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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017, dir. James Gunn)

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The Guardians have made a name for themselves and now act as heroes for hire. They finish up their latest job, protecting the energy source of The Sovereign, a genetically engineered “perfect race” but run into trouble on the way out. This leads to Peter Quill meeting his father for the first time, a strange man named Ego. Meanwhile, Yondu and his Ravagers are hired by a party disgruntled with The Guardians and wanting revenge. Gamora is also dealing with family issues (her vengeful sister Nebula), and everyone else seems to have their own interesting arcs as well.

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Logan (2017, dir. James Mangold)

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I remember being between by freshman and sophomore years of college and going to see X-Men in the movie theater. This was our first introduction to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Jackman almost wasn’t this iconic mutant; it would have been Dougray Scott who dropped out of X-Men to play the villain in Mission Impossible III. But now Jackman and Wolverine are constants throughout the X-Franchise, even shoehorned in cameos in First Class and Apocalypse. He is the star of what is roundly considered the worst film of the lot: X-Men: Origins: Wolverine. With Logan, his tenure as this character, and Patrick Stewart’s role as Charles Xavier comes to a close.

We learn at one point that the year is 2029 and for a little, over a year James Howlett aka Logan aka Wolverine has been in hiding with Charles Xavier and another mutant, Caliban. Some catastrophic event occurred that forced these three into the Mexican wilderness. Logan is saving up cash to purchase a Sunseeker yacht and take Charles as far from humanity as possible. Time has caught up to our protagonist. He moves slower and stumbles more often. His claws are impeded by arthritis and injuries that aren’t healing like they used to. While trying to live a quiet life Logan’s path crosses with that of a nurse and a little girl who desperately need his help. There’s one final mission for Logan and Charles where they must struggle past their physical and psychological issues to be heroes again.

In contemplating this film, I realized that we haven’t had a big screen superhero send off like this ever. If we look back at the iconic comic book movie franchise, they more often than not fizzle out and just end with a whimper. Christopher Reeve ended his tenure as Superman with a dismal fourth installment. Michael Keaton left Batman due to creative disagreements. Tobey Maguire danced his way out of Spider-Man with Ted Raimi’s third installment. Christian Bale’s Batman seems to be the only movie superhero I can think of with a proper ending to their iteration, and that is not regarded too well. For close to two decades Hugh Jackman has played this character, even after some films that any of us would have forgiven him from not returning after. So there is a special sentimentality to Logan.

There’s no doubt I loved this film. Will it be on my top ten of the year at the close of 2017? Probably not. But if I were to make a list of best comic book films this is up there. What helps Logan transcend the weight of the convoluted X-Franchise is that it doesn’t need the other films to work. You could switch out the X-Men with any generic superhero team, and the allusions to past events still work just a well. Instead of looking at this as a piece of a larger franchise, writer-director James Mangold smartly chooses to make the film a character piece. I have much stronger memories of the character moments than the action set pieces and that is quite an accomplishment these days in big-budget studio fare. The relationships between the three core characters (Logan, Charles, and Laura) feel honest, and choices they make are affected by these relationships. Logan’s hesitance to take Laura in and embark on her quest is true to his character.

The acting from the three most important cast members is phenomenal. You likely won’t see better performances in another 20th Century X-Picture ever again. Jackman is very comfortable in the skin of Logan and adds more layers with the affliction of age. It would be interesting to go back and watch the action sequences in X-Men and X2, comparing them to the awkwardness and lumbering of Logan in this film. Killing is taking a physical and emotional toll on the protagonist, and we see it how he slows down, how he falls. I have to say I don’t think I have ever seen Patrick Stewart in a role quite like this. The staid, headmaster of previous films is gone, and now we have a very broken, crass, angry Charles Xavier. He floats between states of consciousness due to medication, and when he does gain clarity of mind, it brings up tragic truths Logan sought to bury from his mentor. Dafne Keen as Laura delivers a very powerful performance. She is forced to hold her own against Jackman who is giving probably his best work, and she never flinches. For the majority of the film Keen is non-verbal and how an actor does in a role that asks them to act through reacting is a great litmus test. She has the makings of someone very special because she understands Laura isn’t just an angry Lil’ Wolverine. There is history beneath the surface, and she chooses to reveal that in interesting ways.

