Marvel Archive

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On Kilgrave and the Monster Inside All of Us

I’m currently seven episodes into Marvel’s Jessica Jones. At this point, I think Jessica Jones stands alone within the MCU as being something that is both profoundly meta and effortlessly didactic. Rather than getting into all of that, I want to talk about Kilgrave. More specifically, I want to talk about Kilgrave’s powers.

At first blush, Kilgrave’s power to compel anyone to do anything seems almost subdued. Within the pages of the Marvel universe and the MCU, there are beings blessed/cursed with much more grandiose abilities. Likewise, mind control is far from an original ability. Professor Xavier, for one, could reduce anyone on the planet to a meat puppet. Of course, Charles Xavier would never use his mutant gifts on something as crass as cheating at poker. Xavier is a paragon beyond the reach of mere mortals.

In contrast, I’ve seen Kilgrave use his powers to make money, skip the bill at restaurants, kill people, torture people, rape people and general shape the world around him. The thing that makes him, in my estimation, a stand-out villain within the MCU, a place where so many antagonists are little more than the opposite of the person headlining the movie/series, is the fact that Kilgrave’s powers would probably turn anyone into Kilgrave.

Think about yourself for a moment, dear reader. Are you a good person? Do you generally adhere to some sort of moral or personal code in your daily life? Now consider where that code comes from. Do your behaviors stem from a moral core that provides an immutable right way to live your life? Alternatively, are you good because you recognize, on either a conscious or unconscious level, that civil society depends on a social contract where individual needs are subordinate to a collective good?

In other words, what percentage of your interaction with society is governed by your fear of punishment? Now suppose something (e.g. Kilgrave powers) stripped away your obligation to said social contract. What if you were free to revert to a state of nature, a place of absolute freedom, while everyone else was still bound to a social contract? Would such freedom change you?

For all the good we think we have inside of us, Kilgrave’s ability to compel anyone to do anything, filtered through a personal lens, forces us to consider where our good natures come from. How could any person (other than Batman) resist using his powers? How many compromises could a person make to their self-identified good nature while using his abilities? When would a person cross the Rubicon between man and monster? When would the monster begin seeing themselves as a god?

Would you, gentle reader, Kilgrave a misogynist into a feminist? Given the chance, would you tell Donald Trump to go home and retire from public and private life? Would you use the power to talk yourself into a dream job? I’d probably do all three. And even after running headlong into Jessica Jones’ central ethos – that any act of coercion is a violation – I could probably come up with some way to rationalize my actions. And with each rationalization, I, a generally good person, take another step to becoming Kilgrave.

Kilgrave can then be seen as a meaningful example of what might happen to a normal person if they were given god-like powers. Arguably, none of the Avengers meet my definition of being normal. The unique circumstances that make them who they are (e.g. war hero, billionaire, royalty) prepare them for the responsibility that comes with being empowered beyond mere mortals. Also, Jessica Jones and Matt Murdoch may have powers, but they are hardly the equals of the Avengers in raw ability, and their early childhood is likewise a product of a heroic archetype. When I say normal, I mean someone born outside of the confines of Mr. Campbell’s monomyth.

Kilgrave powers speak to the common person because they can be applied in such utterly banal ways. Jessica Jones hints at this in the way Kilgrave uses his abilities to always get what he wants to eat. Imagine what would become of a person if they won every argument about where to go for supper, what to say on the office Christmas card, and who should take out the garbage? If a person never had to compromise, how long would it take before things like compassion and empathy atrophied? How long could a person be eternally right before the people who would dare to contradict them became tiresome pests? In such a mental place, tolerance and understanding become acts of largess rather than fundamental patterns of behavior.

On the opposite side of the coin, how long could a person use their Kilgrave powers before they created an existential void for themselves? Think here of Homer Simpson when he became the Chosen One. Would absolute power over others lead to isolation and alienation? While there’s a chance this distance from other people might make a person with Kilgrave powers cling to their humanity, it might also encourage them to use their abilities in the pursuit of new ways to fill the void.

Notwithstanding the old Wargames maxim that the only way to win is not to play, I don’t see how a person could use Kilgrave’s powers without progressively surrendering the behavioral constructions that make coexisting with other people possible. Courtesy, manners, and etiquette go out the window when a person can act like the most boorish of French monarchs absent any real consequence.

As superhero antagonists go, Kilgrave is something far removed from the likes of Doctor Doom, Whiplash, Loki, or Ronan the Accuser. Unlike most of the MCU’s rogues’ gallery, Kilgrave is not a foil for the protagonist. Rather, he is a foil for the audience. He exists to remind us of what we would become if we woke up with his powers. He is why we can never be Batman. It doesn’t matter who Kilgrave was before his powers, because we, as humans, are not uncompromising enough to wield them without becoming monsters. Only the truly saintly among us can look in the mirror and not see a Kilgrave waiting for his day in the sun.


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Trailer Takedown: Captain America: Civil War

Last week the internet lost its collective mind over the trailer for Captain America: Civil War. Critics and media experts, alike, took to their mediums to see who could twitch out the most original (but still exceedingly derivative) explanation for what a big deal it is for the MCU to take on the Marvel Civil War.

As I watched the trailer, I thought about three things.

First, what drugs does a person have to be on to think this trailer heralds the best movie ever?

Second, where can I get some of those drugs?

Third, at what point in the movie will Cap take Bucky to a redneck bar for a little slow dancing.

There is no way I’m the only person looking at this trailer and seeing superheroes so far in the closet they are finding last year’s Christmas presents. So with all due deference to slash-fic enthusiasts, who are rightly torqued up by the trailer, I’m left to wonder what the hell the rest of you are so excited about?

