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Non-Review Review: X-Men – Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse is a retro superhero blockbuster, and not just because it happens to be set in the eighties.

At this stage, the X-Men franchise is practically a warhorse of superhero cinema. Although Blade tends to get overlooked in discussions of the current superhero boom, it is fair to trace the current deluge of superhero films back to the twin releases of Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Without those two films, released more than a decade-and-a-half ago, the current blockbuster landscape would look a lot different. Those films changed audience expectations and demonstrated what could be done with the format.

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“Shoot me from a low angle to make me seem huge. I’m talking real ‘Triumph of the Will’, here.” (Special Guest Caption by Ed Azad.)

There have two big screen reboots of Spider-Man in the intervening years, with both Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland stepping into the red booties vacated by Tobey Maguire. In contrast, the Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are still playing the iconic roles they established more than fifteen years ago, with X-Men: Days of Future Past straining to reconcile the original cast with the replacements who appeared in X-Men: First Class. However, in the intervening years, superhero cinema has changed dramatically.

In many respects, Apocalypse feels like the X-Men is playing catch-up with the generation of superhero blockbusters that arrived it its wake, taking the opportunity to do its own big “rock ’em, sock ’em” apocalyptic superhero team-up showdown of the kind that has never really featured in the franchise. Apocalypse finds the X-Men franchise embracing a particular style of superhero brawler typified by The Avengers back in 2012. Ironically, the genre itself has moved on, leaving the entire exercise feeling a little quaint.

xmenapocalypse

“It was acceptable in the eighties.” (Special Guest Caption by Ed Azad.)

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Jessica Jones – AKA Take a Bloody Number (Review)

AKA Take a Bloody Number is the penultimate episode of the season, and continues the process of narrowing the focus.

There is a sense that Jessica Jones is largely clearing away the clutter as it moves towards its final episodes. AKA Sin Bin found the show building to critical mass, and subsequent episodes have shrewdly decided to begin letting the air out slowly rather than bursting the balloon. AKA 1,000 Cuts resolved Jeri’s divorce subplot and killed off Hope Slottman. AKA I’ve Got the Blues disbanded the survivors’ group and took care of Will Simpson’s supersoldier plot. AKA Take a Bloody Number brings back Luke Cage, allowing the show to focus on the relationship between Luke and Jessica for the first time since AKA You’re a Winner! Luke seems to have missed the show’s climax, but he is still a matter than needs addressing.

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One of the strengths of Jessica Jones is a willingness to let its cast drift into and out of focus as the plot demands. Characters like Luke Cage and Jeri Hogarth are absent from consecutive episodes, and stretches of the season. This is likely due to actor availability issues, with Mike Colter soon to be headlining Luke Cage and Carrie-Anne Moss arguably the biggest star (and certainly the most recognisable “film” star) in the cast. Nevertheless, it does allow Jessica Jones a narrative expedience. Instead of having to constantly check in on various characters with a drip-feed of character development, the show can decide only to use them as is strictly necessary. It is a technique that works out quite well for the show. (Indeed, the show might have done better to adopt it with Kilgrave.)

AKA Take a Bloody Number works as a fairly streamlined piece of television, resisting the urge to escalate the scales (and the scope) of the story as it approaches its endgame. The climactic confrontation between Luke and Jessica is arguably just as effective as the climax of AKA Sin Bin, despite the smaller number of intersecting plot threads and involved characters.

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The X-Files – Rush (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

When did The X-Files get so old?

As with a lot of the seventh season, Rush is an episode that seems consciously aware of the series’ advancing age. Whether watching Mulder’s life go by in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati or battling zombies in Millennium, the seventh season is acutely aware of the fact that any prime-time drama that has been on the air for seven years is rapidly approaching obsolescence. What was once young and fresh becomes old and tired. There is a sense that the series really wouldn’t mind the prospect of retirement, now that it’s well past the syndication mark.

"He wore sneakers... for sneaking."

“He wore sneakers… for sneaking.”

