Tuesday, July 31, 2007

X-Men 201: Mystique's Marauders

X-Men 201: "Blinded by the Light, Part 2 (of 4)" (Carey & Ramos).

Mike Carey is doing a good job tearing the X-Men down. I wasn't thrilled with his previous arc that saw the destruction of Providence, but the current arc is much better. Instead of an arc built on chaos and the unknown, "Blinded by the Light" is a systematic takedown by the known.

Last issue dealt with the various betrayals of the X-Men by Mystique, Lady Mastermind, and the Malice-controlled Omega Sentinel as the Marauders engaged in a sneak attack. This issue the battle continues as the X-Men are taken down and virtually out - the Emma Frost-controlled Cannonball escapes, grabbing Iceman on the way out the door.

There's not a lot of story here, except that the vague revelation that there's much more to the Marauders plan than we've seen. What Carey does well is focus the story around Emma, Bobby, and Sam which gives all the chaos a central thread to take us through the story. A sub-plot with Kitty and Peter provides a nice balance.

If I have a complaint of Carey's writing, it's that this is an X-Men franchise story and not an Adjectiveless X-Men title story. The inclusion of Cyclops, Emma, and Logan take a bit of the focus away from the cast that Carey has established in the book prior to X-Men 200. It's not a bad thing, necessarily, but I'd like to hear something from Lady Mastermind and Omega Sentinel about what their motivations/thoughts are during this attack. It was also a bit disappointing not to see appearances by Cable and Gambit after last issue's takedown, but I'm sure that's coming.

If you don't like Humberto Ramos' art I can see that ruining the story because this issue displays all of his excesses, but I like Ramos' art and I think he makes a better match for Carey's writing style than Chris Bachalo. Ramos likes to draw people standing dramatically and people exploding into action where Bachalo's strength is often more conceptual. The previous arc seemed to be built around Bachalo's strengths while this one is better suited to Ramos. Whether Carey is consciously working his plots to meet his artists' strengths I couldn't say, but the result of the current story, so far, has been pretty successful.

In the back-up, we've got Part 5 of the Endangered Species event. It's good to see a focus on the Beast, but the story hasn't been all that gripping, yet. Solid, but not "must read," by any stretch. Endangered Species is basically just Beast moving from place to place, on his quest to somehow undo Wanda Maximoff's "No More Mutants" decree from House of M. This installment has Hank dealing with the horror of Neverland and, in a bit of a surprise, has him coming face-to-face with the Dark Beast. The strenth of the back-up tale here is that the quiet solemnity balances out the frenetic main story.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Until It Gets Taken Down ... Marvel SDCC Movie Teasers

Thanks to John Warren for passing along this link to the SDCC sneak-peak clip from the Iron Man movie. It looks beyond amazing.

Here's a YouTube clip of the Hulk from Hulk 2.

WWH: Slapping Around the X

World War Hulk: X-Men 2 (of 3): "Sworn to Protect" (Gage & DiVito).



The positive: a near-start-to-finish throwdown between the X-Men and the Hulk. The negative: Too much talking.

That there is too much talking in an all-out action issue might seem like the wrong complaint, so let me clarify - it's not that there's too many words in WWH: X-Men 2, it's that they're the wrong words coming from the wrong people.

WWH: X-Men 2 is an enjoyable issue - it's what I refer to as an "ultimte back-issue comic." When I was a kid, digging through the quarter bins or even venturing through the long boxes, I used to want to get the biggest bang for my buck, so I'd look for books that promised lots of characters and lots of action. If I was going to drop $20 for Daredevil 181, I wanted to balance out my budget a bit with cheap issues of Power Man & Iron Fist or Defenders or Justice League of America. Anything that promised to give me lots of comic goodness for not so much cash.

That's what WWH: X-Men 2 brings to us - lots of X-Men getting knocked around by the Hulk, who's more than happy to make them wish the they had that duck insurance. On that level, the book is an unqualified success, and much of that credit goes to Andrea DiVito, whose fight scenes are crystal clear.

The problem with the issue is that, as a part of World War Hulk, it doesn't match the intensity of the main LS, and I think the reason fo this is that Gage tells this story as an old-school Hulk romp. There's plenty of dialogue being passed back and forth and Gage's Hulk is all-too ready to engage the X-Men in conversation. The WWH-Hulk works best when he says as little as possible - too much talking plays to the idea that this is a game, or just another Hulk battle. When Hulk is taunting Emma as he's trapped her in diamond form under his foot, it doesn't work because it doesn't feel like this Hulk would bother to have that chat. Instead, he should just put his foot on her and let the force of that foot do all the talking.

The Wolverine fight works a bit better because of their history, but even this scene would've been stronger if Gage had told the story from Xavier's or Logan's POV. What other books have done better than WWH: X-Men 2 is to give a sense of how bad it is when the Hulk decides to get serious. The first issue of this series did that, but issue 2 doesn't.

Early in the fight, Hulk knocks Logan into the far woods and removes him from the battle for a few minutes. That would've been the perfect place to use Logan to get the seriousness of the fight across to the readers. If he's standing in the woods, watching as his wounds heal, having an internal dialogue on the action I think the whole issue would've gone up a few notches in its overall effectiveness.

It could have turned a very good, very enjoyable issue into a great one.

Countdown 40: The Broken Record Update

Countdown 40: "Small Wonders" (Dini/Bedard & Giffen/Garcia).

There's just not enough momentum building up in Countdown to really recommend that anyone start reading it. If you've been reading it you might be willing to stick around and see how it ends. If you're not reading it, I don't know why you'd want to start. Every advancement of the story just feels like baby steps, at best, and wheel-spinning, at worst.

Here's how much space was devoted to not much advancement in issue 40:

1) 3 pages for a fight to break out in the Palmerverse,

2) 2 pages for us to find out Jimmy's running around town as Mister Action,

3) 2 pages depicting Mary Marvel sitting in the audience of a Zatanna magic show and thinking about killing one of the passengers,

4) 2 pages of Holly Robinson watching the ex-Harley Quinn turn a single mother and her son away from the Amazon shelter,

5) 3 pages on Apokolips, where we have a new plot introduced on the New Gods' spying on Darkseid to see if he's responsible for Lightray's death,

6) 3 pages back in the Palmerverse where the inhabitants decide to help Donna, Jason, and "Bob" after Jason threatens to slice one of their noses off. The P-verse inhabitants tell them Ray isn't around, but they can point them in a possible direction,

7) 4 pages of Trickster and Piper convincing the Penguin to let them spend the night in the basement of his club, with a last panel toss-in of Oracle sending the Question after Piper and Trickster.

In other words, nothing happens. A bunch of set-up for future pay-offs is done, but that's it. There's no sense of any of the plots moving to an actual "can't-wait-till-it-gets-here" pay-off, either. All of that would be okay if the waiting was worth it on its own, but it's not. There's so little time spent with anyone that there's little enjoyment, as touching base with all of the various plots feels forced.

The only scene that works on its own in the entire issue is the Trickster and Piper plot.

Disappointing, but not unexpected, unfortunately.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

SDCC, Day Three: Spidey Creative Teams Announced

The big news coming out of San Diego today was the announcement of the new Spider-Man creative teams to take effect this fall after the JMS/Quesada "One More Day" arc. Marvel is going to cancel the Sensational and Friendly Neighborhood Spidey titles and replace them with 3 monthly installments of Amazing. The idea behind the move is that there's going to be one place to get one main Spider-Man story instead of three divergent stories like we have now. I think it's a good move - Marvel consolidates the story without sacrificing the amount of content being published. Each successive arc will have a different artistic team, so each arc will be internally consistent in terms of creators. Spider-Man editor Steve Wacker will also rotate the artists, so it won't always be the same writer/artist combos.

The opening teams are as follows:

Dan Slott, Steve McNiven, Dexter Vines and Morry Hollowell
Marc Guggenheim, Salvador Larrocca and Jason Keith
Bob Gale, Phil Jimenez, Andy Lanning and Jeromy Cox
Zeb Wells, Chris Bachalo, Tim Townshend and Antonio Fabela

I think those are four pretty solid teams - no complaints from me on any of the artists or writers. Can't wait to see how this plays out.

Superman 665: Jimmy Olsen's Pal Superman

Superman 665: "Jimmy" (Busiek & Leonardi).

Superman 665
is allegedly a Countdown tie-in, according to the cover, but on the inside it's something called a "Countdown Dossier Special."

I have no idea what that means, except that this issue features Jimmy Olsen and Countdown features Jimmy Olsen, but there's no apparent connection between the two stories. You'd think, because 665 is a tie-in that would speak ill of 665, but you'd be wrong. Instead of this seeming like an off-issue of Superman, 665 helps to illustrate why Countdown has turned so wrong, so quick.

