Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Quick Review - Avengers Confidential

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher is a new animated movie from Marvel, featuring the Avengers and spotlighting Black Widow and the Punisher (who is not part of the team).  The story revolves around Widow and Punisher working together to stop an organization called Leviathan that is cresting super soldiers to sell on the black market to the highest bidder.  The Punisher is not a member of the Avengers or SHIELD, and is known for resorting to methods that don't fit in the SHIELD playbook.  To be blunt, his M.O. is to hunt his adversaries down and kill them, whereas SHIELD and the Avengers only kill when the situation makes it the only choice.  This makes for a clash of personalities and some terse exchanges between Frank Castle (Punisher's real name), Nick Fury of SHIELD and Black Widow.  There's also a subplot between Widow and an member of Leviathan who is a turncoat SHIELD agent and former almost love interest of Widow.    The main action involves Widow and Punisher, while several members of the Avenger team make cameos.

The movie opens up with Castle taking down a group of thugs in an attempt to take down an international arms dealer.  He's interrupted by Widow and Fury, and his target gets away.  Castle is reluctantly brought in to work with Widow and SHIELD to get inside Leviathan and shut down their plot before they can get their super soldiers out to various criminal organizations.  Along the way, the discover that corrupted SHIELD agent, named Elias, was brainwashed by a device that temporarily gets to Castle and causes him to kill some SHIELD agents.  Ultimately, Widow has to take a now fugitive Castle with her to take down Leviathan with the eventual help of Avengers Iron Man, War Machine, Captain Marvel, Thor, and Hawkeye.  We close with the big battle.  We some Avenger action versus a platoon of super soldiers and some super powered bad guys, a fight between Widow and Elias, and the ultimate resolution of it all.

How was it?  I'd give a C-.  It starts well with some good action, but after 10 minutes or so we're back at SHIELD headquarters from some boring dialogue between Widow and a lab guy who embodies every nerd stereotype, down to being willing to do whatever Widow asks him in return for a kiss from a hot babe.  Castle getting switched on by the brainwashing device is supposed to be a jarring, dramatic scene but it goes over with a thud.  The voice talent doesn't help at all; Widow sounds more like a college student playing secret agent than an actual agent, and Nick Fury is voiced like a graduate from Soul Brother No. 1 school.  The final act is underwhelming also.  The super soldiers are talked up like some huge threat to the world but fail to live up to the hype in the final battle.  And we don't get enough Avenger action for my tastes.  They show up in the last six minutes or so and serve little purpose beyond clearing a path for Widow and Castle to get to the boss of Leviathan, who is a whole other problem.  There's little real info given as to who this person is.  It's possible that he's someone who Marvel die-hards recognize, or he could be some guy they made up for the movie.  We don't know for sure, because they didn't really explain it.

The next big problem:  not enough Avengers.  For roughly 70 of the movie's 82 minutes, the only Avenger we see is Black Widow.  In the final big battle scene we finally get Iron Man, the Hulk, Hawkeye, Captain Marvel, War Machine, and Thor, each of whom get a few seconds here or there of screen time and not much else.  The nerdy SHIELD scientist guy gets more lines than Iron Man and all the other Avengers combined...in an Avengers movie.  And no Captain America, which is inexplicable since the final battle is against a group of.......Super Soldiers.  The boring part in the middle at SHIELD headquarters could have used some Tony Stark ribbing or Steve Rogers challenging of Frank Castle, and would have built nicely on the exchange Castle had with Nick Fury early on.  And finally there's the love story subplot between Widow and Elias that was totally unnecessary and poorly executed.  The conversation between the two right before they engaged in one on one battle was some high school, emo treacle. 

So with all of these complaints, why not a failing grade instead of a C-?  Real simple: I made it to the end of the movie.  I can't say the same about the other Marvel animated movies I've tried to watch.  If you have some time to kill, it's fine to check out through an On Demand rental or Netflix stream.  But it's not deserving of a second viewing.  This could have been handled better as a multi episode arc of the Avengers animated series rather than a standalone movie.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What exactly is the 'Black Superhero Agenda?'