Rush emphasises the advancing years of the show, often awkwardly putting its tongue in its cheeky as it suggests that Mulder and Scully are really lumbering dinosaurs trying to navigate the fast-paced world of high school. David Amann’s script is occasionally a little too wry and self-aware for its own good; this is an episode based around a laboured pun about how “speed” is also a drug, after all. Rush often demotes Mulder and Scully to passive observes, quipping and flirting from the sidelines as the plot unfolds around them.

Rush lacks the charm and dynamism that define the show’s (and the season’s) standout hours, but it is a well-constructed and enjoyable standalone adventure on its own terms. As with Hungry, it feels like a conscious effort to get “back to basics” with the series. If the seventh season is going to fixate on the series’ status as a televisual lame duck counting down its last few episodes, this is not such a bad way to do it.

Scully'll take a run at this...

Scully’ll take a run at this…

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Non-Review Review: Fantastic Four (2015)

The second scene of Fantastic Four opens on a shot of a red neon sign reading “Grimm”, panning down slowly to a scrapyard packed with exhausted husks of old vehicles that have long outlived their usefulness. If you were to reduce Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four down to a single shot, that would be it; the purest possible distillation of this hundred-minute effort to adapt Marvel’s (literal) first family to the silver screen. It is possible to make a good Fantastic Four film, even if the movies bearing the family’s name suggest otherwise; The Incredibles proved as much.

What is remarkable about Fantastic Four is just how thoroughly and meticulously the edges have been sanded down, replaced with a misshapen grey blob that wants to be X-Men or The Avengers, or anything but what it is. All the moving parts of the film are compelling on their own merits. This is the first studio effort from Josh Trank. It is a vehicle for Miles Teller. It has a soundtrack from Philip Glass (and Marco Beltrami). It features Victor Von Doom in an era when studios have demonstrated they are not afraid of comic book tropes and absurdities.

Fantastic finish?

Fantastic finish?

Fantastic Four effortlessly squanders just about all that good will in a ruthlessly efficient manner, a demonstration of how brutal a bad script and a cynical edit can be. Trank only fleetingly shines through, commandeering the film for about ten minutes in the middle. Miles Teller is reduced to an exposition machine. Any unique identifiers on the Philip Glass soundtrack are pared down for generic superhero movie bombast. The film is so concerned that the audience won’t take a character named Doctor Doom seriously that he’s barely in the film.

The most interesting aspect of Fantastic Four is the recurring sense that the characters themselves openly resent the direction that the project took. Sadly, even Reed Richards cannot stretch far enough to bend the film back into shape.

Clobbering time...

Clobbering time…

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Gary Friedrich, Don Heck and Werner Roth’s X-Men – X-Men Omnibus, Vol. 2 (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

By the time that Gary Friedrich had taken over writing duties on X-Men, it was clear that the title was in trouble. To be fair, this has nothing to do with the rapid turnover of writing talent on the book. At this point in the history of Marvel, it often seemed like writers were wandering around the office waiting to fill any gap that happened to develop. Friedrich wasn’t a replacement for Roy Thomas as an attempt to herald a bold new direction for the book. Indeed, his first issue was a story pitched by Thomas.

However, at the same time, it’s quite clear that X-Men was struggling to stay afloat. The comic was seemingly re-tooling itself month-in and month-out. Professor Xavier had been killed off towards the end of Roy Thomas’ last run. The cover now trumpeted individual members of the cast and back-up stories opted to focus on characters within the team, hoping they might find an audience as solo super heroes.

The first death of the dream...

The first death of the dream…

This trend continued into Gary Friedrich’s short tenure as X-Men writer. The first issue of Gary Friedrich’s run focuses on a guest star from the golden age, while his last solo script dissolves the X-Men as a team. In the middle, there’s a crossover with The Avengers. This was a very troubled book entering its fourth year, and the fact that it could not seem to settle on a single creative team or direction contributed to that sense of listlessness.

X-Men was a book that simply wasn’t working.

These men... these X-Men!

These men… these X-Men!

