Thursday, May 28, 2009

Superman lives... despite Brian Singer

The Occasional Superheroine recently mentioned this commentary about why Superman Returns failed to score big at the box office.

"Audiences no longer crave truth, justice and the American way. They want an icy-cold, psychologically jacked hero that shoots heroin in the women's restroom after ripping out the spine of a baddie while bemoaning Corporate America. Superman, the embodiment of all that is good and right, is now merely looked upon with nostalgia -- not as a viable Hollywood product."

Reading the commentary, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the film exec who claimed that “movies starring women don’t sell,” citing the 2004 Halle Berry vehicle Catwoman as an example. Now, I’ve never actually seen the film, or any trailers that I can recall, but just from the poster I could tell you that’s a crap movie.

But with Superman Returns, the writer poses the idea that the movie failed because Superman was too pure, and supports the theory that the world wants a darker Superman. But the whole “Dark Superman” premise is exactly why Returns failed. Or rather, it’s that the film wanted it both ways.

Director Brian Singer made his name with his 1995 film The Usual Suspects, a very dark and cerebral crime drama. Geeks celebrate him for the first two X-Men movies, which managed to be good movies which also captured the spirit of the comic quite well. But with Superman Returns, Singer tried to merge his talents for dark melodrama and flawed characters with the cartoony iconography of Richard Donner’s Superman movies. There were numerous nods to those films – most obvious being Brandon Routh’s dead-on impersonation of Christopher Reeve – but mixed with those was a hard edge that didn’t fit the character.

You want dark? There’s the scene where Lex Luthor stabs Superman with the kryptonite shard and breaks it off inside of him, prison shank-style, then has his thugs mercilessly beat the hell out of our hero. When Superman is lifting up the giant kryptonite island, and one of Lex’s minions is crushed by a falling rock – something which Superman is either unaware of or just doesn’t care about. Oh, and the part where Superman’s illegitimate son kills a bad guy with a piano.

What caused Superman to fail wasn’t its lack of darkness, but that it tried to marry this darkness with the naiveté of the original movies. Having a hammy Perry White chew on his cigar while “gee whiz” Jimmy Olsen runs around trying to get that perfect shot of Superman doesn’t gel with a world of petty criminal kicking a man in the rubs while he dies of radiation poisoning. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the issue of Superman’s son which, let’s face it, was a bad idea from the beginning.

What’s most disheartening is that the Superman movie is simply following the standard of the comics. In the last few years, DC has taken an unfortunate turn in its overall tone. The company has been heavily resurrecting characters from the Silver Age, bringing back Hal Jordan as Green Lantern and most recently (and notably) Barry Allen as the Flash, as well as some of the more gimmicky elements, such as Krypto the Super-Dog or having the Justice League reside in the Hall of Justice from the Super Friends cartoon. This in itself isn’t necessarily bad, but along with these reminders of more “innocent” comics (hero fights villain, wins, no one gets hurt and everything’s fine, the end) comes a more “gritty” vision, perhaps best exemplified by the sequence in Infinite Crisis #1, where villain Deathstroke impales super heroine Phantom Lady with his sword, explaining to her that it’s “just business” as she dies; meanwhile, the once-goofy Superman villain Bizarro punches another hero to death, boasting gleefully the whole time.

This disconnect is jarring, and ultimately gets tedious. This happened before with comics in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, in the wake of The Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. So it’s a bit ironic that, in the wake of the Dark Knight film, we see yet another push toward “gritty” and “realistic” superheroes.

Or perhaps not. While the commentator clearly thinks American audiences don’t want to see noble, righteous people doing good things, we have the success of Star Trek to perhaps indicate otherwise. While the heroes in Trek definitely have their inner dramas – Kirk’s hot-headedness versus innate leadership ability, Spock’s human/Vulcan conflict – ultimately, their goal is the same – defeat the enemy, save the Earth, and live to see the next adventure. Yes, there are casualties in the movie – a whole planet is destroyed – but it’s in that larger-than-life manner that works in Big Adventure movies. What really sells Trek is the crew’s nobility, determination, and camaraderie, without which they could never have been successful.

