Comics

“This is the building where our uncle lived. Where our father killed him.”

There are so many different places you could start with a review of Black Panther. I could go heavy and political, exploring the importance of the most famous black superhero in these troubled times. I could go historical, discussing how the character was conceived and developed over the decades. Or I could go personal, explaining how I personally discovered the character.

Instead, let’s talk about Batman.

Batman was created in the Golden Age of comics, where many of the genre’s tropes and visual languages were codified. And the Silver Age that followed was in many ways the second draft of the superhero genre, where the old characters were taken and what worked was enhanced and what didn’t work was discarded.

With the obvious exception of the Original Human Torch, who was perfect in the sight of God.

Often, this was quite literal. The Silver Age at DC saw new versions of the Flash and Green Lantern that were basically the same as their Golden Age counterparts but with some of the clunkier aspects of them sanded down. And as a Golden Age character, Batman definitely has some aspects that could be troubling.

Look, I love Batman. Don’t get me wrong. One of the greatest superheroes ever created. But, as I’m hardly the first one to notice, the image of a billionaire WASP donning a bat costume to beat the ever-living tar out of the city’s poor and disenfranchised with the tacit blessing of the police can be a difficult sell. It’s not an insurmountable problem, by any means and many different writers have found different ways to deal with it.  Grant Morrison largely keeps Batman away from muggers and car-jackers and has him mostly fighting crazed supervillains. Other writers emphasise that Bruce Wayne isn’t just helping Gotham by being Batman but also contributes hugely to the city with his humanitarian work. And Frank Miller just shrugs and says “Yeah, he’s a fascist, whadyagonna do?”

“Hello chums!”

But still, that’s always going to be an issue with the character that has to be dealt with. And I would argue that the second draft of Batman that addressed these problems wasn’t created at DC at all, but at Marvel. Actually, scratch that. Marvel didn’t make an improved Batman. They made three:

Okay, he’s Batman, but instead of being a rich kid raised by his butler he was a dirt poor Irish Catholic boy with a hardscrabble working class upbringing in the roughest neighbourhood in New York who had to put himself through law school despite being blind.

 

Okay, he’s Batman, but instead of everyone pretending that dressing up in a costume and beating up muggers wouldn’t make you a lunatic and kind of an asshole we just acknowledge that he’s a lunatic and kind of an asshole.

Okay, he’s Batman. But he’s black. And smarter. And richer. And a king.

Like the Golden Age that preceded it, the Silver Age was initially whiter than white. But even in the early days at Marvel you can see a recognition of this and the halting, occasionally cringe-worthy but always well-motived attempts by Stan Lee and his co-creators to open up their fledgling universe to non-white characters. And undoubtedly their greatest achievement in this regard was the introduction to the Marvel universe of T’Challa, the Black Panther and the King of Wakanda.

Tsk. Buncha SJWs.

T’Challa first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 where Reed Richards and his family are invited to the mysterious African Nation of Wakanda by its equally mysterious king. The FF consistently underestimate the technology and skill of the Wakandans until they are faced with the mysterious Black Panther who manages to best one of the most powerful superhero teams in the world single-handed. Then, the Black Panther reveals himself to be T’Challa, and explains that he had to lure them to Wakanda to test his abilities against them. This first story, I think, encapsulates what’s made the character so enduring:

He’s kind of a dick.

Which doesn’t sound like a selling point, but hear me out. Too often, when white creators are trying to create positive black characters they make them a little too um…what’s the word I’m looking for?

Bagger Vancey.

Like, really friendly, eager to please, completely unthreatening and ready to lay their lives down for whitey at a moment’s notice.

Black Panther is very much not that. He may be a good guy, but he’s not your good guy. He has his own mission and agenda which is protecting Wakanda. If your agenda and his align, great. If not, he will not hesitate for a second to slit your throat if that’s what it takes to keep his people safe. He’s aloof, unknowable, one of the three of four smartest human beings on the planet, and you can never quite be sure how much you can trust him. He is a black man who is the hero of his own story, not a supporting character in someone else’s.

