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 Great Comic Book Cull Part 58: Marvel Comics – Spider-Woman!

A quick house-keeping thing to announce first: I’m changing the name of my culling project, as it’s fairly obvious by now that I’m not going to finish the project in 2011, or even in 2012 at this rate. Maybe I should change it to the Great Comic Book Cull of the First Half Of The Twenty-First Century.

Spider-Woman

Yep, hard to see why they keep her around.

Yes, there’s a Spider-Woman. Why? Take a seat, and I’ll tell you her story.

Turns out that Peter Parker had a cousin that was born on his home-planet but was sent to Earth on a dffe…no, wait, that’s somebody else.

Ok. I’ve got it now. So the police commissioner that works hand in hand with Spider-Man has a plucky young daughter who decides to emulat…Nope, that’s still not it.

Ok, I think I’ve got this in the bag. Peter Parker’s cousin was shot and near death when Parker decided to give her a transfus….Still not it?

You mean that she’s not connected to Peter Parker at all? There’s a character with the same name as this guy running around and there’s no connection whatsoever? Oh Marvel. Is there anything that your particular brand of crass opportunism can’t do?

This character has always been a weird one for Marvel, in that she is relatively unused compared to other Marvel characters from the same era. She was created in the late 1970’s essentially to maintain a copyright, and her first original series was a weird little horror/spy/superhero title that didn’t last long. And so she essentially disappeared for the next few decades. She would pop up once in a while, usually in the sack with Wolverine, but she was basically MIA for 20 years.

Until Brian Michael Bendis came along. After becoming Marvel’s top writer, it didn’t take for him to start digging up all of his old favourite characters from when he was a kid, and so voila, we now have Spider-Woman back! Since Bendis took an interest, we’ve seen numerous major stories and series with Jessica Drew as the lead. Unfortunately, it turns out that she may have been better served by letting her stay under the rock she was living under, as other than having one of the hottest costume in superhero history, there doesn’t seem to be too much depth to the character.

Spider-Woman – Origin

This was Bendis’ first attempt at rebuilding the origin of Jessica Drew, and it’s actually a pretty good one. Bendis uses the secret spy-underbelly of the Marvel U as his backdrop here, and weaves a competent tale of weird science, espionage, and super-heroics. It’s basically Bendis’ take on the Island of Dr. Moreau, but instead of a bear/dog/ox hybrid, we get a hot chick in spandex. Plus, it’s got the only mainstream superhero work done to date by the Luna Brothers, and they show here why they’ve become two of the preeminent adventure storytellers in comics right now. Solid read.

KEEP

Spider-Woman – Agent Of S.W.O.R.D.

So Marvel does the first mini. It’s well-received, and so they announce that they’re going to do a follow-up right afterwards. Only one problem: The Spider-Woman that we knew and loved, wasn’t actually Spider-Woman. It was an alien shape-shifter who was secretly leading an alien invasion of earth! DUN DUN DUUUUNNNNN!

And so this long-awaited series by the creative team behind one of the greatest Daredevil runs of all time was put on hiatus for a few years. And by the time it finally came out, no one cared, least of all the creative team. The problem with achieving greatness is that you’re expected to be able to repeat it, and the much-lauded team of Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev just couldn’t duplicate either the commercial or the critical acclaim they had achieved before.

And so the series ended after only a handful of issues. It gets unjustly criticized in my book though. This isn’t a bad comic, it’s just that it’s “just” a well-executed  little spy/crime tale, and we had been told to expect epic brilliance from this particular team, on this particular concept. Maleev’s artwork is truly stunning here. Despite his lack of interest in the project, I don’t believe his pencils have ever looked better, before or since.

KEEP

Next up: Squadron Supreme!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 57: Marvel Comics – Spider-Man Part 3!

Spider-Man – Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane Vol. 1 & 2

Yes, I’m a straight male in my 30s. And yes I have lots of comics with punching, and kicking and shooting. And boobies. And I also have these: Some of the best romance comics you’ll ever read in your life.

