths. In Tulsa King, his first TV series, the 76-year-old Italian stallion still dominates the screen, looking more and more like some kind of ancient Greek statue come back to life, or a still-hulking figure carved out of ancient oak. This antihero drama from the creators of Yellowstone is not groundbreaking television but it is a hell of a lot of fun watching Stallone’s take on a classic fish-out-of-water tale as an aging ex-con Mafioso from New York starts over again in Oklahoma.

There’s something curiously life-affirming about a senior citizen Stallone, beating the crap out of anyone who gives him lip, gurgling lines in a voice now so deep and craggy that it seems to emanate from the bottom of the sea.  

The joke was that Rocky 38 would feature a withered old Stallone gamely defending his title one more time, tapped out and pathetic. The reality is that in the end he’s just about the last man standing of those ‘80s action icons. Stallone at 76 could still kick my ass and most people I know, drop a cheesy one-liner about it and probably go another five rounds. Long live the Italian stallion. 

Year in review: 12 great TV shows you might have missed in 2022

New by me over at Radio New Zealand: 12 TV series you may have missed in the age of peak content, just in time for your post-Christmas lying around groaning with a full stomach and looking for something to watch vibe!

I take a look at a dozen excellent TV shows (do we still call it TV? Stream-TV?) well worth catching up on during the holiday season if you’re so inclined including Sandman, Raised By Refugees, This Is Going To Hurt, The Old Man and much more! (Most excellent graphic above by RNZ’s most excellent graphic artist)

Go read the full article here and happy holidays however you’re celebrating them!

Bonus story: I take a look at how you can become a classic movie expert over the holidays by checking out 10 iconic movies made before 1980 easily available on NZ streaming services: Hoo-ha!

In search of ‘The Slap Maxwell Story’

Back before the internet, nerds like me used to have quests. We’d try to seek out a particular rare Harlan Ellison book or an obscure early R.E.M. cassette single, paging through fanzines and sending off paper money orders. One of my great quests, for years and years, was trying to track down the short-lived 1987-88 Dabney Coleman sitcom, The Slap Maxwell Story.

I was a teenager thinking about becoming a journalist when it aired, and this show – starring Coleman as a middle-aged sports columnist at a failing newspaper, stuck in his old-fashioned ways and struggling to make sense of his life – stuck with me. 

The last thing anyone wants to see these days is another story of a cantankerous middle-aged white dude who’s bitter about the changing world, I know. But, for some reason, The Slap Maxwell Story resonated with a 16-year-old me in a way it probably shouldn’t have.

I’ve always liked Dabney Coleman, who had a great run in the 1980s playing a particular kind of blustery alpha male – everything from sexist bad guys (9 To 5) to unlikely heroes (Cloak and Dagger), but whose finest hours were two TV series by Jay Tarses – 1983-84’s Buffalo Bill, about an egotistical talk show host, and Slap, about a slightly less egotistical journalist. 

Of those two series, Buffalo Bill is a little better remembered – it lasted longer, won a few awards and got a DVD release years ago. The Slap Maxwell Story, however, fell into the memory hole of short-lived “content” that is only remembered by a few.  It never received a DVD or VHS release that I can tell, has never been on streaming platforms.

Still, I remembered Slap Maxwell, and always wanted to see him again. It was a quest, perhaps one of the last ones when Wikipedia and Google are here to show and tell us almost everything.  When you can’t find something, it looms large in the memory.

I remember Slap’s fumbling romance with a woman half his age (a luminous Megan Gallagher, subject of my massive teenage crush), his boozy male bonding with his inept editor and a friendly bartender. I remember him getting fired repeatedly from his job, his rather implausibly winning a major journalism award, him pitching a fit because his editor got rid of his ancient typewriter. Really, his sportswriting and newspaper gig take a back seat to Slap’s crumbling personal life and mid-life crisis of confidence. 

I occasionally trawled the internet over the years looking for any kind of physical release of the old Slap episodes – even looking at a dodgy Pakistani site claiming to sell bootlegs that I highly doubt ever existed. It’d just be something I’d do, sometimes, over the years, bored Google searches for traces of a forgotten TV show. There was proof it existed, but never any actual samples.