For a movie styling itself as the MCU’s answer to the Marvel Civil War, I don’t think I could imagine a more incipit approach to telling its story. Cap wants to save Bucky, a character who sucked so hard he stayed dead for decades, from the evil forces of the Federal Government. Wow, that conveys so much of the nuance and depth found within the actual Civil War story arc.

Even if Bucky single-handedly manages to destroy Stamford (or commit some other act of domestic terror), thus creating a climate of unprecedented political fear, where the powers that be institute a systematic defrocking of costumed super-heroes and their subsequent regulation under SHIELD, none of that is coming through the trailer.

The Marvel Civil War is a discussion of the 9/11 terror attacks and America’s response in the years that followed. Through the safety of the comic book lens, the long arc of the Civil War asks fundamental questions that put the security of the state and the rights of the individual at odds with each other. These questions aren’t merely the source of some man-pain. The Civil War destroys families and lives. It creates strange bedfellows where Captain America, champion of the anti-registration movement, teams up with known murder and libertarian poster-boy Frank Castle. The Fantastic Four break-up because Reed Richards comes on side with Tony Stark and the pro-registration supporters. Peter Parker throws away his mask before going corporate.

Who looks at the Cap: Civil War trailer and sees anything nearly so sophisticated? And please understand, I’m not asking this to play the role of an angry comic book nerd, outraged about a movie diverging from the source material. The MCU need not adhere to the comic book canon. The issue here is the banal way Disney/Marvel insists on dumbing down the MCU on the big screen (because Big Bucks, Big Bucks, no Whammies). Surely to god there is room for some grown-up story telling in these movies. Daredevil makes gentrification exciting. Jessica Jones invites us to think long and hard about systemic bias against sexual assault survivors. Is it really too much to expect quality writers like Anthony and Joe Russo to raise the discourse in the movies beyond the level of a beef between bros?

Apparently, yes. In expecting the movie-arm of the MCU to give me something smart-ish, I might as well be asking for a Ken Burns documentary of the Superhero Registration Act. Actually, that doesn’t sound half bad. I would watch the hell out of that.

So I guess the takeaway for this takedown is two-fold.

One, this trailer boasts so much man-pouting and unrequited dude-love that I could probably layer over the dialogue from a Brokeback Mountain trailer and still make it work.

Two, my expectations of superhero movies are unrealistic. I’d probably be happier with them if I could enjoy what I’m given. In this regard, I’m likely not normal. Spare me any comments along those lines. I get it.


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Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I’m going to preface this review with a hard truth; I gave up on The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with about twenty minutes left in the movie. It’s not that the sequel to the remake nobody wanted is particularly odious, mind you. The movie’s biggest problem is it goes on for two-and-a-half hours. After getting most of the way through this picture, I’ve come to the conclusion that no half-baked super hero movie needs to go on for two-and-a-half hours.

As was the case with The Amazing Spider-Man, I went into this movie wanting to like it. I discovered Peter Parker/Spider-Man at the exact right age to have Spider-Man pluck my heroic chords in just the right way, even as a grouchy adult. Because of that, there are some moments in Spidey 2 that really worked for me.

The movie is at its best when Andrew Garfield (or rather his stunt double) is wise-cracking his way through a fight scene. In those moments, the dialogue is as sharp as the action sequences, themselves. We don’t see Spider-Man as a hero struggling with great power and great responsibility. Rather, he’s a kid having fun while saving the world, and that is exactly what I want from Spider-Man.

If the whole movie was Spider-Man doing his thing, I’d probably have made it through all of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Alas, the four side-plots contenting for the position of actual plot took the wind from my sails. Is this a movie about Peter and Gwen going along divergent paths in life? Is this a movie about Harry Osborne trying to cure himself of the monsterism of his genetic inheritance? Could it be a story about Peter Parker, spy-kid, and his mission to figure out the mystery of his spy-parents? Or at the end of the day, is this a movie about an insane Spider-Man fanboy getting super powers and doing what obsessive fans do best?

The screenplay desperately tries to weave these fraying plot threads into something cohesive. The attempt to do so has the effect of watering down any capacity for a single plot point to carry the movie. The Peter/Gwen arc is mostly weak sauce melodrama, absent any real sense of consequence. Jamie Foxx pours just enough humanity into Edward Nigma Electro to make him a potentially sympathetic – albeit totally unoriginal – figure. But rather than have his own story, Electro proves nothing more than a pawn for the Harry Osborne/Green Goblin arc, an arc so weak it was likely written on the back of a soggy cocktail napkin. Then there is spy-kid Peter. For the life of me, I can’t tell what this arc does other than serve as a call back to the first movie while giving Andrew Garfield a reason to be on camera in the second act.

All this, and a mountain of product placement. I can’t remember the last time I saw so much shameless product placement outside of a Transformers movie. Every character has a Sony phone. Every TV and monitor has a Sony label on it. The camera hangs on Sony ads during shots in Times Square. Even Peter Parker’s spy-parents are wrapped in the web of product placement as they use a suspiciously modern looking Sony Vaio laptop during a scene set in the late 90s. Not subtle, Sony. Not subtle at all.

Long and poorly developed as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 can be, I suppose it’s still better than the Sam Raimi era Spider-Man – which isn’t saying much as those movies were absolute turds. While there are moments where this sequel finds its footing and, in turn, is quite enjoyable, those moments exist as oases between very long, very dry, scenes of angst, existential hand wringing, and product placement.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Director: Marc Webb

Writers: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx

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Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

There comes a point when a man must ask himself, “is there something wrong with me?” There’s a looming sense of dread hanging over my desk as I write these words. Once again, I’m arguing against what everybody else is saying, and I’m not doing it as troll, either. Truth be told, I wanted to like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but the script seems so woefully deficient, chalk-a-block with rough patches and gun battles in lieu of narrative or character development, that I found the entire proceedings to be quantifiably poor – perhaps just-below-average if I’m going to be very charitable.