This is the story of a young high-school student named Mary Jane Watson. She’s pretty, she’s smart, and she has a crush on a guy who dresses up as a human spider. It’s a slightly alternate take on the early days of Spider-Man, and specifically aimed at the teen girl audience. So why do I own these? And love them? Because genre doesn’t matter to me. I love good stories with interesting characters, and these have both in spades. These are well-crafted relationship comics, expertly done by Sean McKeever and Takeshi Miyazawa. The familiar backdrop of Peter Parker’s tumultuous high school love life is the setting here, and as such it takes some minor familiarity with the Spider-Man legend. What do you need to know? That Peter Parker is Spider-Man. That’s it, but you do need to know it in advance as the series itself never actually states it. Again, this is a story about Mary Jane. Spider-Man is just one of the characters in her life. Two, actually, as he and Peter Parker are very much treated as separate entities, although we know they’re not.

I know, this is an unconventional choice for a superhero comic. But it’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s got some great character beats.

KEEP

Spider-Man & Human Torch – I’m With Stupid

This is one of the first things that Dan Slott ever did for Marvel Comics, and it’s a big part of the reason why he’s currently the Shepherd of all-things Spidey. Why? Because it’s fun. So much fun. If your Spidey is the Marvel Team-Up Spidey of the late 1970s and 1980s, this book is for you. It’s the story of two friends, Spidey, and the Human Torch. Now, they may not always know that they’re friends, and sometimes they don’t act like it, but they are. Best friends in fact. And so Slott puts them through hijinks after hijinks, and what we get is just a good, all-ages superhero story, the likes of which are few and far between these days.

KEEP

YAY! No more Spider-Man!

What’s next?

Spider-Woman. Boo.

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 56: Marvel Comics – Spider-Man Part 2!

Spider-Man: The JMS years

Because his run ended in scandal and controversy, it’s tempting to dismiss all of J. Michael Straczynskis long tenure on Spider-Man as disposable. Far from it. In fact, it’s JMS’ run that got me back reading Spider-Man after years and years away from the book. People forget that before JMS, Spider-Man was a floundering stunt book full of clones, death, and sadness, and featured every dumb gimmick Marvel could think of to bolster sales. JMS went back to basics on the character, but also attempted to add some depth to his origin. Peter Parker as avatar of a long dead Spider-God might not have taken off with the masses the way Marvel hoped, but they’ve had worse ideas over the years, and the concept garnered some great stories. And some terrible ones.

Amazing Spider-Man – Coming Home, Revelations, Until The Stars Turn Cold, The Life & Death of Spiders, Unintended Consequences, Happy Birthday, The Book Of Ezekiel

This run started off with a huge bang. JMS introduces Morlun, a new addition to Spidey’s rogues gallery, and one that was perfect as a starting point for what the writer was trying to accomplish in his run. JMS is known as a fairly talky writer, and to his credit he counteracted that by putting together one of the great Spider-Man battles as his first order of business. And not only is there plenty of action, but there’s also plenty of attention being paid to characterization. No, it’s not the same Peter Parker stumbling through personal problem after personal problem that we know and love. This Parker is starting to get his shit together. And we love him for it. After Morlun, comes the big reveal: Aunt May finds out that Peter is Spider-Man. And so we get several years of poignant character moments between those two icons that we’d never been privy to before, simply because of one simple change to the status quo.Also? Funny. Really funny. JMS’ Spidey isn’t quite as quippy as previous incarnations have been, but the laughs are subtle, and frequent. Oh, and John Romita Jr turns in some of the greatest art he’s ever done. And this is a guy who turns in great art the way you turn in your parking pass at work. It’s a regular occurrence. In short, the first 7 trades of this run are pretty much magic.

