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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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Non-Review Review: Avengers – Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a hot mess.

It is fun, witty and fast-moving. However, it is also disjointed, uneven and awkward. Age of Ultron is a big and bombastic summer blockbuster, but it feels like Marvel learned very little from The Avengers. Rather than simply taking what worked in the first film, it often seems like Age of Ultron doubles down on every part of its predecessor. There’s more action, there’s higher stakes, there’s bigger conflict, there’s more Tony, there’s even less of an idea what to do with Thor, there’s more continuity.

"Hey, at least I beat the Terminator prequel to cinemas, right?"

“Hey, at least I beat the Terminator prequel to cinemas, right?”

“More” seems to the be the word here. Age of Ultron is bigger than its predecessor in just about every way. The film boasts an ensemble so large that it threatens to collapse under its own weight – a fact perhaps wryly acknowledged by the genocidal robot’s evil plan at the climax. While it is nice to have more diversity in the cast – The Avengers are no longer a bunch of white guys and their token female colleague – it does seem like Age of Ultron strains and groans under all that Joss Whedon and Marvel heap upon it.

Bigger is not always better.

You know, "pull Thor's hammer" is probably not a family friendly party game...

You know, “pull Thor’s hammer” is probably not a family friendly party game…

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My 12 for ’14: Guardians of the Galaxy and “the Day I Left Earth”…

With 2014 coming to a close, we’re counting down our top twelve films of the year. Check back daily for the latest featured film.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a Marvel movie through-and-through. It comes with burdened with all the trappings that one expects from a Marvel film. Thanos provides a mostly superfluous element that clouds the narrative while serving as an advertisement for a film several years away. Ronan the Accuser makes for a suitably banal villain, like a cosplaying fan who won’t choose between his deep abiding affection for Thor and his love of the Smurfs. The third act is a jumbled mess, one that occasionally loses sight of its characters amid all the CGI spectacle.

And, yet, it works in spite all this. One of Marvel’s biggest problems as a movie studio is the way that it tends to smother individual creators in pursuit of a more consistent project. The studio’s best films  – Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 – are the films that aren’t afraid to let a writer or director’s voice shine through. In contrast, the weakest entries – Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2 – try desperately to drown out any hint of personality in pursuit of something that can be homogenised; rendered safely within the studio’s comfort zone.

guardiansofthegalaxy1

After all, Marvel is a company that likes to play it safe. It is a studio that would replace Edgar Wright with Peyton Reed for Ant Man. It is a movie that would gladly have Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spin its wheels for two-thirds of a season so it can wait for Captain America: The Winter Soldier to arrive in theatres. It is a studio that has build six movies around blonde white actors named Chris without a single female- or minority-led superhero film. (Sure, Black Panther and Captain Marvel are coming… eventually, but Black Widow remains a rotating co-star.)

To be fair to Marvel, this system makes a certain amount of sense. It avoids horrific misfires like Catwoman or Elektra, but also does not allow for anything as transcendental and unique as Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan’s work with Batman. Guardians of the Galaxy is very much a product of this system. It is safe, hitting all the necessary plot beats and offering minutes of screentime (and plot convolutions) as tribute to the shared universe. However, there is just enough of James Gunn left in the final product to make it all worthwhile. The film retains a sense of oddness and charm that prevents it from ever feeling generic.

guardiansofthegalaxy6

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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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Fear Itself (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!

Part of what is so remarkable about Fear Itself is how uncomfortably it fits into the “huge event” role that Marvel cast for it. Matt Fraction’s seven-issues-and-change epic crossover event is really just a Thor story arc that dips its toe in the waters of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America. Instead, Marvel cast it as this gigantic universe-altering mega-important miniseries with over 100 crossovers and tie-ins from all corners of the Marvel Universe.

Positioned to capitalise on the release of both Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Joe Johnson’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Fear Itself seems like a story told in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like Brian Bendis’ Secret Invasion would undoubtedly have worked better as an arc of New Avengers than as a full-blown “nothing is ever the same again” epic, Fear Itself would have been a much stronger comic had it been allowed to play out on a smaller stage.

Hammer time!

Hammer time!

Still, despite the problems inherent in large-scale epic crossovers, Fear Itself works surprisingly well. Indeed, it it probably the strongest Marvel “mega-event” of the past decade if only because it is built on a strong ideological premise and develops some of the underlying themes and ideas of Fraction’s other Marvel work. Treated as a seven-issue story arc from Matt Fraction’s The Mighty Thor, it’s a fascinating climax of ideas that bubble away in the background of his run.

The choice to let Fraction craft Fear Itself, with assists from Ed Brubaker on the prologue and epilogue to the event, is inspired. Fraction is not the most consistent of comic book writers, but he is also incredibly wry and self-aware. There’s a sense of charming self-deprecating to Fear Itself, as Fraction allows the characters involved to reflect on the absurdity of it all without ever losing track of their humanity. Fear Itself might be far from perfect, but it is clever, fun and thoughtful. And those are endearing virtues.

Suit up!

Suit up!

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Captain America: Man Out of Time by Mark Waid and Jorge Molina (Review)

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!

Captain America: Man Out of Time suffers under the weight of its nostalgia.

The past few years have been kind to fans of the star-spangled Avenger. Ed Brubaker enjoyed an extended run on the character that enjoys favourable comparisons to the best work by the best writers ever to work with Steve Rogers. A Captain America film finally saw theatrical release with Captain America: The First Avenger. So it made sense for Marvel to try to extend the brand in 2011, as that blockbuster was ready to hit cinemas and as the character’s stock was at an all-time high.

"It's okay, Cap. The First Avenger wasn't THAT bad..."

“It’s okay, Cap. The First Avenger wasn’t THAT bad…”

Mark Waid was a great choice to assist in this. Waid is a well-liked comic book writer with a long history at Marvel that includes two extended well-received runs on the character. Waid has written a number of genuine comic book classics, and he’s a writer who tends to handle nostalgia very well. So tasking Mark Waid with writing a comic book set in the early days of Captain America’s revival was a no-brainer. A five-issue miniseries about Captain America waking up in contemporary times written by Mark Waid? That should be a default slam dunk.

Unfortunately, there was a miscalculation somewhere. Man Out of Time feels sappy ans manipulative, with little new or interesting (or insightful) to offer about its temporally dislocated protagonist.

The man in the iron mask...

The man in the iron mask…

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Cullen Bunn’s Run on Captain America & … (Review)

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!

Following Ed Brubaker on a Captain America book was always going to be tough, even if Brubaker had simply been providing the story for his last couple of Captain America & Bucky issues. Indeed, Cullen Bunn took over for Brubaker on one of three on-going Captain America books; with Brubaker still writing Captain America and Winter Soldier. As such, Bunn is somewhat trapped. He can’t really continue Brubaker’s still-unfolding story, but he can’t strike out with his own bold direction like Rick Remender would on a relaunched Captain America.

So it’s no surprise that Bunn’s thirteen issue Captain America & … run feels fairly indistinct. It’s a competently-produced piece of comic book writing, but it doesn’t stand out in the way that it needs to, feeling neither weighty nor fun enough to make the book stand out from the crowd.

He always said Cap was a dinosaur...

He always said Cap was a dinosaur…

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