Finally, finally, I found Slap again, when some kind soul uploaded big chunks of The Slap Maxwell Story to YouTube a year or so back – sure, a bit choppy and scattered, apparently sourced from VHS tapes of old reruns on the A&E network years ago, but proof of life nonetheless. I tip my hat to this uploader, the magician at the end of the quest. 

Ever since I’ve been diving into reliving these old episodes of a forgotten TV show to see if they lived up to my teenage memory now that I’m almost as old (egad) as Slap himself was in the series. For the most part, it does – I wouldn’t argue it’s the Great Forgotten American Sitcom or anything, but it deserves a bit more than being lost in limbo. It’s wry and witty, bittersweet and charming in a low-key way, far less broad than many sitcoms of the era. Coleman’s Slap is somewhat more nuanced than his nastier turns in Buffalo Bill or 9 To 5 and one of the few accolades the show got him was a deserved Golden Globe for best actor.

There’s no obnoxious laugh track here (thank god). The series is a sitcom based in melancholy – something that’s common now, but was rare then. As it went on Slap’s flailing attempts to be a better man take centre stage. I can see why it didn’t last in the age of The Cosby Show, Alf and Growing Pains, because it’s kind of about a failure. 

Slap Maxwell is grumpy but gentle, and his story is one of constantly screwing up, ruining his relationships and sometimes failing upwards. He gets it wrong a lot. It’s the story of a lot of life, to be honest. I’m still hoping one day we might get a fancy physical release of these shows – increasingly less likely, I know – but even in a grainy YouTube video, Slap Maxwell’s story is one I’m happy to revisit. 

Cobra Kai: Get teenage kicks right through the night

The only reason Cobra Kai exists is because of nostalgia, of course. 

And yet, it’s proven over five seasons now to be a campy, fist-pumping time capsule of ‘80s excess, mixing teen pathos that wouldn’t be out of place on Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place with butt-kicking kung-fu frenzies. 

I’ve long gotten rather jaded and tired of the endless revivals, reboots and prequels of my childhood obsessions, but somehow I just can’t get enough of Cobra Kai, the continuation of the long-ago ‘80s Karate Kid franchise starring Ralph Macchio. I inhaled the brand new season 5 over just a few days (which for me, with my dislike of “binging” TV, is damned fast). 

The characters in season 5 of Cobra Kai are nowhere near as “realistic” as they felt in Season 1, where you truly empathised with Johnny Lawrence’s downbeat life (the great William Zabka) and rooted for his quixotic struggles. Cobra Kai’s genius was focusing on the bullying “loser” of the first Karate Kid and giving him real emotional depth. There’s something uniquely pathetic about the vain teenage jock brought down to earth, fumbling his way through life, and Cobra Kai’s first seasons were interesting because they also made us question whether Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso was the “good guy” after all in The Karate Kid

Over five seasons now, Cobra Kai has far exceeded in runtime the three ‘80s movies it’s based on. It’s widened its cast to include the children of the original stars, various other nerds and bullies and hangers-on in the endless karate battles of the San Fernando Valley, and enough teenage angst to fill the entire CW network. It’s utterly unsubtle, the characters make stupid mistakes and yeah, the roller-coaster of teenage love affairs and constant emotional reversals can get a bit old, but they’re always broken up by another entertainingly silly karate bout before too long. 

As it goes on, Cobra Kai really embraces that ‘80s junk-food aesthetic where a somewhat grounded movie becomes increasingly over-the-top and extreme as the franchise goes on (see also: Rocky, Rambo, Lethal Weapon, etc.) Season 5 of Cobra Kai feels like the Rocky IV of the franchise to date – broad, swaggering and confident in its own ridiculousness. 

Part of the pleasure of the latest series is Thomas Ian Griffith’s scenery-chewing turn as Terry Silver, who struts around sneering and smirking like a Bond villain from a Roger Moore movie. Griffith was the villain in the overwrought Karate Kid Part III, nobody’s favourite KK film, and yet his Gordon Gekko meets Bruce Lee antagonist gives the last few seasons of Cobra Kai a punchy energy. 

The bombastic emotional music and rising stakes (it’s not just a battle for one karate dojo now – it’s a battle for the future of karate in the world!) are pure cheese, but I don’t mind. There’s a lingering pomposity in much of “peak TV” that turns me off at times, and there’s something about Cobra Kai’s economical 30-35 minute episodes and brisk 10-part seasons that aren’t quite as daunting as some shows. 