Amazing Spider-Man: Sins Past, Skin Deep, New Avengers, Spider-Man – One More Day, The Other, Back In Black

And then one day the magic died. I’m not sure whether or not it was John Romita leaving the book, the heavy-handed interference from Marvel EIC Joe Quesada, or something else that caused the not-so-gradual decline of this book, but decline it did. It was obvious by this point that JMS’ heart wasn’t in the comic anymore, and Sins Past was just the first of many terrible creative decisions. Mistake number one: Introducing two new villains as the long-lost love children of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osbourne. Stacy is a much-loved character in the Marvel canon, so much so that her 1973 death is considered the official end of the Silver Age of comics. To retcon her into a needy whore with daddy issues enraged fans and critics alike. And worst of all, it wasn’t a good story. And that was just beginning of two years worth of terrible decisions: Peter joins The Avengers. Peter tells the world his secret identity. Peter makes a deal with Satan to nullify his marriage with the love of his life in order to save the life of a woman near death anyways. Nah, that last one would never happen. Oh, wait. It did? Crap. As I said, it’s obvious from the quality of this dreck that JMS was under the gun here, and that he was essentially under orders for a lot of this. And since he’s written some fine comics since then he can be forgiven. But the end of this run was where a lot of long-time Spidey fans jumped off the book, and judging from recent sales numbers, they never came back.

CULL

Spider-Man – Tangled Web Vol. 1-4

This was a series that ran concurrently with a lot of JMS’ run, and man is it ever missed. Basically the premise of this is that it’s an anthology series, featuring stories both short and long, that fit neatly into the Spider-Man mythos, but don’t always star Spider-Man. And to top it off, if features plenty of indie and top creators that aren’t always known for their take on superheroes.And so you get fantastic, quirky little Spider-Man stories by people like Duncan Fegredo, Garth Ennis, Greg Rucka, Eduardo Risso, Paul Pope, Peter Milligan, Brian Azzarello, Sean Phillips, Darwyn Cooke, Kaare Andrews, and Ted McKeever. Now, this book isn’t for those who need continuity and punch-ups to pervade every page of their comics. But if you love short, stand-alone superhero stories by unconventional creators, you’re not going to get much better than this.

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Spider-Man: Blue by Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb

This was from a brief moment a decade ago where the pairing of Loeb and Sale could do no wrong. Every publisher wanted them to work their magic on character after character. It’s popular now to trash Jeph Loeb for every thing he’s written in the last 5 years. But his work with Sale still stands up. For the most part. This is a small story about Peter Parker reminiscing about the first love of his life, Gwen Stacy. And so there is plenty of over-the-top schmaltz, but it’s good schmaltz, and quite frankly it’s the stuff than Loeb writes the best. But as pretty much everything that Loeb and Sale did together, it’s Tim Sale that isn’t just the real star, he’s the whole damn thing. I don’t think I could name 5 mainstream artists that are operating at the level that Sale is at, and this is a great example of his finest work. As a Spider-Man story, I can’t say that it’s particularly engaging. But as an example of one of the best writer-artist partnerships of the last 20 years, it’s pretty much essential.

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Spider-Man – Kraven’s Last Hunt

This is the greatest Spider-Man story ever told. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. And for once, I agree with conventional wisdom. This story, originally done in the late 1980’s, stars Kraven, a Spider-Man villain who never really fulfilled his promise as a bad guy. Although he always had a great look, he was a fairly one-note character. That is, until J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck got ahold of him. This is really his story, and it’s the story of a dying man. Nothing is wrong with him per se, but he’s at the end of his life, and he knows it. And so he wants to do one last thing: Destroy Spider-Man. Not kill, though that’s part of it. Destroy. And for Kraven, destroying your greatest enemy means becoming him. And he does.

This, my fine friends, is one of the great ones. One of the true, epic superhero stories that give you faith in a genre famous for telling truly epic stories. And it stands up so well. Even though it’s 25 years old by now, it would still kick the ass of 99% of the superhero comics out right now in terms of emotional impact, and in terms of pure entertainment.

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Spider-Man: Fever 

Ok, here’s what you do. Grab a Spider-Man comic. Any one, really. Ok, start reading. Now, smoke a carton of cigarettes. I’ll wait. Done? Ok, now here’s a thermos full of whiskey, beer, and coffee, and I’m going to need you drink that in one shot. Oh, and I’m going to need to inject your eyeballs with heroin and speed.

Now you know what reading Brendan McCarthy’s Fever is like. It’s a trippy mindfuck to end all trippy mindfucks, and it’s more about paying tribute to 1960’s Steve Ditko Doctor Strange comics than it is about telling a solid superhero story. If you love batshit crazy indie comics (and I do), then this book is for you. And only for you.

