Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Incredible Hulk

Directed by Louis Leterrie
Written by Zak Penn

            The Incredible Hulk has this weird place in the Avengersverse.  On the one hand, it is undoubtedly a part of the movie universe, what with its links to Stark Enterprise and even featuring a Robert Downey Jr. cameo.  On the other hand, it still acts like it’s partially a sequel to Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk movie and the references to Iron Man could have been excised without losing anything.  And there’s the Bruce Banner problem.
            Here’s the thing: Edward Norton’s portrayal of Bruce Banner is perfectly fine.  It is no Mark Ruffalo.  This does not mean it’s worse than Mark Ruffalo’s performance.  The problem is that they’re portraying different versions of the same character.  Ruffalo is in a movie that leans more towards the fun side of things, and this gives him a character that hides under quirks and snarkiness, but still has a darkness within.  Norton is in a slightly darker movie, so he focuses on the darker parts of Bruce.  He’s quiet, reserved, and vulnerable, which creates a perfect contrast to a brutal Hulk who only shows his own vulnerability during one scene with Betty Ross.  At the end of the day, there’s no best performance here.  It’s like debating which of two writers better wrote a comic if both of their runs were great.  They might’ve written the main character in completely different ways, but they’re still doing good writing.
            It’s probably not fair here to say that Incredible Hulk is a very action-focused movie.  After all, for all the quiet details that make the Marvel movies what they are, they’re all action movies at the center.  And this movie has plenty of quiet scenes.  In fact, its non-action scenes sometimes lean towards non-verbal, with long sequences of no dialogue.  But these quieter scenes also feel like transition scenes.  The non-action scenes in the other Marvel movies tend to be core to the characters, while the scenes here focus on moving the plot to the next action scene.  Not necessarily in a bad manner.  You’re not looking at your watch, waiting for the next action scene.  You’re just not going to remember every moment from these scenes at the end of the day.
What makes Incredible Hulk’s action particularly stand out is probably the fact that it’s like they wrote it as an apology to the 2003 movie’s poorly lit action scenes and its poorly computer generated Hulk.  The Hulk here definitely has more details, more to him.  He’s not quite the Hulk from Avengers.  He doesn’t have the full weight of him, the full details.  He’s getting there, but it’s not perfect.  The action itself is over-the-top in the best way.  Things blow up, Hulk smashes things.  There’s enough innovation in the scenery and what Hulk does (such as using a modern art structure as a makeshift shield) to keep things interesting.  What’s striking is that, while the first two fight scenes are fairly fun, the final one is almost too violent, in an out-of-place way.  It’s a knock-down, drag-out brawl between Hulk and Abomination, and involves Hulk stabbing Abomination and brutally choking him.  If there’s any marker that the Avengers tone wasn’t set with this movie, this is it.
The Incredible Hulk is still a rather odd beast at the end of the day.  Its tone isn’t there, its sequel hooks feel out of place, and The Avengers just acts like it’s the movie reintroducing Hulk.  It ends up a little confused, but getting towards that comic book style.  If you missed it in the middle of the summer battle between Iron Man and The Dark Knight, now’s the time to come back and have a little mindless fun.

Monday, April 22, 2013


Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Darick Robertson

            There are essentially two sides to Grant Morrison.  There’s the borderline incomprehensible side that writes from the depths of comics history and makes work like Batman RIP and Final Crisis that you know is good, you just don’t know what the hell is happening.  Then there’s the side that makes more comprehensible stuff that is easier to identify as good, like All-Star Superman, Batman Inc., and Happy!  But just because he’s writing something comprehensible doesn’t mean it isn’t a little bit insane.
            Happy! is about Nick Sax, a former detective who’s now a hitman.  He’s hired by a mysterious figure known only as Blue to kill off a trio of mob brothers, but he also kills a fourth brother there who turns out to have the only password to get a mob fortune.  And he’s passed that password on to Nick, who’s now being hunted down for it.  Oh, and also, Nick has started seeing a small, blue, flying, talking horse.  Did I forget to mention that little detail?
            Yes, by most of the story, Happy! is a fairly standard mob tale.  The world is full of dirty cops, disgusting crimes, and a ton of language.  This book doesn’t so much use F-bombs as an F-machine-gun.  It’s easily passed twenty uses of it by the first three pages, not counting all the other language it uses.  This is a dark, dark book.  That happens to star a cartoon horse named Happy.  Robertson captures this perfectly in his art, making Happy look notably out of place in the dark world he lives in, but no less important to the story.  Nick just wants to get away from the city as fast as possible before he’s tortured or killed.  Happy wants him to save a girl named Hailey.  And yes, it does feature some of the standard redemption tropes, but this is not a tale of redemption.
            You ultimately get the feeling that Nick can’t really be redeemed.  And this has nothing to do with his actions in the world so much as it has to do with the world itself.  One particularly effective scene has a flashback that goes from the beginning of Nick’s cop career to the wreck that he is now, and we see exactly how he became himself.  He has choices to change along the way, but he’s stuck in a crapsack world and there’s no getting out of that.  And ultimately, the final choice he has to make is doing one good thing that will ultimately make the smallest of differences in the world, but it’s what he has to do.  And if he has to do it at the urging of a cartoon horse, well, so be it.
Grant Morrison has been writing relatively lighter fare in recent years, since he’s been doing work at DC, but with Happy! at Image, he is unleashed.  Maybe not in the full-on craziness that he’s sometimes shown, but in terms of making an oppressively dark world, oh yes.  Happy! takes a standard premise and makes it madcap and memorable.  This is the Grant Morrison I love.

