Notes On A Film – X-Men: Apocalypse

Friday, 26 August 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse poster
I meant to write about X-Men: Apocalypse when I saw it the week it came out, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I think it was mostly because I didn’t have anything to say about it – the film was the cinematic equivalent of the ‘meh’ shrug, just existing as a thing that wasn’t truly awful but wasn’t very good either. The fact that it was the follow-up to X-Men: Days of Future Past, a really good film (which I really enjoyed) that was entertaining and had a point for its 1970s setting and had something to say about the character, made this film feel even more inessential. The build-up of the film and the villain – Apocalypse sounds like a clear statement of intent – couldn’t live up to the reality: a dull villain with a bland world-ending agenda, set in the 1980s so that it could be a period piece without the X-Men at full power.

I include a vague plot summary but it’s barely worth it: Apocalypse is a bad guy who gets woken up in 1983 (primarily because it is 10 years since Days of Future Past, which is mostly ignored after a few period touches, because someone thought that the 10-year gap would be good for the prequels/sequels) and decides to get on with the day job – collecting four Horsemen (mutants he gives a level-up to, despite the fact that he has loads of powers himself) in order to destroy the world and start it again. Because reasons. The X-Men try to stop him because Apocalypse is thematically attuned to the concept of the genetic aspect of the X-Men, erm, I mean because he wants to destroy the world and he’s using Magneto to do it. That’s about it – not particularly complicated. There is a lot of altering of the world and massive destruction (the world-ending stuff in the climax is staggering – the global economy afterwards would be in tatters and the state of the history of this world changed for ever) but, spoiler alert, the good guys win.

I wish that I had enjoyed this film more. I’ve been a big fan of the X-Men since the 1980s (yes, I’m that old – I was buying the comic book that Apocalypse first appeared in from the stands as it came out, back in 1986), so it’s great to see the large roster of characters appearing on screen. Look, there’s Caliban for no reason (and not really looking like the comic book version)! But I didn’t really feel anything about it. It’s perfectly competent if unengaging superhero action. As I tweeted, the best bits were the return of the Quicksilver scene (Evan Peters with increased screen time, rescuing the children in the X-mansion when it’s blowing up) and the appearance onscreen of the Barry Windsor-Smith Weapon X outfit – part of the Wolverine cameo from Hugh Jackman – that is the cinematic realisation of the helmet and wires visual from Marvel Comics Presents in which that storyline was serialised (yes, I was buying that book as it came out as well, back in 1988). Bits I liked included having the X-Men as teenagers, further evidence that The New Mutants would be a winner on-screen, particularly Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler, Alexandra Shipp as young Storm, and Sophie Grey as Jean Grey. But that’s not a lot of positivity, is it?

There were, however, plenty of things that stood out for the wrong reasons. The decision to make Apocalypse look human at the same time as trying to recreate the look of Apocalypse from the comic made the talented Oscar Isaac look untalented and blunted the impact of the character. Perhaps a full CGI creation would have captured the over-the-top dynamics of the comic book version. Trying to make Mystique an important part of the X-Men canon, not for story reasons but because she is played by the Oscar-winning, talented, biggest star of the moment, Jennifer Lawrence, seemed clunky at best and desperate at worst, leaving Lawrence stuck in the middle, neither the Mystique of the original films or the character from X-Men: First Class. Using a Women In Refrigerators plot development to turn Magneto (Michael Fassbender, still good in a repetitive role) from peaceful family man to psychotic killer and potential world destroyer was particularly depressing. And how many times are we going to see Magneto turn good because Charles Xavier (James MacAvoy in good form, if underserved) believes there is good in him? (Despite being the world’s most powerful telepath, Charles is incredibly stupid – how many times does he need to see Eric kill people before he gets the point?) The Psylocke costume – why, oh why, oh why was that kept? I felt so embarrassed for Olivia Munn having to wear that ridiculous leather leotard – everybody else gets decent costumes, so why not her? It was bad enough that her character was a non-character – it’s like they made her wear the costume just to distinguish her from everyone else …

X-Men: Apocalypse – Four Horsemen
I think that disappointment was my overriding response. Disappointment that Bryan Singer, the man responsible for the three best X-men films, made such an uninteresting instalment (although, if you’ve seen Jack The Giant Slayer, you’ll know that Singer can make duff films). Disappointment in the bland villain with bland motivation and a bland plan. Disappointment in the resulting telepathic battle that ensued between Xavier and Apocalypse, hoping we would get something akin to Xavier’s battles with the Shadow King in the comic books, instead resorting to fisticuffs. Disappointment that this wasn’t as good as X-Men: Days of Future Past.

