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Film Review: Doctor Strange

November 13, 2016 Leave a comment

Doctor Strange (2016; Directed by Scott Derrickson)

You will see things while watching Doctor Strange that you have not seen on a movie screen before, but that isn’t to say that the film will surprise you in any way. Its narrative beats, themes, characters, and representational problems are all factory-issue Marvel Studios blockbuster archetypes, even while it features several sequences that profoundly boggle and astound the mind’s eye, leaving it pleasantly disoriented. If only such inventive disorientation could be applied to the plot and thematic elements as well.

The titular character is an arrogant, ambitious neurosurgeon who becomes a slightly less arrogant but no less ambitious transdimensional mystical sorcerer tasked with the protection of Earth from dark threats from the multiverse. If this doesn’t describe a Benedict Cumberbatch character to the letter, I don’t know how much closer an alternate description could get, and the genuine article obliges by bringing characteristic dedication and attention to detail to the role, fluff though it may be. Cumberbatch also adds a general tone of bemusement and ironic lightness to Dr. Stephen Strange (also a fairly characteristic mode for him). As an actor, Cumberbatch is well above such pulpy multiplex material as Doctor Strange, and he manages nimbly to signal that he knows it while never once slighting or undermining the film which he is tasked to carry.

Stephen Strange makes his unusual career change not precisely out of choice. So masterful at neurosurgery as to consider it practically a lark, Strange can no longer take his mastery for granted after a brutal car crash severely damages his skilled hands (and pretty much nothing else, which is a little unbelievable given the furious, dramatic depiction of the crash). After bankrupting himself looking for a medical fix and still finding himself no closer to being able to return to operating, the implacably rational Strange follows a desperate lead to Kathmandu, Nepal and to the mystical temple of Kamar-Taj. There, his scientific scepticism is challenged and finally overthrown by the mind-blowing magical spellcasting powers of the Ancient One (a wondrously dry Tilda Swinton). Before you can say “orientalism”, Strange is learning the secrets of the astral plane, mystical projection, martial arts, and ancient relics of power, his arrogant self-possession pushing him further and deeper into the mysteries of the multiverses and beyond the limits and warnings of the Ancient One, temple librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), and fellow master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Before he’s anything approaching a master of these magical arts, Dr. Strange (like any self-respecting physician, he ever insists upon the spoken title, even when being invested as a friggin’ astral wizard) must contend with the rogue zealot master Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). The villain of the piece is first seen in the memorable opening sequence of the film, stealing pages from a prized tome of knowledge in Kamar-Taj’s library and escaping the Ancient One despite a battle on the streets and buildings of London as they fold, rotate, and rise, plane-over-plane, like a memorable scene in Inception. Kaecilius is in league with a malevolent being of the Dark Dimension known as Dormammu and seeks to overthrow the Ancient One’s order (marked by a stylized symbol highly reminiscent of a basketball team logo) and unleash his dark lord’s unspeakable all-consuming power on Earth. Which, you know, is probably not good, but like the Trump Presidency, maybe we can give it a chance and hope for the best (spoiler: not a good plan, in either case).

Like most Marvel Studios efforts, Doctor Strange strikes a fine balance between respecting and imparting the core of its source material and poking fun at its pulpy pomposity. The fanciful names of the relics (eg. the Eye of Agamotto, which turns time back like the Time-Turner of Harry Potter or the magic dagger of Prince of Persia and has considerable plot implications, as might be expected) come in for a bit of ridicule by Strange, who never quite loses his rational disdain for mysticism and superstition even as he becomes a seasoned practitioner of its force. Strange’s own key relic, the crimson Cloak of Levitation, is mostly played for laughs, indeed constituting a comic relief character of its own. The mostly-thankless supporting love interest role of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) also allows for some moments of levity, drawing on the established Marvel movie tradition of ordinary people being alarmed, frightened, and amazed by displays of superhero powers.

