Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

21 May 2010

Kick-Ass (movie)

Kick A** — Kick A$$ was too racy

I know I’m the last person with an interest to see Kick-Ass — or as my ticket stub has it, “Kick A**” — but after all the good reviews, I decided to see it myself a couple of weeks ago.

I have little interest in the original comic book, which I haven’t read. I’m not a big fan of artist John Romita, Jr.’s post-‘80s work — after he started perfecting his own style — but he would have been the stronger draw for me. I have no sympathy for writer Mark Millar’s puerile (like CLiNT) cynicism and antagonism toward superheroes. If I hadn’t heard in Paul O’Brien’s comments that those tendencies were toned down, I still wouldn’t have seen the movie.

The superhero baiting is almost gone, but the cynicism is still strong. Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) is Dave Lizewski, a high schooler who turns to crimefighting after one too many comic books and casual muggings. His first foray turns out badly after he’s stabbed and hit by a car, but his second battle gets noticed after New Yorkers more concerned with using their phones to record the fight than call 911 post the fight on the Internet. After that, he becomes a celebrity — or, I suppose, Internet famous.

There is, of course, an OLI44 — how could there not be, with high school and superheroes in one movie? But Kick-Ass handles romance like children handle everything, with a careless abandon that doesn’t care about fragility or value. Dave’s got a crush on Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), and in a plot twist that would make the hackiest sitcom writer blush, Dave pretends to be gay when Katie is looking for a homosexual BFF. The relationship proceeds about how you would expect, given that setup and the romantic storyline’s secondary importance.

Let’s be clear: If this movie were solely about Dave as himself and as Kick-Ass, it would be forgettable. But two other very competent heroes steal the show: Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). Big Daddy is an unjustly disgraced former cop, and Hit-Girl is his 11-year-old daughter. Hit-Girl and Big Daddy share a loving but disturbing bond, equal parts violence and sweetness. Big Daddy is a loving father focused on retribution for being framed by a mob boss, and Hit-Girl is a foul-mouthed prodigy of mayhem. Cage’s and Meretz’s performances are easily the best in the movie, and they manage to pull off the unlikely characters with a surprising ease. For some reason, Cage’s soft-spoken, caring character — who slips into an Adam West impersonation in his costumed persona — is no less shocking that Meretz’s high-pitched obscenities and endorsements of violence.

In interviews Millar has made many claims of realism, based around Kick-Ass’s non-superheroic hero. Do not believe those claims. There is little realism here. Yes, the movie stars a scuba-suited hero who gets the tar beaten out of him in most fights, but the movie also has a jet pack, an 11-year-old delivering debilitating punches to the face, and a bazooka attack in Manhattan apparently attracting no attention. That Kick-Ass doesn’t get beaten up simply for his stupid costume or by people wanting to prove they’re tough strains credibility.

But that’s not a criticism; that’s to the movie’s credit. The movie knows the superhero story, and it hits all the right notes all the way through. The action and stakes build until the cataclysmic end, and the fight scenes are exciting, well scripted and performed, and always filled with the promise of danger. Yes, the romance angle is forced, but the Katie’s reaction to one of Dave’s beatings is affecting. The violence is felt viscerally — each punch can almost be felt through the screen. The heroes are given stirring dramatic moments; at one point, the movie brilliantly uses an Ennio Morricone theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as Hit-Girl begins the final assault. The origins, the learning curve, the secret ID, the family, the team-up, the betrayal — all the stock elements are here, and they’re here for a reason. The entire movie leaves a mark in the mind, taking the superhero story, reinforcing it, then punching you with it.

Is this as good as some comic fans are saying? No. But it is a very good movie, one that somehow manages to be better than the sum of (most of) its parts.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (4 of 5)

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15 May 2010

Strange: The Doctor Is Out!

Collects: Strange #1-4 (2010)

Released: April 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 96 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785144250

What is this?: Stephen Strange, stripped of most of his magical might, muddles his way through the arcane world and meets a natural adept named Casey

The culprits: Writer Mark Waid and artist Emma Rios

I have a compulsion to buy new Dr. Strange material. I don’t know why; I’m often disappointed. (According to the ads inside the front cover, I managed to miss the Staczynski Strange mini somehow. Huh.) Anyway, this time the compulsion led me to Strange: The Doctor Is Out!.

Written by the veteran and reliable Mark Waid, Strange follows the former Sorcerer Supreme as he adjusts to not having (much) magic at his command. But while putting out a crisis, he runs into Casey, a plucky teenager girl who’s a natural adept. You can see where this is going — no, no, this isn’t a Clea situation.

