Movies I’ve Watched: Captain America – The Winter Soldier by Joe Russo & Anthony Russo

Captain America: the Winter Soldier, is like the Raid: Berendal, in that it’s that rare sequel that overshadows the original, if not out right decimates it. This isn’t just the best Captain America movie ever made…it’s arguably best movie Marvel has produced thus far.

Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers, a WW2 super soldier who spent 70 years in a coma, and is now doing captain-america-chris-evans-avengers-600special ops for SHIELD, a super spy organization run by Nick Fury (played by Samuel Jackson, in easily his best work as the character to date). Evans thinks Jackson is a fascist thug, and Jackson thinks Evans is a naive dilettante. They’re friends, but they’re the kind of friends that send pretty women to move in across the hall from the other person just to spy on each other.
They’re joined by the Black Widow, a Russian superspy played by Scarlett Johansson, and the Falcon, a former U.S. paratrooper played by Anthony Mackie. They, and SHIELD, are fighting against Hydra, a WW2 era deep science Nazi organization, that seems to want to free the world, by killing a lot of people. They never really explain their plan very well.

black-widow-posterThis is being compared to 70’s thrillers like Day of the Jackal and the Parallax View, though I think this movie is far too action-oriented to really compare it apples-to-apples to those classics. But there’s a conspiracy, and race against the clock to uncover it, so now it’s a John Le Carre movie, apparently.

Although not technically a “thriller”, Winter Solider is absolutely thrilling. It puts its boots to your neck the minute you walk into the theatre, and it doesn’t let up. The action and fight choreography is several steps up from the already considerable standards set by the first film, and it appears that a real effort was made into adapting the acrobatics seen in the late 80’s Mark Gruenwald run on the Cap comic book. The fight scenes between Captain America and the Winter Solider, who DEFINITELY ISN”T SOMEONE FROM THE FIRST MOVIE THAT WE THOUGHT WAS DEAD are really exceptional, and are easily the equal (and probably the better), of any similar fight scenes scene in the superhero comic movie genre we’ve seen to date.

55a6e3f3_4a4wxtwEven more so than usual, Marvel spends as much time on character development as it does on action scenes here, and at least 4 of the main characters end up significantly different people at the end of this film, than they are at the beginning. This isn’t an inconsiderable achievement in this genre, and you really get the sense that in terms of the continuity that Marvel is creating in their cinematic universe, that this one is a game changer. They will be building on the character and plot development from this one for a long time.
For the comic lovers among us, we get Batroc the Leaper (BTW, 12 year old me would like to sincerely thank Kevin Feige for making it possible for 40 year old me to see BATROC KICKING IN A MOVIE!), Arnim Zola going full Zola, Crossbones, a Doctor Strange reference, and some after the credits geekiness that I won’t spoil for you, but we finally see someone who comics fans know as the true leader of Hydra, as well as a sneak peak at some future possible Avengers that DEFINITELY AREN”T THE MUTANT CHILDREN OF MAGNETO.

On a related note, apparently I’ve been waiting my whole life for Robert Redford to play a Marvel villain, and I didn’t even know it. In this film, he sets the bar so high in the “Former critically acclaimed leading man who now plays the villain in action movies so as to lend credibility to said movies” category, that I’m not sure that even Michael Douglas will be able to catch up.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable action movie, and Marvel needs to be signing up the Russos to a long term deal, right quick.
Rating: A

 

The 25 Best Movies Of 2011

Not a lot of rules here, except that the movie had to have been released in 2011. I should also note that for a few of these films I used some of the original review I wrote when they came out. I obviously haven’t seen every movie that came out in 2011, but I have seen most of the films that seem to end up on lists like these, so I think I’ve got a good cross-section of what came out this year. There’s a healthy mix of populist mind-numbing and pretentious douchebaggery, so hopefully everyone will be happy.

25. Beginners directed by Mike Mills

The first of many relationship movies on my list this year, and one deserving of far more attention that it got, both critically and commercially. Like its name suggests, Beginners is about fresh starts, from Ewan McGregor learning how to be in a committed relationship for the first time, to his father (in an award-deserving turn by Christopher Plummer) coming out as a gay man in his late 70s. It’s a movie that explores what it means to truly start over, but it also tries to teach us to appreciate what we’ve got. It’s a quiet movie, but one that you’ll leave with a smile on your face.

24. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol directed by Brad Bird

MI4 is the movie that people talk about when they say they just want to go to the theatre to turn their brain off. As a straight-ahead Hollywood blockbuster, it’s easily the very best of 2011. The stunts and action sequences here defy simple description, and Tom Cruise sweats and bleeds for two solid hours to remind us why he’s still the greatest action star in the business, and maybe of all time. While it isn’t the best in the franchise (MI3 still holds that rank, easily), Brad Bird’s first live action movie more than holds its own, and the Dubai action sequences are already assured of a place in the stunt history books. If Brad Bird had brought the same attention to plotting and character development to this that he does to his animated films, we would have had a classic.