At this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s continuous sequence of films, practically all of this can be assumed and go generally undiscussed, mind you. There isn’t a big plot or thematic or character beat that cannot be seen coming miles away, and the Marvel and Disney focus-grouped unwillingness to vary the formula is becoming mildly alienating. This undercurrent of predictability is unfortunate, because when director Scott Derrickson really lets loose with trippy kaleidoscopic magnificence in his action sequences, Doctor Strange looks and feels like a laboratory of the unpredictable, a petri-dish of CGI possibility. If the opening scene in London, with its white brick facades unfurling like time-lapsed flowers in bloom, wasn’t enough, Derrickson shows the Ancient One blasting through Strange’s smug Cartesian empiricism with a stunning whirlwind tour of the astral spheres that is like 2001 on amphetamines. Even this is a mere warm-up for Kaecilius and his minions chasing Strange, Mordo, and eventually the Ancient One through a mirror-universe Manhattan that folds, loops, and ripples into confusing forms like an enhanced M.C. Escher print in full bewildering motion.

Doctor Strange offers such wonders alongside its quotidian filmmaking formulas and they are appreciated. There’s even a limited Mobius Strip element to Strange’s plan to neutralize the unfathomable power of Dormammu that hints at the perception-shifting nature of the visual construction bleeding into the screenplay as well. But what could very easily have been Marvel’s first big-screen mindfuck movie keeps the psychedelic weirdness parceled out in manageable portions, serving them carefully between more safely-proven material. This tendency, in combination with the film’s softening and avoiding but not overturning of the original comics’ orientalist stereotypes, leads Doctor Strange to a place of uninspiring competence rather than challenging mind-opening.

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Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

December 20, 2014 4 comments

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014; Directed by James Gunn)

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t begin quite like any other comic-book space opera (though it’s not like there are very many of those kicking around, anyway). A young boy waits in a hospital, listening to a mix tape on Walkman headphones. He’s called into a room where his stricken mother, weakened by chemotherapy, tries to take his hand in her dying moments. He shrinks from her touch, evades the sharp sting of loss and pain. She fades away, and the boy runs screaming out of the building, where a spaceship waits to abduct him and whisk him away to the stars above.

Years pass in the space of a pop song verse, and the boy has grown into a loose, cocksure galactic rogue, lip-syncing along to that same mixtape in the ruins of an alien world. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) introduces himself presumptuously as Star-Lord when he’s caught red-handed snatching a mysterious, sought-after orb in those ruins. The sequence visually references the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the character clutches at the brass ring of late ’70s/early ’80s-vintage Harrison Ford, John Milton’s Satan for the film genre geek generation. Indeed, Guardians of the Galaxy, despite its many contemporary concessions, longs for the aesthetic milieu of 1970s American popular culture, that fracturing landscape of AM radio, long-haired rock and matured Motown, disillusioned hippies and distrust of institutions, and the revolutionary shifts in cinema under the blazing stewardship of a new generation of uncompromising young ambitious firebrands.

James Gunn is probably a bit too bright and self-aware to seriously conceive of himself as an heir to Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, or any of their aesthetic iconoclast contemporaries. He did write not one but two Scooby Doo movies, after all; a surefire safety pin to any inflated balloon of self-regard, that. But Guardians of the Galaxy, an adaptation of a quite recent Marvel Comics property (itself a relaunch of a galactic superhero squad whose adventures were mostly published in the 1970s), wrily and repeatedly lets the air out of its own balloon to keep it from becoming too inflated at any point.

Back to that orb, the MacGuffin of this particular cosmic venture. Quill is confronted about his snatching of the object as soon as it’s in his hands by the henchmen of a genocidal zealot named Ronan (Lee Pace). Unrecognizable behind blackened facial paint and a metallic cowl/cape, Pace intones ponderously and carries a large hammer like an exiled Asgardian. Among his subordinates are two sisters, the daughters of a much greater space warlord named Thanos (played by an uncredited Josh Brolin and likely to play a larger role in the inevitable sequels). Green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is sent after the desired orb, which hides a very powerful secret behind its unpresupposing exterior.

