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!
Buy your comics at Comixology.com or use Comicshoplocator.com to find a local shop near you!

Advertisements

Movie Review– Son of Batman (2014)

sonofbatmanlogoWith SPOILERS, naturally!

Son-of-Batman-Robin-costume

Digital download available on iTunes from April 22nd
Digital rental available from May 6th
Home Entertainment pack available on DVD/Blu Ray from May 6th

First of all, let’s be clear: this movie is primarily for comic fans. If you are merely a casual Batman acquaintance, a primarily animated-Batman fan, or just a general animation aficionado, you will find this a nice looking film with some interesting sequences, especially the fight choreography, naturally. Of course, you will also find a lot of superficial character interaction that ventures confusingly close to melodrama, as well as a plot that doesn’t really care to do much more than rely on the high concept already summarized by the film’s title.

OK, so if it’s for comic fans, will THEY enjoy it? Will they enjoy seeing the characters they’ve followed for years distilled into underdeveloped, cliche, 74-minutes versions of themselves? I hope so. But then again, in doing so, aren’t you really just watching it to see a watered-down visualization of something you’ve already read? Does this film really just become like a frat boy with one in-joke in his repertoire, one which he loudly proclaims to his own amusement and to others’ bewilderment? “HA! The *SON* of BATMAN!” he chortles, and everyone else arches an eyebrow and says, “yeah? ‘AND…?!'”

META-COMMENTARY: Please note, I AM indeed aware of the comicbooks that serve as source material for the film, but I am trying here to judge the film as a work in and of itself; the film should try to be its own entity and rise or fall by its own identity, right? After all, this film is being praised by Mary Ellen Thomas, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Vice President of Family & Animation and Partner Brands Marketing, who says in an official press release that the company is “proud to release this title as the 20th DC Universe Animated Original Movie.” It’s also an important piece of the company’s “Batman 75” promotion, which aims to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Batman’s creation.

So, spoilers, in case you watch the movie and somehow failed to read the title– Batman/Bruce Wayne has a son. Obviously, the movie centers around this premise, providing a lot of set-up until Batman and Damian, his son, meet for the first time, and then it continues with what is essentially Damian’s story, as he becomes Robin in seeking revenge on Deathstroke for his attempts to kill his family and take over their legacy, the League of Assassins.

It’s a pretty straightforward story, and one that allows action to naturally be at the forefront– Damian is introduced when a seemingly peaceful Asian monastery (nonetheless called the League of Assassins) is attacked by armed mercenaries of some kind; Later, Batman is introduced by taking down a crazed villain; in this case, Killer Croc. In the former, watch for Talia (who doesn’t get the moniker “Mother of Son of Batman”) using a pump-action shotgun to mow down rows of soldiers, as well as firing a Gatling gun that shoots hundreds of arrows at a time. In the same scene, Ra’s al Ghul (at first just called “grandfather”) single-handedly faces a cascade of bullets from close-range fire, all by deflecting them with his sword.

Clearly the film doesn’t forget this is a superhero action flick, and superheroic action is peppered throughout. The fight scenes are often quite visceral (earning a PG-13 rating) and all have several well-choreographed moves. There’s nothing too groundbreaking, perhaps, except in the sense that Damian/Robin is a kid and can have a different range and timing when fighting adults. The final showdown between Robin and Deathstroke is perhaps the most visceral of all, and the location of scene on a burning scaffolding allows for some genuine tension. Notice a subtle touch here– Damian’s finishing move has more than a little parallel with Batman’s previous move when finishing off the Man-Bats earlier in the movie.

While action is certainly the film’s strong point, the development of plot points themselves are clearly very weak. There are way too many instances of key elements that appear in a line of dialogue, but are never explored or developed nor are their implications considered. As I said above, for newcomers to Batman’s world, this is very confusing, whereas comic fans will certainly accept this without a problem.

One glaring example is in the first meeting of Talia and Batman in the film. Talia recaps their relationship for the viewer’s benefit, which basically amounts to a thinly-veiled description of Batman being date raped. There’s no reaction from Batman beyond agreeing that “it wasn’t all bad.” Comicbook fans will no doubt appreciate the significance of the relationship between the two, but out of context, the viewers can only assume something much more limited, and therefore unsatisfying. Maybe in this universe, Talia and Batman had one tryst about eight years ago and for some reason Batman never took down an organization calling itself the League of Assassins in the intervening time. Afterward, Talia leaves the two together, sailing away without comment and won’t be seen again in the film for quite some time.

Really, the movie is supposed to be about Damian himself. Batman and Talia and Nightwing (the previous Robin) are regulated into supporting roles for Damian going through the standard tropes of the Hero’s Journey. It is he who has the Call to Adventure, and his is the Thresholds, the Mentor (in Batman), the Gifts (of the Robin suit), and the Temptation (of revenge) and Return (accepting his role as Robin.) Pretty much every story beat is Damain’s, but what’s weird is that it’s all from the perspective of Batman. How dare the Title Hero get in the way of this Batman movie!