Superman 665 tells the "secret origin" of how Jimmy and Superman became pals and Kurt Busiek does a great job of showing that the relationship isn't just "Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen," but "Jimmy Olsen's Pal Superman." Both characters get something out of the relationship - Jimmy, his parents having gone missing, gains a friend and not another father figure (that's more Perry's role), and Superman finds someone he can let his guard down with and just relax.

665 is the kind of issue that Busiek writes better than anyone - a personal, humanist story of an individual existing in a world where there just happens to be superheroes. In 665 that individual is Jimmy Olsen, but the introspection that normally accompanies that central character in a Busiek text is given to Superman instead, so we experience Jimmy through Superman's eyes.

It's not a deep, powerful story, but it is an engaging, fun tale that goes heavy on character examination without sacrificing story. If Countdown offered half of the depth that Busiek offers here the story would not fall so easily off the tracks.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Reacting to San Diego, Day One

Pulled from various sources, here's some highlights from Day One of the San Diego Comic Con. News seems better out of Marvel than DC after one day, but the best news comes out of Jeff Smith's Cartoon Books, where he's announced his next project will be Rasl (pronounced "Rassle"), a sci-fi romp about an interdimensional thief that's aimed at an older audience than Bone and, according to Smith, is more "James Bond than Bugs Bunny."

Can't wait - first issue is hoping to ship in January.


The Twelve: A year-long mini from JMS and Chris Weston that will focus on Marvel's pre-Marvel World War II characters: "The disappearance of The Twelve from Marvel history for so long is explained that these heroes were kidnapped during the final days of World War II by German Nazis. 'None of these characters has been seen since the fall of Berlin, so I picked that as the point to say that nobody's seen them because they were grabbed by the Nazis and put into cryonic suspension," explained Straczynski."

Captain Marvel: Since his somewhat odd (because he didn't do anything, really) re-appearance in Civil War, Captain Marvel has just sat in limbo (or the Negative Zone), but Marvel has announced a new Mar-Vell mini-seris. Brian Reed, who's doing an excellent job on Ms. Marvel, will write and Lee Weeks will pencil.


- Countdown: Surprisingly, nothing of note came out of the Countdown panel, according to what I read in the Newsarama report. For the biggest series the company has right now to generate no real news ... strange and yet not surprising, unfortunately. Really the only new news is that the title Countdown is going to be changed to Countdown to Final Crisis as of issue 26.

I've ripped DC plenty here for building up the Rogues storyline in Countdown but then having the pay-off come in Flash and this was addressed when "DiDio said that what's important to the main characters of the weekly series will happen in Countdown, but things like the death of Bart Allen will happen in The Flash. He added that "comic books are built on history and continuity" and that a big thing about Countdown is featuring the interconnectivity and richness of the DC Universe."

The second half of that explanation doesn't jibe with the first half. Why does "comic books being built on history and continuity" apply to Flash but not Countdown?

The Spirit: Darwyn Cooke is leaving The Spirit after issue 12. Bummer.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mighty Avengers 4: Punching!

Mighty Avengers 4 (Bendis & Cho).

I've been looking at my monitor for about five minutes tying to think of something to say about Mighty Avengers 4 and there's not a lot coming. It's not a bad issue, at all, either; it's just that there's not a whole lot to mull over. It's an antithesis of New Avengers 32, and almost as good.

The Avengers continue to deal with the female Ultron, bringing in Hank Pym and dealing with an AI Iron Man armor Tony Stark created to activate in the case of his own death. The Avengers figure out the new Ultron is simply repeating things that have already been done and they come face-to-face with a fleet of Iron Man armor, showing that Ultron is using one of Stark's recent tricks. Femtron maybe kills the Sentry's wife in order to lure Bob into a trap.

It's a big, slick, solid, fast-paced, old school heroes vs. villain tale. Frank Cho's art is clear and easy to follow and Bendis stays out of his own way more often than not.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Atomic Alert: Buy this TPB: Jeff Smith's Shazam!

Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil (Jeff Smith).

I'm not going to spoil anything major about this comic because I want everyone to experience as much of this series as fresh as can be, but I do want to encourage everyone to at least flip through TMSOE when it hits the shelves as a TPB. This is one of my favorite comics of the year - any genre, any company. Jeff Smith does as good a job matching his story with his pacing as anyone in comics.

The Los Angeles Times' Geoff Boucher has a blog entry up about the Shazam! movie currently in production, but they could do a heck of a lot worse than simply taking Smith's story and adapting it if they wanted to do a kids' movie. And why not? Kids movies can be franchises, too, and it'd be cool to have a superhero movie that walks that path.

The innocent-but-curious-almost-to-a-fault character type works really well in a story like TMSOE, and really makes me wish James Robinson and Paul Smith would get back together and give us more stories of Chance Falconer.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Checking In with Countdown

Countdown 42 & 41 (Dini & Various).

I haven't posted on Countdown in a couple because, honestly, it's not living up to early returns. Too many characters, too many plot-lines. It's amazing to me that Dan Slott can juggle multiple plots/characters so well and Paul Dini and his writing partners are doing so poorly. I think some of the difference is that, with The Initiative, Slott's really got one story taking place in one main location while Dini is trying to tell a universe-wide story.

Countdown is suffering from the same problem that afflicted 52 - there's too many plots just spinning out on their own with no center to hold it together. The Monitor plot here is supposed to be the center, but we don't get enough of it to hold that center.

I'm still not sure why the Rogues are even in Countdown - after getting their plot's big pay-off in another book (still a dumb, dumb decision). Same goes for the Holly Robinson/Amazons plot.

So much of Countdown is about characters suffering an identity crisis (no pun intended) but Dini would be better, I think, pairing up some of these issues. Jimmy Olsen and Holly Robinson would make a solid pairing, I think; Jimmy is trying out a superhero identity, and Holly is sliding out of one. Mary Marvel and Piper & Trickster might work, too, as Mary is falling under the influence of Black Adam's power and Piper & Trickster have walked that morality line for years.

If those two plots were combined, Dini could work them around the center plot of the Monitor, Donna Troy, and Jason Todd searching for Ray Palmer.

There's just too little focus in the series for my liking.

BTW, Newsarama is reporting today that the total cost out of yours and my pocket for buying Countdown will come in at around $321.

Iron Man & Marvel Movie Cross-Promotion

Comic Book Resources's cool "The Comic Reel" column has a link to MTV's Movie Blog site for an article about Hillary Swank and Samuel Jackson joining the Iron Man cast.

According to Avi Arad, Swank and Jackson are filming cameos, which would make sense since the film has already named Jeff Bridges, Terence Howard, and Gwyneth Paltrow to the big supporting roles.

What's most interesting about the Arad feature quotes is that these small, big-talent cameos will start to crop up more and more as Marvel starts to seriously cross-polinate their film franchises:

The existence of Jackson’s hard-boiled superspy reveals a newfound willingness by Marvel to begin mimicking the way its comics mix different characters into each other’s storylines on a regular basis.

“It’s because now we have control over the properties,” Arad explained, citing the new era of Marvel funding such upcoming flicks as “Iron Man,” “Nick Fury” and “Captain America,” after a decade of holding hands with studios like Sony for Spider-Man or Fox for The Fantastic Four. “Now you can mix and match. It used to be different studios having different characters. You try and get three major studios to sit together and cross [promote],” he laughed. It’s too tough.”

Based on Arad’s comments, fans might find it hard to not feel a bit speculative as to why a double-Oscar winning A-list actress would make a cameo in a superhero movie. Since “Iron Man” is laying the groundwork for the “Nick Fury” movie that Marvel hopes to begin filming relatively soon, one theory is that Swank will be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent alongside Sam the man. But just as probable, it seems, is speculation that Swank might be setting herself up for a starring superhero flick down the line. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from her last award-winning performance, it’s that she certainly has the physique to pull it off.

So instead of doing what they've been doing, where one film might leap from another (Elektra from Daredevil, Wolverine and Magneto from the X-Men franchise), Marvel will start cross-polinating their characters thoughout the films it controls, giving the movies a greater sense of appearing in the same shared universe.

Pretty cool, I think.

Monday, July 23, 2007

WWH: Initiative Style

Avengers: The Initiative 4: "Green Zone, Part One" (Slott & Caselli).

SMASH! LEVEL: We've Got Looters!

MAN EVENT: The Initiative vs. Looters!