23. Like Crazy directed by Drake Doremus

Like Crazy is a wonderful love story, in pretty much every way. It’s script is so realistic, and so effortless, that it feels not so much like a script as it does a Google doc, that is constantly being updated by the cast. And in fact it’s not surprising to find that many lines of dialogue were actually improvised by this excellent group of actors. In Anna and Jacob, Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones have created one of the most charming, likeable, and heartbreaking couples you’ll see in a modern movie. If you like your love stories monumental, but doused with a minor dose of reality, this movie is for you.

22.  Rise of the Planet Of The Apes directed by Rupert Wyatt

Rise is a near-pefect science fiction action film, but that “near” is a VERY big “near”, and its name is James Franco. Usually, one can overlook one or two issues with a film, but when that issue is the star, who doesn’t show half the charisma that the computer generated monkeys he’s working with do, its a pretty big problem. Thankfully, the rest of this well-directed thriller delivers, and is that rare prequel that is better than it’s source material.

21. The Adventures Of Tintin directed by Stephen Spielberg

Rarely does one word describe an entire movie, but that’s the case here, and that word is “rollicking”. Tintin moves along at a breakneck pace, sometimes so fast that it forgets to breathe. It’s an adventure movie based one of the most popular comic books of all time, and works on several levels: Emotionally, technically, and visually. Although you might occasionally wish that the characters were as well-rounded as the 3D visuals (the best I’ve seen in modern movies to date), Tintin is easily Spielberg’s best film in a decade.

20.  Here, There directed by Sheng Lu

If we needed more proof that great cinematographers often make great directors, Here, There is it. This is a visually beautiful Chinese film, but it’s one that focuses on character development as much as it does on imagery. There are three stories here, each set in a different locale, and tied together in only the most tangential ways. And that’s kind of the point of the movie. Every story is big to the person it’s happening to. Every place is home to someone. And every person has a family that loves them. These are not huge revelations, but it’s nice to be reminded of them sometimes, and this film does so admirably.

19. Hanna directed by Joe Wright

This hyper-stylized Euro thriller came and went this spring, but is hopefully getting enough end-of-year attention that it will motivate some film lovers to give it a second look. Although the premise of a young girl being trained to become the ultimate assassin isn’t a new one (see The Professional, the Cassie Cain version of Batgirl, John Wagner’s fourth Button Man series for 2000AD, etc ), it’s done so boldly here that Hanna more than stands on its own two feet. Although there is a visual verbosity to the film that could be seen as distracting by some, it only serves to solidify this as one of the most unusual action films of the year.

18. Moneyball directed by Bennett Miller

This one was an old-fashioned crowd pleaser, and one that’s all the more surprising when you realize that the entire movie is about math. In a way, Moneyball is the perfect companion piece to The Artist, in that both films are about the inevitability of change. But while The Artist’s George Valentin spends most of his film rebelling against change, Billy Beane embraces his obstacles head on, and Brad Pitt shows why he’s among the most likable movie stars in Hollywood.

17. Captain America: The First Avenger directed by Joe Johnston / Thor directed by Kenneth Branagh

After years of trying, Marvel Studios has finally perfected the exact formula that makes up a successful superhero movie, and to no-ones surprise it involves spending as much time on dialogue and character development as they do on action and cool costumes. Although these two films are tonally different, they have enough in common from a pacing and character perspective to justify lumping them together. Both are credits to their source material, but Thor in particular did a great job of blending story and action. Bring on The Avengers!!!

16. The Trip directed by Michael Winterbottom

Steve Coogan plays such a great asshole, that he makes bad movies good, and good movies great. In The Trip, he plays a tremendous asshole named Steve Coogan, who enlists his friend Rob Brydon (played by the real Rob Brydon) to help his travel throughout the English countryside reviewing restaurants together. It’s a largely improvised throw down of witticisms between two brilliant comedians, and their dueling Michael Caine impressions might be the funniest scene I’ve seen in a film this year.

15. Super 8 directed by J. J. Abrams

The first hour of this heartfelt tribute to the family friendly creature films of my youth might be my very favourite period of time spent at the theatre this year. That the second half is “just” a fine, though generic, monster movie should by no means stop anyone from enjoying this as a total package. This is a film about youth, and as such is engaging, charming, and often messy. It’s also a beautiful (though perhaps,simplistic) look at why we love the things (and people) we love.