Case in point– Damain breaks into Wayne Enterprises and confronts Bruce in his executive office. Story-wise, it shows off Damain’s ninja-skills. Thematically, it’s a way to parallel Damian’s place in the League with a place in Wayne Enterprises. Hero Journey-ly, it’s part of “Atonement with Father” trope. However, the whole scene is done from the point of view of Bruce Wayne, who ushers all his assistants out of the way and never bothers to explain to anyone why he’s trying to secretly hide a young boy in his office. Add a laugh track and what could be a dramatic journey for Damian is merely a punchline in the Wacky Misadventures of Bruce Wayne.

It shouldn’t make for an unbalanced tone overall, but it does. Is the film trying to be a comedy? an adventure? a character piece? Damian fulfills his heroic journey, but he spends the majority of it being snarky, petulant, and pretty much unlikeable until his last-minute change of heart appears, without very little build-up. And how does the story change the other characters, such as Batman? Not much. Should we consider that he appears to accept Damian in a new role as Robin? Well, he kind of did that already from the very beginning, didn’t he?

Also? Damian apparently hasn’t seen this pic:

robinsnameANIMATED

While I can’t say Batman does (or even should) change in this story, I give credit to the writers for helping establish Batman’s motivation, when he explains why heroes do what they do (and perhaps why he doesn’t use guns, doesn’t just kill the Joker, etc.) “You can’t fight crime by becoming a criminal.” Great line.

All of this discussion so far and I haven’t talked about the villain– which is perhaps appropriate because the film doesn’t really do that, either. He’s pretty much there for some generic might-makes-right kind of motivation, with some generic “force the scientist to make my soldiers into monsters,” and, I suppose, because Deathstroke is popular in the comics and TV nowadays. In a couple of places, the dialogue sets up Deathstroke to be a kind of foil for both Batman and Damain, but nothing much more is done with that, so I can’t tell if I’m reading too much into it or if it’s genuinely supposed to be subtext.

The real problem is with Deathstroke’s voice (Thomas Gibson), which feels completely wrong. There are too many hints of “being unhinged” or “playfulness” (i.e. “Joker”?) that does not match the way the character is portrayed at all, both in his story’s purpose and also his costume design. This could be a feature of the actual words in the dialogue, which are either generic villain-rants or over-the-top villain-glee.

Overall, however, the voice acting is perfect for Damian (Stuart Allen) and most of the supporting characters. Batman’s (Jason O’Mara, reprising the role from Justice League: War) fits much better in this film than in the previous; this could be due to O’Mara growing in the vocal performance or it could be that it blends well into the overall tone of Gotham City. However, there are times when the voice starts to crack a bit, showing that the graveling Batman-in-costume voice does not allow for much emotional range.

You can’t fault the art design for the film. The characters are well-depicted, with just a little touch of classic, “4-color” sensibility appropriate for capes and tights. In this respect, it’s pretty spot-on from the source material. (Deathstroke overdoes it with the modern-day penchant for shoulder pads and pinstriped body armor.) I would prefer a bit more classically American-style animation, with more of a sense of weight from the characters, more squash/stretch and follow through, but the Warner Bros./DC Animation unit’s aesthetic for this and their Justice League film seems to echo the more “serious” Japanese anime influence, complete with slightly stilted movement from pose to pose.

Once again, however, this “seriousness” that shows up in the animation, color palette, principal voice acting, heroic journey, and more, seems at odds with some inherently amusing and often downright melodramatic situations. The film must balance these realities, but it’s a wobbly balance. As I said, some comic fans will likely accept these wobbly bits without a problem, as it’s probably nothing they haven’t seen or considered already. The film thus may exist for them as a validation of some disbelief that has already long been suspended. As a work of art on its own, however, it’s only giving the bare basics, gleefully carrying its story along while ignoring those skeptical calls of “wait a minute…” along the way.

I’d like to give the film a “Yay!”, at least for the effort and for clearly taking itself seriously. And it sure deserves more than just a “Blech!”, but the final mark is appropriately just a short, clipped *tt…*

sonofbatmantt2

 

(PS. You can read more thoughts after my first viewing here.)

Movie Review: Kano (2014)

Kano (2014)

It faces all the problems of yet-another Sports Movie PLUS all the problems of yet-another Historical Drama. So, does the historical-sports-drama-movie called Kano strike out or knock it out of the park? (That’s the last baseball pun for this review, I promise!)

Kano is a new Taiwanese film, a dramatization of the real-life Kano baseball team (and a self-described “motley” crew), that started in the rural Japanese-occupied Taiwanese countryside of 1931 and made it all the way to the Empire’s final playoffs in Koshien, Japan. Overall, the film is a beautiful and earnest attempt to capture the “fighting spirit” that must be necessary to maintain dignity and achieve success against such overwhelming odds, and, despite a few narrative missteps and overly melodramatic moments, not to mention a long 185 minutes running time, Kano emerges as a satisfying and emotionally resonant film.