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X-Men: The End – Book Three: Men and X-Men (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

Chris Claremont struggles with endings. As a writer, Claremont works very well within the structure of a continuing narrative. His stories tend to resolve in such a way that story threads dangle, allowing him to pick up those threads for more stories. Claremont is very good at telling an on-going story, at keeping the wheels spinning and moving. One story leads to another, and that story leads to another. As The Dark Phoenix Saga wraps up Jean Grey’s arc, it introduces Kitty Pryde.

This isn’t really a problem on mainstream comic books. After all, Claremont wrote Uncanny X-Men for seventeen years, and it was structured as an on-going and evolving story. There are obvious “cut-off” points for certain sections of his run – The Dark Phoenix Saga and Inferno come to mind – but they never feel like they resolve everything. There are always just enough plot points carried over for the book to keep moving, to the point where saying “this run ends here” would involve chopping off significant story points.

.. in the name of love...

.. in the name of love…

Claremont’s difficulty with endings is reflected with the closure of his run on the titles in the early nineties. He left Uncanny X-Men with a minimum of ceremony. The book was handed from Chris Claremont to Fabian Nicieza in the middle of The Muir Island Saga. Claremont’s big goodbye to the title was the opening three-issue arc on adjectiveless X-Men, a story that found itself functioning as both a beginning and an end. In those three issue, it seemed like the only character arc Claremont resolved was that of Magneto.

So, it isn’t a surprise that Men and X-Men is a glorious mess. It is essentially one giant and protracted fight sequence between the X-Men and Shi’ar, drawing in cameos from across the breadth of X-Men history. The fact that this should be the last story told featuring these characters feels a little arbitrary, with quite a lot of Men and X-Men feeling like Claremont is running through a laundry list of things he needs to resolve before the curtain drops.

Flight of the Phoenix...

Flight of the Phoenix…

At the same time, there is something quite charming about Men and X-Men, as Claremont seems to suggest that this final gigantic superhero battle actually means very little in the grand scheme of things. Various plot points and threats resolve in whimpers rather than bangs, while Claremont suggests that this is an elaborate six-issue misdirection. We are not looking at what we should be looking at.

It’s the smaller moments that feel earned, even if the larger story around them is a complete mess.

One last stab at fixing everything...

One last stab at fixing everything…

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Warren Ellis’ Run on Astonishing X-Men – Ghost Box, Exogenetic and Xenogenesis (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

Astonishing X-Men is an interesting book. It was originally launched to allow Joss Whedon and John Cassaday to work on an X-Men title that was (mostly) free from the confines of the wider Marvel Universe at their own pace. However, when – after considerable delays – it finally finished, it seemed quite tough to figure out what to do with the book. Astonishing X-Men was selling too well to cancel outright, and Marvel had the opportunity to capitalise on its popularity and acclaim.

Assigning writer Warren Ellis to the title was quite a clever decision. While Ellis might lack the broader pop culture cache of Joss Whedon, he is a known and respected comic book writer. Allowing Warren Ellis to cut loose on a title usually results in a delightfully chaotic and exciting comic book that manages to stand apart from just about any mess of continuity that might have spawned it.

Storm warning...

Storm warning…

Ellis’ output on Astonishing X-Men is practically breathtaking. Ellis has a tendency to stay on mainstream superhero comics for relatively short runs. He worked on Secret Avengers for six months, and spent a year each on Ultimate Fantastic Four and Thunderbolts. Ellis tends to step into a superhero comic, shake things up rather brilliantly, and then walk away having made quite an impression. In many cases, Ellis’ short runs serve to define characters for years afterwards; look at Norman Osborn.

However, despite this reputation for short tenures on superhero comics, Ellis produced eighteen issues with the Astonishing X-Men brand; eleven issues of the main series, two issues of the Ghost Boxes miniseries and five issues of the Xenogenesis miniseries. That’s quite an impressive body of work. It is enough for a reasonably-sized omnibus collection. It allows Ellis a lot of room to play with his ideas, and also to make quite a mark on the central characters.

Having a blast...

Having a blast…

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