Thursday, May 31, 2012

DAMN Good Comics -- BATMAN ANNUAL #1

All of the sudden, Arnold Schwarzenegger's ice puns from Batman and Robin seem even more pointless and stupid.

The classic Special Guest Villain known as Mr. Freeze makes his major debut to "The New 52" era with an extra-length annual that ties in with the Batman event "Night of the Owls."  The good thing is, you don't have to read the other twenty or so issues of "Night of the Owls" to appreciate this story, but don't be surprised if you find yourself wanting to read them afterward.

With "First Snow," regular Batman writer Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV give Mr. Freeze more depth and characterization than he's had since the 1992 Batman: The Animated Series episode "Heart of Ice."  While I won't give too much away for those who haven't read this issue, there are some fundamental changes and additions to Victor Fries' origin and background that make the character more than just a tragic lovesick victim.

Even better, Freeze appears to be considerably cleverer, and far more dangerous, than shown in years past.  His methodical breakout of Arkham Asylum is impressive indeed, using his freezing abilities to their deadly potential toward his initial goal of escape.  Ultimately though, Freeze is fixated upon two things -- his desire for vengeance against Bruce Wayne and the recovery of Nora, the woman he loves...or thinks he does.

The art by Jason Fabok is very crisp and clean, enhanced by some effective coloring by Peter Steigerwald.  Fabok and Steigerwald arm Freeze with a new helmet dotted on the inside with small, reflecting ice crystals, causing the character's head to resemble an odd snowglobe.  Their Batman, meanwhile, resembles David Finch at his finest with just a dash of Brian Bolland mixed in for good measure, which certainly doesn't hurt.

For too long, both DC and Marvel Comics have had an annoying habit of turning annuals that were once special and meaningful into little more than throwaway product with poor creative effort and an inflated price point.  However, by tying into a well-received epic storyline using the title's regular writer, DC appears to be trying to reverse the trend as shown here and with this week's Animal Man Annual #1.  Annuals, it seems, are going to matter again and here's hoping they stay that way for many more years to come.

Monday, May 28, 2012

New TRUE BLOOD Season 5 Trailer Debuts


"A 3,000-year-old vampire wants to suck my blood...Must be Thursday!"

Yes, vampire snack treat Sookie Stackhouse is back with her fellow residents of Bon Temps, Louisiana in Season 5 of HBO's supernatural series True BloodIn a new trailer that aired last night before Game of Thrones, it looks like Sookie's traditionally insane life isn't going to get easier any time soon.

Picking up from the events of the Season 4 finale, we see Sookie and Lafayette Reynolds burying a body in what appears to be Sookie's backyard.  "Oh yeah, baby, you survived," remarks Lafayette bitterly.  "You always do.  But goddamn do you leave a trail of bodies behind.  You know what?  You the angel of death."

We also see newly-turned vampire Steve Newlin threatening Sookie's brother Jason, Eric Northman being captured in a net made from silver, but the season's real threat comes from the long-awaited return of Russell Edgington

"It will take him a few days to recuperate and he will be straight out after us," explains Bill Compton, who helped imprison Russell in cement at the end of Season 3.  However, there's the lingering question of who actually freed Russell from his cement tomb.  Eric's progeny Pamela "Pam" Swynford De Beaufort hurtfully denies her involvement, causing Eric to reply that he trusts no one.

Other trailer goodness includes Bill's progeny Jessica Hamby looming menacingly behind Steve, Terry Bellefleur being threatened, Hoyt Fortenberry all blood-spattered and ready to fight, and of course, Russell in full view looking as defiant and vengeful as ever.  "I want to gorge on human blood because I like it!"

True Blood returns for Season 5 on June 10, 2012.  If you'd like to see the full trailer, you can check it out below...

Friday, May 25, 2012

DAMN Good Comics -- JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK #9

After some creative musical chairs across various titles, writer Jeff Lemire ended up on the supernatural team book Justice League Dark and I couldn't be more pleased about it.

Lemire first caught my attention with his recent Atom feature in Adventure Comics prior to Flashpoint and afterwards, has been absolutely killing it on Animal Man.  So when he was selected to replace outgoing Justice League Dark writer Peter Milligan, I was more than intrigued by the potential result.  After starting off so well, Milligan appeared at a loss of where to take the series and its diverse cast of supernatural DC Universe characters.  Fortunately, Lemire comes out of the gate strong with a much clearer sense of direction.

