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Non-Review Review: Captain America – Civil War

Captain America: Civil War is, in some ways, a little too civil.

The third film in the series (following Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier) is produced to the highest professional standard. It is sleek and stylish, well-constructed and cleanly edited. It is always clear what is going on, no mean feat for a film with a cast this expansive. Character motivations are always entirely clear, even if there’s seldom any effort to explain why these characters have these motivations. It is a well-oiled, well-lubricated machine that hits all its marks and zips through its two-and-a-half hour runtime.

America, #!?> yeah...

America, #!?> yeah…

The biggest problem with Civil War is that it is a little too clean and professional, a little too mechanical and a little too impersonal. The film’s plot is anchored in some pretty heavy ideas about collateral damage and the responsibility that comes with unilateral intervention, but the script contorts awkwardly to ensure that things never get too heavy. “We’re still friends, right?” the Black Widow quips during her throwdown with Hawkeye, and Civil War is very careful to ensure that it doesn’t damage anything that cannot be replaced.

This is a perfectly reasonable approach to the film, given how many more films are leaning upon it, but it also feels a little forced. There are points at which Civil War bends itself into unnatural shapes to ensure that it can have its cake and eat it too.

He ain't heavy, he's my Rhodey...

He ain’t heavy, he’s my Rhodey…

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The X-Files – The Field Where I Died (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Morgan and Wong’s four scripts for the fourth season of The X-Files are utterly unlike any other stories in the show’s nine-season run. Experimental, bold, confrontational; these four stories stretch and pull at The X-Files, as if eager to see just how far the hit show will bend.

The Field Where I Died is probably the weakest of these four episodes, but it is also the most ambitious. It is a script with big ideas and a willingness to commit to those ideas. There is no modesty here, no hesitation. There is a sense that Morgan and Wong are committing wholeheartedly to their themes and their concepts. The Field Where I Died is an episode that rubs quite a lot of people the wrong way, for a number of different reasons; however, the episode never pulls its punches. It never holds back. It never tries to be anything that it is not.

Far afield...

Far afield…

There is a lot to admire here. The Field Where I Died is not an episode with a simply formulaic concept or a conventional structure. It looks and feels completely unlike any other episode of the show. Even when the show touched on similar themes in its final season, the result was radically different. Hellbound is a much more conventional episode than The Field Where I Died. More than Home or Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man or Never Again, this is an episode that really seems like an odd fit for The X-Files.

Then again, that may be the beautiful thing about The Field Where I Died, for all its many flaws. It is utterly unlike anything else on television in the nineties. The fact that it can produce an episode of television so unique and incomparable is ultimately what makes The X-Files feel like The X-Files. The fact that The Field Where I Died feels so unconventional and eccentric is precisely what makes it a worthy episode of The X-Files.

Another roaring success for Mulder...

Another roaring success for Mulder…

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J. Michael Straczynski’s (and Ron Garney’s) Run on the Amazing Spider-Man – Civil War (Review/Retrospective)

This April, to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we are taking a look at some classic and modern comics featuring Spider-Man (and friends). Check back daily for the latest review.

Spider-Man is a pretty important character in the whole Civil War event. Indeed, he’s probably the event’s third most important character – aside from Captain America and Iron Man. So it makes sense that J. Michael Straczynsi’s extended run on The Amazing Spider-Man would stop and engage with the massive crossover spanning the entire Marvel Universe. And, from a logistical “structuring a comic book crossover tie-in so it makes any sense to a reader picking up the book” point of view, Straczynski does a great job. You can read The Amazing Spider-Man without needing to even pick up the Civil War miniseries.

However, as a piece of writing on its own merits, Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man tie-in is a mess. Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man run has been collecting trouble aspects for quite some time, particularly when Straczynski seemed to brush up against the editorial demands for the book. Sins Past was perhaps the most obvious example, but with Civil War the comic entered a phase where it was pretty much an editorial means to an end. Everything from this point on was pushing towards One More Day, an event that would wipe decades of continuity from the title. (Including Straczynski’s run.)

Civil War really gets the ball rolling on these sweeping editorially-mandated changes, but that’s not the only problem with the story arc. Given Spider-Man’s importance to Civil War, and his role as defector from one side to the other, it seems like Spider-Man would really be the perfect lens through which Straczynski could explore the issue. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear upon which side of the issue Straczynski comes down.

A tangled web...

A tangled web…

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Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato Jr.’s Run on Thunderbolts (Review/Retrospective)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato Jr.’s year-long twelve-issue run on Thunderbolts is a phenomenal piece of work from a mainstream comic book company. It’s an absurdly fun comic book – one that goes completely off the rails any number of times, moving with momentum of a runaway freight train. Ellis’ unhinged plotting and dialogue find a perfect partner in Deodato’s dark and moody (yet photo-realistic) artwork.

While Ellis includes quite a bit of social, political and even meta commentary in this year-long anti-hero team-up book, there’s a sense that Thunderbolts was written with an intention of going completely overboard, basking in the surreal absurdity of superhero storytelling conventions while playing with a selection of (mostly) second-tier characters that free Ellis’ hand significantly. There are few dependencies and obligations that Ellis has with this cast, allowing him to go to town with them.

