Author Archives: lordofalchemy

12 Essential Superhero Comic Books

Marvel and DC (along with many other smaller or independent publishers) put out hundreds of different comic books issues and collected editions each year. There’s so many titles on the market, that unless readers make the effort to research what’s coming out, many of them would be completely lost. Often, individual characters like Spiderman  even have multiples series starring them being released simultaneously. Today, I thought I’d ask myself: “If I could only read one book or series starring each of my favourite characters, what would I choose?” And so today I present to you, ‘12 Essential Superhero Comic Books‘or ‘The only books you’ll ever need.‘All these books are avaible in some form in collected print editions or digitally over on Comixology.co.uk.

Starting in no particular order…

Batman - The Long Halloween

Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

13 Issues – First Published 1996-1997

The first and still the best Batman story I’ve ever read. The story takes place in Batman’s early years and features the rise and fall of district attorney Harvey Dent and his relationship with Batman and Commissioner Gordon as they take on the Corleone crime family. A deftly crafted murder mystery story taking place over a year-long time period, The Long Halloween incorporates nearly every facet of Batman lore, including the best of his expansive rogues’ gallery. Though it may not have as much cultural significance as Frank Miller’s work on the character, The Long Halloween is Batman and co. at what they do best, trying to make Gotham City a better place, even if the road is paved with dark deeds along the way. The Long Halloween has been published in its entirety as a single paperback edition.

Superman - All Star Superman

All Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

12 Issues – First Published 2005-2008

An alternate world story about Superman having to come to grips with his own mortality, All-Star Superman is a masterwork in stirring, emotional storytelling, while still having a mythic level sense of scale and significance in the world. Morrison and Quitely may be one of the most in-tune author/artist pairings to ever grace the pages of a comic book and every possible ounce of quality is eked out these pages. A fitting tribute to the world’s original superhero. All Star Superman has been collected in its entirety as a single paperback edition.

Aquaman - The Trench

Aquaman: The Trench, The Others and Throne of Atlantis by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis

20 Issues – First Published 2011-2013

Johns and Reis wipe away every possible doubt that Aquaman is a dull, uninteresting character in this seminal 17 (technically 20) issue run (though it runs across multiple books, each book is a part of the ongoing story with the writer and artist remaining the same). As the gorgeously rendered and fantastically badass heir to the throne of Atlantis, Arthur Curry (Aquaman) has to contend with political machinations, assassination plots and an undiscovered race of deadly sea creatures that threaten both his worlds in the ocean and on land. If you ever had any interest in seeing the true nature of Aquaman, then this run is a must read. Geoff John’s run on Aquaman has been collected in three short paperback editions.

Iron Man - Extremis

Iron Man: Extremis by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov

6 Issues – First Published 2005-2006

Artist Adi Granov usually only sticks to illustrating covers for other series, but his brief, 6 issue stint into doing all the art for this story makes it worth reading on that single fact alone. But not only that, Extremis is arguably the quintessential 21st century Iron Man story, telling you pretty much everything you ever needed to know about the titular genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. When terrorists manage to get hold of an experimental bio-weapon that turns normal men into flaming death machines, Tony Stark must find a way to stop them, while also considering the place of the weapons he’s built in the name of world peace. Extremis has been collected in its entirety as a single paperback edition.

Hulk - Planet HulkPlanet Hulk by Greg Pack, Carlo Pagulayan and Aaron Lopresti

16 Issues – First Published 2006-2007

Bruce Banner and the Hulk have both appeared in thousands of stories over the past 54 years since he debuted, not just in his own series, but in the pages of the many Avengers titles along with many other series. This 16 issue story arc, is the best of them all. Bar none. With a group of other heroes having finally decided he’s too much of a threat to remain on Earth, the Hulk is tricked into being fired into deep space. However, through a series of events he winds up stranded on a world with a tyrannical ruler and is forced to fight in the arena as a gladiator. A legendary tale of titans on both an epic and incredibly personal scale, Planet Hulk is the cosmic odyssey of a man and a beast who learns that there is more to himself than just anger and hate. Planet Hulk has been published in its entirety as a single paperback edition.

Inhumans - InhumansInhumans by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee

12 Issues – First Published 1998-1999

The Inhumans have been appearing in the pages of Fantastic Four since the mid-60s, but larger audiences finally started to take notice with this gorgeous miniseries published in the late 90s. Taking place shortly after the Inhumans have revealed themselves to the world, this focuses on the efforts of their self-willed mute king, Black Bolt, and the rest of the royal family, to keep the people of the city of Attilan safe from threats both inside and outside their walls. This series serves not only as a great story in its own right, but is a fascinating exploration of the culture and power structure of the Inhuman race, and is essential for any fan not just of comics but science fiction in general. Inhumans has been collected in its entirety as a single hardback edition.

Hawkeye - Hawkeye

Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja

22 Issues – First Published 2012-2014

Adopting a dog, being the landlord of an apartment building, causing trouble with the Russian mob. Just a day in the life of Clint Barton, long time Avenger and the world’s greatest marksman. And with his headstrong protégé Kate Bishop along for the ride, what could possibly go wrong next in Hawkeye’s anything-but-average time off from flying robots and falling cities. Fraction and Aja bring Hawkeye down to earth in a seemingly endless number of creative, sharp, hilarious and endearing ways. Famous for having an issue written primarily in sign language, one from the perspective of Clint’s canine companion and even an animal themed Christmas TV special, Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye is the funniest, most lovable, most heartfelt comic to come out in years. Hawkeye has been collected in four short paperback editions, two oversized hardback editions, and a single hardback omnibus edition.