There is very little Jackie Chan-style elegance or invention in Cobra Kai’s kung fu fighting. It’s blunt and rarely pretty brawling, and despite the gentle teachings of sensei Miyagi (the late Pat Morita) hanging over the series, it’s almost always fighting in anger, with emotion running hot. Despite all their skills, the characters in Cobra Kai are constantly falling short of their lofty ideals.

Perhaps I love Cobra Kai because it’s pitched directly at me, the fumbling teenager who watched the original movie in cinemas and is now a 50-something striver just like Danny LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence. We all want to make something more out of our lives and are vaguely astonished when we get to the midpoint. There’s also something optimistic in how old foes mellow out and become weathered allies – season 5 features the “villains” from Karate Kid 1, 2 and 3 all teaming up to fight the big bad. Gosh darn it if I didn’t almost want to cheer. There’s hope for everybody in the world of Cobra Kai. (Except Terry Silver, boo, hiss.)

I wouldn’t call Cobra Kai the finest show on TV or anything, but somehow its open-hearted eagerness to please and throwback absurdity suits me a lot more than sitting through more games of thrones and lords and their rings. Forget your hobbits and dragons – a good old crane kick will leave me satisfied almost every time. Teenage kicks, they’re hard to beat. 

*And yes, that’s a lyric by the Undertones quoted in this post title, from the late John Peel’s favourite song of all time.

The art of adaptation: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman

I first read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic beginning with #8, more than 30 years ago now. It was pitched as an introductory issue for new readers, a catching of breath after a hectic opening storyline for the series, and simply featured the godlike Dream, the lord of the night, catching up with his sister, Death, as she goes about her duties. It’s also one of the best things Gaiman’s ever written, humane and heartbreaking. 

It’s exactly the sort of story I’d worry about seeing turned into Netflix “content” in this age of comics being adapted for everything.

I shouldn’t have worried. 

Episode 6 of the new Gaiman-endorsed Sandman series, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which adapts that eighth issue and another classic story, is one of the best bits of TV this year and greatest feats of comics adaptation I’ve seen. (I’m not alone in this slightly hyperbolic verdict.)  

“The Sound of Her Wings” walks the tricky line between rote recitation and making the story come to life. Pairing it with a take on Sandman #13, a stand-alone story of a man who’s granted immortality by Death and his once-a-century meetings with Dream, is a masterstroke. “The Sound of Her Wings” episode becomes a sweeping meditation on what gives life and death meaning, even if you’re an immortal being, on the little triumphs and failures that make up the time we get. 

Even though I’ve read these two comics so many times I practically had them memorised, the gorgeous adaptations still left me a choked-up sentimental fool at the end. 

Adaptations are funny things in comics. I still remember the giddy thrill of simply seeing Batman fight the Joker on the big screen in 1989, or of watching Spider-Man swing past actual skyscrapers. Us comics nerds were famished for any recognition in those long-ago pre-extended universe times, for any hint of seeing characters come to life. (This is probably why I actually saw the Howard The Duck movie in cinemas.) These days, dozens and dozens of comics are being adapted to different mediums, and novelty alone isn’t enough. 

But not every adaptation works. The 2009 Watchmen movie felt spot-on in a few ways, yet strangely hollow in others. It felt a bit like a cover version of the graphic novel, never quite capturing what makes Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ story soar. 

Often you’ll get a mix-and-match of great comic book stories into film – Avengers: Infinity War takes elements from Jim Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet miniseries, and weaves a different tale around them. The Winter Soldier took a lot from Ed Brubaker’s excellent Captain America comics, but was a fairly loose actual adaptation of them. 

We’re starting to see more and more comics movies and films going beyond superheroes – which can only be a good thing. Some of them swing and miss – that Preacher series didn’t do a thing for me – but we still get gems like Sandman, Paper Girls, Resident Alien and Sweet Tooth. 

“The Sound of Her Wings” immediately had me running back to re-read the comics for the 500th time or so. In the end, I feel like an adaptation should be a guide, a pointer towards the source, rather than seen as an attempt to improve on it. 

I’d never say Sandman the series supersedes the comics it faithfully adapts, but it certainly complements them in ways I’d never … well, dreamed. 

What’s up, doc? Why Looney Tunes never get old

Like any child in the pre-internet era, I spent an awful lot of time watching cartoons. I watched the good, the bad and the ugly.