One key element that is established right away is the sense of “place” captured by the cinematography. At times enhanced by (some basic but otherwise competent) CGI, the film displays some epic shots of time and place, even in the first few scenes– the bustling shipping and trains of Keelung harbor, the 50,000 seat arena in Koshien, the wide, green rice fields in the farms of Chiayi (then called Kagi.) Watch for the unsteady but sweeping tracking shot that follows two youngsters riding their bike through the farms, or the sweeping crane shot that introduces us to downtown Chiayi’s central fountain and bustling village scene. There is loving care to take in as much of the establishing shots as possible, honoring the setting as if it’s as important as the characters that populate it.

This is further enhanced as the theme of “earth” and “water” become important visual motifs. After all, K.A.N.O. is really an acronym for the Kagi Agriculture And Forestry Public School– these athletes are really just high school youth whose team started as part of their physical education but quickly became something more when Kondo (retired and relocated from Japan) became their coach. These are farmers from a farming town, training in a dirt field and taking laps through rice paddies. There is a visceral quality when the athletes play through dust and mud, when the farmers till the earth, when the characters greet rain and survive a typhoon. The metaphor of growing fruit (papaya!) becomes an important, recurring rallying cry as the athletes themselves grow. Later, the Kano players are fascinated by the black soil of Japan, and even want to carry some back with them at the end of the film. Symbolically, at that point the coach takes the black earth and smears it on his white shirt. He says that it’s not important what the earth is like, as people are the same anywhere. It’s another reminder that it’s possible to be “people of the earth” and proud of your roots, and it further reinforces the theme that there is strength in being part of a multi-ethnic team such as Kano’s.

The other key element is a sense of “youth.” Obviously, the main players are all young men, ostensibly high schoolers, and there is a sense of exuberance and energy whenever they are together. They enjoy the game, they sing rallying cries to themselves, they get into fights to defend their team, and roughhouse or hang on each other throughout the film. It’s not hard to buy into their camaraderie, and much of the film’s humor and good nature is established through their interaction. Still, it’s a feature of the genre to have a big cast like this, and as is often the case, the majority of these characters are reduced to the background and may have only one or two, if any, featured scenes. For instance, two of the teammates must graduate halfway through the film, and despite their being built up, they are thus sidelined and regulated to just a few point of view shots during the Big Game in the final act. Things like this add to the already burgeoning running time, and I kind of wish for the sake of an economic plot that the filmmakers erred on the side of brevity, concentrating their focus on only the key players.

Because it’s obvious the key characters of the film are the pitcher Go Akira (Tsao Yu-Ning, 曹佑寧) and coach Hyataro Kondo (Masatoshi Nagase). As befitting the genre, Go starts with virtually no skill and then ends up the star performer in the final game, which becomes a tension-filled battle of willpower as he bites back pain from an injury to keep fighting until the bitter end. Interestingly, and perhaps despite the genre conventions, his teammates and coach support him in this decision even when it becomes obvious they will lose. And even in their loss, they become the stars of the game and important figures of Taiwanese (and therefore multi-ethnic) pride. It’s an odd combination of individual tenacity and group support.

Kano (Akira Go)

Still, Go’s character development isn’t really that– development, I mean. There is no real arc to his character and his determination and “growth” is really just in service to the plot and theme. We don’t really know why, for example, that Go (or really any of his teammates) continue to play baseball, even when the odds were against them, when the town nearly withdrew their support, or when they hit those “all hope is lost” moments.

Kondo, on the other hand, has more of a narrative arc. He starts off as a disgraced and disregarded shell of a coach, despite being a family man and civil servant, and gives of himself to help the youth become greater than their humble beginnings. The drive to get to Koshien is just as much a redemption of himself as it is to highlight what inspires him about baseball (the teamwork and synergy, become greater as a sum of its parts.) But again, perhaps because of ensemble nature of the film, some important developments of his history and his relationship with his wife have to remain glossed over, or perhaps better, left assumed.

When the film does shift away from strictly being about the game and the momentum carrying everyone to Koshien, the film focuses on the town itself– there are more than a few cutaways to track the development of the Kanan canal (the Chianan Irrigation, 嘉南大圳) at the time the biggest construction of its kind in Asia, and its engineer, a Mr. Hatta. It does well to again highlight the pride of “place” that I talked about, as well as help showcase the difficulty faced by farmers a mere four generations ago, but it definitely sidetracks from the narrative overall and, again, pads out that running time. What’s more, the melodramatic way all the characters fawn over Hatta like a celebrity seems oddly out of place. Similarly, and just as strangely, there is a lot of set-up with Go and a potential love interest, who is nevertheless “matchmaked” away before the second act, but STILL is included in several scenes, along with her husband, and yes, her baby, even though she never interacts with Go directly in any of these useless scenes.

