Podcast: The Round Table, Season 3, Episode 1

The Round Table

The new season of The Round Table podcast focuses on building worlds for fiction and role-playing games. The season will consist of a series of discussions with authors, world creators and gaming enthusiasts, all leading up to International World Creation Month (IntWoCreMo for short) in January 2007.

Episode one is an introduction to the new season; Mick and Chris comment on their experiences at GenCon, we respond to listener feedback (including some discussion about Snakes on a Plane), outline our plans for the podcast in the upcoming months, and then dive right into a discussion about different approaches to world creation with guest co-host Julia.

If you haven’t listened to The Round Table in the past, this episode is an excellent opportunity to start, as it represents a reboot of sorts; an opportunity to take the show in an exciting new direction while still keeping the mythic themes that are the heart of the Harping Monkey.

Download Season 3, Episode 1.
Subscribe to The Round Table feed.

SciFi: Who Wants to Be a Superhero? (Episode 5)

The penultimate episode of Who Wants to Be a Superhero? was a mix of good and bad, with a heavy dose of ugly.

The Good

The challenges were actually decent this week.

First, the heroes made an appearance at an elementary school, where they were presented with a poster-sized version of the cover for their own comic book. After the unveiling, each hero spoke to the youngsters and answered their questions. Feedback explained how he got his powers, Fat Momma told the kids that their differences make them special, and Major Victory expounded upon the aerodynamic qualities of his hair.

After each hero had been given their moment in the spotlight, Stan Lee asked the kids to stand behind their favorite costumed crusader. Fat Momma had the most fans, while Feedback — whose presentation was a bit complex for young children — came in a distant thirdWord of advice to Feedback: You get your powers from video games. Pong shouldn’t even be on your list of favorite games, much less at the top..

The second challenge took place on the Universal CityWalk at Universal Studios Hollywood. The heroes were informed that Dark Enforcer was loose somewhere in the vicinity and only by following a series of clues could they locate him and foil his fiendish plan.

The first clue led the heroes to a woman wearing high heels with a tattoo above her ankle, who provided the next clue and a bottle of lotion. The second clue led to a heavyset man with a diamond earring; the third clue was written on his belly and back and could only be revealed by rubbing the lotion on him (or else it gets the hose again). The third clue led to a woman with a fancy purse containing thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents and the final clue, which revealed the location of Dark Enforcer.

Major Victory, as always, was hilarious as he ran through the CityWalk in search of each clue. Of all the heroes, Victory has been the most fun to watch since day one. From his mannerisms to the way he moves to the way he interacts with the citizens he seeks to protect, Major Victory has always been a consistent, colorful and dynamic character.

Feedback took the challenge very seriously and even though he’s not as fun to watch as Victory, he’s got the right attitude about being a hero. Upon finding the final clue, Feedback had an opportunity to win the time trial (though he wasn’t aware of it at the time) but stopped to pick up the coins he’d dropped and put them back in the woman’s purse before running off to find Dark Enforcer.

Major Victory and Feedback both completed the challenge in a little over fifteen minutes; Fat Momma, on the other hand, wandered around the CityWalk bumming french fries and chicken strips from various people while searching for the clues. Later, Stan Lee reported that it took Fat Momma forty minutes longer to locate Dark Enforcer than the other contestants.

The Bad

The challenges only lasted about half an hour.

Previous episodes generally consisted of a challenge followed by an elimination in the first half hour, followed by a second challenge and another elimination. With only three heroes left at the beginning of the show and another episode yet to come next week, there was only room for a single elimination in episode five. The elimination, of course, occured at the end of the episode. Unfortunately, both challenges had been completed by about 9:35, which left twenty-five minutes for…

The Ugly

As I mentioned last week, my theory of reality television is that the amount of drama is inversely proportional to the number of contestants remaining. The final half of episode five of Who Wants to Be a Superhero? certainly reinforces that theory; all three of the remaining heroes brought the melodrama to levels that would make your average daytime soap opera wince with embarrassment.

First, Fat Momma locked herself in the bathroom and refused to come out until she could speak with one of the show’s producers. It seems that Fat Momma was concerned that Feedback would not handle losing well, so she wanted to withdraw from the show. Eventually, Major Victory and Feedback came in for a big, weepy hugfest and Fat Momma decided to remain in the contest.