His first story, "The Black Room," is structured like an episode of the J.J. Abrams TV series Alias, with events already in motion filled in with flashback scenes that explain how we got to this point.  Deep in the Amazon jungle, the reformed team "Justice League Dark" has been asked to retrieve the South African mystic known as Doctor Mist and stop classic Justice League nemesis Felix Faust from his usual supernatural shenanigans.  That's a pretty straightforward story premise, a refreshing change from issues up until now.

The team itself has changed as well, with John Constantine taking over as the unlikely "leader" from the interminably vague Madame Xanadu.  As we learn throughout the issue, Constantine was recruited by A.R.G.U.S. agent Steve Trevor to "get the band back together" under the offer of being allowed ten unsupervised minutes in The Black Room, a top-secret storage facility for various DCU mystical artifacts.  He's assigned the mysterious woman known as Black Orchid to keep tabs on him for A.R.G.U.S. and there's even an explanation for why this team is called "Justice League Dark," a name that Constantine (echoing many fans in the process) remarks is "the stupidest" he's ever heard.

Wisely, artist Mikel Janin was kept on the series and he produces another solid effort here.  Janin, together with colorist Ulises Arreola, breathes considerable life into the story, from Felix Faust's decayed face with glowing blue eyes to considerable detail like the large theater banner advertising Zatanna's performances.  He seems to enjoy Constantine's smirking facial expressions and the textured plant vein design of Black Orchid's new costume.

All in all, this issue was a very promising relaunch of Justice League Dark and one that already sets up a number of potential story ideas to be developed down the road.  If you gave up on this book a few months ago, I definitely recommend giving it another shot.  Lemire proved that he has just the right take on VERTIGO characters like Animal Man that were brought back to the DC Universe, so I won't be surprised if he does just as well here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Animated BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS Cast Announced


Warner Bros. has announced the cast for the animated home video adaptation of Frank Miller's classic four-issue mini-series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns from 1986, which will star someone very familiar to old-school sci-fi movie fans.

The Hollywood Reporter has revealed that RoboCop and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai star Peter Weller will voice the role of the older Batman/Bruce Wayne while Modern Family TV actress Ariel Winter will voice Robin/Carrie Kelley.

The Dark Knight Returns tells the story of a 55-year-old Bruce Wayne who comes out of retirement to fight crime once again as Batman, only to face opposition from the Gotham City Police Department and the United States government.  The adaptation will be split up into two releases titled Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 and Part 2.  The first part, released under a new DC Comics Premiere Movie brand, will arrive in the fall while Part 2 is slated for early 2013. 

"Dark Knight Returns is the granddaddy of beloved comics properties that we’ve ever attempted (to adapt)," said Bruce Timm, executive producer of all of DC’s animated movies.  "There is definitely the imperative to get it right."  Timm described Peter Weller as having "the proper weight to his voice.  He definitely brings all of the world-weariness of the character and inner core of optimist covered in a cynical shell."

Also announced for the cast are David Selby, who starred in the original Dark Shadows soap opera and Falcon Crest, Wade Williams from Prison Break as Two-Face/Harvey Dent, and Michael McKean as Dr. Wolper, the psychiatrist who arranges for the Joker's release from Arkham Asylum.

The director is Jay Oliva, who storyboarded Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman movie Man of Steel and directed sequences of Green Lantern: Emerald Knights.  Bob Goodman, writer on Syfy’s Warehouse 13 and other DC animated projects, adapted Miller's mini-series.


Monday, May 21, 2012

SKYFALL Teaser Trailer Debuts


The teaser trailer for the 23rd official James Bond film Skyfall was released online a few hours ago and it seems there's going to be some word association going on.

In what appears to be some sort of psychiatric evaluation watched by his superior M (played by Dame Judi Dench) and Ralph Fiennes' character Gareth Mallory, Bond (Daniel Craig) provides respones to specific words to presumably gain insight into his subconscious mind.  The exchange goes like this:

"Country."
"England."
"Gun."
"Shot."
"Agent."
"Provocateur."
"Murder."
(A slight hestiation) "Employment."
"Skyfall."
(No response)
"Skyfall."
(A dramatic pause) "Done."

From there we see rows of coffins draped with British flags, the city of Shanghai, Bond plunging into a large body of water, Bond standing solemnly with M besides his silver Aston Martin DB5 overlooking a misty ravine, an underground subway car crashing through the roof of whatever lies below, and of course, the usual shots of Bond shooting things, cars flipping, explosions and whatnot.

"Some men are coming to kill us," Bond says omniously.  "I'm gonna kill them first."

