Wednesday 30 July 2014

July Comics Round-Up

Because everyone else is doing it. Mostly Marvel lately (big shock), and behind on some titles.

Wolverine and Deadpool #1 (Marvel/Panini)

As with everyone else, Panini are jumping on board the obligatory renumbering of issues. Wolverine and Deadpool has been their major bumper title for some time now, bundling the reprints of the two series for the UK market. So this review is particularly behind, since this stuff was published in the States back in January. Anyway, it's a good format, bringing two of the butchest, boysiest titles together. The Wolverine segment takes up the bulk of the issue, reprinting the beginning of Savage Wolverine. The Savage Land is an obvious place to dump Logan, and begins with a brilliant image of him fighting a feathery Velociraptor. Then Shanna the She-Devil gets involved, in her ludicrously skimpy costume. She's actually a fine, strong character with a decent wit, so it's a shame she has to parade around in nothing more than a couple of strips of leopardskin. So yes, it's blood, boobs and talking pterodactyls. The Deadpool story is better, a dirty, witty story involving the resurrection of dead presidents in a twisted attempt to save America. Good stuff.

Ghostbusters #17 (IDW)

It's the thirtieth anniversary of Ghostbusters, so Burnham and his team are going all out. Finally, they are able to use Dana Barrett, seemingly unable to do so previously due to likeness rights or somesuch. It's only right that she be added to the growing cast of characters; her absence was the one thing missing from this follow-up. Burnham's story questions just why Dana was so integral to the manifestation of two powerful spirits, an obvious question and one that is well overdue for exploration. Dan Schoening's artwork is better than ever, his take on Dana is as perfect as his Vigo and Gozer, both of whom make their presences felt in this, the fifth chapter of the “Mass Hysteria” stroyline. Plus, there's Timothy Lim's beautiful memorial artwork to the late Harold Ramis.

Saga #20-21 (Image)

Saga was beginning to feel that it was treading water with the first few issues of its third run. Never anything less than well-written and beautifully produced, but nonetheless not really going anywhere. Continuing to bate the censors with sex, drugs and violent death, it really feels like the events in this galaxy are reaching tipping point with the shocking assassination of a major figure. All the while, focus is on Hazel and her mismatched family. As good as Brian K. Vaughan's writing is, and it is very good, it's Fiona Staples's astonishing artwork that makes this such a phenomenal read. Visceral, beautiful, other-worldly and relatable in equal measure, this remains an excellent series.

Captain Marvel #1-3 (Marvel)

Marvel's premier female superhero head her own title in fine style. The first couple of issues are fairly frothy stuff, with most of the drama stemming from Carol Danvers's personal issues, such as her relationship with Rhodey and the intense strain she puts it under by opting to go on a year long mission into space. The galactic vista suits such a powerful character, and by issue three Danvers is discovering that simply stepping in to help doesn't always go down well with other cultures. So yes, it's about America and international relations. It's a hell of a lot subtler and more fun than previous attempts at this sort of thing by Marvel, though (The Ultimates, in particular). Plus, the Guardians of the Galaxy continue their rise with a major appearance in this series.

Ms. Marvel #6 (Marvel)

Meanwhile, Danvers's former title is handed down to her biggest fan, young Kamala Khan. Rightly praised by most fans, and predictably attacked by the hard right, having a young American Muslim get her own comics title is an excellent move, providing it can be written with intelligence and sensitivity. Thankfully, G. Willow Wilson is providing just that. This is a truly excellent superhero story, using a mysterious origin story to explore a number of significant issues, including cultural and personal identity, the life of an outsider, image problems and the need for strong female role models. Just what a Marvel comic should be doing. Issue six starts the second story, entitled “Healing Factor,” which gives Kamala her first team-up with her absolute number one favourite, Wolverine. Along with some fabulously weird villains. This is a cracking title.

