Thursday, May 17, 2012

First Installment Wins

In fictional series' and franchises, there are many known examples of the first installment of the canon being so damn good that nothing that followed it, regardless of quality, will ever measure up. This is particularly true in the case of movie, book, and video game franchises that spawn many, many sequels. Now this can be disappointing in some cases, mainly if you're expecting the quality of the whole thing to measure up to its' first installment, but this can also be a pretty good thing because it provides us with many a work that could be called "classic." I've gone over fictional canons I love and enjoy, and there are many instances where the first installment is, and always will be, the best:

STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE  - Apologies to all who think that "The Empire Strikes Back" is the best Star Wars film, but I feel the original Star Wars is just so much more of a cinematic classic. It is the one that started everything, it caught everyone by surprise in how imaginative and entertaining it was, it's immense success was unpredicted even by Lucasfilms, and it had the most solid, most self-contained story. The plot is absorbing, the characters interesting, and the pace just seems to flow perfectly. We go from following the two droids to meeting young Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, and from there we go from Mos Isley, to the Death Star interior, and to Yavin 4 for the final battle against the Death Star and the imperial forces that defend it. And also, this one had Peter Cushing as the chillingly callous and evil villain of the piece, Grand Moff Tarkin. This film set up everything that the Star Wars franchise then became, but nothing that followed could ever match this in sincere quality and value. It all started here for a reason: it is THE "Star Wars!"

 KINGDOM HEARTS -  This one's a no-brainer. As great as the two installments that directly followed this one were, nothing can compare to the original, first ever Kingdom Hearts game for the PS2. The fact that it's titled Kingdom Hearts without any number or stupid subtitle following it says it all: this is the original classic game that truly feels like a timeless Disney masterpiece. Production on this game was tight in order to ensure it was as big and great as it could potentially be, and it more than delivered. The storyline, characters, worlds, gameplay, graphics, music, and atmosphere for this game is pure Disney magic. The feel I get from it is just so nostalgic and engaging upon every viewing or playthrough. As a gaming experience, it's always fun, the plot narrative is solid and flows beautifully from level to level, the cast of characters is great, the villains are excellent, the themes are actually deep, compelling, and well executed, as opposed to later games, and it has the perfect Disney feel: immense darkness in the plot that's balanced by a sense of innocence and charm. This game is the start of the ultimate Disney epic that is the Kingdom Hearts Trinity, and while the series afterwards fell terribly, unbelievably far from it's roots here, this game is something to always be cherished. It's not perfect, but it sure feels like it is when you're experiencing it, and it always shall be the best Kingdom Hearts of them all - the original KH.

 THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE - Another first installment that feels very self-contained and very fulfilling in it's own right. A good Christian fantasy story written for children, this first chronicle was a fairy tale, an allegory, and a coming-of-age story all at once. And it's by far the most popular and most well known installment in the series. Everyone remembers the four children, the passageway to Narnia through the old wardrobe, that magical feeling of wonder upon first seeing Narnia, the faun Mr. Tumnus, the beavers, the evil White Witch, and the sacrifice made by the great lion Aslan. Oh, and Father Christmas was in here too. C.S. Lewis wrote this one so well and it delivered so much that the chronicles that followed this fell short in comparison. This book, and it's movie adaptation, are both the greatest because the story is so grand.

     POKEMON: GENERATION I - The generation where Pokemon started, the Kanto generation, is not only when the phenomenon boomed, but was and remains the classic, the purest, and the best. We had the original gameboy games (Red Version, Blue Version, and Yellow Special Edition), which were made by Satoshi Tagiri as a tribute to his childhood and the childhood of all who share his interests. He clearly poured his heart into it, and the simplistic style, outdated graphics, glitchy gameplay, and bleepy sound of the game have a special nostalgic charm to them. Also worth noting is that this game had the best region (Kanto), the best pokemon (the original 151), the best professor (Oak), the best villains (Team Rocket), the best beginning and ending, and the grandest, most adventurous experience overall. The excitement and sense of innocence here was endless. The same can be said for the anime adaptation (subtitled "Indigo League" for DVD release) which is one of my favorite anime of all time for the amount of heart that was behind it's production,  the "Pokemon Special" manga adaptation which was a three-volume story arc that was incredibly true to the spirit and structure of the games,  and the original card game sets of Base Set all the way to Gym Leaders. I love this franchise, but no games, anime season, manga arc, or TCG set for the following generations have ever topped these originals in my heart. First Generation Pokemon forms the basis of what Pokemon is all about.