During the time where I haven’t been writing about the film but it was percolating in the back of my head, the only explanation for the film I can come up with is that it’s a movie for fans of the X-Men cartoon from 1992–1997, and because of its popularity, the X-Men comics of the 1990s. I’ve been looking into the timeframe. Despite Apocalypse first appearing in X-Factor in the late 1980s, written by Louise Simonson and drawn so well by Walter Simonson (his cool design is one of the reasons that the character is so popular), it wasn’t until the 1990s that the character became what he is known for: the En Sabar Nuh name came about in 1993; the origin in Egypt and the technology was in 1994; the Age of Apocalypse storyline in 1995 (I had stopped buying X-Men comics after Chris Claremont was edged out by Bob Harras favouring the artists over the writer, so I wasn’t buying these comics as they came out; I recently tried to read the AoA storyline in trades from the library – I say ‘tried’ because it was unreadable rubbish, all three volumes of it). The shoehorning in of Jubilee (first appearance in 1989 but only a regular from 1991) comes from her popularity in the cartoon, where she was given the Kitty Pryde role in the team as the ‘young sister’ to everybody. It all points to a film that derives from a love of the X-Men cartoon/comics of the 1990s, which were not good, I’m afraid. Even the post-credit scene, which is a teaser for the next Wolverine film, is a reference to Mr Sinister, a villain from the comic books but who gained traction in the X-Men cartoon.

In summary: an uninspired superhero action film, which you may find more enjoyable if you were a big fan of the X-Men: Animated Series. Otherwise, a bit disappointing.

Rating: DA

Notes On A Film: Suicide Squad

Monday, 22 August 2016

Suicide Squad promotional image
The US critics seem to have been particularly harsh towards Suicide Squad – I’m not sure what they were expecting, but it could have been anticipation that has built up over what seems like ages in a very clever marketing campaign to introduce mostly unknown comic book characters to the wider public. (And when writer/director David Ayer talks about making the film ‘for the fans’, exactly how many fans does he think the comic book has? Comics do not have a very large audience, and Suicide Squad is not a popular book, so unless they’ve been a big hit on the various DC television shows, he’s talking about a few hundred thousand, tops.) The film is not a disaster by any means – it’s perfectly serviceable entertainment, even if it has flaws and shows the joins where reshoots and studio edits have shuffled things around (based on previous Ayer films, the lightening of the tone was probably a good thing, because he tends towards dark and doesn’t have a great sense of humour).

Following on from Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (so spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen that film), Suicide Squad sees Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) presenting her Task Force X collection of supervillains as a government-controlled, off-the-books response team to meta-human threats: Deadshot (Will Smith), the assassin who doesn’t miss; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the psychiatrist turned psycho when she fell in love with the Joker (Jared Leto); Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Ajbaje), deformed, strong, cannibalistic; Diablo (Jay Hernandez), capable of generating and controlling fire; Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a thief who kills with boomerangs; the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), the spirit of an alien who has been on this planet for thousands of years, currently occupying a human host, and controlled by Waller’s possession of her heart and the spirit of her brother. The team will be led on ops by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who is not a supervillain, to make the people in charge feel slightly more comfortable, accompanied by his ‘bodyguard’, Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

Suicide Squad poster
A digression: Task Force X is presented as a team of villains with special skills, but what exactly is Harley Quinn’s special power? Was she turned super-strong or lethal when she fell in the vat of acid? Because all she does is hit people with a baseball bat or shoot them with a pistol. Am I missing something?