He’s correct: Superman Returns “failed” because it wasn’t what audiences wanted. But it’s not that they want a dark, flawed hero a la Christopher Nolan’s Batman, it’s because they want a well-made movie that doesn’t deviate so wildly in tone (although the success of X-Men Origins: Wolverine might dispute that). If Smallville has lasted as long as it has, obviously there is an audience. But to write off a character based on one poorly executed and therefore poorly received movie is not only drawing the wrong conclusion, but guarantees more poorly made movies to follow. And the world already has too many of those.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Books you should read (a.k.a. catching up on the reviews)

It's always a busy time in the land of Devastation!, and sometimes that means deserving books don't get their proper dues come weekly review time. To fix this, here are some recently released books worth checking out:

The Amazon #3: In 1989 writer Steven T. Seagle and artist Tim Sale collaborated on a miniseries about a reporter who goes into the Amazon rainforest tracking the story of a missing logger. This just happens to coincide with a series of attacks on a logging camp attributed to locals by the Tanando, the spirit of the forest. What ensues is a Heart of Darkness-style trip down the river, where the reporter encounters the depths and riches of the Amazon, and finds the truth about his story is more complex than he’d thought.
For a work which is 20 years old, The Amazon feels fresh and current. Sadly, issues of deforestation and colonization are still present, which keeps the book from feeling dated. And while it does brandish its message a bit on the blunt side – the image of logging equipment overrun by foliage being fairly pointed – it still works as an examination of man’s interaction with (and exploitation of) both nature and fellow man.
Seagle uses an interesting and effective narrative device of using the reporter’s notes and story as narration. The contradictions and similarities give a rounded dimension to the action and character and give insight into the self editing that goes into making a story. Sale’s thin line work and use of shadow work well with the script, capturing the simultaneous vast expanse and claustrophobic density of the jungle. His art really brings the story to life, especially in scenes where the narrator interacts with the forest villagers. This book is a rare, if slightly flawed, gem that Dark Horse did justice by revealing.

Phonogram: The Singles Club #2: The first Phonogram series, Rue Britannia, was brilliant on many levels – not just in the way writer Kieron Gillen seamlessly interwove the worlds of magic and the Britpop movement of the 90s (as well as music in general), but also that it was filled with strong characters and an emotional depth that made the story satisfying regardless of whether you knew the music or not. Or so it seemed; having been– okay, continuing to be a huge Britpop fan, I really have no idea if someone not familiar with the intricacies of British guitar rock circa 93-97 would be lost or not. But Gillen did provide extensive liner notes and commentary in the back, which one would hope would be effective. Then there’s Jamie McKelvie’s art, which is clean and crisp and just about perfect in every way.
The new series, The Singles Club, takes place in – wait for it – a dance club, and chronicles one night from numerous characters’ perspectives. While the core elements of the first series are present – music, magic, hot young Brits running around – this series focuses more on the people involved, and benefits all the more for it.
This issue is probably the most accessible of all Phonograms so far, both in storytelling and subject matter. This issue introduces us to Marc, a.k.a. Marquis, who along with being young and hip is just (barely) getting over some girl. He and a pal end up in the club, and all is fine, until the Cursed Song comes on, and he comes face to face with the image/spirit of the vibrant, cute, Eastern European girl who broke his heart. Or so it seems, although his reminiscences seem to imply differently.
Everyone’s in top form here. Gillen’s dialogue is just great – from the (unnamed) ex’s accent (“They are nothing but bullshits with bad record collections” has officially entered the lexicon) to Marc’s pal Lloyd’s attempts at pop deconstructionism – and the interactions are revealing in what is and isn’t said. McKelvie’s art is stunning in this book, full of energy and motion, and aided greatly by Matthew Wilson’s colors. All around, this is one of the best books on the stands, and definitely earns the coveted

