Marvel

“Piss off ghost!”

Brothers will fight

and kill each other,

sisters’ children

will defile kinship.

It is harsh in the world,

Whoredom rife

—an axe age, a sword age

—shields are riven—

a wind age, a wolf age—

before the world goes headlong.

No man will have

               mercy on another.

               And a vessel built for orgies

               Shall enter the devil’s anus

                                                   Prophecy of the Volva

 

Pity Joss Whedon.

I mean okay, he’s a hugely successful film and TV professional with a devoted fanbase and more money than a fabled king of old so don’t pity him too much but….yeah, squeeze out a tear for the guy.

See, Age of Ultron was an absolute nightmare for Whedon, not least because of Marvel’s insistence that he grind his movie to a halt several times to painstakingly set up the dark, gritty, epic, Thor 3. Ohhhh it was going to be so dark and gritty, you guys. Look! Heimdall’s blind! That’s how dark we’re talking. And there were snakes and dark, gritty, sexy dancing.

What exactly does this have to do with robots destroying the world?

And then Marvel gave the job of helming the movie to Taika Waititi, celebrated fim-maker and Māori god of mischief and trickery and he was all “Hee hee! I shall use none of this! And I have cast a spell on your wife and swopped faces with her, for she is beautiful and I am ugly! Ha ha!” And then he transformed into a bird and flew out the window, leaving Joss Whedon to wonder what the fuck just happened and thinking that maybe making DC movies for Warners wasn’t actually the worst idea in the world.

INCORRECT.

Anyway, the Vikings were a bunch of monastery razing, monk-stabbing, Battle-of-Clontarf-losing assholes but I’ll give them this; they knew how to do series finales. The tales of the Norse gods end with a big, stonking climactic battle where pretty much every major god dies including the really popular ones like Thor, Odin and Loki because the Vikings were not overly concerned with action figure sales. Ragnarok (or Ragnarök when it’s got its little hat on) is the most famous of all these tales, and not surprisingly, the Thor comic has retold it many times over the years, usually when sales are a little slack. And typically, these stories tend to be pretty grim affairs like the sagas they’re based on. And I totally thought that’s where they were going with this movie. Heck, for a long time I bet Marvel thought that’s where they were going with this movie. Everything was set up for it. The Dark World ends with Odin seemingly dead, and Loki secretly ruling Asgard. Age of Ultron seemlessly and organically (hah!) hinted at a desperate Götterdämmerung for Thor and his homies.

We knew what to expect. It was not this.

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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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“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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“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…)

“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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“I ruined the moment, didn’t I?”

Ant-Man just does not work.

That’s not me giving away my opinion on the movie in the first line of the review (what kind of slut do you take me for?) I mean that fundamentally, as a superhero concept, Ant-Man is broken. The best superheroes are power fantasies, that’s their essential appeal. We all want to fly, that’s why we love Superman. We all want to be righteous, that’s why we love Captain America. We all want to be the richest, handsomest, smartest, coolest person on earth with an awesome car, that’s why we love Idris Elba.

And also Batman. I guess.

Now, of course, that’s not enough on its own. But that has to be your starting point. Even the superheroes whose lives are legitimately, genuinely awful have to have some kind of vicarious appeal. Sure, logically it would suck to be the Hulk, but who, stuck in early morning traffic, hasn’t wished they couldn’t just pick up that bus that’s holding everyone up and fling it into the sun?

But waking up and discovering that you’ve shrunk to the size of an insect isn’t anyone’s idea of a power fantasy. That’s the start of a horror story. Which, of course, is what the story of Hank Pym originally was. The character was created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby in a one-off story for Tales to Astonish in 1962. Scientist Hank Pym accidentally shrinks himself (sixties comic book scientists: buncha ditzes) gets trapped in an ants’ nest (where else?) before escaping and returning to normal size and vowing never to use the technology again.

The story was popular enough that Stan decided to bring Pym back as a superhero named Ant-Man, whose powers were getting small and talking to ants. It is, at the risk of angering die-hard Ant-Man fans of which I’m sure there are…some, not a strong concept for a superhero. Aside from the essential “meh-ness” of his power set, Hank Pym just wasn’t that interesting. He was in many ways a relic of fifties Marvel, when the comics were full of square, white-bread scientists battling monsters and aliens. Hank Pym was essentially Reed Richards with less interesting powers and without the fantastic villains and colourful supporting characters. And so, Hank Pym’s history in comics has been one long attempt to fix the character. To start with, Marvel tried to make Hank likeable the same way Scientology tried to make Tom Cruise likeable; by getting him a girlfriend.

Tales to Astonish #44 debuted Janet Van Dyne, who also gained size-changing powers and joined Hank’s crimefighting as The Wasp. Janet and Hank joined The Avengers at its founding, and since then there have only been rare gaps where one or both of them has not been on the team. But whereas Jan’s distinct personality (and, let’s face it, the fact that she was the only female member for two whole years) helped her stand out from the pack, Hank didn’t really bring anything to the team that wasn’t already brought by Tony Stark or Bruce Banner.