There are strong allusions to other films. The most obvious is the 1953 Western film Shane which Charles and Laura watch in a hotel room. The ending monolog of Shane is quoted in Logan’s climax, and it pretty much spells out the themes and ideas Mangold is aiming for. I don’t enjoy this element of comic book films, where at some point characters or the director put up big neon signs that point at what we’re meant to learn from the picture. I’d prefer to infer theme from watching the story unfold, and this element is a big part of why Logan isn’t going to end up as one of my top favorites of the year. Just a personal preference, but one that has always had me keep comic book films at arm’s length. There is also a moment in the third act that is blatantly nodding to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and I loved that film acknowledge it was taking a lot of inspiration from the structure of those films.

If I could just end the X-Men franchise with this film, I would. 20th Century Fox has other ideas it seems. I hope that they look at Logan not for what it is on the surface, but for what it represents in the way comic book properties can work beyond just four color summer tentpole action. In the hands of the right creative people, these characters can be elevated and be central to stories that go much deeper than audiences expect.

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We began our session with anti-mutant protests right outside Dr. Green’s clinic, a known safe place for mutants. A counter protest also showed up in support of the mutants and police were present to keep things from escalating. Ajax and Monster were working at the time, and both had to temper their personal feelings. Though they did spy an unmarked armored truck out of which a small squad of SWAT-like soldiers emerged. They hung back, but something about them rubbed Ajax the wrong way. The shelter was located in a district called The Tumbledown, which came from a devastating earthquake decades ago. Ajax takes advantage of that fact and uses his geo-manipulation just to rattle the earth beneath the protestors enough that they are scared away by a minor tremor.

 

The Order - Shooting Star

Shooting Star, the speedster member of The Order

The next day, an explosion is heard in the skies of Halcyon City, and smoke is seen coming from The Panopticon, the floating island headquarters of The Order. Ajax and Shatterstorm are in class at Halcyon High. Shatterstorm is easily able to excuse himself due to his frequent work at his dad’s laboratory at the University. However, Vice Principal Quesada remembers Ajax ignoring him when he left the other day to deal with Risk Imsit. Quesada is hearing none of Ajax’s excuses and sends him back to class. To help, Shatterstorm sets off the fire alarm, and the entire student body is rushed outside. Quesada tries to keep an eye on Ajax and loses him in the crowd.

 

Ajax and Shatterstorm meet up with Sparks and Monster, and the four fly Sparks’ ship to dock with the Panopticon. On board they find American Steel battered and beaten. He tells them the “thing” is in the labs before passing out. Sparks’ AI D.A.D. brings Steel to the sickbay while the Refugees continue. They head to the anti-gravity generator and get it back online, so the island isn’t on the verge of crashing into the city. Then they head to the labs but get sidetracked on the way from cries of help in the holding cells. Risk Imsit, the alien bounty hunter who tried to return Sparks to Rio Prime, is being manipulated by strange disruptions in the gravitons on board. He’s rescued and accompanies the Refugees to the labs.

In the labs, the Refugees find Timekeeper containing a strange cloaked figure in one of her time bubbles. Shooting Star and The Badge lay unconscious on the ground. There’s no sign of the occultist Mr. Phantasmo. The block of Ifritium taken by the Order lays in chunks nearby, the team making the inference that this cloaked figure emerged from the stone. Sparks’ wrist device tells her the device is in the room and she identifies it as the ornate belt the cloaked one is wearing. Shatterstorm manipulates the gravitons around the time bubble and snatches the belt, which ends up containing a small piece of Ifritium. The time bubble shatters and Timekeeper goes hurtling through the walls of the facility.

The cloaked figure eyes the new challengers and acknowledges Shatterstorm by speaking an ancient form of Obrijianian, the language of Shatterstorm’s birthplace. He also appears to have the same powers as Shatterstorm, but more refined and able to manipulate gravitons on a much larger scale. The cloaked one refers to Shatterstorm as “grandson.” A battle ensues and ends with the cloaked one blasting a hole through the Panopticon and flying away. The Refugees message AEGIS who say they have a ship on the way, however, the cloaked figure intercepts and kills everyone onboard, crushing the vessel into a small piece of metal scrap.

 

Villain - Impetus

Impetus, master of gravity and ancestor of Shatterstorm?