Four issues in and I'm totally sold on The Initiative. Slott is spinning out one-plot-too-many perhaps, but he's been able to keep everything going without ignoring anything, so while I'd prefer he dump one sub-plot in order to give a few more pages of characterization elsewhere, The Initiative moves at such a rapid pace that I'm guessing Slott has a quiet issue built in somewhere before the end of the fist year's worth of stories just to let everyone catch their breath.

Contextually, Initiative 4 suffers a bit from covering ground we've seen a few times already, taking us back to the beginning of World War Hulk, with the Hulk's arrival and Stark's suiting up with his latest Hulkbuster armor. What saves this rerun is that Slott uses the Initiative's reaction to the Hulk's arrival to drive a wedge between Stark and Rhodey. It's Hank Pym that knows about Project: Achilles and the Hulk-specific SPIN tech, not Rhodes.

Rhodey gets into it with Stark, but Stark tells him, "I trusted you with the most important part: building my army."

So much for the Initiative as a police force, I guess.

Stark recognizes that the arrival of the Hulk could be the event that unites the pro- and anti-SRA forces, but Rhodey is more focused on making sure the recruits aren't sent against the Hulk or his forces. The Initiative crew goes out on side-duty, helping to evacuate the city. The rawer recruits (Hardball, Cloud 9, Komodo, Slapstick) are arguing about how involved they should get in the activities when Rage (who I'm not even sure should have to go through the Initiative training - he is a former Avenger, after all) jumps in at the first opportunity to take out some looters.

Rage has been one of those characters just floating through Initiative, so far, seemingly there just so Gauntlet can make his inevitable rip on the New Warriors as Rage scowls in the background, so it's nice to see him let his emotions out and cut loose a little. That it's looters they go after is even better as it brings an old-school vigilante flavor to the issue, setting off the difference between how things used to be (save the neighborhood) against how they are (train to serve in a superhero army).

After the Hulk and Iron Man knock Avengers Tower down, Rage rallies the troops to go join the main battle, and he not-so-delicately reminds Triathlon exactly who has the most seniority with the Avengers. It's a great moment and illustrates, I think, just how tapped in Slott is with this book. As much as it's cool to see all the background cameos, it doesn't appear they are just thrown it to be easter eggs to long-term fans. There's a reason why Rage has been sitting there, scowling and biting his tongue at Gauntlet's taunts, and Initiative 4 is that reason. This book, as much as anything, is Rage's moment to shine by not only letting his anger loose but to act as a hero instead of a soldier, and to show genuine (if perhaps unwise) leadership to the younger recruits.

Stefano Caselli's art has won me over, too. I was lukewarm on him at first, but he gets better with each issue.

Avengers: The Initiative is no longer "quickly becoming one of Marvel's best books." It is one of Marvel's best books.

WWH: Manifesto of Hate?

World War Hulk: Front Line: 2 (of 6) (Jenkins & Bachs/Martinbrough).

SMASH! LEVEL: Collateral Damage.


WWH: Front Line 2 skirts around the events of WWH 2, depicting what's going on while the Avengers and FF are getting their asses handed to them. Jenkins has made a smart decision to separate the main FL story - Ben Urich and Sally Floyd's coverage of WWH - from the sub-plot of Danny Granville's search for the killer of Arch-E.

Jenkins does a very good job hitting on the issues that come up around the Hulk's return; in that sense, FL plays the role of fandom inside the Marvel Universe, asking the questions we're asking. Daredevil brings up the fact that, during the crisis, the Super Human Registration Act has disappeared, and Jenkins uses the rest of the to offer a social commentary on how the poor neighborhoods are affected differently than high-income areas.

For her part, however, Sally Floyd is unhinged. She wants to see a conspiracy theory everywhere she looks and she has an attitude of a columnist much more than a reporter. She off-handedly brands the Hulk's actions as a "Manifesto of Hate," which I don't think is supported by the facts. Makes me wonder just how much of he judgment is skewered by her end-of-Civil-War siding with Stark and Richards.

Front Line is a solid comic, but as Baloo pointed out about WWH: FL 1 in the comments section, Ben and Sally have a tendency to bury the big story, so as I'm reading I do wonder, "Now, will this story actually see print?"

World War Hulk 2: EPIC. TIMES 2.

It's going to be World War Hulk Day around the Anxiety as I've got the afternoon off and several WWH books to work through (WWH 2, WWH: Front Line 1, WWH: X-Men 2, Ghost Rider 13, and Avengers: The Initiative 4) so I'm going to knock them off one at a time. For those not familiar with how we're handling WWH around these parts, we're looking at the books through the lens of how much action each books packs between its covers. I'll get through as many books as I can. On with the show ...

World War Hulk 2 (of 5) (Pak & JRJR).



I don't know if it's possible for WWH to get any better than this issue.

You can describe the issue in about 10 words: Hulk kicks crap out of Avengers. Hulk kicks crap out of Fantastic Four (OK, 13 words), but that doesn't come close to accurately representing the all-out action awesomeness of the issue. It's hard to imagine that this is only the second issue - the two huge battles that take place between the Hulk and his Warbound and the Avengers and Fantastic Four are as befitting the final battle as whatever I could have hoped we'd see in WWH 5.

Pak & Romita build the action-upon-action sequences smartly, beginning with the relative quick throwdown between She-Hulk and her cousin, then moving through a beatdown of Avengers Team-Up, and ending with an absolutely classic Hulk v. Fantastic Four battle that has extended one-on-one bouts with both the Thing and Reed Richards.

Each round has someone trying to make peace with the Hulk, but he's just simply not buying it. Pak wisely keeps Hulk's dialogue to a minimum, allowing JRJR to get across Hulk's hurt and anger and determination.

Romita is really the star of the issue - battles are appropriately epic but also crystal clear to follow. There's no questioning what's happening in a given panel, something Leinil Yu (New Avengers) and Ed Benes (Justice League of America) would do well to learn. Romita also fills the book with plenty of smaller moments that elevate the book - from the Sentry's blank expression as he readies himself for the possibility of having to confront the Hulk to Jen's frightened look after the Hulk has planted her beneath the city street.

If you want SMASH! out of the World War Hulk Experience, then WWH 2 is the issue to get.

And if you like WWH, be sure to check out Marvel's World War Hulk Hub.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Captain America 28: Did the Red Skull Just Apply for the Position of Captain America?

Captain America 28: "The Death of the Dream, Part Four" (Brubaker & Epting/Perkins).

It's hard being the best comic book on the shelf at a given time because the expectations are so high with each subsequent issue. Yet that's the burden Captain America is faced with and those are the expectations that Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, and Mike Perkins continue to meet month after month.

In Cap 28, Bru continues his masterful job of moving the story forward along several fronts. We've got: Nick Fury (who we finally see), Falcon, and Sharon Carter hunting Bucky; Bucky hunting Tony Stark and the Red Skull; Stark hunting the Red Skull; and the Red Skull's plan continuing to evolve through the working of Dr. Faustus and the new Serpent Squad.

Yeah, that's right, the Serpent Squad. How cool is that? The new Squad is led by Sin, the Red Skull's daughter, who's not wearing a snake get-up/persona. Of course, eels aren't snakes, either, so that means two members of the new Serpent Squad aren't snakes (Sin and Eel), and two are (Cobra and the new, male Viper). But, hey, whatever - it's just a name. I'm more concerned with what they add to the story and what they add is the terrorist muscle to the Red Skull's plan (the exact details of which we still don't know).

One of the things I really admire about Bru's writing in Captain America is that he treats everything straight - whether it's Cap's death or the Serpent Squad it's all imbued with a sense of realism that really enhances the story. Professor X shows up to help Stark interrogate Crossbones and it feels logical, not forced.

The big news that comes out of the issue is that Steve Rogers left a personal note with a lawyer for Stark during Civil War, to be delivered only if Steve died. We don't know what the note says, but it causes Stark some consternation. My guess is that the note tells Tony to put someone new in the Captain America costume, given the amount of attention that issue has received here, in Fallen Son, and all around fandom. Before the lawyer arrives in his office an agent of SHIELD is applying for the position of Captain America and Stark makes a big deal about how "No means no" on this issue.

Couple things on this. One, the name of the agent applying for the job is "Agent Hermann." Now, not all bad guys have German names, not everyone with a German name is a bad guy, and not all SHIELD agents with German names are spies. But "Hermann" just so happens to be the name of the Red Skull's father: Hermann Schmidt. And as Falcon and Sharon discuss elsewhere in the issue, whatever the Skull's plan is he needed Steve dead to accomplish it, because otherwise he would've enjoyed rubbing Steve's nose in a successful mission's completion.

Is Agent Hermann a Skull operative? A Faustus-brainwashed SHIELD agent? The Skull's son? Sin's boyfriend? The Red Skull himself?