Gamora catches up with Quill on Xandar, capital planet of the Nova Empire, where he’s been incapable of selling the orb to a prospective dealer put off by Ronan’s interest in the item. With his space pirate abductor and mentor Yondu (an excellent Michael Rooker) on his trail for a perceived (and probably actual) betrayal, Quill also must contend with a pair of bounty hunters after the orb: a big-mouthed, heavily-armed talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his living tree companion, Groot (Vin Diesel voices his only, repeated, memefied line: “I am Groot”). A four-way dust-up over the orb between Quill, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot lands them all in a penal colony (the Nova Corps guards who arrest them are played by John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz, just a couple of the small roles in the film filled by very fine comic character actors). There they make the acquaintance of a muscular, tattooed/scarred individual named Drax (Dave Bautista), who nurses a grudge against Ronan for killing his family and possesses both a large vocabulary and absolutely no sense of humour (which, assuredly, is pretty hilarious in combination).

This crew of misfits bands together to escape the prison and sell the orb for shared profit, though revenge against Ronan motivates Gamora and Drax in particular. Guardians of the Galaxy is oddly a narrative of moral education, as Quill and Rocket in particular learn to subordinate their pursuit of personal enrichment to the greater good of the universe and the people in it. Furthermore, all five of these “losers” (ie. beings that have lost much and are fundamentally damaged) find a sense of unlikely unity and belonging in each other’s company and collaborative efforts to right wrongs across the vast expanse of space.

If this all sounds like a bit of a generic comics superhero story, you can rest assured that Guardians of the Galaxy only intermittently presents that way and Gunn’s screenplay (written with Nicole Perlman) is lightning-quick to wittily undercut it when it does. The slow-motion hero shot of the team walking awesomely towards the camera, Tombstone-style, includes a crotch-grab from the crude Rocket (a character whose balance of appealing and annoying characteristics doesn’t ultimately fall on the right side of the line). Drax’s sincere pre-climactic battle expression of affection for his compatriots includes an innocent reference to Gamora as a “green whore”. And Pratt’s Quill is always quick with his endearing dude-bro sparkle: when the seemingly unstoppable Ronan approaches him with deadly intent for the final blow, Quill’s response is to dance and sing and call him a “turd-blossom”.

This iconoclastic impulse, displayed in the midst of a big-budget summer release from the currently indefatigable blockbuster spectacle factory of Marvel Studios, may not be as strong as that which animates, say, the dizzying sugar-high satires of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. But like its crackerjack 1970s-heavy soundtrack (ostensibly the mixtape from Quill’s mother that gives his universe some emotional coherence), this nose-thumbing habit on the part of Gunn and his movie aligns it with the essential questioning of institutional authority and the fundamental nature of the American Dream that characterized the wildly diverse film output of the 1970s. Guardians of the Galaxy also suggests a fine pop song with its aesthetic appeal, throwaway wit, and brief but penetrating stabs of emotion. It breezes by in a burst of slick, violent, energetic delight. It’s what Marvel Studios films, in their generally successful but often joyless quest for a balance between storytelling coherence, character integrity, and sociopolitical resonance, often forget to be: tremendously, often transgressively, fun. In that way, Guardians of the Galaxy is not quite like any other comic-book movie, and we should be glad for that.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

August 13, 2014 4 comments

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014; Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo)

After being unfrozen half a century following his last conscious moment (tough break) and helping to save the world from transdimensional alien invasion (ho hum, just another day), the erstwhile Captain America, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is adjusting to life in 21st Century America. He doesn’t mind the food (“we used to boil everything” in the 1940s) or the Internet and he’s got a list going of the things that he needs to catch up on from the last few decades (he’s crossed off Star Wars, but still needs to get to Star Trek). He’s got a nice pad in a brownstone in Washington, D.C. and works as an operative for the national mega-security agency S.H.I.E.L.D under the command of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and alongside Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).

We see the Captain and his S.H.I.E.L.D team in action early on, boarding a highjacked agency ship in the Indian Ocean to free hostages. As the super soldier stealthily and gymnastically neutralizes pirates with fists, feet, and vibranium shield before tangling with their leader Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre), Romanoff pulls some encyrpted data off of the ship’s computers on secret orders from Fury. Cap is irked to have been lied to about the full import of the mission, but he’s about to find out that the agency is a veritable hothouse for deception, conspiracies, infiltration, counter-infiltration, and surprise birthday parties that he wasn’t invited to and has now ruined for everyone else (I may have made up one of those, guess which one and win nothing whatsoever).