The characters are introduced with the visual equivalent of a Top Trumps card and flashbacks, which allows the introduction of the Joker into the story, and the team is assembled from the prison in Belle Reve. Before they are given a specific mission that they were assembled for, they are sent to Midway City to neutralise a ‘terrorist threat’ – in reality, the Enchantress has escaped, freed her brother and is creating a machine that will destroy the world. For reasons? And team goes into action …

The film works fine in sections – Ayer shoots a decent action scene, Robbie is perfect as Harley Quinn, Smith puts all his charm into Deadshot (who was always the breakout character in the comic book), and Davis displays the correct steeliness for The Wall (although I thought the decision to show her ‘gangsta’ side, as Deadshot describes it, as a cheap way of doing it and detracted from the iron-willed character created by John Ostrander). There is some humour – Robbie gets most of the best lines, although the biggest laugh in the Peckhamplex was for Killer Croc’s ‘B.E.T.’ one-word response – but it’s not Deadpool or Guardians of the Galaxy. The film is fairly stylish (the pop-video aesthetic works rather well with the team, although how much money was spent on the music rights? There are loads of well-known songs used in varying amounts throughout the film) and tells a fairly traditional comic book story just with supervillains doing the heroics. I quite liked the inclusion of Ben Affleck’s Batman in several flashback scenes, and the Flash capturing Boomerang was a good indication of the approach and Ezra Miller’s handling of the character. The film-makers put in a nod for the creator of the comic book with the ‘John F Ostrander Federal Building’, and a flashback scene for Joker and Harley is a cinematic recreation of the Alex Ross cover for Harley’s DC debut, Batman: Harley Quinn #1.

Suicide Squad posterThe film loses points in the details. Waller is supposed to be smart, motivated, in control, but the ease with which Enchantress is able to escape and find her brother was ludicrous. The squad is supposed to be a unit that can be sent in as deniable, expendable grunts, yet they are accompanied into Midway City with two squads of special-ops soldiers – erm, why? The Joker is a distraction, perhaps put in for recognition value – Leto does a great Joker laugh but the script serves him as the rap-video gangsta version of the Joker – and I would have preferred his involvement if he were the target of the Squad’s mission. The actual mission is let down by the non-descript ‘evil person wants to destroy the world’ villain (and the rather poor performance by Delevingne). The original comic book series by Ostrander, a series I’m a big fan of, always had a socio-political aspect to them – Ostrander (and later with his wife, Kim Yale) grounded the series in reality and dubious nature of world politics, which gave the book its edge. A CGI identikit villain isn’t what the Squad is about; the proliferation of superhero films has led to an escalation of antagonists so that a film has to have a world-ending problem to deal with or it doesn’t have a point in the minds of studio executives.

I wonder if the Squad would work better as a television series – the comic book worked because it gave character to B- and C-list supervillains so you cared about them, something that a film is hard-pressed to do (the dynamics of a movie require concentrating on fewer characters and resolving issues in a limited running time); a television series would allow more depth, a greater variety of antagonists and operations for the team, and the ability to highlight different members. But that’s a passing fantasy of mine – the film and television worlds of DC seem to be completely separate units, with a more positive vibe to the various superheroes.

Suicide Squad is fine as a movie – it’s not doing anything original, it’s better than Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (and a lot of other truly terrible DC films – Supergirl, Steel, Jonah Hex), and there’s plenty to enjoy, especially if you’re a fan of the original comic book. Don’t let the US critics put you off, but at the same time there’s no need to rush to the cinema either.

Rating: DVD

Book Review – Warlock Holmes: A Study In Brimstone

Friday, 13 May 2016

Warlock Holmes: A Study In Brimstone cover
Written by GS Denning
Published by Titan Books

The extent to which you will enjoy this book depends on how much you smile when you read the title. I’m amazed nobody has come up with that play on words before – I’m genuinely jealous. The opening lines of the book set the tone:
“The dominion of man is drawing to a close. The age of demons is upon us. This, I recognize, is largely my fault and let me take just a moment to apologize for my part in it. I am very sorry I doomed the world. Really, just … absolutely, horribly sorry.”

The narrator is Dr John Watson – a doctor retired from the army after being shot in the shoulder in Afghanistan – who is introduced to Warlock Holmes, repeatedly striking a corpse with a cricket bat in the morgue of St Bart’s Hospital, as someone in need of a man for shared lodgings. Together they move into 221B Baker Street, with their landlady Mrs Hudson. Despite the similarities, things are different – Warlock is no master of deduction (that role belongs to Watson, in keeping with the real-life inspiration for Doyle in the original Sherlock Holmes stories); Lestrade is Detective Inspector Vladislav Lestrade, a nihilist vampire; the other detective inspector friendly to Warlock is Torg Grogsson, an ogre; and Warlock has the spirit of Moriarty trapped in his head. Warlock acts as a consulting detective for Lestrade and Grogsson, not for fame or money, but to keep the supernatural hidden from the public so that his own peculiar abilities with the supernatural are never revealed.