Heck, for that matter, is the note from Steve even legit to begin with?

I don't think this is the last we'll see of Agent Hermann, though the great thing about a book like Captain America is that the suspicion level is so high that you start suspecting shadows and piecing together puzzles that aren't even there.

Second thing on a potential new Captain America: I bet if we see one it's Sharon Carter. Just a feeling, but she's at the center of this story and the person most in need of a new challenge right now. She's the only character in the story having personal identity issues, having just left SHIELD, and while she would be against the idea of putting on the costume - as would Bucky, Sam, Clint (no matter what that piece of garbage Fallen Son 3 tries to imply), and most everyone who knew Steve - if that note from Steve makes it clear that he wanted a new Captain America to replace him then the question becomes not whether there should be a Cap, but who should it be.

And if that note says Steve wants Sharon (or Sam or Bucky) to take over ... that "frees" Marvel to have a new Cap running around until Steve Rogers is fished back out of the North Atlantic ice.

I never get tired of writing about Captain America. Brubaker, Epting, and Perkins and the rest of creative continue to deliver one hell of a good comic.

Atomic Alert: Halo: Uprising

Coming in August from Marvel is Halo: Uprising, a 4-issue LS from Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev. Set to take place between the events of Halo 2 & Halo 3, Uprising "begins the tale of the heroic Master Chief's struggle to reach Earth before the evil Covenant's engines of war get there first! Set in the time period between Halo 2 and Halo 3, Halo: Uprising answers all those questions that fans have been asking for years, and introduces new characters into the Halo mythos!"

The notion that I'm excited about Halo: Uprising would be wrong, but the inclusion of Maleev will certainly get me to read it. I like that Marvel is assigning two its top talents to a tie-in book instead of just relying on the built-in Halo audience to buy it no matter who was working on it.

Friday, July 20, 2007

JLofA 11: Where the Justice League is Defeated by a Building

Justice League of America 11: "Walls" (Meltzer & Ha).

It's a weird ending for Brad Meltzer's Justice League run - after two big, complex story-arcs, Justice League of America 11 & 12 will be stand-alone issues (though 12 is reported to end with a cliffhanger to help set up the Dwayne McDuffie run). Meltzer's run has been hit-and-miss; there have been good moments, but he has seemed to be more interested in plot than character, which is fine - that decision doesn't cause a book to sink or swim on its own. With as huge a cast as Meltzer was dealing with, however, the decision to focus on plot robs the story of the natural cohesive unit that is a central character (or characters).

The good news is that of the two characters that Meltzer has seemed most interested in exploring (the poorly renamed Red Arrow and Red Tornado), one of them gets the show virtually to himself this issue - Red Arrow.

The plot is as simple as it gets - Roy and Mari are trapped inside a collapsed building. It's a nice coincidence that JLofA 11 comes out a week after New Avengers 32, where the Avengers "enemy" was a malfunctioning plane. Such "ordinary" conflicts help to ground the characters a bit and allows the writer to remind us that they're humans as much as they are superhumans.

Roy is the unquestioned star of the issue and JLofA 11 takes place mostly in the dark, cramped insides of a collapsed building. The sparse nature of the story contrasts effectively with the Jupiter-esque density of Meltzer's first 10 issues. I like Roy and I like Meltzer's take on Roy and if you gave me the choice to buy a Brad Meltzer-written Red Arrow series or Justice League series, I'll take the first option.

That said, JLofA 11 isn't a great issue. It's a solid issue, a nice catch-your-breath tale, but it's not overly memorable.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

All-Flash, All-Better?

All-Flash One-shot: "Justice, Like Lightning" (Waid & various).

Wally's back, Waid's back, Bart's gone ... but is the Flash title any better?

We've only got one issue down, but so far, so good. That's not going to come as a huge surprise to anyone who's read Waid's Flash before. Waid is the definitive Flash writer of this era and he slips effortlessly back into Wally's head right from the start of All-Flash 1.

Wally's internal monologue is a primary trait of Waid's approach to the character, so it is a potential cause for concern when, near the end of the issue, Iris Allen tells Wally to "stop living inside your own head all the time." I wonder if that's Waid dropping a stylistic forewarning on us that the internal monologue isn't coming back.

The plot of the issue has Wally chasing down Inertia to make him pay for his role in killing Bart. Wally catches him and, essentially, freezes him in time as punishment. It's ... odd. Not that I'm for having Wally kill Inertia, but this particular punishment - immobilizing and putting him on display at the Flash Museum - seems just as wrong. I know Wally thinks he's punishing Inertia, and certainly it's not pleasant for a speedster to watch history unfold before him, but putting him in the Museum also, in an odd way, celebrates Inertia's murder of Bart. It's one thing to have replicas of villains in a museum devoted to a hero, but to put a murderer - the actual, immobilized murderer - in the middle of the museum ...

Doesn't seem like the right thing to do to a murderer. Wally says he wants Inertia to have to look at a picture of Bart as punishment, but he could accomplish that in a jail cell or JLA cell or at S.T.A.R. Labs. I know Wally thinks he's so connected to the speed force that his immobilization of Inertia is non-reversible, but there's the practical matter that Wally just put an actual, living villain in the center of a museum where the public visits on a daily basis.

Not. Smart.

Villains, you know, tend to get out of these traps to cause more trouble.

The rest of the issue sets up the upcoming Flash series (reverting to the Wally numbering with issue 231) effectively. Wally drops the requisite vague statements about his "special" kids, Jai and Iris, and there's a memory/foreshadowing set of images from Iris about what's coming to pique our interest. Which is sort of accomplishes - it's not a surprise to anyone that Wally's kids will eventually put on costumes, is it? More intriguing is what looks to be a Batman costume coming out of a Flash ring.

Things look good for Flash, but I'm still irked that Guggenheim was removed from the book - I know he's said in interviews he knew it all along, but his run proved how valuable a character Bart Allen is and what a wretched thing the Dan Didio regime did to the character by making him a boring, angst-ridden twenty-something.

Didio commits the crime, Bart serves the punishment. Doesn't really seem fair, does it?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Atomic Alert: Final Crisis Teaser

Newsarama was given the first teaser for DC's post-Countdown event, Final Crisis. As John Warren and others have pointed out, Final Crisis is TEN MONTHS AWAY. That's the entire NFL season, including Super Bowl, Pro Bowl, and Draft. More after the image ...

Not a lot to get excited about, really. It's a nice picture (done by JG Jones), but it's six heroes standing in front of some kind of lightning-spouting storm. I guess the biggest news is the presence of Hawkman alongside DC's Big Five instead of Aquaman or Green Arrow.

I'm sure I'll be buying Final Crisis when it comes out (especially if the rumors about Kurt Busiek writing it are true) but it's hard to get excited about yet another Crisis LS - especially when it's ten months away.

Spiders Rule the 2007 Box Office @ Intermission

With almost half the year remaining but most of the blockbusters out in theaters now or even done with their runs, I thought I'd take a look at the 2007 U.S. box office returns through this past weekend (ending 7-1-07) to see how the sci-fi/fantasy offerings were faring.

Unsurprisingly, they're dominating. I'm using the stats from Box Office Mojo (which can be found here - but be warned that this link will show the updated 2007 box office returns and not the snapshot that I'm using as I write the post.) All-time figures are taken from IMDB, and represented in (parenthesis) below. Here's the current 2007 top 15:

1. Spider-Man 3: $335 million. King of the Year, so far, but it's been a trend of diminishing returns for the Spider Franchise. The first film took in $403 mil (7th all-time), the second $373 mil (10th), and the third (15th) isn't likely to match either of those numbers. It's still a lot of money for a movie that sucked the fun out of popcorn and sunshine.

2. Shrek the Third: $318 million. I enjoy the Shrek movies but they're always "wait for the DVD" films for me. Shrek 3 will wind up somewhere in between the final results for 2 ($436 mil, 3rd) and the original ($267 mil, 33rd).

3. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End: $304 million. Top three spots are all "three-quels," but that won't last the year, I'm guessing. At World's End was another disappointment, though certainly not to the level of Spidey 3. Needs to make a paltry $1 million to match the total of the first PotC movie. PotC 2 is out of reach, having taken in $423 mil (6th).

4. Transformers: $224 million. Best summer movie of 2007. It's opening was less than half of Spidey 3's, but it hasn't suffered nearly the drop-off in ticket sales, either. It'll be interesting to see just how high this film climbs.

5. 300: $210 million. I'm surprised this film broke the $200 million mark. Sin City only took in $74 million, had more famous directors and cast, and a more popular set of Frank Miller books to adapt, yet Zach Snyder's stylish Greek epic struck a chord.

