Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Marvel's The Avengers (Retrospective)

Marvel's The Avengers (2012)
After four years and five films of teases and buildup, The Avengers landed with no small amount of fanfare and unusually positive reviews. The experiment to fold a group of individually popular superheroes together into a single, cohesive story paid off in spades, and it's easy to see why. Almost ten years since it first released, The Avengers remains a well-crafted, engaging, and funny action-adventure spectacle.

When Thor villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) returns at the behest of a mysterious new master, he arrives on Earth as a harbinger of worse things to come. Meant to pave the way for a coming alien invasion, he wastes little time in decimating S.H.I.E.L.D., placing Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård, returning from Thor) under some kind of mind control, prompting Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to finally call in the team he's been building. While Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) retrieves Dr. Bruce Banner (portrayed here by Mark Ruffalo, replacing Edward Norton), Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) approaches Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Fury himself ropes in Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). The team comes together to capture Loki, and it isn't long before Thor (Chris Hemsworth) joins the party to round out the cast.

For being such a big, bombastic movie, the plot is relatively straightforward and relies on the tried-and-true "the villain secretly wants to be captured" twist that became so popular in the wake of the The Dark Knight (2008). It's not a hard twist to see coming, which is probably why the film smartly telegraphs this early on. Rather than muddle through an overly complicated plot in a film that is, by nature, stuffed full of characters, The Avengers wisely focuses on those characters and their relationships. This is where all the magic occurs. It's a thrill watching Iron Man butt heads with Captain America, and good fun to see the mighty Thor come to blows with the incredible Hulk. The vast majority of the film is spent letting the team work out the kinks in their internal structure, which is why the finale is such a rousing payoff. When the Avengers finally come together behind Captain America and begin to function like a well-oiled machine, we get the sense that this dream team is unstoppable.

It's hard to fault the film for not taking itself too seriously, because that's never been the point. These films know exactly what they are and what they want to be, and are content to play within the confines of the comic book genre. Perhaps this is the most refreshing approach to the source material, because watching The Avengers feels very much like reading one of the comic books from which these characters and stories are adapted. Just like comic books are not high literature, The Avengers doesn't set out to be the Citizen Kane of the modern era. Because of this, the film comes across as having an unusual amount of confidence in both its characters and execution. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that the characters had already been established in the films leading up to this one, and because each of the actors were already comfortable in their respective roles, allowing for a kind of freedom and playfulness not commonly seen in these kinds of big summer blockbusters.

The Avengers is certainly not a perfect film. The final sequence rolls on for a few minutes too long, and the characters (except for Banner) all pretty much reach peak development by the end of the second act. Taken on its own, separate from the continuity of the established MCU, The Avengers has all the depth and nuance of an airbrush painting. It's pretty to look at, but there's not much there by way of substance. Black Widow carries the weight of the most important conversations, the first with Banner, the second with Barton after he's been freed from Loki's mind control. The rest is all sound and color. But, the film isn't exactly meant to be taken on its own. No, it's firmly planted within a specific context, and sort of expects viewers to already be familiar with its characters. If you're looking for character development, this film probably isn't going to satisfy. But if you're just looking to see all of these iconic characters come together in an all-out blockbuster of a flick, then The Avengers is for you.

Marvel and its collaborators struck gold with this film. The cinematic universe only expands after this landmark movie, eventually blossoming into a full-blown cultural phenomenon the likes of which hasn't been seen since the release of the original Star Wars trilogy. Regardless of the numerous movies and sequels that will go on to populate the MCU, none of them will really recapture the magic of The Avengers, when these heroes all assembled on the big screen for the first time.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

The Flash, Volume 4: Reverse (Review)

The Flash, Volume 4: Reverse
Francis Manapul's final arc of The New 52's The Flash is arguably his best—and that's saying a lot, considering the quality of his output thus far. It's also his most mature. After the wild sci-fi hijinks of the last two arcs, this volume marks a return to the more personal tale with which Manapul began his run on the title. The stakes here are much higher than they were when Flash battled Mob Rule, though, as this story moves with all the urgency and gravitas of a finale. There is a sense that Manapul and co-creator Brian Buccellato's run has been building to this; indeed, after a quick tease at the end of the last volume, Barry Allen finally comes face-to-face with his legendary nemesis, Reverse-Flash.