Although there are these differences, there are many more similarities in the stories. The main tale, A Study in Brimstone, is a reworking of A Study in Scarlet, with a cab driver killing someone at 3 Lauriston Gardens; the remaining short stories in the book are reworkings of Sherlock Holmes stories. Therefore, The Adventure of the Resident Sacrifice is a reworking of The Adventure of the Resident Patient; The Case of the Cardboard … Case is The Adventure of the Cardboard Box; The Adventure of the Yellow Bastard is The Adventure of the Yellow Face; The Adventure of the _eckled _and is The Adventure of the Speckled Band; and Charles August Milverton: Soulbinder is obviously The Adventure of Charles August Milverton. Denning uses the same names and crimes as the basis for his tales, but gives them a supernatural twist after leading the reader towards the conclusions of Sherlock in the originals.

This is an interesting concept in a mash-up kind of way, with occasional lines that raise a chuckle (Warlock: ‘When I listed my faults as a living companion, I told you to expect bloody messages to appear in German, Latin and Sanskrit.’). However, the book is never as funny as it should be. In the acknowledgements, Denning thanks Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, two sources of inspiration and unfortunately comparison – Denning is a competent writer but he isn’t anywhere near the levels of Adams and Pratchett. The occasional interesting turn of phrase (‘cardio-cranial narrative-sensitive exploditis’) isn’t enough to add to the single joke of the title character’s name.

The narrative style doesn’t help to ground the basic joke because it doesn’t feel like Doyle’s style, and doesn’t have a Victorian ring to the prose – the book is set in the same time frame as the original stories, but you wouldn’t get that from reading the book. And that’s not just because there’s a joke about the Nigerian prince email scam, or a reference to Donkey Kong. I’ve read a few books of Sherlock Holmes stories by other writers and the correct tone of voice and language aid those books in their telling. This book is interesting and may develop into something more (the last tale has a cliffhanger ending for further adventures), and if you enjoy spotting all the references to the original tales you will find something to enjoy, but for my money the best mash-up Sherlock Holmes story is still A Study In Emerald by Neil Gaiman.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Catch-up Comic Book Reviews – Rivers of London: Night Witch #1

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Rivers of London: Night Witch #1 cover
Written by Ben Aaronovitch & Andrew Cartmel
Art by Lee Sullivan
Colours by Luis Guerrero
Letters by Rob Steen
Edited by Steve White
Published by Titan Comics

The Rivers of London series of books is really terrific, telling the adventures of Constable Peter Grant as he becomes the first new member in years of the Folly, the branch of the Metropolitan police that deals with crimes to do with magic. I’ve been a big fan of it and Ben Aaronovitch since the first book back in 2012; I even went to see him at Manor House library, where he was funny and smart and charming. I was excited to hear that Aaronovitch was bringing the stories to comic books – this is the second mini-series, after Body Works – but this series is of particular interest to fans of the novels because it continues storylines that are the main overarching thread of the series.

The book starts with some criminals in a van speaking Russian (in Cyrillic alphabet, no translation – you have to read the behind-the-scenes stuff at the end of the book) – they are in London, holding up a van for one of the occupants: Varvara Sidorovna Tamonina. The criminals tell her they want to rescue her, but Varvara doesn’t want to be rescued: she is a Night Witch (‘not a metaphorical title’) and she can defend herself, leaving behind the arm of one of the criminals as evidence. (She was introduced in the fourth book of the series, Broken Homes, and is now a house guest of the Folly.)