KEEP

Next up: Spider-Man and his little buddies!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 55: Marvel Comics – Spider-Man Part 1!

The greatest superhero of all time.

It’s taken me a while to get back to my culling project, mostly because I’m sick to death of my culling project. The problem is that I read so far ahead of what I was writing about, that I actually lost interest in it by the time I had to write about it. Plus, me not so interested in superhero comics anymore, and it’s still going to be a while before we get to the indie and creator owned stuff that I really enjoy. Still, I’d like to finish what I started, and so I give to you this:

Spider-Man is the greatest superhero of all time.

Yep, I said it. No take backsies. I’d fight anybody (well, not ANYBODY. If you’re a UFC fighter, or a professional soldier I just don’t think that would be very fair. Or if you ever took a self-defence course. Or watched a lot of martial arts movies. Or if you own a baseball bat) who says differently. Why, you ask? It’s not because of the suit, though the design and look of Spider-Man is a huge part of the character’s success. And it’s not because of the powers, though again, awesome.

It’s because of his origin. It’s the greatest in comics. Better than Superman (illegal immigrant becomes neo-messiah), better than Green Lantern (thrill-seeking diva is given magic jewlery by alien Chamber Of Commerce), and yes, I dare say it’s even better than Batman (spoiled rich kid sees his parents killed, becomes spoiled rich adult who also is absolutely crazy). Batman’s may be the most tragic, but Spider-Man’s is better. Why? Because it’s his fault. When people think of Spider-Man’s origin they usually think of the spider biting him after class, but me? I think of Uncle Ben.

After Peter Parker figures out he has godlike spider powers, he does what any of us would do: He robs a bank and bangs hookers. No actually, he becomes a professional wrestler. He wears a mask while he does so because Aunt May was hoping that he would grow up to rob banks and bang hookers, and he’s embarrassed that he didn’t live up to her expectations. One day, a thief makes his way into the arena that Parker is working at, and although Parker has plenty of opportunity to stop the villain, he lets him go. And so of course in the middle of a city full of 9 million people, the bad guy just happens to stumble into Peter’s Uncle Ben immediately afterward, and kills him dead.

It’s Parker’s own fault. That’s the whole crux of this guy. He was given a great gift, he didn’t use it properly, and he paid the ultimate price. It’s so simple, and yet it’s almost never used in superhero comics anymore. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he has the perfect motivation for doing what he does, and without motivation, you just have a guy who likes to dress in fetish gear and likes to get punched in the face.

That’s why he’s stuck around so long. More than any other hero, he truly understands what a responsibility he has, and as such, is probably the only true hero in a universe full of pretenders.

Spider-Man: Essential Spider-Man 1-6

I’ve mentioned numerous times throughout this project that I’ve gotten rid of most of my Marvel Essentials, and although the actual quality of the comics these are reprinting are unmistakable, the quality of the reprints themselves just doesn’t do these comics justice. These collect the run of Amazing Spider-Man from the early 1960’s to the early 1970’s, and are as close to the Holy Grail as you’re going to get in superhero comics: Stan Lee. Steve Ditko. John Buscema. Roy Thomas. The first appearance of Spider-Man. Flash Thompson. The Kingpin. The Green Goblin. The Death of Uncle Ben. Glory Grant. J. Jonah Jameson. The death of Gwen Stacy. And so on.

When it comes to the Silver Age of superhero comics, it doesn’t get better than this. And yet, I’m getting rid of them. The Essential line are basically cheap, black and white reprints of classic comics, and while they are eminently affordable, you do get what you pay for, and sadly reading these digitally and in colour on my iPad is a more fulfilling experience than these black and white cheapies.

CULL

Spider-Man: Greatest Villains

This was a collection of some of the greatest stories involving some Spider-Man’s greatest villains (Green Goblin, Mysterio, Sandman, Venom, etc). Like the Essential line, the quality of the stories themselves are not in doubt, but the quality of the presentation sadly is. LIke many Marvel trades from the late 90’s, the glue on has deteriorated to the point that it’s unreadable, and therefore not worth owning.