6. Wild Hogs: $167 million. What the fuck is wrong with you, America?

7. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: $150 million. Not bad for 5 days work. Or for the 5th movie in the franchise.

8. Ratatouille: $145 million. Movies about rats that cook always do box office magic.

9. Knocked Up: $138 million. The little movie that could. Or something.

10. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer: $127 million. Is $127 million disappointing? The first FF movie did $154 million. Is $127 million enough to get a third movie made?

11. Blades of Glory: $118 million. Didn't bother to see it.

12. Ghost Rider: $115 million. I'm surprised this film did this well, because Ghost Rider has a hard enough time selling enough copies to keep a monthly comic going and, more importantly, the film was wretchedly bad. I bet Sony execs are happier with this film's box office than Fox is with FF 2. If Eva Mendes doesn't clean up at the Razzies this year, though, I'll never take that awards show seriously again.

13. Ocean's Thirteen: $113 million. Very enjoyable, but these Ocean's movies never really do as well as you'd figure they'd do.

14. Live Free or Die Hard: $104 million. Very good movie and will likely become the highest-grossing Die Hard film. Currently, that distinction is held by Die Hard 2, at $117 million.

15. Meet the Robinsons: $97 million. I'll catch it on DVD. The dinosaur was pretty funny in the commercials.

All-in-all, I'll say what I've been saying since Fellowship hit the theaters - we're living in a cinemaic golden age for the sci-fi/fantasy crowd. 2007 has given us less quality than in recent years, but the box office performances suggest these types of films are going to continue to get the bulk of the yearly budget from film studios.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

This Week in Universal Annihilation

Nova 4: "Alone" (Abnett/Laning & Chen/Denham) and Annihilation: Conquest - Wraith 1 (of 4): "Chapter One" (Grillo-Marxuach & Hotz).

Annihilation: Conquest gets up and running this week as the Wraith LS and the Nova tie-in get off the ground. It's a good, but not great week for Annihilation: Conquest as one book hammers the story forward and the other comes off a surface-oriented attempt at cool.

This issue is something of a do-over of Nova 1, which came out a loooooong three months ago. Like Nova 1, Nova 4 has Rich flying around space smashing things and talking to the Worldmind.

Unlike Nova 1, Nova 4 doesn't suck.

The difference is that there's a purpose here to all the running around. Rich is headed to Hala as the issue opens and ends up stuck inside the Phalanx's Cordon. (It's kind of neat that A&L keep having characters state that it's impossible to cordon off Kree space from the rest of the universe, only to have another character follow up on that, as the Worldmind says here with a "and yet it is so." Comic. Book. Science. If you're going to use it, you might as well have some fun with it.) The Phalanx send some Kree Sentry units after him so it's not just random go-go policing action on display in the book. There's a reason for Rich to go to Hala and a reason why he gets attacked. Simple, but it makes a world of difference in the book.

It helps, too, that Rich has a greater sense of who he is this time around.

Tossed in to the mix are two females playing bad cop/good cop on the issue. In the bad girl corner we've got Gamora, so-called "deadliest woman in the galaxy" and Rich's ex-lover who has been assimilated into the Phalanx. First she tries to kill/capture him by sending 100 Sentry robots after him, and then she decides to personally go after him. Should be fun.

In the good girl corner there's the introduction of Ko-Rel, a Kree medical officer, who's stranded on a Kree frontier planet where Rich happens to crash land. Ko-Rel investigates the crash and a burned-up Rich transfers his Nova power to her at issue's end. Makes you wonder if this is setting up the rebirth of the Nova Corps. Personally, I hope not. Let Rich be the one-and-only for a while longer.

A&L deliver a tight, action-packed issue that builds expertly off the change in the status-quoo brought about in Annihilation: Conquest - Prologue.

Over in Wraith, we're introduced to, well, Wraith, I guess. Wraith says he doesn't have a name, which is fitting since he seems to be a derivative of a handful of characters. Part Ghost Rider, part Lobo, mostly Man with No Name, Wraith is the mostly-silent and mostly-deadly type and he's not an uninteresting character, but more of a blank character, so far. The key to making a Man with No Name character work, however, is that his actions have to be interesting and Wraith's aren't.

He can hurt the Phalanx, but isn't all that interested in fighting them. He's Kree, he's not that interested in helping the Kree resistance (in a Matrix 2 derivative scene), but he does help them escape when the Phalanx arrive to bust things up. He escapes into space, but ends up getting captured and sent to a prison where his interrogator is revealed to be an assimilated Ronan.

Now that's interesting but nothing that came before it really has me intrigued to find out whatever information Ronan is potentially going to get out of him.

Wraith is a character that desperately wants to be cool, and while he's got a cool look and a potentially cool revenge kick going, it's hard to be cool tooling around space on the back of a freakin' space-cycle. It's only one issue and Wraith has potential (both as a character and as a series) but so far it's just all too derivative of other characters to work for me.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Lanterns and Arrows of Green

Green Arrow: Year One 1 (of 6) (Diggle & Jock); Green Lantern 21: "Sinestro Corps, Chapter One: Fear & Loathing" (Johns & Reis).

I'm more down than up on DC these days, so it's good when two books come across my desk that really work. Lucky for me, Green Lantern and Arrow have long been two of my favorite DC characters.

Andy Diggle and Geoff Johns are coming at these tales from the opposite ends of their respective characters' careers. Diggle is taking Ollie back to his pre-Green Arrow days in a origin story for the Emerald Archer, while Johns is taking Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps into a new era of Ring on Ring crime.

In Green Arrow: Year One, Diggle quickly moves us through the spoiled rich kid bit, placing Oliver against a hardcore ex-British Special Forces operative whom Ollie has hired to shepherd him through all kinds of "extreme" activities. The guy betrays Ollie by issue's end, stealing $14 million from him and dumping his unconscious body into the ocean. It's a good set-up, it's well-paced, and Jock's art works well. Good stuff.

Over in Green Lantern, Johns gives us Part Two of the Sinestro Corps War, which promises to reveal secrets of the GLC and its power source. Johns is great at mining the past in order to push his pockets of the DCU forward - he's doing it with Justice Society and he's doing it here.

GL 21 picks up after the Sinestro Corps One-Shot, with Lanterns dead and dying as the SC continue their assault on the GLC all over the universe. The focus of the issue is on Jordan, of course, and Johns does a solid job setting up several battle fronts - the GLC vs the. SC, Jordan vs. Parallax/Kyle, Jordan and his allies vs. the Lost Lanterns, and the in-fighting amongst the Guardians.

That's a lot of plots to put in motion, so it's a good thing this storyline has two titles to run across.

Johns has a simple concept here - Hope vs. Fear - but one that can go down plenty of paths. Green Lantern is definitely a book to check out if you haven't been reading it.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Anxiety Attack: Justice Society of Kingdom Come?

Newsarama has the October Solicitations for DC up at their site, and a couple of them caught my eye - there's a Countdown tie-in, a few Sinestro Corps One-Shots, but then there's the news that Alex Ross is going to co-write a JSA arc with Geoff Johns. Sounds cool. Then I read the solicits and found out that they're bringing the Kingdom Come Superman into regular DC continuity and making him a member of the JSA. Sounds ... I don't know how it sounds, really. The concept works and there's a lot of talent involved, but I'm pretty wary at the same time.

Here's the full solicitation:

Written by Geoff Johns & Alex Ross
Art by Dale Eaglesham & Ruy Jose
Cover by Alex Ross
Variant cover by Eaglesham & Jose
Alex Ross joins Geoff Johns as co-writer for Part 1 of “Thy Kingdom Come,” the epic story years in the making, springing from KINGDOM COME! Not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an imaginary story! Welcome the newest member to the Justice Society of America: the Kingdom Come Superman!
Coming from an Earth plagued by heroes-gone-extreme, how will this Superman react to an incarnation of the Justice Society he never knew? This Superman’s world needed better heroes.
So does ours.
Retailers please note: This issue will ship with two covers that may be ordered sparately. For every 10 copies of the Standard Edition (with a cover by Alex Ross), retailers may order 1 copy of the Variant Edition (with a cover by Dale Eaglesham & Ruy Jose). For more information, please see the Previews Order Form.
On sale October 3 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US

Friday, July 13, 2007

New Avengers 32: Where the Avengers Are Defeated by a Plane Crash

New Avengers 32: "Trust, Part One" (Bendis & Yu).

I know some people are driven nearly insane by superheroes who spend entire issues sitting around and talking. Just take any glance through the boards at Newsarama and you'll see writers like Bendis chided for "nothing happening but people talking to each other." I really have no problem with reading a book that's little more than dialogue if that dialogue is good, just like I have no problem with books that are all-out action if they're done well.