Iron Man

Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway

            Note that this review is going to go against traditional structure.  As it’s something I’ve seen, I’m going to skip plot synopsis and go into examining why everything works.  Also note that this review will contain spoilers, so be warned.  Let me know what you think of this different style.
With Iron Man 3, which marks the beginning of Marvel Phase Two, less than a month away at this point, and the realization that Alex has never seen the Phase One Marvel movies besides The Avengers, now seems like the perfect time to rewatch and review the original series.  The build-up to what’s arguably one of the best superhero movies ever made.  And it all starts with Robert Downey Jr.
            Let’s face it, with every actor playing a superhero (probably with the lone exception of Patrick Stewart as Professor X), there’s always doubts about whether they can be the hero.  Even if you haven’t seen the hero in a comic, you know the TV shows, the mythos, the general look of the hero.  But Robert Downey Jr. comes onscreen and from his opening moments of playing with a group of soldiers in a Humvee, he is Tony Stark.  He’s arrogant but likeable.  You know at the start he’s not quite a hero, and even once he becomes Iron Man, he’s still not quite your traditional hero.  Instead you’re waiting to see what he does next, constantly surprising the characters around him with his attitude.  This was something helped by the fairly loose production that threw out most of the script and let the actors improv, letting Downey add in moments like asking everybody to sit down during a press conference that work so well for the character.
            And this is rounded out by an excellent supporting cast.  Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, the woman behind the man, plays up the fact that Stark is too eccentric to even survive on his own and builds up a romantic subplot that has been an important part of Marvel’s other movies.  Jeff Bridges as Obidiah Stane is inspired, letting Bridges play somebody rather against type for him: a conspiring, devilish businessman who clearly thinks he should be (and probably deserves to be) in Stark’s place.  It’s also nice that, while the other Marvel characters went towards their big villains, Stane provides a villain who’s more surprising towards non-comic readers (like I was when I first saw this movie) while also fitting into the movie’s themes of the kind of hero Iron Man wants to be by showing the villain he doesn’t want to be.  While he’s only onscreen for the first act, Shaun Toub as Yinsen is a human element that’s never quite been captured again.  There have been tries in the other Marvel movies, certainly, but they never went as well as here.  He has to give Stark his humanity.  He has to show Stark the price of his war mongering.  Yinsen gives the movie a beating heart before it starts blowing things up.  The one thing I’m iffy about is Terrence Howard as Rhodey.  I feel that Howard’s performance is almost too timid, too quiet.  Where everybody else is gleefully going just a little over the top, Howard isn’t.  Maybe Don Cheadle has just become more of the role for me, but we’ll examine this when we get to Iron Man 2.
            The script, however much of it was actually used, shows the forming of that Marvel tone that would be captured.  Every action scene and emotional moment is contrasted with a hilarious scene or line.  Yes, superhero movies had plenty of funny moments before Iron Man, but they were ultimately leaning more towards tragedy at the time.  Remember that Iron Man came out the same summer as The Dark Knight showed just how dark and serious a superhero movie could be.  The Dark Knight is a reinterpretation of the comics, though.  Iron Man is more like taking the best parts of the comics and putting what people love about them onscreen.  Iron Man’s origin is slow, but we love spending time in Stark’s lab when we expect to see an awesome special effect and end up with slapstick.  It’s all perfectly timed comedy, building the exact expectation, the exact timing of how long they can hold the suspense, only to turn it into humor.  But then when the movie does pull out the special effects, well, even after 5 years this movie still impresses.  The Iron Man suit is a wonder to see.  And even when it dials down from that to small practical effects, it remains incredible.  Pepper reaching into Tony’s chest is such a small thing, but you wonder how it’s done.
            So what does Iron Man give to the Marvel style?  Witty writing.  A story that has emotion at its core.  Getting actors who just slide naturally into their roles.  And, of course, some great special effects and action sequences.  Even after five other Phase One movies, Iron Man is an impressive feat.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Judge Dredd Volume 1