In many respects, Thunderbolts feels like a slightly more cynical, slightly more grounded counterpart to his (roughly) contemporaneous Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. Over course, “slightly more grounded” simply means that a middle-aged civil servant in a goblin outfit is the villain of the piece, rather than a hyper-intelligent talking dinosaur.

Norman Osborn is a perfectly sane individual...

Norman Osborn is a perfectly sane individual…

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Charles & Daniel Knauf’s Run on Iron Man – Civil War (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

You really have to feel sorry for the father-son team of Charles and Daniel Knauf for their work on Iron Man. Picking up the book after the fantastic introductory Extremis arc by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov, the duo quickly found the character’s direction swept up in the maelstrom of Marvel’s event-driven larger universe. Mark Millar’s mammoth superhero crossover Civil War did its best to turn Tony Stark into a supervillain, a fascist in a suit of armour presiding over internment without trial, cloning of gods and the use of psychopathic villains to hunt down his former friends.

The duo do their best to try to deal with the obvious problems that this approach generates for an on-going Iron Man book, managing a fairly concise two-issue tie-in that tries its best to offer a defense for the characterisation of Tony Stark during the crossover.

On top of the world...

On top of the world…

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J. Michael Straczynski’s Run on The Fantastic Four – Civil War (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

J. Michael Stracynski’s Fantastic Four tie-in to Civil War is a strange beast, in that it seems to exist more as a collection of talking points and plot beats than as compelling narrative in its own right. Using the safe camouflage of a tie-in to a massive line-wide event, Straczynski is not only able to sneakily set-up his pending Thor run, but also to vent quite liberally about his own feelings on post-9/11 America. The result is a story which feels disjointed and far too talky, a simplistic and familiar opinion piece dressed up as a Fantastic Four story.

Yes. Yes there is...

Yes. Yes there is…

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Civil War: X-Men (Review)

To celebrate the release of The Wolverine later in the month, we’re taking a look at some classic X-Men and Wolverine comics every Monday, Wednesday and Friday here. I’m also writing a series of reviews of the classic X-Men television show at comicbuzz every weekday, so feel free to check those out.

Ugh. There’s nothing like Civil War: X-Men to remind you just how unkind the middle part of the last decade was to Marvel’s merry mutants. It’s a soulless cash-in the worst sense of the word, a four-issue miniseries branded with the title of the gigantic universe-spanning crossover that was going on at the moment. One would imagine that the whole Civil War crossover would provide a multitude of compelling storytelling opportunities for the X-Men as a franchise.

After all, these are superheroes whose entire schtick is based around being hated and feared by the world they try to protect. You’d imagine that they’d have a few choice words for all the superheroes finding themselves suddenly confronted by the idea that the public isn’t too keen on people with superpowers just wandering around. Instead, we get a messy jumble of a plot that doesn’t make sense on its own terms, let alone as an attempt to contextualise the involvement of the X-Men in Marvel’s Civil War crossover.

Back in black...

Back in black…

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Civil War: Wolverine (Review)

To celebrate the release of The Wolverine later in the month, we’re taking a look at some classic X-Men and Wolverine comics every Monday, Wednesday and Friday here. I’m also writing a series of reviews of the classic X-Men television show at comicbuzz every weekday, so feel free to check those out.

A lot of the recent big Marvel events, stretching from Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers Disassembled through to at least Avengers vs. X-Men, can be read as commentaries on post-9/11 America. In particular, they focus on questions the relationship between the power and trust held by various authorities, and how those are earned or abused. Perhaps Civil War was the most overt of these, with the conflict in the comic coming down to the clash between the demands of liberty and security.

So, I suppose, at least Marc Guggenheim’s Wolverine tie-in to the event is explicit about what it’s trying to do. It’s any even more explicit 9/11 parable, casting the famous mutant as an investigator looking for his own kind of justice in the wake of a horrifying terror attack.

Talk about seeing eye-to-eye...

Talk about seeing eye-to-eye…

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Thor by J. Michael Straczynski Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

With the release of Marvel’s big-budget superhero action movie Thor this summer, we’re taking a month to celebrate the God of Thunder. Check back each Wednesday for a Thor-related review.

J. Michael Straczynski’s run on Thor is a somewhat controversial one. In fact, this rather wonderful omnibus collection comes with little by way of textual extras. There is no introduction from a recognisable figure, nor any scripts included, nor any commentary or interviews. One can almost sense the discomfort in the air. The saga of Straczynski’s run on Thor is a long and complicated one, but it ended with the author departing both the publisher and the comic a lot earlier than anticipated. To this day, both sides have differing accounts of what occurred, and both insist that they are in the right. That’s a lot of subtext behind one lovely hardcover volume, but it’s something that was always in my mind – particularly as I approached the somewhat “crowded” conclusion. Still, it’s a great epic story, albeit one with a slightly disappointing ending.

Hammering home...

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Secret Invasion (Review/Retrospective)

This is the twelfth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s shared universe (particularly their “Avengers” franchise) over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity.

Well… that was anti-climactic.

Well, at least green and red go together...

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