14. Melancholia directed by Lars Von Trier

If looked at through a typical science fiction lens, Melancholia isn’t going to set anyone’s house on fire. The premise? A newly discovered planet is hurtling  towards earth, and it seems almost inevitable that things aren’t going to end well as a result. But this isn’t a movie about a disaster; it’s a movie about how two sisters deal with said disaster in disparate, yet connected ways. It’s two character pieces for the price of one, and while the high quality of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s emotionally overwrought performance won’t surprise anyone, Kristen Dunst’s challenging turn as the sister who seemingly has it all, but really has nothing, is easily the performance of her career.

13. Martha Marcy May Marlene directed by Sean Durkin

If there is a theme running between the movies on my list this year, it’s that I favored films that emphasized strong characters over strong plot, and in Martha, Elizabeth Olsen has created a character so charming, yet so feckless that one instantly forgives this film it’s slightly meandering feel. After years of being thought missing, a young woman reaches out to the sister she had previously shut out. We drift between this new reality, and her previous one as the den mother to a group of cultists so effortlessly that it becomes almost impossible to tell the difference between the two. In a year filled with great character studies, Martha Marcy has an edge and sense of tension that sets it apart.

12. Source Code directed by Duncan Jones

After only two films, Duncan Jones has become one of the strongest voices in science fiction film making, and this perfectly balanced thriller is easily one of the best genre movies of this year. It’s a big budget action movie, and as such Source Code provides all of the chills and spills one would expect. But it also has something that’s missing from the lions share of Hollywood blockbusters these days: a heart. That, combined with a fully realized premise of alternate realities and time travel (of a sort) made this a surprising winner for me.

11. Bill Cunningham New York directed by Richard Press

The word artist is one that gets applied to people liberally, and often for very good reason. But Bill Cunningham is a capital A artist, to the extent that by the end of this touching , uplifting, and sad documentary, you actually feel bad for enjoying his brilliant photography over the decades. The sacrifices in his personal life that Cunningham has made for his art makes Jesus’ look superficial, and this film makes you rethink everything you know about commitment to ones craft.

10. The Artist directed by Michel Hazanavicius

There is so much populist love being directed at The Artist, that I find myself  doubting whether or not I actually liked it in the first place. It’s a black and white film that manages to be both silent and french at the same time, and quite frankly, it’s a film that’s impossible not to love. This piece is about the inevitability of change, and as such should be embraced by anyone struggling with the difficulties that said change often brings. While it wouldn’t be my personal pick, it’s the movie I think is going to win Best Picture at the Oscars this year.

 9. The Muppets directed by James Bobin

I pride myself on my objectivity when it comes to films, and on (usually) being able to differentiate between a film’s subject matter, and its  inherent qualities. The Muppets tested my impartiality like no other film has those year, as I loved the Muppet Show the way Stephen Harper loves putting poor people into prison. This movie is what you get when you inject pure joy directly into your brain, and if I were judging on pure emotional response, this movie might have actually captured the top spot.

8. Attack The Block directed by Joe Cornish

There were a lot of fun genre movies this year, but none of them came close to matching the emotional intensity of Attack The Block. It’s a formula movie: aliens attack earth, earthlings defend themselves. The monsters are cool, the action thrilling, but It’s the 3 dimensional characters, so rare in films like this, that really sets this movie apart. In Moses, John Cornish and John Boyega have created the first truly original action hero of this still relatively new decade.

7. Drive directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

You know how I know that people are dumb? A woman sued the producers of this finely crafted dramatic portrait of a sociopath because it wasn’t the mindless action blow-off that she felt that she was promised. That’s right. She sued because the movie was too good. It’s things like this, that make me wish I believed in the Rapture. Drive is one part David Lynch, one part John Carpenter, one Stanley Kubrik, and all parts “I can’t believe they’re still making movies like this”. It’s also a movie that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and while it’s influences are obvious, they also don’t overshadow what Nicolas Refn is trying to do here. Audiences who come because “Ryan Gosling is SOOO good-looking and I love the Notebook so much OMG!” will be disappointed by Drive’s art house trappings, but those who open their mind to a brilliantly paced crime story will (should) leave happy.

 6. Midnight In Paris directed by Woody Allen

There seems to be an increasing divide in film, specifically between movies that critics deem to be “good”, and movies that people actually like. Thankfully there were a few movies that actually straddled both sides of that particular fence this year, and Woody Allen’s latest charmer manages to bring casual film goers and elitist film snobs together like no other movie this year. Except for maybe The Muppets. And The Artist. And maybe Moneyball. Those that say that this is Allen’s best film in decades do nothing but show their woeful ignorance at how strong his recent back catalogue really is. What will be remembered as this films true accomplishment is that it might be the first film in which Owen Wilson did something that very few people thought he could do: act.