Skyfall arrives in US theaters on November 9, 2012.  In the meantime, you can watch the teaser trailer below about twenty times...

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Surviving a DC Universe Still Without Wally West

Nine months into DC Comics' Post-Flashpoint universe reboot, commonly known as "The New 52," and there's still no sign of former Flash Wally West or his wife, Linda Park.

From a streamlined DC Universe standpoint, it makes sense to bench Wally in order to focus attention on his predecessor Barry Allen.  Ever since Barry was brought back from the dead in 2008, Wally was gradually relegated to the sidelines and ultimately lost his monthly title to Barry for a 12-issue Flash series and the 5-issue Flashpoint event that relaunched the entire DC Universe.

Barry continues to be the Flash and with his current series charting in the top twenty in terms of sales, that probably won't be changing any time soon.  However, there's an entire generation of Wally West fans since 1986 that read comics and watched Justice League cartoons where Wally was the Flash -- their Flash.  They watched Wally grow into the legacy of his dead uncle, becoming his own Flash in the process.  They saw the character fall in and out of love, until he became involved with Keystone City news reporter Linda Park in what became one of comics' greatest romances.  And they were there when Wally and Linda finally married and had two children, Jai and Iris, who were named in tribute to original Flash Jay Garrick and Wally's aunt, Iris West Allen.

So it's no wonder that Wally's fans continue to ask about his possible return at conventions or in interviews to Flash creators.  A recent Comic Book Resources interview with current Flash creative team Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, Manapul was asked about previous comments made about his desire to introduce Wally into The New 52 and why that wasn't going to happen.  Manapul replied:

"The thing is, it's coming from a pure fan perspective. I grew up with Wally West, but it's one those things that, within the context of the story and the world we're building, he doesn't really fit.  Really, just focusing on Barry Allen has allowed us to do a more streamlined story and give a very good character study on Barry.  Especially since, when you think about it, a lot of people of this generation don't know Barry Allen that well.  I sort of feel it really ties everything together.  Here are Brian and I on this journey, writing our first ongoing comic book, and we're reintroducing Barry Allen and his journey in terms of self-discovery -- and it's the same things the readers are going through.  They're on a journey of discovering who Barry Allen is.  Introducing Wally West might murky up the water.  It's not our decision, but I think it's better that we just focus on Barry Allen.  At the end of the day, our mission statement is to make Barry Allen as cool as possible.  So we're putting all our effort into doing that."

So the wait for Wally's return continues, even though Jay Garrick was brought back this past month in a completely rebooted version for DC's Earth 2 series by James Robinson and Nicola Scott.  However, Wally does live on in animated form as part of the Cartoon Network series Young JusticeAfter appearing in the first season as Kid Flash, Wally apparently gave up superheroics at some point during the five-year gap before Season 2 and has settled into a relationship with former team member Artemis.  He does, however, show signs of wanting to come back and help his friends, so it shouldn't be too long before we see him back in action.

The big question still remains, when will the character return to comics?  Until we get some more definitive news from DC Comics, at least we have plenty of stories to keep the memory of Wally West, The Flash That Was, still alive...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

CRIMINAL MINDS Indulges in DOCTOR WHO Cosplay


At this rate, we're going to need a network TV crossover between Criminal MindsDr. Spencer Reid and Community's Abed Nadir.

Last night's season finale of CBS' crime drama series Criminal Minds gave more love to BBC TV series Doctor Who with a trip to a local science-fiction convention called Sci-Fi-Gate.  During the opening teaser of the two-hour episode "Hit/Run," Reid (played by Matthew Gray Gubler) and fellow profiler Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) are shown walking outside the convention, with Reid costumed as none other than Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor and Garcia wearing a fez and a bow tie in tribute to Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor era.  After being thanked by Garcia for accompanying her to the convention, Reid replies, "Of course, I've been knitting this scarf for weeks."

The pair then bump into Garcia's former boyfriend Kevin Lynch (Nicholas Brendon) and CSU Technician Sharp (Gina Garcia) who are cosplaying the Eleventh Doctor and his companion Amy Pond in her sexy police uniform from the episode "The Eleventh Hour."  After the awkward encounter, Garcia confides to Reid that she can't believe that Lynch brought someone else to the convention.  When Reid points out that she brought someone else, Garcia replies that she brought someone she couldn't possibly be sexually attracted to.