The Russian mobsters were there under orders of Nestor and Ludmila Yakunin, oligarchs from Russia now living in England; they want Varvara’s help to save their daughter from a Leshy (‘A Leshy? In Kent? No fucking way.’) – Ludmila knows the ‘true signs’ because her mother was in the same Night Witch regiment as Varvara. Varvara can’t help, but tells them to ask for Inspector Nightingale of the Special Assessment Unit (aka the head of the Folly), something they don’t take too well. With that, we get a bit of recent Russian political history as Grant and Nightingale do some research on the Yakunins and how they became so wealthy, which ultimately leads them to an unfortunate connection: The Faceless Man (the main bad guy in the novels), the man to whom the Yakunins are turning for help. Only for another character from the novels to appear …

This is an extremely intriguing first issue, especially as it connects so strongly to the events in the novels. It doesn’t focus on the normal characters in the series, but I’m fine with that when it slips in back story for Varvara and brings in the Faceless Man. It makes me excited for this storyline and for what will happen in the novels (the fifth book deliberately took Grant out of London and away from the Faceless Man and the result of the end of the fourth book). It wasn’t what I was expecting and it’s all the better for it. The book is funny, character-led, provides a history lesson, and has a point of view, a hallmark of Aaronovitch's work. If you’re a fan of the Rivers of London series, you should be reading this comic book.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Notes On A Film – Captain America: Civil War

Monday, 9 May 2016

Captain America: Civil War still
Things have been hectic at Clandestine Critic Casa, with lots of decorating and gardening and associated stuff getting in the way of reading and reviewing comic books (I’ve got a stack of first issues to write about that’s piling up, so consider yourself warned). So it was nice to have an afternoon to view the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most reliable place for comic book films at the moment. This was especially true when the last comic book movie I bore witness to was Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Captain America: Civil War was the perfect antidote to the Warner Bros/DC mess, covering a similar conceit (hero versus hero, governments working to control heroes) but doing it immeasurably better, highlighting the gulf that exists between the two superhero universes. Captain America: Civil War is packed with great action, great characterisation, great jokes, in service a good story which makes sense and which delivers emotional moments; it’s a near-perfect superhero movie.

Where to start with all the good stuff in the film? Great direction from Anthony and Joe Russo, continuing their great job on Captain America: Winter Soldier? Great script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely? Great acting from the old hands and the new faces? Let’s take that as a given (see the very high rating on Rotten Tomatoes et al.) and get in to the details. The comparison with BvS: DoJ is helpful because the two films share a similar theme – heroes who should be friends are put into a position where they are on opposite sides – but do it completely differently and with different results.

In BvS: DoJ, we don’t care that Batman and Superman are fighting because the film doesn’t earn the moment; in CA: CW, the film-makers go out of the way to establish the reasons for the disagreement, ensuring that all the characters have reasons for their stance on the matter. [A digression: Marvel also has a dozen films that build into this characterisation, which is an unfair advantage over BvS: DoJ, but at least Marvel has earned it by doing the hard work, compared with the desperate cramming and catching up in the DC films leading to a lack of explanation and depth.]

Where is BvS: DoJ is dour and ponderous, CA: CW is able to maintain a serious tone but incorporate elements of humour so that you are entertained. Both films are similarly long but whereas BvS: DoJ feels longer, you are never bored throughout CA: CW, as it deftly mixes the plot development with character-based action and characterisation. Watching the two films is a completely different experience: BvS: DoJ is a bum-numbing slog with the occasional moment that captures the attention, whereas CA: CW grabs you from the start and doesn’t let up throughout.

Captain America: Civil War still
The action in the two films is another contrast: BvS: DoJ has most of its final act fighting at night in the rain, murky and too fast to follow; CA: CW has its biggest (and best) multi-character fight scene in the middle of the day in an airport, and the action is sublime, easy to follow, spectacular and entertaining (and this doesn’t take into account all the other great action scenes that are scattered throughout the film). Until Marvel tops this, the airport fight scene is the best superhero fight on celluloid, with Captain America, Winter Soldier, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye and Ant-Man facing off against Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, Vision, Black Panther and, in his MCU debut, Spider-Man. The scene is dazzling, but still finds time for good character moments for Scarlet Witch, Vision, Black Widow and Hawkeye, and for Spider-Man to steal the film with wonderful jokes (‘Hey guys, you ever see that really old movie, Empire Strikes Back?’), and lovely moments from the comics (Ant-Man on Hawkeye’s arrow, plus Ant-Man’s big surprise). Even with the moments shown in the teaser trailers, it’s still fantastic to watch this fight scene unfold in the film; the people in charge of making DCU films at Warner Bros. should take note.