Then came the elimination. Stan called all of the heroes forward onto the red blocks, citing each of their failures: Feedback didn’t communicate with the children on their own level, Fat Momma didn’t take the CityWalk challenge seriously, and Major Victory — for all his enthusiasm — was not so much a hero as he was a parody of a hero. In the end, Major Victory was eliminated for the traits that made him so much fun to watch.

In a final fit of orchestrated tear-jerking, Stan arranged for a phone call between Major Victory and his estranged daughter. The “reconciliation” was almost as painful to watch as Fat Momma and Feedback holding hands as they waited to see which hero would be asked to leave or Lee’s “breakdown” at having to eliminate Victory.

And so the final episode will be a showdown between Fat Momma and Feedback. I don’t know if I can handle a full hour of their sob-sodden interactions and I’ve given up hope that Dark Enforcer is going to manage anything more dastardly than short-sheeting the heroes’ beds; but I’ve made it this far and I’m committed to watching the finale, even if doing so makes me want to burn every comic I’ve ever read in the hopes of eradicating the taint of what Who Wants to Be a Superhero? has become.

Podiobook Review: 7th Son: Descent by J.C. Hutchins

7th Son: DescentBack in April, I mentioned that I was very much hooked on the podcast novel 7th Son: Descent by J.C. Hutchins. I had started listening to the novel in preparation for having J.C. Hutchins on The Round Table and very quickly found myself drawn into the story.

Throughout the summer, I waited patiently for each new episode to appear in my personal feed from Podiobooks, and 7th Son shot to the top of my “Must Listen” list.

The story revolves around seven men who are abruptly pulled out of their normal lives and brought to a top secret facility where their true history is revealed. The seven men couldn’t be more different—from the hardcore marine to the musician to the computer hacker, the geneticist and the criminal psychologist—but they soon find out that they have more in common than anyone could have guessed. In fact, they are all clones of a man known as John Alpha, who engineered the recent assassination of the President of the United States.

Alpha’s intentions are unclear, but he leaves a trail of clues that only the clones—with their unique skills and their shared childhood memories—can decipher. Alpha has also kidnapped the clones’ “mother,” providing further incentive for them to unravel the mystery and follow their progenitor’s twisted path.

7th Son is a tight, gripping thriller with a healthy dose of near-future science fiction thrown in for good measure. Hutchins not only dives head first into cloning and its ramifications (one of the clones is Father Thomas, a Catholic priest who fears that he and his brethren have no souls), he also delves into memory transference and storing an individual’s personality and experiences in a massive supercomputer.

Descent covers a lot of ground, with tendrils of the story reaching out all across the United States and beyond, to military installations in the former Soviet Union. John Alpha has enlisted the aid of a mercenary named Doug Devlin, and in doing so has created his own personal army. To what end? The first book does not reveal the intricacies of Alpha’s plot, but there are two more installments to come.

Book Two, subtitled Deceit is set for release in late September. As with Book One, Deceit will be released in weekly installments, a format that has worked incredibly well so far. Every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, or with some new revelation that leaves the listener hungry for more. If Hutchins can maintain the momentum he built up in Descent, Book Two is bound to be one hell of an exciting roller coaster ride.

SciFi: Who Wants to Be a Superhero? (Episode 4)

The first episode of SciFi Channel’s superhero reality series was much better than I expected, but the show has been on a steady decline since. With episode four, Who Wants to Be a Superhero? has become the show I was afraid it would be from the beginning.

The transformation of Iron Enforcer to the super-villain, Dark Enforcer, continues to be a disappointment. This week, Dark Enforcer interviewed the friends and family of the heroes to dig up some dirt on the do-gooders. It turns out that eco-friendly Creature has been a bit of a litterbug in days gone by, Fat Momma isn’t always so body-positive, Major Victory may or may not have worn a thong, Lemuria isn’t above using her sex appeal to get what she wantsHow this could come as a shock to anyone is beyond me; in her original costume Lemuria was one jiggle away from a citation for indecent exposure., and Feedback has a very messy desk.