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #6: The second series featuring Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s dysfunctional family/super-team ends with a bang – several, actually. Picking up where the first series left off, Dallas finds the team in a collective state of despondency after one of their own tried to destroy the world. Each member is pulled – sometimes dragged – out of their individual states when a pair of sugar-addicted assassins with oversized cartoon-character masks try to track down UA member Number Five, whose future/past self (oi, time travel) is supposed to assassinate John F. Kennedy. Along the way, team member Séance meets a cowboy-on-horseback God, team leader Space Boy fights monsters during the Vietnam War, and the Earth blows up. And we learn the secret of one diner’s amazing apple pie.
With just his second series Way has proven to be a consistently talented and flexible writer, able to balance the sci-fi/fantastic elements with genuine emotion and a healthy sense of the absurd. Bá’s art suits the writing well, blending a Mike Mignloa-esque cartoonishness with a strong storytelling ability. While this series possesses a bit more of a downbeat vibe than the first, it’s a fun read, and bodes well for future installments.

The Unwritten #1: Tommy Taylor is a ridiculously popular series of books about a teenage wizard. Tom Taylor is the man who, as a boy, was the inspiration for the books. Or so the story goes. Except that a woman shows up at a press conference with evidence to the contrary. And one of Tommy Taylor’s nemeses shows up to take out Tom Taylor. And there’s still the mystery of why Taylor’s father, the author of the Tommy Taylor series, disappeared. And what does this have to do with a map?
Writer Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross have managed to interweave geek/celebrity obsession, the fantasy/reality overlap, the nature of stories, and a straight-up mystery in what is one of Vertigo’s best offerings in a while. The high concept of the central question – who is Tom Taylor, really? – is buoyed by various real world aspects, as shown by the IMs surrounding a life-feed execution of Tom Taylor by a real-life version of Tommy Taylor’s enemy Count Ambrosio.
It’s hinted that the true scope of the book will be far greater than just one character’s real identity, but even without that the book shows enough promise to warrant further reading. And the first issue’s only a buck, so you can’t go wrong.

I think that catches us up, and just in time for New Comic Day! Time to get back to my experiments of making compost out of all those old Youngblood issues.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

New Comics Reviews!

A short stack of reviews this week, partly because it's a slow week, and partly because I haven't had time to read everything. But not to worry, there'll be a list of things that have fallen through the cracks soon... I swear.

But for now, I present to you:

This Week's Reviews!

Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape #1: Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Franz Kafka and James Joyce co-wrote an episode of The Prisoner using characters from the DC Universe? “Who hasn’t?” you say. Well, now this dream has finally been realized, thanks to FCA:E. The issue begins with former secret agent Nemesis awakening in an undesignated prison cell, surrounded by three women with bobs and mod dresses offering to be his friend. Now, while Your Humble Blogger would call this Heaven, Nemesis is obviously not happy with the situation, especially given the distinct lack of humanity present in his “friends.” His attempted escape leads through an unmarked hallway where he encounters a very ominous looking Mr. Terrific. Then Nemesis runs across Count Vertigo... that's where the acid kicks in*.
Writer Ivan Brandon sets up FCA:E much the same way Patrick Mcgoohan did the Prisoner TV show: base everything around the central character, and play up the sense of confusion and claustrophobia. Except where the Prisoner’s trippy-ness was subtle, here it’s all out, giving Grant Morrison’s meta-writing a run for its money. Artist Marco Rudy handles this well, with panel and figure work that effectively keeps the action just off-kilter enough.
Oh, and then there’s that last page. Yeah, this’ll be worth checking out.

The Punisher: Frank Castle #70: Any issue of the Punisher that opens with a Mexican stand-off between FBI agents, gang bangers and the Russian Mafia is pretty much an automatic win. Crime novelist Duane Swierczynski has delivered the best post-Garth Ennis Punisher storyline so far with this conclusion to his “Six Hours to Kill” arc. For those needing a refresher, the Punisher follows a ring of criminals to Philadelphia, where he is kidnapped and injected with a drug he’s told will kill him in six hours; for the antidote, he merely has to kill a particular mob target. This being the Punisher, he rejects the deal, and a night of mayhem and bloodshed ensues. Swierczynski succeeds in balancing the humor, twists, and straight-up carnage that made this one of the best books for misanthropic thrills. If you’ve missed the previous issues then catch the trade (no doubt coming soon).

