Sunday, May 29, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse - movie review

There was a lot that I liked about the recent installment of the X-Men franchise, but it was also missing something important that would have let it rise above just being average. It's certainly not the downturn that the third movie was (although I don't think it was as horrible as everybody says it was - the first Wolverine movie was far, far worse). However, it also is a bit of a letdown after the stellar Days of Future Past.

The major problem is that there simply wasn't anything interesting about the villain, Apocalypse. I could get over the fact that he looked kinda lame, but other than that there just wasn't anything very compelling about him. One thing that has always been good about these films is that there were always conflicts between the good guys and bad guys where things went beyond just the physical and were downright personal. With Apocalypse, he basically just has a god complex, but his ill-defined powers pretty much justify them.

That said, all of the good guys were interesting, and it was cool to see the character arcs for Mystique and Magneto get carried through into this chapter. Sure, it's not doing exactly what the comic books did, but by this point they need to do things that make sense in context of the previous films and not force the characters into predetermined roles.

Speaking of making sense though, I probably should point out that by this point, the continuity of these films make absolutely no sense at all. There are things that happen in this film that flat-out contradict what happened in the previous films. I'm pretty sure that they don't even really care, and they figure that maybe the time travel hijinks of the last film can miraculously explain it all away. Whatever, that's not very important to me, but I know that it will bug some people.

Anyway, there were a lot of great moments and highlights of this film, but I don't want to give away too much. I'll just say what I knew going in but yet still managed to thoroughly enjoy. For one, Quicksilver comes back, and they do a super-speed scene that might very well rival the one from the last film. Wolverine gets a brief scene that essentially undoes the damage from his lousy origin film, and it's a good one. However, I have to wonder if everything leading up to that scene detracted from the main plot, and we could have given Apocalypse more motivation. We also get to see a bit of Phoenix, and that's always cool.

One thing that I also liked was how Alexandra Shipp was a big step up from Halle Berry as Storm. Berry is a fine actress, but I never really felt like she did very much for that part. Shipp managed to hold an accent, and I was slightly surprised to see that the actress is from Phoenix, Arizona. (I figured that they might have gotten an actual African to play her.)

Speaking of Storm, it should also be noted that the ladies definitely get a lot to do in this story. They get some of the biggest moments and they're some of the most powerful players. While I think that The Avengers franchise is better overall, Marvel Studios could take some notes from what's going on with the X-Men movies.

If you've generally enjoyed most of the X-Men movies so far, you're probably going to like this one just fine while not being blown away. If they've never done anything for you, or you've been overall pretty ambivalent about them, this one won't change your mind. Brian Singer has done a fine job with this franchise, but I'm personally pretty eager to see some new blood show us what they can do.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Calm down about Hydra Cap

I don't think that anybody would argue the notion that I love comic books. I've been reading them regularly for nearly 30 years now, and I've never gone more than a month without a trip to the comic book store during that time. It's a basic part of my life, and to quit reading them to me would be as strange as it would be for some people to quit watching TV or attending sporting events. I'm always excited to talk about them when I get the chance, to the point where I do a whole lesson on comics and superheroes with both my freshmen and senior English classes. (And from the comments I get at the end of the year, that's easily my most popular lesson.)

With that said, I really can't stand comics fandom sometimes. I've already written about this once, but the recent brouhaha over Captain America has prompted me to return to my blog and give my two cents. For those who don't know, the controversy is over a recent revelation in the new Steve Rogers: Captain America series. It turns out that Cap is a member of the evil Hydra organization, and this has been true ever since he was a child. (Flashbacks show his mother being recruited by a Hydra agent.) The reveal came at the end of the issue, and we don't know much else.

And fans are freaking out. Many of them are saying that this completely destroys the character. Some of them are saying that it's a slap in the face to his Jewish American creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, since Hydra had ties to the Nazis. (In the sense that any fictional organization can have ties to a real organization.) Even those who aren't letting it upset them are dismissing it all as a cheap gimmick - merely a stunt to bring in new readers.

Here's my response:


Is it possible that this story will be a slap in the face to the character? (Funny how fans don't seem to lob this comment at Frank Miller, who craps all over Superman's legacy in his various Batman stories.) Sure, it very well could be. But as of right now, all we know is that he's been a member of Hydra all along. At least, it seems like that's what it is. We do not know the circumstances. Maybe he's trying to destroy it from within and has some kind of master plan? Maybe they're mind-controlling him? Maybe he thinks that by being part of the organization, he can somehow contain it? The point is, we don't know. The explanation may turn out to be really horrible, and later those fans will feel justified. However, there's also the possibility that there's a really good story behind this that will make Cap stand out as an even greater hero than ever before?

What about the charges of this just being a gimmick? I don't see why that's necessarily a problem. It certainly is a gimmick, but so what? It's bad if it's a gimmick and a poor story, but being a gimmick doesn't necessarily take away any artistic merit from a work. A lot of superhero comics are based on gimmicks in the first place because the publishers were trying to sell stories. What do you think inspired team books like Justice League of America and The Avengers in the first place? How is that NOT a gimmick? I even think that Paul McCartney would be the first to admit that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band was a gimmick, but that's one of the greatest rock albums of all time. Shakespeare wrote about what people wanted to see and no doubt employed what then would have been seen as a gimmick in his time. (He did make a living off of his art, ya know. I doubt he would have done that if he ignored what the masses wanted to see.)