New Avengers 32 is a story in two parts - Part One: Talking in a Plane. Part Two: Crashing in a Plane. The switch between the two is jarring, but then, it is a plane crash. (I do kinda laugh in a completely snobbish way when I hear/read people complaining about the shift for being jarring and the issue being unbalanced. I mean, it is a PLANE CRASH. They tend to unbalance things a bit.)

During the talking half, the New Avengers get a lecture from Logan on how any of them could be Skrulls, which leads to Spider-Woman wanting to take the deceased Elektra Skrull corpse to Tony Stark. Logan, Cage, and well, everyone, think that's a horrid idea. I know I'm in the minority, but I could have listened to the team talk about this possible Skrull invasion for an entire issue or two. Bendis uses Logan to provide a meta-commentary on how Marvel Creative handles the Marvel Universe, reflecting on all of his teammates as if he were on the external looking top-down at the MU. Logan even turns that commentary on himself: "And then there's me! Who is everywhere at once and all of a sudden knows exactly who he is."

There's a bit of faulty logic on display in the issue - why does one Skrull mean an invasion is coming? - but on the whole it's fun to listen to and will probably end up revealing more in hindsight. It's already doing it, after all, on just a second read-through after the issue's final reveal.

After the plane crash sequence (it is kinda weird to see superheroes freaking out about a plane going down, but then this team has only one flyer, Spider-Woman) Jessice Drew is revealed as a Skrull ally. I know, because the team is talking about her being a Skrull and given that she's doing the green-eye thing we're supposed to think she is a Skrull, and maybe she is, but maybe the Skrulls have something else up their sleeve. Maybe Jessica Drew isn't a Skrull at all - we don't see her doing anything particularly Skrullish. Maybe she's being mind-controlled. Or maybe she is a Skrull, which would explain why she didn't want to be tossed out of the falling plane. Of course, she somehow makes it down to the ground in one piece, so maybe she's still Jessica. We don't know yet, but I'm guessing on the fly that the Jessica Drew walking around with the New Avengers is the authentic Jessica Drew, but one who has been programmed by the Skrulls as a sleeper agent. Maybe she's even been programmed to think she is a Skrull (which would explain her not wanting to be tossed off the plane) but isn't (which would explain how she wound up on the ground).

What also know she takes out Logan post-crash and then grabs Skrull Elektra and walks (not flies) off, but we don't know where she's headed.

Going back to the first-half of the issue, the question then becomes: Why did Jessica Drew want to take Skrull Elektra to Tony Stark? The obvious inference is that Stark's a Skrull, but I don't buy it. I wouldn't be surprised if Drew didn't ever want to bring Skrull Elektra to Stark, but was just saying that in order to stall the team while whatever it was that was being done to Danny's plane was working its way through the system.

What I'm most interested in seeing play out over the "Trust" and subsequent storylines is what Bendis' plans are for the Skrulls. I think this is going to be more than just a Skrull Redux plot where they try to come to Earth and take it over and leave with the heads between their knees. I think (hope) that Bendis is going to give us something new and give them something new in their bag of tricks.

One note about the art - I'm usually a fan of Yu's work, but I wish they'd tighten up his line-work a bit. A couple pages here were tough to look at.

I really like what Bendis has done with New Avengers post-Civil War, and despite the claims that he's not writing Avengers stories in Avengers, the theme of trust that is all-over his post-CW material goes right back to the formation of the team in the Stan & Jack era.

So are shape shifting threats - anyone seen the Space Phantom around lately?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Atomic Alert: Annihilation: Conquest

Annihilation: Conquest Prologue (Abnett/Lanning & Perkins).

The writing team of Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning is incredibly frustrating to me. When they're on, they provide high quality, engaging books, but when they're off I find then next to unreadable, and they seem to be on/off to me at about a 50/50 split.

It was with that typical A&L-patented reservation that I finally dug into Annihilation: Conquest Prologue this afternoon. The Annihilation: Conquest Wraith LS ships this week, starting the four-LS build-up to the Annihilation: Conquest event. I liked the first Annihilation go-round, but wasn't overwhelmed by it, so A:C Prologue was going to win me or lose me on what's coming.

It won me over. Big time.

A:C Prologue is just a good, solid story from start to finish. A&L focus on two characters: Phyla-Vell (the new Quasar) and Peter Quill (the once and future Star-Lord). Both characters will star in their own A:C LS so it's a good marketing decision, but having the focus on two characters gives A&L the space to really get into their respective issues and guide us through the post-Annihilation Wave.

The story here involves the attack on the Kree Empire by the Phalanx, who infect Spaceknight and Kree technology, and somehow shut the entire Kree empire off from the rest of the universe.

It all comes across as much more focused and coherent than the first Annihilation event, and it's nice to see the cosmic story pushed forward. I'm looking forward to checking out Wraith later this week, and the other LS as they come out, but I'm really looking forward to the Annihilation: Conquest LS that will drop in November.

Check out Marvel's Annihilation Hub. The four A:C LS are: Wraith, Quasar, Star-Lord, and Nova, though technically Nova won't be an LS, but issues 4-7 of the regular Nova monthly. Here's some preview pages for Wraith 1.

Anxiety Attack: DC Hires Jim Starlin to Kill the New Gods

Newsarama has a story up at their site right now about the new Jim Starlin DC LS, Death of the New Gods.

While hiring Jim Starlin to do a cosmic series isn't a bad thing, the move is the latest in DC's year-plus dual-prong strategy of the answer to everything being either to put things back to where they were x number of years ago or killing yet another character.

Honestly, it's getting a bit old and tiring and kinda insulting.

By calling this latest LS Death of the New Gods, DC is also referencing one of Starlin's most famous works, Marvel's The Death of of Captain Marvel.

Hopefully this LS will push things forward for the New Gods and not simply result in pointless character killing. With Starlin involved I have some hope Death of the New Gods might be more creative than reductive, but given the Dan Didio Era at DC, I'm not very hopeful.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Long National Nightmare that is Fallen Son is Finally, Mercifully Over

Fallen Son, Chapter Five: "Acceptance" (Loeb & Cassaday).

So the title to this blog post is a bit harsh, given that Chapter 5 of Fallen Son is the best issue in the entire series, but as loyal readers of the Anxiety know, I've found this entire LS to be completely underwhelming. So, yeah, it's the best issue, but that's faint praise.

The problems with "Acceptance" are the same basic problems that plague the rest of the series - primarily that Jeph Loeb never gets beneath the surface of the characters. Fallen Son is all example and not enough (or any, really) examination of the issues raised, which keeps the series mired at the level of a gimmick.

What raises this issue up a notch is the Falcon's eulogy, which comes off as heartfelt despite the Hallmark Channel-inspired dialogue coming out of Sam's mouth.

There's a nice touch at the end with a private burial for Steve in the Arctic. Returning Steve's body to where it was discovered back in the day is fitting, and Stark has his best words of the entire series when he notes how many Avengers have fallen by the wayside in recent years. If Loeb's performance in this issue (and series) matched his reputation, it would have been a truly touching ending, but it never escapes the fact that Loeb's dialogue has just been off this entire series.

The end is fitting for another reason. Janet tells Tony that "we have to accept" that Steve is gone: "One era ends. And a new one begins." But Stark clearly doesn't accept this change. He never accepts anything he doesn't like (save for his own battle with alcoholism), which is one of the traits that makes Stark such an interesting character. You can see the wheels spinning in his head.

If we get to the end of the five stages of grief, however, and we don't see the acceptance of Cap's death, I do kinda wonder what the point of all this was. That we don't accept what we must? Doesn't that make the five stages a failure? If that's the point, it would have been nice to see that examined, but, again, there is no examination anywhere in this series at the level it should have been given who it was that died.

If this issue had been entitled Fallen Son: Falcon, like it probably should have been, then having Sam deliver those final words in the Arctic would have worked to bring a better sense of closure. As it is, the ending rings hollow. The fans don't accept Cap's death and Stark doesn't accept Cap's death, but we get no inkling about what his plans for the future are, really. Which means that Marvel has used this mini-series, basically, to sell some future story or stories down the road. Thanks.

And yes, once again the art is gorgeous, but the mini-series dealing with the aftershocks of Captain America's death should do more than look pretty.

Atomic Alert: Thor 2

Marvel has a set of preview images up for Thor 2 at their website. We see Oliver Coipel's first interpretation of Asgard and, it appears the influence of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films extends beyond making Thor's speech sound like Aragorn. Provided that image above is Asgard and not some other locale, it looks like Coipel was taking design cues from LotR's Minas Tirith as much as Kirby or Simonson's Asgard.