Spiderman - Ultimate Spiderman

Ultimate Spiderman by Brian Michael Bendis

200+ Issues – First Published 2000-2015

The Ultimate Universe was a project Marvel began in 2000, intended to introduce new readers with a fresh start, a new universe running alongside the regular Marvel Comics universe, but without 40 years of convoluted continuity. Ultimate Spiderman was the premiere title of this initiative. Featuring a teenage Peter Parker, this series retold many old stories with new energy and fresh, modern art, while also introducing many new story elements such as Kitty Pryde (one of my favourite characters in all of comics) as Peter’s love interest and Miles Morales as the black Spiderman. The most easy-to-enjoy Spiderman series since the character’s beginnings, Ultimate Spiderman is one of the big reasons both me, and a whole generation of readers fell in love with comics. Ultimate Spiderman has been collected in over thirty short paperback editions as well as several longer paperback editions and partially in a long out-of-print hardback omnibus edition.

Avengers - The Ultimates

The Ultimates by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch

26 Issues – First Published 2002-2007

What Bendis did for Spiderman, author Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch did for the Avengers, with their Ultimate Universe counterpart, ‘The Ultimates’. Edgier, bigger and bolder than any other superhero book being released at the time, it featured a line-up consisting of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and several other key players, with a Sam Jackson looking Nick Fury behind the wheel. This book served as the key inspiration for Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is blockbuster comic writing at its absolute best. It’s perhaps the most entertaining comic I’ve ever read, if you can buy into its ridiculousness. Note: listening to the music of Tool while reading may induce seizures due to the sheer widescreen awesomeness coming into your eyes and ears. Caution is advised. I’ve also ceremoniously dubbed ‘Vicarious’ as the main theme of this book. The Ultimates has been collected in four short paperback editions and two larger paperback editions as ‘The Ultimates’ and ‘The Ultimates 2’, and as a single long out-of-print hardback omnibus edition.

X-Men - New X-Men

New X-Men by Grant Morrison

42 Issues – First Published 2001-2004

Beginning just after the mutants first hit it big at the box office, Morrison redefined the landscape of Marvel’s X-Men titles by turning the Xavier Institute into a proper educational academy, establishing the Weapon X program as including more than just Wolverine, bringing secondary mutations into the fold, and most notably of all, the killing over 15 million mutants within the first story arc. Mature, weird, wonderful, and utterly enthralling are all words I’d use to describe this epic 42 issue narrative, which sets the stage for practically every post 2000s X-Men story, including the glorious Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday, which immediately follows on from this book. It’s up for contention whether New X-Men is the best run on the franchise ever written, but in every manner possible, it’s got my vote. New X-Men is collected in either seven short paperback editions, three larger paperback editions and in a single hardback omnibus edition that will be reprinted in November 2016.

Annihilation

Annihilation 

29 Issues – First Published 2006-2007

2006 saw the release of Civil War, the big event that set the comic’s world on fire with its insane popularity. However, while Civil War was flying off store shelves, a talented group of writers and artists at Marvel where quietly revamping and reintroducing the Cosmic line-up. Hero’s like Nova and the Silver Surfer, joined by former villains like Drax, Gamora, Super-Skrull and Ronan the Accuser, all came together to combat the universal threat that was Annihilus, whose insect drones spewed across the cosmos from the Negative zone. Throw the mad titan Thanos, the enigmatic Peter Quill and the world eater Galactus himself into the mix, and you have a science fiction epic worthy of the gods. Presented as a group of concurrently occurring miniseries before the big finale event, Annihilation set the stage for writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s beloved tenure as the lead authors of Marvel’s Cosmic comics for the next 5 years. All in all, Annihilation was and still is considered to be one of if not the best event comics in Marvel’s history. Annihilation has been collected in three paperback and hardback collections and as a long out-of-print hardback omnibus edition.

Green Lantern - The Sinestro Corps War

Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corps War by Geoff Johns

11 Issues – First Published 2007-2008

I admit I may have been cheating a little, since the last few entries have been longer stories on titles by the same author, but believe me, they’re worth everything they ask of you. This final entry though,  is worth even more. From 2004 to 2013, Geoff Johns changed practically everything readers thought they knew about Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps. The ring wielding space cops found new worlds to save, new challenges to overcome, and of course, new foes to battle, with Geoff John’s writing have a true sense of mythic proportions. The inarguable high point of this journey was the Sinestro Corps War, as Jordan’s long-time nemesis Sinestro formed his own army of fear to do battle with the might of the Green Lanterns. A story of loss, hope, horror and redemption, this is superhero comics at their most spectacular. John’s entire run on Green Lantern is collected in three hardback omnibus editions, with the first containing the beginning of his work up until the end of the Sinestro Corps War. I personally recommend starting from Green Lantern: Rebirth, the miniseries that opens the first omnibus, and Johns first work on the character.

Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky Review

War is dirty. War is a sickness. War is pain for all, with scars that will never truly heal. This one of the central themes of the original Mobile Suit Gundam (MSG) that first graced television screens in 1979 with its bleak, sometimes horrifying rendition of what war might look like when mankind finally breaks free of Earth’s atmosphere to colonise the depths of space. That was a timeless story, where forces on two opposing sides, the earthbound Federation and the spacefaring Principality of Zeon, both suffered and committed unspeakable atrocities to one another, along with every innocent caught in the crossfire. Studio Sunrise now revisits this idea in Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt, an adaptation of a manga that originally aired as a 4 episode web series before being compiled into a full-length film called December Sky.

Poster

Running in parallel to the original Mobile Suit Gundam series and taking place during the final days of the One Year War, Thunderbolt presents the battle for the ‘Thunderbolt Sector’, a shoal zone filled with the remains of a destroyed space colony and plagued by electrical storms. Federation forces are attempting to retake the area surrounding the colony, but their advance is halted by Zeon’s ‘Living Dead Division’, a unit of snipers filled with amputees. In the midst of battle, an encounter between two opposing ace pilots begins a deadly obsession that torments them both to a psychotic degree. Their fight is only further escalated by the introduction of a new type of mobile suit, whose name is now infamous on both sides: Gundam.