The Walking Dead #61: Seriously, if you’re not reading this book, just start already.

So yeah, that's it for now. And remember to visit Detroit Comics and pick up all the "Old Man Logan" reprints, so Owner Brian's kids can eat. You don't want his kids to go hungry, do you? Do You?

*Thank you Kids in the Hall.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Wolverine vs. Star Trek - a lesson in trailers

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this summer’s blockbusters, it’s never trust the trailers.

Take X-Men Origins: Wolverine, for example. From the trailers, it looked like it might share its tone and style with Brian Singer’s X-Men movies, properly balancing a thoughtful, well-written script with some exciting action scenes, all supported by a highly-talented cast. Instead, we got a really talented cast wasted on a script that felt like it was thrown together the weekend before shooting started – and which seemed like a waste of some good characters.

The biggest problem with Wolverine is that it really had a paint-by-numbers feel, introducing various scenes and characters from the comic without any real cohesion. Yes, it all tells one story, but it feels Frankenstein-ed together, and never delivers the impact it was supposed to. That even goes for the action scenes, which end up being a little too CGI-prefect to be really wow-ing.
But hey, it did an ass-ton at the box office, and the sequel (and spin-off) is already in the works, so what do I know?

Logan would like to discuss my criticism personally.

On the other hand...

We have the re-boot of Star Trek. Granted, I may have been a little too purist in my pre-judgment – who could possibly replace Shatner as Kirk? – but I was definitely trepidatious about this film. Yeah, it looked really flashy and hip, but that was never what Star Trek was about – even in that episode with the space hippies.

But thanks mainly to my geeky friends I did end up seeing it, and was happily proven wrong. Very wrong, as it turned out. Give J.J. Abrams (and the screenwriters) credit for keeping what worked with Trek (the personal interactions, the drama, the pseudo-science) and discarding the rest (Scott Bakula – I kid, I kid). Not only did it stay true to the spirit of Star Trek - albeit light on the political metaphor – but it made for a very involving and moving film. And thankfully did well enough that the sequel is in the works.

Spock shows us his happy face.

So the question arises, is the trailer really an inverse indicator of the film’s quality? Not always, of course. But looking at these two examples, maybe there’s hope for Terminator: Salvation after all.

"So, T-800, you ever listen to Huey Lewis?"

Thursday, May 7, 2009

New Comics Reviews!

Thursday evening, and you know that can only mean one thing...

This Week's Reviews!

Daredevil: Noir #2: Definitely one of the best books this week. Picking up from the first issue: Tensions between the rival gang bosses are building, and our characters are getting ready for the impending war. Meanwhile, Daredevil/Matt discovers that gang boss Orville Halloran was the man who killed his father, altering his motivation greatly. And the mysteries of the Bull’s Eye Killer and Eliza, Halloran’s moll deepen. The minor complaints I had with the writing in the first issue are gone; Alexander Irvine’s script is taut, and not only plays the split between the Matt Murdoch and Daredevil identities well, but takes the “overwhelmed senses” exposition from last issue and shows how it plays into DD’s heroics. Tom Coker’s art is still top notch, especially in a rainy sequence at the end of the book. This book manages to merge the Shadow-style pulp with the straight crime stories of Mickey Spillaine, and doesn’t come off in any way cliché.

