Category Archives: TV Reviews

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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…

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.