Hall of Fame (85% or higher)

Strange Days (1995)

The future is the present, but moreso.

This is has been the guiding principle of futurist science fiction since the genre was invented; take the current status quo and extrapolate logically and presto, you have a plausible future setting for your story. Early British sci-fi is all about the ethics and difficulty of maintaining a vast empire (don’t worry lads, won’t be a problem long term). Star Trek had space hippies and an interstellar Cold War. Eighties sci-fi is really worried about these Japanese guys. Trouble is, the course of history is less an elegant upward line and more like a panicky chihuaha on meth that keeps running off in different directions. For example: The USA and USSR are locked in an inexorable arms race that can only end with nuclear anni…

Whoops. Never mind.

Well, the Japanese economy is an unstoppable behemoth that will crush its Western rivals and establish a new world order of corporate hegemony…

Huh.

Awesome, history is over and now America as the world’s lone superpower will rule over an endless long peace…

Where did THIS clown come from?

Ah jeez, America has moved inexorably to the right and the Republicans will maintain dominance for generations, slowly turning America into a paranoid police state…

What the hey?

Racism is over everybody! Peace love and kumbaya for all!

Okay History you are now officially taking the piss.

This is why it’s almost impossible to write science fiction that accurately predicts the future, because the present won’t sit long enough to have its picture taken. Even the works that do get props for accurately predicting the future tend to only get certain details right while getting the rest very wrong. William Gibson came damn close to predicting the internet, but he also predicted that the world would be ruled over by several competing mega-corporations when of course in reality it’s only ruled by one.

“BEHOLD MY GLORY!”

“Yes Disney, we all behold your glory.”

Which is why, as a good rule of thumb, if you’re writing sci-fi you should set it far into the future so that when you are inevitably proven wrong, you’ll be long dead and no one will be there to laugh at you (unless they use their futuristic magic tech to resurrect you purely so they can laugh at you which would be incredibly petty and, going on current trends, entirely probable).

Strange Days was released in 1995 and sets its tale of sci-fi dystopia in the misty far off time of…December 1999. That’s ballsy.

And yet, it honestly feels more prescient than any science fiction film I can recall seeing.

“Uh, Mouse?”

“Yo.”

“I just looked at this film and it has a ton of boobs Are we a boob blog now?”

“No, we are not a boob blog.”

Yeah, so I realise the movies I’m been reviewing lately have been a little more racy for a blog that rarely reviews fare rated harder than PG. Truth is, this is a review I’ve been trying to find the time to do for almost three years now (it’s one of the Joanna VR requests). This is one my friend Roger Courtney requested because he feels that it’s a ridiculously under-appreciated movie that I should review and everyone should see.

It is, I did and they should.

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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Avatar: Sozin’s Comet

Okay, before we even start the starting I need to talk about Azula.

Azula, for those of you who knoweth not, is Avatar’s secondary antagonist. She’s the daughter of Fire Lord Ozai, the main villain, and the brother of Zuko. She’s an incredibly skilled fire-bender, a brilliant tactician, and a straight up psychopath.

Now a good few years ago I remember I got talking to some dude at a party about Avatar, and we were just fanboying over it as you do, and he looks me straight in the eye and says three words: “Azula. Best villain.” And he didn’t mean “best villain in the show”, he meant “best villain in any piece of fiction, period.” And I nodded at that, and didn’t even really consider what it was that I was agreeing to.

And it’s ridiculous, when you think about it, right? How could the greatest villain of all time be from a frickin’ Nickleodeon show from the early 2000s? It’s stupid on the face of it.

And then I re-watched the series for these reviews and a slightly scary thought started to creep over me:

Azula. Best villain.

Actually…maybe?

Something happened here. Something happened in the planning, creation and execution of this character. Doubtful if any of the parties involved tried to replicate it again it would work but…goddamn they hit something when they created Azula. I’ve spent far too much time obsessing over this one character and why she work and far too little time thinking about Sozin’s comet (full disclosure, I was in hospital this week with yet another of my periodic bouts of intestinal insurrection so this review might be a little short) but I want to just set out why I think Azula works so well.

From the very beginning, I’ve always maintained that a good villain is an absolutely crucial element in whether a story works or not. Some movies don’t have antagonists, that’s true, but most do. And when they do, whether or not the villain works is a pretty reliable yardstick as to whether the movie works too. But what makes a “good” villain, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron? Well, there’s no one way to be a good villain but there are, broadly speaking, three.