Which is fine. I don't begrudge JMS wanting to drop the Shakespearean dialect or offering a new interpretation of Asgard, and Coipel's art continues to look gorgeous.

The 13-Day Late Movie Review: Live Free or Die Hard

Live Free or Die Hard (Dir. Len Wiseman).

After my glowing review of Transformers, I was a little hesitant to hit the theaters again to see another big budget summer would-be blockbuster.

I'm glad I put that hesitancy aside.

Like Transformers, Live Free or Die Hard (the fourth installment in the John McClane series) delivers what it promises, giving you two hours of popcorn diversion that's just as smart as it needs to be, as funny as you'd want it to be, and as thrilling as you'd hope it would be.

Directed by Len Wiseman (the Underworld movies), DH4 has more in common with Die Hard 3 (With a Vengeance) than either of the first two films, which pioneered its own genre of action movies and helped make Steven Seagal rich. (Under Siege? Die Hard on a Boat. Under Siege 2? Die Hard on a Train. On Deadly Ground? Die Hard on an Oil Rig.)

One leftover from DH1 & 2 is that McClane gets involved in the day's craziness because he's in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, he's sent to pick up computer geek and circumstantial sidekick Matt Farrell (played by Justin Long) when the bad guys attempt to kill the kid to erase anyone who can link them to the shutdown of America's computer systems.

Bruce Willis and Long work very well together. Willis slips easily into the "blue collar cop trapped in a blockbuster" routine and the movie succeeds because he can pull off groan-inducing lines that other actors in his action-bracket can't. This is the kind of performance that won't win any Oscar consideration, but there's less actors out there who can pull this role off than whatever role ends up taking home the Best Actor Award.

Willis plays McClane as tired but determined, a guy who's been beat down by the job but still does it. Perhaps it's all the damage the job has inflicted on his family life that causes him to so readily jump back into the fray, but the movie doesn't dwell on anything that complex. The film's read on McClane? Something needs to be done, McClane is around to do it, so he does it. It's just that simple.

Wisely, the film doesn't make McClane the total burnout he was on the verge of becoming pre-Die Hard 3, either. Whatever family or job troubles McClane is having, he's got himself back together, which allows him to go out and do his job in DH4. Willis tones down McClane's antics - the crazy desperation from Die Hard 3 is thankfully gone.

Timothy Olyphant and Maggie Q provide just the right amount of wickedness for the bad guys, and Justin Long and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (playing McClane's daughter) provide just the right amount of comic relief to take some of the burden off of Willis. I could've done without Kevin Smith's loser-in-mom's-basement routine but he's not on-screen long enough to slow anything down.

Wiseman keeps a good deal of the visual palette from Underworld during the night scenes, and it wouldn't surprise me if the second-half of DH4 (when McClane and Farrell) leads to a James Bond film for Wiseman down the line. The action was quick paced, clever without being absurd, and delivered the right amount of things going boom.

Live Free or Die Hard is a very entertaining summer movie. Draped in patriotic imagery, the film clearly wants to offer up John McClane as an idealized American archetype, a modern Wyatt Earp who yearns for the stable family life his job won't let him have, but is unwilling to leave that job behind. McClane is about sacrificing the self in order to save the country and it's to Willis and Wiseman's combined credit that it doesn't come off as anything more than one guy doing one thing. It's not going to make you feel better about the system that is the American infrastructure, but it might make you feel reassured that no matter how screwed up our tech systems get there's still a guy who will go punch a bad guy in the face to set things right.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Thor 1: The Return of Thunder

Thor 1 (JMS & Coipel).

Of all the comics I read as a kid, Thor was, by far, my favorite. I was lucky enough to start reading early in the Walt Simonson run and I was hooked instantly by the dual adventures of the God of Thunder on both Earth and Asgard. Simonson's art was perfect for the book, and his writing was highly influential on my own - he always seemed to have the right balance of intrigue and action, and I appreciated that he never seemed to oversell anything. His narration was typically low-key, which worked exceedingly well with the larger-than-life action. There was no need to populate the book with a thousand !!!!!!s to get the audience to feel like what they were witnessing was important.

It just was.

My disdain for an abundance of !!!!!!!s made the Tom DeFalco era of Thor unreadable to me and my favorite book was quickly left behind. I kept buying it as I had yet to rid myself of the collectors' habit, and in a pre-eBay world you couldn't very well wait and hope to buy the books later for quarters on the dollar, but instead of being invested in the story I simply flipped and hoped and moved on.

I enjoyed the beginnings of the Dan Jurgens Heroes Return era Thor, but budgetary concerns forced me to drop all monthly comics and I began to shift to reading TPBs and searching for deals on back issues on the net. When I came back a little over a year ago, Thor was gone, not just as a title but as a character. I was disappointed but not crushed - while he's one of my favorite characters, and while his supporting cast is my favorite in comics, most Thor stories I've read just aren't to my liking.

When news of the new Thor series was announced a few months back in the wake (or was it as a precursor?) of the appearance of the Thor Clone in Civil War, I was hopeful. JMS' Spider-Man work has been hot or miss, but the deep mythological aspect he added to the Spider-Mythos always seemed as if it would have been more at home in a book like Thor or Wonder Woman or even Green Lantern. I'm a huge fan, as well, of Oliver Coipel's crisp, clean art.

After reading Thor 1, my expectations remain high but unfulfilled. JMS has chosen to bring back Thor as a calm breeze instead of a raging storm. It works, but it's almost too soft, too quiet, too reserved. Much of issue 1 feels like a recap - a dangerous way to begin a new series hoping to attract readers in this marketplace. I might have favored a disconnected chronology; from various reports around the net hyping the series, JMS has let it be known that Asgard will eventually reappear over the Oklahoma plains. I might have started there, at that moment, and filled in the events of issue 1 as back story.

As a TPB, this will all probably read fine, but we're not in the TPB form, yet. As a single issue Thor 1 works because of its low-key subtlety and not any bombast. I'm fine with that, but I could understand someone telling me they were bored. If someone handed me this comic and the subject was Captain Marvel (Shazam version) and not Thor I might shrug, say it was okay, and then forget about it. As much as I like Coipel's art (and it is magnificent here), I'm not going to stick with a book just because the pictures are pretty.

I'll be honest - I could do without Donald Blake or any other Earthly secret identity. I don't think it adds much to the story beyond the origin to have Thor trapped or hidden in human form. I'd rather see Thor's "weakness" come from not being able to effect change in a situation where his power can't solve the problem instead of that weakness coming from the physicality of the mortal frame.

JMS brings back Donald Blake and I'm willing to give him a shot to make it work. JMS' take on the Thor/Blake split feels more symbiotic than previous identities and the idea that, in the Void, Blake is the person who convinces Thor to come back is intriguing. JMS' Thor/Blake dynamic suggests they are symbiotic echoes of one another ("I was a man dreaming I was a god. I was a god dreaming I was a man.") and I'll see where it goes. Thor's "mortal body" doesn't work for me if it operates solely as a secret identity, however, so I hope we don't get walked down that road, again.

JMS has also freed Thor of the trappings of Ragnarok. "The cycle of Ragnarok was what happened to you," Donald Blake explains. "It's not who you are. [...] The future is yours to write."

So here we have Thor, making a quiet re-entrance into the Marvel Universe. Personally, I hope he's given some time on his own, away from all of the post-Civil War issues that take up so much room elsewhere in the MU these days. If the book is going to be quiet, let it be quiet. I'll be around because if I'm reading comics, I'm reading Thor. Thor 1 doesn't stir the blood, but it does stir the mind.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Transformers: The Vindication of Michael Bay

Transformers is the best big, slick, downright fun summer blockbuster since the first Pirates of the Caribbean opened across the Multiplex four summers ago.

Unlike the dreadful Spider-Man 3 and the disappointing PotC: At World's End, Transformers doesn't make the mistake of taking itself so seriously that it forgets you've probably gone to the theater for a good time.

I dig the heck out of Transformers. From the moment the excitement of the first teaser trailer hit the big screens last summer (before PotC: Dead Man's Chest) I've been in a slow burn descent of worry about this movie, with a ray of hope coming only in the past week (more on this below). It's not that I hate Michael Bay movies (they're always visually pleasing, at least), it's just that I figured he'd be the exact kind of director who wouldn't respect the source material. If he could get it right, the film could be awesome. If he got it wrong, however, it was going to be tragic and forgettable, and every ad I saw, every interview I read made me less excited. I just kept coming back to the fact that it didn't look like Michael Bay was smart enough to trust the material - Megatron looked like ass, Optimus Prime had stupid painted flames and a mouth, and there were too many damn people - Jon Voight, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese, Shia Lebouf, Anthony Anderson ... every ad brought another actor when what I wanted to see was another robot.