After failing to get ahold of his father, Shatterstorm leads to the team to Dr. Batin’s lab at Ditko University. Dr. Batin is there working and appears shocked to see them, though his son senses something off in the gravitational field in the room. The cloaked one reveals himself, having manipulated the gravity of the light in the room to conceal himself. A second fight begins that leaves Ajax miles away with multiple fractures and unconscious. Through distraction and manipulation, the cloaked one is eventually taken down, but not before it is revealed that Dr. Batin is simply a graviton construct, an illusion. AEGIS arrive and lock the villain up, coding the name Impetus onto his cell. However, Dr. Batin is still missing.

 

Ajax is in the Halcyon metahuman hospital and receives a call from his parents that they will be having a conversation about his future with the Refugees. He also receives a video message from his villainous former mentor Croydon Samford (who is currently on trial for crimes against humanity). Samford hints that they will be seeing each other soon and attached an encrypted data file. Sparks is finally contacted by her father, The Grand LeBon of Rio Prime, who explains his desperation to get her back to her homeworld: He is dying and needs her to run the planetary industry. Senator Hu’s anti-mutant legislation has led to the development of a private security force, Vanguard, a subsidiary of BanCon Industries to help quell tension in urban areas. Things are looking dire for the Refugees with one more session before a hiatus.

Dredd (2012, dir. Peter Travis)

Judge Dredd Still Image

Mega-City One is an urban sprawl filled with crime and poverty. Enforcing the rule of law in this crumbling post-apocalyptic landscape as the Judges, a natural combination of judge-jury-executioner. The most famous of these brutal lawmen is Judge Dredd, an enigmatic figure who is more of a justice-dispensing machine than a human being. He’s charged with testing rookie Judge Anderson on what ends up being one of his toughest days. The call comes from the large tenement Peach Trees that there has been a triple homicide. The Judges quickly learn these murders are tied to a threat is plaguing all of Mega-City One.

Most movie-savvy people are aware of Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 trash fire of a film, Judge Dredd. His adaptation of the popular UK comic book made a ton of errors that betrayed the spirit of the source material. He rarely wore his Judge’s helmet after the opening action sequence, and the script gave a lot of backstory to the Judge. These story elements are pretty antithetical to the nature of the comic book. The film ended up highlighting the more absurd elements and has become a perennial entry of the Worst Films of All Time lists. So, this reboot had a tremendously bad reputation to overcome.

Dredd manages to stay very faithful to the source material, even the more fantastic parts while delivering a character-centered story. Apparently inspired by The Raid, Dredd focuses its action within the walls of Peach Trees, a housing complex that provides plenty of set pieces and a palpable tension. When you have nowhere to run from the forces out to kill you, it will inevitably bring out more ferocious elements in humans. With a character like Judge Dredd, he is absolutely in his environment with this scenario. To say Dredd is a violent film is an understatement. This is a gory, visceral, kill fest. Yet, it tells a compelling story, particularly through Judge Anderson.

In the same way, Max in the Mad Max films is merely a cipher through which to tell a story, writer Alex Garland fashions Dredd into the same type of protagonist. It is entirely unimportant what Dredd was like as a child or the what the moment was that he forfeited his humanity to become an arbiter of justice. Instead, he is the vessel that helps tell the story of Judge Anderson’s loss of innocence. Actor Karl Urban takes on a role many actors would shirk at, the majority of his face covered with the entire film. But Urban, a fan of the comic, expressed that he understood why keeping Dredd’s identity obscured was essential to the character. Olivia Thirlby as Anderson first appears as your typical by the book, nervous rookie but by the end of the film, she is able to hold onto her humanity while acknowledging the violence that people can be pushed towards. The exact route her character will take within the fiction of the film is left for us to wonder about.

Lena Headey plays the movie’s central antagonist, Mama. I was absolutely thrilled with the choices she made in playing this crime boss villain. The minute she spoke I knew I was going to love her performance because she chose to be quiet in the way she spoke. This wasn’t the godawful Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Rising sort of calm quiet then SHOUTING performance. We learned a lot about Mama through how she communicated. In the environment where she grew up, words carried little currency. For people in places like Peach Trees, a threat is worth nothing if there isn’t a physical punishment behind it. Mama makes sure to inflict brutal horrors on people who cross her. Even in the final showdown between Dredd and Mama we have her maintaining a very calm, quiet hate in her voice.

Dredd succeeds and undoing and helping the audience forget everything about the 90s attempt to adapt the property. It is definitely elevated above your average comic book fare as well. It has tons of social commentary cleverly embedded in amongst the brutal violence. It is definitely one of those futures that, while extreme and different than our modern day, still feels unsettlingly familiar and far too close to our lifetimes.