CULL

Spider-Man & Black Cat - The Evil That Men Do

This was from the brief period in the late 90’s/early 2000’s in which Kevin Smith was considered to be a good comic book writer. Thankfully, that time seems to be over now, and it’s rare that any of the major comic book companies will let Smith near their characters. But the comics from this period are still around, and this one might be one of the worst. Smith reimagines long time Spider-Man supporting character Black Cat as a bisexual vamp whose previously unmentioned rape was a big motivator for her beating up bad guys. It’s turgid, over-the-top, and barely readable. In short, it’s Kevin Smith. Terry Dodgson’s art is fun, and as one would expect, his Black Cat is about as sexy as is legally allowed in comic books. But it’s not enough to save this turkey.

CULL

Next up: More Spider-Man!

 

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 54: Marvel Comics – She-Hulk!

She's like the Hulk, but with a vagina and a law degree. So basically she's Nancy Grace.

There’s been a lot of talk about how comic culture has bled into the mainstream, and that it’s more culturally accepted than ever before to hoist your nerd flag high. I say BS. If you ever really want to know what your non-comic reading friends think of your passions, bring up the latest issue of She-Hulk at your next dinner party. And wait for the laughter. And that’s usually just from my wife.

Yes, I said She-Hulk. She’s like the Hulk, but with a vagina and a law degree. So kind of like Nancy Grace.

So how did a cheap knock-off a male character become arguably the greatest feminist comic book character of all time?

Two words: John Byrne.

Byrne is currently best known for his decades-long audition for the role of the internet’s Crankiest Old Curmudgeon. But before that, he was known as not only one of superhero comics premier creators, but also one of the best writers of female characters mainstream comics  has ever seen. And while he might be best known for his revamp of the Fantastic Four’s Susan Storm, it’s She-Hulk that is his finest achievement. She was originally conceived in the late 70s as the Hulk’s cousin, and was never treated as much more than a way for Marvel to guard their copyright, until Byrne started writing her in the pages of FF. He recast her as a fun, thrillseeking adventurer that was a great counterpoint to most of the dour, angst-ridden women that starred in Marvel comics those days. But it wasn’t until Byrne got to write and draw her in the pages of her own book that she really started to shine.

She-Hulk – The Sensational She-Hulk Vol. 1

It’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking this book was in it’s day. It was the first mainstream comic to really break through the fourth wall, and interact with it’s readers in a way that no superhero book had ever done before. And even though others (Grant Morrison…cough…) have arguably done it more effectively since then, there’s no denying that Byrne got there first. But that’s not to say that the book is all parlour tricks and comedy. Byrne revamps She-Hulk in the truest Marvel tradition, and turns her into a working joe, albeit one with green skin. She’s in full lawyer mode here, juggling her career with her duties with the FF and the Avengers. Although the book is slightly dated, it still remains a fairly revolutionary comic for it’s manipulation of the medium, and one that stands up well today.

KEEP

She-Hulk – Ceremony, Part 1 & 2

This was part of Marvel’s 80’s and 90’s graphic novel experiment, and it’s one that rarely gets discussed today,  for good reason. I’m not sure if Dwayne McDuffie had ever heard of the character before he wrote this, as he somehow managed to remove all of the joy and fun Byrne had injected into the character. I’m sorry to say that this is barely readable.

CULL

She-Hulk – Vol. 1-8

There was a time in the middle of the last decade, where this might have been Marvel’s very best title. It was funny, emotionally engaging, and had plenty of superhero action. So I was a little surprised to find myself not enjoying it on the same level that I did when these trades first hit the stands. The book still starts out well. Writer Dan Slott straddles  a nice line between madcap humour and character development, and his “Spidey sues Jonah Jameson” story has to go down among the funniest superhero comics ever written. Slott focuses on the legal side of Jennifer Walter’s persona here, and fleshes out the character in ways that hadn’t really been done before. Add a great supporting cast, and some interesting approaches to Marvel continuity, and you’ve got yourself a pretty good series. But eventually, Slott (and the title) lost it’s way. The humour side of the title eventually beat out the character and story side, and the end result was a bit of mess that was neither funny, nor interesting. Although the first four trades of Slott’s run are well worth your time, by the time he hit the fifth volume he had overstayed his welcome. Peter David took over for him, and while his approach was definitely more grown-up than Slott’s, it was definitely a welcome look at the character, and one that actually stands up better than I thought it would. He turned the book into a comic book version of Thelma and Louise, with She-Hulk on the road trying to find herself. She does, and as a result we get some well-written comic book stories that manage to be better than I thought possible.