If there was any doubt that there was a real hunger for this kind of character, then the roaring rampage this thing cut through the global box office put it to rest. No MCU movie has flopped…

Image result for inhumans movie

No MCU movie that counts has flopped and most of them have been big hits. Some of them have been massive hits. But Black Panther was a full on cultural event. Dialogue and characters from this movie saturated the pop culture. Athletes started dressing in Wakanda inspired outfits and making the Wakandan salute. Schools and churches organised trips to see it and some commentators compared its release to cultural touchstones like Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and the election of Obama and okay guys, c’mon. It’s just a movie. But, after all the fanfare and thinkpieces, does the movie hold up? This looks like a job for an opinionated white guy on the internet! Let’s do this.

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Steve Ditko 1927-2018

Steve Ditko was one the Silver Age’s Holy Trinity. A man who, along with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, utterly transformed the entire genre of superhero comics which in turn have become such a bedrock of the new global culture.

Born in Pennsylvania, Ditko studied his craft under legendary Batman artist Jerry Robinson, before working under Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

While his work lacked the polish, bombast and classicism of his Kirby, Ditko excelled in body language and naturalism and had a peerless skill in crafting visually memorable characters. His Spider-Man is a masterpiece of eye-catching, instantly iconic design. But Ditko’s contributions were by no means purely visual. Ditko, who made his bones in romance comics, understood that it was the man (or boy, really) behind the mask that made Peter Parker so compelling and pushed for the inclusion of the many soap-opera elements of the book, often over the wishes of Stan Lee who would berate his artist to get Peter into the costume and throwing punches as quickly as possible. To get around this, Ditko created the classic “Spider-Sense Half Face” where Peter’s Spider-Sense was visually represented by half of his face becoming his Spider-Man mask, a cheeky way of meeting Stan’s imposed quotas for number of panels where he was in costume. It is largely thanks to Ditko that Spider-Man has arguably the greatest supporting cast in all of comics, with even supporting players like J. Jonah Jameson, Mary Jane and Aunt May being household names, something very few superheroes can boast.

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“I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!”

I had a weird sensation watching X-Men The Last Stand for the first time in many years. I found myself, initially, sort of enjoying it.

“Huh, that’s weird,” I thought to myself “I remember hating this. So why am I sorta finding this to be okay?”

The reason, dear reader, is because this movie is a treacherous snake.

It does a passable job of masquerading as a decent X-Men movie. The cast is all here minus Alan Cummings’ Nightcrawler (because the makeup took frickin’ forever to apply and Alan Cummings was all “Fuck this, Alan Cummings’ got shit to do”) and the new additions to the cast were mostly excellent. Ellen Paige as Kitty Pryde? Who could say “no” to that? Kelsey Grammer as Beast? Perfect. Just perfect. You could not cast that role better. Also, like X-2, the movie stakes two very well regarded X-Men stories and works them into a single story, specifically the seminal “Dark Phoenix Saga” by Chris Claremont and Joss Whedon’s “Gifted” story arc from the early 2000’s. Alright! Great cast, strong source material, what could go wrong? Why, God himself couldn’t tank this film!

“RATNER! RIGHT AHEAD!”

Yeah, so how did that happen? Alright, so Fox quite naturally wanted Bryan Singer to come back for X3 but Singer had been lured by the siren call of the Distinguished Competition.

Singer had done a little preliminary work on X3 before he left Fox for that tramp Superman, which would have been a re-telling of the Dark Phoenix with Sigourney Weaver as Emma Frost (oh fuck yeah). With Singer gone, the suits at Fox held an emergency meeting to decide who would replace him, with the understanding that they had to get someone lest they had to settle for Brett Ratner, a desperate last resort in the form of a man. And what’s really tragic about this is that they tried. They really did. A veritable directorate of directors were approached for this movie and any one of them could have made a great X-Men flick.

Darren Aronofsky’s X-Men? Sign me up.

Matthew Vaughan’s X-Men? We got it a few years later and it was awesome.

Joss Whedon’s X-Men? Oh, he could have done it in his sleep.

Zak Snyder’s X-Men?……

Alex Proyas’ X-Men? He made Dark City so he’s alright by Mouse.

But a combination of bad luck, scheduling conflicts and ego all conspired against Fox and they were left with a choice: A Brett Ratner directed X-Men movie, or no X-Men movie at all.

They chose wrong.

“That’ll teach you to believe you deserve better.”