And so began a seemingly endless series of attempts to remake the character into something halfway cool. He got the power to become bigger and changed his name to Giant-Man. Then to Goliath. Then to Yellowjacket. In comics, like in life, you only really get one chance to make a first impression. If you think of the sublime purity of: “Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and became Spider-Man” then Hank Pym’s wild shuffling of powers and identities is the opposite of that.

And then there was…the incident.

In the eighties, Hank started suffering from mental instability and was booted from the Avengers as a result. Driven by feelings of inadequacy and suffering a complete nervous breakdown, Hank concocted a plan to programme a robot to attack the Avengers which he could then save them from and be welcomed back on the team. Janet was all “Oooookay, let’s put that idea in the maybe pile.” And then Hank hit her.

And that one panel is probably the single most famous panel featuring Hank Pym. Now, for context, the character was suffering from schizophrenia, had never laid a hand on Jan before or since  and his guilt over this has been one of the character’s few consistent traits over the years. But this panel is the reason why, if anyone outside of comics fandom knew anything about Hank Pym prior to the movie, it was that he was a serial wife beater. And, because I haven’t gone skating on thin ice in a while, I would say that that’s not entirely fair when you consider how many better known superheroes like Reed Richards and even Peter Parker, have hit their wives or children and it never gets brought up.

Seriously, Reed Richards is like the Sean Penn of superheroes in terms of the horrible shit he’s done that nobody remembers.

Not helping matters, when Mark Millar did his revamped version of the Avengers in 2002, the hugely popular Ultimates, which is set in an alternate continuity, he made Hank a full on psychopath who almost kills Jan by siccing his ants on her.

Sooooo, in case this hasn’t already become apparent, this character has some baggage.

Marvel’s original plan for their cinematic universe was to do movies of all the founding Avengers, Ant-Man included (there is even dialogue in Thor meant to subtly set up Ant-Man’s movie). But Ant-Man had by far the most troubled production of any of the MCU films, and after losing its director and undergoing multiple re-shoots and re-writes, it finally debuted in 2015, years later than intended and to possibly the most hostile pre-release of any Marvel movie to date.

You see, by 2015 the clamour for a female or minority led Marvel movie was becoming deafening and instead of that Marvel was giving us another origin story headlined by a handsome white dude (not a blonde named Chris though, so progress?). And of course, it wasn’t just any white dude superhero, but the white dude superhero was who was most famous for…

Yeah…tough sell.

But, against all odds, Ant-Man not only opened at number 1 but also earned a very respectable 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. Interestingly, it also attracted a larger female audience than any previous Marvel movie, indicating that female movie-goers either didn’t care about the character’s reputation or didn’t know about it to begin with. You might say that’s because girl’s don’t read comics, but I’d counter that it’s more that girls don’t read Ant-Man, because nobody does. Because, as I’ve already spent over a thousand words explaining; Ant-Man doesn’t work. But does Ant-Man?

Let’s take a look.

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“You want to protect the world. But you don’t want it to change.”

The Marvel comics universe is overflowing with some of the greatest villains created in any medium, from the regal majesty of Doctor Doom to the saturnine, brooding splendour of Galactus to the cackling, twitching megalomania of Annihilus. And amongst these villains, one of the greatest is, without question…not Ultron.

Just my opinion, mind.

The character was first created in 1968 and introduced in the pages of The Avengers as the creation of Hank Pym, whose long storied history of fucking up we will touch upon at a later point in these chronicles. But make no mistake, Hank Pym fucks up in the same way that Michaelangelo painted. He fucks up like it’s what God put him on this earth to do. Created by Pym as an artificial intelligence based on his own brainwaves, Ultron decided pretty quickly that it hated Hank Pym like the Sharks hate the Jets and tried to kill him. Which, considering that Pym based it on his own mind, should tell you everything you need to know about the state of Pym’s self-esteem (dude needs a hug).  Ultron later expanded his to do list to wiping out all human life and returned to bedevil the Avengers and threaten the world again, and again, and again. My problem with Ultron is that there’s just not much “there” there. He’s an angry shouty robot who wants to kill everyone. Have there been good stories with the character? Sure. Have there been writers who found interesting things to do with him? No doubt. But Ultron’s basic default setting has just never grabbed me as particularly compelling. Nevertheless, Ultron is generally regarded as the Avengers’ ultimate arch-enemy, the Moriarty to their Holmes if Sherlock Holmes was a conglomeration of brightly coloured WW2 era adventurers, Norse gods, billionaire tech-messiahs and former circus performers (and who wouldn’t read that?). But even that’s kinda by default. Loki is a Thor villain who sometimes fights the Avengers. Red Skull is a Captain America villain who sometimes fights the Avengers. Ultron would technically be a Hank Pym villain, but since Hank has never been popular enough to headline an ongoing series of his own Ultron just kinda became an arch-enemy for the whole team, like how the rest of the family adopts your little brother’s hamster once it becomes clear he can’t look after it himself. So when it came time for Marvel to follow up The Avengers with a sequel, choosing Ultron to be the villain was about as obvious as having the Joker be the bad guy of The Dark Knight. Who else was it going to be?