Fury seems stung enough by Rogers’ Greatest Generation disapproval of his underhandedness to show a bit of his hand. Beneath S.H.I.E.L.D HQ on the banks of the Potomac are three huge Helicarriers of the sort that featured in The Avengers. Linked to spy sattelites and intelligence databases, Project Insight (as the hyper-weaponized aerial platforms are called) is a sophisticated system of preemptive identification and instant elimination of threats to national security, however we choose to define that term (though “we” never get to define it, which is the exact problem). Cap’s hesitance at the implications of the use of these ultra-drones must sting Fury as well, because he delays implementation of the program, to the dismay of the senior Secretary of S.H.I.E.L.D, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).

Before you can so much as google “NSA”, however, Fury is ambushed and evidently killed on the streets of D.C. Fury finds Rogers first, handing him the flash drive that Romanoff recovered from the ship and telling him to trust no one. Rogers tries to chase down Fury’s assassin, a masked man with a bionic arm, but loses him (it won’t be their last meeting, and it wasn’t their first either, not by a long shot). Back at S.H.I.E.L.D, Pierce can’t convince the Captain to share what he knows, so he has him targetted for elimination as a seditious fugitive. With Romanoff and a former Air Force pararescueman (Anthony Mackie) as his sole allies, Captain America’s conviction in the value of liberty will be challenged as he unravels what is being done by the nation’s defence establishment to secure that liberty.

Full of sneak attacks, ruses, digital data swaps, and contemporary distrust of institutions, The Winter Soldier stands as a purposeful contrast to The First Avenger, Joe Johnston’s exciting-enough but distinctly square-jawed exercise in WWII era nostalgia. The director’s chair is shared by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, best-known as directors of television comedy, including most of the best episodes of Community (one cast member of that eternally-resurrected classic makes a cameo appearance which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling). They have a mastery of the sequences of ridiculous comics action, including Cap flattening an elevator’s worth of foes and a running battle with the titular badass (played by Sebastian Stan) on a D.C. freeway and streets, that was evidently worked out in Community‘s paintball episodes. They also load down their fleet action picture with push-button current affairs political issues from the national security surveillance state dossier. Romanoff even becomes an Edward Snowden figure near the end, only with better hips, one would imagine.

But if The Winter Soldier desires to embed some trenchant political commentary on the ethics of American power in its silly (but, this being Marvel, impeccably executed) superhero yarn, then the big, game-changing twist on the nature of S.H.I.E.L.D (which must be spoiled below to make the necessary point) is a gigantic cop-out. Rogers and Romanoff (Evans and Johansson have an easy but never sexualized chemistry, which is hard for two pretty people to pull of convincingly) discover an early S.H.I.E.L.D base in the ruins of an army compound. There, the computer-locked consciousness of Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) reveals to them that Hydra, the secret Nazi splinter group of misanthropic scientific fanatics with global genocidal aims that the Captain thought he had defeated in the war, is still alive. Not only alive, but subsisting as a malevolent worm inside the body of S.H.I.E.L.D and soon to take control of the mass extermination potential of Project Insight.

In the midst of Zola’s expositional screed (Jones’ German-accented smarm is a real highlight), there’s an apparent reference to most of the dirty-handed secret ops attributed to American government agencies (coups, assassinations, empowering of dangerous extremists) being the work of Hydra. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a highly fictional narrative, granted, and this reference is a throwaway one. But how convenient that all of that underhanded covert activity that Americans feel ashamed to know that the CIA was behind was not actually the work of home-grown government agents but of secret Nazi madmen.

It’s a stroke redolent of the particular ideological context of Captain America, where American power can only ever, at its core, be morally upright and freedom-preserving, a force for positive outcomes worldwide. No True American would do evil, and you’d better believe that Captain America is a True American. War and propaganda got similar whitewashings in The First Avenger via this particular brush, but The Winter Soldier evokes a whole volatile set of civil liberties trespasses and then forgives the real-world perpetrators of those trespasses within the boundaries of its own comics-derived discursive text. The Russos want to invest their movie with the weight and import of vital political issues but also want ultimate immunity from the conclusions that those issues might ultimately lead audiences to draw about the abuses of power of the national security state. In other words, The Winter Soldier wants to have its freedom cake and eat it, too. But this critic, for what little it might be worth, is sending this movie to bed without dessert.