It seems to me, Cap 2 really wants to be Cold War porn in the vein of The Hunt for Red October. There’s a palpable desperation in the way the writing tries to frame this story as a thinking man’s action movie: Steve Rogers as Jack Ryan – albeit with super powers – working to stop a form of technology that will reinvent war. It won’t do for Cap to simply beat up his enemies; he has to follow a series of breadcrumbs to unravel a mystery. If Cap 2 offered a clear consequence and tangible foe from the outset (e.g. a missing Russian nuclear sub destabilizing US-Soviet detente) it might work. Alas, the Marvel universe exists in parallel with our own universe, which means the only contemporary war this movie can mobilize, while speaking to its North American audience, is the War on Terror.

Read this loud and clear, The War on Terror is not sexy. The War on Terror is a weird, sticky, morass of short-sighted ideas married with the sort of xenophobia and jingoism that would have made Benjamin Disraeli turn a shade of red. Where a character like Black Widow is easily suited to such a world, it is utterly alien to Captain America. This brings me to my first major let-down with The Winter Soldier, this should have been Black Widow’s movie. Full stop.

Steve Rogers, as the living embodiment of Roosevelt’s America, is a beacon of idealism. Since idealism doesn’t compromise, there’s little room for a moral conflict on the part of the idealistic character. This makes for an overly-simplistic “good versus bad” dichotomy and, in turn, reduces Steve Rogers into a very shallow character amid a movie that’s trying to dig into his character. Black Widow, however, comes from such a dark place that she – and the audience – might not reject being tempted into HYDRA’s web of intrigue.

Returning to the hero at hand, it seems plain enough that Cap’s writing committee recognized the need to add some depth to their leading man, lest he start coming off like Superman. This explains the decision to backfill his inner struggle after Bucky Barnes’ reveal as the Winter Soldier. It’s not a bad gambit, and it might have worked if the audience had a reason to care about Bucky Barnes.

To my recollection, Bucky was merely along for the ride in Captain America: The First Avenger. The scenes that would have developed his character were glossed over during the montage of Cap’s campaign against HYDRA. More to the point, having flashback-Bucky tell pre-serum Steve he isn’t alone strikes as pretty tone deaf to what Cap’s been through. Cap had the Howling Commandos for the first movie, and he had the Avengers in The Avengers. Now he has Black Widow and Falcon. He’s not exactly Bruce Banner in terms of isolating himself from the world.  Say nothing for Cap’s stranger in a strange land culture shock vanishing to the point he can now riff dialogue from Wargames with Black Widow. For the record, Wargames came out a year before Black Widow’s movie-canon birthday. I guess she had plenty of time to be nostalgic in the KGB…even though the Soviet Union fell when she was 7. Pretty sloppy with the details there, Marvel.

This leaves the movie stuck between being a rehash of the “optimism versus pragmatism” trope and a generic superhero movie, which traded mustache twirling in its villains for homo-erotic whispering. The dangerous (i.e. interesting) option would have been to leave HYDRA completely out of this movie. Let SHIELD compromise its principles on its own. Turn Maria Hill into the villainess who wants to avenge Nick Fury’s death from the helm of a Helicarrier. Let Captain America find himself on the wrong side of the line without the Nazi-turned-Illuminati bullshit.

What remains of all these missed opportunities is a movie whose story is so messy and convoluted that the bad guys’ goal only becomes clear in the third act. Moreover, it takes an hour for The Winter Soldier to dispense with the preliminaries. It then comes as no surprise when the heroes’ journey through the conspiracy within SHIELD is so linear as to be a game of connect the dots. There are no moments where Cap and Black Widow have to look at each other and go, “Well I have no idea what to do next.” In those occasions, where the characters might otherwise have to be smart and figure things out, there’s always a disposable character standing by to offer up necessary exposition and scene bridging. In a nutshell, Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels like filler. Filler built on more filler; it’s filler Inception. It’s meant to get us from one Avengers movie to the next, because god forbid people have to wait a few years between movies.

I give it three grumpy cats out of five, and may Galactus have mercy on my soul.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Stars: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson


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Civilization and Social Coding in Guardians of the Galaxy

At the risk of being unpopular, I’ll begin this piece by saying that Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a particularly brilliant movie. With its PG-13 rating, stock character archetypes, and a soundtrack that makes bored parents say, “Hey, that’s familiar, so it makes me more comfortable with this very alien, sci-fi affair,” I don’t think Marvel could have done more to make it clear they were shooting for the middle. Mission accomplished, Marvel. The writing is funny enough to make up for the poor pacing, and the acting is strong enough to make me overlook the fact that most of the characters are idiotic and shallow even by comic book movie standards. There is, however, one thing that I’m not quite so apt to overlook: Guardians’ use of the prison-industrial complex.

Planet Xandar is the seat of a seemingly liberal and open civilization. Likewise, the Nova Corps, though presenting a moral hazard as the fusion of military and police powers into one organization, are portrayed as a force for good. Dialogue from Rocket, a self-confessed criminal and bounty hunter, confirms as much when he says that 99% of the Nova Corps believe in justice. Now let us recall the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky and measure the Xandarians against how they treat their prisoners.

The Kiln, the prison from which the Guardians escape at the end of the movie’s first act, takes its inspiration from the worst recesses of contemporary incarceration. Though quippy dialogue keeps the reality of the Kiln from ever truly being felt, a quick enumeration of its horrors should call into question the nature of Xandarian justice.