Before going any further, if any of the things mentioned in the previous two paragraphs meant nothing to you, Thunderbolt is likely not for you, yet. Existing knowledge of the major conflicts presented in the original Mobile Suit Gundam are not absolutely required, but knowing clearly what is happening in the background of this film definitely makes the viewing experience a lot smoother. Though its visuals are extremely dated, I recommend watching the original 1979 TV series first (or at least its three compilation films) before coming back to Thunderbolt. The original series remains to this day, one of the greatest science-fiction visions of warfare ever put on film and Thunderbolt, though sometimes floundering in rushed character arcs, overall serves as a worthy and engrossing supplement to the original story.

This is the third time that other areas of conflict in the One Year War have been explored outside of the original Gundam series. 1980’s War in the Pocket viewed the effects from a civilian standpoint while 1996’s The 8th MS Team took place from the perspective of ground forces fighting across the Earth. Both had varying tones, yet still many a time still tried to maintain a hopeful outlook that at least some manner of peace could come from all the fighting. Thunderbolt takes the polar opposite approach, offering the full spectrum of wartime horrors to the viewers on a gritty, blood-soaked plate.

Darly

The outlook is refreshingly mature from the start, the opening minutes featuring snippets like Federation pilots kissing their partners goodbye before heading out on what is seemingly a suicide mission to attempt to breach the Zeon sniper net. Right from these opening moments, director Kou Matsuo shows a keen attention to detail with these small touches that help to immerse the viewer in Thunderbolt’s gritty and death-laden setting, assisted by sharp, expressive character designs and an equally sharp script that, for the most part, manages to clearly present the effects that war has military and civilian populations, without the messages ever seeming ham-fisted. Considering the number of themes on display here and the admiral showcase of each, Thunderbolt does a pretty decent job of balancing its thematic significance with a fast paced mecha war story.

The compiled film clocks in at only 69 minutes, moving briskly from loud, jazz fuelled action set pieces to solemn and almost disturbingly quiet personal moments, yet still manages to cram in mostly satisfying, if limited, character arcs into the short running time.  The two leads, Federation hotshot Io Fleming and Zeon ace Daryl Lenz form a fairly competent, if predictable, dichotomy, yet it’s the supporting cast of both sides that really make up the bulk of the interesting and relatable personalities, specifically Claudia Peer, the captain of the Federation division, and Karla Pitchum, a Zeon scientist using the Living Dead division as research subjects for advancing the mobile suit arms race. Both these characters get a little too caught up in their positions and it’s both simultaneously gratifying and tragic to see how the battle for the Thunderbolt sector pushes them over the edge.

Fleming

As par the course with Gundam projects, the voice cast does a stellar job, with both English and Japanese dub turning out memorable performances. I’d personally recommend watching Thunderbolt in both languages, mainly just to see the, at times, wildly different interpretations of Io Fleming the voice actors have.

As much as I want to commend Thunderbolt for its engaging thematic exploration of the effects of war, the real highlight of the film is easily the animation and music. In a time when many Japanese animation studios are looking towards 3D CGI for use in their films and TV series (Sunrise themselves are even extensively using it in the Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin film series) it’s incredibly uplifting to see a mecha anime where everything is gorgeously rendered in sharp, crisp and colourful 2D glory. Thunderbolt’s battle scenes are some of the most fluid and well-crafted I’ve seen in a long time, with mobile suits that swiftly zip between chunks of debris to avoid oncoming fire, only to whizz around for the kill moments later. Matsuo triumphs here again with memorable images, such as nearly minute long POV shot that plays out a pilot’s last moments before his suit is destroyed. Character animation is equally as impressive, an early scene featuring Fleming drumming away in the cockpit of his mobile suit being a prime showcase.

Speaking of drumming, not only does Thunderbolt get a perfect score in the sound design department thanks to it including a massive plethora of authentic sounding mechanical effects, but music plays a much greater role in this film than perhaps in any other Gundam project. Both the main characters listen to very different genres of music, Fleming dabbling extensively in jazz, while Daryl listens to pop. These genres make up almost the entirety of Thunderbolt’s score and not only are the individual songs well produced, they’re effectively utilised both typically and atypically throughout the film, as the makers play with the placement of specific tracks in thematically relevant ways.

Sniperfire

Thunderbolt may not be a clear entry point into the Gundam franchise, and its breakneck pacing and somewhat underwhelming main characters may not work for all viewers, but for everyone else, the film showcases the highest possibilities of what can be achieved with a dedicated creative team using traditional 2D animation. Its technical merits bolster an already strong narrative foundation to make Thunderbolt a worthy addition to the Universal Century timeline. This is the best Gundam has been since the debut of Unicorn in 2010 and I certainly will be keenly looking forward to many more projects both from this creative team and this franchise (nudge, an adaptation of Crossbone Gundam please Sunrise). Thunderbolt is a stylish triumph, absolutely worth the little time it asks of its viewers.

Sony@E3 – The Art of the Press Conference

And so, this year’s big E3 press conferences have come to an end, with many announcements from big publishers and developers like EA, Ubisoft, Bethesda, Microsoft, and Sony, many of which are incredibly exciting, some, not so much. Last year, at E3 2015, Sony blew the house down with announcements like the return of The Last Guardian, Final Fantasy VII Remake, and of course, the magnificent Shenmue III. Rare unveiled Sea of Thieves, there multiplayer pirate adventure game, at the Microsoft conference and we got some exceptionally cool trailers from the show, like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The PC Gaming Showcase also started, highlighting an increasingly popular corner of the gaming community that rarely got significant attention at events like E3 before.