In my last post I opined about cases where the race of characters was changed in going from the print version to onscreen, and when it did and didn't make sense.  Piggybacking off of that I also felt like it important to lay down just what exactly non-white fans (or at least this non-white fan) were looking for when it comes to racial diversity in superhero stories, whether it be in print or on film.  Is changing the color of an existing character when going to film or doing a comic retcon/reboot a good idea?  Should some new characters of color be created and introduced into existing universes to broaden things up?  Or are we happy with status quo?

[Before we even get into to all of that, we have to acknowledge the elephant in the room: history. Take a look at this. There isn't a original major hero that debuted after 1993, War Machine, and even he was just an existing character (James Rhodes) who was now donning a suit and going into action.  If you don't want to count him, then it's Deadpool in 1991.  The previous decade was pretty light on new characters as well.  If we stick to truly iconic characters, ones that laymen know well, the most recent debut was Wolverine in 1974.  Given the state of race relations in the country in and before 1974, the chance of having an abundance people of color in the role of superheroes was pretty small.  At that point, the only major characters who fit that bill were Luke Cage, the Falcon, and Black Panther.  Storm would show up for the first time a year later.  And given that the iconic figures of decades past (Superman, Batman, Spider Man, etc.) remain icons in 2014, well....that gives us a largely monochromatic group to work with.  I'm not knocking it at all; it's just where we were as a country at the time.  If superheroes started showing up en masse during the 1990s instead of the 1930s, they would very likely look different than they do now.]

So out of my three possibilities, which one is closest to what people of color actually want?  Which one is the most feasible?  Let's see.

  • Status quo- I may get some heat for this but.......status quo really isn't that bad.  No there aren't any black characters among the Mt. Rushmore level heroes, but Storm would be the equivalent of a perennial All-Star and there are several others who get chances to shine and have had their own series at times.  Cage, Panther, Falcon, Cyborg, Bishop, Green Lantern John Stewart, War Machine, Black Lightning, Amanda Waller, and Lucius Fox have all been mainstays in their respective comic book universes.  There also some newer characters like Batwing, Bunker, Green Lantern Simon Baz and the new Ms. Marvel.  And we can throw in the Ulimate Marvel version of Nick Fury.  That's a lot of representation, much of it coming into existence in a relatively short period of time.  Would it be nice to see some of these characters get a bigger push?  Sure.  But some of them have, and their individual series did not sell enough to keep going.  Comics are a business and if a product isn't bringing a big enough return on investment, it's gone.  We can put some of the blame on racism but how many of us are buying these series ourselves?  I've bought two issues of Batwing, so I'm not without blame here.  At the end of the day I'm a Batman guy first and foremost so I buy comics featuring him and the people who work closely with him.  I'm not going to become a crusader for Falcon to get his own series or for Black Lighting to show up again because they just don't interest me that much.  Sorry folks.
  • New characters - This would be fine, whether they are new heroes, new Alfred-like subordinates, or love interests of existing characters.  The Green Arrow series is taking after the TV series and introducing it's own version of Oliver Queen's ally John Diggle for the print series.  The Teen Titans had a new character, Bunker, as a member.  There's Simon Baz, the previously mentioned newest Green Lantern.  And last but not least Miles Morales, the new Spider Man in the Ultimate Spider Man series.  The only problem here is one of space.  There are  already lord know how many characters already in print.  DC has been getting flak for several months for not bringing a lot of existing characters like Wally West into the new 52 timeline or disappearing some like Booster Gold after short runs; to come up with even more new characters would cramp a limited amount of room.  Marvel has the same problem; dozens of characters are already relegated to a panel or two and few if any lines in print; more characters will just marginalize them even more.
  • Changing the color of existing characters - This is the most controversial and, unfortunately, the most feasible.  It's a lot easier to simply change the color of the character on the page or cast a black actor to play a role than it to create a new character from scratch or take a risk elevating a minor character to their own series.  But this also causes the most trouble.  Diehard comic fans get up in arms about small costume changes and little tweaks to origin stories; the New 52 haters are a major testament to that.  If taking away Oliver Queen's goatee is enough to piss people off imagine what making him black or Hispanic would do.  And this is not limited to white readers/fans.  I've heard from plenty of black readers/fans who don't want any racial changes, either.  I honestly couldn't tell you where the push for this is coming from.  Neither I or anyone I know is asking for a black Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark or Frank Castle or anyone else.  Remaking Nick Fury as an African American and putting Miles Morales in the Spider Man suit were ok to some (but not all, don't get it twisted) because they were in alternate storylines.  Batman & Robin was a terrible move - switching out George Clooney for Denzel Washington or Will Smith would not have made it any better and every black person who hated the Clooney version would have still hated it.  We want good stories and good characters more than anything else.
So in closing, as far as I'm concerned leave things alone.  Don't change races of existing characters and don't make up somebody new just for the sake of adding a black person.  If you're going to make a new character anyway then by all means consider something other than a white person.  If you do that, you'll likely make a few of them non-white and we're good. 