  1. The prison is vastly overcrowded, as illustrated in the sleeping scene.
  2. Gamora shows us that the only refuge from the prison’s violent population is voluntary solitary confinement.
  3. In addition to being Xandar’s police and military, the Nova Corps act as prison security. Imagine a world where the United States Marine Corps act as prison guards and shudder.
  4. The Nova Corps run the Kiln with a lassie-faire, “let the animals tend to each other” approach. They allow the prisoners to fashion and carry weapons, and they encourage murder among the in-mates.
  5. The Nova guards steal personal items from the prisoners.
  6. The general population of the prison is mixed-gender and mixed-species. If I have to explain how this would prove a problem, I invite you to watch any prison movie ever made. Note how things get rapey.
  7. The prison intake system is either woefully incompetent or wholly neglectful in its decision to mix super-powered people with normal in-mates.
  8. Prison security is augmented by drones equipped with lethal weapons.
  9. The Nova guards use lethal weapons on the prisoners.
  10. There is no evidence of any attempt at rehabilitation among the population. If it’s known to humanity that incarceration without rehabilitation leads to increased recidivism, one must assume that the Xandarians would know this, as well.

It’s not looking very good for Xandar. Though ostensibly the good-guys, it’s clear the Xandarians have some work to do when it comes to dealing with their criminal element. I should note my analysis assumes things aren’t working exactly as the Xandarian government intends. Maybe this is what Xandar wants for its prisoners. In such a scenario we might also assume the Nova Corps rules as a military junta using drones, surveillance, and newspeak (recall that the Nova Corps won’t say asshole, despite running a space version of Manhattan Prison a la Escape from New York) to maintain their ersatz utopia.

If the Xandarians are intended to be a force for good, despite maintaining a prison that is a house of horrors, then a critical audience must take issue with Guardians’ credited screen writers, James Gunn and Nicole Pearlman.

One of the reasons why I put it to you that Guardians of the Galaxy proves a thoroughly average film is that whatever imagination went into the world as a whole is betrayed by its pedestrian, 20th century vision of a prison. This was a lazy creative vision, and it reflects a wholesale lack of effort in the storytelling. If Xandar has the martial and scientific ability to force a peace upon the Kree, then surely they are smart enough to use cryogenic suspension for violent offenders like Drax and Gamora. This dram of common sense undoes the prison break as written. Reason demands the Nova guards split-up the Guardians. This would make writing their escape a greater challenge – on the order of Oceans’ 11 – but also make it much more satisfying for the audience to watch. Instead, the entire escape sequence comes into play with Groot, while cribbing powers from Mr. Fantastic, pulling a thing out of the wall. Lazy, lazy, writing which allows the entire break-out to be summarized as, “some stuff happens after Groot grabs a thing.”

I dare say the prison break scene in Guardians calls for a new sort of narrative test, call it a Chekhov’s prison:

If a prison appears in a movie that is not about a prison break, then the protagonist(s) must break out of the prison by the end of the act it is introduced. Furthermore, they must do so in a way that doesn’t present the prison as woefully incapable of holding the protagonist. Failure to do so signals that the prison is little more than a narrative crutch. The Chekhov’s prison is heralded by a character saying, “there isn’t a prison built that can hold me.” Notorious examples include Watchmen, The Chronicles of Riddick, and X-Men 2.

Guardians of the Galaxy it looks great, it will make you laugh, but at the end of the day it’s not nearly as clever as people want it to be. The catalyst for the movie, the prison break which forces the Guardians to act as a team for the first time, is as contrived as it is ill-conceived. It functionally breaks any capacity for the audience to accept the Xandarians as the good guys. More importantly, it presents retrograde notions of incarceration to an audience, particularly an audience young enough to not notice the subtle coding (remember, it’s a family movie) as a wholly normal part of civilized life. It’s one thing to see Klingons running a gulag in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it’s another to see it coming from a bastion of civilization.


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Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

I drew a line in the sand when The Amazing Spiderman hit theaters in the summer of 2012. After the blithering hot mess that was Spider-Man 3, I could not fathom why the world needed another Spider-Man movie. Given that The Amazing Spider-Man targets a North American audience, I saw no point in retelling a modern myth that spans multiple generations. I objected to how my crush on Emma Stone felt creepy and wrong viewing her through the lens of a teenage Gwen Stacy. For those reasons, I decided to ignore this movie until such time as it turned up in the Movie Network’s free on-demand section. Now that I have seen this utterly unnecessary foray into superhero movies, I find myself somewhat conflicted.

If The Amazing Spider-Man existed in a universe where Sam Raimi never made his Spider-Man movies, I’d be inclined to call it a good screen portrayal of New York’s favourite web slinger. Like most inaugural entries into a super hero franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man suffers from an overly bloated and ponderous first act. The writing team of James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, attempt to mitigate this retelling of an already well known story through an injection of mystery surrounding Peter Parker’s parents. However the Parkers’ story, drawn from elements of 1960s canon and the Marvel Ultimate universe, proves to be little more than a long winded gimmick for bringing together Peter Parker and Dr. Kurt Connors.

Despite the above, and some slow pacing during the “oh my god I have super powers” phase, which wasn’t nearly as messy as watching Tobey Maguire strike a beefcake pose in front of a mirror, The Amazing Spider-Man does manage to hit the notes I would expect from a Spider-Man screen adaptation. It’s a story that uses super powers as an allegorical device for the social and biological changes that come with transitioning into adulthood. Were I thirteen again, I would look at this version of Spider-Man and see myself in the character. That identification with Peter Parker is a first principle from which the rest of the movie should, and does, flow.