 BATMAN - Before Christopher Nolan directed the Dark Knight trilogy, there was only one truly great Batman movie. No, not the Adam West one. I'm talking about the 1989 film "Batman", which was pretty much the film of the decade when it came out. Starring Michael Keaton in the titular role, Kim Bassingir as his love interest Vicki Vale, and Jack Nicholson as his nemesis Jack "The Joker" Napier,  this film was brilliantly structured, well plotted, wonderfully scored, and very entertaining. Keaton is the best live action Batman ever (aside from Adam West), and Nicholson gives a brilliantly manic yet ominous performance as the Joker. It's far from perfect because it's flaws stand out when they're present, but that doesn't take away from the value of the overall movie experience. And compared to the sequels, the terrible "Batman Returns", the mediocre "Batman Forever", and the notoriously (and hilariously) atrocious "Batman And Robin", this was a freaking masterpiece!

 SPIDER-MAN - Here's another first installment in a trilogy, and while the sequels may have technically been improved in some areas, they'll never be as meaningful in my heart. A live action Spider-Man movie was long awaited and anticipated, so when it finally came,
I was delighted. When I went to see the thing, it did not disappoint. It was everything I could have wanted from a Spidey movie: solid, fun, expertly directed, well written, action-packed and exciting, and just plain enjoyable to watch. Spider-Man's costume looks great, his web swinging, well crawling movements are well executed, and actors like Toby Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson, and JK Simmons are fantastic in their respective roles. But what really makes this movie shine is the story. Yes, it's script is clunky and filled with cheesy dialogue, but the story itself was paced and executed perfectly. It had a classic three-act structure with a beginning, middle, and end: the origin story, the hero's exploits, and the big showdown with the villain. It's all here and it's glorious!  And the way this movie closes cannot be matched, with Peter delivering the lines "This is my gift; this is my curse. Who am I? I'm Spider-Man!" and then we see him swinging down in the city as Spider-Man before the credits roll. Director Sam Raimi clearly loved Spider-Man and wanted to make this movie something great. In my mind, he succeeded. This is great entertainment and gives the coming "Amazing Spider-Man" reboot A LOT to live up to, and I have my doubts that it can or will!

  SUPERMAN - Need I even say this one? This movie was huge when
 it came out, is a timeless classic, and is still one of THE best superhero movies ever made. Superman's origins deliver strong drama in the first half, while his life in Metropolis and fight against Lex Luthor provides great superhero camp and action in the second half. The three star players, Christopher Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, and Gene Hackman
as Lex Luthor all play their roles to perfection and are a joy to watch. Particularly Reeves, for he IS Superman! While the effects used to make Superman fly are nothing special today, they still hold up fairly well. And this is the only Superman movie ever made that feels fulfilling from beginning to end: "Superman II" and "Superman Returns" couldn't deliver that, while "Superman III" and "Superman IV" were just plain awful and best left forgotten. And based on what I've heard, I seriously doubt that the "Man of Steel" Superman reboot will be good enough to live up to this, if it's even good at all! Perhaps Superman was only destined to carry this one great movie: one that makes you believe a man can fly!

 DIGIMON ADVENTURE - The first anime series made based on the virtual pet game phenomenon of Digimon. It is my second favorite anime ever because it gets so many things right. I love how it's a classic kids' show that feels like a classic kids' show: it doesn't try to make itself out to be "mature" like some future Digimon series' did, but at the same time, it doesn't dumb anything down for it's young audience either. It's perfectly paced, well executed, well handled, well written, and enormously entertaining. The story is just plain engaging, the backstories are fascinating, the Digital World and the monsters that inhabit it never gets old because it's all so
weird and interesting, the action is fun, the villains are the best in the franchise, and the main kid characters and the Digimon partners are great, interacting and balancing off one another so well. While the epic good vs evil conflict that breaks out is exciting, the real heart of the show is the kids' coming of age through their experiences with their human and Digimon friends. We see them mature, face their problems, and even bond with their families over the course of the show. This is the real purpose of watching this show: a great children's story with genuine character development and growth. No other Digimon show got this same magical, whimsical feel of adventure with Digimon in the Digital World, but they still owe a lot to it. It defines Digimon for me, and it always will.

 YU-GI-OH! - In the smaller terms of franchise installments, then I'm referring to the original Yu-Gi-Oh series by creator Takahashi  (the manga, the first anime series, and the "Duel Monsters" anime series). If you don't know why, then please go read my brother's blog entry on Yu-Gi-Oh, 'cause it explains everything. In the bigger terms of franchise installments, then I'm referring specifically to the manga. None of the anime adaptations and the cards they marketed and sold or even the Abridged Series' based off them could ever match up to Takahashi's original work. It told a consistently great story with great characters that kept building and building through different Shadow Games that got played until we reached a perfect conclusion, which is something that not even the great Dragonball was able to do. This masterpiece of Shonen manga is highly recommended for all those who wish to "get" Yugioh. Go all the way with this duel: it's well worth the investment.