Here’s a tip for Dark Enforcer: Villains don’t interview the people closest to heroes, they kidnap them. Fat Momma’s momma should be cooling her heels in a non-descript storage container on the docks, Feedback’s wife should be tied to a chair and videotaped pleading for her life, and the other heroes’ so-called “friends” (who were only too eager to rat out their buddies) should be dangling over vats of acid and toxic chemicals. Come on, Enforcer, grow a pair and get with the program!

Unfortunately, the obnoxious hero turned gutless villain isn’t the only factor contributing to the downward spiral of Who Wants to Be a Superhero? The heroes faced two challenges this week; the first wasn’t bad, but the second was simply ridiculous.

Given a little time to themselves, the heroes took to the streets, intent on helping Joe and Jane Citizen muddle through their daily lives. Creature gave clothes to the homeless, Major Victory helped little old ladies cross the street, Lemuria thwarted jaywalkers and Feedback protected children from the evils of storefront lingerie displays.

Back at the lair, Dark Enforcer sprang his evil interviews on the surprised heroes and Stan Lee chastised each of them in turn, then asked Major Victory, Fat Momma and Creature to step forward and defend themselves. In the end, Creature’s apparent hypocrisy and her illegal activities earlier in the day (she jaywalked while delivering clothing to the homeless) were the deciding factors; she was asked to turn in her costume.

The second challenge was simply ludicrious. The heroes traveled to a prison, where they were given secret goals to accomplish while interacting with the inmates.A disclaimer in the show’s end credits revealed that the inmates were actually actors, but assured that the heroes were unaware of the ruse. The secret goals were:

  1. Sit on the inmate’s lap for ten seconds. Lemuria immediately chose this goal.
  2. Brush the hair off the inmate’s face three times. This one went to Fat Momma.
  3. Rub the inmate’s shoulders three times. Major Victory selected this one.
  4. Hug the inmate three times. Feedback chose this goal.

The purpose of this challenge was ostensibly to test the heroes’ ability to perform a “covert operation under stressful conditions,” and the convicts were to provide the stress. Prior to interacting with the inmates, the heroes had to sign a statement wherein they accepted liability for conditions “including, but not limited, to bodily injury, hostage situation or death.”

The problem with this challenge is that there was nothing inherently heroic about it. Take Lemuria’s covert assignment, for example: the only time sitting in someone’s lap should ever be considered heroic is when you are two years old and the lap in question belongs to a mall Santa Claus. Lemuria was none too subtle, waiting all of five seconds before attempting to saddle up. This didn’t go over well with her assigned convict, a surly, burly woman. I suspect the other inmate, an equally surly and just as burly man, would have been far more receptive to the idea of having the scantily-clad heroine park her bottom on his knee.

Fat Momma, Major Victory and Feedback all fared much better than Lemuria, each of them managing to accomplish their covert tasks despite the inmates’ uncooperative attitude. Watching the heroes struggle to complete their assignments, it seemed that the purpose of the challenge was more to ridicule to contestants than to prove their mettle.

Later, on the roof of the secret lair, Stan Lee called Major Victory and Lemuria forward. Lee again chided Major Victory, claiming that “a superhero never takes off his costume under any circumstances.” During the inmate challenge, Victory had removed his cape and gloves after the convict said he looked like an idiot.

The issue with Major Victory’s costume and clothing has come up before; in an earlier episode, another hero criticized Victory for having been a male stripper in the past, and near the beginning of episode four Major Victory removed his cape, laying it at the feet of the little old ladies a la Sir Walter Raleigh as he helped them cross the street.

To borrow an idea from Stephen Colbert, I’m putting Stan Lee on notice. Why? Because every single time Stan Lee addresses the heroes, he does so via video monitor from a remote location, and mounted on the wall behind him is a poster of Stripperella, the stripping superheroine Lee created for Spike TV in 2003.

Stan Lee

Though her show aired for only one season, you can be certain that Stripperella removed more than her gloves and cape in both her civilian guise as dancer Erotica Jones and in her role as an agent of F.U.G.G.I have no idea what it stands for. Perhaps Stan Lee needs to have a look behind him before he wags a finger at Major Victory again.