The film has a lot of plot to pack in: former general, now Secretary of State Thunderbolt Ross bringing the Sokovia accords to the Avengers, Helmut Zemo’s machinations; developing the enmity between Iron Man and Captain America (and Winter Soldier) [as well as fitting in the obligatory Community cameo, this time from Jim Rash aka Dean Pelton]. However, the film still manages to introduce the new elements without feeling stuffed. Apart from recruiting Spider-Man (which sees Robert Downey Jr and Marisa Tomei together again after Only You) and giving us the best Spider-Man onscreen so far, and the development of the potential relationship between Scarlet Witch and Vision, there is the introduction of Black Panther to the MCU – Chadwick Boseman makes for a very good T’Challa, maintaining the dignity of the character while still making him accessible. This bodes well for the solo film, and the suit and fighting style look great, and the tease of Wakanda looked fabulous, so full marks for bringing the character to the screen intact, and I hope the introduction of Martin Freeman as Everett K Ross means we will see him in the solo Black Panther film as well (I really love the Priest-written Black Panther comic books).

Captain America: Civil War still

I have only the smallest niggles about the film. It would have been nicer to have more female characters – Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Sharon Carter are not enough, and Marvel should be doing better. I also thought there was perhaps a bit too much of Downey Jr – I understand that we need a certain amount due to the personal nature of the animosity between him and Winter Soldier, but the film is supposed to be a Captain America sequel, and the great performance by Chris Evans (who really acts as the heart of the MCU, something that I would have thought difficult based on the relative blandness of the character in the comic books) is slightly sidelined by the Downey Jr theatrics. But these are only minor qualms in an otherwise great film. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, which maintains the high quality of Marvel’s cinematic output and makes me excited for Avengers: Infinity War.

Rating: DAVID

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

Notes On A Film – Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Friday, 15 April 2016

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice poster
I usually discuss my thoughts on superhero films because it’s in the centre of the Venn diagram of this blog, namely comic books and movies, and especially when I go to the cinema to see them. However, my reaction to seeing Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was along the lines of, ‘Oh dear’, which doesn’t make for a fascinating or interesting insight. Several weeks after seeing it, I felt compelled to get the thoughts out of my head so I no longer had it ruminating in there.

I can’t tell what was more annoying while watching the film: the lack of thought put into the story, or the two kids behind me constantly talking through the action of the last third after their bored silence of the first two-thirds. At least they weren’t traumatised like the younger children sitting further down the aisle from me, asking their mum in tremulous voices about what was happening on screen …

The problem for the film is that the only creative motivation behind it is that Zack Snyder loved the fight between Batman and Superman in the Frank Miller comic book, The Dark Knight Returns, and wanted to make a movie about it; however, he doesn’t seem to understand that the fight in the comic book was earned by the previous issues and the characterisation given to the protagonists – the film comes across as a dreary and unengaging build-up that doesn’t have any of the weight required to justify it. The entire film is constructed to set up this conflict, but it’s not believable and, anyway, Snyder doesn’t care – he got to film the fight, and that’s all that matters to him.

The film fails because it doesn’t serve any of reasons for making it  – it doesn’t provide an entertaining film in its own right, it doesn’t serve as a sequel to Man of Steel because Superman is not the protagonist of the story, and it doesn’t serve as an exciting launching point for the raft of Warner Bros. films based on DC Comics characters. It exists as an exercise in putting two of the most famous fictional characters from comic books into a live-action film together for the first time. I don’t usually care about the box office numbers, but here they speak volumes: the huge opening weekend shows how much people wanted to see Batman and Superman on screen together; the huge drop-off in the second weekend shows how disappointed all those people were and told their friends not to bother.

I wonder if Marvel Cinematic Universe films have spoiled us – even the average MCU films (Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World) were better than this, and all of the films developed the character and the story to earn the final act climaxes, and more importantly remembered to be entertaining at the same time. I counted three jokes in the entire 2.5-hour running time, and two of them were in the trailer – the Nolan Batman films, more serious and complex than BvS:DoJ, were far more entertaining and had far more humour in them.