 

 

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We kicked off our first full session of Masks: Refugees with our characters in their personal lives. Sparks has offered up her home/spaceship to Monster, who is actually homeless. Sparks, whose entire race has been inspired by pop culture from the 1980s, as her ship taking the form of a suburban home complete with a white picket fence and a tree house in the backyard. However, her ship is parked in the middle of a gentrified urban

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D.A.D, the artificial intelligence on Sparks’ ship.

block, so it sticks out like a sore thumb, saves the hypno-inducer that causes people to just glance over it most of the time. Her onboard A.I. is named D.A.D. and appears as Greg Evigan from My Two Dads. His personality is modeled after cool sitcom dads from the 1980s though he shifts into a stoic mode when emergencies occur. Her race is known as the Duranians. We also established that Sparks’ native language would destroy human brains, so human minds have evolved to mishear the words and replace them with common nouns. Her mother’s name is heard as Queen Diamond when spoken, for example.

 

Since the first game session, I’ve built out the Duranians a bit more. Their homeworld is Rio Prime, and Sparks’ dad holds the title of The Grand LeBon. A cultural revolution was occurring at the same time transmissions of Earth culture from the 1980s were intercepted. As a result, their society now looks like America circa 1985.

Across town, Akil Batin aka Shatterstorm is helping his father, Professor Batin at Halcyon University with a shipment that has arrived from their home country of Obrijan. Despite the ongoing civil war there, the Professor was able to obtain a block of a pure element with a strong effect on gravitons. The Professor believes this element may be tied to his family’s abilities to manipulate gravity. Mishaps occur when he attempts to break a chunk off, and Akil begins to hear a voice emanating from the massive monolith, beckoning him to come closer and embrace his power. Akil holds back and gets a great excuse to leave when an alien vessel arrives at Sparks’ place demanding her return to Rio Prime.

 

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Risk Imsit, intergalactic bounty hunter

Ajax is in the middle of class when the alien invasion lockdown drill occurs. He skips school despite protestations from Vice Principal Quesada and meets up with the Refugees. The alien ship, an obvious junker, unloads some refurbished strike drones who blast open the door of Sparks’ house. Monster plows into them creating an opportunity for Sparks to reconfigure an old block cell phone into a one use teleporter that pops the team onto the ship. Shatterstorm and Ajax use their powers to crush and destroy mecha-tentacles that emerge from the walls to bind them while Sparks and Monster find the engine room and disconnect the fusion core. The Refugees storm the control deck and find bounty hunter Risk Imsit there, having taken up the reward offered by The Grand LeBon to bring his daughter back. Sparks uses her pheromone powers to enamor Imsit and convince him to leave Earth.

 

However, The Order arrives this time with The Badge (shield bearer), Shooting Star (speedster), and Mr. Fantasmo (occultist) in their line up. They immediately screw up the headway the Refugees made with Imsit and demand that he must be turned over to AEGIS. Sparks tries to use a holographic communication with her mother citing intergalactic treaties about extradition, but The Badge counters with a more masterful knowledge of the law. Sparks is obviously pissed and Imsit, still in his charmed stupor is taken off.

Monster and Ajax head off to their regular volunteering at a clinic/shelter run by Dr. Green. Dr. Green is an Iraq war vet who had her skin turned green from toxic chemical agents. No powers, just green skin. She is incredibly empathic and focuses on helping vets, runaway kids, and battered women at her shelter. She counsels Ajax about defying authority at school and how he needs to think about doing what will lead him to a better future, not returning to who he used to be. The calm is interrupted by a special announcement about anti-mutant legislation proposed by Halcyon’s own Senator Victor Hu. Senator Hu speaks from the floor of the Senate explaining that self-made metahumans are real heroes, while mutants born from accidents or mistakes of nature need to be curtailed and more aggressively vetted. The legislation gives BanCon Industries a contract to construct Mutant Evaluation Centers to temporarily displace America’s mutant populations til they can be registered and partnered with a metahuman mentor. Monster is so angry she destroys the television.