Written by Duane Swierczynski
Art by Nelson Daniel

            I’ve been meaning to read Judge Dredd comics for a long time, and seeing the recent Dredd movie has only increased that want.  With IDW’s rebooting of various properties like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mars Attacks, Ghostbusters, and many others for new readers, and the movie’s incredible DVD sales, it’s reasonable to add Judge Dredd to that lineup.  Sadly, execution does not quite match the idea.
            The story in this volume of Judge Dredd is a bit all over the place.  Initially, the Judges are called in when a droid’s malfunction causes a tree to explode fruit all over the place which, in turn, causes a riot to start.  Before long, though, the story shifts over to a cloning plot, where various husbands, wives, children and pets of rich people throughout Mega-City One are kidnapped and held for ransom—or they may just be clones.  As with my Godzilla review copy, my version is missing the 5th issue, which should close off the cloning plot, but I will be writing based on the information I have.
            The biggest problem with this book is the art.  Daniel’s art is just a touch too goofy for the world of Judge Dredd.  I’ve always heard that the comics are filled with satire and black comedy, and having fairly silly artwork simply does not display that.  Each main story in this book is accompanied by a side-story with a different artist, and these artists have a much better look on Mega-City One, so it’s odd that Daniel was chosen as the primary artist.  And this is a problem that may exist in general, but I simply couldn’t tell Dredd from the other Judges without context.  It’s tough to read a comic when you, quite literally, don’t know which character is the main character.
            There’s also some awkward exposition throughout.  I feel like IDW was trying too hard to push this on new readers, and instead of naturally explaining things, there’s narration boxes throughout.  For instance, when they’re explaining how the Judges’ guns can switch between different ammo, instead of actually showing the guns switching their ammo (as I remember happening in the movie), there’s a narration box saying how it works.  It’s almost like a Silver Age comic.
            And it’s a shame because, without these two faults, this would be a pretty solid book.  While it’s disappointing that the initial droid story basically falls away completely, the stories told here are actually unique and fun to read.  There’s some well-done action sequences (Dredd fighting against a team of mad doctors is pretty good) and some witty parts.  When the rich woman’s husband is kidnapped, the narration boxes are used well to make a very big deal of how this is every judge’s top priority.
            Unfortunately, in the end, Judge Dredd does little to satisfy my itch after the movie.  I would still rather pick up one of the Case Files collections.  Ultimately, this feels less like a jumping on point for new readers and more like an awkward try to get new readers interested. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mouse Guard: The Black Axe

Writing and art by David Petersen

            I never really cared for the Redwall books as a kid.  It’s nothing against the series, it just never caught me while all my friends were obsessed with it.  I guess to fill in that whole of medieval series starring animals, I’ve ended up becoming a Mouse Guard fan, and The Black Axe is a great spot to jump on.
            Taking place before the previous two volumes, The Black Axe focuses on Celanawe, a member of the Mouse Guard who is visited by Em and finds out that they are the two remaining descendants of Farrer, the forger of the Black Axe.  The weapon itself has been lost, and it’s up to them to find where it has gone and choose a new wielder for it.
            Petersen’s greatest strength is definitely his majestic storytelling that pairs with his art.  The mice are the size of actual mice, and because of this, everything is a danger.  This lets him script some fantastic scenes.  The two descendants, along with the captain Conrad, voyaging across the sea is a highlight, expertly showing the length that it takes them to cross.  The actual distance for humans is never measured, but it doesn’t matter because they might as well be going across the Atlantic.  There’s also Celanawe going inside a bramble patch to hunt down a fox.  It’s perfectly tense, with the brambles becoming an apparently inescapable maze, only to release in a great action scene of him having to fight something far bigger than him.
             Along the way, he also weaves a story about what it takes to be a hero and a legend of the Black Axe’s caliber.  Celanawe has to keep up the legend of being an immortal hero, rather than just one in a line of heroes called the Black Axe, and finds the difficulty in that.  This is particularly shown in the final chapter.  After 5 chapters of heroic journeys and battles, the sixth calms things down to a point that shows the actual loss and troubles associated with the Axe, especially in finding a new wielder for it.  It shows how good this comic is that calming things down loses none of its momentum.
           There’s also plenty of extras to be found here.  A prologue and epilogue have been added which, respectively, fill in what’s going on after the last volume and fill in a story hole that wasn’t explained in the chapters.  There’s art of the major locations throughout the story which also feature descriptions that fill in the world and its backstory.  And finally, a collection of pin-ups by various artists which were included with the individual issues.  With a series that has one artist on it all the time, it’s always nice to get a glimpse of other artists’ takes on it.
            Whether you’re already a fan of Mouse Guard or just want to pick up something new, The Black Axe is a great read.  High-action and tension easily trade places with quieter moments to weave a fascinating tale that adds more to the world.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Volume 1

