Black Knight #1 (2015): Comic Review

Picture it– A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Weirdworld

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into Weirdworld …

It would be interesting to compare and contrast this issue with the recent Weirdworld series from Secret Wars. It’s not just that both take place in this (relatively) new location to the Marvel Universe, but they both feature a sword-and-sorcery vibe, with a sword-slinging hero out of his element who is full of world-weary frustration. So why can you be so taken with Weirdworld, while Black Knight leaves you cold?   

For one, this series isn’t content with allowing just one or two elements to round out its narrative. There’s already two strong elements — Dane Whitman, the Black Knight, is stuck in Weirdworld for one, and for two, well, it’s Weridworld. But that’s not enough for this book. More and more things start piling up. There’s tension in the Knight’s ranks, he’s ruler of New Avalon, there’s a major mysterious enemy in the Fangs of the Serpent, the ghost of his ancestor is haunting him, he’s probably-but-maybe-not already succumbed to the curse of the Ebony Blade, and, oh yeah, the Uncanny Avengers are showing up. With all of these things happening, it’s difficult to tell which is meant to catch readers up on exposition, which is meant to be developing into our story’s central conflict, and how any of it is meant to work together.

For example, the Black Knight and a team of scouts he employs find Yet Another Weirdness— a German U-Boat atop a giant cliff, with more mystery inside. But that’s only for a couple of pages, since everyone returns to New Avalon with nary a mention at all about the submarine. I can accept random world-building strangeness like fire-breathing trolls attacking the Knight, but that’s all in context of the flow of a fight scene meant to be the action that leads into our story. Setting up the discovery of a submarine feels like it’s meant to be a dramatic narrative moment, and it’s abandoned as quickly as it’s introduced.

There are some nice choices with the art, which handles some montage of flashback, fight scenes, landscapes of wonder, and moments of reflection. There’s a darkness and heavyness to the figures and landscapes, as if shapes are defined by shadow and not simply by outline. There are times when the faces, in particular, are a bit too roughtly hewn, maybe, like when Dane Whitman’s face slightly shifts off-model, even within the same page or two. It’s pretty impressive, though, in range and with the sheer number of elements that are demanded. Another thing that’s so simple but I appreciate so much? The fact that everyone actually uses their right hand when using his weapons. That looks like I’m prejudiced against lefties, but really I’m just saying that the simple detail of right-handedness is usually guaranteed to be overlooked by artists.

The colors are well-rendered, of course, although perhaps a bit too dark to help the eye navigate at times. For example, even on the first splash page with the Black Knight and some Serpent guy in the middle of the battle, there is a sameness to the values across the page, and a subtle difference to the main characters, whereas a more dramatic spotlight could help highlight the central action. In terms sequential art, though, it’s great. Care is taken to illustrate panel-by-panel, and various scene shifts and flashbacks flow together thanks to the color design.

I do think that the Black Knight makes for a great character in this kind of story. He’s a man of science and technology (he made his own lightsaber at one point) and of specatuclarly bad decisions about his love life. Neither of these aspects of his character is touched upon, though, and instead the introduction we’re given is about how he’s just a normal guy thrust into a life of legacy, Avenger’s membership, and New Avalon. Oh yeah, and the curse of the Blade, of course. (“Of curse?”)

So, it guess it’s all just another “more is more” kind of storytelling, with too many elements competing for narrative attention, even though they are all necessary to build this new world. The result is that the stakes are not clearly defined, and the relative importance of things are confused. I like the Weirdworld setting, but I don’t feel properly introduced to it, and the setting itself isn’t allowed to come the fore with so many other things to consider. As a character study for the Black Knight, it’s fairly strong, and perhaps we’ll get to see some opportunities for more aspects to be explored. Otherwise, as of now, it’s just a pretty typical, but nicely drawn, lost-in-a-strange-world kind of story.

Black Knight #1: 
Writer: Frank Tieri; Ariist: Luca Pizzari; Color Artist: Antonio Fabela; Letterer: VC’s Joe Sabino 

This review was originally published for weeklycomicbookreview.com. Be sure to check in there for the world’s best comic book reviews!  

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All-New All-Different Avengers #1 (2015): Comic Review

Some assembly still required

 

Wait, there *wasn’t* an Avengers team for a while? That’s… hard to believe, especially with the Avengers property remaining the cornerstone of Marvel Comics publishing, but that’s the status quo our story seems to be starting with, so let’s see where it goes.