  1. Be entertaining. These are the flamboyant moustache twirlers. Not particularly deep, but by God they have style. Think of Jafar, Maleficent, Hella from Thor: Ragnarok. You can practically hear little children hissing whenever they’re onscreen.
  2. Be believable. Here we have your down to earth villains. They’re real people, with understandable, compelling motivations. They’re evil, sure, but in a way that’s perfectly logical for a person in that situation. Usually found in gritty kitchen sink dramas. If a villain reminds you of someone you’ve encountered in real life, they probably belong here.
  3. Be absolutely fucking terrifying: Straight up monsters. The kind of characters that tap into deep, primal fears. Xenomorphs, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers.

No, not him.

There we go.

Thing is, most great villains manage one of the above. Some of the true titans manage two (Heath Ledger’s Joker is a solid 1 and 3). But it’s almost impossible to find a villain who fits into all three categories. In fact, it sounds almost impossible. How can a villain be entertaining and grittily realistic and absolutely terrifying? It would take an incredible feat of writing and performance to make a character like that seem anything other than poorly defined and schizophrenic.

There’s a scene in the first episode of Season 2 of Avatar that sums up how all three elements of great villainy combine in Azula.  She’s been sent by the Fire Lord to tell her brother Zuko and her Uncle Iroh that his banishment is over and that he’s to come home. But in reality, Zuko and Iroh are to be executed for treason. She tells Zuko that he can come home and Zuko says nothing, rendered speechless upon hearing that his banishment is over at last and his father wants him back.

“You should be happy.” Azula says coldly “Where’s my “thank you”? I want my thank you.”

It’s funny, in a dark way, that Azula is so psychotic that she wants gratitude from her brother for luring him to his unwitting death. But there’s nothing campy about it. There’s something just so chillingly believable about Grey De Lisle’s vocal performance. You know this girl. And if you don’t, you are damn lucky.

And lastly is the sheer menace that the character exudes, with more than a little assist from the excellent score.

Honestly, the only other villain I can think of who hits all three elements so perfectly is, well…

Yeah. High praise.

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“No. You move.”

Far back in the mists of time I named Marvel’s 2006 series Civil War as one of my all time favourite comics which was proof enough for many of you that I was a fool and a scoundrel whose opinion on comics wasn’t worth a soiled back issue of Youngblood. It’s a controversial story, no doubt, and while I probably wouldn’t keep it on my Top Ten list if I was to do another, I stand by what I said about it before. It was a new kind of comic event, one where right and wrong wasn’t clear cut and black and white and which had a real, lasting effect on the status quo. Comics are a very conservative medium. Sooner or later, everything goes back to how it was before. No one stays dead, the bad guys always lose, the good guys aways win. In a word, they’re safe. Mark Millar, who wrote Civil War, has been accused of many things over the course of his career…

…but being safe has never been one of them.

The story kicks off with a young superhero team called the New Warriors trying to catch a group of supervillains as part of their reality TV show (hey 2o06, how ya been?). Turns out one of the supervillains is a dude called Nitro whose power is that he explodes. Which he does, killing most of the Warriors as well as a nearby school. “The Stamford Massacre” causes a massive sea change in American public opinion and swift legislative action from the federal government in exactly the same way that real life school massacres don’t. The superhero community is given an ultimatum: Either give up their secret identities, submit to training and register and work as a paid employee of the US government or give up being a superhero. This splits the superhero community right down the middle. Iron Man supports registration, seeing as any alternative would likely be much more draconian. But Captain America sees it as massive government overreach, like if the only way you could intervene in a mugging was if you were a cop. So right there we have a conflict that’s really fascinating and multi-faceted. Both sides have perfectly valid concerns and points of view. Personal liberty versus the greater good. The desire for security versus the rights of the individual. Heady stuff. Aaaand then Mark Millar kinda turned Tony Stark into a Nazi because it was a Marvel event and SOMEBODY has to turn into a Nazi in these things.

It’s Squirrel Girl’s turn next.

I love Civil War…

Let me clarify that, I love Civil War the comic, but it’s got big problems, the most glaring being that it undermines its own unique premise by having the pro-reg side resort to increasingly extreme and amoral methods and making Iron Man and Mr Fantastic into outright villains. But there’s more good than bad and I think its reputation has risen quite a but in the years since it was published, not least because virtually all the events Marvel has done since form an elegant, unbroken chain of perfectly formed turds.