 THE MELANCHOLY OF HARUHI SUZUMIYA - Both the first Light Novel of the Haruhi Suzumiya series and the 7-part anime adaptation of it. Aside from the"Disappearance" story from the fourth novel, this was the story with the most charm, intrigue, and impact. Centering around ordinary highschool student Kyon, his meeting with the strange Haruhi Suzumiya, and all the weird stuff that follows it that only he's allowed to know about, it rides on the "what if these things existed out in the open but nobody realized it?" and "what would you do?" premise. The way it's all handled is a lot of fun, the extraordinary set against the mundane works perfectly, and Haruhi Suzumiya is a thoroughly compelling and entertaining antagonist character. The story is chaotically comedic, yet dark and thought-provoking too. When the series started here, it showed promise. And while it hasn't delivered on all of it's potential, this is the one installment that did everything right.

 SAILOR MOON - It's a firm viewpoint
of my brother and I that every Sailor Moon anime season that came out got weaker and weaker in various aspects. So naturally, that leaves the original Sailor Moon series as the finest of the bunch.
It had the best overarching plot, strongest characterization (for the main cast, and supporting cast too!), the perfect pace, the most entertaining standalone episodes, the most formidable villains, the best feel and direction, and of course, the incredible grand finale that just could not be matched by anything in the rest of the franchise. And aside from well known elements introduced in later seasons, this is the Sailor Moon most everyone remembers. It got a lot of Moon Power!

  A GAME OF THRONES - Like was the case with "The Melancholy Of Haruhi Suzumiya", this book is an excellent story-starter for a series that hasn't really delivered and lived up to it's initial potential. The story of this book is easily the most intriguing and attention grabbing of them all: with all the build-up to something great, terrible, and epic being far more interesting than the eventual war itself. And now it's destined to be the most well known installment too. The TV series adaptation of this series is called "Game Of Thrones" for a reason.

 THE HUNGER GAMES - Each installment of this trilogy got bleaker and angstier. This initial one was closest to most fun and exciting. As horrific an idea as the Hunger Games is, you just can't help but be fascinated by it and drawn into this dark future world. You too are entertained by the bloodsport and want to see how it turns out. Katniss and Peeta are easy to root for, side characters are enjoyable too, and you're so interested in the other tributes and their struggles that you wish all of them didn't have to meet their inevitable deaths. The recent movie adaptation ensures even more that this one will be best regarded, so the odds are ever in it's favor!

 THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ - Yeah, I wouldn't blame anyone if they didn't know that there even was an "Oz" series beyond this first book. This original story is just so well known, so popular, and so good. Personally, I blame the movie adaptation for that.

  THE MERIDIAN ARC - The initial and best done story arc in the W.I.T.C.H comic series. Its' actually strange in that it kind of starts a story for six issues and then changes into a totally different story for six more issues due to the creators of the concept being booted off after the initial six.So the first half is better than its' second half , but the arc as a whole still has the best adventure, best characterization, best main villains, and best conflict period.

 BEN 10 - The original show created by Man Of Action was very much a show where the appeal of it's premise was greater than the execution. But for what it was, the execution wasn't bad: it was great alien sci-fi mixed with superhero action fun. The character of Grandpa Max was very likable and cool, and so were Ben and Gwen when they were written right. And while lacking in good development for the most part, the villains were cool, especially the likes of Kevin 11, Hex and Charmcaster, and the Forever Knights. The first two seasons were better in quality than the next two, but all four seasons of this one show were leagues better than any of the idiocy found in the abomination sequel that is "Ultimate Alien Force".

 TOTAL DRAMA ISLAND - When compared to its' followers, this was the only Total Drama season that did the reality show spoofing right. The stereotypical characters all played their parts perfectly, many of them likable and not flanderized to the point of wretchedness, and it was the most fun to follow. And it all ended on a positive note, rather than be mean-spirited. What a contrast to the sequels: "Action" sucked ass, "World Tour" was terribly unbalanced by its' second half, and I do not give a shit for the even more stereotypical and obnoxious revival. To me and many others with good taste, this was true Total Drama.

 TRANSFORMERS - Yeah, by all means, this movie is pretty stupid but it's solid entertainment. It's the only live-action Transformers movie directed by Michael Bay that was any good. That's because he had less free reign over the production as he would with the sequels, Shia Lebouf and Megan Fox's characters were tolerable and even likable, the robots themselves were cool and had great build-up, Sam and Bumblebee's dynamic was developed greatly, Optimus Prime was in-character, Megatron was a terrifying, badass villain, Agent Simmons wasn't so over-the-top, the military's involvement was well handled, William Lenox was an interesting character, and this was the only one that had Jon Voight in it! The next two movies would be so dull, and so mind numbing, and so obnoxious, that by comparison the only thing that bugged me in this film was that overacting, unfunny black man! Otherwise, this is the one live action movie to do any justice to Transformers, Robots In Disguise! And I say that as a guy who's not even a big Transformers fan!