Amazing Spider-Man #1 including Inhuman #1 (Marvel)

So, there's going to be a lot of Spider-Man this year. This bumper-sized issue begins yet another “Issue One,” to one of Marvel's longest-running titles, starting afresh after the Superior Spider-Man series which, I confess, I had little interest in. While there are still consequences for Parker from that series, new elements are introduced, including another recipient of a radioactive spider bite. The issue also chucks in little prequel tales for Spider-Man 2099 and further origin stories to be explored in Issue 1.1 onwards, as Marvel does bizarre things to its numbering system. And all this has to tie in to the Original Sin event, which I can't really be bothered with. Still, this is good fun Spidey stuff and the only thing keeping me from immediately going further is the plethora of extra titles involved. Nonetheless, the “Spider-Verse” storyline it's building to does excite me. The first issue of Inhuman is included, which is actually very good and sets up some interesting things for new Avenger Medusa, and Dante, a newly altered Inhuman. Joe Madureira's art is gorgeous.

Rocket Raccoon #1 (Marvel)

With the Guardians of the Galaxy movie imminent (cannot wait), the relaunched comic line is sprouting its own spin-offs. Naturally, the furriest, most popular member of the team gets his own title. There are a couple of flaws – it desperately wants to be allowed to swear, for a start – but this is anarchic, joyfully aggressive fun. Star-spanning shenanigans give way to something with a bit of a John Tucker Must Die vibe. With script and art from Skottie Young, supported by excellent colours from Jean-Francois Beaulieu, this is a fantastic looking book. It also comes with a free comics download code. Mine didn't work.

Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor #1 and The Eleventh Doctor #1 (Titan)

Titan Comics are the latest holders of the Doctor Who licence, thankfully not bound by the same franchise issues that stopped IDW selling their series in the UK. Of the two, the eleventh Doctor series is the better. Al Ewing has written a beautiful script that tackles depression and loneliness, while still managing to tell a fun, silly adventure, and he captures the eleventh Doctor perfectly. His new companion, Alice Obiefune, is excellently characterised, and the Doctor takes her travelling for the best reason of all: because she needs cheering up. Nick Abadzis writes the tenth Doctor story, preferring to go for the first part of a serial and ending on a cliffhanger. It's not as good an introduction to its new companion, Mexican American girl Gabriela, but it works well enough and she's a likeably spirited character. There are some surprisingly creepy and unpleasant visual moments to, in a story that goes for horror over whimsy. It's good that the two series take different approaches to their stories, and I can only applaud the multiethnic characters. A good start to the latest in a long run of Doctor Who comics. A twelfth Doctor series is due later in the year.

Friday 18 July 2014

Marvel Diversity

If you've been on the geeky pages lately, you'll no doubt be aware of the latest big announcements from Marvel. New developments in the Marvel NOW! range (still think that's a naff name) will see a new female Thor, and Sam “The Falcon” Wilson become the new Captain America. This has, predictably, caused protest and praise in roughly equal measure.

Now, we don't know precisely what form the Thor development will take. It certainly sounds like Thor Odinson will step down as the God of Thunder, and another character (established or new, we don;t know), will take over. How this will make her Thor is unclear. In the comics, Thor was originally the alter ego of Donald Blake, a human being into whom the Thunder God's spirit was placed. Nonetheless, Thor was still a distinct identity, not a title or superhero name like Captain America or Iron Man. Other characters have held the Hammer of Thor, having been found worthy, the most famous being the extraterrestrial Beta Ray Bill, who did become known as Beta Ray Thor for a time. Some of the other bearers of Mjolnir have been women. Still, it's never been a case of actually taking the place of Thor the character, so quite how this will be different is open to speculation. To quote Jason Aaron, the writer of the current volume: “This is not She-Thor. This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is Thor.”

Gender bending popular characters is usually seen as a fan pursuit, but Marvel have actually been doing it for years. Loki was recently reborn in a female body, although he's now back to his male form. Loki has always been a very fluid character, of course. Mr Sinister was reincarnated as Miss Sinister. It's not unheard of, but rarely sticks.