2015 had the “E3 of dreams”. Whatever this year’s E3 gets remembered by (“E3 of stabbing” if Daniel Bloodworth would have his way), it might just top that, thanks in no small part to the biggest of the bunch, with the toughest act to follow from last year, Sony. How do you follow up a conference that literally made some audience members weep with joy at the thoughts of things to come? Well, Sony did something that’s not really so out there for gaming conference. They sat us down, made us comfortable, and rocked our world with nearly 80 solid minutes of mostly uninterrupted gameplay demo’s and trailers. Other conferences often talk big about showing their games, but then end up standing on stage for way too long explaining everything going on in their demo (I’m looking at you EA), but Sony just didn’t need to say anything. I’m pretty sure that after the opening speech, a big smug grin never left Shawn Layden’s face for the whole time.

Other publishers did show off some interesting things in their more traditional press conferences, with my personal highlights being Battlefield 1 (despite it’s awful title and terrible musical sense), the PC exclusive Quake Champions, the once again spectacular Sea of Thieves, the much improved PC Gaming Showcase (which showed off some awesome Dawn of War III gameplay), and the new console, Project Scorpio from Microsoft. Despite being great for me however, I don’t believe Play Anywhere, an initiative where many, if not all announced games that were previously exclusive to Xbox One, like ReCore and Scalebound, are now also being released on Windows 10, was a something that fit properly into the show, as it essentially I have zero reason to want to own an Xbox One. The meaning of the word ‘exclusive’ has been twisted to an alarming degree by Microsoft in this instance, and with new incrementations of the console on the horizon, the idea that quite a few players no longer have any need of it does put a bit of a dampener on the proceedings. Despite Sea of Thieves‘ fantastic jollyness, Microsoft’s conference ultimately went out leaving some sour thoughts in my mind. Sony destroyed them, along with every other publisher, royally, in one fell swoop.

They opened with spectacular swagger and confidence. The first five minutes was nothing but the tension building, blood stirring music of an orchestra conducted by Bear McCreary (of Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead fame). They had only three speakers for the entire conference, all which kept their spiel short, sweet and too the point. It’s not about telling you about games – it’s about showing them to you. Nevermind the great production, let’s just note down everything we got from the Sony conference:

  1. A fantastic opening number from composer Bear McCreary, who sets the stage for God of War, which returns with a new story direction, new player perspective, and (hopefully) a new pantheon of gods to slaughter.
  2. They showed off the cinematic trailer for a brand new IP in the post-apocalyptic open world genre, Days Gone. By itself this wasn’t that impressive, but more on this later.
  3. A frankly breathtaking story teaser for The Last Guardian, with a release date of 25th October this year. To live in a world where this and Final Fantasy XV are finally coming out, tis a truly wonderful thing.
  4. An expanded look at Horizon Zero Dawn, a great surprise from last year. The sci-fi stone age open world game from the developer’s of Killzone showed off some beautiful cinematic action and some intriguing story teases. It even has dialogue menus. I really, REALLY want to ride some robot dinosaurs after this one.
  5. Moving on, we looked at Detroit: Become Human, a detective game set in the future starring a synthetic android named Connor. What’s very interesting about this one is that depending on what or how much you investigate and what choices you make during a case, there may be hundreds of possible outcomes. This one sets a tone, a very solid one.
  6. Resident Evil VII. I have no words. The Kitchen VR horror demo from last year was completely terrifying and was expanded on this E3 for something special. This reveal was frighteningly creepy, elegantly eery, and was probably the best trailer of the show. A superb new beginning for Capcom’s premiere survival horror franchise and the whole thing is playable in VR, with a release date of 24th January 2017. Best of all, the demo is out. Like, right now. Spoilers… it’s scary as ****!
  7. We got Playstation VR, a price point ($399), along with tons of triple AAA VR experiences that will lauch with it in October, including Star Wars (X-Wing Missions – YESSSS!!!!), Batman and even Final Fantasy XV.
  8. Maybe Activision should have started with this trailer for Infinite Warfare, because now I want to play it. I want to fly around and dogfight in the middle gigantic space battles, have shootouts in zero G and choose my own missions. For the first time in years, I’m actually excited for Call of Duty and that means someone’s done something right. Also, Modern Warfare Remastered looks killer.
  9. The only real lull of the conference is now and it’s not really a lull to be honest. Crash Bandicoot 1, 2 and Warped are back and remastered for PS4 and Crash himself is coming to the new Skylanders game. It’s all good, but it’s not a new Crash platformer. Oh well, at least we now know that Activision are willing to play ball with the franchise again.
  10. Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This game is two weeks away from release. It looks good. Moving on…
  11. …To something much cooler. Andy House comes out and welcomes a super-special guest. He walks onto the stage from the back in gloriously flashy fashion, his new logo stretched across the screen, the Fury Road soundtrack being blasted in the background,  and destroys over two years malpractice from ‘the man’ in one sentence. “Hello everyone. I’m back.” The crowd erupts as the legend himself Hideo Kojima (creater of Metal Gear Solid) unveils his new game Death Stranding in a cryptically intriguing yet disturbing in-engine trailer starring Norman Reedus. P.T. is dead, but the dream lives on.
  12. After this was another cool surprise. Insomniac (Resistance, Ratchet and Clank, Sunset Overdrive) are making a Spider-Man game, and it looks awesome. Spectacular. No. Amazing, one might say. 🙂 In all seriousness, this supposedly original universe title looks really impressive from what we saw of it and if it’s standing in a line-up in this conference, then there must be something special about it.
  13. Finally, the conference finished in an unsual way. We went back to look on Days Gone, that post-apocalyptic new IP unveiled earlier in the show, this time with a live gameplay demo. What’s impressive about this game, especially the demo at least, is not only the way you and your main enemies, these strange zombie like creatures, frequently interact with the environment, but the sheer number of zombies that appear on screen at once, swarming the player World War Z style. It was probably not the strongest way to end the show, but it gives me confidence that Sony has enough confidence in their new projects to put them in important parts of an E3 press conference.

Sony E3 2016

And that was the Sony show. This was a shorter conference then what they had in previous years, but it was packed much more tightly with greater focus. It was fast paced and exciting, with one game after another, no one coming in to talk about them, simply showing them, having confidence enough in the games to let them speak for themselves. Other publishers should take not. That’s how you show off. And the best part of all, I want to play every game that was at that conference. Every single one of them, and that makes me so happy.