5. Margin Call directed by J.C. Chandor

While the idea of a fictional adaptation of the events that led to the 2008 financial crisis doesn’t exactly inspire one to race to the multiplex, this confident debut film by J.C. Chandor realizes that the exact details aren’t what matters here. What matters, is what always matters when it comes to movies about crime: motivation, and opportunity, both of which are captured in this film in spades. There are strong influences shown in this ensemble driven drama, Glengarry Glen Ross being only the most obvious of them. It’s almost impossible to pick a favourite from the multitude of stellar acting performances we have here, but at the end of the day seeing Kevin Spacey work harder than he has on-screen in a decade has to be the deciding factor.

4. Tyrannosaur directed by Paddy Considine

Take one abused Christian woman, put her with an alcoholic widower with rage issues, and you’ve got one the most unlikely relationships we’ve seen at the cinema this year. Although our two heroes aren’t very heroic, Considine has built a convincing empathy into each of them that allows us to forgive them their foibles, and to root for their attempts at a fresh start. Although this may get overlooked n favour of sexier, flashier works, in my mind this film should be a strong contender for at least 5 Oscars (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture) this year. Paddy Considine never makes us believe that his characters are beyond redemption, and in fact has given each of them a huge lifeline that almost guarantees further happiness: each other.

3. Play directed by Ruben Östlund

This Swedish film about immigrants and bullies works on two levels: 1) it’s a technical master piece, that uses stationary shots the way a painter uses a brush, and 2) it’s a film that tackles extremely difficult issues head on, and isn’t shy about bringing up subjects like race, and class, and poverty, that are often just easier to ignore. While none of these issues are “solved” by the film, the way Ruben Östlund objectively discusses them through his simple script should be studied, and hopefully copied.

2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy directed by Tomas Alfredson

A meticulously crafted thriller,  so precise in its language, it’s characters, and it’s motivations, that it threatens to actually withhold the secrets it’s supposed  to impart. Although it’s a somewhat dense film, the perfect pacing, sparse dialogue, and award-deserving performance by Gary Oldman more than make up for the extra effort you have to put into this film. Alfredson shows that Let The Right One In wasnt a fluke, and that he’s well on his way towards becoming an upper echelon filmmaker.

1. Carnage directed by Roman Polanski

After his last film (the dreadfully turgid Ghost Writer), I had given up on Roman Polanksi as a film maker, although apparently as a wanted fugitive he’s still in high demand.  The film was so clumsy, that it was almost impossible to imagine that the same man who had made The Tenant and Repulsion had turned out this artless piece of jetsam.  I’ve never been so glad to be so wrong, as Carnage more than makes up for it. In fact, with all due respect to The Pianist, it might be Polanski’s best film since Frantic. While lovers of the various productions of Yasmina Reza’s original play seem to not agree, this is an exceptional ensemble cast, with the four leads (Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly) fitting together perfectly in this very black comedy  about two sets of parents meeting one another after their children get involved in an after school brawl. Although initially cordial, the afternoon meeting quickly degenerates into a miasma of base emotion and emotional brutality. It’s not a subtle film, but the verbal jousting between these four accomplished actors is a sight to behold. Winslet and Waltz in particular are in fine form, and one desperately wants to be a fly in the wall on their car ride home. This movie uses words as it’s special effects, and as such, it’s a blockbuster.

Honourable Mention: 13 Assassins directed by Takashi Miike, The Descendants directed by Alexander Payne, Rango directed by Gore Verbinski, Benda Bilili! directed by Renaud Barret & Florent De La Tullaye

Worst Movies Of 2011: I was lucky enough not to have to sit through a lot of truly bad movies in 2011, but if I had to pick one, it would be either Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part 2, Green Lantern, or Sucker Punch.

Most Overrated Movies Of 2011: Lots on this list, but Hugo, Crazy Stupid Love, and Bridesmaids will probably compete for this top spot.

Movie Review: Captain America And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Captain America: The First Avenger. Directed by Joe Johnston.

Here’s the story. During World War Two, Steve Rogers (played in a miracle of modern technology initially by Chris Evans’ face superimposed over Richard Simmons body circa 2045, and then by Chris Evans’ face superimposed over Jean-Claude Van Damme’s body circa 1987) is a malnourished orphan who has a fetish for being punched in the face. Rather than continuing to get killed slowly in Brooklyn, he attempts to join the army so that he can get killed quickly in Europe.  He is so passionate about upholding the values and laws of the United States that he breaks them constantly in an attempt to join said army. Stanley Tucci (playing Wise Old Mentor Number One), discovers Steve’s little scam, and rewards his illegal activity by injecting enough experimental performance enhancements into his body to make Lance Armstrong’s dick fall off.