I’d watch Flintstones and Jetsons, Woody Woodpecker and G.I. Joe, Super Friends and Yogi Bear. A lot of the worst featured sub-par animation where only characters’ mouths moved jerkily, or backgrounds that appeared to be made on a rusty photocopier. 

Always in the top tier, of course, were Disney and Warner Brothers. Disney made some ground-breaking, amazing animation, and set the standard. But when it comes to the best – the toons that make you feel glad to be on this planet, the ones you’d watch again and again – I’m a Looney Tunes man through and through.

Even as a kid, I knew that the half-hour or so of vintage Looney Tunes cartoons that played weekday afternoons were something special.

As I limp my way into mid-middle age, I still find comfort in binging a handful of Warner Bros’ seven-minute gems, still as hilarious and free-wheeling as they were decades ago. Time has rubbed some of that rebellious edge off the Looney Tunes – I know there have been cartoons starring them since the original run ended in 1969, but watching Bugs play basketball with NBA stars just ain’t the same to me as having him run rings around Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck in the “rabbit season” trilogy. The originals remain the peak of the animation form and a showcase for sheer mad creativity.

Bugs is always funny, Daffy is reliably explosive, Porky amiably daft, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner Shakespearean in their eternal struggle, and even Foghorn Leghorn’s blowhard act raises a chuckle from me. (Let’s not talk too much about Speedy Gonzales or Pepe Le Pew, though.) There’s a lot of formula and a few bucketloads of caffeinated frenzy over the 900 or so Looney Tunes, of course, and I heartily recommend only watching a half-dozen or so in one sitting lest all the ACME equipment and carrot-chewing permanently liquify your brain. 

But watching some of these cartoons for the 10th or 20th time in my life, I’m struck the most these days by the sheer hand-hewn artistry of them all. Pixar and its computer-generated toon spawn have entertained and delighted us all too, but there is something tangible and awe-inspiring about watching the OG toons, where every single line was drawn by a probably chain-smoking, squinting human being. 

Animation is a form where innovation led to an explosion of energy, Reid Mitenbuler writes in his highly entertaining recent history of the early years of the form, Wild Minds.

Walt Disney became the biggest household name, but the likes of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Mel Blanc, Frank Tashlin and many more shaped the anarchic spirit of animation and shook up Disney’s tendency for stuffiness. The Looney Tunes may have been repetitive – coyote chases road runner, hunter chases duck, cat chases bird – but it was the ceaseless creative invention around the margins of these blueprints that still amuses today.

To get a real feeling for the artistry of these gents, watch some of a Looney Tunes cartoon some time frame by frame. (You can pull one up on YouTube and pause it, then press the “.” key to do just that.) 

It’s astonishing to watch the carefully hand-drawn antic life in these drawings, more than 50 years on. No short-cuts, none of that partial animation that made my childhood “Super Friends” toons seem so static. In motion, these moments sometimes pass so quickly they’re as zippy as the Tasmanian Devil. 

That didn’t stop the geniuses from labouring over every single line and contorted facial expression. Frozen in time, you see the craft that went into it all. That’s what makes them art. 

Keep on Trekkin’: How Strange New Worlds brings the fun back to Star Trek

Someone finally remembered to put the Trek back into Star Trek, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has arrived just in time for weary fans of the franchise. 

Star Trek has had a mixed decade or so – ever since the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies faded out with the underwhelming Nemesis, there’s been a growing sense that Star Trek isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.

Will it reboot and start over entirely, like the three Chris Pine-led movies? Will it boldly go in a new direction like the ballyhooed Star Trek: Discovery, or return to well-loved old friends like Star Trek: Picard? Will it make a hard swerve into animated satire like Lower Decks? With the latest spin-off – the eighth live-action Star Trek series, if you’re counting – Star Trek goes back to the basics, and Strange New Worlds is all the better for it.

Retro without being camp, Strange New Worlds is set on the USS Enterprise several years before Kirk became its captain. It follows Captain Christopher Pike (first seen in a few episodes of the ‘60s series) and his science officer Spock as the ship boldly goes to explore strange new… well, you get the idea.

Although it’s a prequel and weighed down by existing canon (including Pike’s grim ultimate fate), so far it’s a breezy ride that evokes the spirit of TOS – the original series – far more successfully than anything since The Next Generation. 