It’s what E3 is about. The new stories, the new moments, the new memories, the new technology, the new GAMES!!!!!

Sorry EA. Sorry Bethesda. Sorry Ubisoft. Sorry Microsoft. You put up a good fight this E3 2016 (some of you anyway), but once again, undoubtedly, Sony wins.

X-Men Apocalypse Review

xmenapocalypseimax-1

I trust professional critics in many scenarios. They’re people who’ve made a career on reviewing films. They’ve probably seen a lot more films than I have and are probably a lot more knowledgeable than me too. On many occasions, I tend to agree with the critical consensus for the most part. However, sometimes the critical consensus falls into a viewpoint I cannot bring myself to agree with. X-Men: ­Apocalypse currently (at the time of writing) sits at a relatively poor 51% on Rotten Tomatoes, a rating especially low when compared against Bryan Singer’s other outings at the helm of an X-Men film. Yes, the film has some serious issues in regards to its pacing and treatment of some of the cast, however, X-Men: Apocalypse has managed to do something no other comic book film to date has ever done to date, to bring the scope of the original comic’s mythos successfully to the screen.

X-Men­: ­Apocalypse begins in 3600 B.C. as a rebellion in ancient Egypt causes the god-like mutant Apocalypse to fall into a long stasis. In 1983, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has taken charge of a new generation of mutants at his school and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) is living a life of peace with a family. However, their idyllic lives are now shattered by the re-emergence of Apocalypse, who recruits four powerful mutants, including Magneto, to be his horseman in a mad quest to take over the entire planet. It is up to the X-Men, old and new, to stop him.

X-Men-Apocalypse-Poster-No-Text.0.0

Apocalypse has been widely criticised as being extremely dull and with a 144-minute runtime, the film definitely takes its sweet time getting to the grand finale. But what it does use that expansive runtime for is key bits of world building, and as a comic-book and literature fan, I’ll take good world building over a rushed, propulsive plot any day. Apocalypse has an epic scale, and the massive build up certainly helps to add weight to the explosive climax, but some elements of the film’s scale work against it. The cast is huge and many members are either underutilised or under-written to an embarrassing degree. Lensherr/Magneto has a compelling, dramatic story in the film’s beginning, but gets little to no resolution when the dust clears. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is as aptly mysterious in her motivations as ever, while Beast (Nicholas Hoult), barely has an identity in the bulging X-Men roster. The Four Horsemen are the worst offenders, with Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Angel (Ben Hardy) practically having about 5 lines of dialogue between them in the entire film.

However, the rest of the film’s cast manages to salvage their parts in fantastic fashion. Singer used Days of Future Past to establish the ‘First Class Timeline’ as standing alongside but separate to the original X-Men film universe and James McAvoy continues to distinguish himself as a different Professor X, who’s funny and yet heartfelt performance stands alongside Patrick Stewart’s iconic portrayal of the character. Newcomers Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Game of Throne’s Sophie Turner) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) bring a fresh and welcome set of perspectives to the film and it’s nice to finally see a Cyclops audiences can truly empathise with onscreen. Oscar Isaac does the best he can as the maniacal main villain, Apocalypse, but the character is fairly one-dimensional and audience reactions to him will be hit or miss depending on your preference. A character that has been proven to be consistently excellent and a standout, though, is Evan Peter’s Quicksilver, who plays a much larger and more involved role here than his previous outing in Days of Future Past. He has another standout, spectacle scene and probably the best action sequence in the film all to himself. This speedster is right on the money with solid characterisation and a strong performance from Peters.

X-Men-Apocalypse-Movie-Quicksilver

Despite all negatives I could pick with the slow-moving plot, some weak sections of the cast and a few other completely forgettable technical nit-picks, Apocalypse certainly knows how to show its audience a good, fan-service filled time. One thing I could never criticise the X-Men franchise of is becoming stale, especially Singer’s entries, which is a lot more than I can say for most of Marvel’s last few entries in their cinematic universe. With the original film, Singer redefined the superhero genre in cinema, with X-2 he created a multi-layered conflict between multiple factions of humans and mutants and with Days of Future Past he gave audiences a gripping time travel adventure. Apocalypse takes a step even further away from the franchise’s ‘based in reality’ roots but does so with grandeur and confident swagger, while retaining a sense of realistic emotion and genuinely funny humour that never overplay’s itself. The film is a behemoth, a comic-book epic of a level of ambition I’ve never seen successfully put to screen before. The film does something that no other film has ever done: made me feel like I’m watching a comic brought to life from page to screen right before my eyes, and the feeling is absolutely glorious.

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The action is electrifying, the powers bright and flashy and displayed in their full glory, from Psylocke’s energy sword to Cyclops eye beam. This is X-Men for the people who loved the original stories in their Chris Claremont days or grew up watching the 1992 animated series. The soundtrack even gets into the sometimes ridiculous mood of things, jumping from eighties pop to a grand, bombastic score when appropriate. By the time the obviously shoehorned in Weapon X appearance comes into play, you’re too immersed in the spectacular gravitas of the film to care and you’ve strapped yourself securely in for a rollicking good time. The final scene before the credits packs a special punch for long-time X-Men fans that I won’t spoil here, but in many ways, they make the entire film almost worth the price of admission alone.

In the end, X-Men: Apocalypse ends up being one of the most memorable comic-book films to date, perhaps because it is easily the most comic-booky film I’ve seen yet, in that it showcases this set of compelling super-powered characters in an event of such grand scale, I thought it could only appear on the page. Ignore the critics and make your way down to your local cinema to make up your own mind. Any fan of superheroes, especially of X-Men, will most likely appreciate the ambition on display here, even more so that it works so splendidly. In my opinion, though maybe not superior to Civil War in terms of overall quality, I enjoyed this film significantly more. In fact, X-Men: Apocalypse may well be my favourite comic-book film since X-2 came out in 2003, and it definitely serves as an appropriate send-off to the ‘First Class’ as a new generation of X-Men begins.

