The first decade of the 21st century has been pretty sweet for comic book fans that like to see their superheros moving instead of static. From the modest ambitions of the first X-Men to the (almost) indisputable masterpieces that are The The Dark Knight and Iron Man, comic book movies have been established as more than mere cash cows for studio execs.
Due in part to a Hollywood that’s too economically strained to take risks on original concepts, comic books and graphic novels are entering a golden age of film, distinguished by larger than life scenarios, impossible powers, and extraordinary individuals who take it upon themselves to protect (or destroy) us regular folks.
The web series Gavin Lance plays off this heyday of comic book cinema, but takes a more literal approach. The show’s plot revolves around a vigilante (Gavin Lance, natch) trying to clean up his city, only to get roped into a complex assassination plot involving kidnapping and time travel.
The story isn’t based on an actual comic, but the series is described as “comic book styled.” After seeing a minute or two of the first episode, you quickly get the idea. The action on screen is broken up into multiple panels of video, so looking at a screen is lot like watching a comic you’d normally just look at.
Movies like Hulk and Spider-Man have played with the screen-as-page concept, but the makers of Gavin Lance really commit to it, utilizing multiple panels of action in just about every scene. It’s a cool idea with a lot of promise, but does it work?
From a visual standpoint, definitely. The panel format gives the filmmakers a lot of new territory to explore, and to their credit they come up with a few new tricks every episode. Panels extend and shrink, and move across the screen, revealing new pieces of information as they go. They might display different camera angles of the same scene, or stay on a close-up of a character even when the dramatic focus of the scene is somewhere else.
Ultimately these techniques reminded me less of reading a comic and more of watching a play. In theater, you can choose anyone on stage to pay attention to. The multiple panels give you the same option.
Visually, there’s so much going on in the world of Gavin Lance it partially makes up for the shortcomings in other areas of the production. Partially, but not completely. With six 10-minute episodes produced so far, the series still seems to be finding it’s technical footing. There are frequently problems with fluctuating audio levels, and even a few occasions where the focus goes noticeably soft.
Independent productions can get away with a few technical glitches if they have a great script, but this is another area where the series falls short, particularly when it comes to the leads. Gavin is portrayed as a pseudo-realistic vigilante as opposed to an out-and-out superhero; he doesn’t have any powers, but he does have some neat looking ninja weapons, though we rarely see him use them.
Gavin occasionally makes self-referential remarks about how “weird” or “obligatory” various moments in the show are, but his lack of energy makes the remarks feel less like snappy comic-book wisecracks and more like a halfhearted apology for dipping into cliche. Comic book crime fighters tend to deal in extremes, whether they make us laugh, cringe, or worry for their sanity. Gavin feels like a hero on mute.
The series does improve as it goes on, particularly when the time travel plot gets off the ground. Once characters start throwing around phrases like “carbon time signatures” and “parallel timelines” most viewers with geek cred are going to start paying attention. The show’s villain is also introduced several episodes in and is a welcome addition. As Charles Niward, actor Michael Reed creates a believably unhinged evil guy by hitching his voice after every few words, giving him a slightly mad scientist-y feel despite a mild appearance.
There’s a lot of supplemental material available on the official Gavin Lance website, including behind the scenes videos and commentary tracks for each episode. All of these extra features show how much care goes into the production of the series, and creator Colin Carlton (who also edits, writes, produces, directs, and stars as Gavin) clearly has a great deal of enthusiasm and commitment to the project. Hopefully by the time this first storyline wraps up, the quality will be there in equal force.
Check it out at GavinLance.com.