The classic villain's reinvention here is thorough, but done in such a way as to maximize the emotional payoff. Smashing the reset button and rewriting established character arcs and continuities is like playing with fire. Fans are just as likely to respond with positive reception as they are to make sure the new content tanks in terms of sales if they don't like where things are going. Because of the fickle fanbase, Manapul and Buccellato's handling of Reverse-Flash undoubtedly has its detractors. But even the most devoted comic book purists shouldn't let their emotions get in the way of reading and investing in this ripping good yarn that touts a surprisingly hefty amount of pathos.

Everything in this volume really does revolve around Reverse-Flash and unmasking his motivations. Revealed to be Daniel West, the brother of Flash's long-standing love interest Iris West, Reverse-Flash has been draining the energy of everyone affected by the Speed Force in an effort to tear through time itself and turn back the clock to kill his and Iris's abusive father. Though perhaps a little heavy on melodrama, the end result is nevertheless a pretty sympathetic villain with a clear and understandable ambition. The writers do some great character work with Daniel, who nearly succeeds in murdering his father, only for his plan to go horribly awry when a younger version of himself and his sister return home. Suddenly confronted by his own trauma, Daniel faces a crisis of choice when the Flash intervenes and suggests that altering time and murdering his father in front his younger self will cause more trauma to young Daniel than anything else. The solution, Flash explains, is not in running from or changing the past, but in facing one's ghosts and dealing with trauma as best one can.

The thing I most admire about Manapul and Buccellato's narrative is that it refuses to fall prey to sentimentality. Though Reverse-Flash is stopped, Daniel is unable to bring himself to fully let go of the trauma his father inflicted on him, forcing Flash to drain him of his Speed Force energy in order to set aright the fractured timeline. Though he is reunited with his sister, he remains embittered and vindictive, saying that he would try again to turn back the clock and murder their father if given the chance. Even after he's carted off to prison, Iris visits him and explains that she has allowed the pain of their childhood to drive her to become a better, stronger, better-adjusted person, but Daniel is too warped to see anything other than his own pain and anger. When Iris leaves him to his fate, one gets the sense that the prison he's held in is far better than the personal hell he has made for himself.

Barry, of course, revisits his own crisis in light of Daniel's plight. He has to come to terms with the fact that he now knows he can turn back the clock and prevent his mother's murder, but that to do so would come at too high a cost. If altering the past necessarily means altering the present, then he would be putting his own selfish desires above the multitude of those whom he has saved. Commander Spock would frame the conundrum in this way, "Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Barry's decision to not splinter time in an attempt to rescue his mother is also not airbrushed, and there is a cost. It puts a strain on his relationship with his girlfriend, and it means that he must continue to search for evidence to prove his father's innocence. It's a bittersweet but hopeful ending, one that suggests that even the most debilitating and emotionally crippling of childhood traumas might be overcome. It will not be easy—but it is not impossible.

Together, Manapul and Buccellato delivered a triumphant run on The Flash that stands as one of the best things to come out of DC's New 52 era. The synergy between art and narrative has made for a gorgeous comic book that positively simmers with the kooky and old fashioned spirit of the earliest works in the genre. It's nice to see Manapul's final chapter give the Scarlet Speedster a poignant, emotionally resonant sendoff. When reading comics is this much fun, what more can you ask for than a mature and clear-eyed final statement that nonetheless leaves readers with a renewed sense of hope?

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Batman and Robin #18: "Undone" (Retrospective)

Batman and Robin #18
Comic books are a fascinating medium. Blending two traditional forms of storytelling, prose and image, these stories are often scorned by the upper echelons of literary criticism—and much of it is deserved. But every now and then, one comes along that transcends genre conventions and catch the eyes of even the literature snobs. These tend to come packaged as "graphic novels." Much harder to do is tell a story in a single issue that warrants serious critical evaluation. Yet Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, and Mick Gray pulled it off.