Anne Coulter as The Red Skull

In the meantime, a hideous racist cult leader with a horrible, gaunt face and a demonic, jutting skull (played beautifully to type with no need for makeup or even acting by  Anne Coulter) is planning to either a) take over the Nazi Party from within, b) become a godlike deity through his discovery of an extra-dimensional energy containment unit, or c) blow the holy whatsit out of the entire planet for shits and giggles. Or some combination of the three.

Three seconds after Steve is transformed  into a 6’6 adonis with abs that look like you could crack a Pterodactyl egg over them (or as my wife said with a terrifying, slightly glazed glint in her eye, and a speck of drool on her chin, “NOW this movie is getting interesting…”), one of the Red Skull’s agents kills Stanley Tucci, leaving Steve Rogers in the horrible position of being a handsome middle class white male in great physical shape that has the full support of the U.S. government.

This nudity was absolutely necessary for the integrity of the script.

Steve’s reaction to all of this is what any sane rational human being that just lost the only person who had any confidence in him would be: He goes into show business. After hosting the Chase and Sanborn show for a while, he gets called a nancy boy by Tommy Lee Jones (Wise Old Mentor Number Two), and then decides to become a genuine war hero that single-handedly  wins the war for America, thereby insuring millenia of prosperity for a country that of course wouldn’t be stupid enough to consider defaulting on debts that their Congress ALREADY APPROVED 4 MONTHS EARLIER in an attempt to gain political brownie points among a base that has moved so far to the right that Ronald Reagan came back from the grave to ask everybody if they could just take a deep breath and calm down. Or something like that.

Things I liked:

  • The plot. Like Thor, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk before it, Captain America has a well-written plot, with clear, accessible beats that make it easy for comic-neophytes to follow. In Cap’s case, the script does a great job of taking 70 years of random, unconnected story lines, and putting them in one, easy to follow package.
  • The characters. Joe Johnston did a really nice job in ensuring that Captain America’s character was a fleshed out one, and his take on the character reminds me somewhat of Mark Gruenwald’s slightly conflicted late 80’s version. His motivation here isn’t one of faux-nationalism the way it is in Mark Millar’s Ultimates line, it’s one of fair play. The Red, White, and Blue, and the Flag stuff are all beside the point when it comes to the bottom line: Everyone is equal, and everyone should be allowed to live in peace. Simple, I know, but it’s part of the reason why the actual characterization of Cap has meant so much to young comic fans over the years, even Canadian ones.
  • The love for the fans. Marvel has perfected the art of the easter egg to a science. Like with other Marvel films, there are plenty of little bonuses that mean a lot to life long comic book fans, but aren’t even noticeable to those that have never heard of the character before today. And so things like the great shout out to the original Human Torch, or to Jim Steranko’s run on S.H.I.E.L.D., or the tie-ins to the Thor and Hulk movies, or to the hints to the future fates of Arnim Zola and Bucky Barnes, or the “blink and you’ll miss it” reference to Raiders Of The Lost Ark, or the clever way that Joe Johnston found to film the cover of 1941’s Captain America #1, won’t mean anything to someone like my wife, but mean a lot to people like me (and I guess also to my wife, who claimed that I kept hitting her every time one of these little hints showed up on-screen). Now none of this makes for a good film. But it helps buy off the fanboys that Marvel needs to keep happy.
  • The tone. Now, I don’t think Captain America succeeded at this to the extent that the Indy movies do, or something like Sky Captain or Johnston’s own The Rocketeer did. But Captain America still does a nice job in recreating that old B movie serial pulp feel that is so integral to the world of golden age comic books.
Thing I didn’t like:
  • The cheapness. In the short time that Marvel has been an independent film studio, it’s become legendary for its frugalness. And it’s starting to show. I’m all for making movies on the cheap, but Marvel needs to start ponying up some cash if they want to duplicate Spider-Man or Dark Knight success. While the poor quality of the CGI isn’t as noticeable in Captain America as it was in Thor, it’s still quite prevalent. It’s in set design that Marvel’s fondness for a buck really shines through in this film however, and it’s part of the reason why Cap often comes across a poor man’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
This had pretty much everything I was hoping for in a Captain America film: It was fun, had great character development, and had a pulpy adventure serial feel that I loved. Now it may not have been on the same par as other  great pulp serial pastiches (Cough…Raiders Of The Lost Ark….cough) But it’s a worthy addition to the great work that Marvel Studios has been doing, and it makes me look forward to The Avengers next summer.
Rating: B+

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 36: Captain America

U S A ! U S A !

