Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reviewing Spawn Year

Hey y'all.  So one of the channels I'm subscribed to on Youtube is Geekvolution, a channel where a guy, Captain Logan (as he calls himself), and his friends commentate on movies, television, and whatnot.  I originally found the channel through his "Treksperts" videos, where he nerds out about Star Trek.  There's something inherently relaxing about reviews for me, and it's nice to have longer videos to play in the background when I'm doing something, so that there's a "noise" going on.  While playthroughs of Starcraft are generally my go-to for sewing projects, Starcraft has only four games at this point.  I have to have a spare something.

Captain Logan generally comments on Pixar films, superhero films, and television shows like Arrow. Since he does a lot of content, there's always something on his channel I can put on when I'm bored. By far, my favorite of the reviews he does, besides his Star Trek stuff, is his year long project, Spawn Year.  Spawn is a comic written (most of the time) by Todd MacFarlane, and apparently was pretty popular at one time.  I didn't know much about it before, but Spawn comics and toys appeared in my used bookstore from time to time.  They never looked appealing at all.

But Captain Logan is into comics, and given that Spawn was really popular, it makes sense that this would get a review.  Despite never being tempted to read Spawn, Cap really drew me in with a creative premise: it's New Year's Eve, and, after telling his wife he'll hang out with her in a minute, continues to work on reviewing Spawn.  However, one last Mountain Dew later, and he sinks into a sugar coma, waking in purgatory.  The evil DoomsVince, the clone he created of his best friend, tells him he can leave, but only if he reviews one Spawn related item every day for a year.  If he fails, he has to be buried alive in Spawn products for all of eternity.  Since DoomsVince hates Captain Logan, he continually does things throughout the year to get him to stop reviewing.

This is an excellent premise, and ends up becoming a massive story.  Like the premise implies, Captain Logan went on to post 365 different videos of Spawn reviews.  It took him more than a year, but it's pretty impossible for him to get this kind of work done and post one video a day for a year. He does have a wife and son, and I don't know if he earns enough ad revenue from his videos to avoid having another job.  Not to mention the costs of buying all the Spawn products he didn't yet own before filming, plus any of his set dressings and costumes.  Plus, he genuinely does review the Spawn stuff, not to mention writing each review down in notebooks, as DoomsVince has required in the story.  That's a lot of work.

Huh, Cap should really auction off those review books, or something.  Unless he wants to keep them for himself, I suppose.  He could make some money.

Well, before I get into the real nitpickery, here's a spoiler-free review.  This is a show well worth watching, especially if you don't want to read Spawn for yourself.  It's not a great comic, so you miss nothing by not reading it.

Generally speaking, the story was good.  Lots of things happen during the year, and Cap always tries his hardest to make sure that it's not just a matter of the reviews, but something is going on with his character at all times as well.  The viewers are very invested into what happens to him, and how he plans on getting out of his Mountain Dew coma.  Not to mention what would have happened to his wife and son during that time he was gone.

There's a major change around halfway through Spawn Year, and it's after this point that it's clear the whole year long reviews is starting to wear down on Captain Logan.  There isn't as much character stuff for him to do, and what is there...well, it just doesn't stand up to the first half of his character moments.  Spawn Year suddenly became about something else.  I'll get into that a little more when I do my spoiler commentary, but for now I'll just say that while it never got dull, there needed to be some sort of fresh infusion of creativity to keep the tension in the second half as high as it was in the first.  

Let's talk about some of the production stuff.  Keep in mind that Captain Logan is just a regular, geeky guy.  He's not someone with a huge lot of animation experience, a lot of money to spend, or the best video equipment in the world.  There's only so much he can do to produce a "television show" on his channel.  His first setting, the graveyard, is quite obviously a raid on a Halloween store, complete with styrofoam gravestones, toy pitchfork for Vince, and metal skull with a battery-powered tealight in it.  

That being said, I find the cheapness of the set extremely charming.  There's something about the glitz and glam of modern movie-making that I find overdone.  It's sort of like "Star Wars prequels syndrome" -- everything is digitally perfected, to the point where computer generated imagery is stale and boring.  To me, the Goro puppet in the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie is more exciting than the entire film of Avatar.  Why?  Because there is, somewhere, a real puppet with four arms and the kind of face that gives kids nightmares.  Digital stuff, on the other hand, is stuff the viewer knows doesn't exist.  It doesn't impress me that someone spent 72 hours sitting in front of a computer to produce a thing.  It does impress me that a team of puppeteers managed to make a puppet that looks like it can kill you.

Captain Logan's efforts to create creepy and odd environments are fun because you can see what he did to make them possible.  It's a testament to the efforts of anyone who wants to try to make a story, but doubt their abilities to create something that looks good.  You don't need a lot of bells and whistles to make something people are interested in.  You need good story and a willingness to try different things.  Captain Logan has that.  For example, the plot heavily revolves on his dependence on Mountain Dew.  The way that plot point is handed takes the idea of a guy with his face painted green (as happens at one point) from ridiculous to disturbing.  All a person has to do to make an effect work is convince the audience that it makes sense.