This is an example of the film taking advantage of the time piece of its setting just as much as the sense of place. Although I still think they are out of place, it helps to celebrate the uniqueness of Taiwan during this time, as so many forces are at play in its daily life– the struggle for modernity while still caught in the traditions of farming and matchmaking, for example. It’s even more clear that the film wants to acknowledge a truly unique aspect of this story, and that’s the multiculturalism at play. There are several times when the film points out that the Kano team is stronger for its diversity– the Japanese are great at defense, the Han (Chinese) are fleet of foot, and the locals (Taiwanese/aboriginals) are powerful hitters. However, only a couple of times does this distinction flare up (and is nearly repeated verbatim) and the rest of the film takes it for granted. Remember the Titans in, uhm, Remember the Titans? They had this theme as the central conflict, and I can’t tell if it makes for a better story, although it definitely does a more economical one. Instead, here in Kano, there isn’t any internal conflict at all among the team,

There are other, more subtle nods, to the time piece of this setting. Only Go seems to have a bicycle, judging from the way his teammates constantly want to bum rides off of him, and the principal of the school is keenly aware of the role agriculture will play in Taiwan’s development, breeding new bananas and papayas in the background. These subtleties are appreciated, and it would make for a more sophisticated treatment of such issues. So, when a Japanese reporter in Koshien has to monologue about the racial diversity in order to make the subtext into actual text, it’s eye-rollingly melodramatic. I wish it would be filled with more of the subtle techniques, such as a recurring situation of the runners chanting their song to keep in time– “Oxcart get out of the way; the train is coming through!”– it speaks to the time, place, and themes of progress and futurism in a more understated metaphorical way.

But even without the commentary of setting and establishment of themes, Kano as a film contains plenty of tension to carry the viewer through the plot, especially in the climax. The last third of the film is all about the final games in Koshien, complete with the blood, sweat, and tears and the sheer force of will on display by the team. What’s strange, however, is that it takes this long to re-introduce a character that was among the very first characters we ever see in the film at the beginning of Act 1. Joshiya (Aoki Ken), a Japanese soldier, is on his way to deployment in Taiwan, until his reminisce/flashback starts the movie proper in a bit of non-linear and somewhat confusing structure. When he catches up in the flashback to appear as a rival, he nevertheless has a change of heart to begin to root for Kano, to the point of leading the rest of the stadium to erupt in support. The film intercuts that with “present-day” Joshiya going out of his way to appreciate the abandoned dirt field of his former enemies.

If anything, you could accuse the film of trying just a little too much. The score, while often somewhat limited, emphasizes the epic sweeps with swelling music, although a bit too often to avoid melodrama. The sound is impressive, at least in the quiet moments when it’s filled with background sounds, like carefully placed windchimes or the weight of the athlete’s breath. The actors bring an intensity to their gaze and a genuineness to their banter, both verbal and physical. You really are brought to care about the game they are playing (and to some extent the players themselves) which makes this particular moment in time and certain place feel like a very grand moment indeed, and the viewer is made richer in appreciation of history and of the human spirit because of it. That, perhaps, is the best review I can give it.

Kano movie

 

Credits: Kano (2014). Directed by Umin Boya.   Screenplay by Ruby Chen and Wei Te-Sheng.

Hayden Goobie, Age 8, Explains the Winter Soldier

Meet Hayden Goobie

“Hey there, Hayden. You like superheroes, right? Can you tell me about the Winter Soldier?”

The comic book one or the movie one?

“Which one is more interesting?”

Well, the comic one is more interesting, but I haven’t seen the movie yet, and a lot of the times the movie is more interesting even though it’s different than the comic one which is more better sometimes.

“So tell me about the comic one.”

From the Kindle edition of the collected Winter Soldier, Vol. 1 edition (2012) by Ed Brubaker and Butch Guice

From the Kindle edition of the collected Winter Soldier, Vol. 1 (2012) by Ed Brubaker and Butch Guice

Ok, well, basically the Winter Soldier is this guy who is like a super spy. He has a metal arm because his arm, it’s his left arm, was blown up, I mean blown off, when he died the first time. He has a gun like a rifle and he shoots really good. He has long hair. And his mask is kind of like these two black diamonds that are over his eyes. He doesn’t really have a costume I guess but usually wears like blue costume armor or something. His powers are superspy powers.

He’s a hero now and he goes on secret missions because the world thinks he’s dead the second time. Or maybe the third. He works for… I don’t know. I think SHIELD or someone because everyone is working for SHIELD now-and-days but mostly he works on his own to fight bad guys, like bad agents, all over the world. He works with Black Widow a lot, because they are boyfriend-girlfriend.

But before he was dead the second time, he was actually Captain America for a while. This was at the time when Captain America was dead for like the second or third time. He had a Captain America costume with the shield and also used a gun and he still had that metal arm of course. He even worked with the Avengers and people, like Falcon and Nick Fury. But not the now-Nick Fury, the old one who was an old guy from World War II.