Despite being on the chopping block twice this episode, Major Victory managed to survive. In the end, it was Lemuria — the only hero to fail the inmate challenge — who had to turn in her costume.

Lemuria’s departure was just as melodramatic as Ty’Veculus’ in episode three. In fact, the entire show has become weighed down with the kind of weepy, sniffling, overblown drama that inevitably creeps into reality programs as the number of contestants drops. Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse, as next week promises “the elimination so tragic it breaks Stan ‘The Man.'”

There are three heroes (Fat Momma, Feedback and Major Victory) left and only two episodes remaining. Despite the show’s descent into melodramatic farce, I’m curious enough to continue watching. I strongly suspect that Feedback will be the victor, if only because his hero would make the best story for a SciFi Original movie.

Two-Minute Review: Snakes on a Plane

After we saw Snakes on a Plane last night, Chris Miller and I did a quick, two-minute audio review which has been posted to The Round Table and Escape Pod feeds. If you’re subscribed to either of those (and fans of speculative fiction should definitely be subscribed to Escape Pod), it’s probably already in your podcatcher. If you’re not a subscriber, here’s a direct link to the review.

Movie Review: Snakes on a Plane

Snakes on a PlaneSnakes on a Plane (2006)

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips, Rachel Blanchard, Flex Alexander, Keith Dallas, Lin Shaye, Bruce James, Sunny Mabrey, Casey Dubois, Daniel Hogarth, Gerard Plunkett, Terry Chen, Elsa Pataky, Bobby Cannavale, David Koechner, Todd Louiso, Bryan Lawson and Fat Albert.

Directed by David R. Ellis.

Normally, I watch movies to escape reality. The characters and situations captured in celluloid are larger than life and fantastical, far removed from the people and events that I encounter on a daily basis. Snakes on a Plane, however, is different. As outlandish as it may seem, I found the movie to be a chilling reflection of a terrifying incident from my own past.

I don’t recall who first discovered that the ceiling in my parents’ basement had become home to a number of snakes, but some of my memories of removing those snakes are quite vivid. The serpentine squatters ranged in length from ten inches to nearly three feet and we extracted a total of twenty-four of them from various hidey-holes above our heads.

Though he is not an FBI agent, my father—like Agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson)—quickly took control of the situation, directing the removal process and even constructing extraction tools designed specifically to reach into the nook and crannies in which the vipers hid and retrieve them with minimal risk to life and limb.

The serpents in Snakes on a Plane are certainly more aggressive than those we evicted from the basement ceiling, not to mention more numerous and in most cases considerably larger. Another significant difference between the movie and my real-life experience (apart from the obvious lack of a plane in the latter) is the amount of profanity uttered by Samuel L. Jackson. Seriously, my father could show him a thing or two about the effective use of colorful metaphor in problem resolution.

Uncanny similarity to my own life aside, Snakes on a Plane is a fun movie.Unless you’re the guy behind me who, as the end credits began to roll, complained to his enthusiastic friend that it was “retarded.” It had everything I expected (snakes, plane, Samuel L. Jackson, profanity, and ass-kicking) and a little bit more (Mile-High Club, yappy dog, perturbed Brit and SnakeVision™).

The story (yes, there’s a story) concerns Agent Neville Flynn attempting to escort Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) from Hawaii to Los Angeles. Sean is a vital witness against crime lord Eddie Kim (Bryan Lawson), who arranges to have a large number of snakes released on Pacific Flight 121 in order to cause a fatal crash into the Pacific Ocean. It’s not the most direct method of eliminating a witness, but Eddie definitely gets points for creativity.

Once released, the snakes are attracted to the pheremone-laced leis each passenger received when boarding the flight. The first kill (speaking of leis) occurs in one of the lavatories, where an amorous couple’s coupling is cut short by a slithering voyeur who drops in through the smoke detector. The flight attendants are serious when they warn against tampering with those, and the penalty on Pacific Flight 121 is death.

The snakes continue to kill people in a variety of clever, amusing and visually-disturbing ways.Actually, there are only two ways the snakes kill, aren’t there? They either use their strong coils to squeeze the life out of their unfortunate prey or—more commonly—strike with their fangs, pumping neurotoxins into the victim’s blood. The clever, amusing and visually-disturbing bit is where the snakes choose to bite their victims. To make matters worse, the slithering serpents slip into the plane’s electrical systems and cause all sorts of trouble with the avionics. Bad is being on a plane with snakes. Worse is being on a crashing plane with snakes.