Besides, you know you're having fun when you watch a guy film a story obviously in his house, and obviously with his friends and family.  It makes the story feel more engrossing.  To be fair, one's enjoyment of Spawn Year does depend heavily on one's ability to accept a cheap set and a collection of non-experts.  While any story-driven person is bound to find that the story more than makes up for the cheap sets, there are people who won't think so.  Still, their channel is called "Geekvolution", so anyone watching is bound to care more about concept than execution.  Nerd and geeks tend to be that way.

Despite these comments, there are some good effects in the show.  DoomsVince's floating head throughout several episodes is nice, as is how they made sure that a disembodied head can play a board game.  

Can I just say, it's pretty funny that Mountain Dew becomes the personification of evil in Spawn Year.  I don't touch Pepsi products anymore because of their association with Senomyx, a company that uses human cells to test their flavors, and it makes this whole year more intense as a result. Coca-Cola's rivalry even becomes a plot point later on.  I love it

As for the review aspect of the show, it works for me.  Captain Logan is fair in his reviews of Spawn, never hesitating to criticize or praise any aspect of the Spawn comics, as is appropriate.  While I don't want to give too much away, I have to mention that quality of Cap's reviews does hinge heavily on the quality of the comic itself.  Let's just leave it at that, for now.

The ending of Spawn Year didn't quite meet up to my expectations, but it was pretty good when taken on its own.  The concept was better than the execution, but there were a couple of things Cap could have done to make it better.  Still, if you want to see something that's exactly the kind of creativity that Youtube was created to display, then you should watch Spawn Year. 

Link to first episode:

And now for some spoilers.  

Not too many, though.  For one thing, there too many videos, and that would take a lot of time. Also, I know there are going to be people who ignore the spoiler warning and go on.  Human nature, and all.

I greatly enjoy the first 3/5th of Spawn Year.  My favorite part of Spawn Year is when Captain Logan is trapped in the graveyard.  The plot goes that the graveyard is one small area in a vast, dark place that happens to have other focal points here and there.  It's implied that everything in the vast blackness is something that DoomsVince thought of and brought into being. The reason why this works is because it's a place of infinite creativity.  Anything that is necessary for the plot can happen. There's no limits.

The second setting appears long into the year, and it's about the opposite of the first: it's an alleyway that can't be escaped.  Captain Logan is stuck there for the rest of the show, except at the whims of Tiny Adam West, the newest master of the situation.  Cap can't explore his new world on his own, and Tiny Adam West, who has recruited Captain Logan to fight against the forces of Coca-Cola, doesn't take him out of the alley much.

This really shrinks the possibilities of Spawn Year, not only in terms of what Logan can do, but also in terms of what can be shot.  Since there was no limit on what DoomsVince could put in front of Cap, and Cap himself could explore his surroundings, there was a lot of location change to keep the story fresh.

Also, the idea of Tiny Adam West just doesn't work.  For one thing, DoomsVince is a direct antagonist of Logan, so thinks up many creative ways to bother his victim.  Tiny Adam West just sends Cap to training sessions on occasion.  His presence isn't felt every day.  For another, Tiny Adam West is Captain Logan's small son, Jayson, in a Batman mask.

To me, this is the point where Spawn Year went down a notch.  Before this, the cheap sets and friends as actors were all charming.  But casting a little boy in such a role is far too "behind the scenes."  Now, Jayson is a cute guy, and he had been on Spawn Year prior to that point.  But it made sense before, as Jayson only played a simulation of himself, meant to torture Logan and make him give in to despair.  But with Jayson now as a major supporting character, it doesn't work.  A little cute person in a Batman mask is not frightening or dramatic in any way, especially if Captain Logan is supposed to be involved in an epic battle between the world's largest soda companies.

Though the idea of a war between the companies is great.  Even if it weren't for Senomyx, it still makes sense that Coca-Cola would be the representatives of good -- have you ever noticed the difference between Pepsi and Coke commercials?  Pepsi commercials are all about proving they're better than Coke.  For example, there was one where they showed the Coca-Cola polar bears turning brown and giving up their Coke for Pepsi.  Coke, on the other hand, does commercials that are pleasant and cute: polar bears play and share Cokes happily.  Does anyone remember those "Life tastes good" commercials?  There was one where a guy and his friends were all coming home from a concert on a train.  The guy's friends were asleep, but he was having a nice little moment, just enjoying everything as he drinks a Coke.  Aw.

In Spawn Year, this is a parallel to the Spawn comics themselves, where in Todd MacFarlane's world Heaven and Hell are both selfish entities, out to claim as many souls as they can for an ultimate battle between the two, and Spawn is a pawn in the middle.  While this philosophy is ultimately a self-defeating one (this becomes clear as the Spawn comics go on), it's still a funny parallel.  Pepsi and Coke can fight all they like, but at the end of the day both drinks are still bad for you.  And Captain Logan is still caught in the middle.  