This was the WORST Civil War, and yes, I’m including all the ones that happened in real life.

In the MCU, the Captain America series was the natural home for a movie version of the Civil War story, especially since Winter Soldier had already touched on its themes of government overreach and the War on Terror’s intrusion on personal privacy and liberty. Winter Soldier was a high-watermark for Marvel critically, and with the Russo brothers back directing, the writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (both previous Cap movies and Agent Carter) and Chris Evans returning to sling the shield you’d think that Cap 3 would be about a safe a bet as a movie could be. But it nearly all went terribly, terribly wrong thanks to Marvel’s other civil war which was just now coming to a head. The head of Marvel studios, Kevin Feige, had been butting heads since the start of the MCU with the CEO of Marvel comics, Ike Perlmutter.

File photo.

Perlmutter is, by all accounts, about as pleasant to deal with as a scorpion in your anal cavity. Miserly to a Scroogian degree and a rather nasty racist (if you ever wondered why Don Cheadle was chosen to replace Terrence Howard it’s because Perlmutter thought they looked exactly the same. Yeah.) He’s also an alleged war criminal and I say “alleged” because I don’t want him to sue me. And for no other reason. Things came to a head when Perlmutter told Feige that this Robert Downey Jnr kid was costing too much money and that they should fire him.

Feige went directly to Disney who re-organised Marvel studios so that Perlmutter was completely cut out of all decisions involving Marvel’s films. And so Perlmutter was defeated and left with nothing but his incredibly lucrative job, his billions of dollars and the immense power that comes with being part of Donald Trump’s inner circle (come one, you knew this guy was friends with Trump as soon as I described him). It’s probably just a coincidence that Marvel’s notoriously racist CEO was kicked off the film lot right before Marvel released “the blackest Marvel movie ever” but it’s pretty sweet nonetheless. But is the movie? Let’s take a look.

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Disney Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse #56: Moana

Question. Do you think that when Ron Clements and John Musker show up at the Disney studios they’re all…

‘Cos they’d kinda have to, wouldn’t they? I mean, they’ve earned that. If they wanted to stop at every cubicle and say “Oh by the way, we’re the reason you have a job. You’re welcome.” who among us would begrudge them that? With The Little Mermaid, Clements and Musker kick-started the Disney Renaissance, catapulting the animation studio back to cultural relevance and critical and commercial acclaim. And then, just for poops and giggles, they did it again in 2009, with the Princess and the Frog marking the end of the Lost Era and inaugurating the current golden age of the canon. Come to think of it, I have a feeling that Disney could have saved themselves a lot of worry and financial distress over the decades if they’d just hung a sign on the wall saying “WHEN THINGS ARE GOING BAD, JUST MAKE A PRINCESS MOVIE”. Seriously, never fails. Okay, apart from that one that almost drove the company to bankruptcy.

Totally worth it.

Where was I? Oh right, Clements and Musker. These two men wrote the book on the modern Disney Princesses movie. They are O fuckin’ G, or at least as gangsta as one can be while making movies about princesses and their talking animal friends. They are the Biggie and Tupac of this one very specific movie sub-genre.

In this analogy, Walt would be Ice-T.

Moana honestly feels less like a Disney Princess movie, and more like the Disney Princess movie, an attempt to make as definitive a version of this kind of movie as it’s possible to make. That may sound like a compliment…but…

This movie feels like it’s trying to take everything that worked about the previous nine modern Disney princesses (Merida doesn’t count FIGHT ME) and distill them into one character. Moana is all those princesses combined into one. But is she an awesome Megazord or a shambling Frankenstein’s monster?

Let’s take a look.

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“You shaped the century. And I need you to do it one more time…”

Okay.

You know what? This year has been pretty fucking awful and we all need, nay deserve, a break. The world is a lot scarier and more uncertain than it was before (and it was already pretty damn scary and uncertain) and there  wasn’t much I could do about it then and there certainly isn’t much I can do about it now. But I can write something that hopefully you’ll find funny and interesting and maybe brighten your day a little  and I categorically refuse to believe that that’s nothing. So how about this? No more talking about politics and America and we just enjoy a review of The Winter Soldier, a political thriller starring Captain America OH GODDAMNIT!!!