I maintain that one of the worst developments for television series was Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s embrace of the serialised “Big Bad,” in which the entire season leads up to a final confrontation with some menace. While Buffy was pretty great, it didn’t mean every single series needed to have a ‘Big Bad.’ The ‘Big Bad’ has become a plague on serialised television. Its bad influence can be seen in shows like the Arrow-verse superhero franchises, which were weakened by Big Bad envy and a constant desire to top themselves and up the menace. ST: Discovery and Picard are both guilty of this too (along with other flaws) and it’s kept these shows from living up to their predecessors.

I gave up on Discovery after the third season, where despite a lot of potential, the show seemed determined to be “the Michael Burnham Show” and never let any other characters have a chance to breathe, never let up from its bludgeoning insistence that it was deep and it mattered. It wasn’t fun. 

Strange New Worlds is fun. We’re only five episodes in, but already it feels like the best Trek in years. The rainbow-coloured uniforms inspired by the original series set the tone from the start.  Anson Mount’s Captain Pike is charismatic and stalwart, while Ethan Peck has the hard job of shadowing Leonard Nimoy’s inimitable Spock, but pulls it off pretty well. The crew is a mix of familiar characters – a very young Uhura, a spunky Nurse Chapel – and new, like Rebecca Romjin’s dynamic Number One and Christina Chong‘s La’an Noonien Singh, who shares an ancestry with a very famous Trek villain. 

Strange New Worlds is confident about what kind of Star Trek it wants to be from the word “engage.” Unlike Discovery, which flailed and reinvents itself each season, SNW is fully formed. In five episodes, we’ve already learned more about the crew’s bridge characters than I did over three seasons of Discovery. Star Trek is about the entire crew, not just a captain, and so far the old-school Enterprise’s team are an enjoyable group of well-worn Starfleet cliches and intriguing newcomers. 

What’s wrong with a good done-in-one story, anyway? So far, SNW has had a blast on the “mission of the week” stories The Next Generation and original series excelled at – miniature action movies with hefty doses of character development, humour and an epic sense of wonder. 

After 50-plus years, it’s hard to find new life in a franchise. While excavating the past and nostalgia are prime reason for Strange New Worlds’ existence, it wouldn’t work if the show itself wasn’t so darned endearing. It may stumble – after all, it’s only halfway through its first season – but at the moment, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is roaring along at warp speed. 

The madcap fun of Legends of Tomorrow, gone but not forgotten

Legends of Tomorrow was the superhero TV show for people who were a bit sick of superhero shows. When it decided to stop being faithful to the comics it was inspired by and just be its own weird thing, that’s when it became kind of great. 

The cancellation announcement after seven seasons wasn’t a surprise, but it’s a bummer. It was pretty much the last “Arrowverse” show I regularly watched (other than the excellent Superman and Lois, which isn’t really Arrowverse at all) and it was the one that did the best job of truly becoming its own unique self. I’m gonna miss it. 

Legends was originally a kind of “all-star squadron” of random characters from other Arrowverse shows, all with various DC comic book ties – Firestorm, Captain Cold, The Atom, White Canary, Rip Hunter, Hawkman – but it abandoned the costumes, evolved into a series of silly time travel adventures and went pretty far from its comic book-roots – which annoyed some fans, but probably gained it some, too. By the end, Caity Lotz’s iron-jawed White Canary was the only Season 1 cast member left, and any real resemblance to existing DC Comics characters was tangential indeed.  

It wasn’t afraid to be blissfully, curiously weird, something a lot of the current superhero movie glut fails to be. Legends had a madcap ‘80s Dr. Who meets silver age DC Comics vibe and leapt through history with merry abandon. No other show on television would have featured a psychic gorilla trying to assassinate young Barack Obama, a “tickle me Elmo” type toy becoming a Viking god of war, or a wrestling match in JFK’s Oval Office over nuclear armageddon. One week might feature David Bowie, the next a robot J. Edgar Hoover.

The show embraced the fact that a story of time-travel could really go anywhere, do anything, within budget, and as a result was far more creative and unpredictable week to week than the likes of Arrow and Flash. It built its own oddball cosmos and became a home for characters marooned from other shows, like Matt Ryan’s pitch-perfect John Constantine, who somehow managed to fit in. 