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“Have you tried not being a mutant?”

When X-Men was released in the summer of 2000 on a modest $75 million budget, it had the highest opening weekend for a superhero film, surpassing even Batman: Forever despite its complete absence of Jim Carey in green tights or Tommy Lee Jones hating everything and everyone.

“You fucking people.”

So the folks at Fox backed a crazy hunch superhero movies might be a big deal in the 21st century and immediately greenlit X2, a title chosen tboth to appeal America’s hardcore algebra fans and to keep signage costs to a minimum.

The script this go round was to be written by Zak Penn and David Hayter…

“David Hayter?”

Yes. David Hayter, who is perhaps most famous for voicing Solid Snake in the Metal Gear

“Metal Gear?!”

“NOW CUT THAT OUT!”

Anyway, Penn and Hayter both wrote separate screenplays which were then integrated with the strongest elements from each, which I was very surprised to learn because that would typically be a recipe for a shambling, Frankenstein’s monster of a script whereas here the script is one of the very strongest elements of the whole movie. I mean, it’s not Shakespeare or anything but it is a remarkably well structured piece.

The story largely draws from the 1982 X-Men tale God Loves, Man Kills written by Chris Claremont during that least-discussed era of comics history, the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age is usually dated as having begun with the seminal Death of Gwen Stacey in Spider-Man and saw a new generation of  comic book writers inject a more mature and morally complex outlook into classic comic books. The Bronze Age was, ironically enough, something of a Golden Age with all time classics like Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Maus and Killing Joke. Unfortunately, less talented writers took the grittiness and mature themes of those books but left the humanity and artistic merit on the shelf which is how the Dark Age happened.

Shadowhawk. He had AIDS.

But anyway, God Loves, Man Kills is very much a Bronze Age book, that leans hard into the X-Men’s role as a stand in for oppressed minorities while commenting on the rise of televangelism and the burgeoning cultural alliance between political conservatives and religious evangelicals that worked out great for everybody. It’s an extremely well-regarded story and an excellent choice for the X-Men’s sophomore film. And, because everything has to be about Wolverine, there’s also some Weapon X thrown in for seasoning.

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“What would you prefer, yellow spandex?”

Man, I am old.

Wanna know how old I am?

I’m so old that when I order a three minute egg, they ask for the money up front.

I’m so old that my Facebook memories come in black and white and with piano accompaniment.

I am so old that I can remember a time when the conventional wisdom was that only DC heroes could be made into good superhero movies. Oh yes children, gather round and I shall tell you of the before times.

In the two thousandth year of Our Lord, X-Men was due for release and, like many Marvel fans, I was nervous as balls. I’d say “we’d been burned before” but honesty, it was more like we’d been roasted repeatedly over an open fire. What Marvel movies had come before this? Well, not counting the old Captain America serials from the forties we’d had The Punisher (direct to video), Captain America (direct to video), The Fantastic Four (direct to the secret vault under Roger Corman’s floorboards) and Howard the Duck, one of the  most legendary box office stinkers of all time that nonetheless got a full theatrical release and so was the most successful of the bunch purely by default. So the idea that people would actually show up to a movie starring Marvel Comics characters was (in those days) a big gamble.

“Ahem.”

“Sorry Blade, you don’t count.”

“…”

“Not because…y’know, no, I mean some of my best friends are…I mean, no, no, no, okay let me start over.”

Blade didn’t really buck the trend of Marvel movies being box-office poison because almost nobody knew that Blade was a Marvel hero. He was a minor supporting character in a pretty damn obscure comic and only headlined his own book for ten issues prior to the movie coming out. And when the movie did come out and was a big hit, the comic version was pretty much rebuilt entirely from the ground up to look more the movie version. Saying that Blade the character from Tomb of Dracula was what made Blade the movie a success is like saying that everyone came to see Road to Perdition because they were huge fans of the original comic (didn’t know Road to Perdition was a comic? My point, it is made). Besides, Blade is really more of an action/horror flick than a superhero movie. That’s all I mean when I say Blade doesn’t count.

“Some muthafuckas always trying to ice-skate uphill.”