This wasn't the first time Reid has shown his love for Doctor Who.  Back in February of 2011, he was involved in a discussion comparing Doctor Who with the 1989 time-travel comedy movie BIll & Ted's Excellent Adventure. 

If you'd like to see the scene for yourself, you can check it out HERE thanks to YouTube user ssalexblake.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

ELEMENTARY Picked Up by CBS for Fall 2012


For those in desperate need of a Sherlock Holmes fix before the BBC series Sherlock returns for Series Three and the next Robert Downey, Jr. movie, CBS is stepping up to help feed your addiction.

The network officially announced its 2012-13 primetime schedule this morning and confirmed that the new Holmes series Elementary will air on Thursday nights at 10 p.m. EST after Person of Interest. 

The project was first announced back in September of last year and initally received criticism from Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat as being too similar to the BBC series with its modern-day setting.  However, as you can see from the official description for the series below, it appears as though there's an attempt to make Elementary more distinctive:

ELEMENTARY stars Jonny Lee Miller as detective Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson in a modern-day drama about a crime-solving duo that cracks the NYPD’s most impossible cases. Following his fall from grace in London and a stint in rehab, eccentric Sherlock escapes to Manhattan where his wealthy father forces him to live with his worst nightmare – a sober companion, Dr. Watson.  A successful surgeon until she lost a patient and her license three years ago, Watson views her current job as another opportunity to help people, as well as paying a penance.  However, the restless Sherlock is nothing like her previous clients.  He informs her that none of her expertise as an addiction specialist applies to him and he’s devised his own post-rehab regimen – resuming his work as a police consultant in New York City. Watson has no choice but to accompany her irascible new charge on his jobs.  But Sherlock finds her medical background helpful, and Watson realizes she has a knack for playing investigator. Sherlock’s police contact, Capt. Tobias “Toby” Gregson (Aidan Quinn), knows from previous experience working with Scotland Yard that Sherlock is brilliant at closing cases, and welcomes him as part of the team.  With the mischievous Sherlock Holmes now running free in New York solving crimes, it’s simple deduction that he’s going to need someone to keep him grounded, and it’s elementary that it’s a job for Watson.  Rob Doherty, Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly and Michael Cuesta, who directed the pilot, are executive producers for CBS Television Studios.

** UPDATE AS OF 6:25 P.M. **

CBS has released a three-minute behind-the-scenes preview that you can view below...

Monday, May 14, 2012

DAMN Good Television -- TRON: UPRISING - "Beck's Beginning"


Greetings, programs...

Six days before the official broadcast, the Disney XD channel released the 30-minute preview to their upcoming animated series Tron: Uprising that helps fill in the gap between the two Tron feature films.  Titled "Beck's Beginning," the episode serves as a pilot for the 10-part series that is scheduled to begin on June 7, 2012.

It seems very fitting that Disney XD debuted the preview online, where I could sit back in the comfort of my living room and watch it on a HD television playing video from an AV adapter connected to an iPad tablet device.  In the words of Kevin Flynn...Radical, man.  The digital world of Tron has come a lonnnnnng way since it first reprogrammed the brains of many young Gen-Xers in 1982 and now there's a new chapter in the saga, an animated wonderland that builds on the designs from Tron: Legacy and fuses them with a style similar to the Peter Chung MTV classic, Aeon Flux.

Set somewhere between Clu's betrayal of Kevin Flynn in 1989 and his son Sam's arrival on The Grid over 20 years later, Clu and his lead general Tessler (voiced by Lance Henriksen) are seizing control, with Argon City, the central location for the series, as their latest target.  However, a young mechanic program named Beck (Elijah Wood) has chosen to resist the Clu regime by taking on the identity of iconic hero Tron in order to inspire others.  Beck's efforts attract the attention of the original Tron (reprised once again by Bruce Boxleitner), who escaped Clu's betrayal that fateful night somehow and has gone into hiding.  It seems Tron has been looking for his successor and after getting to know Beck during an interrogation, decides the young program may be exactly what The Grid needs.  Together, the two form the early stages of an uprising against Clu even though Tron: Legacy viewers know how that must ultimately turn out.

Almost immediately, you realize that Tron: Uprising is going to be something special and unlike anything else currently on television.  The script by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz wisely begins with the necessary backstory recap for n00bs, narrated by Boxleitner, whose gravelly voice gives everything that sense of importance that he did so well on Babylon 5.  The interrogation of Beck by Tron (disguised in his Rinzler garb!) jumps us right into the good stuff, leaving it up to flashbacks to fill in the rest as needed.  From there, it's a pure visual assault of lightcycles, helicopters, ATVs and even a gravity-defying train.  And thankfully, there's a solid attempt to echo Daft Punk's brilliant Tron: Legacy score by composer Joe Trapanese, who orchestrated Daft Punk's music for the film.