Tomasi and Gleason's Batman and Robin title, part of DC's New 52 initiative, was a book that prioritized Bruce Wayne's relationship with his mischievous son, Damian. The title nailed their dynamic perfectly, rising above the conventional genre fare to become a thoughtful study on the relationship between fathers and sons. So, when Damian was killed in the pages of another Batman title—an odd creative decision I continue to bemoan—the status quo for Tomasi and Gleason had to undergo an obvious, serious change. Whereas the usual expectation for comic books is to brush such traumatic deaths aside with little more than a passing mention (after all, no one is ever truly dead in this medium), writer Tomasi had something else in mind entirely. And with issue 18 of his run on Batman and Robin, he delivered what can only be described as a masterpiece of the genre in a single issue.

Even more impressive, the story, titled "Undone," is told entirely without text. Usually comic books have speech bubbles that indicate dialogue between characters, or thought bubbles to indicate a character's internal thoughts, or words to indicate sound effects—there is none of that here. It's just Gleason's pencils and Gray's ink on display. Though textless, this particularly story loses nothing in the way of narrative force, as Tomasi chooses to tell this one with a total reliance on emotional beats rather than a traditional plot structure. The payoff is an unexpected emotional resonance.

Readers of this remarkable issue are carried through Bruce's very authentic procession of grief via hauntingly beautiful imagery that makes his emotional turbulence all the more palpable. As he struggles to cope with his son's death, he sits alone in complete and total darkness. He curls his fingers into his palms so fiercely the skin breaks. When he goes out on patrol as Batman, he stalks the night with unusual menace and ferocity. But try as he might to find ways of escaping his pain, he constantly sees reminders of Damian all around him, even as fleeting glimpses in the reflections of building windows. These are simple images that work on a gut level and are sure to resonate with anybody who has lost someone close to them. This is the kind of hurt that only subsides with time and distance—and even then, it subsides only because memory is a funny thing, and because something else in life will always come along to demand emotional investment. Were it not for those things, then it's likely this kind of hurt would never go away. And it all culminates in a brutal, heartbreaking final panel that will shatter even the sternest of resolves.

If the old adage that "a picture is worth a thousand words" is true, then Batman and Robin #18 is an epic of intimate scale that lays bare the darkest corners of the Batman's tormented soul. For being a completely textless issue, this comic is anything but silent.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Captain America: The First Avenger (Retrospective)

After a plethora of dark knights, tortured heroes, and spoiled brats learning to go straight, viewing a film as good-natured as Marvel's Captain America: The First Avenger comes as a breath of fresh air in a genre threatened with staleness. Having met Tony, Bruce, and Thor, we are finally introduced to Captain America—the star-spangled man with a plan. Functioning as the Marvel analogue to DC's Superman, he fights for truth, justice, and, quite literally, the American way.

Marvel's Captain America: The First Avenger
The framework story follows the exploits of S.H.I.E.L.D., the shadowy organization led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), as they seek to recover the long-lost Captain America for reasons unknown. The narrative proper begins when the film catapults us back to an alternate version of World War II. Here we meet Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny young man who is a patriot at heart and wants nothing more than to join the Allied fight against the Axis powers. But, despite numerous attempts, a plethora of health conditions have prevented him from enlisting. When his best friend, James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan), prepares to ship out, he has a conversation with Rogers that's overheard by Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine is immediately taken with Rogers's heart and determination, and schemes to have the young man enlisted in a special program headed up by Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), your typical military curmudgeon, and overseen by Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a spitfire of a British officer.