Or, actually, the real start was one of their heroes shouting “You’re a JERK!” at another one. Wow. Such an auspicious beginning. But that was just the teaser, as it were. The remainder of the main is about how the team will be forming from “nothing.” Not even an Avengers Tower, which is being dismantled after some supposed money problems from don’t-worry-he’s-still-rich Tony Stark. He’s just not RICH-rich, you see. Nevertheless, it’s the scene of a casual encounter between him, Captain America, and Spider-Man Jr. versus the giant alien Warbringer.

Before that can be resolved, the issue is broken into a second half that features a completely separate casual encoutner between Ms. Marvel and Nova. The resultant shift between the two parts is a bit disappointing, with two different reading experiences instead of one. I can understand an artist shift may necessitate a distinct split betweent the A story and the B story; maybe it was impossible to allow one part to be a subplot for a main story that spreads across all 21 pages. But when it’s an already-fragmented narrative that features characters who are not even on a team at this point, it’s hard to read this as an “Avengers” story, let alone one that’s meant to be a replacement for the Avengers to the lay Marvel universe citizen. Instead, it’s got the feel of an anthology. A done-in-one set-up, or even something a bit more en media res than a single page of name-calling, may have felt more substantial.   

Still, a key selling point is the scripting and the clear voices for each character. The world-weariness of Captain America, the awkwardness of Teen Spidey and the stumbling Nova are all quite distinct, and in the latter cases even endearing and charming. The sequential panelling is well-paced, too, creating a nice timing between elements of dialouge and thought-bubbles (remember those!?) or other interchange of dialogue. The appearance of Warbringer is similarly neatly timed, in an example of a step-by-step sequence works nicely. (In others’ hands it might end up looking more like cinematic storyboarding and not comicbookery. And yes, I do believe those should be distinct artforms.)

Of course, Waid and Kubert are master storytellers, although there are a couple of things that are of mixed success. Some are minor, like the dialogue of a crowd messing with the flow when reading the main characters’ interactions. Others are a bit more serious, like not understanding the full import of the man who apparently owns the former Avengers Tower now. There’s some strange display of power and some shifting camera angles that leave a lot to interpretation rather than being clear. It’s one thing to be mysterious and another to be too obtuse to realize you’re trying to be mysterious.

The art of Mahmud Asrar in the second half has some staging problems as well, but this time due to the size-changing nature of Ms. Marvel’s powers. It creates some awkward sequences where Ms. Marvel is the focal point, making everyone else appear like they’ve shrunk, and the lack of backgrounds remove all context, leaving the reader nothing to reference. The strength, though, is certainly in the expressive emoting from our characters, a clear weakness in Kubert’s offering in the first half.

What’s interesting is how branding really does affect the the impression of the contents. Calling it All-New All-Different Avengers means you are entering the comic with a set of expectations, an anticipation of a certain kind of flavour. Imagine, for example, if this comicbook was titled Young Avengers instead. Wouldn’t the expectation change, and actually enhance the reading? What we got now makes me wonder why Spider-Man Jr., Ms. Marvel and Nova are getting in the way of reading about Captain America and Iron Man. I have no problems with Cap and I-Man getting in the way of reading about the three youth, but that’s just me. I’m sure Waid is aware of this, but we’re talking about significant age gaps that will necessitate a particular kind of interaction. There’s a reason why people tend to read teams of all teens OR of all grown-ups. Perhaps having a blend of the two is the real All-Different experiment that’s going to play out here.      

It’s a very serviceable story, but it’s shooting itself in the foot with certain choices, most notable of which is to divide the book in half as if it’s an anthology of stories before the team is even fully formed. The art has some hits or misses, and the main villain Warbringer is less significant than a mystery man, but there’s not enough time to develop either beyond vagueness and/or cliché. We have yet to see the team truly interact beyond just Captain America and Iron Man, so it’s difficult to see who the breakout star or the point-of-view character is meant to be. Because the voices are so strong and the interactions are poised to be intriguing, I’ll continue to give it a shot, but things will have to feel more cohesive and more meaningful to be worthy of the “Avengers” title.

All-New All-Different Avengers #1: 
Part 1: Writer: Mark Waid; Artist: Adam Kubert; Color Artist: Sonia Oback; Letterer: VC’s Cory Petit
Part 2: Writer: Mark Waid; Artist: Mahmud Asrar; Color Artist: Dave McCaig; Letterer: VC’s Cory Petit 

This review was originally published for weeklycomicbookreview.com. Be sure to check in there for the world’s best comic book reviews!
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The Vision #1 (2015): Comics Review

Up Next, Desperate Androids

I made an impulsive decision. Such actions are a product of the mercurial brain processing inherent to   my human nature. It led me to purchase The Vision #1, and the comicbook highly appealed to my aesthetic as well as philosophical sensibilities, thereby creating one of the most highly pleasurable reading experiences of Marvel’s recently relaunched series and subsequently engendering my social nature to desire others to replicate that experience.

