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+

My review of Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, Part 2

I’ve been looking forward to this all week,  and I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed.

Some spoilers: The movie started with a Liam Neeson voice over from the first film. He reminds us that every hero has a journey, but that if Bruce worked really hard he could become a legend. Then we cut to Commissioner Gordon. He says that Bruce didn’t work hard enough. Gordon apparently has had a bad day. He’s in the hospital, and he’s hurt. He’s mad at Batman for quitting, but says that he has to come back now that there is great evil in Gotham. As opposed to the rest of the time when Gotham is a rainbow-covered paradise full of unicorns and moonbeams, I guess. Batman whines a bit, but Gordon tells him to man up. Then we see Tom Hardy as Bane for the first time. We pee our pants. Then Batman sees Tom Hardy as Bane for the first time, and HE pees his Bat-pants. Then there is some yelling, and chanting, and that’s the end.

Commissioner Gordon in "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part Two"

I loved this. It told me everything I needed to know about the sequel that’s coming next summer. It had a great plot, interesting characters, and some solid acting by Gary Oldman.

Rating: A

The 30-year-old teen wizard that starred in the horrible film that was shown at the end of Harry Potter

P.S. At the end there was a two-hour piece of incomprehensible dreck about a 30-year-old man pretending to be a 15-year-old wizard, who seemed to be on a confusing Choose Your Own Adventure: Magic Edition full of gaping plot points, terrible, angst-ridden acting, and dozens of characters that show up with no explanation but then leave just as abruptly with no rhyme or reason. There was also  a guy with a pretty bad skin condition that either a) wants to kill the post-pubescent wizard, or b) wants to have sex with him, or c) just wants to know how an Oscar nominated actor of his calibre somehow ended up in this piece of swill. Although I can’t really tell you what it was about, I can tell you that every time it got too confusing some actor would just make up a new word to describe whatever was happening on the screen as if that would explain things, and about half way through the movie everybody took a break and did a flash mob where they kissed whomever was standing next to them, even though that was the first scene some of those people had together in the whole movie. At the end they thankfully fast forwarded through the next 19 years of these people’s lives so that we could see that anything remotely interesting about the characters had been sucked out by the gaping maw of middle age.

Rating: D+ (the + is for the best albino dragon I’ve seen on-screen this year. Well, other than Nancy Grace)

Wednesday Comics Woundup: SVK by Warren Ellis – A half-review

SVK is a brand new comic book/marketing concept/technological breakthrough/interesting gimmick by Warren Ellis, (well-known comic book writer/sociocultural transhumanist bon vivant), D’Israeli (well-respected comic book art messiah named after a dead British Prime Minister), and BERG (design company that seems be just a little too clever for their own good that I’ve never heard of before but my wife probably has since she reads Monocle and they seem to be the kind of company that would be liked by someone who reads Monocle).

Apparently the folks at BERG went to Ellis with the basic premise of the comic, which is privacy, and secrecy. Or the lack thereof. And whether or not privacy is something that CAN ever matter anymore, no matter how much we want it to. Familiar concepts for Ellis, and so he made the perfect mad scientist for this particular experiment. Oh, and did I mention that it’s not just a comic book? The book (which is ONLY available at the Berg site, and did I mention it’s sold out, and with shipping cost me more than a Michelle Bachmann  lap dance?) actually comes with a UV torch, which in theory you shine on the pages, giving you access secret text, art, and thought bubbles that expand the horizons of the story. Sounds like a great idea right?

It is. Or it would be, if the goddamn thing worked. Apparently, there seems to quite a few people who were shipped faulty torches, and I seem to be one of them. Or I’m an idiot that can’t figure out how to use a glorified flashlight. One of the two. So I should wait right? Let the folks at BERG send me a new torch, and wait till then to read the book, since it was obviously meant to be read with the torch. Yeah, but that would involve patience, and homey don’t play that.

So I read it. And it was good. Quite good, in fact. I was on the fence about buying this, but I read a post of Ellis’ that stated that he thought that this was the best thing he had written in a few years. While Ellis is one of the most prolific web-posters in the comic world, he’s quite critical of his own work, and he’s not one to blow his own horn without good reason. And so my reasoning was that if Ellis thought it was great, and I like Ellis, than I’ll like this. And I do. I’ll delay on giving a FULL review of this for now, but even without half the text, it’s a well-written techno-thriller that I liked mostly because of how restrained it is. Ellis is known for many things as a writer, but subtly isn’t always one of them. But he’s pulled himself back here, and really worked on writing an interesting story first, gimmick/treatise on the positives and negatives of secrecy in a post-smartphone/CCTV world second. In short, it’s a good story. It doesn’t have the bombast/action/mind-blowing sci-fi concepts that the fans of Ellis’ work like Authority, Planetary, or Global Frequency have come to enjoy and expect, but if it’s Ellis’ masterpieces Fell or Desolation Jones you enjoy, this is a book well worth your time.

And I need to mention the art. Do I ever. Matt Booker is one of my all-time favourite comic book artists, but I forget that most of the time. His work isn’t that well-known over here, but anybody that has read Scarlet Traces will attest that he’s one of the best comic artists that the UK has. He’s the perfect foil for Ellis here, with work that’s both highly descriptive yet still so subtle that I found myself reading the book without text, just to fully grasp what he’s doing.