 

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American Steel, one of The Order

Sparks is fuming from The Badge when DAD suddenly announces that a Duranian artifact has been detected within the city. His triangulation leads her to Professor Batin’s office and the block of what is now being called Ifritium. Shatterstorm has a rough interaction with his sister Amira who is reaching a boiling point about being boxed out of the family’s heritage. He and Ajax debate with Sparks about how to deal with the element. They settle on contacting The Order for help, despite Sparks’ protestations. Arriving from their floating base, The Panopticon, The Order (this time Shooting Star, Mr. Fantasmo, and American Steel) want to crack the Ifritium open. Ajax tussles with American Steel and, despite no one ever have before, wrests Steel’s Atomic Sledgehammer from his hands. The Order is visibly pissed and announced they will be taking the Ifritium with them. Shatterstorm thinks it’s for the best despite the fact that how angry his father will be and Ajax is in supreme cocky mode.

 

The Revisit is a place for me to rewatch films I love but haven’t seen in years or films that didn’t click with me the first time. Through The Revisit, I reevaluate these movies and compare my original thoughts on them to how they feel in this more recent viewing.

 

Unbreakable (2000, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

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I can remember exactly when I decided I needed to see Unbreakable. I was in my sophomore year of college, and my friend Sam had seen the film over Thanksgiving Break. He insisted that I needed to see it because of my love of comic books. That struck me as odd because nothing I had seen in the promotion materials had made me think of comic books and superheroes. I had really loved Shyamalan’s previous film, The Sixth Sense, so I was totally up for it. We went to the theater a couple days later.

Rewatching Unbreakable, I was astonished at how many images from that film are burnt into my psyche. I loved the picture after that first viewing, purchased it as soon as it was DVD and watched it dozens of times for the next couple years. I was very likely over-hyped when Signs came out and found myself underwhelmed. Like many filmgoers, the following decade will cause the director to lose most of his cachet with the audience. But Unbreakable serves as a reminder of how amazing a director Shyamalan was/is/could be again.

What struck me the most on this viewing was how measured and quiet the film was. This was a couple years before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man would shift the movie superhero paradigm and the late 1990s were very unkind to the genre. There is a deliberate sense of grounding the fantastic, but not in a way that disparages their roots. Comic books are lauded through the picture, but the conceit of the film is these four-color tales are exaggerations of a more sedate reality. Yes, David Dunn is incredibly strong but that means he can lift around 400 lbs not and entire jet airliner. The super heroics of Unbreakable are not global or against alien hordes. The evil that is being pointed out is racism, rape culture, sociopathic violence.

I also found myself reconnecting with every character in the film. The aforementioned quiet moments are always character-centered and are intended to build on what we know, either adding to our knowledge or subverting it. We deeply understand the strained relationship between David and Audrey, the admiration of Joseph for David, the tug of curiosity Elijah elicits from David. No character ever makes a move that feels contradictory to what is previously established and so you find yourself floating effortlessly through this organic story. There is the now cliche Shyamalan twist, but it doesn’t play as contrived. It fits with the groundwork lain through the entirety of the film. It also does something I find myself to drawn to more these days: forgoing having a purely black and white conflict.

The villain of Unbreakable isn’t even really the bad guy. He does evil things, but we spend a lot of time getting to know him, not as much as David, but the moments in his life we’re shown establish humanity and a particular, though skewed, perspective. It’s a perfect example of empathy, which is not agreement but understanding a perspective different than your own. You feel sorry for this person despite the horrible things they have done. I cherish that sort of internal conflict as a viewer, not being able to come down hard one way or another on the character.

I find this period of Shyamalan to be comparable to Nolan in the first part of his career. Both directors have an unyielding sense of aesthetics and the sort of stories they want to tell. They both enjoy building up expectations and then subverting them to varying degrees of success. Where they differ is in Shyamalan’s ability to connect the audience with the characters on an emotional level. He is much less interested in the gritty details and technicalities of the world and more in how these fantastic elements emotionally affect our characters. Nolan is very talented with building intelligent plot machines that unfold in exciting and interesting ways, but ultimately fail to make me feel anything about the characters. The closest I could say Nolan ever got to that was with The Prestige. I don’t think there is any argument that Shyamalan has not ended up with the level of critical acclaim Nolan has garnered, but these early films feel emotionally stronger than Nolan’s work.

If you haven’t watched Unbreakable recently, I highly recommend it. It has definitely held up, better than a lot of films from the early 2000s. It still has relevant things to say about the superhero genre and stands an example that the Marvel formula, as fun as it is, is not the sole method to tell these stories. With the buzz that Shyamalan is working on a direct follow up to Unbreakable, I really hope he understands that the tone and focus on characters is what made us fall in love with the picture in the first place. It would be an incredible shame if he ignores those facts and tries to deliver a more action-oriented film.