Categories: Comics, Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review – Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World (2013; Directed by Alan Taylor)

Marvel Studios’ mostly-successful translation of comics-style storytelling to the cinematic medium continues apace in Thor: The Dark World. It’s a movie much more immersed in the property’s particular generic mix of the space opera and sword-and-sorcery genres (with a sprinkling of speculative astrophysics) than the grandiose, goofy 2011 franchise kickoff. Is it better, though? That’s quite a separate question.

The Dark World is a sequel to not only Kenneth Branagh’s Thor but also to Joss Whedon’s overweening megahit The Avengers, in which both this franchise stream’s titular Asgardian quasi-god hero (Chris Hemsworth) and its swishy, imperious villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) played a key role. At the same time it’s setting up at least two more movies and probably even more than that; we’ll have to wait to see precisely how the Marvel’s Cinematic Universe continues its rhizomatic expansion and conquest of most of mass Hollywood culture over the next few years to be certain. Such is the nature of the new narrative order heralded by Marvel, which is quite creatively revolutionary but also so nakedly commercially calculating as to inspire knee-jerk cynicism in tempermental critics.

Thor himself was last seen onscreen departing the company of his fellow Avengers after thwarting a trans-dimensional alien demolishing of Manhattan, a catastrophe that was largely the doing of his adopted brother Loki, who is power-hungry but also undeniably chaos-hungry when power proves immediately unavailable. Back in the glittering Space Norse kingdom of Asgard, Loki is led in chains to the dungeons of his kingly adoptive father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Meanwhile, Thor and his lieutenants, the Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, and Tadanobu Asano) and childhood semi-sweetheart Sif (Jaimie Alexander), are occupied with mopping up the lingering rebellions in the Nine Realms ruled centrally from Asgard and reached via Bifrost, a space-time bridge between the Realms guarded ever-vigilantly by Heimdall (Idris Elba). And back on Earth, Thor’s mortal romantic interest Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is in England, adjusting to life without the hunky man-god whom she has not seen for a few years.

But these separated characters are thrust together again by the reawakening of an ancient enemy. The Dark World opens with an expository flashback narrated by Hopkins’ Odin that strongly evokes the similar scene-setting harkening back to an ancient conflict and a dangerously powerful object in some well-known fantasy epic or other. Some eons back, Odin’s father defeated Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) in a tremendous battle and prevented him from destroying (or just darkening?) the universe with an insidious, twisting red-black weaponized substance called the Aether. The Dark Elves either went down in a blaze of glory or were put into suspended animations; the Aether was locked in a stone cube and sent… somewhere (like much of the plot material, this is not made very clear).

But as mysterious astral portals begin to align, Malekith wakes and the Aether finds it way back into the world (or worlds; multiverse theory will fill in some of the blanks left by the script). Jane’s intern Darcy (Kat Dennings, cracking ever wise) and her intern (Jonathan Howard) alert the scientist to bizarre anomalies in an abandoned factory outside of London. Pulled into one of these portals into an unfamiliar off-world place, Jane inadvertently is infected with the Aether. Alerted by Heimdall, Thor shows up to whisk her away to relative safety in Asgard after the dark force now inside her blows up a chunky of rainy Albion. She’s a bit irritated at his long and unexplained absence, although she did see him kicking trans-dimensional alien butt in the ruins of New York City, so she gets over it pretty quickly and there’s enough public displays of affection to piss off Odin (he’s a pretty ornery chap; he could use a nap), who prefers that his heir go for some fine Asgardian stock for a mate, like that nice Sif gal.