Seemingly against all odds, Rogers is chosen from the program's candidates to undergo a unique super-soldier experiment. In one of the film's best moments, Erskine explains to Rogers why he's been chosen. It has nothing to do with his physical capabilities, but because of his character and heart. Unlike Tony, Bruce, and Thor, Steve is already formed and well-adjusted. He's a true hero, through and through, brave and courageous despite what's stacked against him. So, Rogers undergoes the experiment, and emerges the perfect specimen of a human soldier, but he's got a moral compass already honed to a fine point. Of course, government suits try to get involved and Phillips tries to keep him off the front lines, but eventually he proves himself the hero we all know him to be when he liberates nearly 400 prisoners of war.

His adventures bring him into conflict with Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a confidante of Hitler's and leader of the terrorist organization known as HYDRA, as well as someone who takes Nazi occultism to extremes. He tampers with forbidden sciences all in the name of world domination, with hopes of eventually toppling Hitler himself. He's a kind of perfect antithesis for Captain America, having undergone a similar super-soldier experiment, only to turn inward. He's malformed and selfish, and Weaving portrays him with all the mustache-twirling glee one would expect from this kind of larger-than-life villain.

The side-characters we meet along the way are all likable, probably because the cast is rounded out by wonderful character actors like Neal McDonough as the husky "Dum Dum" Dugan. We also get a nice bit of connective tissue in the form of Dominic Cooper, who portrays the brilliant Howard Stark, who will eventually father Tony. And the whole thing ends on a surprisingly bittersweet note, as Captain America wakes up in the present day and meets Nick Fury, bringing the whole thing full circle.

Captain America: The First Avenger really is a fun film with a lot of heart. It doesn't have the quips and wisecracks or offbeat humor of Iron Man or Thor, nor does it put front and center a protagonist wrestling through personal conflicts, like The Incredible Hulk. Instead, what we have here is a film that works from a much older template, the kind of big, blockbuster action-adventure war movie that Hollywood used to revel in. If, in watching the previous MCU films, we learn to admit when we're wrong and how to grow, Captain America gives us a hero that we can look up to, an ideal to which we can aspire. Now that we've met Steve Rogers, the Avengers have found their leader. And all that's left for them to do is assemble.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Thor (Retrospective)

Upon each viewing, I find myself enjoying the fourth film of the MCU immensely. By this point, the training wheels are off, and the production companies have plotted a firm course toward bringing the Avengers together, and the rest of the team must be introduced. In this way, Thor feels like a much freer film than Marvel's previous outing, Iron Man 2. Rather than trying to build out characters from the Iron Man movies, Thor pivots hard into new genres and territories. Much of the action unfolds on a cosmic playing field known as the Nine Realms, detailing a conflict between the realms of Asgard and Jotunheim. When Earth finally crops up in the story, it's almost a stopover for the broader conflict.

Marvel's Thor (2011)
When the brash Thor (Chris Hemsworth), son of the Asgardian king, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), is stripped of his title and power and banished to Earth for his insolence in provoking a conflict between Asgard and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, what follows is a character arc very similar to that of Tony Stark's in the first Iron Man. The heart of this story is that of a man who never grew beyond being a spoiled brat learning to both take responsibility for his actions, and temper his contemptuous attitude with patience and respect. After falling for a mortal, the brilliant fringe scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and being fed a sinister lie by his traitorous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor grows into a man worthy of reclaiming what he's lost.

Much like Iron Man, if heroes are meant to instill in us virtues and ethics, then Thor presents a worthy hero. Not because he wields great power, but because he undergoes a profound change of heart. He goes from selfish and cocksure to selfless and modest, willing to give up his own life for the people of Earth. Similar to how Christ admonishes his disciples to deny themselves and take up their own cross in Luke 9, Thor quite literally dies a death to self. And only in dying does he find life again. In a blast of thunder, he is resurrected to reclaim his title and fearsome power, and this is what lends the film its transcendent quality. 