“I think it’s best to save the Nick Furies for a later conversation.”

From the Death of Captain America, Vol. 2 (2008) by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting

From the Death of Captain America, Vol. 2 (2008) by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting

I know, right? Anyway, the Winter Soldier who was Captain America even worked as Captain America even when the real Captain America came back from being dead and everyone was happy and teamed up sometimes and it was pretty cool, but the world or the government or somebody told the Winter Soldier he couldn’t be Captain America anymore because before that when he was Winter Soldier he killed a lot of people and stuff so he would have to go to jail. The jail, it was a Russian jail, was a really bad place and he had to fight a lot because of his past. After one of the fights he escapes so he could become Winter Solider again and fight in secret.

Because before all of that stuff, when he was the Winter Soldier for real, he was kind of a bad guy. The Russians used him, like made him into this superspy killing machine, for years and years, since like, after World War II and the, uh, Cold War. That’s why he’s Winter Soldier, because Russia and the Cold War.

“Actually, the term ‘Winter Soldier’ was used to describe soldiers who performed what were essentially war crimes during such times of war but were forced to remain silent by their superiors. It became the topic of a investigation following the Vietnam war as well as more recently regarding Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Oh okay. I don’t know about that. So, anyway, basically the big deal about the Winter Soldier is that in fact he’s Captain America’s old sidekick who’s name was Bucky! It’s like, “wow,” right? Because for years and years everyone had thought that Bucky died during the wartime, even Captain America thought this. Bucky had like died when Bucky and Captain America tried to stop a plane that a bad guy was using to launch a bomb so Bucky jumped on the plane when it was in the air but the bomb exploded when it was in the air and everyone thought he was dead. Baron Zemo was the bad guy, the dad Baron Zemo not his kid. Captain America was thrown into the water which was icy and was frozen until modern times. But what everyone didn’t know was that Bucky was also thrown into the ice and water and was also frozen but not for as long because the Russians took him from the water and experimented on him and gave him his metal cyborg arm and washed his brain to make him a bad guy for them.

From Captain America & Bucky: The Life Story of Bucky Barnes (2012) byEd Brubaker, Marc Andreyko, and Chris Samnee

From Captain America & Bucky: The Life Story of Bucky Barnes (2012) byEd Brubaker, Marc Andreyko, and Chris Samnee

That’s when he did all the bad things as a villain. When he wasn’t a villain the Russians just put him in the refrigerator until they needed to do some bad stuff and they’d take him out again and make him do the bad stuff. But it was okay because Bucky really didn’t know what he was doing he was just brainwashed and stuff.

So basically one of these times the Winter Soldier is made to go after the Cosmic Cube because this Russian bad guy wants the Cosmic Cube because it’s basically a wishing cube that makes all your wishes come true. He, the Winter Soldier I mean, has to kill a bunch of people before he does this and that’s when Captain America learns that the Winter Soldier who is Bucky is still alive. The two of them fight a little bit, but Captain America is the one who actually gets the Cube and makes a wish for the Winter Soldier to remember who he really is and it works and Bucky isn’t a bad guy anymore. But I mean he feels really bad for being a villain for so many years that he leaves and it takes a little bit of time before he gets to be friends again with Captain America after a while.

But I mean it turns out he did a lot of bad things during World War II too. (‘Tu-tu!’ Ha!) When he was Captain America’s sidekick during the War he always did the bad things so Captain America didn’t have to, like kill all the Nazis and things, but that was okay because it was war time and the bad guys were going to take over the world or something. He had a blue and red costume with diamond kind of mask and just called himself Bucky as his sidekick name even though his name really was Bucky in real life. He was just a kid who was living with the soldier troops for some reason and he came into Captain America’s tent when Captain America was changing into his Captain America costume and so Bucky learned Captain America’s secret identity. That’s when instead of blabbing about his secret identity he made Captain America take him as a sidekick and they fought the bad guys and super-Nazi soldiers and everyone. But really that’s what the government’s plan was all along and they had Bucky do all the bad work so Captain America wouldn’t have to.

I think all of the bad stuff he had to do really makes him sad, but he knows it’s important to fix your mistakes and so that’s why he stays as the Winter Soldier so that he can fix all the bad things he used to do like when he was helping the bad guys and training other kinds of winter soldiers. I guess that kind of makes him like a guy-version Black Widow and I guess that’s what makes them kind of boyfriend-girlfriend. It’s also kind of sad that he can’t team up with his best friend Captain America any more because since all the bad things he used to do, as the Winter Soldier I mean, are not a secret any more and no one wants a bad guy like that to be friends with Captain America even though it is kind of interesting.

I like the Winter Soldier but he’s not my favorite. I think he should have a better costume and maybe he should have some kind of ice-powers or freeze ray or something because “winter.”

And that’s all I have to say about Winter Soldier.