Written by Katie Cook
Art by Andy Price

            It’s pretty hard to go far on the internet without hearing something about My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.  Turning a cartoon that was thought to be nothing but fluff for little girls into something with a huge fanbase (questionable or not, that’s up to you) surely deserves plenty of praise for the sharp writing and likeable characters, two things that make an easy fit for a comic adaptation.
            Taking place sometime after the Season 2 finale (which I haven’t seen, but the comic recaps the necessary details), this comic has Queen Chrysalis returning and kidnapping the Cutie Mark Crusaders in an attempt to steal their energy when a comet passes overhead.  With Princess Celestia occupied, it’s up to the Mane Six to save the day.
            The smart idea of the story here is the ditching of the show’s normal Aesop-of-the-week format.  Rather than delivering a series that does little but act like more episodes of the show, as some comics would, MLP gives a story-based comic closer to the season premieres/finales.  This better fits the format and provides some different fare from what the show normally offers.
            The biggest thing that has to stay in any comic adaptation is the characters’ voices.  Fortunately, with the built-in strong voices of the main characters, this is easily done.  All the characters sound right.  Rainbow Dash has her tomboy personality, Rarity is vain, Pinkie Pie is hyperactive.  It’s easy to hear the characters talking in their actual voices.  There are a few lines that stand out as particularly rough, but nothing that ruins the book.    Andy Price’s artwork also mimics the show while providing its own style.  He also adds in plenty of good background gags and references for the older fanbase, such as a scene from The Shining.
            The Friendship Is Magic comic probably won’t convert non-fans, but for MLP fans young and old, this should please and provide a nice companion to the show.  Just like the show, well-done writing and artwork is what makes this a winner. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Written by Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft
Art by Attila Futaki

            I can’t say I’m onboard the Scott Snyder fandom yet.  Apparently, he’s been doing incredible things with Batman and Swamp Thing, which I hope to read at some point.  All I’ve read before now is the first volume of American Vampire, which was good, but didn’t blow me away.  I was hoping Severed would really make me a fan of him, but I can’t say it really did that much.
           Severed takes place in 1916, as a young man named Jack runs away from home in hopes of finding his father.  He teams up with Sam, another runaway, in the quest to find him.  Unfortunately, the two then run into a creature who looks like an old man but has sharp teeth, who seems to want to help the two even as their fates become inevitable to the reader.
            Here’s the good part of the story: it’s a tense premise that generally works.  The audience knows that things aren’t going to go completely well (although giving away at the start that Jack survives does hurt the tension some).  And the monster, who goes by the name of Alan Fisher but is shown to have many names, is suitably creepy.  We know he’s evil, but he also comes off as personable and nice, which just makes him that much more unnerving.  Attila Futaki’s art is also very gorgeous, and works well for the violence and the slower scenes.
            But the slower scenes end up being the book’s major problem, because there’s simply too many of them.  This is a 7-issue mini-series, but I feel like it could’ve easily been 5 issues. Scenes of the characters just driving along and meeting people don’t really end up having much of a place in the series and just slow things down.  The main problem with tension is that it either has to be released or get ramped up, and at some point, it’s just staying still.  And when tension just stays still for too long, it’s no longer tense, it’s tedious.  The book does pay off well in its ending, but it’s just a few pages too late.
            Severed’s premise and artwork is sadly let down by its execution.  If you’re a big horror fan, there’s something interesting in these pages, but it requires getting past some parts that just should’ve been cut.