Strange: The Doctor Is Out! coverThe pacing on this four-issue miniseries feels off. The first issue has Strange and Casey meeting and solving a crisis; Casey has to find him again in #2, which is followed by a satire of children’s beauty pageants in #3, and then a cataclysm in #4. (Isn’t that always the way? First Little Miss contests, then the magical apocalypse.) The beginning dwells too long on a plot that hardly needs to be given a quarter of the page total, and at the end, Silver Dagger comes out of nowhere to be a minor annoyance rather than the more serious threat the character deserves. The magical crisis in #4 seems all out of proportion to what came before it; it ramps up the tension from, say, a 4 to 11 and expects readers to go along with it. It doesn’t work, though; it takes more than a thinly veiled Wall Street malfeasance reference for me to believe all of magic is in such danger that Shaky Hands McStrange has to perform surgery on Eternity.

Along with being powerless, Strange seems brainless at times. With souls on the line in a baseball game vs. demons, Shaky decides to bat instead of a professional hitter. Strange doesn’t consider that giving an enchanted item and teaching a spell to a natural adept might have consequences if he isn’t there to guide her. He decides he’s the best candidate to operate on Eternity, despite his coordination and magical problems. He’s even outwitted by a not very subtle demon. That last wouldn’t be a problem alone, but combined with the others, it doesn’t make Strange look good.

There are a lot of different ways this could have gone that would have been better. I like the character of Casey, and I liked her interactions with Strange. A more down-to-Earth series, with Strange teaching her and dealing with her problems, would have been excellent. Or having Casey help Strange deal with his new status quo — without allies or magic — might have been entertaining. Instead, it’s a lot of fireworks and not enough character.

Strange and CaseyAs I mentioned in my review of Runways: Homeschooling, I’m not much for manga-influenced artists, and Emma Rios is no exception. Again, that’s a personal preference. But there are times when Rios’s storytelling is muddled — I’m a baseball fan, and I can’t tell what’s going on in the 2 ½ pages following the dropped third strike in #1, for instance. Rios’s design for Strange seems a bit stereotypical for manga / anime; I’m sure I’ve seen something very similar to Strange’s appearance on the title page in some anime, but it’s just escaping me. The glasses, hair, and fashion for Casey seem a bit stereotypical as well, although it’s as much an American stereotype as anything. On the other hand, Rios’s demons are creative and much more horrifying that the Technicolor goblins Marvel has used in the past, and those demons are a major part of the book.

Still, unless you’re a big fan of Rios’s work, there’s no reason to get Strange —unless Casey becomes an important character somewhere down the line.

Rating: Sanctum Sanctorum window symbol Half Sanctum Sanctorum  symbol (1.5 of 5)

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12 May 2010

Iron Man 2 (movie)

I wonder: if Iron Man hadn’t been so good, would Iron Man 2 seem like a better movie?

It’s a moot question; I can’t unsee Iron Man, and I wouldn’t if I could. But without its successful predecessor, audiences might be more forgiving to the sequel’s weaknesses and be more apt to remember the good parts.

Iron Man 2 picks up six months after the first movie, and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has transformed the world: the presence of Iron Man has caused an unprecedented level of peace around the world, and the only threat is a whining senator Tony Stark can safely tell to kiss his ass — but in a very witty manner, of course. But then a Russian seeking revenge recreates the ARC reactor, which powers the Iron Man armor, and comes looking for revenge on Tony …

With electric whips that can slice through metal. Well, not all of a genius’s plans can be top notch — this one’s a legacy of the comics, and it’s nowhere near as stupid as it sounds (and I know, it sounds pretty stupid). Those whips could be seen as one of the many small flaws in the movie, which include the horrible, horrible quips that fall flat, the insistence of director Jon Favreau for an increased role for actor Jon Favreau (as Happy Hogan, Stark’s chauffeur), the horrible, horrible science, the lack of impact Tony’s illness seems to have, the use of a da Vinci code-style plot device …

Wait, what was I saying? Oh, yes, that those are minor complaints. I almost forgot for a moment. Those really aren’t important compared to two other problems.