We're also briefly introduced to supporting characters Mara (Mandy Moore), Zed (Nate Corddry) and Able (Reginald VelJohnson), but the real tension seems to be between Beck and Page (Emmanuelle Chriqui), the bad girl who just so happens to be Tessler's daughter.  Even though Beck masks his true identity while acting as Tron, his behavior begins to tip off Page early on, so it seems inevitable the truth will come out and force Page to make a choice.  Oh, and you have to wonder what that reclusive Kevin Flynn is doing during all this.

Overall, Tron: Uprising looks to be far better than any animated movie tie-in on television deserves to be.  Any TV show that makes you want to see the next episode NOW is always a good thing, so here's hoping the rest of the series lives up to this very promising beginning.  Man, these next three and a half weeks are going to take forever.

Oh, and if you wanted to check out the episode for yourself, you can view it below.  Go knock on the sky and listen to the sound...

Friday, May 11, 2012

ARROW Picked Up by The CW for Fall 2012


After a year off, the DC Universe is returning to The CW television network this fall. 

Deadline reports that The CW has picked up Arrow, a hourlong superhero drama series based on DC Comics' character Green Arrow that was first announced to be in development back in January.  The series is one of five new scripted dramas going to series, including Sex And The City prequel The Carrie Diaries, a modern reboot of 1980s series Beauty and the Beast, mystery Cult and medical drama First Cut.

Unless there are last-minute casting changes before the premiere, Arrow stars Stephen Amell as Oliver Queen/Green Arrow, Katie Cassidy as Laurel, Susanna Thompson as Oliver's mother Moira, Colin Donnell as Tommy, David Ramsey as John Diggle, Willa Holland as Thea Queen and Paul Blackthorne as Detective Quentin Lance.  The show's official description is as follows:

After a violent shipwreck, billionaire playboy Oliver Queen was missing and presumed dead for five years before being discovered alive on a remote island in the Pacific.  When he returns home to Starling City, his devoted mother Moira, much-beloved sister Thea, and best friend Tommy welcome him home, but they sense Oliver has been changed by his ordeal on the island.  While Oliver hides the truth about the man he’s become, he desperately wants to make amends for the actions he took as the boy he was.  Most particularly, he seeks reconciliation with his former girlfriend, Laurel Lance. As Oliver reconnects with those closest to him, he secretly creates the persona of Arrow – a vigilante – to right the wrongs of his family, fight the ills of society, and restore Starling City to its former glory.  By day, Oliver plays the role of a wealthy, carefree and careless philanderer he used to be – flanked by his devoted chauffeur/bodyguard, John Diggle – while carefully concealing the secret identity he turns to under cover of darkness.  However, Laurel’s father, Detective Quentin Lance, is determined to arrest the vigilante operating in his city.  Meanwhile, Oliver’s own mother, Moira, knows much more about the deadly shipwreck than she has let on – and is more ruthless than he could ever imagine.

Based on characters appearing in comic books and graphic novels published by DC Comics, ARROW is from Bonanza Productions Inc. in association with Berlanti Productions and Warner Bros. Television, with executive producers Greg Berlanti (“Green Lantern,” “Brothers &Sisters”), Marc Guggenheim (“FlashForward,” “Eli Stone”), Andrew Kreisberg (“Warehouse 13,” “The Vampire Diaries”) and David Nutter (“Smallville,” “Supernatural,” “Game of Thrones”).  Melissa Kellner Berman (“Eli Stone,” “Dirty Sexy Money”) is co-executive producer.  The pilot was directed by David Nutter from a teleplay by Andrew Kreisberg & Marc Guggenheim, story by Greg Berlanti & Marc Guggenheim.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

THE AVENGERS' S.H.I.E.L.D. Too Unreal for Pentagon


It looks like the Pentagon has decided to yield and not back S.H.I.E.L.D.

An article posted yesterday by Wired claims that the United States Defense Department ended its cooperation with Marvel Studios' insanely popular film adaptation of The Avengers because they didn't think the superhero movie was realistic in its depiction of military organizational structure.

The Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, succinctly known as S.H.I.E.L.D., first appeared on film in 2008's Iron Man as a U.S. government agency that debriefs Tony Stark following his return from Afghanistan and also aides Tony's assistant Pepper Potts after learning of Obadiah Stane's Iron Monger armor.  After the film's closing credits, a bonus scene introduces S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury as he informs Tony Stark of an operation known as The Avengers Initiative.  The organization was used to help link subsequent movies into a full-fledged Marvel cinematic universe.

However, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s role as a global superhuman response agency is generally undefined, especially how it actually fits into the governmental bureaucracy.  And that, according to the article, is why the U.S. military passed on cooperating with filmmakers of The Avengers.

"We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it," said Phil Strub, the Defense Department’s Hollywood liaison.  "To whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer?  Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.?  We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything."

Members of the New York National Guard do appear in the movie's climactic battle in Manhattan though, to assist local police officers and firefighters with damage control resulting from the invasion of the alien Chitauri.  The Defense Department gave permission for Humvees to be filmed for the sequence.

Who knows, maybe the Defense Department is just jealous because S.H.I.E.L.D. has a Helicarrier...

Saturday, May 5, 2012

DAMN Good Movies -- THE AVENGERS


Yes, time once again for another of my movie takes, this time on the film The Avengers, based on the classic Marvel Comics superteam.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...let the assembling begin...

At long last, Marvel Studios' four-year masterplan of creating a full-fledged movie universe is officially complete.  Starting with the release of Iron Man back in 2008, plans were made to connect films based on leading Marvel Comics characters and build up to the big kahuna that united all these superheroes together, The Avengers.  Nick Fury showed up after the Iron Man credits to discuss "The Avengers Initiative," Tony Stark met with General Ross in The Incredible Hulk, Black Widow was introduced in Iron Man 2, Hawkeye made a brief appearance in Thor, The Tesseract/Cosmic Cube turned up in Captain America: The First Avenger and along the way, we got to know a friendly SHIELD agent by the name of Phil Coulson. 

So here we are at the finish line, with the flagship Marvel Comics superhero team that fans spent decades dreaming about seeing one day on the big screen.  What once seemed like nothing more than wishful thinking is now reality through the coordination and planning led by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.  And once again to their credit, they brought on arguably the perfect person to direct this kind of film, none other than Joss Whedon.  Whedon earned his geek street cred long ago with the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and the short-lived Firefly, then went on to prove his mad comic book skills with the stellar 25-issue run of Astonishing X-Men with artist John Cassaday.  These projects showed that Whedon is a master of handling group dynamics, while his 2005 film Serenity sold us on his ability to tell a solid sci-fi action movie.

The thing is, with five previous movies' worth of material to smoosh together, The Avengers could've been an incoherent mess.  In other hands, you might have needed to watch the previous films to understand what was going on in this one, but Whedon -- mercifully -- knows the value of characters and telling a decent story.  Rewriting Zak Penn's original screenplay, Whedon introduces his heroes as if you're meeting each of them for the first time and gives just enough background info to move his story forward.  He wisely plays up each character's distinctive personality traits, keeping things light with his traditional snappy banter, then essentially throws them together to see how they clash.

And oh, do they.  With all these superpowered alphas and their egos around, it's easy to see where there would be personality conflicts.  Whedon indulges in pure fan fiction, creating expected tension that results in classic superhero vs. superhero action sequences.  Captain America and Iron Man butt heads, until Thor turns up and engages both of them in a superbrawl that levels a forest.  Even more insane, Black Widow finds herself having to fend off the Hulk in a complete mismatch, before she takes out a mind-controlled Hawkeye in a brutal fight later on.  There's also a fun visual gag where the Hulk sidearms Thor in a moment of pure revenge for an earlier skirmish.  As the Hulk's alter-ego Bruce Banner notes, "This isn't a team...It's a time bomb."

However, when it's time for things to get deadly serious, Whedon skillfully reins in his characters and focuses them on the threat of Thor's adopted brother Loki and his planned invasion of Earth using an alien race known as the Chitauri.  The film's third act is nothing but pure unbridled mayhem that provides everything you would want to see in this kind of superhero extravaganza.  Armed with a reported production budget of $220 million, Whedon throws everything he can up on the screen, leveling downtown Cleveland (acting as stunt double for the island of Manhattan) in a non-stop barrage of wrecked buildings, explosions and broken glass.  This is the Avengers at war, feeling every bit like the final act of a Michael Bay Transformers film...only with storytelling that doesn't suck and drop your IQ fifty points in the process.