Once Agent Flynn gets wind of the problem, the asp-kicking commencesYeah, I went there.. Flynn’s initial weapon of choice is his handy taser, which he wields with all the flair and style you might expect from a Jedi Knight brandishing a lightsaber. The taser is soon replaced with a broken bottle, a makeshift flamethrower, a spear gun and eventually a semi-automatic pistol as Flynn makes it perfectly clear that he is not at all happy that the aircraft has been overrun with reptiles.

Snakes on a Plane is cheesy, but it’s big budget cheesy, like gourmet Velveeta. It’s a lot of fun to watch, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and delivers exactly what the title promises. On the entirely arbitrary, unpatented, untrademarked 27-point KJToo rating system, I give Snakes on a Plane a very respectable 22.

Samuel L. Jackson: 8 – “You either want to see that, or you don’t.” Jackson has a great attitude about this movie, and he plays exactly the character I wanted him to. The only reason he doesn’t get the full nine points is that he let that punk-ass hip-hop star (Flex Alexander) get the drop on him.

Snakes (on a motherf***ing plane): 7 – For the most part, I thought the snakes looked pretty darn good except for a few scenes where some of them were clearly computer-generated. Also, I wasn’t always clear on their motivations. Sure, they were attracted to the pheremones in the leis, but I just wasn’t feeling it. They did manage to startle me a couple of times, though, so I won’t ding them too much.

Audience Participation: 7 – Normally, the only thing I want to hear out of the audience is nothing. Tonight, however, I was surprised to find that I was clapping and cheering right along with the other moviegoers when the title appeared on the screen, and then again when Samuel L. Jackson appeared, and then again when we caught our first glimpse of the snakes. There were a few occasions when the audience was a little too enthusiastic, though, and I missed a few lines of dialogue that were buried beneath the cheering.

Coming Soon: Snakes on a Plane

This is what I had to say (in the KJToo forums) about Snakes on a Plane back on 03 October 2005:

There are apparently snakes. On a plane.

That’s the actual title of the movie, by the way. Snakes on a Plane. Why is Samuel L. Jackson in this movie? Does he owe someone a favor and/or vast amounts of money? Maybe he lost a bet.

The director, David R. Ellis, has mostly done stunt work. That doesn’t bode well. He was also a second unit director on Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone and The Matrix Reloaded, so maybe… wait, The Matrix Reloaded? Gah. Forget I said anything.

Still, Snakes on a Plane has a certain traffic accident appeal to it. Or maybe it’s more like the sensation you get when you’re looking over the edge of Niagara Falls. You know, there’s part of you that just wants to jump into the raging water, even though you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that to do so would be Bad with a capital B.

Four days later, I read an interview on Collider.com with Samuel L. Jackson and this quote caught my eye:

Samuel L. Jackson: You either want to see that, or you don’t.

Mr. Jackson’s attitude about the movie was enough to make me reconsider my initial trepidation. When you’re talking about a movie called Snakes on a Plane, there really shouldn’t be any question in your mind about what you can expect to see. Consider On Golden Pond. There’s a title that reveals little — if anything — about the content of the movie. How would you, as a potential viewer, know if On Golden Pond would be of interest to you? Well, you’d have to watch a trailer, or maybe read a summary of the plot. Snakes on a Plane has a summary of the plot built right into the title, and “you either want to see that, or you don’t.”

As someone who has watched nearly every snake movie aired on the SciFi Channel in the past three years, I would definitely fall into the “want to see that” demographic; but watching King Cobra for free on the SciFi Channel and shelling out eight bucks to see it in the theater are two very different things. There’s no way I’m plunking down eight of my hard earned dollars for the privilege of watching the monster-of-the-week movie on SciFi.

That’s where Samuel L. Jackson comes in. His mere presence is enough to elevate Snakes on a Plane from “I’ll watch it Saturday night on SciFi” to “I’ll pay to see it in a theater.” Maybe not for you, but certainly for me; maybe not for every movie, but certainly for Snakes on a Plane.