The real question emerges when we stop to consider that The Amazing Spider-Man is Spider-Man’s fourth appearance on the big screen in a decade. At this point, the brain trust at Sony Pictures and Marvel Entertainment should be able to make a Spider-Man movie in their sleep. So is a good but not great movie really good enough when the powers behind the picture have a six-hour long road map to guide them?

Indeed, a great many things in this movie reflect a production that contented itself with being “good enough” rather than reaching for greatness. Certainly, Martin Sheen is a step up in terms of casting for Uncle Ben, but who is a safer person to play the role than Martin Sheen playing President Bartlett playing Uncle Ben? Similarly, Andrew Garfield is capable as both Peter Parker and his alter ego. Yet so much of Spider-Man’s charm comes from the writing that it’s easy to imagine anybody else standing in for Garfield – which isn’t too much of a stretch as I imagine most of Spider-Man’s mask-on scenes feature a stunt person and Garfield’s voice over. Regardless, there’s no denying his general effectiveness in the role, but if we attempt the impossible act of not comparing Marc Webb’s movie to Sam Raimi’s trilogy, then it becomes a lot easier to see Garfield as good but nothing special.

The remainder of the supporting cast, up to and including Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, is a venerable who’s who of proven actors punching well below their weight class. I suspect Sally Field plays characters like Aunt May before taking a morning deuce. Denis Leary’s work on Rescue Me makes him completely over-qualified to play a mostly two-dimensional hard-ass police captain out to bust Spider-Man as a vigilante. Yet in doing so, his character pulls the movie’s story well in-line with the comic book; wherein J. Jonah. Jameson’s editorial slant turned Spidey into public enemy number one, despite the Fantastic Four being a much greater burden on infrastructure and city repairs. Thus do we witness one of those rare moments where my inner fanboy and critical scepticism are both equally appeased. Again, it’s not great, but it’s good enough.

In the end, The Amazing Spider-Man is probably little more than a competent movie. Yet it is easy for competence to seem like greatness amid the likes of Oblivion, Man of Steel, Elysium, and maybe even The Dark Knight Rises. And competent looks downright fantastic when it gets compared to the drek that is Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man rap sheet. Not being terrible, however, doesn’t change the fact that this is a reboot of an IP that didn’t need to be rebooted. As such, it’s just one more wang in Hollywood’s ongoing entropic circle jerk.


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Movie Review: Planet Hulk

I’ve never been one to watch a lot of Marvel’s animated superhero features. Not-withstanding the 1990s X-Men series, Marvel’s stuff tends to get bogged down in back story, context, and occasionally awful voice acting. Planet Hulk, on the other hand, is all business. That business is taking the Marvel Universe off its PG-13 leash, leaving it to wander down dark alleys in the rough parts of town. The feature is emotionally charged, violent with just a soupcon of body horror, and considerably more interesting than either of the live action Hulk movies.

We open on Bruce Banner’s exile from Earth at the hands of SHIELD. Deemed a menace to the entire world, Hulk awakens in a starship en-route to an uninhabited planet destined to be his new home. A pre-recorded message from Tony Stark, which explains the above, sends the Hulk into a rage; wherein he breaks his restraints and smashes the ship’s navigation system. The careening starship then flies through a wormhole, crashing on planet Sakaar. Weakened from the transit, Hulk gets into a brawl with some of the local insect based life before the ruling humanoids implant him with a “control disk” and enslave him to fight as a gladiator.

Conceptual notes: within this story Hulk never reverts back to Bruce Banner. The Hulk is also reasonably articulate in his calmer moments. Initially, this threw me for a loop as I’m more accustomed to the rampaging monosyllabic “Hulk SMASH” of the 90s cartoon. However, experts have assured me that a Hulk capable of articulation and higher reasoning is accurate to comic canon. And even if it wasn’t, this vision of the Hulk works well enough that I wouldn’t care.

The character’s traditional dichotomy is that of Jekyll and Hyde. We empathize with Bruce Banner because his basic human passions turn him into a rampaging monster. When Banner reverts to human form, he embraces alienation rather than trying to carve out a place for himself in society that either fears him or wants to weaponize him. This movie strips Banner/Hulk of that basic choice. Hulk’s reactions to bondage are filtered through a character of limitless power now capable of understanding just how much SHIELD has betrayed him. As a casual fan of the Hulk, I find this a very interesting direction for the character. I’d even argue it makes him much more emotionally resonant than the typical fodder of a self-loathing Bruce Banner.

As a setting, Sakaar is somewhat reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars novels. However, the planet quickly takes a turn toward darker places. The red skinned humanoids have brought the planet’s other sentient races under a single common yoke. Slavery within the empire is routine. Dissent against the state is broken through the use of advanced technology and biological warfare. To wit: there’s an absolutely immaculate scene where the Emperor’s lieutenant, Caiera, is attempting to save a village from parasites that turn humanoids into zombie-like monsters. The Emperor responds by calling in airstrike as Caiera, with a child in her arms, flees from ground zero. Caiera survives, thanks to her super powers, but the explosion cooks the child in her arms into an ash effigy.

Within Sakaar’s arena the writing is absolutely honest to the brutality of hand-to-hand combat. We see Hulk and his fellow slaves cleaving limbs from bodies. Rock monsters crush sentient insects until their innards fly forth from exoskeletons. There’s even a scene where Hulk very nearly beats Beta Ray Bill to death.

The ongoing spectacle  draws some obvious inspiration from Gladiator. Hulk’s ability to defeat Sakaar’s greatest champions/monsters gradually undermines the Emperor’s place as a figure of messianic prophecy. The various species of Sakaar begin to see Hulk as the “Sakaarson,” a warrior-savior who will stare death in the eye and bring life back to the desiccated sands of Sakaar. Naturally, Hulk refuses all of these titles up until the end of the movie. At that point the people of Sakaar embrace him as their king, and Hulk begrudgingly accepts that he has found a place where he fits in. Mark the calendar, it’s a Hulk story that doesn’t end with sad walking away music.

