Comic Book Review – Uncanny X-Force Volumes 3 & 4

Uncanny X-Force Vol. 3: The Dark Angel Saga Book One
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Billy Tan, Rich Elson, Mark Brooks, Scot Eaton

Uncanny X-Force Vol. 4: The Dark Angel Saga Book Two
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Jerome Opena and Robbi Rodriguez

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Warren Worthington has spent the last few years of his life pulled between the personas of The Angel and Archangel, the light and shadow of his soul. His paramour, Betsy Braddock aka Psylocke, has used her considerable psionic gifts to keep the worst of Archangel caged up allowing Warren to live a relatively peaceful life. But something happened when X-Force killed the burgeoning newborn Apocalypse, the universe declared that someone must fill that vacuum of power. That someone is going to be Warren. The whole team is thrown into an epic battle that will send them across realities to a world where Apocalypse came to power and then back to their own universe for a final showdown against Archangel.

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Comic Book Review – Uncanny X-Force Volumes 1 & 2

Uncanny X-Force: The Apocalypse Solution
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Jerome Opena

Uncanny X-Force: Deathlok Nation
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Esad Ribic and Rafael Albuquerque

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Rick Remender came to Marvel after receiving acclaim for his independent series Fear Agent. He would carve out his own niche in Marvel’s universe that would have some incredible highs regarding character development and rich storylines, but his tenure would come to close in a somewhat unspectacular way. Some creative missteps that are still looked back on as atrocious, plus the company’s choice to soft reboot the universe with the Secret Wars event left Remender without much left to say. He is still writing, primarily back on creator-owned material like Black Science and Seven to Eternity. But I would like to go back to his Marvel work and spend the rest of the year and into 2019 doing a very comprehensive read-through and review.

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Comic Book Review – Black Panther by Christopher Priest Volume 1

Black Panther by Christopher Priest Volume 1 (2015)
Written by Christopher Priest
Art by Mark Texeira, Joe Jusko, and Mike Manley

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Prince T’Challa of Wakanda has returned to the United States after news of criminal activity at charities he runs has come to his attention. The inciting incident is the murder of a young girl who was the poster child for the charity. He hasn’t come alone though. By his side is are Zuri, a longtime friend and mighty warrior as well as the Dora Milaje, female representatives from each tribe of Wakanda that serve as T’Challa’s bodyguards (and also potential future wives). They take to the streets seeking out the perpetrators of these crimes, much to the chagrin of their U.S. government liaison Everett K. Ross. T’Challa runs into his adopted brother White Wolf as well as villains Mephisto, Kraven, and eventually the force behind a coup back in Wakanda.

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Movie Review – Logan

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.

Movie Review – Deadpool

Deadpool (2016, dir. Tim Miller)

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Deadpool is a tricky film to write about because the movie comments on itself and its genre so incessantly that it is likely making the criticisms a reviewer would pen before they do so. That doesn’t mean it is a movie that is critic-proof by any means. Deadpool is an incredibly self-aware movie, and when any piece of media exhibits that much meta-commentary, it begins to walk a thin line between remarkably clever and self-sabotaging. I believe Deadpool walks that line to its finale but never actually falls to either side, leaving it an adequate movie.

Wade Wilson aka Deadpool has always stood as a fourth wall breaking antidote to the soap operatic X-Men corner of comic books. I can’t say he’s a character I have ever enjoyed solo and I’ve made a couple attempts to get into runs that have a lot of critical praise. When I have enjoyed Deadpool, it has been in the context of a team setting, with ‘Pool as a background commenter. I loved Rick Remender’s X-Force run which had Deadpool in a very crucial but not main character role. It was a just enough self-awareness to help balance a storyline that was bleak and dealt with heavy themes. His role in the current Uncanny Avengers comic book is also fun, and he’s balanced with a team that is taking matters seriously.

In regards to the film, I deeply appreciated that it jumped into the action and let the origin unfold in small chapters along the way. It pushes the expectations of what comic book super movies can be with gratuitous violence, sex, and language. Just like science fiction, super movies should be a wider swath of tones and content than they currently are. However, for as much winking and nudging Deadpool does it doesn’t break any real conventions of the super movie formula.

