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New Podcast! The X-Cast – Topps Comics #1 (“Not to Be Opened Until X-Mas” / “A Dismemberance of Things Past”)

I’ve been thrilled to guest on The X-Cast over the past few years, and have really enjoyed digging into The X-Files with the guests and hosts. However, this is particularly thrilling, because it’s particularly geeky. The wonderful Tony Black asked me join him for a discussion of the first two stories published by Topps comics, Not to Be Opened Until X-Mas and A Dismemberance of Things Past, written by Stefan Petrucha and illustrated by Charlie Adlard.

I have made no secret of my long-standing affection for these comics. I think that they are probably among the very best licensed comic books ever published. So it was a delight to be asked to talk about them, and to get to geek out with Tony about these stories. There’s a lot of fun stuff here, including context about the comics industry in the nineties and the question of what was possible in a monthly tie-in to a weekly television series.

You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

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New Escapist Column! On “Spider-Man: No Way Home” As An Unlikely Divorce Movie…

I published a new column at The Escapist yesterday. With the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the film.

No Way Home is technically Tom Holland’s sixth film the role of Peter Parker. So it’s interesting that No Way Home effectively puts his version of the character through the standard narrative beats of a Spider-Man origin story. In many ways, No Way Home feels like it’s a movie that is aiming for a clean start and fresh break. It also feels like something of a divorce movie between Sony and Marvel Studios. The movie opens with Aunt May dumping the director of Iron Man, and the film seems eager to announce that it is living its best life. The first thing that it does is to hit up some of its exes.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On the Tangled Ethics of “Spider-Man: No Way Home”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. This weekend marks the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, so it seemed like a good idea to take a look at the movie’s big themes and ideas.

On the surface, No Way Home feels a lot like recent nostalgia plays like Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, in that it’s very much an appeal to the memory of a pop culture object. However, No Way Home has certain advantages over these movies, in that it’s a film that seems to be trying to be about more than just recycled imagery. However, it never seems like No Way Home is entirely sure what exactly it is about and what exactly it is trying to say about that.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On Marvel’s All-New, All-Different Streaming Villain Problem…

I published a new column at The Escapist yesterday. The penultimate episode of Hawkeye featured a major reveal of a significant villain for the show. This is very typical of how the Disney+ streaming shows have operated, so it seemed like a good opportunity to talk about Marvel’s streaming villain problem.

Marvel Studios have long been criticised for their fairly generic villains. However, in the transition from blockbuster releases to streaming series, the company has created a new sort of problem. Instead of generic and forgettable antagonists, these shows tend to feature puzzle boxes and references, clues and riddles. The identity of villains are often hidden and concealed, treated as late-in-the-story revelations that reward long-term fans at the expense of pacing and characterisation.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Eternals

Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is a small, but necessary, step forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There has been a lot of pre-publicity around Eternals, most of it centring on Zhao as an auteur. Zhao has given interviews insisting that she directed all of the film’s action. Kevin Feige has talked about how her work convinced Disney executives to shoot in real locations rather than simply rendering a lot of the movie in post-production. As such, Eternals has become a weird battleground for the idea of authorship within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

When Marvel saw the breadth of its domain…

It is easy to understand why this is. There have been Marvel Studios movies directed by Oscar-winners before; Joe Johnson won an Academy Award for visual effects on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Taika Waititi recently won a Best Adapted Screenplay award for JoJo Rabbit. However, there is something tangibly different about seeing a big budget blockbuster coming from an artist who won both Best Picture and Best Director at that year’s Academy Awards.

It also makes sense in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There have undoubtedly been Marvel Studios films with strong senses of authorship: Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. However, those movies all feel quite a long time ago. Although one can perhaps pick up traces of Cate Shortland’s personality in Black Widow or Daniel Destin Cretton’s interests in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, those films feel very familiar and very rote.

Red eyes in the morning…

There is tangible sense of opportunism at play in way that Marvel Studios has positioned Eternals as an auteur-driven project. After all, the studio has a long and complicated history with directors who have distinct visions; Patty Jenkins, Edgar Wright and Ava DuVernay have all suggested that the company’s culture is not particularly welcoming to creatives. In particular, Zhao’s assertion that she oversaw the movie’s action sequences exists in the context of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who recalls being told that if she chose to direct Black Widow, she would not be allowed to direct the action scenes.

