comics

“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.

(more…)

“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.

(more…)

“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.

(more…)

“It’s not that I don’t love our little talks, it’s just… I don’t love them.”

By now we are thirteen films into the MCU and the question of which movie is the “worst” feels more and more moot. Sure, we all love ranking things from best to worst because this is the future and the internet has turned us all mildly autistic but really, what’s the point? There have been so many of these things, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become less like a series of stand alone movies and more like a single, ongoing epic to the point that calling one movie “the worst” is almost like singling out a single chapter of Lord of the Rings for scorn and derision. Why bother?

Although, I think we can all agree that with Chapter VII, In The House of Tom Bombadil, Tolkien utterly shat the bed.

Although, I think we can all agree that with Chapter VII, In The House of Tom Bombadil, Tolkien utterly shat the bed.

I bring this up not because I think Thor 2: The Dark World is the worst MCU movie but because it sure does pop up a lot in that particular conversation. Part of that, of course, is just blatant Thor-prejudice. Lotta people just can’t grok with the character. But there’s no denying that this is a flawed movie, and while it certainly wasn’t the most troubled Marvel production (Ant Man sits on that throne and will not be vacating for a good long time) it was, by all accounts a rather unfun experience for all involved. After the original director, Patty Jenkins (who’s now helming Wonder Woman) was axed over “creative differences” Natalie Portman almost walked out in solidarity. Jamie Alexander was injured on set and was out of commission for a month. Replacement director Alan Taylor hated the final product. Screenwriter Don Payne died of bone cancer during production. Idris Elba described the shoot as “torture”. And plagues of locusts and boils befell the production and the catering table ran with blood. Probably. In fact, it seems that only one of the principals involved actually had a good time.

He brings the party with him.

He brings the party with him.

But just because almost everyone spent every waking minute wishing for the sweet release of death, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the movie sucks. Apocalypse Now had a hellish shoot after all. Then again, so did The Island of Doctor Moreau. Which example does Thor 2 follow? Let’s take a look.

(more…)

“Nothing’s been the same since New York.”

Before we get into the Iron Man 3 review, I should probably address the elephant in the room.
Dammit Francine, if I mean you I’ll use your name. Sit down.

Dammit Francine, if I mean you I’ll use your name. Sit down.

You may have noticed that the ads that were here for a few weeks have now vanished. The reason for that is that I was kindly informed by one of my American readers that the Trump Campaign had been advertising on my blog.
*CLICK*

*CLICK*

And good thing I acted quickly right? I mean, what more fertile pro-Trump ground than Unshaved Mouse? That’s the kind of savvy ad buy that gets you a 10% chance of winning the presidency. Unfortunately this loss of revenue has meant that I’ve had to turn to alternative sources of funding.
“Whoah. Wait a minute, you make MONEY of this?!”

“Whoah. Wait a minute, you make MONEY off this?!”

“No hablo Ingles.”

“No hablo Ingles.”

Thankfully, I’ve been able to secure investment from a less morally compromised source. Which is why I am proud to announce Unshaved Mouse’s new partner, the People’s Republic of China! Please give it up for new recurring character Fan Bing Bing!
“Hello decadent Westerners!”

“Hello decadent Westerners!”

It’s a rapidly emerging market, guys. We gotta move with the times. Anyway, review of movie.

 ***
Here’s a fun game to play with the MCU. Take each movie and imagine what would have happened if the villain had won.
  • Thor: Loki becomes King of Asgard and commits genocide against the Frost Giants.
  • Captain America:  Red Skull wipes out every major city on Earth and most likely ushers in an era of global HYDRA rule.
  • The Avengers: Aliens take over the world.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: Whole alien planet gets wiped out and that’s just for starters.
  • Thor 2: Ummmmmm…something bad? With…elves? It’s bad, though.