In other words, I really liked this comic and highly recommend it.

Even as I browsed Comixology, I wondered if it would be a tough sell. The Vision seemed a character better fitted for the Avengers of the 70s and 80s. He formed a core part of that team precisely because of his ties to the Avengers’ history and collection of characters, but he never fit in any other context whenever someone tried to do something with him in the 90s or 00s. Not only that, but there only seemed so much that could be done with “robot stories.” We get it. We try to understand humans deal with life by seeing how a non-human character lives. It’s like a metaphor or some junk.

To use my own metaphor, these typical robot-as-humanity stories are like any standard steak dinner. But there’s a difference between a standard steak dinner, and a expertly prepared and presented gourmet dining experience, and The Vision #1 is one of the best steak dinners I’ve ever had in a long time.

I had to abandon my fanboy nature to scoff at what I saw as a ham-fisted attempt to force Vision into this new status quo— the character professed to delete his emotions but also created his own sythezoid family, placing them all into suburbia. And yes, there are no big action set pieces here (well, except for that small but dramatic one) as the focus here is on how the robots/synthezoids attempt to not only make a life for themselves but also to understand what life really means.

There are so many great little touches here. The wife, Virginia, coming to terms with nuance of language when meeting neighbors, the interaction between the twins, the way the Visions have to throw out their housewarming cookies. What seemed to be a throwaway element of scene-setting, the water vase of Zenn-La, becomes a recurring motif and an important metaphor in its own right, earning the ominous final panel’s narration.

The writing is strong, with intriguing ways that foreshadowing is weaved into the narrative and the way characters are allowed to emote through their acting. The narrator seems a character in its own right, too, being casual in tone but hinting at deeper things, surely appropriate to the theme of the book.

I’ve never been so weirded out by the Vision as I’ve had in this comic. Mostly, I would have to take the other characters’ reactions in the comic for granted. I mean, I guess the Vision was supposed to be creepy because the Wasp commented on how creepy his voice sounded. When the Vision was already drawn in the same heroic manner as the other crazy four-color people around him, it didn’t seem so out of place. Here, though, the Vision and his family are quite creepy indeed. They certainly sound cold and hollow, and not just from differently-colored dialogue balloons. Their designs and layout also help reinforce their weirdness.

The Visions are first seen behind the front door, starkly incongruous in their suburban clothing and black background. The twins go to their first day of school while flying high above the scene. Their lack of pupils and facial expression is key. The juxtaposition is a bit lost as the art style gives many other characters a thick line and a stiffness that is also enjoyed by the robots, but perhaps that’s intentional. The linework overall is certainly organic more freehand; I doubt any straightedges were used. The colors, too, are soft and muted, with the washes not fully blended at times, so the colors are bold and there’s a rawness and reality to the texture. There are even subtle ways the colors/inks appear to bleed off the panels, like they’ve been hand-painted.   

Mostly, the panels and layouts are well chosen, although the perspective/placing feels too flat at times. For example, the cover would make more sense if the Visions are making portions of their bodies invisible. But they are probably meant to be phasing through the wall, meaning that they would have to be leaning forward on top of one another. The sense of three-dimensionality is all off. Similarly with the big surprise at the end of the issue, when the villain attacks. There’s a scythe coming through the wall to strike a character that doesn’t make three-dimensional sense.        

I’m very excited about this series. The foreshadowing and cliffhanger both leave me in anticipation, but I’m also hoping that much of the Vision’s history isn’t forgotten. Perhaps not, as we see the Grim Reaper isn’t ignored, and Virginia Vision is appropriately reactive that her husband is keeping a gift from his ex-wife in the living room. I also had to laugh that the Vision is upset he’s not given a staff position in the White House, since he’s still the guy who nearly took over the world at one point. Did he happen to leave that off his résumé?

It may not be attempt to reinvent the sci-fi tropes that explore humanity by telling stories of robots, but rather it’s one of the best examples of such a story type. This new setting and the new characters around him were necessary to bring the character of the Vision into the kind of story that just perfect for him. The art as well as the narrative touches work together to create a creepy kind of Vision, and one that promises some intriguing philosophical touches and pointed emotions. Very rich story potential here, in an unexpected way that yet makes perfect sense.   

The Vision #1: 
Writer: Tom King; Artist: Gabriel Hernandez Walta; Color Artist: Jordie Bellaire; Letterer: VC’s Clayton Cowles  

This review was originally published for weeklycomicbookreview.com. Be sure to check in there for the world’s best comic book reviews!  