On the surface, I shouldn’t like the concept of Captain America. It’s a throwback to a previous time. He’s a jingoistic, nationalist, character that really shouldn’t work in today’s geopolitical climate. But in terms of the Marvel comics universe, he’s the top dog. Although not always (or often) reflected in sales, his character is always at the forefront of Marvel’s storylines, and does for Marvel what Superman does for DC, in that he’s the de facto leader of Earth’s heroes. I think I admire the simplicity. At the character’s best, he represents everything that is “good” about America. At his worst, he’s a government puppet, fulfilling the mandate of whatever politician is currently in power. It’s a fine line, and when done well (the runs of Mark Gruenwald, Mark Waid, and Ed Brubaker), he can be a compelling plot device. But the character itself is quite bland, and so it’s been my experience that there are more bad Cap stories than there are good. As I’ve done this project, there are books that I realize I need to pick up, and Mark Gruenwald’s epic run on Captain America is at the top of the list.

Captain America – The Otherworld War/The New Deal

Blah. A bland, generic, character is bound to guarantee some bland, generic stories, and these are two mini-series that fit the bill. There’s not much to discuss here, as there isn’t much to either of these. Although the New Deal does have the benefit of John Cassady’s pencil work, and is somewhat readable, neither comic is anything other than just a run of the mill exercise in blandness.

CULL

Captain America – The Winter Soldier Vol. 1 & 2, Red Menace Vol. 1 & 2, Civil War, The Death Of Captain America Vol. 1, 2, 3, The Man With No Face, Two Americas, Reborn, No Escape

I’m not going to go as far as many people have and declare Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America to be “the best ever”. But it is a very good run, one that blends superhero theatrics with quasi-realistic espionage thrills quite seamlessly.

Even now, this is still one of the better superhero comics on the market, though it doesn’t quite have the impact that it did in its hey day. There is a lot of story here: The death and resurrection of Cap’s arch-nemesis; The resurrection of Cap’s WW2 partner Bucky; Cap being wanted by the US government; Cap being shot and killed; Bucky taking up the mantle of Cap, The original Cap coming back from the dead, etc. As I said, there’s a LOT of stuff going on here. And while this book is quite plot heavy at times, it still never gets too dense, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. I would say that Brubaker finds the character of Bucky to be a little more interesting than that of the original Cap, as he’s done more in terms of character development with that character than with that of Steve Rogers. Brubaker takes a similar approach to Steve Rogers as Christopher Priest did to the Black Panther, in that he really makes the book about how others perceive the title character, more than he makes it about that character himself. Good approach for an iconic character like Cap.

I would recommend this as a good-to-almost great mainstream superhero book, though at times it resembles spy books like Queen & Country more than it does more traditional Cap stories. The Cap Reborn trade is easily the weak link of the bunch, though I’m keeping it.

KEEP

Captain America – Fallen Son

This was an attempt by Marvel to capitalize on the hype created by the “death” of the original Captain America, Steve Rogers. Like much of Jeph Loeb’s writing these days, it’s heavy on schmaltz, low on story. And so while you get some decent character moments, it’s not really compelling enough to justify a reread, and comes across as inconsequential.

CULL

Next: Captain Britain! Captain Marvel! The son of Captain Marvel! A shapechanging alien that thinks he’s Captain Marvel!

 

 

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 34: Still. More. Avengers. Sigh…

I’m about as sick of talking about the Avengers as Charlie Sheen is of being sane. But an unanticipated result of Brian Bendis’ commercial success on Avengers was the spin-off book. Or I should say spin-off books. Lots and lots of books. I should say that although this period had a lot of spin-offs, for the most part they felt like natural, organic parts to the larger story that Marvel was telling at the time. I happen to like this period (Civil War/Secret Invasion/Dark Reign) of Marvel’s history, as I felt that it flowed together quite well, and that everything served a larger purpose.

Breasts. Evil, evil breasts.

Mighty Avengers – The Ultron Initiative, Venom Bomb, Secret Invasion Book 1 and 2

This was also written by Bendis, and was a direct result of the events that took place in Marvel’s Civil War cross over. At this point in the storyline, this team was the “official” Avengers team, and basically filled the more “traditional” Avengers role: They only took care of planetary threats, were sanctioned by the government, etc. This book was a little bigger, a little more epic than the New Avengers book. It also attempted to break some new stars, specifically Ms. Marvel and Ares. I think it succeeded with the latter, but maybe not as much with the former. This book started with a bang. The Ultron arc is awesome, in the truest sense of the word. It’s a big-time, world is about to end, Avengers story, and with incredible art by Frank “I can create better breasts than God” Cho, and it stands up well as one of the better self-contained Avengers stories of the past few years. The Venom story is also good, but gets a little bogged down with some of the subplots of what’s happening with the other Avengers team. After that, the book becomes just another Brian Bendis Avengers book, and it loses a lot of the scope and wide-screen adventure that the first two arcs had. All in all it’s a good superhero book, and the first arc in particular is a barn burner.