Play the game with the Iron Man movies though and you always get the same result: “Evil rich guy becomes slightly richer.” These movies are actually kinda low-stakes when compared to other entries in the canon. That’s not a criticism. The Iron Man trilogy has always been less interested in “Can Iron Man save the day?” than “Can Tony Stark save his life from being immolated by the army of obsessions, personal demons and character flaws he has jumping around in the moshpit that is his brain?” That’s fine. Refreshing even. I just think it might help explain why this movie is had possibly the least impact on the larger Marvel universe than any other instalment. I’ve been wracking my brain to think of any elements that were introduced in this movie that got carried over into the larger MCU. Extremis? Aldridge Killian? AIM? Never so much as mentioned again in any of the movies (I am waaaay behind on Agents of SHIELD so apologies if I missed anything that showed up there). The Mandarin? Mentioned in a one-shot to keep the fanboys happy. Iron Patriot? Back as War Machine by Age of Ultron. Tony Stark destroying all his suits and giving up being Iron Man? Did not exactly take. This movie is practically in quarantine, and it’s kind of weird that it’s such a dead end at the front because it is deeply wedded to what’s gone on before, to the point that it’s kinda historic in a way I don’t think people necesarrily realise.

See, this is the fourth movie to feature Robert Downey Junior’s Tony Stark, and that’s pretty exceptional. Christopher Reeves played Superman across four movies of course, but by the third installment that series was running on negative continuity. There is no character arc for Superman from Superman I to Quest for Peace, they are just four movies with Christopher Reeves playing Superman. Again, with the Burton/Schumacher Batman movies you get a little bit of character continuity (tiny references to events in previous movies mostly), but by the time you have George Clooney resplendent in Bat-nipples it’s clear that Batman has drifted considerably from Tim Burton’s original vision. This is different. We have now had four movies featuring Tony Stark where the creators are clearly intent on holding to a consistent vision for the character. Iron Man 3 is one of the most polarising movies in the canon for reasons I will get into, but personally it’s my favourite of the trilogy because it asks a question that had never really been asked in a superhero movie before now. What happens to the superhero after he saves the world?

(more…)

Fritz the Cat (1972)

“Heeey everyone.”

“Heeey everyone.”

“Oh look guys, it’s Spouse of Mouse!”

“Oh look guys, it’s Spouse of Mouse!”

250px-Operation_Upshot-Knothole_-_Badger_001

“Heeey everyone. I was just hoping we could have a little chat before Mouse starts the review. Just us.”

“Heeey everyone. I was just hoping we could have a little chat before Mouse starts the review. Just us.”

“I know you all think it’s really funny that you got Mouse to review Fritz the Cat. I’m sure you’re all having a big laugh. “Ha” you might say, and also “Ha.”

“I know you all think it’s really funny that you got Mouse to review Fritz the Cat. I’m sure you’re all having a big laugh. “Ha” you might say, and also “Ha.”

“But here’s the thing. This movie messed him up so badly that I don’t know if he’ll ever recover. And I’m a simple mouse who lives by a simple rule. You hurt the ones I love?”

“But here’s the thing. This movie messed him up so badly that I don’t know if he’ll ever recover. And I’m a simple mouse who lives by a simple rule: You hurt the ones I love?”

"I WILL FUCK YOUR FUCKING SHIT RIGHT THE FUCK UP."

“I WILL FUCK YOUR FUCKING SHIT RIGHT THE FUCK UP. IF YOU EVER PULL ANYTHING LIKE THAT AGAIN I WILL TRACK YOU DOWN THERE IS NOWHERE YOU CAN HIDE. PAIN? I WILL MAKE YOU LONG FOR SOMETHING AS SWEET AS PAIN.”

“’Kay? Enjoy the review.”

“’Kay? Enjoy the review.”

***

 Do you know what it’s like to review Fritz the Cat? To sit in the dark watching that cat fuck everything that moves, to feel your brain slowly coming apart from the constant assault of surreal, messed up, toked out, crazy shit? No. You don’t. Because you’ve never been out there, man. Out in the real deep shit. This movie man. You don’t know, man. It’s like, you think you have a handle on things, man, like life and art and truth and beauty man like they’re all just packaged and sold in these neat little Styrofoam boxes, man, and then this movie comes along and it’s like, you know man? Like, what does it all mean, man? I…I…I shouldn’t be doing this man, I should be a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas, man…
“Mouse, relax. You’re going crazy over there, man.”

“Mouse, relax. You’re going crazy over there, man.”

"YOU WERENT THERE MAN!"

“YOU WEREN’T THERE, MAN!”