This is the stuff of myth and legend, what C. S. Lewis called the myth of the Dying God in his wonderful essay, "Myth Became Fact." These myths of Pagan messiahs and Pagan gods who die and rise again in fantasy are "good dreams," Lewis calls them in Mere Christianity, echoes in fantasy of the Father's plan worked out in reality—myth becoming fact in a particular time and place in human history. These stories, these virtues, point to Christ, a kind of basic morality system common to all humans, however sinful we might be. The very fact that we can conceive of stories like the one told in Thor, these pure expressions of virtue, suggests that there is, in fact, the purest expression of virtue, or the greatest story ever told. The mortal characters in the film, specifically Stellan Skarsgård's Erik Selvig, even discuss this in the context of the myths and legends of Norse mythology coming to life before their very eyes.

Thor is a marked improvement over Iron Man 2. Within a fantasy of warring gods and monsters, the film finds its heart in a timeless and human story about a bad man learning to be good. Between Iron Man, the Hulk, and Thor, it's easy to see how these initial films in the MCU managed to capture audiences the world over, and should banish any lingering doubts as to whether or not the once-lambasted characters in the pages of funny little 20th century picture books have become some of the definitive myths and fables of our times.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Superman: Man of Tomorrow (Review)

The origin story of Kal-El of Krypton is perhaps the best known among the pantheon of modern mythic heroes. That little spaceship crashing into the American heartland is more iconic than the scattering of Martha Wayne's pearls. The story of a boy trying to grow up in a small town, all the while knowing that he'll never quite fit in, is quintessential without losing an ounce of relatability. And the image of the god-man descending from the heavens with an outstretched hand to pull up a floundering humanity from the dredges of existence is, perhaps, the most primal story ever told.

Superman: Man of Tomorrow (2020)

All of that basic, archetypal storytelling coalesces into the story of Superman, the original superhero, and the most popular of modern mythopoetic icons. Turn him over, and stamped somewhere on his bright red Kryptonian cape you'll see, "Made in America." Yet the story's plot, themes, and character archetypes transcend any one culture or time or place. Perhaps this is what makes the origin story of Superman worth telling over and over again.

With Superman: Man of Tomorrow, we are given yet another take on this familiar tale. For all intents and purposes, there's really nothing new here. In a sense, anyone with a passing familiarity with Superman (voiced here by Darren Criss) has seen all of this before. Yet writer Tim Sheridan has found a new way of packaging the story, a different means of delivery. For example, I really don't recall J'onn J'onzz (Ike Amadi) having played such a prominent role in Superman's early days. But he takes on an important role in Sheridan's version of events. The same goes for intergalactic hotrod bounty hunter Lobo, voiced by the perfectly-cast Sons of Anarchy alum, Ryan Hurst.

Lois Lane (Alexandra Daddario) gets a new haircut, but remains the intrepid reporter we all know and love. Ma and Pa Kent (Bellamy Young and Neil Flynn) still lead simple lives on the farm, always ready to dish out some good ol' fashioned, homespun common sense life advice on the fly. But the story has, smartly, been updated to appeal to modern audiences. When the Kents try and walk Clark through knotting a tie, now they're doing it over video call on a cell phone. These are the subtle ways that demonstrate just how timeless this story really is.

The actual mechanics of the plot are the usual comic book nonsense, but Sheridan at least attempts to imbue the proceedings with some heart. While Lobo is the first major villain encountered, and classic Superman baddie Lex Luthor (Zachary Quinto) remains an ominous presence throughout, the real villain is the lesser-known Parasite (Brett Dalton), a tragic victim of circumstance, having once been a regular chap named Rudy Jones, who just so happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. However briefly, the film also touches on themes such as mankind's innate fear of "the other," or "the alien," which might seem like ideas "ripped from the headlines," until you realize that most every Superman origin tale has touched on those same themes, some with more profound things to say than others.

Superman: Man of Tomorrow is not the greatest take on Superman's origin. There are too many characters at play, and some of the more compelling relationships are lost in the shuffle as a result. Yet this is not a particularly bad movie. The art style is simple and pleasing. The characters are fleshed out. And the necessary boxes are checked. Perhaps Man of Tomorrow is simply guilty of playing the story too straight, of not trying to add anything new to the tale. If you're not already a fan of Superman, this movie probably won't convert you.