Plus, Snakes on a Plane is something of a phenomenon; a movie that generated an almost instant cult following before a single frame made its way to the Internet. The buzz created last fall was enough to make the New Line keep the original name (they had considered changing the title to Pacific Air 121) and even shoot some additional scenes to—get this—increase the gore and profanity in order to bump the MPAA rating from PG-13 to R.

Samuel L. Jackson is on a plane with snakes. You needn’t be Nostradamus to predict that the presence of snakes on the plane will not make Samuel L. Jackson happy. Is it worth $8.25 (plus $1 Fandango processing fee) to see just how Mr. Jackson deals with the snakes? I’ll let you know Friday morning.

Movie Review: Ultimate Avengers 2 (2006)

Ultimate Avengers 2 (DVD)Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise of the Panther (2006)

Starring Justin Gross, Grey DeLisle, Michael Massee, Marc Worden, Olivia d’Abo, Nan McNamara, Nolan North, Andre Ware, Dave Boat, Fred Tatasciore, James K. Ward, Jeffrey D. Sams, Dave Fennoy, Howlin’ Mad Murdock and Luke Skywalker.

Directed by Curt Geda and Steven E. Gordon.

Before I launch into my review of Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise of the Panther, I want to mention that my seven-month-old son, Kyle, loves the Ultimate Avengers series, as evidenced by this photo. ((I’d say he eats it up, but that would be going too far.))

And another thing: if spoilers make you want to smash puny humans, you may want to stop reading now.

Rise of the Panther is the sequel to Ultimate Avengers: The Movie, which was based on The Ultimates a re-imagining of Marvel Comics’ popular long-running series, The Avengers. If you were a fan of The Avengers or other Marvel (Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.) titles between the mid-1960’s and the turn of the century, these aren’t quite the heroes you may be used to.

The story continues where the first Ultimate Avengers movie left off: after defeating the alien Chitauri, Captain America is haunted by events from his past, Hank and Janet Pym continue to have marital difficulties, Thor is rebelling against his father, and Bruce Banner is imprisoned in a special S.H.I.E.L.D. holding cell to ensure that the Hulk will not wreak further havoc.

Unbeknownst to the heroes, Herr Klieser—the Chitauri shape-shifter who has taken the guise of a Nazi officer—survived his encounter with the Avengers. Kleiser has surfaced in Wakanda, a small, insular African nation not unfamiliar with the alien invaders. Kleiser clashes with T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda who—in the guise of the Black Panther—also acts as its protector. T’Chaka is killed in his encounter with Kleiser and his son, T’Challa, ascends to the throne.

T’Challa travels to the West to solicit the advice of Captain America. The Avengers are only too eager to eliminate the Chitauri threat in Wakanda, but all outsiders are treated as enemies. T’Challa risks losing the throne if he allows the Avengers to set foot on Wakandan soil.

The Avengers, aware of the threat the Chitauri represent, are determined to help the Wakandans fight off the alien menace. This leads directly to the Avengers getting their collective butts handed to them on a vibranium platter by the crafty Wakandans.

To make matters worse, Kleiser masquerades as the Black Panther in order to gain access to the Avengers’ ship. The Chitauri causes all kinds of trouble before escaping in a small landing craft just before the ship is destroyed. The Avengers go limping home with a major morale problem, Janet Pym in a coma and Iron Man needing some serious body work.

Eventually, the Wakandans come to their senses, thanks largely to the giant Chitauri ship that parks itself directly over the country and covers the sky with a translucent green membrane from which descend thousands of ships and multi-legged ground assault vehicles.

Of course, the only way to defeat the Chitauri mothership is to fly into the belly of the beast and cut out its heart. There are two analogies to this: the assault on the second Death Star and Will Smith’s assault on the mothership in Independence Day. In this case, Iron Man is the Milennium Falcon and Hank Pym is Jeff Goldblum. Or maybe Iron Man is Lando Calrissian, the gamma cannon is a computer virus and Hank Pym is Nien Nunb. It’s also possible that Hank Pym is Pinocchio, but then things start to get complicated. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s been done.