Anyone want to skip ahead to Guardians? Anyone?

Anyone want to skip ahead to Guardians? Anyone?

Sigh. Okay. Let’s review the movie where the living exemplar of all that is best in America defeats the forces of tyranny and hatred.

Y’know. Escapism.

***

I remember when it was announced over a decade ago that Marvel were bringing Bucky Barnes back to life and I was opposed to the whole thing. Damn opposed!

Bucky Barnes is one of Marvel’s oldest characters, debuting all the way back in 1941. Bucky and Captain America were introduced as a twofer in the very first issue of Captain America Comics because, ever since Robin had been introduced in Batman the previous year, superheroes had to have kid sidekicks.  It was non-negotiable. In his origin story, Bucky is a kid who likes hanging around a military base and one day sees Steve Rogers changing into his Captain America costume. Bucky tells Steve that the only way to protect his secret identity is to let him be his crime fighting partner and Cap of course has the kid sent to a military lock up as a threat to national security agrees.  This, incidentally, is how Steve Rogers deals with anyone who walks in on him changing, which is how you got such storied superheroes as Clothing Store Assistant Girl and the Incredible Mom. So anyway, Bucky was a pretty blatant Robin rip-off and not even a particularly interesting one and the character was eventually replaced by the female sidekick Golden Girl, before then being brought back for the fifties “commie smasher” version of Captain America in the fifties. When that comic failed, both Cap and Bucky were retired by Marvel.

Then came the sixties, and with superheroes popular again, Stan Lee decided to bring back Marvel’s most popular character from the war era, Captain America, to take his place alongside the Fantastic Four, Avengers, Spider-Man and all the other classic characters that Stan Lee and his collaborators had been minting at a rate of around three a second.

But Stan did. Not. Want. Bucky.

At all.

Why? Well, sidekicks from Robin onwards had been conceived as surrogates for their young, mostly male audience. But Stan found the whole idea of kid sidekicks to be condescending, and so instead had created teen superheroes like Spider-Man and the new Human Torch who were teenagers but also the stars of their own stories rather than playing second fiddle. Then there was the issue of the comics industry’s brush with death in the early fifties thanks to the publication of Seduction of the Innocent  by Doctor Frederic Wertham which made the case that comics were a dangerous influence on the minds of America’s youth. Now the bulk of Wertham’s argument was against horror and crime comics but he also took aim at superheroes, claiming that Batman and Robin were clearly in a sexual relationship. Which, of course, if he had actually bothered to read the comics he would have realised that he was absolutely, totally, 100% percent correct.

batman

So yeah, Stan rather wisely decided that the last thing the newly revived superhero genre needed was little boys in tight shorts running around so when Cap was revived in Avengers #4 he revealed that Bucky had died at the end of the war trying to stop a bomb from destroying London and that they were totally just friends, you guys.

winter-soldier-bucky-barnes-death

This change gave the fairly one-dimensional character of Steve Rogers some much needed emotional shading. Steve was no longer a smiling, lantern jawed, shield-slinger but a grieving, troubled hero out of time and wholly unsure of his role and place in the world. In fact, it worked so well that Bucky was one of a Holy Trinity of dead comic book characters who it was implicitly understood would never, ever be brought back to life; Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, Jason Todd and Bucky Barnes. So when Marvel actually did the unthinkable and brought Backy buck…um, brought Bucky back as a grim and gritty assassin with a robot arm called “The Winter Soldier”, I just rolled my eyes and decried it as another lazy stunt that would be undone in a few months at most. But, credit where credit is due, Cap writer Ed Brubaker made the damn thing work and it’s already considered one of the best and most seminal Captain America stories. In fact, it was chosen as the plot for the second Captain America movie despite being so recent, thereby skipping decades of older, classic Captain America storylines.

What I'm trying to say is; WHERE THE FUCK IS MY WEREWOLF CAPTAIN AMERICA MOVIE, MARVEL?

What I’m trying to say is; WHERE THE FUCK IS MY WEREWOLF CAPTAIN AMERICA MOVIE, MARVEL?