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Extraordinary X-Men #1 (2015): Comics Review

This just in: People hate mutants. Still.

Well, those stories did promise that “nothing would ever be the same!”, didn’t they? Apparently those weren’t glib statements. Delivering on such promises, the last few publishing events by Marvel Comics have left their X-Men in quite an altered state. The problem is, though, that the status quo has been so altered that they’ve all become the kinds of stories I don’t really want to read.

The issue centers around humanity’s fear and hatred for mutants. I hope this won’t be a spoiler. Except this time that fear and hatred is *ALSO* because of something that Cyclops did. We know this because characters tell each other it’s about something Cyclops did. Am I the reader supposed to know what he did? And yes, this repetition is intentional as it’s about par for discourse in the comicbook. To add another aspect, it’s ALSO-also because of the Inhuman’s Terrigen Mists that blanketed the globe in a different crossover event. It has given mutants a kind of disease dubbed M-Pox and ALSO-also-also threatens mutants with genocide by sterility. The story seems to forgo complex motivations in favor of increased quantities of motivation. Why have a simple premise when you can have four of them?

The solution to all of this is the same— mutants should retreat to a new place called X-Haven. Storm leads this community and the other key characters are… also there? It’s not clear what distinguishes, say, Iceman from being there and any other mutant that does some cameoing in the background, except for some expository dialogue. Magik at least has some active duty in saving and/or recruiting mutants around the world, including her brother, Colossus, who is convinced to return in order for… reasons? “You are fighter,” Magik tells him. “It’s time to fight, Piotr!” However, who, exactly, the X-Men are to fight is never clear. They are to be warriors for…? It’s not appropriate to live as a farmer by yourself because…?

They in turn attempt to recruit their friend Nightcrawler, or otherwise go to “get” him, except they actually don’t. It’s just a narrative segue to Nightcrawler, spouting scripture while ripping heads off of a giant bull-like villain. Or not. The art seems to show just the head teleported but the villain is whole and hearty on the next page. There’s no context given for this scene, although the villain team he’s facing mentions something about test subjects. All the characters’ powers and visuals are intriguing, but complete absent of basic set-up.

There’s some more standing around and talking for the other heroes, too, like Jean Grey (should she be Marvel Girl or some other code name?) and Old Man Logan (ditto the code name question for this iteration of Wolverine here. Or is “Old Man” his actual code name? That would definitely strike fear in the hearts of evil-doers. “Beware the ravages of age! It’s… Old Man!”)

I’ve often had a love-hate relationship with Humberto Ramos’ artwork, and it all comes down to the match of his hyper-kinetic style to the scene. For his work on Amazing Spider-Man, it was lovely and a complete match. For a somber and decidedly fatalistic tone as this X-Men series seems to be setting up, this is instead a complete mismatch. By far, the majority of the issue features extended pages of dialogue between characters instead of action scenes. And even such action scenes, normally a strength of Ramos’, here display such a variety of angles/layouts that it becomes confusing to follow the action.

There are a couple of double page spreads here that are really gorgeous here, particularly in their posing and in the colors. Magik’s defense of a little girl gives us a pretty iconic image, speaking a thousand words for this new status quo.

The new costume designs, also, are hit or miss. Magik’s is quite nice, continuing to be sexy and provocative, reminiscent of something from Final Fantasy. Storm’s also. The choice of white marks a departure from her typical black and perhaps sets herself up as more of a saviour/figure of leadership. I do miss Storm’s cape, however, and so the costume loses a bit of a regal touch that might be needed. Also? Both feature boob-to-hip bare bellies. Nightcrawler’s is disappointing. It’s needlessly complicated and includes scale armor for some reason inconsistent with his acrobatic roots, but perhaps is indicating something more war-like in his new characterization. Also? He has claws on his boots.

As someone who loved Nightcrawler’s free-wheeling and unbridled optimism, it’s disappointing that yet again the writers seem to think he’s better suited for dark and gritty attitudes. In fact, for the X-Men to be typically concerned with being capitol-H Heroes from their very inception, it’s weird that writers seem to always want to segregate and shunt them away in their own compounds away from the world. Perhaps having a team of heroes in bright costumes fighting back would-be world conquerors is a feature of stories thirty years ago.

Meta-Quote of the Book—
Iceman: “Well, we don’t always get what we want, Jeannie.”

As a first issue, it does what it needs to do, which is exposit, exposit, and exposit. Various characters are spotlighted, but mostly in the context of showing the same aspect of this new world over and over again. We get it. Cyclops did something. Mutants have it bad. And everyone feels sad about it. Beyond that, there’s no real conversation about *why* we should empathize, nor about *why* our characters feel that way about it. Thankfully, the art remains edgy and kinetic, which helps in the largely static conversations people have, but seems a mismatch for the tone of doom and gloom. All in all, a pretty average effort that presents a world that fails to really connect on a personal level.