The unveiling of the new Captain America has been less controversial, and received less publicity. It would have made more of a splash if Marvel had released the news before the Thor revelation, really. In any case, having a black Captain America is no bad thing at all, and has rightly been lauded in most quarters, except for the usual pro-white arseholes. Again, though, it's less of a big deal than it might seem. There have been black Caps before, including, for a short time, Sam Wilson himself. Isaiah Bradley, a black man, was the first or second Captain America, depending on how you look at his retconning into continuity. There have been a lot of Caps over the years – io9 lists most of them here, and the Marvel Database, which covers alternative timelines as well, lists even more. It wasn't all that long ago that Bucky Barnes was the one true Captain, Steve Rogers having been assassinated. However, as we all know, deaths in comics rarely last, and neither do alternative character identities.

Sometimes it's different. Carol Danvers is the current Captain Marvel, a rightly celebrated move. Captain Marvel is a title that has been held by various characters over the years, and that's just in Marvel comics (it's complicated). The current bearer of the power of Captain Universe is Tamara Devoux, an African-American woman, but about half of the major characters in the Marvel universe have been Captain Universe at some point. In the Marvel Mangaverse (Earth-2301, fact fans) Danvers is Captain America, having taken over from Rogers. In the Ultimate Comics line (Earth-1610, trivia buffs), Miles Morales is Spider-Man, and this looks set to continue, in spite of Peter Parker's return from the dead. However, these kinds of changes are rarely permanent in the mainstream Marvel continuity. The status quo usually reasserts itself before long, hence why no one can stay dead.

It won't be long before Steve Rogers is back as Captain America, and Thor is once again male. Comics rarely deviate from the status quo for long, especially with regards to the major characters. However, this may not be the case for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvels' TV and film projects have, so far, done reasonably well when it comes to diversity in their main casts, but still the big star turns are white males. We've got a black Nick Fury (thanks to the Ultimate line casting Samuel L. Jackson long before the movies were on the radar). Marvel's Agents of SHIELD has a good 50/50 mix of male and female core characters, along with great guest turns from Cobie Smulders as agent Hill and Jaime Alexander as Sif. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are both getting online series, and Hayley Atwell will be starring in an Agent Carter miniseries. So there's some good work there. Still, though, there's a long way to go. We've got a Guardians of the Galaxy movie imminent, with aliens, tree people and talking raccoons before we've had a female lead hero or one of colour. It's not that women and minority groups are particularly poorly represented in the MCU, but they aren't headlining it either. There exist scripts for both Black Widow and Runaways films, yet there are currently no plans to actually make either of these. Either of those would be a major push in the right direction. Runaways is a particular favourite of mine, and if it stuck to its comics line-up, would be predominantly female and with a good mix of ethnicities. In spite of fan hopes, there still don't appear to be plans for a Black Panther or Ms. Marvel/Captain Marvel movie. We can only hope that the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, gets a movie or series one day (it's a very good comic and I highly recommend it). On the other hand, the details recently released for Disney's new animated feature Big Hero 6 have already brought it under fire for whitewashing the character line-up. I don't know enough about the original team to comment too much on this, other than that some of the characters are mutants who are part of the X-Men property, therefore not available for use by Disney/Marvel. The film isn't part of the MCU, it would seem, and Disney are downplaying it's connection to Marvel comics.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is taking a step in the right direction. With the Scarlet Witch joining the team, Black Widow will no longer be the only female Avenger. Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, the War Machine, is set to feature, and rumours have it that Anthony Mackie will be back as Sam Wilson. None of these actors will headline their own superhero feature in the immediate future, but there could be a long future for the Marvel franchise. I'd previously assumed that Bucky Barnes would take over as Captain America once Chris Evans's contract to play Steve Rogers has expired, but perhaps we could be seeing Sam Wilson donning the red, white and blue instead? Robert Downey Jr. is also coming to the end of his initial contract, so perhaps Rhodey will receive a promotion too. It's not as if black actors can't headline superhero flicks; we've had a whole trilogy of Blade films in the past. Of the predominantly male team at Marvel's film department, Joss Whedon is surely the best at writing for strong female characters, so maybe he'll push for a Carol Danvers film, or a female Thor? He's already said that he'd like Katee Sackoff for the role of the Thunder Goddess (I personally still see her as Danvers).