What I find weird about the Captain America trilogy is that, while you often get movie series where instalments are vastly different from each other, it’s pretty damn rare to find a series of movies that hops between genres. This time around, Marvel followed Joe Johnston’s glorious, retro, Indiana Jones homage with a gritty political thriller that would have been perfectly at home in the seventies. How did that work out? Let’s take a look

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WALL·E (2008)

WALL·E  sucks!

“MOUSE WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

“MOUSE WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

the-angry-mob

Mob

riot

greece-riots

“MWAH HA HA HA HA! YES!! BURN THE INTERNET! BURN IT TO THE GROUND!

“MWAH HA HA HA HA! YES!! BURN THE INTERNET! BURN IT TO THE GROUND!

 

Sigh.

Okay, fine, WALL·E  doesn’t suck. I was just trying to get out of this review.

WALL·E is the kind of movie I actively dread tackling and the reason why (ignoble automotive abberations aside) I’ve largely steered clear of the Pixar canon in these reviews. They are possibly the most beautiful, perfectly crafted feature length animated movies ever made and that makes them absolute kryptonite to a Snarky Internet Reviewer like me. What the hell am I supposed to make fun of here? “HA HA, look at these idiots and their perfectly crafted and utterly charming meditation on the human condition”? I got nothing to work with here. Nothing!

This is what I see when I look at this movie.

This is what I see when I look at this movie.

Alright. Background. So, one day in 1994  John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Joe Ranft  sat down in the Hidden City Cafe for a cup of coffee, a chat, and to change the history of animation as we know it (as you do). From this legendary brainstorming session came the ideas that would eventually become A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and WALL·E. No doubt muttering “What the FUCK was in that coffee?” they then paid their bill, and left a generous tip for the waitress along with a cure for cancer that Lasseter had idly scribbled on a napkin. One thing you notice about WALL·E is that it’s not so much one film as two short films starring the same characters. The first is a film about the last robot on earth discovering humanity through its refuse and the second is a sci-fi romp about plucky robots helping the human race overthrow a dictatorial wheel. There’s a reason for that. The first half of the movie, with WALL·E putzing around on Earth,  arrived fully formed at that meeting and never changed all through the writing process. The second half, through, got re-written to hell and back and at one point was going to be about a robot uprising against evil aliens called “the Gels”.

anywayyyy

This means that WALL·E is the rare movie that not only has fans, but has fans of different parts of the movie. There’s probably someone out there who loves the first half of WALL·E utterly but doesn’t regard the second half as canon. That happens a lot with TV shows. Movies? Not so much. What do I think?

I think this movie is going to kick my ass and make me say “Thank you sir, may I have another?” Let’s just get this over with.

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“We’re sort of like a team. “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” type thing.”

Superhero teams have been around for almost as long as there have been superhero comics, with the first, the Justice Society of America, debuting in 1940. Since then they’ve been a staple of the genre and for good reason. They give editors a place to test out new characters that can be spun off into their own books if readers take a liking to them and there’s simply more stories you can tell with a large group than you can when you’re focused on a single hero. One character’s not working out? Simply kill him off and replace him and the book carries on unaffected, much like the earth will keep turning inexorably after your inevitable death (wow, where did that come from, Mouse?). In fact, it’s pretty much a cast-iron rule that where you have superheroes, you will have superhero teams. My point is, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did many ground-breaking, ingenious and innovative things with the comic book medium during their partnership in the sixties, but inventing the Avengers was not one of them. Once they had created a certain number of superheroes, putting them all in the one book was about as inevitable as the tides. And to be honest…that kinda shows. When you read those old comics you can tell when Stan and Jack were really invested and bringing their A-game to a book (Fantastic Four, Thor, Silver Surfer) and when they were kinda phoning it in (Daredevil, X-Men and the Avengers). Even the name is half-assed. The first issue literally ends with the heroes standing around and saying “What should we call ourselves?” “The…avengers?” “Sure, let’s go with that.” Like, they literally just went with the generic place-holder superhero team name.

If the creation of the Avengers comic book was unremarkable and by-the -numbers, though, the movie was anything but. In fact, I’m pretty sure future movie historians will be looking back at this as the start of something entirely new. Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen but regardless, this movie is a big effing deal. For the first time, audiences were expected to go to a movie that shared continuity, characters and plot with four separate pre-existing series of movies. This was something on a scale that the film industry had simply never seen before.

And, be honest, you kinda thought it would suck. Didn’t you?

Didn’t you?