 Sorry. Sorry. I’m alright. Okay. Let’s do this.
For as long as there have been comics there have been “underground” comics, the kind of comics that aren’t read in a newspaper at the breakfast table on a lazy Sunday morning but are more usually read at night. Under the covers. With a flashlight.
Jerkin’ it.
Pornographic comic books or “Tijuana Bibles” were especially popular in the Great Depression and usually featured well known comic book characters or public figures engaging in what scripture calls “the hard fuckin’”. No one was safe. Popeye, Betty Boop, Superman you name it, someone drew them doin’ it.
Trust me, just be glad it’s Minnie and not Pluto.

Trust me, just be glad it’s Minnie and not Pluto.

By the 1960s the underground comics (or “comix”) scene had merged with the broader counter culture movement. In contrast to mainstream comics which had to abide by the Comics Code Authority, comix were uncensored and didn’t abide by jack shit. These books were absolutely steeped in sixties drug and music culture, often politically radical and transgressive and extreme in their depictions of sex and violence. They also, it must be said, frequently had a streak of misogyny a mile wide. But at its best, the comix scene produced some of the finest American sequential art of the twentieth century (Art Spiegelman, for example, honed his craft in indie magazines in the seventies).
The one creator who is probably more associated with the comix scene than any other is Robert Crumb and his most famous creation is almost certainly Fritz the Cat, an anthropomorphised cat who’s kinda like Felix crossed with Roosh V. The Fritz strips first appeared in the magazine Help! where the editors famously responded to his submission with a letter saying; “Dear R. Crumb, we think the little pussycat drawings you sent us were just great. Question is, how do we print them without going to jail?” The comic became a genuine breakout hit and was read by many a long-haired hippie degenerate, one of whom was our old friend Ralph Bakshi.
Bakshi had set up his own animation studio and was looking to create animation for adults. He came across one of Crumb’s books and bought the rights to the strip. Warner Bros originally were going to fund it but then they saw Bakshi’s early shoots.
Vapors
Instead, the movie ended up being funded by Cinemation Industries, purveyor of such highbrow classics as The Black Godfather, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song and The Eighteen Year Old Cheerleaders.
It’s important to remember that there was a weird period from the late sixties to around the mid-eighties where porn was pretty much mainstream, and you could just go to the cinema and watch a big budget porno made and financed by a large studio as opposed to some dude with a camera and a couch. Fritz the Cat is very much a part of that. It’s not solely a porno but it’s got relatives who are pornos if you catch me. So before we get into this review please take note that this is a movie with sex and nudity, pretty grotesque ethnic caricatures, frequent homophobic and racial slurs and some generally fucked up shit.
What I’m trying to say is…
“This review ain’t NSFW for nothin’ baby.”

“This review ain’t NSFW for nothin’ baby.”

(more…)

“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

(more…)

Darwyn Cooke: 1962-2016

Man, 2016 can eat a big one.

News has broken today that Darwyn Cooke, probably one of the most skilled and distinctive comic book artists of his generation lost his battle with cancer in the early hours of this morning.

He was 53.

Despite his phenomenal talent, Cooke had a hard time breaking into the comics industry. He submitted work to the major publishing houses in the early nineties because his work was simple, elegant and utterly beautiful and that’s just not what the nineties were about.

He did however, work as a storyboard artist on Batman The Animated Series, Superman the Animated series and Batman Beyond, animating the main title of the latter. He finally found success in comics in the early 21st century, with a notable run on Catwoman, creating a new visual look for the character that was instantly iconic.  He is probably most famous for New Frontier, a story featuring most of the DC comics stable set in the late fifties/early sixties which ranks with Watchmen and Kingdom Come as one of the all-time great superhero stories.

He was also, from what I hear from my friends in the comics industry, a thoroughly wonderful bloke.

I was originally planning to review The Avengers  on the 26th. However, in light of today’s news I have decided to review a movie that I’ve been meaning to for quite some time. To commemorate the life of this remarkable artist, I will be reviewing the 2008 animated adaptation of New Frontier.

Ar dheis Dé a anam. RIP, Mr Cooke.

“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.

Blucatt ad

(more…)

“You think me strange? Good strange, or bad strange?”