So, maybe one day we might have a line-up for Avengers 5 that runs like this: Don Cheadle as Iron Man, Anthony Mackie as Captain America, Katee Sackoff as Captain Marvel, Gwendoline Christie as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow, Djimon Hounsou as the Black Panther and Idrid Elba as Blade? An incredible cast without a white male among them.

I tell you one thing: Doctor Who is looking a bit backward now, while we still have a white male Doctor. Pull your finger out BBC.

Thursday 17 July 2014

TREK REVIEW: Star Trek Continues: Fairest of Them All

The third episode of Star Trek Continues, the fanfilm series made with an emphasis on authenticity, is a sequel to a fan favourite, “Mirror, Mirror.” While I still think there's room for more original storyline ideas in these types of productions, we fans do love a bit of sequelism, and they couldn't have picked a better story to follow up. “Mirror, Mirror” end with Kirk convincing the Spock of the Mirror Universe to try to turn the despotic Terran Empire into something better. What followed was never seen. There have, of course, been attempts to follow up the story, notably in the “Shatnerverse” novels, and it's a fanfic favourite. From Deep Space Nine we know the long-term fallout of Spock's actions, and the Enterprise episode “In a Mirror, Darkly,” gave us the origins of the Empire.

However, it's been almost fifty years since that episode aired and it's only now that we get to see, on the small screen, exactly what happened after Kirk and his malevolent counterpart were returned to their respective universes. The Continues creators are making a bold move with this episode, not only portraying their vision of a major sequence of events in Trek's future history, but beginning it with a recreation of the seminal original scene between Kirk and Mirror Spock. Thankfully, both Vic Mignona and Todd Haberkorn nail it, in this scene and throughout. I haven't had much chance to rate Haberkorn yet, seeing that Spock has had relatively little to do in the previous two episodes of the series. This, however, is all about the Kirk-Spock dynamic, albeit a twisted reflection of it, in which Spock's logical philosophy is faced with sheer emotional aggression from his captain. In fact, I'd say Mignona is better here as Mirror Kirk than he is as the regular Kirk. That's not to say he hasn't been great in the previous episodes, because he has. However, the Mirror Kirk is an almost entirely unexplored character, which gives the Mignona more room to play his own version. He paints a picture of a terrifying individual, of power gone unchecked.

However, like the Empire itself, Kirk is destined to be usurped by the very people who serve him. One of the best moments in the episode comes as Uhura (Kim Stinger) finally stands up to an increasingly desperate and vicious Kirk and tells him he's gone too far. While Mignona and Haberkorn lead the episode, all members of the cast do well here. Of particular note is Asia DeMarcos as Marlena, the Captain's Woman, with just as vital a role in this episode as in the original. Kipleigh Brown, as Navigator Smith, is also very good, and there's no reason their regular universe counterparts couldn't become major characters in future episodes. The only character that didn't feel quite right was Chekov (Wyatt Lenhart), simply because he's too reasonable. Chekov was a really nasty little shit in “Mirror, Mirror.” There are other notable cast members too, including Chris Huber making his debut as Dr. McCoy, and Michael Dorn, better known as Commander Worf, providing a deeply scary computer voice.

The story is fast paced but intelligent, with Spock showing that there is a better way by managing, against all odds, a bloodless mutiny on the Enterprise. A link to the 22nd century Mirror Universe storyline is provided when Andorian rebels show up to take on the imperial ship (no blue skin I'm afraid, this is space warfare only), which adds another layer to the proceedings. It's not strictly necessary though, as Spock's rebellion is the core of the episode and is enough to carry it. Aside from Star Trek's perennial obsession with chess – authentic, again, but clichéd – pretty much every aspect of this episode works. Plus, we get a homage to the classic “Khaaaan!” line much better than the one in Star Trek Into Darkness. Overall, this is really good stuff. A superior fanfilm.