Extraordinary X-Men #1: 
Writer: Jeff Lemire; Penciller: Humberto Ramos; Inker: Victor Olazaba; Color Artist: Edgar Delgado; Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna  

This review was originally published for weeklycomicbookreview.com. Be sure to check in there for the world’s best comic book reviews!  

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TV Discussion: Gotham (“Pilot”)

Gotham_Cast_Banner

At this point, there’s probably not much more that I can add to the reviews of Gotham, the new television series on Fox. Created by Bruno Heller (formerly of Rome and The Mentalist) and starring Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon, Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock, and young David Mazouz as Bruce Wayne, the pilot episode was seen by over 8 million people at last report, with at least that many different opinions being expressed through various social media.

For what it’s worth, I found it enjoyable, thanks to its emphasis on keeping a specific tone through both the visuals, plot, and acting. It’s effectively grungy and retro, while not necessarily literally “dark” per se in palette, as befitting a modern urban noir. You could, conceivably, take away the presence and story of Bruce Wayne and still have an effective storytelling world. At least, in the sense that there’s not really anything quite matching it in tone or setting on TV today. By adding the comicbook elements, it’s trying to further distinguish itself in tone and setting, but in fact I found that to the one aspect that was a bit unsatisfying. A comicbook setting should have some kind of “magical realism” twist to its world, and we don’t have that in Gotham, at least, not yet. (Perhaps all we have so far is the ability of young Selina Kyle to acrobatically traverse a cityscape so “magically.”) For example, how weirdly poetic it would have been to have the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), escaping his death at the end of the episode and swimming the length of the river, to kill the fisherman and gobble up the *fish* instead of the sandwich? Suddenly, he’s even more weirdly a monster, less than human, and metaphorically shows his conflict with Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith).

But anyway. More interesting is that this series debuts the same week that NPR’s podcast, This American Life, features a show dedicated the theme of “Origins.” (It’s not superhero origins, though. I know. I was disappointed, too.) As the host Ira Glass explains, “We love them so much.” And it’s true. Pretty much every iteration of Batman has to include his origin story. There’s even a supercut making the YouTube rounds that includes Bruce’s parents getting shot in every movie/cartoon Batman has appeared in.

It’s not enough to have a Batman or to have Batman stories. We have to know *why* there’s a Batman, and how that Batman came to be. And, essentially, it’s the *same* story every time, but we want to keep hearing it, over and over. Why?

Well, on one hand, I’ve argued before that origin stories are, for lack of a better term, economical. They already have a definite beginning, middle, and end, and the beginning usually starts from a place that’s “recognizable” or “the world next door,” so there’s less exposition needed to bring an audience up to speed. So I guess I use the word economical to mean both for budgetary reasons and in the literary sense. That last sense, if you remember from English class, means that the plot contains only the stuff that’s necessary for the story– there’s nothing extra in terms of characters, plot details, or tangents, derailments.

There’s could be other reasons why we like origins, too. I’m sure there’s something about the inherent curiosity of humankind, the psychological drive that leads us to create mythological connections between what we see, what we feel, what we imagine. Sorry for those who are more existentially zen then the rest of us– you might be content to see a weirdly shaped rock and accept it, maybe even marvel at it, as simply a weirdly shaped rock. The rest of us, we wonder WHY it’s there and so weirdly shaped.

I think it’s because we do that for ourselves. We’re in too weird of a shape to simply accept it as itself, let alone marvel at it. We have to ask why, to obsess over our past, to find new ways to repeat its story over and over.

Just like we do with Batman and his story. Because Batman is, frankly, so very awesome. But he’s also pretty deranged and damaged, too. He’s the best of us, better than us, but also the weirdest of us. So his story is keenly tragic. If someone like Batman can take a tragedy like that and become “better” than us, it gives us hope that no matter our tragedy, we can can be better, too. And even if we’re weird, we can still be better, too. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

So in this modern mythology we’ve made for ourselves, Batman is the God of Dark Tragedy. He suffered his tragedy to overcome and show us how to beat it back for ourselves. He fights the insanity so we don’t have to, but if we need to, we can also call upon him to assume his power for ourselves (or at least, that’s how it worked for Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, and etc. etc.)

Essentially, this is what Gotham will be about: finding out how we triumph over tragedy and darkness. The good news is that we already know it happens– there will someday be a Batman, after all. The point of the story is the process, not the result. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

“There will someday be a Batman, after all.” Quote of the week.