Yup. They…they sure are. Anyway. X-Men was seen as a real gamble given the track record of previous Marvel movies. But if ever there was a time to try and steal DC’s thunder at the box-office, it was now. After the initial stunning success of the early Batman and Superman movies, Warner Bros’ DC money train had skidded off the tracks in 1997 with the twin box-office disasters of Steel and Batman and Robin.

AKA one of the great underrated comedies of the nineties FIGHT ME.

So Marvel decided to put their best foot forward with their most popular non-Spider-man franchise, the X-Men. Oh yes, back in the nineties/early 2000s X-Men were one of the biggest things in comics, although it took a long while for them to get there.

The first version of the X-Men appeared in 1963, created by the legendary duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. And with such a stellar creative team the original X-Men was…kinda awful, actually. Seriously. Really below par. Even Kirby looks like he’s phoning the art in and Jack Kirby was bitten by a radioactive work ethic as a teenager. That said, Kirby and Lee did come up with two novel ideas:

1)      Instead of being a family like the Fantastic Four, or a group of buddies like the Avengers, the X-Men is a school for young superheroes.

2)      The X-Men and their enemies are mutants who are born with a special gene that gives them superpowers. This allowed Stan Lee to introduce new villains every week without having to explain that Hotdog Man got his powers from radioactive mustard or whatever.

In the first issue Professor Xavier, their mentor, explains that their name comes from their “eX-tra power”.

“But “extra” begins with…”
“I know, but the E-Men are a techno group from Leeds and they won’t sell me the name.”

So yeah, some novel ideas, and one or two characters (like Cyclops and Magneto) with striking designs and interesting powers. But on the whole, the early X-Men stories are considered the worst thing to come out of the Lee/Kirby partnership. Roy Thomas and Neal Adams took over in 1969 and produced what is generally considered an excellent run, but it wasn’t enough to save the comic from cancellation. Fast forward to 1975 and everything changed.

As a statement of intent, that’s pretty on the nose.

The relaunched X-Men series written by Len Wein and later Chris Claremont was a very different Beast (sorry) from the original, featuring a multinational cast of men and women from all around the world, including perennial fan favourites like Wolverine and Storm, to this day still the most iconic black female superhero. Claremont used the X-men’s status as mutants to make them an allegory for various oppressed peoples and the comic became one of the most popular in Marvel’s stable. (Yeah, I know Stan Lee says he always intended for Xavier to be Martin Luther King and Magneto to be Malcolm X but I call BS. If the early X-men really was a civil rights allegory then it went “All black people are evil except like six who live in a mansion and protect us from the evil ones”.)

Actually, if anything, it became too popular. By the nineties the X-Men franchise had grown so massive that Marvel could have cancelled every title that didn’t have an “X” in the title and still been one of the two biggest comic book publishers in America. And if there was one single franchise to blame for all the ills that befell the comic industry in the nineties it was the X-Men.

The speculator bubble? Check.

All the claws, cigars, chrome guns and armour? Check.

Unleashing Rob Liefeld on an innocent and unsuspecting world? Check.

Too. Much. Damn. Wolverine? Check. Check. Check and Check.

Seriously, the X-Men were Marvel in the nineties, not like today where they have been sent to live in the little room under the stairs while Marvel tries to sell you on the fucking Inhumans for the bajillionth time.

LOVE US DAMN YOU!!

So, my feelings on the X-Men are a little mixed. I adored the Fox cartoon growing up, and there have been plenty of stories I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. And yeah, as a concept, the X-Men are important. Really important. That there is this huge multi-media franchise about minorities fighting prejudice and oppression, that is a big frickin’ deal.

That said though, man, when the X-Men suck they really suck.

As a Catholic, I loved the story where a fringe Catholic sect tried to make Nightcrawler pope and then trick everyone into thinking the rapture had started with exploding communion wafers despite the fact that Catholics don’t actually believe in the rapture and that is literally the least stupid part of the whole thing.

In its way, the X-Men movie series is one of the most faithful in the history of the superhero genre. Because, like the comic it’s based on; when it’s good, it’s very, very good, but when it’s bad it’ll make you want to claw your eyes out. Which category does X-Men fall into? Let’s take a look.

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State of the Mouse 2018

Hey Mouse, how you been?

Good, good. Great actually. After last year’s unpleasantness I feel like I’ve rebounded in a big way. I’m feeling a lot more confident and hopeful for the future, been writing loads and, long story short it’s good to be Mouse (for now).