 

*Update – I apologise for the lack of content over the past month. University and exams have kept me busy. The final parts of Adapting the DC Universe are still on the way. Thank you for your patience.*

 

Adapting the DC Universe: Part 2(a)…

Note: beware of possible spoilers below…

*After last’s week big bowl of negativity, I want to talk about something a little more enthusiastically. I was originally only going to discuss Young Justice this week, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to talk about the history of some of the history of DC adaptations from the modern age of comics onward before getting down to the meat of things. Unfortunately this means little mention of any adaptation pre 1980s. Sorry Adam West fans. Due to the sheer amount of things I want to discuss, this particular article will be split into two parts. I just couldn’t leave things out.

*All the emboldened adaptations I discuss are ones I consider personally important and will also have watch recommendations written with them…

11 years after Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) proved that superheroes were a highly profitable big screen venture, Tim Burton’s infamous Batman (1989) changed the face of not only the superhero genre, but also the blockbuster industry as a whole. Copious amounts violence and disturbing imagery, a gorgeously gothic style and an iconic score combined to make a movie that audiences the world over flocked to in droves. But of personal interest to me is the thing that came afterwards. I’ve always found DC to have more critical success with their animated adaptations rather than their live-action versions, but in-fact many of these critical successes in that format come down to coherent, effective writing and presentation. Let’s begin then with a big one.

Batman: The Animated Series

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On 6th September 1992, “On Leather Wings”, the first episode of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s Batman: The Animated Series aired on television. It introduced us to an animated version of Batman that was more in line with the version seen in Burton’s film and Bob Kane’s original comic than anything seen before it (I’m looking at you 1960s Batman). Utilising influences of art deco, noir and some of the gothic visual cues found in the 1989 film, as well as 1980s Batman comics, like (surprise, surprise) The Dark Knight Returns, the show presented viewers with a rich, beautifully haunting look into Gotham city and its inhabitants. Batman became a symbol of fear for criminals, Bruce Wayne transforming into a businessman of great wit and assertiveness compared to previous renditions. This series introduced the world to Harley Quinn, Mark Hamill’s quintessential Joker, Kevin Conroy’s Batman and countless other memorable characters and performances, all clearly expressing a keen love for the source material they originated in while placing unique new twists on them.

For many, including some of the most dedicated comic enthusiasts, Batman: The Animated Series remains the definitive, most well-realised interpretation of the Dark Knight to appear in any format, page or screen. Its stories, though still airing on children’s television, hardly shied away from mature aspects of the character like fear, complex personal tragedy, mental illness, addiction, sexuality, corruption, and violence, but never became outlandish, keeping individual stories tightly contained into one or two twenty-minute episodes with sharp, often darkly witty writing that seemed more skewed towards adult audiences then children. Batman: The Animated Series also established the DC Animated Universe, something that will prop up again later on in this article.

Why the series, and so many of its individual stories, succeed as adaptations is because they take the audience’s established knowledge of what is a not just a character, but a pop-culture icon, and build on it, creating a universe full of dastardly rogues, shady criminals, and downright monsters, that remain to this day iconic. It added to Batman lore, with Harley Quinn later being added to the comics. It modernised Dick Grayson’s Robin for general audiences, paved the way for other DC adaptations and brought in strong female heroes and villains like Batgirl and Catwoman that had serious roles. It even spawned a plethora of spin-off series and films. To this day, Batman: The Animated Series remains, to me at least, not only one of the most important and greatest animated series ever to air on television, but one of the greatest TV series of all time.

The show is mostly episodic, so can be enjoyed in almost any order, so several episodes that everyone should see before they die include:

  • “On Leather Wings”: A glorious, compelling introduction to the Dark Knight of Gotham and the Man-Bat.
  • “Two-Face”: the introduction of one Batman’s most tragic villains is starkly harrowing and undeniably gripping.
  • “Almost Got ‘Im”: An exemplary masterpiece of clever writing and construction, this iconic episode features interactions between many major villains over a game of poker, each with a story of how they almost caught the Batman.

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There are many more I could name, but these are just a few of the best. Remember before how I mentioned the DC Animated Universe? Well this was a project of Bruce Timm, one of Batman: The Animated Series creators, to expand this style of adaptation to other heroes, most notably, Superman, whose own Superman: The Animated Series began airing in 1996. This is another classic that gave a stark, more grounded depiction of the character and garnered similar critical success, even bringing in other major DC characters like the Flash and Green Lantern in some team-up episodes. The series also crossed over with Batman: The Animated Series, as they were both part of the same fictional universe. Speaking of which…

Batman Beyond

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This show takes the concept of ‘putting a new spin on things’ to a whole other level. Set many years after Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, follows Terry McGinnis, a teenager who is taken under the wing of an elderly Bruce Wayne to be the new Batman in a future Gotham City. Channelling everything about the first Bruce Timm Batman series and dashing in healthy doses of dystopian sci-fi and Blade Runner homages, this series epitomises the use of adapting a comic in a completely unique way. Batman Beyond is an original concept that sprung from the minds of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini and was incredibly dark for a children’s show, further building on the themes established in the earlier series while adding its own, such as cyberpunk culture and the social conflicts involved in technological advancement.

*Moment of unprofessionalism. If you haven’t seen Batman Beyond before, watch the show’s intro and tell me you’re not interested. Go on! I dare you! Moment of unprofessionalism over.*

This is the series that I watched as much as I could growing up. I mean, it’s Batman in the future. How is that not automatically the coolest thing ever? But having revisited it years later, I began to truly appreciate its complexity and maturity. The series showed audiences a very different kind of Batman, one new to the responsibilities and risks of crime fighting and the effects it can have on the people in someone’s life, as well as the person themselves. It was a bold show that took many creative risks, especially since it began airing at a time when competing Marvel animated series were becoming more light-hearted in contrast to their relative maturity throughout the 90s (see X-Men, the classic 1992 series). Batman Beyond’s stories stood out more than any other animated series airing at the time and even if not all of them were as memorable as others, they still demonstrated a tremendous amount of style.