Vol. 1-4: KEEP. Vol. 5, 6: CULL. Vol. 7, 8: KEEP

Next up: Your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 53: Marvel Comics – Sentinel, Sentry, and Shanna The She-Devil

Sentinel – Salvage

Sentinel was a short-lived series that Marvel put on the market about 8 years ago as part of one of their many failed attempts to capture the “youth” market, that doesn’t really exist anymore in modern comics. While I’m a fan of writer Sean McKeever, and generally like his work, there isn’t much to recommend here. It’s a cute enough story, but if you really want  a great story about a loner kid and his giant robot, watch The Iron Giant.

CULL

The Sentry – The Sentry

This is one of Marvel’s weirder experiments, and one that eventually succeeded, though perhaps not in the way Marvel intended. The Sentry was one of the greatest marketing ploys in the history of comics, but also a great example of organic, fan-based storytelling. Here’s how it played out: In 1998, Marvel “leaked” to Wizard Magazine, that they had “discovered” a lost silver age character that had been created by Stan Lee, and by a fictional creator named Arnie Rosen. This got some attention, until Marvel finally fessed up and acknowledged that it was a hoax. They continued the premise of this being a “lost” hero in the pages of the first Sentry comic, and Paul Jenkins fabricated a complicated story about someone who was actually the greatest hero of his generation, but no one (including Marvel’s other heroes) could remember him.

As a marketing ploy, this was brilliant. But as a character, the Sentry never clicked with audiences. The original series itself wasn’t that good, and was less of a cohesive story than it was a series of vignettes told by various characters in the Marvel universe. It suited Jenkins writing style, and there are few nice character moments, but it just didn’t work as a story.  After the mixed reaction to the original series, Marvel put the character on the bench for a few years until he was finally brought into Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers. Bendis’ shrewdly recognized that the character wasn’t really that likable, and used some of the mental instability that Jenkins had written into the character earlier as a major plot point. So now you have the most powerful being on earth, slowly going nuts. And it worked. It created a lot of tension, and the Sentry served as an effective deus ex machina in Marvel’s books for the next several years. As plot point in a team book, The Sentry worked exceptionally well. But as the lead character in his own heroic comic book? Not so much.

Cull

Shanna The She-Devil – Shanna The She-Devil

I don’t think that the female breast has ever had a more passionate champion than Frank Cho. He’s such a big fan, that if they didn’t exist already, I think he would have had to create them. And so we have Shanna The She-Devil, which isn’t really a story about Shanna so much as it a story about how Marvel is smart enough to let the preeminent penciler of curvy women, do a comic about curvy women. And as a generic jungle adventure Shanna The She-Devil works. Barely. But there really isn’t anything to this story other than: Pretty Girl In Bikini, which is fine if you’re reading a book of pin-ups, but not fine if you want a cohesive serial adventure. This was a cull for me, but it’s a fine example of why Cho is one of the finest pencillers in the game today.

CULL

Next up: She-Hulk! She’s like the Hulk, but with breasts!

 

Movie Review: X-Men – First Class

There’s been quite a bit of consternation about this movie from the geek community over the last year, despite it being directed by current director du jour of comic book films, Matthew Vaughn. “It’s being rushed!” you say. “It won’t fit into continuity” you say. “I won’t watch an X-Men movie without Hugh Jackman naked”, you say.

I’m pleased to tell you that your fears have been alleviated. X-Men First Class is a worthy successor to the X-Men film franchise as done by 20th Century Fox, in that it’s an overly simplistic, mindlessly silly piece of mediocre entertainment.  And not in a good way.