Aw, that’s great. Well, see ya…

Not so fast, my bold-faced friend. This is the part where I use you as a sounding board to tell the readers all my news.

Aw c’mon, dude, it’s like half five in the morning, I got work tomorrow

Here is my news!

Marvel Rankings

Yes! So, with the Homecoming review now gone up and Ragnarok not out on DVD until February, seems like this is a good time to put up a page where I rank all the Marvel movies like I have with the canon Disney films. Gasp in wonder and ooh and aah and say “But I really liked Doctor Strange” and “Thor is HOW HIGH? This dude’s crazy!”. Basically, your thoughts are an open book to me. Speaking of…

New series of reviews

Hmm…so we’ve reached the end of the canon Disney movies and we’re almost at the end of the MCU movies. What to review next? It has to be something with a lot of variety. I don’t want to be constantly praising or panning week in, week out. It has to be a series that wakes up each morning and flips a scarred two-headed coin to decide whether its going to suck like it was built by Dyson, or be literally Oscar worthy…

Oh yeah. That’ll do…

Shortstember

So, we’ve finally wrapped our series of reviews of WW2 propaganda shorts (spoilers, the good guys won. For about seventy years. Now it’s a little up in the air.) If you missed them, the reviews are here:

Der Fuehrer’s Face

Jungle Drums

The Ducktators

Reason and Emotion

Fascist Jackboots will not Trample our Motherland

Momotaru no Umiwashi

Nimbus Libéré

Das Dumme Ganslein

Hope you enjoyed them, and if you have suggestions or preferences for another series of short reviews, holla atta mazerunner.

12 Gigs in 12 Months

So I’ve decided to go back to doing stand up and I’ve set myself a challenge for 2018: 12 gigs in 12 months. Gig #1 is already in the bag (it was at Cherry Comedy, no footage I’m afraid) and #2 is in the Ha’penny Inn on Wellington Quay on Tuesday 20th January at nine if you’re in Dublin. If you’re not, do please head over to Facebook and follow Neil Sharpson-12 Gigs in 12 Months where I’ll be posting updates and footage of how I get on.

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“I just wanted to be like you.”

Hey Amy – just a couple of rando thoughts from 35,000 LAX-JFK:

– A rising trend we see with Millennials are the really extreme forms of experiential exercise like Tough Mudder (a sort of filthy triathalon), the Color Run and even things like Hot Power Yoga, veganism etc. Millennials will often post “N.B.D.” on their social media after doing it , as in No Big Deal, also known as the “humble brag”…..wondering if Spidey could get into that in some way….he’s super athletic, bendy, strong, intense….and it’s all NBD to him, of course.

– EDM (electronic dance music) is the defining music for Millennials. Wondering if there’s an EDM angle somewhere with Spidey? His movements are beautiful, would be awesome with a killer DJ behind it

– Snapchat just launched a “story” functionality, which is sort of “day in the life of me” told in a series of snapchats that expire after 24 hours. It has a very VIP quality about it, since invitation only. Getting invited into Spidey’s Snapchat circle would be huge, and very buzzworthy and cool.

Take a look at that quote. Really take a minute to absorb it. Drink it in. Read it aloud, in a serious, serious voice.

Then consider that these are not the insane gibberings of a vagrant possessed by unclean spirits,  but an industry professional, emailing the former co-head of Sony with actual ideas for a new Spider-Man movie. Ideas that she, presumably, asked him for. Like, she took a look at this walking buzzword puker and said “Him. He’s the guy we need to give a fresh new take on one of the greatest superheroes of all time.”

This is why Spider-Man needed to come home.

I say “one of the greatest” but you will find plenty of people who know their comic book shit inside out who will tell you that Spider-Man is actually, without qualification, the greatest superhero. Better than Batman, better than Superman and yes, better even than the Original Human Torch.

They’re wrong, obviously. But whatever.