Vera Maven versus Captain America

Meet Vera MavenTo Review a Hero

“Vera! How are you?”

Darling, I am wonderful as you well know. All my imperfections are exactly in the right place.

“Well, I will leave that for others to judge. You are gaining quite a reputation as a critic yourself.”

Oh, I am not a critic, love. I *critique.*

“Fair enough. You know there is a Captain America sequel to be released in theaters next month.”

Mmm.

“I enjoy movies, as you know, but my first love will always be the comic books themselves. There’s something about superheroes that captivates my imagination. So maybe we can talk about the character of Captain America itself? Here’s the cover of the first Captain America I ever read.”

Captain_America_Vol_1_323

Oh, that’s special. But you are fibbing, surely?

“Ok, you caught me. But Captain America has nearly always been a member of the Avengers, and THOSE guys are my go-to comic heroes. Like this, one of my first Avengers’ tales I ever read. See? Cap. There he is.”

Avengers_Vol_1_277

Ah, but of course! Notice how you’ve captured something realllly interesting, here. One really must distinguish the use and purpose of Captain America BY HIMSELF and Captain America as a team member.

I can see it in that strong chin of yours, my dear. You never liked Captain America when you were younger. You liked the teams, mostly. I mean, of course, sure, you liked the Spider-Man, maybe even a Batman here or there. But there was something about the Captain by himself that just didn’t SPEAK to you, n’est ce pas?

For you, Captain America, as a solo hero, could never just BE a hero fighting for himself– because he always represented something LARGER. You thought he MUST be fighting always because of something else, yes? Look at him! Dressed with patriotic colors, holding a powerful round shield, often seen in the company of flags, stars, and stripes? How could he NOT be a soldier for some “agenda” of The Man? A super-soldier, of course, but a soldier nonetheless. Whereas the BEST heroes were vigilantes, outliers, the MAVericks. By definition, OUTside the system.

Ah! But you were young and so beautifully superficial! Just looking at surface details.

You see, what really makes Captain America work as a hero is NOT any kind of red-white-and-blue conformity. That turns out to be irrelevant! No, his story is all about one theme– STRIVE FORWARD. Now, obviously, this theme absoLUTEly thrives in context of a super-soldier– just throw in some World War II, or even some classical “American Dream” mythos in general. BOOM! INstant story– but one in danger of not just being a metaphor but an allegory that is so punch-Hitler-in-the-face that the READER sees stars and stripes. No wonder young little fanboys like yourself think that’s all there really is to Captain America!

Luckily, you are so smart in your biggie little head, so you DID recognize that when he’s in a group setting like the Avengers, this theme gets to be juxtaposed in all KINDS of other contexts. Now, the whole “to strive” thing gets to play off of Iron Man, who’s more about simply “forward” than “strive forward,” or Hawkeye, who’s theme is more like …

“Uh, ‘Don’t mess up’?”

Hmm, that works.

“So, as long as you play to his strengths, the powerful theme of “Strive Forward,” then Captain America is a success?”

Let’s not be so hasty, dear. There are some clear problems, here, OB-viously. What good is this theme without a steady way to highlight it? Cap has no *regularly*-featured supporting cast. Sure, you may have Falcon or some S.H.I.E.L.D. agents here or there, but there is no ensemble cast for him to be compared/contrasted against or to offer some plot springboards, et cetera et cetera. No wonder this central theme is lost!

For Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, even Hulk (well, SOMEtimes) have what we call whole *franchises* surrounding them. The good Cap has a few of these, in a pinch, but is nowhere near the same level. Is there no wonder that he has a hard time resonating with readers *as a property,* when all the trappings of a property are either superficial or essentially non-existent? Would Superman be as iconic as a property without having the same amount of shared history with Lois Lane, the Daily Planet, Jimmy Olsen, Supergirl, et cetera et cetera? Instead, with Cap, one has a hero that works best in an ensemble but is never given time to actually DEVELOP with a supporting cast?

(And really, is there something in the zeitgeist or something? Captain used to be a solo hero, on the sidelines, fighting to support American ideals but never REALLY identifying with the government per se. Now? He’s leading whole organizations, on the front lines of a capital-I Institution like SHIELD so much so that he’s practically a punch-the-clock company man. For shame.)

Oh, and please tell me you consider villains every time you’re considering heroes, yes? I mean, REALLY iconic heroes have also villains that can *specifically* highlight their themes, too. And where’s Captain America’s? Ah, ah, ah! I know! You are about to say “Red Skull,” aren’t you? Yes, yes, yes, a FABulous villain, yes. But really THINK. Is the Skull as a villain REALLY able to show what Captain America is all about? The Skull’s just, well, EVIL. Where’s the nuance? Where’s the thematic resonance? There’s no contrast in the same way Spider-Man/Dr. Octopus play off one another, to say nothing of Batman/Joker.