There were lows – Adam Tsekhman’s Gary Green was an awful scenery-chewing nerd parody before they finally gave him some more depth, and the all-time worst Legends character was the brief addition of Mona Wu, an awkward and annoying stereotype. It was admittedly past its peak – I hated seeing characters go like Brandon Routh’s endearing Ray Palmer, Dominic Purcell’s grouchy Mick Rory and charming Nick Zano as “Steel,” and later seasons introduced some replacement characters who never really clicked for me, like the alien-hunter Spooner. But Lotz’s Sarah Lance provided a kick-ass moral centre for the show as the assassin who matures into a den mother for a team of goofballs and weirdos, and her romance with Ava (Jes Macallan) was both inspirational and darned cute to watch unfold. 

Despite its flaws, Legends was consistently entertaining, week in and week out, even as the budgets shrank and the cast rotated and the show couldn’t match its big ambitions. It had a lot of heart, such as the season 7 episode where the cast successfully integrates World War II factories and wins a cheer from special guest star Eleanor Roosevelt, or the landmark 100th episode which paid tribute to the show’s twisting path and history. It was a show made with obvious love for its characters, a team of misfits inspired by C-list comic superheroes who became something much more along the way. 

Its demise (along with the less long-lived Batwoman) kind of marks the finale of the Arrowverse, although the now decidedly mediocre Flash will stumble along a bit longer and hopefully it might somehow give a bit of closure to the cliffhanger ending for the Legends. 

The Arrowverse was never perfect and many of the series would have benefitted by about half the number of episodes per season, but at its best – such as a far better Crisis on Infinite Earths live adaptation than I imagined possible – the Arrowverse was a lot of giddy fun, and Legends of Tomorrow was always the absurdist jester at the heart of that. Sail on, Wave Rider! 

My top pop-culture moments of 2021

And so, the curtain drops on 2021, a sequel that somehow managed to perform even worse than the blockbuster year 2020 did. Still, despite the grimness on personal fronts and the continuing stupidity of life in general, there were a few halfway decent moments. So, in the spirit of looking on the bright side, here’s my top pop-culture moments of 2021, with links back to some of the original posts about them.

Filling a Crowded House, in a brief pandemic oasisMy experience seeing Crowded House playing a packed Auckland arena back in March happened in New Zealand’s several blissful months of Covid-free life, before the Delta outbreak in August. It also was a life-affirming blast of a show, with Neil Finn and company delivering a celebratory concert of hits and new songs that just made you feel glad to still be here, alive and appreciative of all the things we took for granted pre-2020. There’s been a lot of times I’ve lost faith in humans the past two years, but at that one concert, a big crowd of us all singing and smiling felt kinda sorta all right. Here’s hoping going to big concerts again becomes normal soon.

The open-throated passion of John Cassavetes – A ‘discovery’ for me this year was the work of the late filmmaker John Cassavetes, who I’ve long been meaning to delve into. His work dating back from the late 1950s sparked much of independent film, and Cassavetes was determined to present life in its messy, often unexplainable complexity. In movies like Faces, A Woman Under The Influence and Husbands, people behave madly, inconsistently, and irrationally – like they often do in real life. His movies are a challenge, to be sure – the loose-limbed Husbands at times feels like a drunken TikTok video starring Peter Falk might – but even while they push and prod you, you find yourself thinking of them constantly the next day.

When big franchises take a few chances – I’m a fanboy, but I’ve admittedly burned out a bit on the assembly line of superhero movies and childhood classics being regurgitated over and over (did anyone really want another Ghostbusters?). So I was pleasantly surprised by two venerable franchises that didn’t play it entirely safe – James Bond in the long-delayed No Time To Die, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Without spoiling either, they took risks – ones that might not have satisfied every fan. James Bond faces challenges he never had before in No Time To Die and the ending was a disturbing but effective shocker. And the idea of a multiverse-straddling take on Spider-Man could easily have gotten overstuffed and absurd (I’ve ranted about the overuse of multiverses before), but instead, we got a story that embraces the idea of the shared cinematic history of franchises and characters who just keep coming back in a heartfelt, dignified way. There’s a reason it’s smashing box office records.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman – I had been meaning to read this series of books by Grossman for a while now, which could be broadly described as “Narnia/Harry Potter, but for grownups.” They tell a somewhat familiar story of a young magician, Quentin Coldwater, and his ups and downs learning magic and having brilliant, frightening adventures in fantastic lands. The Magicians books were perfect escapist reading during the dregs of Auckland’s lengthy lockdown, brisk and darkly enjoyable, with the imaginative flair of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and the solid characters of Harry Potter, but aimed at a slightly older audience who might like a bit of drinking and sex to spice things up. I read better books objectively this year, but these ones were among the most fun.