Switching Colors - Harmless change or moral outrage?

The casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four movie has reignited the debate over whether it's ok to change the race of comic book characters in film adaptations or in print.  There seem to be a few schools of thought here:

  • Don't change the race of any existing character - if they've been white for 50 years, they should stay that way.  Changing the race is a stunt to appease the PC crowd out there and make some money off of the novelty of something different, and has no basis in good storytelling.
  • What's the big deal? - These are fictional characters and it's 2014 for crying out loud.  If these stories were first being drawn up today, there would undoubtedly be more characters of color and fewer white ones. 
  •  Go for it! - Changing races is a chance for new perspectives and new takes on iconic characters.  Knock yourselves out!

Of these three views the outraged crowd seem to be the loudest, at least when it comes to Jordan's casting as the Human Torch.  That's possibly because Jordan's casting is the most gratuitous and least sensible of any change that's been made.  Others that have been made in the last 10 years include:

  • Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin in Daredevil
  • Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the Marvel Avengers-related films
  • Idris Elba as Heimdal in Thor and Thor: the Dark World
  • Laurence Fishburne as Perry White in Man of Steel
  • Jessica Alba as Sue Storm in Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Now if memory serves me right, no one cared about Fishburne being cast as Perry White.  I didn't hear anyone complain at the time of the film releases about Alba or Duncan.  There was some disagreement with Jackson's being cast as Fury.  Elba getting the role of Heimdal did bring out a lot of anger among comic book fans, though.  As far as justification for the casting, Jackson's version of Fury was already in the print material in the Marvel Ulimates storyline, so there was already precedent in the source material.  Duncan seemed to be the only name actor who had the size and stature to play Kingpin, even though the comic book character is white.  Jessica Alba......is Jessica Alba.  They can cast her in whatever they want and most guys won't have an issue.

That leaves us with Elba and Jordan.  When it came to Elba, the outrage made sense.  The Asgardians from the Thor series are based on the Gods of Norse mythology.  They were never depicted as being of color.  Now in the movies they were changed to aliens which supposedly freed up the creative team to take liberties but.....Heimdal is the only black person from Asgard we see in the movie.  So yes it was gratuitous, a way to draw attention and capitalize off putting a name actor in a supporting role.  Elba does have a fanbase that isn't perceived as being part of the comic book movie audience but he was only on screen for a few minutes, not enough to satisfy anyone who came to the movie just to see him.  I personally don't have a problem with the casting but I totally get the longtime fans beef here.