Is this likely to change the way comics are consumed? Nope. It’s just too expensive, and the only reason this sold as fast as it did was that Ellis’ name was attached to it. A business model based on $30 comics that you have to wait 2 weeks for isn’t really sustainable. But as an interesting, and ballsy experiment that just also happens to be a very good comic book, and that uses it’s gimmick as an integral part of the story? Absolutely.

Rating for the half that I can actually read: A-

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!

New Comics Review: Batman, Canadian Superheroes, and Mutant Tooth Monsters. And Prostitutes.

Murder Book Vol. 2 by Ed Brisson, Vic Malhotra, and Michael Walsh.

I might be accused of bias here as the writer is a friend of mine, but objectively speaking Ed Brisson is probably number one on my “I can’t believe everyone isn’t reading one of his comics” list right now. There’s a real craftsman-like attention to detail in terms of the dialogue, and artists Vic Malhotra and Michael Walsh are real talents to watch out for.  If you are at all a fan of tight, intense writing, and love recent crime-focused books like Criminal, Scalped, or The Killer, Murder Book is for you.

Rating: A

 Alpha Flight #1 by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, and Dale Eaglesham

I had to. You know I had to. No matter how disenchanted I  may be with the current state of mainstream superhero comics, any Canadian comics fan worth her or his Maple Syrup has to check out any new incarnation of Canada’s premier superhero team. That’s not the surprise. What was surprising however, is that this was good. In fact, I might go as far as to say that this was the best Alpha Flight issue I’ve ever read that didn’t involve John Byrne.

However, I do have a few suggestions/comments for Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente, seeing that they’re not Canadian.

  • A true Vancouverite wouldn’t recite a Hail Mary if they were threatened by imminent death at the hands of a blue skinned merman. Our only religion is real estate.
  • I really like the political angle here, and the Prime Minister suspending the Charter was a nice touch. Unfortunately, your fictional fascist prime minister with a dark secret still isn’t nearly as scary as our real fascist prime minister with a dark secret.
  • Kudos for writing an entire 25 page comic about Canada and NOT mentioning Toronto.  P.S. No need to mention Alberta either. Just keep the whole thing in B.C. and P.E.I., and you’ll be fine.

Rating: B+

 The Tooth by Cullen Bunn, Shawn Lee, and Matt Kindt

I can’t believe more people aren’t talking about this, as it involves three of comics brightest current young stars. Cullen Bunn is the writer of an excellent supernatural western comic called The Sixth Gun, and Matt Kindt is the brilliant artist/writer behind such current masterpieces as Super Spy, Revolver, and 3 Story.  Shawn Lee I don’t know, but I’m sure he’s great. The Tooth is their tribute/homage/pastiche to 60s and 70s monster comics, and it’s probably the most fun comic book experience I’ve had this year. It’s about a guy that find a magic tooth that burrows into his head, only to discover that it also turns into a giant monster that fights demons. Duh. What did you think it was about?

Fun is the watchword here, but that doesn’t mean that the book doesn’t demand to be taken seriously. Like all of the great 70’s monster comics, The Tooths tortured, yet sympathetic lead character is the primary driving focus of the narrative, and the reason why you start this book smiling, but may end it with a tear. Although it’s Bunn and Lee’s story, I’m not sure this would have worked quite as well with any other artist than Matt Kindt. His style is the perfect mix of raw emotion and technical brilliance for this sort of thing, and I hope to see more of these creators working together.

Rating: A

Flashpoint: Batman, Knight Of Vengeance by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso

Yeah, I can’t really believe I’m reviewing a Batman comic either, much less a Batman comic attached to one of DC’s absurd annual crossovers. It’s not that I don’t like me some Batman. But Grant Morrison has effectively ruined the character for me, and I’m pretty much on a Bat-Hiatus (HiBatus?) until all of the horrible things he’s done to character are reversed. But Azzarello and Risso on a non-continuity Batman where Bruce Wayne was killed and Thomas Wayne actually became Batman? Sign me up. Issue one: Liked. Good set-up, but the series kept it’s secrets close. Issue two: Best reveal ever. We find out who the Joker is in this weird, alternate reality, and it pretty much kicks our ass. Issue three hasn’t happened yet, but I’m hoping that DC realizes that they’ve got gold here and beg Azzarello

and Risso to keep going.

Rating: A-

Paying For It by Chester Brown

This might be the best comic about prostitutes since Professor X needed Storm and Kitty to help pay for the heating bill that one time.. And it’s also going to go down as one of my favourite graphic novels of the year. Chester Brown goes back to his autobiographical roots here, but he’s learned the lesson taught by contemporaries such as Alison Bechdel and Tom Beland: His life isn’t that interesting. Neither is yours. Neither is mine. However, we all have one small aspect of our lives that IS interesting, and that’s what Brown focuses on here, namely that he pays women to have sex with them.

No matter how one feels about the issue, this is the gutsiest, most personal story I’ve read in comic book form this year. It’s honest, it’s courageous, and it’s raw. And it’s pretty much brilliant. Highly recommended.

Rating: A+