In the end, Hank Pym sacrifices himself just to show Janet that he’s a real hero, the Chitauri are defeated, Thor defibrillates Iron Man with mystical lightning and an Uru hammer, Bruce Banner hulks out and escapes his prison, and Captain America starts macking on the Black Widow. Hello!

All in all, Rise of the Panther isn’t bad. The animation is on par with the first installment, if not a little better; the voice acting is just as good, but the story could have been stronger. I’m also noticing a pretty significant departure from the story presented in the comic books (though I am a few issues behind on The Ultimates 2, as I’m waiting for the next trade paperback to be released), particularly in the areas of “babes with whom Captain America is hooking up” and “heroes who are not breathing anymore.”

There is no commentary track on the DVD, nor is there a trivia track such as there was on Ultimate Avengers: The Movie. Special features include a featurette on The Ultimates with commentary by creators Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada and others, “The Ultimate Gag Reel,” which contains some amusing “outtakes” from Ultimate Avengers: The Movie, the “What Avenger Are You?” DVD-ROM game, ((This appears to be identical to the game that was included on the Ultimate Avengers: The Movie DVD, right down to the fact that I’m Iron Man. I. Am. Iron Man.)) and first looks at two upcoming Lions Gate/Marvel animated features: Iron Man and Doctor Strange.

SciFi: Who Wants to Be a Superhero? (Episode 3)

This week, the heroes were introduced to their new nemesis, Dark Enforcer ( Iron Enforcer), who showed up full of malevolent bluster but then disappeared again. The Iron Enforcer’s ridiculously huge gun would have made mincemeat of the heroes, but it was nowhere to be seen. This is why super-villains so often fail to defeat their do-gooder rivals: lack of planning and wasted opportunities.

Meeting your arch-rival is hungry work, so Stan Lee gave each of the heroes twenty bucks and sent them out — in full costume — to get lunch from a nearby takeout place. The food they each brought back, Lee said, would tell a lot about them. When all the heroes had returned, Dark Enforcer unveiled his insidious trap: the turncoat had hidden cameras throughout the restaurant and bribed the waitstaff to ask the heroes some very revealing questions.

The true test: can you keep your secret identity a secret? Only Feedback and Fat Momma wouldn’t reveal their alter egos to the waitstaff. Major Victory, who had passed all previous tests, gave up his real name without a second thought, Ty’veculus actually showed the waitress his driver’s license, and Creature gave her real name but not her superhero name.

Ultimately, Monkey Woman was eliminated; she offered up her real name before the waiter had a chance to ask, then wrote down the addresses of several web sites he could visit to apply for spots in reality television shows. The final straw: Monkey Woman’s alter ego is apparently not a real estate agent, as her application claimed, but an actress. After such a strong performance against the dogs last week, it was a shame to see Monkey Woman eliminated.

The second challenge of the week was a rooftop rescue. The heroes had to cross a beam connecting one rooftop to another in order to rescue a woman from a fire. Once again, Dark Enforcer showed up to complicate matters. He forced each of the heroes to wear a blindfold during their daring rescue attempt, concealing the fact that the beam they were crossing was not suspended over an alley, as they thought, but only inches above a mat laid out on the roof.

Despite the blindfolds and (in some cases) a fear of heights, each of the heroes succesfully crossed the beam and then led the frightened young lady (actually the twin sister of the woman on the other rooftop) to safety. Because no one failed the challenge, Stan decided to give the heroes a taste of what it feels like to pass judgment; each was asked to pick the hero they felt ought to leave the show and explain why.

Creature went first, and fell on her sword. Major Victory followed suit, declaring that he should be asked to leave. Ty’veculus selected Lemuria, claiming that by completing the rooftop challenge she proved she doesn’t know when to quit. Lemuria was next, and she also chose herself. Feedback admitted that he might be holding the other heroes back and should probably be eliminated. Finally, Fat Momma suggested that Feedback was taking things far too seriously, beating himself up after each challenge, and ought to be asked to leave for his own good.

Some of the heroes learned their lesson from the takeout challenge: nothing is as it seems. Stan Lee revealed that the exercise was a test of self-sacrifice, and that Ty’veculus and Fat Momma had failed. Fat Momma was somewhat redeemed by the fact that she appeared to be concerned for Feedback’s safety when she chose him for elimination, but Stan suggested that Ty’veculus’ reasons for selecting Lemuria were not as noble. Next time you point a finger, Ty’veculus, remember that there are three fingers pointing right back at you.