And not Bumblebee as a Camaro, but as a dorky V-Dub Beetle.

Perhaps it is a case of a film simply exceeding low expectations, but to say that isn't giving Bay and the cast and crew enough credit. There are too many people in the movie and not enough robots, yet the people work because Bay doesn't overburden us with mountains of melodrama. Duhamel's character is a Marine, serving in the US Forces in Iraq and he's got a wife and kid at home. He wants to see them. She thinks he's dead after the Decepticon attack on the base. Simply reading that is about all the time Bay devotes to that on-screen. It's enough for us to know that Duhamel wants to get home; he doesn't need to spend any time whining about it. He's still a soldier and his first thoughts are always of the mission. I respect that - constant reminders of his wife and child would drag this movie down, and this isn't Apollo 13 and Bay knows it. (Heck, the whiny-assing there dragged the movie down and there it's story appropriate.)

Bay plays to genre stereotypes about what his intended audience wants - a social "loser" who is really more than he appears is placed as the antagonist and surrounded with hot women, robots, cool machines, cooler tech, a plentitude of explosions, and a legitimate sense of right and wrong. Bay smartly realizes those elements are the candy and that to get them to really pop you've got to treat the source material seriously. You don't have to treat the material like it's a sacred text, but you've got to treat it straight. You've got to show the core audience that you're not doing to the audience what Bumblebee does to John Turturro's character - which is to say, pissing all over them. This is a movie about robots who transform into vehicles, yeah, but it's also about a Civil War where two factions of a society are waging war against one another.

It's the war that you've got to take seriously because "Protect" and "Destroy" are not just catchy marketing slogans.

Wired has an interesting cover story this month on Transformers. In the main article, Scott Brown discusses fandom's ire over Bay's choice to direct the film. Brown writes how Bay was, from a technical standpoint, seemed like exactly the right guy to direct this movie, but it wasn't the technical aspect that had fan's worried. Brown argues:

"Among a certain sect of geekdom, there's more at stake. Prime practically step-parented the latchkey kids of the mid-'80s. He was our Allfather at a time when flesh-and-blood role models were increasingly few and far between: Stallone had begun his long sag. Arnold was already more credible as machine than man. So when Prime declared, "One shall stand, one shall fall!" in that seismic, tear-down-this-wall timbre of his (or, more accurately, voice actor Peter Cullen), you believed him. Thus began the cyber-outsourcing of masculine heroism, a process that would eventually, inextricably, link Y chromosome to Xbox."

I'm not sure I fully buy Brown's argument, but I do believe Optimus Prime was going to make or break this film to many people. Myself included.

Optimus Prime was the moral center of the cartoon, the Transformer equivalent of Captain America or Superman (and not a Sly or Ah-nold character as Brown argues), and while every other Autobot got to be cool or gimmicky, Prime had to be the rock at the center who took the greatest burdens, made the tough decisions, and kept everyone's moral compass pointing straight.

Bay largely nails Prime. In the smartest decision he could've possibly made (and something I found out a week ago, which buoyed my spirits considerably and gave me hope that Bay would deliver), he brought in Peter Cullen to reprise his role as the vioce of Prime. It's amazing how the little things can change your opinion around so quickly. Noting that Bay had cast Cullen made me question all of the negative thoughts I had about his ability to bring this franchise to the screen because it showed, at some level, that he understood. Bay certainly could've dialed up some big Hollywood talent to come in and voice Prime - he did it with Megatron, after all, who's now voiced by Hugo Weaving (though Frank Welker will reprise his role in the video game). Casting Cullen, however, was like casting Prime to play himself. It's so simple that you'd figure Hollywood would get it wrong, and so right that you'd figure time would've robbed Cullen of his ability to bring back the voice of Prime you remembered.

The simple genius of Bay's treatment of Optimus Prime is that it literally looks like he pulled the Optimus Prime of the 80s cartoon series and plunked him down in the middle of a Michael Bay film. It's not just that Prime has the same voice, it's that he talks in the exact same tone and with the exact same dialogue. The importance of that moral, sacred center (to the core fans) can't be overstated in a movie like this - you can have all sorts of craziness happening but if you don't play the center straight you're going to have problems with the core audience. If you do that you better make sure the non-core crowd likes what you're doing enough to keep the box office returns high.

Michael Bay played the moral center straight. Yeah, the flames look stupid and yeah, the mouth looks stupid, but two seconds into hearing the initial Optimus Prime narration those concerns went away. When Prime announces in the film that "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings" you believe him. Bay even managed to turn the latter negative into a positive when Prime's standard faceplate appears during fight sequences. (And, yeah, when I saw it finally appear I grinned like a kid who'd just gotten his favorite toy on Christmas morning, which in a certain year, was a whole lot of Transformers.)

A lot of my concerns about Bay going into the movie were with Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, whose made a very nice career for himself turning in the same movie over and over again. He just changes the costumes on his characters and, in his "serious" movies, takes out the jokes, but Jaws, ET, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Schindler's List, etc. all function in pretty much the same manner and tell pretty much the same story played with differing tones. It's not a stretch to see Indiana Jones or Alan Grant as possible adult versions of ET's Elliot (or vice versa) - Spielberg likes his heroes to be smart and boring without being geeky nerds. And yes, there are exceptions and yes, there are variables, but for all the criticism Bay gets for the "Michael Bay" genre of movies, there is most assuredly a "Steven Spielberg" genre, as well.

Transformers has some Spielberg touches, most notably in the main character of Sam Witwicky, who's nondescript enough not to be noticed by the hot bad-girl he obsesses over, yet not such a classic dork that he's noticed for being that, either. If you walked by the classic Spielberg Hero on the street you wouldn't give him a second notice. Like many of Spielberg's main characters, Sam's a bit of an awkward loner who still manages to get the girl by the end of the film.

Perhaps the influence of the "Spielberg" and "Bay" genres makes Transformers the success it is. Spielberg's movies are almost always anti-Government (not anti-American Government, necessarily, but anti-Some Government) while Bay's are almost always pro-American Government (usually evidenced as pro-Police or pro-Military). Here, there's a mix. American marines are attacked in the Middle East by a Decepticon attack marking them as Bay Heroes, yet another portion of the American military complex (the secretive S7 group) captures and tortures Bumblebee, marking them as Spielberg Villains.

The capture and torture of Bumblebee is one of the strongest sequences in the film. The Autobot is captured because he puts himself at risk to save Sam and Mikaela, and is then left in the hands of the humans as Prime makes the hard decision to continue on their main objective - finding the Allspark.

The friendship that develops between Bumblebee and Sam is done subtly - which for a Michael Bay movie means it mostly happens when they're getting shot at together. Still, it highlights the basic difference between the Autobots willingness to fight for humanity, who just happen to be the dominant life-form on the planet where the Allspark crashed. Prime says he's seen goodness in humanity, but it's Bumblebee's decision to ultimately risk his own life for Sam and Mikaela, and then decide to remain on Earth at the end of the film that proves humanity's worth. Bay's Bumblebee works as the Autobot version of a late teens, early twentysomething kid - he's not the youngster desperate to earn the respect of Optimus Prime that he used to be, but he's still the kid of the group. He's one step closer to manhood than Sam, a bit more experienced but still with a young heart.

I would have rather seen the movie told from the Transformers POV instead of humanity's but I can understand why they did it the way they did and since it works, I'm not complaining too loudly about it. The humans work as characters and their frailty makes the Transformers power even more awe-inspiring. The Autobots and Decepticons are fighting for victory, but every time one of them launches a rocket or casually tosses a car or blasts through a building you get the very real sense that the humans in the film are just trying to hang on, get through, survive.

And I would've liked to see more Transformers. Other than Prime, Bumblebee, and the hilarious Frenzy, they all sorta look the same. Bay drains their robot forms of color and in amidst all the explosions it can be tough to figure out if you're looking at Megatron or Starscream or Jazz or Ironhide. The Decepticons largely get the shaft, too. Megatron spends most of the movie frozen inside Hoover Dam, but he does recover nicely, killing Jazz by ripping him in half, and throwing his trademark, "You have disappointed me, Starscream" rant at his treacherous second-in-command.

Transformers is a highly enjoyable, skillfully crafted movie that just simply works. It gives you two-plus hours of big summer diversion that will make the kid in you smile without offending the sensibilities of Adult You.

The applause that broke out in the theater at the end of the film matched my feelings perfectly.