(In fact, I’d say a kind of “Joker” is what Cap really needs. He *should* be paired with a villain who’s theme is all about selfish play. So bring back Madcap, Jester, Screwball, or even, heaven’s forfend, Deadpool!) Try pairing him also against villains like Flagsmasher, Nekra, Black Mamba, or maybe crime cartels like Count Nefarius or Madame Masque. One “classic” villain used well in this regard recently was Arnim Zola under Rick Remender’s pen (Captain America #1, Nov. 2012 – Captain America #10, July 2013; collected in Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z Book 1 and Book 2) As a bonus, Cap was given a sidekick, first his “son” and then Zola’s “daughter” Jet Black. Could it be that the good Captain has a chance to really show his STRIVE FORWARD theme for the first time in ages?

Captain_America_Bk1

“Final verdict?”

Oh, such a classic hero, with dramatic imagery? He’s near the top of the scale, surely, but points have to be taken for such dangerously superficial trappings and a lack of driving story devices. Also, the current portrayal in the comics is just so leathery-strappy, like they are forced to draw some hyper-realistic version from the movies instead of a clean line of comic booky graphic design. So I’m thinking… a 7. Solidly.

“You are a wonder, Vera Maven.”

One does one’s best.

Movie Review– Justice League: War (2014)

Squee! There's a new superhero movie!

Squee! There’s a new superhero movie!

If there’s one thing that can make me giddy like a school boy, it’s finding out there’s a new animated superhero movie.

You have to understand that I love superheroes as a genre, and I love animation as a medium. Put them together and my love actually multiples exponentially, for the simple reason that action, stunts, and effects can be ratcheted up to “eleven” on the scale, and yes even beyond, once the creators can free their imagination from laws of real-world physics.

In this respect, Justice League: War is an amazing movie. Unfortunately, I also demand good stories with internal logic, seamless voice casting, and appealing design of characters (both visually and thematically.) So in all other respects, Justice League: War is a terrible movie.

So, yeah, the action. It’s incredible, and nearly non-stop. The movie starts with a chase scene and battle between Green Lantern and a strange creature, showcasing some fun stunts and clever uses of the Lantern’s power. (I mean, why rescue a lady by making a bubble around her when you can do so by making an elevator, including the chime when she reaches the rooftop? Fun!) Things escalate with first one horde of more creatures, and then a whole host of them from many portals, and then of course Darkseid– the momentum of the threats requires more and more heroes to join together and often try a variety of power-combo action. In fact, the final battle contains multiple examples of these power-combo actions (so much so, I have to say, it becomes a repetitive story beat, pushing what could be a strength of such action-y moments into a weakness. In other words, we “get it,” so get to it already!)

Watch for such “whoa cool” moments like Superman using a semi-trailer as a baseball bat against the monsters, the Flash using his speed to outrun Darkseid’s eyebeams and taking out a fleet of demons in the process, and Wonder Woman having some of the best fight choreography in general.

If this is your reason for tuning in, you won’t be disappointed. In fact, the plot structure is so thin that such stuff is pretty much the only reason to watch it at all. There are no complexities to this world, its characters, or to the overarcing plot. All the character and plot points that happen seem to service this thin plot of “heroes fight monsters,” with no payoff to a larger theme or context. At best, plot elements are set up merely so that the next action piece can take place. Examples? The only reason Green Lantern teams up with Batman was because he was looking for a monster that he claims he fought earlier. Next beat, they need to fight Superman, for no reason but that he’s an alien and Batman says the monster’s doohickey is also alien. Why are people protesting Wonder Woman, exactly? Well, it’s a good thing, because she needs to be there to save the President from some monsters, I guess? The Flash has friends at Star Labs for some reason– oh, I know, so he can give a doohickey to Dr. Stone and his son can become the Cyborg. And, boy, isn’t THAT a good thing, because later Cyborg can suddenly remember he can close the demon portals, but wait, not entirely– so it’s a good thing Shazam is there with his lightning powers that he has for some reason. Should I spoil their big plan to defeat the Big Bad, Darkseid? Here it is: Keep punching him.

At worse, these elements feel completely random and unnecessary. Why does Batman take Green Lantern’s ring? Oh, I guess it’s because it’s supposed to be hard to take the ring. Not that the ring will fall off later or anything– it’s just supposed to show how badass Batman is. Or wait, how powerful Green Lantern is? I can’t tell which one. Darkseid knows Superman is very powerful. But how? why? Oh, right. “For Some Reason–” just so he can be kidnapped and tested on.

Some seemingly random moments pop up with little set-up, so they actually become quite funny. There are many seconds of film spent on some military guy looking at Wonder Woman that are meant to be more meaningful if you know who he is. Just like there was another moment when Wonder Woman looks at Superman in Significant Ways, but he’s holding an airplane in one hand and punching demons with the other so the effect is quite comical. Then there are the kidnapped people (oh yeah, that’s what they’re fighting for! We almost forgot) that are finally rescued by falling from portals suddenly opening out of the sky and into the loving light-mitts of Green Lantern. These are just a few examples of truly absurd stuff, which, really, any superhero movie must contend with, and usually they can get away with them all, silly or not, because disbelief can be very significantly suspended sometimes. Here, however, these moments fail to mesh with the oh-so-serious tone that the movie tries really hard to create.