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Eeeevil. So very evil.

Dark Avengers – Assemble, Molecule Man, Siege

If Mighty Avengers was a response to Civil War, then Dark Avengers was a response to the Secret Invasion storyline. Quickly then: The supervillain formerly known as the Green Goblin has somehow become in charge of America’s security. As such, he leads a new team that he calls “Avengers”. In actuality, the new team is composed of criminals, posing as popular heroes (Moonstone as Ms. Marvel, Bullseye as Hawkeye, Venom as Spider-Man), as well as Ares and the Sentry, and of course Norman himself. I would have thought that the fans would have been up in arms over this, but for the most part people embraced this, and so did I. I don’t think this would have worked so well without the years of set up that Bendis had prepared us with beforehand, but by the time this storyline came out it felt as a very organic part to the epic that Bendis was crafting. Even though the team is composed of nothing but villains, Bendis still makes you care about them, if by care you mean ” I REALLY can’t wait until someone comes along and kicks their ass”. By this point Mike Deodato had evolved into one of the better superhero artists on the market, and his work here is exemplary.

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Because training child soldiers is always a good idea.

Avengers: The Initiative – Basic Training, Killed In Action, Secret Invasion, Disassembled

Yep, another spinoff, this one coming out of Civil War. So now every hero has to “register” with the government, and The Initiative the government’s way of training all these new heroes. This was writer Dan Slott’s first big book, and he did a nice job with it. He put familiar faces like Tigra, Hank Pym, and Justice in as the trainers, and then threw a combination of new and old (but still not well-known) characters in as the students. When I started rereading this, I think I thought I would be getting rid of these. But I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoy this book, mostly for its engaging character development. Slott is pulling out all the stops in trying to get us to love these new characters, and for the most part it works. Unfortunately, the book is not without its problems. Like his previous work on She-Hulk, the book did start to get bogged down with sub-plots. Because so much was happening in the Marvel Universe at the time, it feels as if this book was being pulled in too many directions at times. That being said, it’s still an enjoyable read, if not entirely essential.

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Young Avengers – Sidekicks, Family Matters

This book started not long after the original New Avengers title started, and shares the bleak “Our heroes are gone, what will we do” vibe that Bendis’ book did for a time. The premise is that a group of young heroes with costumes and code names reminiscent to Avengers of the past is patrolling the city, and Jessica Jones (formerly of Alias fame) is trying to get to the bottom of it. And so are Captain America and Iron Man.

This is a very good teen superhero book. It’s more superhero than teen, but it’s still quite good, and easily the equal (if not better) than DC’s recent Teen Titans books. The question is this: Why would trained, experienced combat fighters like Iron Man and Captain America let untrained children dress up and fight crime. The answer: They wouldn’t. Which of course leads to conflict, which is something that teen superhero books often lack. What is forgotten is that no matter how powerful these people are, they’re still kids, and should act like them. I don’t mean have scenes with them making out with each other, or playing X-Box all the time. YA avoids these clichés (thankfully), but it does show them acting the way teens do: erratically, but trying to do the right thing. Allen Heinberg and Jim Cheung did a beautiful job with this series, and it’s nice to see that they’re currently in the middle of another one with the same characters.

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Next up: NOT AVENGERS! YAY!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 33: More Avengers

Avengers West Coat – Vision Quest

I’m really not sure how it’s possible that I only have one West Coast Avengers trade, as I loved this book in the late ’80s when it originally came out.This trade focuses on John Byrne’s run on the book. There are lots of interesting stuff here: The first appearance of the Great Lakes Avengers, the foreshadowing of Scarlet Witch’s eventual meltdown, and a complete retcon of the origin of the Vision. Plus John Byrne’s pencils were great on this run. I’m definitely looking for more trades from this era ASAP.

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Avengers – Red Zone

It didn’t take Marvel long to try to scoop DC’s Geoff Johns up for one of their books, but for some reason the pairing never seemed to click. His run got a LOT of online heat from fans, and proved to be controversial. Nothing like what was to come when Brian Michael Bendis took over the book, but at this point, Marvel still hadn’t quite cottoned to the fact that if they wanted the Avengers to become a top-tier book, they were going to need to do some serious changing. So while Johns run is edgier than previous writer’s attempts to reboot the Avengers, it still comes across as slightly forced. That being said, I did enjoy this far more than I thought I would. The “big reveal” of the arc’s villain still comes across as quite hackneyed, and not well-thought out at all, but it’s still quite a good read. Some good character moments between Black Panther and Iron Man as well. There are a few other trades from Johns’ run that I may track down now.