The first is the lack of repercussions for Tony Stark’s obvious hubris. He’s created world peace — or so he thinks — he’s on top of the world, and he’s not going to let anyone forget it. Tony is begging — begging — for comeuppance, and to a degree, he richly deserves it.42 He should lose something precious through his arrogance or his drinking or something, but he doesn’t. Not really, anyway — he has a brief argument with his girl Friday, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), but it’s more a tiff than an argument. Even his best friend stealing a suit of armor doesn’t seem to have any consequences. Instead of ruin, Tony’s hubris leads to mild inconvenience.

The second problem is a bit of a surprise. Most superhero sequels experience Multi-Villain Syndrome (MVS), in which multiple villains get crammed into too small of a plot or running time; Spider-Man 3 is a prime example. But Iron Man 2 avoids that, using its two villains to complement each other, just as Batman Begins did. The two villains are both creepy, but in different ways: Anton Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is a dirty, ragged genius focused on revenge, while defense contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is a smarmy, venal capitalist who aids Vanko and screws with forces he doesn’t understand.

No, in this case, the multiple heroes are the problem. James Rhoades (Don Cheadle) gets a pass — the character, if not the actor, was in the first movie — but neither Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) or Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) add anything. Fury seems to pop up to remind us, “Yes, there will be an Avengers movie soon”; all of his exposition could have been delivered by a generic government stooge. Romanov is there for Tony to leer at and for an action scene almost unrelated to the rest of the movie — and, oh yes, for the audience to leer at Johansson in skin-tight spandex. There’s not much for Jackson to work with; Johansson seems lifeless and mumbling at times.

But that’s dwelling on the negatives, seeing the flaws that weren’t there in the first movie. In truth, a lot of the likeable stuff is still there. Downey is still the witty rich jerk we all secretly want to be — unabashedly cruel toward his enemies, unthinkingly generous toward his friends. Downey plays the role so well Stan Lee and all who followed him might as well have been writing it for him. Stark’s still a genius, and the character’s daddy issues come to the fore — naturally enough, since his mentor, his surrogate father from the first movie, betrayed him. Just like the original, Iron Man 2 is inspired by comics but not slaved to them. The action sequences are great again, and the final battle is better than Iron Man’s listless finale.43 As I said, Justin Hammer and Anton Vanko are excellent villains, credible threats you can really hate, and Rockwell and Rourke do well with their roles.

So there’s a lot to like. It’s just Iron Man 2 doesn’t really add anything any positives that Iron Man didn’t have — except for the awesome suitcase armor — and it accumulates detriments the original managed to sidestep.

Iron Man 2 is a good but not great superhero movie. But I can’t see myself rewatching this one like I can the original.

Rating: Iron Man symbol Iron Man symbol Iron Man symbol Half Iron Man symbol (3.5 of 5)

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07 May 2010

Runaways (v. 11): Homeschooling

Collects: Runaways v. 3 #11-4, What If the Runaways Became the Young Avengers? backups in five What If? stories (2009)

Released: March 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785140399

What is this?: The Runaways’ house is hit by a UFO, and Chase is reunited with his dead uncle.

The culprits: Kathryn Immonen (writer) and Sara Pichelli (artist) for the Runaways; C.B. Cebulski (writer) and Patrick Spaziante (penciler) for What If?

So my review of Runaways: Homeschooling was supposed to be written a few weeks ago, but writing the book took up a lot of time, and then my wife suggested we go to Harrisburg, Pa., to see Stephen Strasburg, the #1 draft pick in last year’s baseball draft, pitch for the AA Harrisburg Senators. That didn’t work out so well; rain delayed the game for two hours, and then Strasburg pitched only 2 1/3 innings before another rain delay forced him from the game. Big disappointment, and we didn’t get home until 5 in the morning.

So, as an awkward segue: Is Homeschooling, the latest volume about the team of unwilling teen superheroes, a disappointment as well?

Runaways: Homeschooling coverOn one hand, it would be hard to be a big a disappointment as Terry Moore and Humberto Ramos’s Dead Wrong, which left such a sour taste in my mouth that I skipped the next volume, Rock Zombies. (Thinly veiled Howard Stern with mind-control powers? Dear God no.) Writer Kathryn Immonen and artist Sara Pichelli definitely put together something better than Dead Wrong here. On the other hand, it’s definitely not up to Brian K. Vaughn’s run, but no one could expect that anyway.

Immonen seems to be able to get the characters right but not, particularly, the larger picture. The dialogue sounds right, as does the team’s floundering in a crisis situation. Molly seems to be a particular favorite for the writer, or maybe she’s just fun to write; she gets the best lines and the clearest moral sense. In particular, the dialogue between Chase and Molly about their transportation, the new Leap Frog, brought a smile to my face as well.