Though, I have read that the movie stops short of fulfilling everything laid out in Planet Hulk’s comic arc. Oh paper, Hulk settles down on Sakaar and knocks up Caiera. For reasons unknown, SHIELD sends a self-destruct code to Hulk’s ship, which the people of Sakaar had since turned into a statue commemorating Hulk’s arrival. The subsequent matter anti-matter explosion levels Sakaar’s capital city, killing Hulk’s wife and unborn child in the process. Hulk survives the blast only to declare war on Earth. How dark is that?

If nothing else Planet Hulk has the courage to offer a story that bears no consideration for an underage audience. By and large, I think it succeeds quite nicely along that course. The voice acting is as sharp as any DC animated feature, though lacking any real celebrity pedigree therein. The art is similarly good though stopping short of being great. The motifs and obvious points of inspiration are a little derivative, but they prove to be effective appropriations. Perhaps most important of all is that this is the first time I’ve seen the Hulk as an actual character. Normally, Banner is the character and the Hulk. . .well the Hulk smashes. Planet Hulk shows the casual comic reader a version of the Hulk with a fully formed ego structure, independent of his alter ego. It’s dark and brooding in a way that one would typically expect to see from Bruce Banner. Placing those qualities in the Hulk while mobilizing the Cosmic portion of the marvel universe makes for quite the engaging story.

Planet Hulk

Directed by: Sam Liu

Based on the Comic by: Greg Pak and Carlo Pagulayan

Featuring the voices of: Rick D. Wasserman, Lisa Ann Beley, and Mark Hildreth


1

Did Agents of SHIELD Bite its Thumb at Cosplayers?

Since last week’s Agents of SHIELD premiere there’s been no shortage of buzz, gossip, and criticism in mainstream and social media. One issue therein that has been getting a bit of traction is the ostensibly dismissive tone the pilot episode took towards cosplayers. The offending snippet of dialogue was along the lines of “you’re worse than those sweaty cosplayers who surround Stark Tower.”

At first, I didn’t think much of this one-off bit of snark. Primarily because I’m not a cosplayer. I understand there’s a huge sense of empowerment that comes from pulling off an effective cosplay. And I appreciate the amount of time and effort that goes into constructing every last detail of a costume. Keeping that in mind, I think it’s fair to examine the offending comment as a potential dude-bro moment, inserted to make non-genre viewers feel more at home with the series.

I do, however, think the line is wholly appropriate given the context of the adapted Marvel Universe in which Agents of SHIELD it is set. The facts, as I see them, line up like so:

1 – AoS is set in a world where superheroes, supervillians, and aliens are de rigueur, and have been since before the Second World War.

2 – The Earth as presented in the Marvel universe is supposed to be a mirror image of our own, save for those things outlined in point 1.

3 – Superhero poseurs catalyzed the Marvel Civil War. I doubt the Civil War fits into Marvel: Phase 1, as written, but it is canon, and worth mentioning how fans in costumes indirectly led to the death of Captain America, a schism within the Fantastic Four, and Norman Osborne becoming one of the most powerful men on Earth.

4 – SHIELD agents, the day-to-day analysts, support personnel, and field agents, have little time for super heroes who operate above the law. A SHIELD agent puts the badge and the safety of the planet before individual actions; superheroes, by and large, do not.

When we start adding up these facts, it makes sense that a SHIELD agent would have little consideration for a cosplayer. If a person wants to feel empowered in the Marvel Universe, in turn defending the planet from Skurlls, Kree, and everything in between, they have the option to try and join SHIELD. They can put on the badge and stand with the team that does much of the heavy lifting but gets none of the glory, compared to the likes of the Avengers and their action figures.

Cosplaying in the Marvel universe would by definition be faster to cross a thin line into unhealthy obsession. Tony Stark, for example, is a real person in the Marvel universe; just as Steve Jobs was a real person in ours. The idea of people hanging out in front of Stark Tower dressed like Iron Man would be just as bizarre to a SHIELD agent as an army of people mobbing apple HQ in matching black turtleneck sweaters would be to us. We would ask, “What is wrong with that person? Don’t they have anything better to do with their time?” So to would anybody in the Marvel universe vis-a-vis cosplay.

The work-a-day SHIELD operative should quite rightly see a cosplayer as something that is unhealthy, obsessive, and childish within the context of the Marvel universe. Moreover, simply by showing up in public the cosplayer reminds the SHIELD agent of their limitations as a normal human. The cosplayer implicitly elevates the superhero above mortal men and women, and in turn makes an explicit statement that they would rather drool in admiration over exceptional individuals instead of taking personal ownership over the mundane, but necessary, duties of defending the Earth – a la Coulson – that comes with a SHIELD badge.

The dialogue was on point. It was not an attack on the fans or their hobbies.

QED.

That said, I think it is fair to say that the series is now on my radar for future violations wherein it is actively laughing at the audience.


0

In Defense of Ben Affleck as Batman

If my extended infosphere, as represented on facebook and twitter, is an accurate reflection of popular opinion, then there are a lot of people freaking out about the announcement of Ben Affleck as Batman. I daresay the news surprised me. For a moment, I honestly thought a few of my friends were trying to troll me. Now that multiple sources have verified the story, you’ll forgive me if I don’t jump aboard the anti-Affleck band wagon. I’ll even go so far as to say that I think Mr. Affleck might prove to be a good choice for the role.