Movie Discussion – The Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

edgeoftomorrow_taiwan“If at first you don’t succeed, respawn, respawn, respawn.”

As an action-packed, special effects-driven, sci-fi blockbuster, The Edge of Tomorrow is pretty entertaining. It’s not as groundbreaking as it thinks it is, but neither is it outright dismissible. On a scale from “Yay!” to “Nay!”, it’s a solid “Sure!” In fact, I was prepared to not really like it, but as I will usually give any potentially mind-bending psuedophilosophical movie a shot, I trudged along inside and I was pleasantly surprised.

It’s a Fine Line Between Sci-Fi and Horror

Ever since The Twilight Zone, or heck, even the birth of the genre with things like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the best of sci-fi blends with what we expect from horror stories. In EoT, that’s true as well, with a variety of suspenseful shots, such as purposeful silence and surprises or pop-atcha moments. Interestingly, like many monster movies, it’s hard to actually get a good look at the creatures, and nothing is even hinted at in the first 15 minutes of the film, making their initial appearance more suspenceful (even if I was a bit disappointed in the design overall.)

The true horror of the film, perhaps, is the existential horror of sympathizing with the lead character as he must re-live the events of the same day over and over. If you haven’t heard, it’s Groundhog Day made into an action shoot-em-up. But whereas the Phil Connors/Bill Murray in Groundhog Day gives the audience pathos and humor and ultimately warmth and redemption, Major Cage/Tom Cruise gives us resignment, desperation, and escalating tension. I kept thinking about how horrible it would be to be trapped in this cycle, as Cage seems an intractable victim way more so than Connors ever does. In the same way, the tone just continues to spiral downward, since every sequence must end with the main character’s death, which may require shooting the hero in the head point-blank; it gets downright nihilistic (which isn’t to say it isn’t a bit darkly humorous– but it’s weird to hear an audience of movie-goers laugh when the lead gets purposefully shot in the head.)

A Truly Reluctant Hero

Of course, part of the horror of Cage’s situation is the death and destruction all around him. If Connors had to see the same people being dismembered every day on Punxsutawney’s knoll, we’d expect a much different heroic journey. But Cage is ham-fisted so forcibly into the plot of this story that it almost destroys the narrative before it can even be built. His character is literally dropped into a situation that he is not even prepared for, so much so that I thought this was going to be the “hook,” that Cage was the victim of some virtual reality and would wake up outside the matrix, so to speak. But no. In this world apparently the war is so crucial to be won that they will hijack completely untrained personnel and put them on the front lines. Perhaps K Troop was actually made up from the secretary pool that week.

What it does is to make it hard to take the main character seriously. There’s no reason to see his attempt to win the war as genuinely striving for a personal or sacrificial goal– and the end of it all he’s still just trying to get out of combat duty, even if he has to blow up the Big Bad in order to do it.

Yes, there is a little bit of camaraderie between Cruise and Blunt’s characters, which thankfully is not necessarily a romantic lead kind of interaction but is moreso a very real partnership/friendship forged by wartime. It’s a credit to the screenwriters (Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, & John-Henry Butterworth) since it stays true to the fact from the perspective of Rita Vrataski/Emily Blunt, the events she experiences are really all in the space of 24 hours or so. It’s an easy fact for the audiences to overlook, as “we” grow with Cage in his understanding of the world and of his partner, but her character has a completely different experience.

A Matter of Time

Both Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow have very limited points of views they share with the audience– there is never a sequence or scene where the point-of-view hero isn’t there. But what EoT does do that G-Day doesn’t is play around with this set up. There’s a key sequence between Cage and Vrataski in the fourth act, when the two of them share some (relatively) intimate quiet time in the field. That’s when the audience (and Vrataski) learns that we *haven’t* always been there with the hero, that Cage has actually been on many more of these time-loops, ones that we didn’t see and where the heroes still continually fail. That’s a nice narrative touch and keeps the audience on its toes.

Other sequences work beautifully because of the time-loop, such as Cage and Vratraski’s infiltration to White Hall, which is choreographed with perfect timing. It’s fun to see the heroes in control over what’s arguably a “narrative” they are already a part of, something very metatextual. And it raises the stakes immediately once the hero announces that he “doesn’t know. We’ve never made it this far before.”

Still, time travel will always have it’s share of wonky “rules” that if you think too hard about them, then it will fall apart. Did Cage “steal” the ability to reset time, or do the aliens still have the ability to do that? How does it just “go back” to the aliens once Cage or Vratraski loses it? And if the aliens reset to beginning, does it just reset with Cage getting the ability again? Maybe there are others also resetting things in this weird Moebius strip of changing and not-changing…

Audio-Visual Blitzkrieg

The sound and visuals in this movie are great. The battle scenes, especially, are more vibrant and visceral for the intensity of sound, and there is movement on almost every part of the scene.