C’mon. Be honest. You thought it was going to suck. You can say it.

"Yeah..."

“Yeah…”

"SEIZE HER!"

“SEIZE HER!”

Seriously though, the reaction to this movie was damn near euphoric but part of that just had to have been due to the fact that Marvel had even pulled it off. The fact that it was simply something you could point to and say “Yup, that’s a movie.” was in and of itself something to Marvel at (I ain’t ashamed). Four years later, though, when every studio and their mother is trying to ape Marvel’s shared universe concept, does it still hold up as anything other than a well-executed gimmick? Is it even a good movie in its own right? Does it have what noted film-maker Jackie Treehorn called the “little extras”?

 

"Story? Productions value? Feelings?"

“Story? Production values? Feelings?”

Let’s take a look.

Ad 3

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“I don’t want to kill anyone. I just don’t like bullies.”

True story. A few years ago now when I was getting ready to move out of my parents’ house, I was clearing out my stuff from my bedroom, the bulk of which was pretty much every issue of SFX magazine published between 1997 and 2004. And I found myself with two copies in my hand, one from August 2001 and the other from October 2001. I idly flicked through the August issue and found myself reading the comic reviews, one of which was a little quarter-page panning of Captain America # Fifty Bajillion drawn by Who Knows and written by Who Cares. The review was scathing; the art’s terrible, the writing’s appalling and worst of all, the main character’s just not interesting or relevant anymore. The review finished by noting that Marvel had been dropping hints that one of their oldest characters was going to be killed off and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Cap was not long for this world. I then flicked through the October 2001 issue and again turned to the comics section. And there was a full page review of the new Captain America #1, with a top tier art and script team and a story about Steve Rogers defending Muslim New Yorkers from racist attackers while trying to track down an Al Qaeda cell.

Cometh the hour. Cometh the man.

For a character whose entire schtick is being a man out of time, when he was originally created Captain America was actually ahead of his time. In America in 1940 public opinion was firmly against become involved in another European war. In New York however, many of the men working in the comic book industry were  the children of Jewish immigrants who often still had family back in Europe and felt a personal connection to the horrors being committed by the Nazis. One of those men was Joe Simon who conceived of a patriotic, Nazi-battling character named “Super American”. Deciding that the name was a little too similar to a certain other superhero, he changed it to “Captain America”, a name so instantly iconic that nowadays you just have to put the word “captain” in front of any random noun and it sounds like a superhero name. Simon pitched the idea to his editor Martin Goodman who liked it so much that he ordered him to create a solo Captain America series, a big gamble to take on an untested character. Simon’s usual partner was artist Jack Kirby but Simon wanted to bring in two additional artists to deal with the workload of creating an entire book’s worth of stories based on one character. But Kirby was so invested in the character of Captain America that he insisted on drawing the entire book himself, which he did, and on time.

The first issue sold as well as any comic that features Hitler getting punched in the face should. The character was an immediate hit, becoming the first genuine superstar character of Timely comics (which would later become Marvel). Not all the attention was positive, however. American Nazis began sending threatening letters and one time even called the offices of Timely challenging Jack Kirby to come down and fight them in the foyer. Kirby ran down only to find they’d run off because it was Jack Frickin’ Kirby and they may have been Nazis but they weren’t crazy. Regardless, for a while the city of New York actually had to provide police protection to the building. After Pearl Harbour, Captain America became even more popular, with his comics distributed to American service men to boost morale. Many of the Timely artists and writers were drafted during this period. Stan Lee, for example, who got his break in Timely writing Captain America prose stories (he was the one who came up with the whole “throwing the shield as a weapon” thing) was put to work making propaganda. One day he was found breaking into the army post office, trying to mail a script off to Timely. He was told he’d be court-martialed, only to be released the next day when the editor of Timely rang his commanding officer to point out that jailing the writer of Captain Frickin’ America might be bad for the army’s morale.

Jack Kirby also joined the army but opted to serve on the front lines, becoming one of the few American soldiers who had experience fighting Nazis as a hobby before going pro.

Unfortunately, America won the war…I mean obviously not “unfortunately” in the grand scheme of things but unfortunate for Captain America. You see, Captain America was very much a reaction to the Nazi menace, which is what made the character so timely (pun!) and important. But of course, once that menace was defeated, Captain America didn’t really have a purpose anymore. In fact, the same could be said for the vast majority of superheroes who had followed in his wake. The superhero boom pretty much died with Hitler, with only a few characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman surviving the decade. Timely tried repurposing Cap as a commie fighter, but it just wasn’t the same. Timely changed its name to Atlas, dropped the superhero genre entirely and started focusing on sci-fi and monster tales.