However, the plot takes weird turns. I don’t believe that Karolina’s grief over her lost girlfriend would cause her to a) want a prom or b) throw herself at a guy; I also don’t believe in Nico’s semi-random hookup. And the character death in the book was completely random — a unmanned drone accidentally dropping on a house will seem random no matter how well it’s set up, and this isn’t all that well set up. I’m also not sure I followed some of Nico’s spells, despite not having any trouble in previous books. (“Mood ring”? What did that do?)

On the other hand, Immonen introduces Chase’s uncle, Hunter. He’s a high-tech genius like Chase’s father, although intriguingly successful without being overtly supervilainous. And reintroducing family — especially family that Chase thinks is dead — brings up interesting character areas: do the Runaways trust Hunter because he’s family, or do they distrust him because he’s an adult? Does this alleviate any of Chase’s guilt? Is Hunter evil like Chase’s dad or relatively good-hearted like Chase? How is he still alive? Is he really Hunter, or is he an imposter, as Chase suggests at the beginning? Not all of these have to be answered, but some of them should. None are, not even partially. Instead, we get Hunter showing us how incompetent the kids are — even the tech-savvy Victor.

But like I said, it’s at least intriguing, and combined with Immonen’s command of the dialogue and characters, intriguing enough to cover for the odd twists of the plot. (Mostly.) But the story ends with a triple cliffhanger — just before the series was cancelled. The last issue came out fall 2009, and here we are in May 2010 … I understand Immonen probably had ideas of how to continue the story, but I don’t think she (or anyone else) will. Which makes Homeschooling, for plot purposes, useless.

I’m not a big fan of Pichelli’s artwork. This is personal preference, in part; the more overtly manga-influenced artists usually aren’t my cup of tea, especially when the characters seem to be embarrassed or dirty-nosed in nearly every panel. (Or perhaps careless with rouge.) In a practical sense, Pichelli seems to have made a conscious decision to make the teenagers have little personal space between them, especially Nico and Karolina. I can’t decide whether that’s a good idea; I suppose it mainly hinges on whether Karolina’s acting on her attraction to Nico. The storytelling #13 seem a bit muddled as well; from the destruction of the house and Nico’s “Abraham Lincoln” spell and the secret chambers, I had trouble telling exactly what was going on and where everything was supposed to be happening. Still, I have to reiterate: my opinion on Pichelli’s are is, even more than usual, personal preference.

What If the Runaways Became the Young Avengers? ran as a backup in several What If? issues released around the end of 2008, and I have to admit that C.B. Cebulski and Patrick Spaziante’s story doesn’t read like it had been broken up into five uneasy pieces for another “What If?” event. It also isn’t all that interesting, though; it’s mainly interesting if you had a hankering to see what Molly would look like a teenager. (Why is she a teenager? I don’t know.)

Like when Joss Whedon or Moore took over Runaways, I had high hopes for an Immonen run. There wasn’t a run, though, and this single volume isn’t really worth a look.

Rating: Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (1.5 of 5)

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06 May 2010

A Real Excuse, This Time

I missed putting up a review today. You, the loyal reader, deserve a better excuse than “my personal life was crazy” or “I was crushed by the amount of work I had to do this week.” Frankly, you can get those kind of excuses anywhere, and we all know they’re lies, just excuses for being too lazy to put in the kind of quality work an unpaid “labor of love” deserves. So you get a better excuse. Like this one:

OK, this isn’t one of my normal excuses. It’s the real reason I haven’t been posting any reviews here.

I’ve been finishing up the book my wife and I are writing. It’s called Comic Book Collections for Libraries. It’s not a general interest title, but it tries to make the case to librarians that libraries should start graphic novel collections and should, in fact, make a solid part of that collection books that comic-book fans actually buy and read. The manuscript was due on April 30, and I managed to turn in the 60,000 words my wife and I had written over the past ten or eleven months on time.

The book will come out in December. It will have (some) pictures. I fear it will have some omission or misstatement that will leave me open to humiliation; I hope it will sell out and have to go back for more printings. Realistically, it will probably end up somewhere in between.

So. It was a big drain on my time and my brain; last Friday, I walked around in a daze. I’m getting back to normal, although this is what I’ve been reading lately:

Incredible Hulk #270 cover

It’s the Hulk. In this issue, he punches a giant space mouth. And it makes me happy.

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