Like its predecessor, Batman Beyond is mostly episodic, but at least watch the first season in order as there is an ongoing story in those episodes. They’re also all worth watching as well, though the show’s highlights for me are easy:

  • “Rebirth”: Featuring tragedy, obsession and gripping writing, these episodes not only give us great origins to the main cast of the series, but also introduce a fantastic new villain to the DC mythos.
  • “Dead Man’s Hand”: Many members of the series’ cast are teenagers and this episode perfectly captures the effects the Batman lifestyle has on Terry’s social life in a meaningful and heartfelt way. He meets ‘someone new’, but ends up getting a little more than he bargained for.
  • “The Call”: This two-parter is great because it features a very aged version of the Justice League, as Terry is inducted into its ranks. A true treat for DC fans.”

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Batman Beyond also features a punchy, atmospheric soundtrack that blends incredibly well into its setting and the series eventually spawned one of my favourite DC superhero films, The Return of the Joker, which as you would guess, features the return of the classic villain to haunt Bruce and Terry in 2039. It was the first Warner Brothers. Family Entertainment film to be rated PG-13 and had to heavily censored for its original TV broadcast, proving how DC could still find both critical and commercial success with mature, intelligent and stylised narratives.

Next week I’ll get to my favourite DC adaptations and touch on some of the live-action works like Superman Returns, Green Lantern and Greg Berlanti’s Arrowverse…

Adapting the DC Universe: Part 1…

Note: beware of possible spoilers below…

I love superheroes. I love comic books. I love stories that take my favourite characters in brand new directions. But I really don’t like Dawn of Justice. I just can’t get behind it at all, even though the film is heavily inspired by two of my favourite graphic novels of all time, The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman. The characters, in many cases, are poorly brought into the DC cinematic universe and to put it plainly, are not yet fully rounded individuals. Over the next three weeks I will be discussing adaptations of DC’s heroes, so to get the trash out of the way first, this first article will focus on the failures of Zach Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in establishing the characters of this universe. Next week will focus on what I consider to be the best adaptation of a DC property, the animated, fan-favourite TV series Young Justice and why that was so critically successful. Finally, my third article will focus on the comic book storylines I’d like to see turned into live action films or series, somewhere down the line in DC’s cinematic history.

So it finally seems like the uproar left in the wake of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s release has finally begun to subside. I’ve no doubt even those living under rocks have heard at least taste of the appalling critical reception it got so let’s jump past that quickly. In my opinion, it’s a great film about Batman’s quest to destroy Superman, trapped inside the suffocated husk of another film designed solely to capitalise on existing IPs and rush DC’s cinematic universe to an inevitably even more incomprehensible Justice League. It’s an unfortunate 4 or 5/10 at most, though at least the soundtrack is beastly.

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Anyway, perhaps the film’s greatest failing is its treatment of the DC ‘Trinity’, its three most iconic characters: Superman (Clark Kent), Batman (Bruce Wayne) and Wonder Woman (Diana Prince). It’s admirable that Snyder and the writing team have tried to take these characters in engaging new directions, but they’re attempting to walk in the footsteps of significantly superior writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore, who have not only created beloved renditions of many comic book characters, but have also been able to subvert existing interpretations in exciting ways (see Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns for a prime example). From everything we’ve seen so far, Snyder and the people at Warner Bros. are simply not up to the task, especially at the accelerated rate they’re introducing new characters. They’ve failed to create a cast of fully rounded characters with believable personalities and motivations, and even have some that have zero purpose whatsoever.

Superman:

Let’s begin with the big one, the ‘Man of Steel’ himself, Superman. This version of Superman we have, especially in Dawn of Justice has a compelling debate in theory. The world is reeling from Superman’s wrecking of Metropolis in Man of Steel and Superman’s place on the Earth is being debated; is he a saviour or a bringer of doom. The best complements I can give to this idea is that Superman is fundamentally both. He is a being of godlike power, capable of saving it or destroying if he chooses. Humanity both reveres and is terrified by this being because he holds their lives in his hands.

Yet in response to the compelling nature of this debate, this Superman displays very little response, outside of a few key scenes. In many regards this version of Superman is unfit for his position, quick to anger and displaying very little mercy to anyone who crosses him. This Superman is different from his comic and pop culture variants, yet not in the good way. In every manner he deserves his negative reputation, and as pointed out by Bruce Wayne, he is a hypocrite, and an unequivocally dull one at that.

It almost all falls down to poor execution and presentation. A Superman that destroys the drone which is very understandably sent to track him, and that openly threatens to break the limbs of people who harm him is not a protector of the Earth and certainly not the leader of the Justice League, at least not any League that I remember. Even in the comics and other adaptations, though Superman is not always right, that doesn’t mean that without extreme justification he should resort to murder.  Snyder’s Superman is not only a Superman that is unlikable, but also a character that doesn’t (yet – I shall hold out hope) deserve the admiration he should based upon his glaring personality flaws. Also, this Superman will never have a tense moment again because some idiot decided to show him essentially resurrecting in the final seconds. Whoever thought that was a good idea wants sacking, right now if they haven’t been already.

Wonder Woman:

I’m interested to see the movie critics who were absolutely loving Wonder Woman were watching, because it certainly was not Dawn of Justice, where the Amazon warrior has about 5 minutes of screen time, if that, zero motivation and no purpose in the movie other than to attract an extra demographic.