It wasn’t until the sixties that Cpatain America got his second origin story. The third issue of The Avengers had the newly formed team finding Captain America floating in the Arctic Sea in a block of ice having gone missing near the end of WW2 (all the stuff about him fighting communists was retconned as actually having…you know what, fuck it, no time). Captain America then joined the team as a man out of time, a morally pure Rip Van Winkle trying to adapt to a confusing and complex modern world, and that’s pretty much been his niche ever since.

Since then, Captain America has had his share of classic runs and great stories, but there’s no denying that he’s a tricky character to do right. Like Superman and Wonder Woman, it takes a writer with skill to make him work (though it’s a truly wonderful thing when he does). For a long stretches of the twentieth century it often seemed like Marvel didn’t know what to do with Captain America, often giving him to creators who really had no business writing the character, which is how we got Rob Liefeld’s godawful Heroes Reborn Captain America.

I'd say "We do not speak of the Sentinel of Libertitty" but let's be real. We never stopped.

I’d say “We do not speak of the Sentinel of Libertitty” but let’s be real. We never stopped.

 Since the beginning of the 21st century however, Cap has once again become one Marvel’s top tier characters, attracting industry leading talent and the kind of popularity he hasn’t really known since the time of his creation. Part of that is, well, yeah, obviously…

"9/11 changed EVERYTHING Brian!"

“9/11 changed EVERYTHING Brian!”

But as well as the natural impulse to rally around such a patriotic symbol in troubling times, Captain America is simply a character whose time has come again. In the forties, Cap was popular but he was by no means unique. The stands were overflowing with patriotic, square jawed do-gooders. Hell, Captain America wasn’t even the first superhero to wear the American flag and carry a shield. But the superhero genre has changed so utterly since those days that what once made Captain America almost generic now makes him almost unique. Nowadays, a superhero who’s just a genuinely decent person is refreshing and almost edgy. He may be old fashioned, but these day? Like the man said, people need a little old fashioned.

2011’s Captain America, the first movie featuring the character that fans will actually acknowledge exists, works and works so damn well, because it gets that.

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Song of the Sea (2014)

Pff. Women, amirite? One day you’re walking down the beach and you see a beautiful woman walking out of the sea, you hit it off, you get married, have a couple of kids and then BAM! Turns out she’s a seal and she’s off gallivanting with her seal buddies without even leaving a forwarding address for child support. Ain’t it always the way? Well, maybe not where you come from but in Ireland it’s practically an epidemic. The canon is full of selkie stories. Shit, if I had my druthers, every Irish exchange of marriage vows would include the sentence “And by the way, I am totally not a seal.”

Selkie stories are not exclusively Irish, of course. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to call them a Scottish tradition but you also find Selkie tales in the Faroe Islands and Iceland and despite the basic similarities (seal turns into a woman, marries a human) they run the gamut from tragic romances to horror stories. A common feature is that the Selkie has a seal-skin cloak, without which she can’t turn into a seal again. The fisherman hides the cloak from her for years, until one day their children are searching around in the attic, find the cloak and show it to her, at which point the Selkie’s all “Laters!” and makes her escape. A particularly grim version from the Faroese Island of Kalsoy has the Selkie return to her seal family, only for her human abductor to kill her husband and children in revenge. The Selkie then swears to basically kill every dude from his village until there are enough bodies to circle the entire island which she is still doing to this day.  Then there are other stories where the marriage between the fisherman and Selkie is loving and consensual, but she has to to turn into a seal to save him from drowning and so can never return to live on land. The universal theme running through these stories is loss. Happiness is transient, loss is forever. Sounds like a fun cartoon to me!

To follow up the phenomenal success of Secret of Kellsdirector Tomm Moore basically created Song of the Sea, an to homage selkie stories and to his own childhood growing up in Ireland in the eighties. I also grew up in Ireland in the eighties, but I remember it being distinctly less magical.

"Well, apart from the whole "being transformed into a mouse" thing.

“Well, apart from the whole “being transformed into a mouse” thing.”

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