This is getting some rave reviews, and I’ve spent much of the weekend trying to figure out why. Is it the “blink and you’ll miss it” breakneck pace of the script, that adds more exposition than the book of Exodus yet doesn’t give us a chance to actually learn anything about any of the characters except for their name and power? And in a few cases not even that much? Or is it the mediocre script that hides its failings by tying the whole mess to the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or is it the overly clever way it clumsily foreshadows events we’ve seen in previous X-men films? Or maybe it’s just the soulless, dead eyes of January Jones? Probably a combo of them all.

What I didn’t like: 

The script –  There seems to be some debate as to who actually wrote this script, but I’m not sure why, as I’m not sure why anybody would actually want to take credit for it. There are some good things about this script from a technical standpoint. It accomplishes pretty much everything it sets out to in regards to plot points: A group of superhumans brought together by a brilliant mutant named Charles Xavier, attempt to stop a rogue mutant named Sebastien Shaw in his attempt to bring about nuclear holocaust. Ok. Mission accomplished. The script gets the job done, in that it lays out the plot relatively well, and also introduces the characters in an effective, though quick and clumsy manner. What it doesn’t do is to give us any reason to care about ANY of these characters except for two: Mystique, and Magneto.

Kevin Bacon, wondering exactly how his once stellar career went so wrong.

They are the only 2 characters that have any depth at all, but even they have their limitations. Magneto’s is that while are given more than ample reason why he would want to kill the main villain of the piece himself, we are NOT given anything more than that, and the final choices he makes seem to come out of almost nowhere. Mystique is probably the most fully realized character in the piece, but she is held back by the Portman-As-Padme-esque vacant stare of Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence seems determined to prove that her fantastic performance in last year’s phenomenal Winter’s Bone was nothing more than a fluke, though to be fair she doesn’t have much to work with in the way of dialogue.

The rest of the characters are given such short shift, that their very inclusion is little more than a distraction. Although much time is given to fully explain each of our new mutant’s powers, none is given to actually giving any of these people a reason for being there in the first place. For example: Would a black taxi-driver in 1961 really decide that it would be a great idea to voluntarily move to a secret US government facility without anyone knowing about it? And why would a stripper decide to betray the only people who actually accept her for who she is after a 3 sentence pitch from a complete stranger? X-Men First Class is hoping that you’re too excited about getting to see another X-Men movie to want to know the answers to these, and numerous other questions that the movie provokes (Why exactly is Sebastien Shaw trying to cause a nuclear holocaust when he has absolutely no proof that that would create more mutants? Would Charles Xavier’s parents really be ok with him adopting a naked 12-year-old blue girl? And who the frak thought that the makeup job on Hank McCoy was a good idea?)

The biggest problem here is that the film attempts to cram 2 or 3 movies into one. There isn’t much wrong here that another hour or two of proper set up and character building couldn’t have fixed. The one positive comment about the script that I will make is that the many changes it makes in X-Men continuity are good ones that serve the film well, and tie into the existing franchise far better than I would have thought possible. Some fans might be up in arms over the minor cosmetic changes that Vaughn and company made to the history of the X-Men, but not me.

 The acting – Much attention is being given to the performances of Michael Fassbender as Magneto, James McAvoy as Xavier, and Kevin Bacon as Sebastien Shaw. And they do a serviceable job with the poor material that they’re given. But any success they have on the screen is completely negated by the film-destroying anti-charisma of January Jones. Like a beautiful black hole, she threatens to suck any and or all joy out of every scene she’s in. To be fair, she plays the role of Emma Frost exactly like she plays the role of Betty Draper, but without the benefit of a good supporting cast or great script. Sadly, the clumsiness of the script pretty much prohibits any real acting talent from breaking through here.

I know, I’m being harsh. This isn’t Phantom Menace bad, or Transformers 2 bad. In fact, it’s not even close. Probably the biggest disappointment here isn’t that it’s a bad movie, but that it really wouldn’t have been very much effort at all to transform this into a good movie. But then again, this was produced by Fox, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Though this was a mis-step for Matthew Vaughn, it was a relatively small one, and I’m confident that once he sinks his teeth into something with far less studio intervention, and a little more meat, he’ll be fine. I wish I could say the same for the X-Men franchise.

Rating: C-