And no question, Spider-Man is awesome. The design, the simplicity of his powers and concept, a brilliant rogue’s gallery and one of the best supporting casts in comics. Spider-Man is a masterpiece. So why is he so difficult to do right? And I don’t just mean in other media. On any list of the worst or most detested comic book stories, you’ll see Spidey’s name popping up with alarming regularity: One More Day, Sins Past, Reign, Maximum Carnage and of course The Clone Saga, the latter trainwreck made all the worse by the fact that it lasted two monkey juggling years. I don’t mean to imply that there are no good Spider-Man stories. Because friend, there are some absolutely FANTASTIC Spider-Man stories, pretty much everything from 1963 to 1975 are some of the best superhero yarns from that era you could hope to read.

The problems started after, and I think it was a case of Spider-Man being a victim of his own success. Because Spider-Man has always been a huge seller and the face of Marvel comics, he’s historically been subjected to much heavier editorial control than a more obscure character might be. That, for example, is the reason why the Clone Saga dragged on until everyone involved had given up hoping for any resolution other than the sweet release of death. It also led to superstar writers and artists being put on the book because they were the new hotness rather than because they were suited to the character or had an interesting slant.

Spider-Man: Torment. Readers: “Yup”.

There have been plenty of good Spider-Man runs even after the characters Silver Age heyday (Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man is an all-time classic) but the fact remains: the win/loss ratio for stories featuring this character is far heavier on the right side than it should be for such a perfectly conceived concept. And that extends to the movies.

There are good Spider-Man movies, but there really should be more.

The first two Sam Raimi films are wonderfully faithful to the tone of the comics but they’re also kinda corny and are hamstrung by the fact that Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and James Franco are just terrible.

Franco may have made a great Wiseau, but Wiseau would have made a better Harry Osborn.

Spider-Man 3 I absolutely despise but then Ms Mouse and I had just broken up when it came out so that probably coloured my perceptions of it. It’s probably just me who feels that the movie is like a gaping chest wound that bleeds sadness.

Oh. Not just me.

All I’ll say about that one is…so you have to come up with a way for Spider-Man to come into contact with the alien Venom symbiote. Below are two options. One of these was used in a $250 million Hollywood movie, the other from a cheap Saturday morning cartoon. Try and guess which is which.

  1. The symbiote is recovered from an asteroid during a NASA mission. On re-entry, the symbiote gets loose and forces the astronauts to attempt an emergency crashlanding in New York. Spider-Man swings into action and, in a thrilling rescue, saves the astronauts from the wreckage and is exposed to the symbiote, which kicks of the Venom Saga.
  2. The symbiote just drops out of the sky and lands in the park where Spider-Man happens to be chilling with his girlfriend.

2 is lame. 2 is stupid. 2 is stunningly lazy writing. They went with 2.

Then we got the two Andrew Garfield movies which I watched just for this review. I did that for you.

The first one is the most bleakly mercenary superhero film since Roger Corman threw together Fantastic Four to hold onto the rights because, oh hey, Sony needed to hold onto the rights. And the second is just…baffling. Like, let’s take the dour naturalism of the first one and marry it with a remake of Batman Forever. That’ll work.

That said, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is the best thing in all five films which, of course, is why she had to die.

Having driven not one, but two iterations of Spider-Man into the ground, Sony finally caved and agreed to a joint custody deal with Marvel whereby Marvel would bring Spidey into the MCU but Sony could still see him on weekends as long as there was a social worker present. Tom Holland was introduced as the new Web Head in Civil War to rapturous applause and production began on this new Spider-Man’s first solo movie. How did it turn out? Let’s take a look.

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“He may have been ya father, boy. But he weren’t ya daddy.”

Pretty early on in Thor: Ragnarok I realised something kind of incredible. The Marvel Cinematic Universe may be the first film series in history to take nearly twenty movies to hit its stride.  That’s not to say the preceding movies were bad. In fact, the single thing you can take as granted about the series is that they are “not bad” (on the big screen anyway). There isn’t a single one in the canon that, if it were to randomly show up on TV while I was channel surfing, that I wouldn’t happily stop and watch. The two worst movies in this series, by my reckoning, are The Incredible Hulk and Doctor Strange. The first is a perfectly competent action/monster movie and the second is a an absolutely visually gorgeous fantasy let down by seriously derivative plotting. If those are your turkeys, your good movies are presumably pretty darn good. And they are. Marvel and Disney have honed to near perfection the art of crafting, big, fun, colourful summer superhero flicks. They’re not going to end up on anyone’s list of all time great films but they’re excellent examples of their genre.