Watch "Fairest of Them All" here.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

I Was Raised by Spacemen 3 - Super Mario Bros. (The Movie)

Some films are indisputable classics. Others are a matter of taste or preference. And some are just awful, but there are those of us who love them anyway. One such film is Super Mario Bros.

Super Mario Bros. was released in 1993 to cash in on the hugely popular Super Mario games series, which could easily be the subject of one of these essays itself. I'm guessing nobody reading this needs an introduction to the Super Mario games, and if you do, you've had a terrible, neglectful childhood and must start playing these things now to make up for it. I didn't get to see the movie on release, but it was released on video the following year, when I was ten, and I recall picking it up pretty much as soon as it was out. In fact, we rented it first, because that was the financially sensible thing to do in those days, when tapes were expensive. We weren't a game-playing family for a long time. We didn't have a vast amount of free income at the time, and games consoles were an extravagance. However, we did eventually get a household Gameboy, followed by, one wonderful summer, a second-hand Super NES. Oh, such a joyous summer.

Back then, you were either a Nintendo household or a Sega one. We were Nintendo through and through. We bought the official magazine (back when it was the Nintendo Magazine System, or NMS, and was actually bloody good). We loved Mario, and Yoshi, and Donkey Kong and Zelda. Next door were a Sega crowd, and while it was perfectly permissible to go play Sonic on their Mega Drive, it was Nintendo only in our house. It was like supporting a football team, only important.

By 1993, we'd moved to a pokey little shithole with no Sega playing neighbours, but we had Super Mario World and Mario Kart on the SNES, so it wasn't so bad. In fact, by the time we got the video, Yoshi's Island might even have been released by the time we owned a copy of the video. While the first Super Mario Bros. game had been released way back in 1985, it had begun a long and sprawling series of games of various formats, with the classic platformers at its core. There were cartoon series already, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show and Super Mario World, which weren't exactly what you'd call good, or even watchable, but were entertaining enough for small people who loved fat Italian plumbers. A movie series was the next obvious idea, and it's not surprise that a big budget blockbuster was planned. It didn't really turn out that way. Super Mario Bros. tanked completely. It was a critical and financial failure, and its stars panned it even as it was being released.

The thing is, the writers and producers of this thing have clearly thought about it. One of the writers, the only one who seems to have done anything else, was Ed Solomon, who co-wrote Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and, later, Men in Black. He knows how to craft a sci-fi comedy film. He and his co-writers have genuinely thought about how the utterly bizarre world of Mario and Luigi could be translated to a live-action film. Some things are logical, if odd: they're the Mario Brothers, so their surname must be Mario. Therefore, their names are Mario Mario and Luigi Mario, and they are orphans, Mario having raised his baby bro. Others are frankly bizarre, but it's understandable why they came to the conclusions they did. The original game was set in the Mushroom Kingdom. Well, a kingdom full of mushrooms would be disgusting, wouldn't it? The brothers are plumbers, so day-to-day plumbing has to be a significant part of the adventure. Princess Daisy is from the Mushroom Kingdom, so she's part of that world, but we need to involve her in this world... Oh, and Super Mario World was set in Dinosaur Land, so we need to combine that in there somehow. How to juggle these disparate elements?

What we ended up with was an utterly baffling story in which two realities exist side by side, the universe having split when a meteorite hit sixty-five million years ago. (In reality, it hit what is now Mexico, not Brooklyn, but anyway.) In one reality, the dinosaurs were wiped out, and the mammals took over and evolved into us. On the other, ecologically damaged Earth, the dinosaurs survived, and evolved into a civilisation of oddly human-looking intelligent reptiles. Why the dinosaur people are so humanoid that they have hair and tits and stuff, is unexplained, but they do lay eggs, because Daisy was abandoned in hers, when her mother escaped across the dimensional divide. For some reason, only she can reunite the dimensions safely, with her little chip of space rock.