As for Jordan?  No thanks.  What's the point here?  It's not adding to the story in any major way, especially since they cast Rooney Mara as Sue Storm, his sister.  The brother-sister relationship between Sue and Johnny Storm is one of the crucial elements of the Fantastic Four mythos and casting a black actor to play Johnny completely changes that, especially since they cast a white actress as Sue.  It's a half assed 'bold move'; they wanted to do something provocative but clearly were too scared to go all the way with it.  Jordan isn't some box office draw that's going to bring a new constituency to the film's audience, either.  This is all risk and no foreseeable return.  If you're going to make the diehards mad early you better make up for it with the final product, and I can't think of one way that Jordan will do that.   As a matter of fact, given the actors cast for Reed Richards and Ben Grimm are some no names that had everyone saying 'huh?', it was crucial to not piss anyone off with the rest of the casting.  This is just a bad move all around.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Hanging up the tights?

There were some names kicked around recently that may be gone from WWE soon due to their contracts being up and where they are in their lives/careers.  Aside from CM Punk, Christian, Alberto Del Rio, and Rey Mysterio have been rumored to be walking away once their deals are up.  Should they stay or go, and if they go what do we say about their careers?

Christian - If he's healthy he should stick around.  Of course being healthy has been a problem for several years.  All those spears and chairshots in TLC matches have clearly taken a toll.  While he can still go in the ring and put on good matches with just about anyone, he could very well be tired and worn out and ready to either part-time it or shut it down altogether.  From the looks of things, he's probably staying.  He just pulled a heel turn against Sheamus and will likely be in a Wrestlemania match against him.  There's no point in doing that for a guy who's out in a few months.  (Of course this is a pro wrestling creative team we're talking about here; making sense is not a prerequisite)  So given that it looks like the creative team still wants to use him and he's not that old (40), as long as he wants to keep working he should.

As far as his career, he is what he is.  A secondary title holder who, at this point, is good for a build up and title match against a current champion or a short run with the Intercontinental or U.S. Titles.  He's never going to be WWE World Champion; if the powers that be thought he was of that caliber then he would have held the belt already.  He's had a damn good career; 16 years in the big leagues, every title except the WWE strap and a number of awesome matches in tag team and singles competition.  Like his frequent partner Edge, he's been in a crapload of great, exciting matches with a variety of people and you don't even realize it.  He should walk right into the WWE Hall of Fame when he's done.

Alberto Del Rio - Del Rio is a few years younger that Christian (37 this year), and is generally healthier.  But his home is in Mexico, where he worked for several years and was a big star before coming up north to WWE.  Home may come calling and be too promising to pass up to wind down his career.  He's kind of running in place right now; his WWE Title days are probably done for the time being and he's come too far to settle for secondary titles now.  He could probably get back in the WWE Title picture after all the Daniel Bryan/Randy Orton/Batista business peters out, but that could be a while.  This would be as good a time as any to move on and I wouldn't blame him for doing so.

He's had one of the best runs of any superstar in recent memory, especially considering the short time he's actually been in WWE (2010 to now).  He won Money in the Bank and cashed in to win the WWE Title in 2011.  He won it a second time in 2011, and won the World Title twice (in 2012 and 2013).  He also won the 2011 Royal Rumble.  That's a hell of a record.  His run might be too short to warrant a Hall of Fame induction but if he leaves after four years then that is hands down the best run at the top without any major dropoff in years.

Rey Mysterio, Jr. - Mysterio will be 40 years old this December, but he might as well be 55 given the way his body has broken down.  He seems to be injured half the time and when he is in the ring he's often limited to tag team matches because he just can't go for any long period of time in a singles match.  His moveset has shrunk to a few greatest hits, and he's had a few suspensions for wellness violations.  Rumor is that he may go back to Mexico and work for a organization run by his longtime friend Konnan.  He should go, unless Vince throws a crapload of money at him to stay (which could happen if his merchandise is still selling well).