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New Avengers – Breakout, The Sentry, Secrets & Lies, The Collective, Civil War, Revolution, The Trust, Secret Invasion Books 1 & 2, Power, Search For The Sorcerer supreme, Powerloss, Siege, New Avengers

So it’s 2004, and Marvel finally realizes that the Avengers are done. Not the concept, but the team as it currently stood. The book had been running on fumes for quite a while, and even bringing in superstar writer Geoff Johns to revive the teams fortunes hadn’t grown any traction with fans. The book was is in the doldrums. Enter Brian Michael Bendis. By this point, Bendis had garnered some serious goodwill among Marvel fans for his runs on Daredevil, Alias, and Ultimate Spider-Man. But he had never really tackled anything with quite as big a potential scope as the Avengers. Could he pull it off? Could he make the Avengers relevant again?

From a commercial standpoint, the answer was unequivocably yes. Not only did he make the Avengers relevant again, Marvel essentially rebuilt the entire framework of the Marvel Universe around the work Bendis did on New Avengers. It became Marvel’s flagship book, usurping Spider-Man and X-Men as the top draws at the company. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the title’s success had a large part to do with Marvel realizing that an Avengers movie could work.

From a quality standpoint, the answer is a little more complicated. It’s Brian Bendis. Which means the book went from becoming a light-hearted adventure-of-the-week book to a dark, conspiracy-laden, dialogue-heavy, noir thriller. Whether you liked it had a lot to do with how much you liked Brian Bendis’ writing. I for one loved it, and still do. In fact, my appreciation of what he’s done for the book has only increased upon revisiting the work.

The first thing Bendis realized is that if he was to make this work, if he was to completely revitalize the very concept of the Avengers, he was going to have to make some tough choices. And so he threw out the baby with the bath water. In fact, he didn’t just throw out the baby, he drowned it at the bottom of the tub. He damaged Avengers Mansion, killed fan-favourite character Hawkeye (and didn’t just kill him, but gave him one of the most ignoble deaths a well-known character has ever gotten, and dismantled the team.

Enter New Avengers. The premise here was to organically grow a “street-level” team of some of Marvel’s top characters, as well as some of Bendis’ favourites. And so perennial C listers Luke Cage and Spider-Woman joined team stalwarts Iron Man and Captain America. In addition, he also brought triple A listers Wolverine and Spider-Man into the fold to garner the favour of casual fans. He also threw the Sentry into the mix, just to provide some tension. This doesn’t sound so crazy now, but at the time all of these changes were considered blasphemy, and the changes Bendis brought to the Avengers were probably the most radical since the mid-’60’s. He also provided an opportunity for more casual fans to experience the adventures of their favourites  without having to actually follow what was happening in their own books. Even though I love the team, I’m the first one to admit that not only was this not your daddy’s Avengers, it really wasn’t the Avengers at all. The team didn’t have any type of government mandate, almost never went on patrol, and really just stumbled from adventure to adventure. And for me, that was ok. And still is.

Those looking for holes to poke won’t have to look far however. While there is some long-term plotting here (the buildup to Secret Invasion, the slow recreation of Luke Cage becoming one of Marvel’s top-tier heroes), and some ideas took almost 4 years to pay off, it does seem as if Bendis viewed what was happening in the rest of the Marvel Universe as somewhat of an inconvenience. The Civil War storyline in particular seemed to take Bendis by surprise, though he deftly brought it into his master plan relatively painlessly. I’ll also never fully believe Bendis’ claims that he had the entire arc of Spider-Woman’s character planned out in advance, as the events of Secret Invasion seemed to fly in the face of reason. And while I happen to enjoy Bendis’ Mametian maelstroms of dialogue, they’re not for everyone, and one of the major criticisms of the book was (and still is) that it’s heavy on exposition, low on action. I think that was a legitimate comment at one point, but Bendis seems to have captured a solid middle ground now, blending character development with action much better than he did at the start of his run. Another critique that is often made of the book is the art. Although David Finch garnered few complaints when he started the book, he handed the reigns over to darker, more stylized artists like Lenil Yu and Alex Maleev, whose work seems to have antagonized long-time fans. Again, this happens to be a matter of taste. I happen to think Alex Maleev is one of comics unheralded geniuses, but those looking for a more traditional, detailed look weren’t happy.

For the most part, Bendis’ New Avengers has been a wholly entertaining thrill ride of a superhero comic book. Though not for everybody, I think it’s really set the bar a little higher for what is possible  (and also necessary in order to capture a modern audience) with team superhero books in the 21st century.

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Next up: Wow. More Avengers. Whee.