Superman, still the best superhero – It’s been a good time to be a fan of the man of steel. One of the best decisions the corporate overlords made a few years back is to let Superman finally marry Lois Lane, and to let them have a kid together. It’s allowed Superman to mature as a character into everybody’s ideal dad, and unlike some big changes to the status quo for comics characters, for now, this one seems to stick. On TV, I praised the superbly entertaining Superman and Lois, which combines spot-on casting with great Super-action and a show that’s not afraid to get emotional. In the comics, writer Brian Bendis finished up a suprisingly cool run that felt modern and daring yet true to the character, while the anthology series Superman: Red And Blue was an ideal summation of the character’s appeal with a variety of mostly excellent short stories starring Kal-El. Superman’s son, Jonathan Kent, who’s now a young adult, got his own title and it’s turned out to be one of the best new superhero comics of the year – a young, progressive and caring superhero (who’s also bisexual, which has gotten the usual suspects outraged). All in all, from the perspective of a rather troubled real world, Superman and his son seem more relevant than ever.

Lighting a Sparks – I admit I’m losing my touch with current pop culture as I settle into extreme middle age, but part of that is because there’s so darned much OLD pop culture to still enjoy. I was aware of Sparks and liked some of their work, but Edgar Wright‘s excellent documentary The Sparks Brothers triggered one of my famed full-fledged obsessive binges, as it spurred me to dig into the art-pop band’s hefty 50-year discography. It’s a delight to find a band you like and then find out that they’ve got literal mountains of material for you to enjoy.

Meeting Neil Gaiman, in strange days – I’ve always loved the Auckland Writers Festival, and like many things I loved it’s had rocky days during the Covid era. Fortunately, this year’s festival went off just fine in May, and a big highlight was getting a chance to meet one of the world’s biggest writers, Neil Gaiman, who’s been a bit of a New Zealand resident himself with his wife Amanda Palmer during the pandemic. I waited an hour or so to briefly meet Neil and have him sign a few of my favourite books after listening to some excellent talks he gave, but that was nothing compared to some who waited up to six hours. Neil was apparently as much a gentleman with the last person in line as he was with the first. They say never meet your idols, but getting a chance to tell them how much their work means to you is sometimes worth the wait.

Godzilla smashes up King Kong – Look, I know, it’s a big dumb old monster movie. But Godzilla Vs. Kong was, in my deep critical analysis, very, very good at being a big dumb old monster movie. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a well-played VHS tape of the 1962 King Kong Vs Godzilla that I unironically love. Maybe it’s because I saw it on a booming IMAX screen, just at the start of NZ’s pandemic-free idyll mentioned above, and because I could watch King Kong and Godzilla wrestle on aircraft carriers nearly life-size. I’m not saying it will win any Oscars. I’m not saying that it always makes sense or that most of the human characters are memorable. But you know, most of the classic Toho Godzilla movies are pretty wacky, too. With magnificent modern special effects and plenty of monster action, this heavyweight bout was worth the wait. Sometimes, you just want to see Godzilla punch through a building. Indeed, after a year like this one, who doesn’t want to do that themselves sometimes?

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

I’ve had a few posts half-written but life has kind of been overtaken by events here in New Zealand this week and it’s been a bit crazy as we deal with an unfortunate outbreak of the Delta variant. It’s been the first time in more than 6 months for any lockdown here and this is the strictest one since April 2020, but it’s a persistent beast of a disease out there…

Hopefully things will improve soon and most of us haven’t forgotten for a second how incredibly fortunate/lucky/grateful we’ve been not to have it as bad here as so many other places in the world have, and so many friends and family have suffered in the past 18 months or so.

In the meantime, I’ve been busy doing a lot of work with Radio New Zealand, and in bloggable content I wrote about 10 recent (and a couple not-so-recent) shows to watch during lockdown, which is applicable in an awful lot of places in this troubled world at the moment. Go and have a read!