The movie isn't perfect, though.  Despite his obvious talent as a storyteller, Whedon still hasn't evolved to a more cinematic, artistic style from his television directing days.  While there are some impressive effects shots, there aren't stunning visuals comparable to Christopher Nolan's Batman films or even Kenneth Branaugh's Thor.  Also, while Alan Silvestri's score wasn't terrible by any means, it lacked the punch of his previous Captain America work.  There weren't any memorable themes you'll be humming as you leave the theater, and there certainly weren't any echoes of previous music from the earlier Marvel films, which was a little surprising.

So what about the performances from the cast and the characters they portrayed?  Well, as you might expect, I have a few thoughts...

IRON MAN/TONY STARK -- Now running on automatic after two Iron Man films, Robert Downey, Jr. knows exactly how Tony thinks and reacts even when faced with other heroes on his level.  With Whedon's help, Tony makes a subtle but noticeable shift from wanting to run the show to relenting to Captain America's expertise in battle situtations.  Tony's hotshot arrogance is still there, but there's also a surprising respect for his fellow big-brain, Bruce Banner.

CAPTAIN AMERICA/STEVE ROGERS -- I was initially concerned that Whedon would downplay Cap's role in favor of Iron Man, but thankfully he has Steve Rogers setting aside his gloomy feelings of lost time and becoming a true leader for the team.  Just when you want him to, Chris Evans gives Cap his voice and throws himself into what he knows best, waging a war.  And unlike the solo Cap film, there's a great emphasis of the character's agility as he leaps and tumbles his way through the Cleveland--errr, Manhattan battlefield.  I wish his uniform had been better, though, but once it gets battered up a little, it works well enough.

THOR ODINSON -- Now looking a bit more Point Break (Tony's words, not mine) Chris Hemsworth is still fun to watch as Thor.  He gives the character the right amount of swagger while carrying off his rather Shakespearean relationship with Loki.  Apart from those scenes, Thor doesn't have much of a role in this movie but at least he gets a status update on his girlfriend Jane Foster.

THE HULK/BRUCE BANNER -- Mark Ruffalo is -- yes, incredibly -- the third Bruce Banner in three films featuring the Hulk.  Although not as good in the role as Edward Norton, Ruffalo gives Banner a nice emotionally-damaged edge and twitchiness.  However, it's the Hulk who really shines here as the mean green scene-stealer.  Everything's coming up Hulk whenever the character is unleashed to smash to his oversized heart's content.  The Avengers does what two earlier Hulk films couldn't...make you want to watch a third Hulk film.

BLACK WIDOW/NATASHA ROMANOFF -- Another character that makes you want to see a solo movie is Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow.  Unlike Iron Man 2, Black Widow is finally developed as a character, allowed to be Russian and given a mysterious past to make her interesting.  Sure, she still does her acrobatic flips and flying leg scissors moves, but there was no way that Joss Whedon was going to pass up the opportunity to bring the team's only woman into the spotlight.  My only complaint?  Black Widow still has her "Widow's Sting" bracelets and has yet to actually use the damn things.

HAWKEYE/CLINT BARTON -- Jeremy Renner basically reprises his character from Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol here, but it works nicely for Hawkeye.  Unfortunately, Hawkeye is little more than a mind-controlled minion of Loki from the start, and doesn't really get his due until the final act.  When he does though, he's great, especially with a grin-inducing shot on a passing Chitauri sky cycle while looking in completely the opposite direction.  Oh, yeah.

LOKI -- As good as Tom Hiddleston was in Thor, he's even better here.  Whedon allows him to chew the scenery as the Avengers' first villain, a nod to the first Avengers comic from 1963.  Loki wickedly grins and manipulates his way throughout the movie, messing with Thor, Black Widow and Iron Man as only he can.  However, one of the film's best scenes happens when he tries his smack on the Hulk...and the Hulk just beats his Asgard into the floor in response.  I absolutely dare you to watch that scene and not smile.

NICK FURY -- Samuel L. Jackson still does his best Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.  He's John Shaft from the 2000 Shaft remake with an eyepatch, but that's all that's asked from him here.  In Nick Fury's role as The Guy Who Brings The Avengers Together, Nick gets to strut around the SHIELD Helicarrier bridge and provide the right amount of manipulation to get the Avengers focused.  Oh, and he shoots down a rogue Helicarrier jet.

MARIA HILL -- Essentially serving as Nick Fury's personal assistant, Cobie Smulders is surprisingly underwritten considering she's the only other female in the movie besides Black Widow.  She's just there to give Nick Fury someone to talk to and unfortunately, she lacks the snarky edge of her comics counterpart.