But here’s the thing…they’re getting better. A few missteps now and then, but overall the trajectory has been up and up. And you can tell that Marvel have  been paying very serious attention to the criticisms that their movies have been getting, creating better villains, better visuals, and hiring genuine idiosyncratic directing talent over journeymen.  Crazy as it sounds, I think we’re getting to the point where Marvel’s movies stop being merely “fun” and becoming actually…artistically noteworthy. In fact, we might already be there.

The Guardians of the Galaxy series is sneaky. When Vol 1 was first released it was praised pretty much for being irrelevant. Here was a nice, fun little romp off in a corner of the Marvel universe almost wholly unconnected from everything else that was going on. It stood on its own. It was funny and colourful and had a cool soundtrack and there were dick jokes and a talking tree.

“I am Groot.”

He was Groot. Gotta give him that.

You wouldn’t have pegged it as the strand of the Marvel carpet that would deliver an achingly sincere exploration of coping with abuse and trauma (and before you do anything else, you should check out Lindsay Ellis’ fantastic analysis of those very themes within the movie). Her review is one of those rare ones that completely reordered my thinking on a movie, pushing Guardians 2 from “fun” to “essential” in my personal assessment. And if you find me making a point that seems awfully similar to one she already made then you’re almost certainly right, and she almost certainly did and I am almost certainly playing particularly pathetic catch up. It’s just, once you understand that the movie is about what it’s about, it’s kind of impossible to talk about it like it’s anything else, like trying to not see the hidden image in an optical illusion once you’ve already found it. Although, looking back, we probably should have twigged that James Gunn was playing a deeper game. Remember the scene on Knowhere where Rocket pulls a gun on Drax because he thinks he’s mocking him  (“He thinks I’m some weird thing, he does!!). It’s a jarring scene, the funny talking racoon suddenly having an existential melt-down. Look at Chris Pratt’s face in that scene, Peter Quill is thinking pretty much the exact same thing: “Where the fuck did this come from?!”. It’s only with Vol 2, that the series’ Trojan Horse gambit finally becomes clear. These characters don’t act like your typical quippy, sarcastic, vaguely assholish protagonists in a 21st century American action comedy because they  are your typical quippy, sarcastic, vaguely assholish protagonists in a 21st century American action comedy. They act that way because they are all, fundamentally, horribly damaged and trying to avoid taking on any more trauma. It’s in Volume 2 where the characters finally begin to let down their defences one after the other and where the Guardians series, initially viewed as one of the most frivolous and shallow corners of the MCU, reveals itself to be the most emotionally sincere and essential part of the whole damn project. But, y’know. With dick jokes and a talking tree.

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Mouse Goes to War!: Jungle Drums (1943)

Hi guys! We are now halfway there to getting Mauricio safely out of Venzuela and, as promised, here is the second of the war era animated short reviews. Because you’re all superheroes, and because I thought it might be particularly cathartic right now to watch some Nazis get punched in the face, today we’re looking at one of the Superman shorts from the 1940s.  Enjoy, and please consider donating if you haven’t already.

***

Studio: Famous Studios

Country of Origin: United States

First Screened: March 26, 1943

Recently, the internet came down with a case of the vapours when it was announced by the BBC that the next Doctor would be played by Jodie Whittaker, who has lady bits.

Jolly good, quite right, good idea, quite right, jolly good and not before time. Now, when it comes to Who I haven’t really had skin in the game since Ecclestone left but I’m sure she’ll kill in the part. There have been bad Who writers, bad Who directors and even bad Who seasons but they have never cast a bad actor in the lead role (no, not even him) and I doubt very much they’ve started here. But Whittaker’s casting does raise some interesting questions. How will people in the past react to a character whose main defining trait is showing up out of nowhere and bossing everyone around when it’s a woman doing the bossing? How will, say, the Puritans react to this trouser wearing lady with a mysterious blue box and what can only be described as a magic wand? Will every episode of Doctor Who consist of angry peasants trying to ascertain if Jodie Whitaker weighs as much as a duck? It’ll be interesting to see how they handle it.