Rey is a sure Hall of Famer.  He's held every title there is to hold and has nothing to apologize for.  He's thrilled fans in the U.S. since 1996 and been involved in some excellent matches.  Go in peace, Ray and play out the string with your friends.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

DC Comics New 52

On another note, I'm big into comic books now.  Actually I just got into them over the last year or so.  I'm a DC guy, and a few things got me in serious:
  • The recent span of very to excellent superhero movies
  • The need of some recreational activities that I can do solo
  • The new 52 DC reboot
That's it.  For those who don't know, the New 52 is a reboot of the DC Comics Universe timeline that started in 2011 after the conclusion of Flashpoint, then the latest cataclysmic event that resulted in a reshuffling of the deck for all the relevant characters. Cataclysmic comic events usually fall into one of two categories: those that stay within the timeline but kill off/resurrect/banish certain characters, and those that completely change the reality itself.  Flashpoint was the latter; in the resolution of the plot the entire reality of the DC universe was shuffled and re-dealt.  Long standing relationships were altered, existing characters were disappeared, and origins were completely re-imagined.  The result was a new beginning, dubbed the new 52 (52 is a numerologist symbol in DC comics).  All the existing series were cancelled and most were restarted with a new number one issue.  The new continuity kicked off five years after superheroes began to appear among people, and the characters were all started off at younger ages Bruce Wayne, usually forever living between the age of 35 and 45, starts off around the age of 30.  Oliver (Green Arrow) Queen, long depicted with a full beard that suggested middle age, is now a clean shaven, obviously 20 something.  So for once, 'EVERYTHING CHANGES!' was not an empty selling point to get people to part with their money, it was a real thing.  Which some people liked and others didn't.

The main beefs, from my estimation are/were with the following:
  • The renumbering of each series with a new number one issue - this comes from collectors; number one issues are major pieces in any collection, and every time you start over it devalues the other number ones
  • The younger characters - turns out a lot of people were very attached to Oliver Queen's full beard
  • Relationship changes - any and all marriages from the pre-new 52 universe were forgotten.  No more Superman and Lois Lane, Green Arrow and Black Canary, or Barry Allen (the Flash) and Iris West.
  • Major character changes - Old school heroes like Jay Garrick (the original Flash) and Alan Scott (the original Green Lantern) were shipped off to Earth 2 instead of being the prior versions of their super heroes namesake.
  • The absence of several characters who developed their own loyal constituencies - no Wally West, Ted Kord, Stephanie Brown, for example.  If you don't know who those people are, don't worry.  I didn't either until recently.
As a fan of the new 52, I find most of these to be hogwash.  I do sympathize with the collectors upset with the re-numbering because real collectors put so much time and money into the process but that's it.  By the time 2011 rolled around, they'd done everything there was to do from a storyline standpoint.  Major characters had been killed off and resurrected, long standing romances had become marriages, and the same villains had been fought, defeated, and fought again in just about every different way.  Universes had been consolidated, and split up again.  The Justice League grew to include damn near everyone in the DC Universe.  And every minor character with any kind of fanbase had been given chances at a higher profile role in a series.  If there was a time to start over, that was it.  Change isn't always good but it is often necessary, and this was one of those times.  It also gave people like me a chance to get in on the action without feeling like we were 20 years behind.

And let's be here; everything about the old continuity was not good.  Does anyone really want to make that argument?  Hello.......Bane and Bruce Wayne becoming best buds and hanging out because Bane thought they were related?  Yeah, that actually happened.  Go back and read the print version of the 'iconic' X-Men story Days of Future Past, if you can finish it without laughing at it.  We tend to overrate things we liked from our childhood and overlook the obvious shortcomings.  A lot of the New 52 critics have never even read any New 52 comics; they 'heard that it sucks so they didn't bother'.  Yeah, they actually say things like that.  These are the people who hate every comic book movie because of changes made from the source material, even things that obviously can't or don't translate to a feature film.  Go read some of the dialogue from anything before the late 90s and try not to laugh at the cheesiness that often made it to the page.  Go look at some early portrayals of say, Wonder Woman, and compare them to today.  The new stuff is better and it's not even close.  Is every story in every series great?  Of course not.  But let's not act like that was ever the case.