It's mental. Mario is played by Bob Hoskins, who described it as the worst role of his career. Luigi is played by John Leguizamo, and frankly, I find it hard to believe that those two are brothers. They are two Italian American plumbers struggling to make a living in the face of the Scapelli Corporation. Neither Hoskins or Leguizamo appear to be enjoying the movie very much. Samantha Mathis plays Daisy, who, despite being a destitute orphan raised by a convent and only twenty years old, is already senior enough at her university that she has been put in charge of a major fossil excavation in the middle of New York. You see, Scapelli has blasted open the rift between realities. Oh, and now King Koopa is after Daisy and her meteorite piece, so has sent his cousins Iggy and Spike (a pretty damned good Fisher Stevens and Richard Edsons) through to find her.

God, yes, King Koopa. You can tell that Dennis Hopper isn't enthused; it's actually one of his more sedate performances. He was second only to Hoskins in complaining about the production of the movie. But god, he's great. A sinister corporate overlord, who boasts of being descended from the Tyrannosaurus rex, and has seized power using a de-evolution machine. It's mental. He takes mudbaths between his evil schemes. He keeps poor, cute little Yoshi (a pretty good bit of animatronics, it must be said) chained up. Fiona Shaw, for some reason, plays his bit of stuff, Lena, who has her own plans of conquest. Mario and Luigi must rescue Daisy, and Mario's girlfriend Danielle, who's there too, and stop Koopa uniting the worlds and taking over. But there's still time for a dance at the Boom Boom Bar, to 'Everybody Walk the Dinosaur.' It's... words fail me.

The brightly-coloured world of the Super Mario games has been replaced by a grungy, seedy alternative New York (Dinohattan, natch), yet several of the ideas are quite literal translations of elements in the games. Yoshi comes good when he grabs Lena with his super-elongated tongue. The deposed King (Lance Henriksson, in a brief, random cameo) has been de-evolved into fungus, allowing a bizarre homage to Super Mario Bros. 3, when he is returned to his natural form. You know, like when you get to the end of a world and beat the boss, and the King has been turned into a walrus or something and you turn him back. Exactly like that, but with more mucus. There's a chase through a pipe, and a brilliant extended joke with a wind-up Bob-omb.

Some of the decisions are odder. Koopa's shock troops are called Goombas, which, in the games, were little mushroom-like creatures with huge heads and not much else. In the movie, they are poor unfortunates and political prisoners who have been de-evolved into hulking reptilian beasts with tiny heads. Koopa Troopers would have been a more logical thing to call them, surely? Not that they're much like them, either. The Goombas come in two strains, Jurassic and Cretaceous, and I'm quite certain that they resemble nothing in the fossil record. Also, why is Mario's girlfriend called Danielle, and not Pauline? There's value to be had in obscure references.

Frankly, it's easy to see why it has such a poor reputation. The script is mostly witless, it bears only the most cursory resemblance to the source material, none of the cast can be bothered (except Frank Welker, providing amazing voice work as usual), it's sloppily directed, it looks cheaper than it should on its budget and it turned Bertha the fish into a huge black dominatrix in red rubber. But on the other hand, I was ten when I first saw it, and it really is a joyously ridiculous waste of time. There are also three very good reasons to love it:

  1. Roxette provide the credits song, 'Almost Unreal.' It's gorgeous. It was intended for the movie Hocus Pocus, which makes a lot more sense of the lyrics, but it ended up on this thing, much to the band's chagrin. But it really is a classic song.
  1. The Goomba dancing scene.
  2. Koopa ceases to be a blond maniac at the end, when Mario and Luigi de-evolve him into a big green T. rex. Really, it has to be seen to be believed. Not quite Jurassic Park standard, but still awesome.

Super Mario Bros. is my favourite crap film. Dennis Hopper and Bob Hoskins may have hated it, but it's what I will remember them for the most. It's about time we had a sequel (actually, there is an unofficial one here). Wario should be in it. In fact, I'll write it. Who says there can only be two dimensions?

One last thing: apparently, they looked at getting Danny de Vito or Tom Hanks to play Mario, and Big Arnie to play Koopa. So, this movie could have been even weirder...