Destroyer #2: Still brilliant. With the premise set up, writer Robert Kirkman goes right into the meat of the story, focusing on Destroyer’s search for his arch nemesis Scar, while trying to protect his family from the inevitable backlash that comes with deciding to kill all the super villains before he dies. Unfortunately, he finds his efforts aren’t as effective as he thought.
All the raves I gave this book last issue still apply, and along with Daredevil: Noir it gets the

Final Crisis Aftermath: Run! #1: As much of a mindfudge as Final Crisis was, it was still an Event, and as such requires its share of spin-off series. What else are superhero comics about, right? FCA:R is the first of these, and focuses on Mike Miller, a.k.a. the Human Flame, a third-rate super villain whose claim to fame in FC is that Martian Manhunter was killed on his behalf, and he was the first villain to fall victim to the Anti-Life Equation. Now that the Crisis is over, he’s fresh out of a coma and trying to high-tail it out of town before the cops/super-heroes/pissed off super-villains get him. In the course of doing so, and with the aid of a stoner friend, he incurs the wrath of the Kyrgyzstani mob. Madcap hi-jinks ensue.
The book is obviously trying to play up the farcical elements of the story – there’s even a shoot-out in a farm-themed fast-food restaurant (a nod to Kevin Smith?) – but it doesn’t quite connect, and the humor just falls flat. We’ve seen the “loser as protagonist" schtick played well, but here the jokes just seem tired. Miller insults hospital patients, steals his ex-wife’s car after convincing her he’s a changed man, or using his old (and predictably defective) prototype suit, and while it could work, it just feels very by the numbers. I guess I’d hope for more from a book featuring a main character who looks like Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

The Flash: Rebirth #2: Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, is officially back from the dead. For readers under 40 this may not be the “ZOMG massive awesome event” that DC editor-in-chief Dan DiDio hopes it to be, but thanks to writer Geoff Johns it at least makes for decent reading.
This issue continues to examine Barry’s reluctance about returning to life. A flashback introduces us to his first meeting with wife Iris, and sheds light into the motivation for his crimefighting career – the apparent murder of his mother by his father, whose guilt Barry questions. Problems with the Speed Force arise, which brings all the speed-based heroes into story. As with the other DC Silver Age heroes who were brought back after being gone for a while (Green Lantern, Green Arrow), the series tries to update the character while remaining true to its roots. So far, Johns is doing a good job of this, by keeping the focus on the mystery behind the return. If they have to bring the dead heroes back, there are far worse ways to handle it.

New Mutants #1: In the ‘80s, the New Mutants was one of the most distinct X- books, thanks mainly to artist Bill Sieniewicz’s unique art, but also Chris Claremont’s bringing back the “teenage mutant” vibe that X-Men were too established to convey. The new series reunites four of the core members, all grown up, as they investigate the disappearance of two of their team mates. This leads them to small town Colorado, and some very unnerving discoveries.
As with most X- titles, having a working knowledge of the characters really does help, although having not read the X-Infernus series or really, any X- book since the ‘90s, I could still pick up enough from the dynamics to follow the story. And credit writer Zeb Wells with pulling off the best element of Chris Claremont’s writing, which was the interplay between the numerous characters. This book is a good continuation of the spirit of the first, and the story’s intriguing enough to warrant further interest.

Power Girl#1: Power Girl has always been an odd duck of a character. Created as a cousin of the Golden Age Super Man, through all the continuity revamps at DC her back story has changed almost as often as Wolverine’s, and as a character she really wasn’t much more than a second-rate Supergirl. With this issue writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti try to reconcile that and make her a character in her own right. In the course of this we see P.G., aka Karen Starr, try to establish a new life, having been separated from her birth universe. In the middle of this, alien robots show up in New York City, and start smashing the place up while emitting rays causing mass hysteria and violence in the streets. And then the Ultra-Humanite, a super-intelligent gorilla with telepathy, makes his entrance.
There’s a lot to take in in this issue, between the action scenes and Karen trying to create her alter ego life. Gray and Palmiotti manage to balance it all, and future issues will see if they can keep it up. For now, not a bad start.

And that's a wrap! And remember to pick up your books at Detroit Comics, a.k.a. the Fortress of Attitude!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Your Monday morning dose of awesome!

(The frustrated edition)

I've been trying to post this pic for a while now, but have apparently fallen out of favor with the HTML gods. But! You need to see this, so just click here. Trust me on this. You can find out more info on the pic on artist David Finch's blog.

Now I'm off to sacrifice a SQL book to get back into good graces.