On the other hand, this battle wasn't portrayed well.  It isn't a matter of production (except where Jayson is concerned), but rather a lack of creative ideas.  Captain Logan is supposed to be training, but there are only a few parts of this, and all Logan does is fight Stocky Frank Miller Batman.  While the fight between two regular guys is kinda funny, it's hardly training.  Plus, it's shot in a pretty much unchanged back yard.  You'd think they would try at least a little something to make the backyard look different or creepy.

To make it worse, Spawn comics apparently suck.  The main protagonist, Al Simmons, is a man who has sold his soul to a demon so that he can go back to Earth and be with his wife.  Of course it was simply a ruse on the demon's part, and now Al is his slave.  I won't go into detail about it here. Actually, I can't go into detail.  Apparently Al's backstory changes at the drop of a hat, especially if a guest writer comes in and "messes up" what Todd MacFarlane planned for the character.  Assuming MacFarlane had plans.  The story changes so much it's hard to tell.  Add to that an unlikable protagonist who whines all the time, an emotionally draining philosophy, and long stretches of time where nothing important happens, and you have a very dreary comic.  When the subject of the reviews becomes repetitive, it becomes more important for Cap to come up with creative ways to keep the non-review parts interesting.

There was a lot of creativity at the beginning, I'll give it that.  But the longer Spawn Year becomes, the less possible it is to care about Spawn itself.  Towards the end of the 365 days, it feels like every review is much the same, with only a few plot details being different.  This isn't Captain Logan's fault, but what the tail end of the Spawn Year really needed was some sort of extra creativity to contrast the repetitive nature of MacFarlane's work.  

Also, I should probably point out that Captain Logan doesn't just review the comics.  He reviews the cartoon show, movie, video games, board game, card set, and even action figures.  Still, the comics are the main component of Spawn, and there's a lot of them.  To make it worse, the Spawn comics are still ongoing, despite apparently not having been good for years.  Spawn Year was apparently designed to torture Captain Logan, but it can be a little torturous for the reviewer, too.  It gets to the point where the viewer doesn't care about the reviews, and just wants to know what happens to Captain Logan.   Maybe that was bound to happen anyway given the sheer number of reviews, but still.

The ending of the show is a bit underwhelming.  Tiny Adam West's supposed war against Coke didn't pay off soon enough.  The last few days of Spawn Year should have been more exciting than they were, but the only Coke payoff we get is the "mother" of the Coke Emissary, whose son Captain Logan is intended to fight.  In and of itself, this is cute.  During filming, Logan's wife Sarah was (and still is, as of this review) pregnant, and it was a nice idea to use her pregnancy in a plot-related way. She also attempted to trick Cap by giving him Coke wings, which was a fun trick with good payoff. 

Unfortunately, that's the only lead-up to the fight with the Emissary of Coke.  She really should have pulled this trick sooner, as well as doing other things to hint about what this soda war is all about.  A scene of her attempting to attack the servants of Pepsi or tricking them somehow would have been a great lead-up to the end.  Just anything that builds up tension and proves that the Pepsi vs. Coke battle really is going to happen, and isn't just Tiny Adam West's way of distracting Captain Logan.

Well, in the end, Logan fights the Emissary of Coke.  It's the best fight on the show, as they make up for the lack of training among the actors with some camera tricks and funny moments.  After that is the last day of Spawn Year, where Cap believes he's in the real world again, but after realizing he's not, goes to a comic store to read and review the very last comic.

I don't have any significant problems with the first two parts of the ending.  The problem is, after he reviews the final comic book, there's way too much exposition.  Cap goes home, only to repeat over and over again how DoomsVince's purgatory was just DV's reaction to the fact that Cap never appreciated him. DoomsVince was a clone created by Captain Logan, the only successful clone in a whole line of failures.  And then Cap kicked him out for being a snob who didn't think comics were as good as opera.  Cap, having come to his senses and understanding why DV did what he did, he decides that he's going to make it up.  After all, he's the only person DoomsVince can consider a father.  His means of making it up is really intelligent and funny, to boot.

All in all, the ending has good ideas, but there's just too much exposition.  Talking, talking, talking. The ending should have been cut down some.  If there's going to be a lot of talking, then there needs to be more interesting set dressing and camera angles.  And while this project is a collection of random friends doing their best, one of the actors, Dan Torrey, isn't putting as much energy in his performance.  He doesn't move his face at all when he's saying his lines.  It really stands out, especially since both Cap and Vince are putting their all into their performances.

This show is not without its problems.  If you can accept that this is an amateur project, you'll find great ideas, friends having fun, and the inspiration to try something new yourself.  If Captain Logan can make a fantasy alternate universe for himself, then why can't other people create fun things for themselves?  Production values aren't the be all, end all of having fun.

So just sit back, have fun, and have yourself a nice time waster.  Only I suggest watching only a few videos of it per week.  It's a much more engaging process when you can't watch all of it at once, and you feel the tension a lot more when you can't just go ahead to the next episode to find out what happened when something intense happens.

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