That said, making the aliens nearly robot-like was perhaps not the best decision, as it makes them less interesting, visually. Are they robots or are they organic, since blood is a central component to the story? Look, no one wants a repeat of Starship Trooper’s swarm of bug-aliens, but we also don’t want still more Transformers. The designs are intricate and seem to involve many moving parts, but we can’t appreciate them when they are jump-cut and flash-panned so quickly that it doesn’t matter if you didn’t render the frame in postproduction. Most of the memorable horror-aliens like, well, Aliens (and Predator) still manage to get in a good close up every now and then.

So, Basically…

I guess the design doesn’t really matter, though. We’re given no real reason why the aliens are attacking (“minerals,” some pub-goer speculates) so there’s no real reason to invest wonder in these monsters. They really are just robots, after all, then. Or perhaps they’re zombies, as they simply attack with base-level ravenous instinct. Or maybe, like the original War of the Worlds, we’ll never really know, because they are, in fact, “alien” to us.

And is that the takeaway here? That we humans will be caught up doing whatever takes, over and over again, until we finally achieve our goals over whatever faceless enemy is overwhelming us? I suppose that’s affirming on one hand, but on the other, that’s a horrible slog to have to go through. So we’re back to the existential horror I mentioned before– just keep doing your daily routine, until you finally get it right and can stop doing it anymore. Yay, us!

Movie Review– X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

 

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) Directed byBryan Singer, Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker; Screenplay by Simon Kinberg; Story by Simon Kinberg Matthew Vaughn Jane Goldman Based onDays of Future Past  by Chris Claremont John Byrne

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) Directed by Bryan Singer, Produced by
Lauren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Hutch Parker;
Screenplay by Simon Kinberg; Story by Simon Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman;
Based on Days of Future Past by Chris Claremont and John Byrne

Good news! If you liked X-Men: First Class, then you will really like X-Men: Days of Future Past.

The same things that a lot of people love about X:FC show up again in X:DoFP. For example, having the movie largely a period piece, in 1973, rather than the present day or some vague “not too distant future.” For another, having the focus on a core group of conflicted characters, namely Xavier/the Professor (James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart) and Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender and Ian McKellen) and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).

In fact, I appreciate the last one the most, as it creates a very personal drama that is balanced by a very epic scale. The setting ranges from both past and future, and all over the globe – Russia, China, New York, Paris, Washington DC. The stakes are quite high, too – nothing less than the destruction of life on earth, after all, and the conflict of human/mutant is not left to some abstract reference; we actually get to see this very-real conflict in a framing device as Sentinel robots battle older-Professor and older-Magneto and other familiar X-Men.

And what a battle it is. There is a creative use of powers, here, as characters use their powers in genuine teamwork for the most effective moves. Watch for Blink’s (Fan Bingbing) portals to play around with physics, a visualization of power that is more effective on film than on a comic’s page. And I never knew I was so excited to see Warpath on the big screen, here played by Booboo Stewart, along with Storm, Iceman, Sunspot, the Professor, Magneto, Colossus, and Wolverine. The oppressive and hopeless tone is exaggerated here. Heck, their final stand takes place inside a tomb! But thematically, they hold their own because of their teamwork, best expressed with Bishop (Omar Sy) who can absorb and redirect others’ energies, and, of course, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) whose out-of-phase powers can also send others’ spirits back in time.

If you are hoping to see more of these characters, however, you will be disappointed. Because the key to their teamwork is in the past, when there wasn’t a team at all. So Wolverine gets sent back in time (his spirit is sent into his past-self’s body) in order to make sure younger-Xavier and younger-Magneto can play well together and stop Mystique from making a big mistake.

Let me just say BEFORE THE SPOILERS that it’s a good thing you’re smiling so much at the look and casting and costuming and sets and CGI/animation and everything. Because these smiles are enough to distract you from squinting a bit at the plot. Don’t look to too hard, or annoying things like QUESTIONS will come to your mind.

SPOILERS! Now in Question Form!

So… in the future, why do the X-Men try to send someone’s spirit back AT THAT POINT? Surely they would have had this conversation prior to their, uhm, Really-The-Last-Stand-This-Time. They’ve been using Kitty Pryde’s power for a while, right? so maybe I missed the point where suddenly it seemed like a good idea to use it THIS way.

Also, WHY does Magneto say they need his past-self when clearly they don’t “need” him since they reach Mystique in the moments she first tries to shoot Trask? I suppose past-Xavier needs him since he won’t know where Mystique is, but older-Magneto wouldn’t have known that, right?