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice still
Let me leaven my own darkness here with some of the highlights: Wonder Woman was great – her arrival injected energy and spark, and it was great to see a superhero who knew how to smile. It was slightly depressing that the best thing about a Batman/Superman film is Wonder Woman, but there you go. Gal Gadot looked and acted the part, so that’s a good sign for the standalone film. I thought Ben Affleck was great as Bruce Wayne – he had the right tone and attitude, when he wasn’t just being grumpy about Superman. I liked his Batman – the scene where he fought a bunch of goons was extremely well done – but not as much as his Bruce, and I’m glad that a voice modulator was used for the Batman voice instead of trying to do a Christian Bale growl. I wish that Jeremy Irons had more to do as Alfred because he had a great spiky energy in the role. Amy Adams was her usual great self as Lois Lane, even if she was wasted for the most part (and was it really necessary for that scene for her to be in the bath?). I think that Henry Cavill might make a good Superman/Clark Kent, if he was given the opportunity – here, he spends most of the time looking sullen and serious, with very little chance to do anything interesting. In contrast, Jesse Eisenberg is given plenty to do as Lex Luthor but seems to be in a completely different movie to everybody else, all crazy ticks and excessive dialogue compared with the general sombre tone, with no motivations for his character: he’s just there to act as the plot engine for the whole film.

Luthor is also the plot engine for the hoped-for Justice League set-up – instead of an organic introduction to Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg, we discover that he has files on them; not only that, Luthor has asked a designer to come up with a logo for them (including Wonder Woman) as well as naming them (the name is part of the video filename). Because that’s what would happen. It’s typical of this film – things happen for no reason apart from they have to be there for something else. There are lots of dream sequences – the film starts with Bruce dreaming about his parents being gunned down and discovering the cave with bats, because nobody knows Batman’s secret origin; he has another one about Superman being a fascistic leader at some point in the future that suggests the world is controlled by Darkseid, although it seems that this dream might have been a warning from a future Flash about what may happen if they don’t trust in Lois Lane; it’s hard to tell because it was all rather confusing.

Fair play to Snyder, the fight between Batman and Superman is well done, even if the way it ends involves a maternal coincidence that I confess hadn’t thought about before, and would have made for a decent ending to the film. But then we get the bigger fight, the one that was ruined by showing the antagonist in the bloody trailer, and it’s a return to the bigger-is-bigger-is-best approach employed at the end of Man of Steel, where things are moving so fast your eyes can barely keep up. Marvel films do this better – like in comic books, you have to show the fight in a way that people can follow it and enjoy or there’s no point; seeing as superhero fights are the USP, it’s kind of important.

I left the cinema after watching this film with the feeling of a wasted opportunity – we could have had an entertaining cinematic meeting between Batman and Superman; instead, we got a sombre, slow, dull, uninteresting, plodding, unengaging 150 minutes that will probably be the only time we get a film billed as a Batman and Superman film. I didn’t care about the ending, I didn’t care about a potential Justice League film, and as someone who copy-edits and proofreads for a living, I was appalled at the lack of punctuation in the headline of The Daily Planet at the end of the film – you’re film isn’t a success if that stays in the mind instead of the supposed spectacle around it.

Rating: DA

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

Book Review – Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim cover
Written by Brian Michael Bendis and Neil Kleid

I remember the excitement back in 2000 around the arrival of Powers the comic book, co-created by Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming – Bendis was a rising star of indie crime comics and the book seemed to be a perfect fusion of his noir approach and superheroes. Fortunately, the excitement was justified – Powers was a great comic book from the start, about detectives in the Chicago Powers Homicide Division, a book filled with sex and violence and swearing and death, but also infused with love for the genres and a serious sensibility in Oeming’s moody art. Powers also introduced two great lead characters: Detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim. Walker’s long history was examined in the comic book in the infamous ‘monkey-sex’ issues (and I love that a comic book with shagging monkeys has been adapted into a live-action television series, even if we’ll never see that incident on the show …), but Pilgrim’s history was not. Until now.

The story starts in particularly grisly fashion, even for Powers: a hooded man beats an old man to death, the viciousness and gore described in gruesome detail. Detectives Walker and Pilgrim are called to the scene (NB: this book takes place after Powers Bureau – Deena has lost her powers and the pregnancy and she is back to working with her old partner in the PHD) – Walker recognises the victim, aged 112 (Walker had been at his 100th birthday party) with his shield discovered as the murder weapon: Joe Monroe, aka Citizen Soldier, a ‘living legend’, ‘America’s greatest hero’, i.e. the Powers analogue of Captain America. The problem is that the tattoo on Monroe’s arm – snakes and bullets, a fist, lightning bolts, the letters ‘T.H.F.’ – is the symbol of The Human Front, the most vocal and organised anti-Powers movement.