With Monkey Woman and Ty’veculus out of the picture, only five heroes remain: Creature, Fat Momma, Feedback, Lemuria and Major Victory. The third episode cranked up the drama big time. During the self-sacrifice test, several of the heroes opened the waterworks and praised their fellow contestants while throwing themselves to the lions, when Ty’veculus was eliminated the remaining heroes gathered around him for an emotional farewell, and at multiple points during the episode, Fat Momma and Lemuria verbally sparred. Without Iron Enforcer in the ranks as a quick, easy target, some tensions are starting to build where there didn’t seem to be any before.

This was easily the weakest of the episodes thus far. Major Victory had a few amusing quips (after his performance in the takeout test, he suggested that he was a weiner, not a winner, and his name ought to be changed to Major Dumbass), but the opportunities for his cheesy brand of heroism were a little scarce this time around. Plus, the introduction of Dark Enforcer seems to have done little more than make the heroes bicker among themselves; he needs to kick his villainy up a notch if he wants to be interesting and represent a real challenge. I suggest sharks with frickin’ LASER beams attached to their heads.

TV: Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels

“Tell me something,” I said as eleven o’clock loomed. “Did you expect to wind up watching a reality show about Gene Simmons tonight?”

“No,” Laura admitted. “And I certainly didn’t expect to enjoy it.”

I’ll be honest: when I learned late last week that A&E would be doing a reality show about Gene Simmons and his familyThink of it as a coherent, intelligible version of The Osbournes., the KISS frontman wasn’t my primary motivation for tuning in. No, the reason I wanted to watch is Simmons’ girlfriend of twenty-three years, former Playboy Playmate Shannon Tweed.

Oh, yeah. I’m that shallow.

Let’s get this out of the way so we can move on: Shannon Tweed, at 49 years of age, is still smokin’ hot. She also seems to be very grounded, intelligent, and a good mother.If she were my mother, I would have to punch every one of my male friends in the face on a daily basis, because I know what’s going on in their heads.

Whatever my motivations for watching, the show isn’t called Shannon Tweed’s Family JewelsThat would make me re-evaluate several aspects of my young adulthood, probably with the help of a therapist., so let’s talk about The Demon for a bit. I’m not a big KISS fan, but there is certainly something to be said for rocking and rolling all night, not to mention the partying every day that naturally follows. However, I’m more familiar with the roles that Gene and his fellow KISSians (Peter, Paul, Mary, John, George and Ringo, I believe) portray in their stage show than I am with their music, thanks largely to comic books and video gamesUnfortunately, I’ve never seen their movie, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.; the only real exposure I’ve had to Gene Simmons without the makeup is the 1984 movie Runaway.Runaway, one of the first movies I ever saw on glorious VHS video, scared the living crap out of me. Spiders are bad enough; robot spiders that inject you with acid are the stuff of my nightmares.

Turns out that Gene Simmons is a doting father who has a fear of marriage, doesn’t know where the laundry chute is, and likes to sleep in footie pajamas. At least, that’s the Gene Simmons we see in Family Jewels. The first episode surrounds a surprise birthday party for Shannon that turns into an ambush wedding for Gene when Ms. Tweed gets wind of the plot. After the smoke has cleared, Gene discusses the event with his mother, assuring her that it was a joke, but mom seems unconvinced. If there was a rabbi, she asserts, it was a wedding.

In the second episode, Gene tries to help his 16-year-old son, Nick, get started down the path to rock and roll stardom while Shannon takes 13-year-old daughter, Sophie, to a fashion show and advises a few would-be players that the lass is very much jailbait. Gene designs logos for Nick’s band, books a gig for them at a local venue, and hires a plane to fly a banner promoting the gig, all to Nick’s dismay. The interplay between Gene and his son (and his son’s bandmates, who seem to regard the rock legend as something of a dork) is quite amusing, as are Shannon’s efforts to fend off the sleazy men trying to make a move on her daughter. It’s far from the Cleavers, but it’s also far more entertaining than I ever expected it to be.