 DIE HARD - Best script, best setting, best plot, best villain, best pace, best action, best movie in the "Die Hard" series. It was the original, stand-alone, best action movie ever made, and only the third film came the least bit close to matching it in greatness.

 RED DRAGON - Arguably the best story in the "Hannibal" series (even though the original book had little to no Hannibal whatsoever!) and definitely the best adaptation. Yes, this is the film that outdoes "Silence of the Lambs", not it's shoddy predecessor based on the same story, "Manhunter". This movie, I feel, is the best version. In Edward Norton's Will Graham, it has
a lead character who's just as engaging and interesting as Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling. It also has a fascinatingly insane and tragic villain played by Ralph Fiennes. It has great supporting characters like Graham's family, Jack Crawford, Freddy Lounds, Dr. Chilton, and Reba Mcclane, all played by great actors. It's a story that is absorbing, terrifying, touching, intelligent, and deep all at once. And
it features Anthony Hopkin's Dr. Hannibal Lecter at his finest and most chilling villainous role, and the expanded role of Dr. Lecter in the story is actually a benefit! The handling of the story is great in that it tries to give as much focus to both the good guys' and bad guys' sides of the story as it can, and it sets up a great atmosphere for this too. And as opposed to the more morbid "Silence", the over-the-top gruesome "Hannibal", and the utterly terrible "Hannibal Rising", this one has the most balanced feel, and is closest to perfection. "Red Dragon!" Do you see? DO YOU SEE?

 THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL: Another first film that got made before it caught fire and became a popular, summer blockbuster popcorn flick franchise. This one wasn't even intended to have its' subtitle, but it was tacked on by greedy Disney executive meddling. But most all will agree that this one was the best, most fun, most memorable, and most impactful movie in the series.  Back when Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow was still freshly entertaining and interesting to watch,  Geoffery Rush's Hector Barbossa was a quirky and hammy
yet menacing villain, Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner were a more engaging romantic pair and good characters in their own right, and the story felt more like a great pirate adventure than the rest would. What followed this were the average "Dead Man's Chest", the weak "At World's End", and the even weaker "On Stranger Tides", which all had great ideas in them but couldn't deliver satisfying movie experiences the way this one could, and moved further and further away from the ride at Disney World in terms of tone!  So this is clearly the best Pirates! Drink up me heartys, yo ho!

 RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK - Unlike "Star Wars" or "Pirates", this one was meant as a one-shot movie before it even got it's series title! While the other "Indiana Jones" movies are fun, "Temple Of Doom" is weak, "The Last Crusade" is merely good, and "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is mediocre at best. This is the only one that was a flat-out perfect action/adventure film. The conflict of protecting the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis was great,
it had some of the best non-stop action sequences ever, Indiana Jones was a very impactful hero, Marion was the best and most engaging love interest character, Sal was a good supporting character, Belloq was Indiana's most interesting adversary, and the Nazis were actually more imposing villains here than they were in "Last Crusade". This film is a definite classic 'cause it just gives you everything you could want in a fun adventure movie, and is the best of Indiana Jones.

BACK TO THE FUTURE - Again, meant to be a standalone film.  And while the next two trilogy installments that followed this first one were fine, they kind of got weaker.  Nothing could top the fun ride that this classic 80's film gave us. It really stands on it's own, which is why it's so fondly remembered in the past, present, and future to this day.

 THE LAND BEFORE TIME - I almost don't want to even talk about this one, it's so obvious. This was the only one Don Bluth had any involvement in, and it was actually pretty dark, gritty, emotional, and mature for what it was, as opposed to the child-friendly DTV sequels which were numerous and ranged from average to awful. I'm SO glad they've stopped, for none could measure up to this one. Sometimes I wish they really had gone with the original ending
of the Great Valley being the afterlife so that we could have been spared of all those sequels!

 SHERLOCK HOLMES -  This one has only gotten one sequel so far, and already it's not up to par with the original! Only this first installment is worthy of the name "Holmes!"

 IRON MAN - Aaand here's another Robert Downey Jr. action film series. While "Iron Man 2" was good and I'm sure "Iron Man 3" will be as well, they just couldn't match the fun, interesting, exciting, greatness of this first Iron Man movie. And in some ways, I think this will be the most fondly remembered installment of the Avengers saga since it's the one that started it all, and thus had the most unexpected impact on comic book superhero movies in general.