Let’s deal with the obvious elephant in the room: Daredevil. If Daredevil is guilty of a single cardinal sin, it’s being a superhero movie predating Iron Man. And spare me any twenty-twenty hindsight, historical revision bullshit in pointing at X-Men as evidence that superhero movies were on the uptake in the early 2000s. Prior to Marvel: Phase One, comic book adaptations were high-risk investments that saw the studios playing it very conservative with plots that might be too sci-fi for the audience. Don’t believe me? Look at what Marvel did to Galactus in Rise of the Silver Surfer. They couldn’t make it a proper Marvel Cosmic story, so they brought in Doom to keep the conflict more accessible. Galactus’ actual downfall proved to be little more than handwaving that steered well clear of the Ultimate Nullifer and Uatu the Watcher.

Were Daredevil made today the project would likely be taken seriously enough to merit a writer/director with experience beyond Grumpy Old Men. Mark Steven Johnson was a sophomore director when he took on Daredevil. Johnson’s directorial debut was a religiously themed piece called Simon Birch; I didn’t see it, either. As a screenwriter, Johnson’s pre-Daredevil chops included Jack Frost, Big Bully, and both of the Grumpy Old Men movies. So the powers at Marvel tapped a “comedy” writer to work with one of their darkest heroes (perhaps rivaled only by The Punisher) while slapping a PG-13 restriction on the story. Are we really going to lay the blame for Daredevil’s shortcomings, which are almost exclusively narrative failings, on Ben Affleck’s acting abilities? Such a course of action seems a bit childish and overly reductive.

Next elephants in the room: Gigli and Jersey Girl. He did the former for the booty, QED. I can respect that. As for the latter, also booty. Booty and perhaps even a confidence in his long-term ability to keep earning Oscars when his girlfriend would be lucky to end up as a judge on a network TV talent show. Additionally, Kevin Smith wrote the damn thing, so criticism where criticism is due.

Those are Affleck’s stinkers; let’s look at the positives Affleck brings to the table. First and foremost, Oscar gold for writing Good Will Hunting at age 26. Before lobbing hate bombs at Affleck, ask yourself how many internationally recognized awards for writing you earned when you were that age. If the number is a non-negative, non-zero integer, feel free to leave a comment telling me to shut-up. There’s also a shared Screen Actors Guild award for his role in Shakespeare in Love. More recently, he earned a National Board of Review award for directing Gone Baby Gone. And, of course, Affleck likely needed to buy a new mantle for the boatload of awards he earned for Argo. Said awards included another Academy Award and two BAFTA’s, just for the record.

Even if we concede that Affleck may not be the world’s most gifted actor, he’s proven himself a more than capable story teller on multiple occasions. Isn’t that the sort of individual we want headlining a Zach Snyder “film”? Affleck has enough clout that he could easily insist upon rewrites that wouldn’t see Batman and Superman dudebroing it up in Gotham, were Mr. Snyder inclined to take the story in such an uncomfortable, but almost inevitable, direction. This may not manifest as a ringing endorsement for Affleck, but it’s at least reason to pause and reflect before writing him off. I doubt Henry Cavill, and his excessive professional tight wearing, is going to have the same kind of script doctoring pull that Affleck will bring to the table.

Let’s switch gears and discuss Batman, himself. How is Ben Affleck any worse than some of the other gentlemen who have taken on the role? Batman is supposed to be the world’s greatest detective, yet we saw him as the world’s greatest functional drunk in Batman and Robin. And Batman Forever was so campy that I’m surprised the “box” device didn’t show a vision of Val Kilmer playing topless beach volleyball when it probed Bruce Wayne’s mind. The worst case scenario here is that Ben Affleck ends up in the middle quintile of Batman actors.

People within my info-bubble are further doubting Affleck’s ability to convey the depth required for Bruce Wayne/Batman. Depth? What depth? I’m no actor but Batman seems pretty easy as a screen character. The dark knight is a chaotic good character with control/daddy issues. Have I missed anything?

In terms of physically inhabiting the role, most of Batman’s hard work can be covered by stuntmen. All the headliner needs to manage is a piercing stare and a decent Batman voice. If Michael Keaton was able to pull off the former, then I imagine Mr. Affleck can give it the old college try. As for the latter, Kevin Conroy is the only Batman voice that matters. Knowing that he will never reach this level of Batmanitude, all Affleck has to do is be better than the growling-shouting binary of Christian Bale.

As for the Bruce Wayne aspect of the character, I’m very confident in a white, male, millionaire’s abilities to play a white, male, billionaire.

What of Nolan’s legacy to the Batman franchise? How is Affleck, who isn’t really known for the same method acting insanity intensity that Christian Bale brought to the role, supposed to insert himself into existing expectations? Consider that the relative strength of the new trilogy isn’t tethered to Christian Bale or his work with the eponymous vigilante. Bale was an adequate, if emo, Bruce Wayne. As Batman, he lacked the finesse befitting the world’s greatest detective.

Nolan’s movies worked because of the strong writing reflected in the collective acting chops of the supporting ensemble. We may have gone to see the Dark Knight for Batman, but we re-watched it and bought DVDs for Heath Ledger’s Joker. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, and others all underwrote the success of Nolan’s movies. In all honestly, I don’t think it would have mattered who played Batman. In fact, we can test that theory: can anybody tell me how Ben Affleck, as an actor replacing Christian Bale, could have broken Nolan’s Batman movies? Did Bale really bring anything unique to the role that isn’t ripe for parody?