PHIL COULSON -- Meanwhile, Clark Gregg gets a number of well-deserved moments for Agent Coulson.  The fannish worship of Captain America is a nice touch as is a nice exchange with Thor, but Coulson's confrontation with Loki is the true highlight.  For such a simple throwaway character designed to link the various Marvel movies, Coulson became something more along the way until he ended up as yet another example of Joss Whedon's favorite storytelling devices.

PEPPER POTTS -- Gwyneth Paltow's return as Pepper was a welcome addition.  Once again, the Bogie-and-Bacall chemistry she has with Robert Downey, Jr. makes scenes like the activation of Stark Tower far more interesting than they deserve to be.  Although, her inclusion makes me wonder why Tony didn't just pick up the phone and call his buddy War Machine for extra help.

ERIK SELVIG -- After being all creepy as a serial killer in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stellan Skarsgård reprises his character from Thor as another mind-controlled Loki minion.  He doesn't get to do much apart from help to create a problem and then turn around and help to resolve it, but you have to love his role as extra movie universe continuity.

OBLIGATORY STAN LEE CAMEO -- Smilin' Stan turns up right at the end of the film, during a video montage on the Avengers' heroism and questions the sense of superheroes in New York.  Fun stuff as always.

All in all, The Avengers is the superhero version of Star Wars. It leaves you with that special "I can't believe what I just watched" feeling you want it to and wanting more even after two hours and twenty minutes. The film has great characters, all kinds of action and just the right amount of humor to keep you smiling. This is one of those all-too-rare blockbusters that actually lives up to all the hype. If you're a fan of superhero movies, you're going to love it...and if you're not a fan, watching this movie will certainly make you one.

And for those who might be wondering, here's the updated and revised list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Watchmen (2009)
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
6. Spider-Man (2002)
7. Batman Begins (2005)
8. Iron Man (2008)
9. X-Men: First Class (2011)
10. X2: X-Men United (2003)
11. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
12. X-Men (2000)
13. Thor (2011)
14. Batman (1989)
15. Superman II (1981)

16. Green Lantern (2011)
17. Iron Man 2 (2010)
18. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
19. Hellboy (2004)
20. Superman Returns (2006)

Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,

Charles

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

DAMN Good Comics -- WORLDS' FINEST #1

Once upon a time in the Pre-Crisis DC Universe, Superman and Batman shared a team-up book called World's Finest Comics.  For over three hundred issues, DC's two leading superheroes shared adventures and had one of the definitive bromances in comics.  But in this new century, in the age of "The New 52," that torch has passed and shifted to a womance between Power Girl and The Huntress.

The debut issue of Worlds' Finest (Yes, the placement of the "s" and the apostrophe is important) spins off from the events of James Robinson and Nicola Scott's Earth 2 #1 that also arrives this week.  Thankfully, you don't have to read that issue to understand this one, although reading Earth 2 #1 first gives you extra backstory on how the two superheroines end up being marooned on the main DCU Earth and as the cover states, "reborn to make our world their own."

Writer and Huntress co-creator Paul Levitz wisely plays up the premise, bonding the duo over their mutual plight and showing how they rely on one another for emotional support despite their opposing personalities.  While Levitz's return to the Legion of Super-Heroes has been somewhat lacking, he already seems much more comfortable here with characters that banter with one another like only close friends can.  Power Girl's impulsive, outgoing nature is balanced nicely with Huntress' methodical, private persona without being harsh or annoying to the reader.

There's also some lovely art by the legendary George Pérez on the main present-day scenes and Kevin Maguire on the flashback sequences.  As a longtime fan of Pérez, I may be a bit biased but I thought he produced some excellent work here.  I know there are some critics out there that feel his panels can be too cluttered at times, but with just two main characters to focus on for most of the issue, the story flowed and complemented Levitz's script well.  The seven pages by Maguire are also just as solid, working with the rest of the issue even with completely different artistic styles.

Right from the start with Helena Wayne setting fire to her Helena Bertinelli identity, what used to be the Post-Crisis Huntress, there's a clear statement that the world of Earth 2 has returned...only things have changed and so far, feel considerably fresher.  Yes, the two superheroines will eventually cross paths with a Superman and Batman they never knew, while Power Girl will encounter this world's Supergirl, a younger version of herself.  But the dynamics have definitely shifted and seem to have more story potential than in meetings from previous DCU versions. 

Welcome back, Earth 2.  We missed you.