Shaddup.

Now, let’s get this out of the way. For all you people who ask why I don’t, for example, review Moana the very second it comes out? This is why. To do a review justice takes time, preparation, fasting and prayerful contemplation. The review/tongue bath I gave Age of Ultron the day after it came out back in 2015 was written while I was still basking in the afterglow of explosions and Whedonisms falling on my ears like confetti and I did not see the plotholes and padding and questionable charecterisations and clear signs of executives sticking their grubby oars in. Honestly if I had it all to do again, I imagine I’d be a lot more critical. Oh hey, look at that. I have it all to do again.

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“What a bunch of A-Holes.”

Guardians of the Galaxy first debuted on comic book shelves in 1969. It starred a team of superheroes defending the solar system from alien invasion in a far off future. It was based in an alternate continuity, and outside of the name had virtually nothing in common with today’s movie so let’s just forget I even mentioned it.

Why it’s all your favourite characters! Square-man! Blue Land Shark! And Princess Sparkly Hands (later re-named Groot).

Why, it’s all your favourite characters! Square-man! Cosmic Bunny! Blue Land Shark! And Princess Sparkly Hands! (later re-named Groot).

Let’s talk instead about Cosmic Marvel. The modern Marvel era began with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1. This kicked off an explosion of creativity in the Marvel offices with most of the really iconic Marvel characters being created in the span of a few short years. And the Fantastic Four was always the engine room of this new burgeoning universe, acting as a central hub from which all the other characters spun out from. I mentioned in the Fantastic Four review just how much of the early building blocks of the Marvel universe were crafted in that one book. Now, as superheroes, the Fantastic Four were less about beating up muggers and more about exploration, charting new planets, galaxies and whole other dimensions. Pretty soon, the Fantastic Four had established a massive supporting cast of “cosmic beings”; Gods, living planets, alien warlords of incredible power and menace who stood astride all eternity in Wagnerian splendour. Combined with these heady concepts was the surreal, mind-expanding art of artists like Jack Kirby. This was a big reason why Marvel comics became such a sensation on American college campuses in the sixties. These things were trippy, man.

Plus, after you’ve read it, the thin paper is great for rolling.

Plus, after you’ve read it, the thin paper is great for rolling.

Even after the sixties, with Stan Lee largely pulling back from writing duties and Jack Kirby’s acrimonious departure from Marvel, new writers like Jim Starlin helped keep the Marvel universe cosmic and weird. But then…the eighties.

The huge success of Frank Millar’s Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen led to a sea change of audience expectations as to what comics should be. Both Marvel and DC shifted emphasis to gritty, street level stories featuring characters with few (if any) superpowers. At DC, this meant giving a major push to Batman and his supporting cast, at Marvel it meant an increased emphasis on Daredevil, Wolverine and the Punisher. And it also meant that the cosmic characters were pretty much benched. Oh, they made appearances now and then, but chances were if you were a character with a name like Lyja the Lazer Fist who wanted to get in a comic after 1986 you were shit out of luck. Then came the nineties which…let’s…just…no…and this sidelining of the Cosmic characters continued, as they were obviously too silly for the super realistic Dark Age of Comics.

We needed gritty, realistic heroes. Like Shadowhawk. He had AIDS.

We needed gritty, realistic heroes. Like Shadowhawk.                      He had AIDS.

But finally, in 2006, Marvel released Annihilation, a massive event that took their previously ignored cosmic characters and threw them into a massive war to save the universe from the dread forces of ANNIHILUS, RULER OF THE NEGATIVE ZONE!

IT.

WAS.

AWESOME.

If you just want pure, epic, batshit-insane space opera then Annihilation is your drug. It also re-introduced many of the characters who feature in this movie, like Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax and Ronan to the modern comic-reading audience. But it wasn’t until the sequel (2007’s equally awesome Annihilation Conquest) that we first saw something even resembling, sort of, if you squint, the movie version of the Guardians of the Galaxy in as much as you had Star Lord leading a team of alien criminals and misfits that included Rocket Racoon and Groot. Even so, these are very, very different from the characters you know and hopefully love. This, for example, is Groot circa 2007-08.

"Futility is beneath Groot." is a much better catchphrase, honestly.

“Futility is beneath Groot.” is a much better catchphrase, honestly.

The reason I bring this up is that, compared to the previous movies in the series, GotG  is playing fairly fast and loose with the source material. This, I think, represents a more confident, assertive MCU that’s saying “okay, we’ve figured out what works. We’re going to do that, and if we have to ding the material a bit to get it in the right shape, so be it.” How did that work out? Well, it’s the third most critically acclaimed Marvel Studios movie of all time and grossed almost 800 million dollars despite featuring some of the most obscure comic book characters this side of Egg-Fu so probably fairly okay. But is the acclaim earned? Is GotG actually any GooD? Is futility beneath Groot? All these questions, and more!, shall be answered.

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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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