But, when it comes to these sorts of classic stories, which we have read and watched and enjoyed time and again for the past eighty years now, there's a real sense of not fixing what isn't broken. And there are far worse sins to commit when retelling an iconic origin story than giving Lois a new haircut, and letting Ma and Pa Kent wrestle with how to work the camera on a cell phone.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Flash, Volume 3: Gorilla Warfare (Review)

Continuing their wildly successful reimagining of the Flash, Manapul and Buccellato deliver some of their best work on the title with Gorilla Warfare. The story picks up where the previous volume ends, with Grodd's forces raining into Central City. Grodd has returned, believing himself the only one capable of wielding the power of the Speed Force, and he's not going to let anyone stand in his way. In many ways, this story acts as a culmination of the work the creators have done thus far, as it's all hands on deck with heroes and villains alike uniting against this unprecedented threat.

The Flash, Volume 3: Gorilla Warfare
Wrapping up the Grodd invasion story takes up the majority of the volume, though the back half changes up the storytelling a bit, offering a few smaller narratives. One in particular sees Barry temporarily losing his powers in the middle of a sticky situation, and being forced to improvise. But these are the kinds of risks that Manapul and Buccellato are willing to take as storytellers, which keeps things fresh and prevents the execution from ever becoming too predictable. Perhaps the book's biggest tease comes in the form of Reverse-Flash, one of our titular hero's greatest villains. First introduced way back in the 1940s as "the Rival," Reverse-Flash is the Flash's archenemy, and arguably his biggest threat. We get a look at the character's New 52 redesign in this volume, and—minor qualms about the character's look aside—the tease is pretty spectacular.

One thing I've noticed reading through the series is the story's deft pacing. Barry moves faster than anything on the planet, and the story zips along pretty quickly, never giving us time to lull into the absurdity of the story being told. Talking gorillas? Don't worry about that, the story says, just go with it. This lends the title a unique, pulpy feel that feels like the story could have been ripped from an older time. And that is, perhaps, why The Flash was so well-received by audiences and critics alike during The New 52 relaunch. Though this is a ground-up reimagining of characters that have been staples of pop culture for decades now, as firmly fixed in the public imagination—if not more so—as any classic character from literature or the early days of film, what Manapul and Buccellato have managed to do here is recapture the feeling of the era in which comic books were birthed.

There are well-documented connections between the decades of pulp fiction and the early years of comic book superheroes. Pulp characters like the Phantom, the Avenger, the Shadow, and Doc Savage were all prototypical superheroes, somewhat pure and distilled archetypes that formed the bedrock of what would become the modern mythological superhero phenomenon. These early stories were known for the ways in which they thumbed their noses to critics. This was not high literature, nor did it pretend to be. Pulp writers were working class people who didn't have the luxury of drinking bourbon and smoking thoughtfully on a pipe whilst waxing poetic until the perfect phrase came to them. They had a word count they had to hit, and if character development had to be sacrificed to tell the story, so be it. They could develop that character later, in another tale. All that mattered was plot, the driving force behind the narrative. These were tales aimed at popular audiences, not literature professors. And what critics lambasted, audiences loved, and comics book creators have spent nearly a century now trying to claw their way out from under those prejudices. Only in the past decade or so has the academic perspective on comic books really begun to change.

The Flash catapults us back to that earlier era of b-movie plots and outlandish characters all servicing the most zany stories a writer could dream up. Manapul and Buccellato clearly love the character and the genre, and the art continues to wrap this wild story in a gorgeous package that makes reading it not only feel like a rediscovery of something older and more primal, but also an absolute pleasure. For anyone interested in a modern comic book that has all the quirks and madcap trappings of a bygone era in storytelling, The Flash is a title you don't want to miss.

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Marvel's The Avengers (Retrospective)

Marvel's The Avengers  (2012) After four years and five films of teases and buildup, The Avengers  landed with no small amount of fanfar...