Of course, the status of women in society has swung wildly upwards and downwards over the millennia depending on the era and society in question. Progress is not a hill, but a rollercoaster. Consider Lois Lane, who, as the perennial love interest of one of the most famous pop-culture icons of the last century has had an unbroken presence in various media for almost eight decades now, and so represents a useful yardstick for the portrayal and status of women in American culture. In the Silver Age, this was Lois Lane.

The fifties saw Lois’ role as a daring and accomplished journalist minimised to almost nothing so that she could engage in an unending spiteful love rivalry with Lana Lang over who could dupe Superman into marrying her first. It was a terrible time to be a woman in America, and it was a terrible time to be Lois Lane.

Contrast this with a decade earlier, where we find Lois Lane wasting bitches with an uzi.

“Take that ya rat bastards! When you get to hell, tell em Lois sent ya!”

World War 2 brought huge advances both for women and minorities because America had to either make the most use of every available person regardless of race or gender or risk total defeat to the forces of fascism and America was all “Ugh, fine.” You see this in the Fleischer (later Famous) studios Superman shorts with their depiction of Lois Lane, still one of the finest interpretations of the character three quarters of a century later. And possibly the character’s finest hour is today’s short, Jungle Drums.

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“Dormammu! I’ve come to bargain!”

Back in my Ant-Man review I had some pretty harsh things to say about Ant-Man as a superhero concept. But you shouldn’t take that to mean that I don’t like the character. To tell the truth, I’ve always found Hank Pym to be oddly compelling. There’s something about the guy who is good but will never be the best and the gnawing insecurity that brings that I think a lot of writers can empathise with.

Conversely, for this review I re-read some classic Doctor Strange stories and have had to come to terms with something deeply troubling about myself.

I, straight up, do not like Doctor Strange.

I love silver age Marvel comics. I love the aesthetic, the corny jokes, the ridiculous villain names, the artwork, the snarky editorial captions from Stan Lee, all of it. It be my jam. But my God, reading Doctor Strange is a slog.

And I think my issue with him is this; Doctor Strange is a character who rewards bad writing. Characters should challenge their writers. Superman and Captain America challenge their writers to portray them as morally pure and incorruptible while still being human and relateable. Spider-man is a challenge because he requires funny dialogue. Wolverine is a challenge because he requires almost no dialogue.

But Doctor Strange’s whole schtick requires him to recite turgid, purple prose at every problem he comes across and it is just such a grind. Even a phrase of such magnificent silliness as “By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!” starts to lose its appeal after the twentieth time reading it. But ultimately, it comes down to this: Wizards should not be main characters.

Glad you brought him up, we shall return to him presently.

When you have a main character who is a wizard it is almost impossible to generate real drama. So many Doctor Strange stories boil down to this:

EVIL WIZARD: I will do this bad magic thing!

DR STRANGE: I will cast a spell that stops you from doing this bad magic thing!

EVIL WIZARD: Aha! I have cast a spell that means your spell doesn’t work!

DR STRANGE: But I use my magic forcefield to block your spell!

EVIL WIZARD: But my spell is too powerful for your forcefield!

DR STRANGE: Nuh uh! My forcefield has infinity power!

And then the bell sounds and they have to go back to class. It’s basically the same problem as technobabble in bad episodes of Star Trek; artificial problems solved by an artificial solution. It’s never concretely stated what Strange’s magic can and cannot do, so there’s no reason to think that he won’t just pull a random spell out of his ass to deal with whatever the problem is. It’s why wizards are usually relegated to supporting roles. We follow Arthur and Frodo, not Merlin and Gandalf. Harry Potter gets around this problem by clearly establishing the rules of how magic works in its universe. Yes, Harry can use magic, but he never uses a spell that we don’t see him learn in class. So the audience is never in doubt as to his abilities and what the real odds are in any given confrontation.

Strange can be great when used as a supporting character, a kind of consultant brought in to help other characters when they run afoul of the supernatural. But as a lead character he just does not work for me. Can the second live-action Doctor Strange movie change my mind? Oh yes. I said “second”.

You have questions.
1) Yes, it’s a real movie.
2) No, it’s not a porno.
3) Yes, that’s the legendary Jessica Walter, star of Arrested Development and Archer.
4) No, it’s really not a porno.
5) It’s terrible, but also wonderful.

Let’s take a look.

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