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Non-Review Review: Shazam!

There’s a lot to like about Shazam!

Most obviously, there’s the sheer joy that the film takes in live-action superheroics. It is, of course, something of a cliché to suggest that a certain film or television show “makes superheroes fun again.” Even just among the recent crop of superhero cinema, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseIncredibles 2, Ant Man and the Wasp, Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming can all claim to have injected fun back into the genre. (Indeed, for their myriad flaws, the problem with Justice League and Aquaman was not that they weren’t trying to have fun. Quite the opposite in fact.) So it is disingenuous to state that Shazam! reintroduces the concept of fun into the genre.

Dab-bling in superheroics.

However, Shazam! still takes an incredible amount of joy in playing with the tropes and conventions of the genre. Part of this comes built into the premise. While the character of Captain Marvel could be seen as an example of the “flying brick” archetype most effectively embodied by Superman, the most appealing part of the concept has always been his secret identity. Unlike other superheroes who simply change costume to fight crime, the character physically transforms into a superhero through the use of the magic word. Captain Marvel’s secret identity is Billy Batson, usually portrayed as a child or a teenager. There’s something endearing about the wish fulfillment that anchors that concept. Shazam! invites its audience to look at superheroics through the eyes of a child.

The first two acts of Shazam! are (mostly) a joy, an engaging riff on a playful concept that understands a large part of the appeal of superheroes to their target audience. Unfortunately, the film fumbles the ball in its third act. While the relative innocence and simplicity of Shazam! are a large part of its appeal, the climax of the film gets a little bit too boggled down in cynical worldbuilding, indulging in a bloated and over-extended computer-generated fight sequence that feels lifted from a much less playful and exciting film. To borrow an old cliché, Shazam! almost convinces its audience that a man can fly, but it just can’t stick the landing.

Zap to it.

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Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #9-16 – New Frontiers (aka The Mirror Universe Saga) (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

Eight issues is a long time in the world of comic books, even by the standards of modern storytelling. Committing to the same story arc for two-thirds of a calendar year is a big decision, even moreso in December 1984. Nevertheless, DC comics committed to an eight-issue Star Trek story arc in the wake of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, on throwing Kirk and the crew into a truly epic adventure with the fate of the Federation hanging on the line. It is no wonder that The Mirror Universe Saga remains the gold standard for Star Trek comic books, reprinted and repackaged repeatedly over the years.

The Mirror Universe Saga is an epic in just about every sense of the word, spanning two universes and eight issues. Not only do writer Mike Barr and artist Tom Sutton find themselves handling the fallout from the last feature film, but they also dabble in an iconic piece of Star Trek history. The Mirror Universe Saga takes full advantage of its format to offer a spectacular and impressive adventure that would have been impossible to realise on film in 1984 – indeed, it is hard to imagine television or cinema doing justice to the scale of the adventure now.

Meeting of minds...

Meeting of minds…

However, The Mirror Universe Saga succeeds on more than simply epic scale and meticulous attention to detail – although Barr and Sutton provide those with gusto. Despite everything going on around it, The Mirror Universe Saga largely works because it never loses track of the characters at the heart of the story. While the Terran Empire might be plotting an invasion in the midst of an internal revolution, the more powerful moments of The Mirror Universe Saga come from throwing the characters into contact with their alternate selves.

In 1984, it seems like The Mirror Universe Saga had figured out what would be the core ingredients for the most successful follow-ups to Mirror, Mirror. It deduced that the mirror universe could not just be playground where everything is gloriously and campily evil; it had to retain some level of emotional reality or connection. What good is a mirror if it is not reflecting anything?

Set course... for eeeevil!

Set course… for eeeevil!

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The Flash (1987-2009) #5-6 – Speed McGee/Super Nature (Review)

So, I’m considering reviewing this season of The Flash, because the pilot looks interesting and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Scarlet Speedster. I’m also considering taking a storyline-by-storyline trek through the 1987-2009 Flash on-going series as a companion piece. If you are interested in reading either of these, please let me know in the comments.

Half-way through its first year, The Flash is still a mess.

It’s easy enough to see what writer Mike Baron is trying to do, but nothing is really gelling together. In theory, The Flash is the story of a twenty-year-old kid who is trying to fill his mentor’s shoes. It’s about a hero who has only just passed from his teenage years into adulthood, and trying to navigate all the problems that come with that. The intent is quite obvious here – to draw in readers who had been alienated by the somewhat generic (and perhaps even “dull”) perception of Barry Allen.

"Hm. This is always much more atmospheric when Batman does it."

“Hm. This is always much more atmospheric when Batman does it.”

This is an approach that clearly owes a lot to Marvel’s reinvention of the superhero genre, and it’s fairly easy to read Mike Baron’s Wally West as an attempt to update the superhero archetype established by Peter Parker for the eighties. Wally is a bit more grounded and real than his predecessor, with a bit of an edge. He finds himself navigating issues and personal problems that Barry Allen never had to worry about.