Lastly, can we give the writer, Nick Spencer, a little bit of credit here? The man has shown that he understands Captain America's value as a symbol with the Sam Wilson: Captain America comic. I had said that I wouldn't be too interested in that series if they made Sam (The Falcon) the new Captain America and made it so all of America was fine with the idea of there being a black Captain America. Spencer went with that idea, with a whole lot of parallels to the national freak-out that happened when Obama became the Commander in Chief. He even managed to get the Fox News talking heads all discombobulated. In other words, he has earned the benefit of the doubt.

As for me, I dug the first issue, as there was a lot more going on than the "gotcha!" ending. And it should be noted that the art by Jesus Saiz is awesome. I'm looking forward to how this all plays out. If you are a comics reader and don't find it interesting, then that's fine. However, stop making sweeping judgments based solely on the first chapter of what will no doubt prove to be a lengthy saga. When it's all said and done, then let's evaluate it as to whether it's a highlight or a low point for the character. And even if it is a low point, the character will survive. If he could survive the cancellation of his series at the end of World War II, he'll get through this.

I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Captain America: Civil War - movie review

The most significant thing for me about seeing this latest Marvel Studios film is that it's the first one that my wife and I brought my son to see in the theater. He's five, and he's seen pretty much all of them on video. When he sat through Captain America: Winter Soldier, and was absolutely fascinated with the brainwashed Bucky Barnes, I figured that he'd be fine to see the next installment in the theater.

How did he do? He got a bit fidgety during the long bouts of dialogue, but he was pretty riveted whenever somebody was in costume, and he was definitely enthralled every time there was a battle - especially if it involved The Winter Soldier. (Not sure why that character fascinates him so much.)

Here's my son's short review: "It was great and a lot of things happened."

As for my thoughts, anybody who reads my reviews knows that I'm going to find something to like in pretty much every comic book movie, especially the ones coming from Marvel Studios. Sometimes I add special caveats. With this one, let's just say that if you've enjoyed most of them, then you will probably like this one as well and might even include it in your top three. (Which is where I put it. Is it as great as the first Avengers film? Not sure if I'm willing to go there just yet. I'm not even sure if it's better than The Winter Soldier. But I have an easier time saying it's better than pretty much every other one.)

For those who don't know, this film borrows a story right out of the comics, while shifting around some details in order to make it fit a new storytelling format. The basic concept is that the governments of the world want to crack down on superheroes and basically make them accountable to the United Nations. Captain America, burned by his experiences with SHIELD, isn't willing to do that. His good friend Iron Man is, and the two wind up fighting with each one recruiting their own mini-army of like-minded heroes.

This movie does a nice job of picking up threads from both the previous Cap movie and Age of Ultron. Not only that, but there's a real arc with Captain America, who has gone from being a loyal boyscout in the first film to downright cynical of authority. Iron Man has made almost the reverse trajectory, as he's grown such a conscience that he's more than eager to have himself restrained. One could easily see each one of them fighting on the opposite side of this issue in each of their first films. (Think of the scene in Iron Man II where Tony Stark speaks before Congress.)

Another thing that was handled well was all of those characters. Did it make the movie a bit longer than it should have been? Perhaps. But I also enjoyed the big superhero fight where you got to see Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Spider-Man, The Black Panther, etc. all go at it. Did all of this make it feel more like an Avengers movie than a Captain America movie? Maybe. But the focus always came back on Cap, with Iron Man taking a close second.

Anyway, here are some random thoughts:

Spider-Man - Tom Holland is getting a lot of praise in his turn as the webslinger, and it's well-earned. While I wouldn't go so far as to say his appearance in this makes it the "best Spider-Man film" (that still goes to Spider-Man 2) I will say that the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming has the potential to be the best Spider-Man film. It was great to see him as a kid, and even better, a guy who talks way too much while fighting. (And just like in the comics, the other characters are keen to point out that he needs to shut up.) Was his role totally necessary in this film? Maybe not. But just like you could cut out the bit in Hamlet where the Danish Prince interacts with a gravedigger and not have it affect the plot, I can't imagine this film without it.

The Black Panther - King T'Challa was a welcome addition to the story as well, and unlike Spider-Man, his role was far more necessary to the story. He functioned as somebody who was looking at everything from an outsider's perspective, which by this point the audience isn't going to be at. I don't want to say much more in fear of spoiling the plot, so I'll conclude this bit by saying that the action scenes were top-notch. He definitely has a style all his own. Also, he had a character arc that didn't feel forced despite his limited screen time.

Zemo - As an old fan of The Thunderbolts, I'm particularly fond of Baron Zemo as a villain, and I don't feel like this character was close enough to his comic book counterpart to even justify having the same name. Was this guy a decent villain? I suppose, and he certainly could have had more to do. I'm just hoping that maybe he can evolve into something closer to his comic book counterpart.

Ant-Man - Upon repeated viewings of his solo film, the character has grown on me. He was a welcome addition to this one as well. Even though his role was a small one, he nearly upstaged Spider-Man, which isn't an easy feat.

Batman v. Superman - Is it fair to even compare this film with that one? I think so. It's a superhero film. It's part of a bigger franchise. It features a lot of characters and hints at an even larger universe. But here's the deal - even though I gave a fairly decent review to BvS, the more I think about that one, the more I think about its flaws. I still insist that it had a lot of good stuff going for it. (And I'm excited that Ben Affleck is moving forward with his solo Batman film that he will direct.) However, it was a mess. Basically DC/Warner is trying to do what Marvel is doing, only they're not willing to do the legwork that's involved with this kind of universe building. Imagine if Civil War was the film that came out right after the first Iron Man. It's hard to have a lot at stake with Batman fighting Superman when it's their first film. However, it was heartbreaking to see Captain America and Iron Man pound away at each other because we've seen a friendship grow, develop, and evolve before it all went south.