Back at PHD, Walker is taken off the case by Captain Cross due to a government-level investigation of all cops with powers (even though Walker no longer has powers) making Walker a liability. Because Detective Enki Sunrise is on another case, Pilgrim is given a new partner, a new detective called Kirk. The man investigating Walker is Special Agent Aaron Boucher, which complicates things further because he and Pilgrim had a relationship back in Atlanta when they were starting out but ended messily. Their lives were entwined growing up because her dad was Detective Waldo Pilgrim, who rose through the ranks of Atlanta’s PHD and was friends with several masked heroes; Boucher’s father was Judge Kenneth Boucher, friend of Waldo’s, and also a powerful figure in the judicial system in Atlanta. Twelve years before, Atlanta was under curfew and patrolled by the National Guard and deputised Powers under the leadership of Citizen Soldier, including Walker in his Diamond identity; however, this didn’t stop the murders known as the Liberty Murders (always a different MO but with the note In The Name Of Liberty found at the scene).

Back in the present day, the killer strikes again – the prose explicitly identifies the killer as ‘Liberty’ – killing three men with THF tattoos, beheading them and leaving them on a train with a note in blood on the wall: In The Name Of Liberty. The three were known as the Rampage Brothers, who were part of the Atlanta gang wars and the Detroit Powers Riots (Citizen Soldier fought in both, as did Walker), as well as being associated with the THF for a long time. When the Soldier’s death is leaked to the cable news show, Powers That Be, the investigation is messed up even more and Pilgrim’s past life and current life collide in a fashion that will test whether Pilgrim wants to be a cop any more (she is exhausted by the job; she wants an easy one – ‘Nothing that jams electric death rays up my cooter’.) and her relationship with Walker.

This novel justifies its existence as a prose book instead of a comic book by the fact that is introspective and needs to be inside the heads of the main characters – comics can’t do this well because there is only so much space in a panel for thought balloons and because it’s not as visual – so there is never the voice in your head wondering why this story isn’t a comic book. This is something I worried about when I heard about the project, because jumping mediums doesn’t always make sense. However, this is definitely a story that required the format of the novel to tell it.

Despite it being a novel, it’s not quite the novel I’d hoped for. Even though the credits have two names, the novel is more Kleid than Bendis (Kleid mentions it in interviews, such as the one at Forces of Geek: Bendis plotted but Kleid wrote the novel). It’s not surprising, considering that Bendis writes so many comic books for Marvel nowadays so hasn’t got the time to write a novel, but I thought that he would have been more possessive of his co-creation. Also, I would love to read some Bendis prose, because his crime comic books suggest he would have a great voice. Kleid does a good job but it doesn’t feel 100% Powers. There are some weird descriptions: the prose actually calls Pilgrim ‘the spunky detective’ and ‘opinionated ball of spunk’. The prose occasionally sounds as if Pilgrim is narrating, describing someone ‘as useless as a bag of assholes’, despite the fact that she clearly isn’t the narrator. There are the occasional clunky lines trying to reference stories in the comic books to get the reader up to speed on where the characters are at that fall flat on the page.

It’s far from all bad. There is nice banter between Walker and Pilgrim when they’re working a case that makes you want to read an entire novel about the two of them (the story needs to split them up to focus on Pilgrim and her history and its relation to the current investigation). This even gets a funny reference: witnessing Walker and Pilgrim talking at each other, Boucher asks them, ‘Do you always talk this much?’ There are cute references to comic book creators in the form of places in the book, name-checking Kirby, Fialkov, Bernardin and Andreyko. It’s also great to finally read about Deena’s life and how she got to be who she is – one of the great comic book characters: complex, snarky, defensive, messed up, loyal, honest, a good detective and an interesting human being. Unfortunately, I don’t think the book quite hits the heights it aims for – the cutting back and forth between the past and the present, with all the connections between the two, and the various crooked dealings of corrupt cops and villains feel like an attempt at James Ellroy’s LA Quartet but with superheroes (and without the beat-style prose) but without the skill and depth. I’m glad to know so much more about Deena Pilgrim; I just wish this could have been a better book because I think she deserves it.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.
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