The opening credits announce the cast as a list of formulaic stereotypes (A CGI character, British bad guy, comic relief sidekick) and then go on to feature those specific characters. Not once does the script attempt to surprise us with something new. Yes, there are tons of sight gags, but they don’t stretch the genre conventions in any way. We still have a tragic origin, torn from the woman he loves, a hero out for vengeance, a showdown with the villain that puts the woman in peril, and a big ‘splosion at the end. I was particularly let down by the pat happy ending that I felt kicked the legs out from underneath the filmmakers’ entire tongue in cheek approach.

Deadpool also has significant tonal problems. It wants to be nihilistic yet then endearing about its lead and his love interest. But I found myself not caring about the two of them because the film had done such an efficient job of pushing this “give no shits” mentality. There is an underlying desperation in the humor of the movie; it is another case of the filmmakers’ attempting to underplay their concern yet at the same time obnoxiously yelling their jokes in our faces. It ends up feeling very forced and when the jokes don’t hit they are the cringiest of cringe. What I expected and truly wanted out of Deadpool was for them to push the boundaries of the character’s anarchy even further. Shoehorning in a cliche lost love plot just doesn’t work for this character. It works for a movie studio that, while allowing the director and screenwriters to joke about cliches, still demands these cliches are present in the film because of how well they test in focus groups.

What Deadpool should have been and could have been was a middle finger to the entire supers genre. It stands as a missed chance to openly parody and mock the very cliches it goes on to present with a knowing shrug. There were so many instances where fourth wall breaking could have gone further, where genre play could have been more outlandish, so many times the decision could have been made to tear the structure of the movie apart to make more than just a slightly sillier comic book movie but into something amazingly hilarious and destructive.

Movie Review – Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016, dir. Scott Derrickson)

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Doctor Stephen Strange is one of the best neurosurgeons on the planet and he definitely knows it. Everything in his life changes when a near fatal car accident shreds the tendons in his hands and takes away his ability to practice his medical skills. Stephen begins searching for a cure and it leads him to a city in the Himalayas where The Ancient One resides. The Ancient One leads an order of mystics who transcend our physical plane to interact with and manipulate the elements of the multiverse. Skeptical at first, Stephen eventually comes around and begins his path to becoming the Sorcerer Supreme. Conflict comes in the form of Caecilius, a former student of the Ancient One who seeks to rupture the reality of our world and unleash Dormammu and his Dark Dimension.

We are fourteen films and nine years into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While characters considered 1st Tier have already been developed we’re now to those that are lesser known to the general public. Doctor Strange has always occupied a limbo between tiers, sometimes becoming an Avengers level figure and other times fading into slight obscurity. I can’t stay I’ve been a huge fan of the character, but Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo’s current run on the comic have me interested. The key to the character is to play up the out there, surreal other realms he explores and fights enemies from. In this way, the film understands Strange. It is full to the brim with strong surreal effects and is arguably the most visually appealing Marvel film to date.

Beyond the visual embellishments the plot is fairly thin. This is another origin story and like with most origin stories there is a formula that is followed very closely. Nothing that happens in the film will likely surprise you if you’ve seen any of the others. Character development is fair superficial, especially the relationship between Strange and Rachel McAdams’ nurse. That entire love story side plot felt completely pointless and could have worked better as simply a colleague Strange had wronged and now, seeing the error of his arrogance, sought amends.

There is an attempt at humor throughout and that was one of the most painful parts of the picture. Benedict Cumberbatch as never struck as me as particularly funny (though he was good in Four Lions). Not sure if it’s his timing or the actual joke itself but every single one falls flat. There is a Beyonce joke between he and Wong, the librarian at the monastery that film keeps pushing with the sense that there is something funny about this exchange. There is not. The film is at its best when it takes its subject matter with seriousness and Strange is not a jokey character by nature.

I personally am starting to feel fatigue with many of the superhero films. Warner Brothers have burnt bridges for me with their DC franchise. Marvel has become okay, and I can’t imagine where it goes after the next Avengers film it’s building to. At this point the formula has been so entrenched, I hope future superhero films can break it and go in some new and interesting directions. Not holding out hope, but it would be nice.