I’m not displeased in the little bit of personality we see from her, easily the most uplifting of the three main heroes, yet what we’ve seen barely constitutes a character, especially not one I can get attached to yet. This is Wonder Woman we’ve never seen before, one already fully integrated into modern society, having spent the last hundred years among us and I’m interested in seeing the opinions she voices about normal humans, having lived among them instead of being divided by her heritage. Yet despite the promise her character shows, I simply haven’t seen enough of it to make a decent judgement call, which ultimately, is the fault of Batman v Superman being a franchise movie.

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I’ll admit it, Batfleck turned out to be incredible and I couldn’t be more excited by the upcoming solo movie supposedly being written by Affleck and the great Geoff Johns. There are only really two things I will say about Batman that urk me about his presentation in this film, the first being his apparent willingness to not only use firearms but also to kill many of his foes outright without any attempt at a use of nonlethal force, and the second being his sudden change of attitude to Superman when he realises they have mothers with the same name.

The first point is ‘somewhat’ understandably glossed over for the most part, besides a single conversation with Alfred early on in the film. Bruce Wayne is understandably enraged and angry, seemingly frustrated with his inability to contend against Superman, and that for all his efforts to defeat crime in Gotham, not only in 20 years has he not been able to do so (even costing the possible death of Robin) but now he is nearly powerless to contend against threats from the stars. He has turned ‘cold’ as Alfred says in his age. The debate about the morality of Bruce Wayne’s more brutal tactics at this point is a large point of contention in The Dark Knight Returns, and would probably take up a very large amount of screen time in an already crowded and long film. All I can say for now is that it is hopefully covered in a future movie, for it definitely needs to be addressed.

The second point, about Batman’s sudden change of heart, is just sloppy writing and the less said about it, the better. Perhaps if Bruce had looked into Luther more, he might have seen he was being manipulated, but there’s nothing we can do about it now without pulling a Days of Future Past style retcon.

Dawn of Justice has many more issues to do with its writing alone, not to mention some of the other aspects, but there’s been enough negativity in one article by now so I’ll not mention them here. It’s a deeply flawed, yet important film that I urge everyone to go see at least once if they haven’t already. The potential to create an enthralling DC cinematic universe is still alive, at least if the first Justice League film turns out to be better. Adaptation that is both very accessible and yet satisfying for existing fans is extremely difficult, especially with a pantheon of characters like DC has, but next week we’ll look at an adaptation that has managed to pull off this gargantuan task marvellously.

Until then, prepare for Darkseid…

Daredevil Season 2 Review

daredevil-season-2-posterOne batch. Two batch. Penny and Dime.”

TV Series – Netflix

Daredevil first splashed onto Netflix last year as one of the most critically acclaimed adaptations of a Marvel property ever. It was a gritty, realistic and unrelenting adaptation of one of comic’s most infamous vigilantes and gave us one of, if not the best comic book villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker. Unfortunately, though it’s sophomore season delivers plenty on engaging character drama and fantastic action scenes (with even a competitor to Season 1’s one shot hallway fight), the plot can’t seem to keep itself focused, especially in the second half and comes off comparatively weak compared to its predecessor. It’s still a strong show, stronger than most other comic book episodic offerings, but growing pains have definitely become present.

*Spoilers for Daredevil Season 1 follow*

Several months have passed since the arrest of Wilson Fisk and Daredevil/Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), Foggy Nelson (Eldon Henson) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) are living relatively peacefully compared to fear present under Fisk’s reign of terror. However, their peace is shattered by the arrival of the Punisher (Jon Bernthal), a trained gunman who ruthlessly attempts to massacre the gangs of Hell’s Kitchen. While attempting to take down the gunman before any innocents get hurt and struggling with the idea that just putting criminals behind bars may not be enough, Murdock is visited by Elektra Natchios, a dangerous women from his past and becomes embroiled in the elaborate schemes of the mysterious cult organisation, the Hand.

Let’s get this season’s biggest problem out of the way first. Rather than telling a singular, focused, mostly standalone storyline like the first season, Daredevil‘s second season is split between about 2 and a half unrelated stories that differ greatly in terms of tone. The first 4 episodes put singular focus on the Punisher storyline (with these episodes easily being the season’s most engaging) while the rest of the season pits Murdock and newcomer Elektra against the Hand for control of something called the Black Sky, while sprinkling bits of the Punisher’s ongoing storyline along with them. This lack of singular, direct focus really hurts the season, especially as you get closer and closer to the finale, which itself is quite underwhelming in terms of climactic action, finishing in an uninspiring short little fight that doesn’t quite thrill as much as intended.

Back in season 1, Wilson Fisk was a menacing antagonist whose presence metaphorically lit up the screen every time he appeared and while Frank Castle/The Punisher certainly does his part this time around, easily being compelling enough to deserve his own spinoff series, the remaining half of this season features an antagonist devoid of face and clear motive. Elektra herself just falls flat in most cases, coming off as more of a brat that stands beneath Daredevil then as an equal. Luckily the rest of the main and supporting cast, especially Foggy and Karen really come into their own this time around, showcasing some fantastic character development and performances that see them break away and act much more independently of Matt Murdock.

Something that luckliy hasn’t changed at all since the first season though is the quality of the visuals and intense action scenes. Though no one-on-one duels quite manage to beat the intensity of Matt’s first season bout with Nobu, their is a fast and frenetic fight in this season that gives the infamous 2 minute, single shot ‘hallway scene’ from season 1 a run for its money. For the second year in a row, Daredevil has pushed the limits of what is capable with fight choreography on a television level budget.

To conclude, though Daredevil‘s second season ultimately stumbles with its storytelling and execution in the later episodes, the early episodes are still some of the show’s best, the action is still top-tier and the supporting definitely picks up the slack left by the disappointing mains and the seasons later villains. There is less Father Lantom this time around unfortunately as well, but overall, I’m still absolutely looking forward to more stories in Hell’s Kitchen. Here’s to a season 3, or if Charlie Cox would have it, a movie.