Are we REALLY supposed to expect that Mystique has NEVER killed anyone prior to her confrontation with Trask? That’s a LOT of action for her to have seen to have “never” killed anyone.

Why is Trask in some random meeting with the President’s cabinet to be “glad he asked that question” about the Sentinels? Isn’t he just a businessman?

How many days was Wolverine in the past, and why doesn’t it take the same amount of “time” in the future?

And, of course, it’s best not to think about the whole time travel thing anyway, as it leads to questions like: how does Old-Wolverine return to his body which will become New-Wolverine the moment the timeline is “fixed” into it’s new version of history? It’s a neat idea, like your time travel is all a dream and doesn’t become “real” until the moment you wake up, but there are some philosophical implications to physics and identity and paradox which I guess you just have to accept in a superhero movie.

And which I guess pretty sums up the answers to any of my questions above, which is: “just because, OK?!”

Kind of like the answer to why Wolverine doesn’t “lose it” every time he doesn’t “think calm thoughts.” There’s only one time when it would be dramatically important for him to do, and so that’s when he does, despite clearly many other opportunities to do so. The film takes these moments as it needs them to keep the plot and characterization flowing. It’s quite impressive that it gives the audience an important emotional or expositional beat just at the right time, so thank you screenwriter Simon Kinberg and director Bryan Singer, although it’s not glowing praise as I’d appreciate a bit more logic to the flow as well.

News Flash! Professor X Is a Jerk! (But Gets Better)

Clearly, this film is really all about Professor X/Charles Xavier, as played by McAvoy. Despite this film’s billing as an ensemble cast filled “with the most X-Men characters ev-ah!!”, it really all comes down to Xavier’s heroic journey. His is the character arc that starts him off in the lowest place for him to be: crippled emotionally but not physically, a man who once helped mutants is now one who has no mutant powers. He must receive help from his fairy godmother, here played by Wolverine, and must go on a series of quests to return him to his rightful place.

To be clear, yes, this means that Wolverine is actually more of supporting character in terms of plot, despite his placement on a movie poster. The guy has good lines, helps move the plot forward, and is recognizable/ marketable, but in fact he doesn’t have any sincere motivation, character growth, or internal struggle. He does what he needs to do so the plot can advance, which again is pretty much like all those “Just Because” things I talked about.

Thematically, it’s interesting that Xavier’s turning point is in a big speech about how “good” pain and suffering is. Turns out, it has something to do with hope, or at least that what he says out loud, but I think the film overall makes a better case that it’s about teamwork. Magneto “loses” for example, because he breaks from the group to take matters into his own hands. Mystique “wins” because she joins Xavier’s side, if only for that moment.

And both antagonists have a warped idea on what teamwork/community really is. Magneto’s ideas is more about blindly lashing out, uniting as a force for war and vengeance, the best defense a good offense. Trask’s ideas is about how humans will need to come together with mutants as their enemies so each side will make the other strong. Or something. His big villain speech was one of those “oh cool! … oh wait” don’t-squint-too-hard-or-it-won’t-look-right kind of moments.

BUT WAIT! There’s More!

Usually, movies like these have some pretty definitive endings– namely, the antagonists die. In this case, however, Magneto flies away after his battle is lost, and it’s more of a philosophical battle, to boot. Trask, also, is spared– obviously, of course, or since that’s pretty much the nature of the quest in the first place. Certainly, that can only mean one thing– sequels!

In a very intriguing move, the nature of this time-travel story means that any sequel we get next, however, will be pretty much a brand-new movie. If you didn’t like any of the previous movies in this X-Men film series by 20th Century Fox, then don’t worry. All of that has been erased, for all intents and purposes. Even that woman who Wolverine was so angsty about in over four films spanning nearly 15 years is back– Jean Grey, with a cameo by her original actor, Famke Janssen.

I’ve Run Out of Room…

and maybe you didn’t get this far anyway. I didn’t get to talk about the acting in general (very good,) the effects (ranging from good to OK), and the score (also good.) I didn’t get to talk about Quicksilver stealing the show (which I found fun) and becoming an audience favorite, judging from the theater I saw it in. I didn’t get to talk about the somewhat “choppy” feel of the film (which I didn’t like), as if each sequence of the film felt like it’s own mini-movie or series of related vignettes. But overall, I enjoyed the film and it’s balance between the epic scale and personal struggles. I think it’s even better than its predecessor, X-Men: First Class, which I rank among the X-Franchise’s best.

On the scale of Yes to No, I recommend X-M:DoFP with a hearty “Heck Yeah!”


By Danny Wall