Again, context is important here. Eternals is really the company’s first director-driven project since Black Panther, which is a big deal given the studio’s history of beginning pre-visualization of scenes and special effects “before the cinematographer or director has signed on to the project.” While movies like Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel, Ant Man and the Wasp, Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home are all varying degrees of entertaining, none of them feel like the work of a filmmaker who has something particularly pressing to say about the modern world.

Superfriends.

All this tension plays through Eternals, the fine balancing act between a director with a very distinctive artistic sensibility working with a studio that appears eager to launder its reputation by association, while also being anxious that this auteur doesn’t get to go too far. In some ways, Eternals feels like a limit case for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an example of just how far the studio will allow a creative talent to stretch a rubber band before aggressively snapping it back into the default position.

This is the challenge facing Eternals. It goes further than any Marvel Studios film in recent memory, but that’s still not far enough.

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New Escapist Column! On “Venom” as a Superhero Throwback…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the pending release of Venom: Let There Be Carnage, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back at Venom.

Venom is not a good movie. It is a mess of a movie. It is chaotic, random, unstructured, nonsensical. However, it is interesting. What is particularly interesting about Venom is the way in which it feels like something of a throwback to an era of a different kind of superhero movie. Venom recalls the superhero movies from the turn-of-the-millennium, films that played faster and looser with their established characters without worrying about fidelity or faithfulness. There’s something interesting in looking at Venom as a superhero movie out of time.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On “What If…?” and “Mary Sues”…

I published a new column at The Escapist today. I’ve been covering What If…? for A Marvelous Escape, and it’s been a very fun experience. However, I have noticed that’s there’s a weirdly pervasive school of criticism that argues that the show has turned characters like Peggy Carter and T’Challa into “Mary Sues”, a criticism that has become increasingly common in discussions of modern franchise media.

Of course, it’s often very hard to come with a clear definition of what a “Mary Sue” is that doesn’t manage to encompass characters that the person using the description would never describe using such a term. It often seems like an “I know it when I see it” accusation, which can apply to Rey Skywalker but not Luke or T’Challa but not Steve Rogers. More to the point it demonstrates how blind some observers are to the appeal of these sorts of empowerment fantasies, and the double-standard that they appear to hold in an era where most franchise media is effectively fan fiction.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On “Black Widow” and the MCU’s Humour Problem…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Black Widow last weekend, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at one of the film’s biggest issues and one of the biggest issues with the MCU in general: the question of tone.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is funny. It has always been funny. This is part of what distinguished it from a lot of its comic book movie contemporaries when it was released. However, as the universe has progressed and evolved, the “house style” has tended towards ironic and self-aware punchlines. Sometimes this approach works beautifully; many of the best Marvel Studios films are also the funniest. However, it can also serve as a distraction that lowers the dramatic stakes and undermines key character beats.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

242. (ii.) Captain America (-#65)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and with special guest Andy Melhuish, The Bottom 100 is a subset of The 250. It is a journey through the worst 100 movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Albert Pyun’s Captain America.

Polio sufferer Steve Rogers is selected for a dangerous experiment that could turn the tide of the Second World War, being reborn as Captain America. When a mission behind enemy lines throws him into conflict with the Italian supervillain the Red Skull, Steve Rogers ends up trapped in the ice. However, he awakens just as his country needs him most.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 65th worst movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On “M.O.D.O.K” as a Breath of Fresh Air…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist on Friday evening. With the release of M.O.D.O.K. on Hulu, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at this unusual addition to the Marvel television canon.

M.O.D.O.K. is not a perfect show, but it is a breath of fresh air. In particular, it arrives in a cultural landscape that is becoming increasingly homogeneous and consolidated, existing as one of the last projects produced by Marvel Television before it was swallowed by Marvel Studios. As such, it is a Marvel adaptation with a distinct aesthetic. More than that, it is a comic book adaptation that is completely and utterly unashamed of its comic book roots. It is a show that revels in the inherent absurdity of comic books in a way that puts many higher profile adaptations to shame.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.