First dates are essentially scams. You sit down to dinner with someone you don’t know, and try to pretend that you’re someone else. Someone charming, and succesful, and definitely not into doing weird things with fish. No sir. Not you. The second and third dates are more or less the same. But by the time the fourth date rolls around you need to start being honest. That’s where you take your date on a long walk and say “Look. I really like you. I like where this is going. But if we’re going to have something together I’m going to have to tell you just how much of a freak I actually am.”
“This. This is me. This is what I get up to.”

“This. This is me. This is what I get up to.”

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has essentially been a long, meticulous romancing of the mainstream. Thor is the part of the relationship where Marvel finally says “I’m glad you like the snarky businessman in the robot suit and the scientist who turns into a green monster. Now here’s where we get nuts.” As a title, The Mighty Thor has always been an unapologetically melodramatic, ridiculous, camp, epic, nonsensical, glorious, mess. In short, it is one of the purest comic books ever written. It’s huge men with long flowing hair and fabulous capes yelling cod-Shakespearean insults at each other and not understanding the difference between “thee” and “thou”.
It, quite simply, does not give a fuck.
But first, a little history.
The character of Thor was created early in the first millennium by the Germanic peoples inhabiting what is now Scandinavia. Some stuff happened. Then, in 1962, the character was introduced into the Marvel universe by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby in the pages of Tales to Astonish. There’s a little bit of confusion as to who actually came up with the idea (aside from the ancient Vikings, I mean). Stan Lee claims that the idea came to him when he realised that the only way to create a character stronger than the Hulk would be to make him a god, and that rather than go with the more well-known Greek or Roman deities he decided to delve into Norse mythology.
Meanwhile, Cúchulainn sits on the damn shelf.

Meanwhile, Cúchulainn sits on the damn shelf.

Jack Kirby, on the other hand, claims that he created the character because of his love of Norse mythology and to be honest, I think the evidence is on Kirby’s side. Kirby had already created not one but two versions of Thor for DC in the golden age, so he clearly had an interest in the character. Not only that, but “comic book characters as post-industrial mythology” was kind of Jack Kirby’s whole deal. Thor’s sales have never exactly set the world on fire but this is nonetheless a character with some serious cred. There are many who consider Lee and Kirby’s run on the character the finest work of either men in the sixties (damn high praise) and he’s also had some celebrated runs, none greater than Walt Simonson’s glorious, batshit insane epic in the eighties.
This is normally the part of the review where I would say “we do not speak of the Frog of Thunder” but even this was AWESOME.

This is normally the part of the review where I would say “we do not speak of the Frog of Thunder” but even this was AWESOME.

He’s also been a  very consistent presence in the Marvel universe, showing up in almost everyone else’s books at one time or another and, if there’s a team of Avengers that Thor’s not on, it’s probably only because he’s dead again. He’s always been one of the company’s “faces”, one of their most visible and iconic characters. And yet, Thor has always struggled outside of comics. His live action appearances before 2011 was just a single episode of The Incredible Hulk, and he hasn’t headlined his own cartoon series since the frickin’ sixties (compare that to Spider-man, who gets a new cartoon show every time Stan Lee sneezes). Same Raimi originally pitched a Thor movie to Marvel all the way back in 1990 and from there it was dropped, picked up again, briefly re-conceived as a TV show starring Tyler Mane before bouncing to Sony, then to Paramount before finally arriving back at Marvel. The decision to nominate Kenneth Branagh to direct was surprising but also kind of inspired. Branagh is famous as an interpreter of Shakespeare for the masses, and Stan Lee is of course one of the biggest Shakespeare fanboys out there.
He made Falstaff into a superhero, people.

He made Falstaff into a superhero, people.

Branagh was the perfect candidate to make the overblown, melodramatic bluster of Thor work for a mainstream audience.  Just, for the love of God, don’t subject yourself to his commentary on the DVD.
"The director's an ass."

“The director’s an ass.”

Marvel knew going in that compared to Iron Man and Hulk, this movie was the real test. This is where they’d learn if a mainstream audience could really accept all the comic book nuttiness they were about to bring. It was time to see if this relationship had legs.
Blucatt ad

(more…)