This tone, or rather, the failed attempt at it, is ultimately what prevents Justice League: War from being a good movie. The two biggest attempts to create it just fall flat. The first attempt is merely the depictions of violence in general. As I said, the action is really a strength to this movie, and there are demons being smashed all over the place. Wonder Woman in particular slices these monsters in a variety of ways (and is pretty much the only one that ever gets splashed with black supposed-to-be-blood stuff. What’s up with that?) But because of their endless supply, and because of their utter lack of meaning other than cannon fodder, it doesn’t really mean anything. Green Lantern gets his arm broken by one, but he can just put a light-thing around it and it doesn’t have to be a plot point ever again. The fact that these monsters were once humans (or some kind of alien beings) are not really dealt with on a moral level, so the heroes can destroy them without any gravitas, which again leads to no real stakes to such violence, so it doesn’t mean anything.

The second attempt at this “Arg! Gritty Tone!” is the mild profanity our heroes casually use. There’s “ass,” “bitch,” “doughbag” and a few “damn its” all around, but it doesn’t come off as natural and instead leaves me with the same feeling as a student has when the teacher tries to use the hip slang of the cool daddy-os. It ends up being meaningless, just like the violence. You’ve heard it from the kids before: “Sheeyuh. Stop trying so hard.”

The designs of the show, too, reinforce this tone, in that the colors are often muted or darkened, the time of day really some indeterminate “night.” The music and score share this as well as sharing the same momentum praise and problems that I mentioned before regarding the flow of the plot– it’s appropriate and weighty and fits our escalating threat, but that’s also a weakness in that there’s really no time to “breathe” from this pace.

Designs of the characters overall depict people more or less of the same body type and facial structure, formalizing and somewhat unifying their depiction (incongruous to an overt thematic element of the story in that they’re supposed to be such different people working together.) To be fair, Cyborg has the most differentiated design, at least at the beginning. Perhaps in a truly subtle expression of the theme, his design streamlines itself until he “fits in” with the overall look of the group. If anyone does stand out, I’d say it’s Wonder Woman, whose costume looks just bland by comparison to the others, Batman’s color palette notwithstanding. Batman can get away with it due to his costume’s striking and memorable silhouette, but without some other elements or brightness to her costume, Wonder Woman looks like an afterthought, or like her designer didn’t finish in the time he or she had for the runway challenge.

I could say the same criticisms about Wonder Woman’s voice actor– it does not fit well at all with the character that’s being presented, it doesn’t fit well with others, and it comes off as bland and uninspired. I can’t be sure the Batman voice comes off as any better. In his case, it seems like the actor is forcing a voice and is not very practiced in it.

OKAY well, now that I got all that out of my system, I would like to point out that I deliberately wrote all of this without making reference to the story’s source material and context. I mean, YES of course I know this is supposedly the origin of the founding of the League. … But as a critical review I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to judge this as an adaptation of the first issues of the recent Justice League comic that launched its New 52 publishing mandate, nor I’m not sure I should have to consider this movie as a mandate that precursors other DC animated films to follow. Pretty much any criticism I’ve read on the internet about the movie really takes these points into consideration first and foremost, and I want to judge the show AS a show, itself. On that level, it really fails.

Perhaps most telling is that I saw it with a friend who likes action movies and anime but is not very familiar with superheroes at all. Yes, there are people who see Green Lantern and the best they can do is remember that somewhere there was something about some kind of movie. He was really surprised about Shazam and I could tell he wanted the movie to tell him more, but there was ultimately nothing given. He was also confused about Apokalips and Darkseid, just calling him a devil. This is what I mean about the storyline being unmindful of basic story structure. This might seem an unfair criticism, since the movie’s primary story is the establishment of a team, but the problem is that it’s establishing a team of individuals with no real establishment of the individuals themselves (nor their enemy.) And it’s kind of funny, because an example of what I’m talking about is in the movie itself– care is taken to establish Cyborg, quite clearly. No, I’m not asking for an origin from everyone — that’s by far outside the scope of the movie– but without something deeper than the broad strokes of a brush, I’m not going to invest any care as a viewer.

And I’ve avoided mentioning it until now, but it’s quite clear this movie wants to be an DC animated version of the live action Avengers movie. The parallels are obvious, but to explain why it doesn’t work I would just end up repeating myself too much about tone, plot, characters, etc. And this is already long enough.

All in all, I know I’m a Marvel fan in particular, but I enjoy any good superhero story, especially that in animation. It used to be that DC’s animated universe was a wonderful example of these, but even though the action and little-holds-barred spectacle of Justice League: War can be fun, the movie is not as wonderful of an example overall.