Unfortunately, the series can’t quite make this work. For every step forwards, there is an awkward step backwards. Every time it seems like The Flash might have a good personal hook into the world of Wally West, it falls back on generic superhero clichés that seem to have been ad-libbed into the script.

"Talk about an explosive relationship."

“Talk about an explosive relationship.”

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Peter Tomasi & Patrick Gleason’s Run on Batman & Robin – Pearl & Death of the Family (Review)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Peter Tomasi is one of the best supporting writers in comics. Writing a supporting title in a shared superhero universe is a very daunting task. It requires a unique ability to weave into (and out of) events and storylines dictated by more high-profile writers on more popular books. Due to the structuring of superhero publishing, the direction for an entirely line is typically dictated by one (or maybe two) books, with the rest of the line alternating between supporting those books and trying not to make waves.

Tomasi is very good at this. His Green Lantern Corps book provided a suitably solid support for Geoff Johns’ more high-profile Green Lantern comic. He was the logical choice to take over Batman & Robin after Grant Morrison departed, even if the book did cycle through a variety of creators including Paul Cornell and Judd Winick. Tomasi is a writer with a lot of experience as an editor, and – as such – has a knack for picking up on themes and core values of particular writers.

He shall become a bat...

He shall become a bat…

Following the “new 52” relaunch, Batman & Robin was very much a satellite book in DC’s Batman line. It was a holding pattern, a book designed to feature Damian Wayne while Grant Morrison prepared to launch into Batman Incorporated. It was part of a line that was largely being driven by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s work on Batman. There was no sense writer Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason would be doing anything particularly bold or daunting with the book at this moment in time.

Dutifully, following an eight-issue introductory arc, Born to Kill, Batman & Robin found itself bouncing around between various high-profile crossovers in the Batman line and in the wider context of DC’s publishing schedule. In the spate of issues between Born to Kill and the end of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated run, Tomasi and Gleason find themselves navigating a veritable minefield of DC continuity and crossovers.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

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American Vampire, Vol. 1 (Review)

This October, to get us in the mood for Halloween, we’re taking a look at some awesome monster comics. Check back in every Monday this month for a review of Scott Snyder’s American Vampire Saga.

In the end, though, it’s all about giving back the teeth that the current “sweetie-vamp” craze has, by and large, stolen from the blood suckers.

– Stephen King’s introduction to the collection

Stephen King, who wrote the origin half of this collection based off Scott Snyder’s notes, remarks in his wonderful foreword, “Here’s what vampires shouldn’t be: pallid detectives who drink Bloody Marys and only work at night; lovelorn southern gentlement; anorexic teenage girls; boy-toys with big dewy eyes.” American Vampire seems to be a strong rebuttal to all those modern and soft depictions of the blood-sucking monsters we’ve been swamped with over the last decade or so.

If that isn’t enough to at least interest you, then I don’t know what will.

Ch-ch-ch-changes…

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Peter Tomasi & Fernando Pasarin’s Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors (Review/Retrospective)

Emerald Warriors suffers a bit from being a rather obvious lead-in series to the War of the Green Lanterns crossover than DC was pushing for its space cops to coincide with the release of the Green Lantern film. It’s very clear that the book is written with an editorial mandate to establish certain characters and dynamics, and I think it suffers to a certain extent, because of this – to the point where the series wasn’t renewed as part of the DCnU relaunch, which makes it seem like the series never really existed as anything more than a tie-in to a large event, rather than a cosmic comic book in its own right. It’s a shame, because Peter Tomasi has been one of the most consistant second-tier writers at DC, and his Guy Gardner is second-to-none. Also, you know, it looks incredible.

A breath of fresh air...

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Geoff Johns’ Run on The Flash – Ignition, The Secret of Barry Allen, Rogue War

This January, I’m going to take a look at some of DC’s biggest “events.” I’ll be starting with the most recent one, Flashpoint, but – in the spirit of the character – we’re going to have a marathon run through Flash stories before we get there. Check back daily this week for more Flash-ified goodness…

Superman soars above everyone. Batman hides from everyone. Wonder Woman preaches to everyone.

Me? I run right alongside everyone. My name’s Wally West. You probably know the rest.

– The Flash reintroduces himself, The Secret of Barry Allen

Geoff Johns’ run on The Flash can really be split into two distinct sub-runs. The first saw him working with artist Scott Kolins, defining Keystone and building up a supporting cast. The second, following the climax of Blitz, is something of a revised origin for the character – an attempt by Johns to tell his own particular version of an origin story for the character. Of course, it isn’t a literal origin like his own Green Lantern: Secret Origin or Superman: Secret Origin, rather a rediscovery. Although I do have a slight preference for the earlier half the run, there’s no denying that Johns has put together quite a wonderful story during his tenure on The Flash.

What a run...

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