 

 

At the end of the day, the person playing Batman isn’t nearly as important as the effective mobilization of supporting players within a story worthy of Batman’s attention. Batman, at least the harder edged Frank Miller/Batman TAS Batman the modern audience has come to demand from the character, is a one-trick pony if left to his own devices. Batman needs other meaningful characters in his life because they are the ones that feed his inner conflict. Batman’s humanity comes from Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Barbara Gordon, Terry McGinnis, Selina Kyle, and all the rest. Without those characters and the morality they infuse into Batman, he’d be predictable and boring; Batman would be a meme akin to What Would Jesus Do? Only instead of perpetually turning the other cheek, he would be exacting his non-equivocating vision of justice upon Gotham without exception. Selling the audience on a story whose main character is utterly depended upon supporting players is NEVER going to be about the actor playing Batman; it is about the writer(s).

So without knowing anything about the script, but knowing a thing or two about Batman, consider this my comprehensive answer to why people should back off Ben Affleck. If anything is going to break the delicate balance of a Batman-Superman movie, it won’t come down to something as simple as the acting.


0

Video Game Review: Marvel Heroes

In theory, Marvel Heroes is the sort of game that is impossible to screw up. Overlay the proven formula of Marvel Ultimate Alliance onto a game engine that resembles Diablo 3 and the rest writes itself. Seems simple, right? Yet somehow Gazillion Entertainment has managed to make a hash out of an MMO experience that is positively dripping with wasted potential.

After installing all twelve gigs of Marvel Heroes I couldn’t wait to create my own hero, or maybe even inhabit someone famous from the Marvel universe. I dared to let myself hope that I could play as the Sentinel of the Spaceways himself, the Silver Surfer. Instead this free-to-play MMO presented me with these choices for a starter character.

Ladies and gentlemen, your Marvel Heroes starting lineup

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thing, Daredevil, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and Storm. I can’t say that this cross section of the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and X-Men really did much for me. Naturally, getting access to any of the A-Listers from the aforementioned teams required an in-game purchase with real world money; though the game’s various and frequent load screens do promise that there is a way to unlock every character for free. After about five hours of play testing I’ve yet to find a chit to unlock anybody other than Daredevil. Maybe I’m not using a big enough grind stone.

The real problem with this very limited choice of starter heroes is that it’s paired with a non-instanced game environment. There’s no sense of specialness to being the Thing when at a moment’s notice four or five other Things and two Storms can walk onto the screen and mix it up with a group of bad guys. Where’s the sense of plausible atmosphere and immersion when five Hawkeyes go running down the street in a line abreast formation?

Similarly disappointing is the game’s overall appearance. Even with the graphics turned up, Marvel Heroes falls well short of the visual benchmark set by Marvel Ultimate Alliance. In fact, I’m not certain if it gives X-Men Legends a run for its dated money. Even if we make the most generous concessions to the visual limits of an MMO, its hard to rationalize away the fact that the Thing looks less like a rock monster and more like a passable Clayface – assuming the DC universe managed to work its way into this game. This begs another question: are the “Ultimate” visages of the Marvel heroes still under licence to Activision? Because at the risk of sounding too shallow, it is hard to take Hawkeye seriously when he is dressed in his Silver Age archer get up.

There's a reason why Clint got stuck minding the shop during the Kree-Skrull war

Yeah, I said it. Hawkeye’s costume looks stupid. Frankly, I think it has always looked stupid. I thought it looked like a joke when I read my first Avengers comic. It looked no better when I saw it again on the 90s Iron Man cartoon, and I think it looks like the last thing any self-respecting super hero would wear when going to fight urban crime in Hell’s Kitchen. So that’s that bell rung. Anybody want to fight about it?

Marvel Heroes also manages to miss the mark in terms of a challenging game experience. Half of this problem is due to the open world, non-instanced design which never puts a limit on the number of heroes that can be in once place at one time. During a battle against Electro, and yes he was wearing the absurd yellow and green costume while daring to pass himself off as the boss for the game’s first act, there were no less than 20 heroes slogging it out against him. Mind you, this wasn’t a raiding group, either. Most of us involved in the battle were just passing by and decided, “Hey, might be fun to punch a twenty-foot-tall Electro.” This was great for the loot, but it also speaks to what I said before about crafting an individual experience. I should only be fighting Electro when I have triggered him, not because I blundered past where his event happens to take place.

The other half of the difficulty problem is that all of the rank and file goons are hilariously easy to kill. Two regular punches from the Thing, or one power punch, were enough to kill 90% of the street toughs I encountered in Hell’s Kitchen. When I took Storm, an AoE character, out for a test drive I found little in the way of an actual PvE challenge. Even mini-boss super villains, like Shocker, seemed hilariously under powered. There is something to be said for soloing a quest, but what’s the point in making an MMO if there’s no real motivation to party up? When playing as Storm or Hawkeye there should be some parts of the environment that necessitate finding a Thing or Daredevil to act as a meat shield. Instead, every character feels equally capable of handling things on their own. Thus do the character classes emerge as rather lack luster.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will say that I’d be willing to forgive all of these problems if Marvel Heroes looked to be doing anything to create the illusion of a personalized experience. Though it is impossible to craft a truly exclusive narrative in an MMO, there are ways to present the appearance of the player being the star of their own show. Instances, hero/class based quests, and even NPC dialogue personalized to the individual player are just a few of the things that make a gamer feel immersed in an MMO; they are also painfully absent from this game.

Despite its best efforts, Marvel Heroes’ attempt to hybridize a formula established in previous beat-em-up RPGs with the likes of City of Heroes does not work. Gazillion’s attempt to bring together the best of both single and multiplayer gaming has produced a final product that is inferior to either. Hardcore and casual gamers alike will likely find their interest wanes in direct proportion to shelf life of their chosen character’s half dozen in-game one-liners. I get it, it’s clobberin’ time, again.