Before things can get too advanced in the romantic direction, let alone in the de-Aethering of Doc Foster, Malekith and his Dark Elf minions arrive on the scene in huge spaceships in the shape of obsidian shards to smash the joint up and snatch up Jane and the powerful stuff that possesses her. Heimdall takes down one ship pretty awesomely, but deep losses are sustained before the dark forces retreat. The tragedy that Malekith inflicts upon Asgard’s royal family is powerful enough to unite the sundered brothers Thor and Loki in a plan to take out the Dark Elf and banish the Aether for good.

You couldn’t just take the river boat like everyone else, could you, Malekith?

I haven’t really covered reams of this overstuffed, undoubtedly expensive movie. There’s ample trademarked Hiddlestoning (you know it when you see it) and multiple vintage Loki double-crosses and ruses; there’s the reliable nutball Stellan Skarsgård running around Stonehenge in his underwear shouting about the end of existence; there’s Lost‘s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Malekith’s sidekick, who transforms into a monstrous fire-bull creature. The whole mad outsized generic smash-up climaxes during the astronomically rare Convergence of all of the Nine Realms, which occurs quite conveniently at the British imperial centre of standardized time and space at Greenwich. Although this perfect alignment really should be over the Royal Observatory for maximum heavy-handed symbolism, Christopher Wren’s Baroque masterpiece of the Royal Naval College looks better onscreen and so it gets to be trashed in the course of the closing dust-up (the dome of St. Paul’s even gets dinged by airborne antagonists; somebody’s an architecture critic).

Like I found with The Avengers, it’s a tough slog considering the aesthetic merits of Thor: The Dark World in and of itself. It’s got enormous scope and huge action and amusing comic relief and reasonably authentic (albeit inherently shallow) appeals to emotional investment. Hiddleston is a smirking riot and Hemsworth has got Thor’s bluff charm down to an art (he still seems bashful and a bit uncertain in anything else I’ve seen him in, though; here’s an actor that needs some challenging soon). Even Portman, reduced to a damsel in distress by the requirements of the Aether-soaked plot, manages to suggest new facets of the intelligent but not emotionally distant Jane (though she’s still been doing little but collecting paycheques since she won that Oscar).

But as much fun as I had poking holes in and often laughing at Branagh’s Thor, it might have been the better film. The fish-out-of-water element of that movie, though a common origin-film conceit, revealed comic gifts and empathetic qualities in Hemsworth that are subsumed when he wields his all-smashing hammer. Furthermore, Branagh seemed more comfortable with the cornball grandiosity and heroic aggrandizement of the subject matter, while Taylor (primarily a prestige televison director) overwhelms with sparkling spectacle in his first foray into blockbuster filmmaking. The Dark World is big, brassy, and a bit logically incoherent, but the general Marvel Studios drive towards stubborn quality mostly (but not entirely) pulls it through while laying groundwork for multiple franchise streams to continue to perpetuate. In this way, it fulfills its every purpose with confidence and competence, like a firm, bone-crushing hammer stroke. But artistry, resonance, transcendence? Not around these parts, buddy.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Allie Brosh’s “Hyperbole and a Half”: Meticulously Analyze All The Things!

February 7, 2014 1 comment

Skepticism really must be the prevailing sentiment when faced with print releases of Internet cultural phenomena. Though there is no quantifiable reason to understand book-form versions of popular Twitter humour accounts like The Tweet of God or Shit My Dad Says or popular blogs like Stuff White People Like as somehow inferior to the online originals, it’s tempting to make that precise judgment. It’s also entirely reasonable to question why anyone would pay for something in bulky codex form when they can get the same precise content for free on the web.

But as fundamentally outdated as literary publications might seem to net-savvy millenials, the book still boasts a cultural capital, a recognized currency with a wide spectrum of the population, that a website does not. To publish a book is still, for whatever it might be worth, widely considered to be the greater accomplishment than publishing a website. Even if many more millions of readers can casually surf to a site for free than will ever pay money to read the same precise content in a book, some thousands likely still will buy the book. And for any creative individual, the promise of renumeration is hard to resist and tends to overcome more ephemeral principles about new vs. old media (if these principles are even held). The promise of profit is a key consideration, always to be kept in mind when consideration the motivation behind any initiative in consumer capitalism.

Book Cover Final threeAllie Brosh recently compiled selections from her loopily brilliant comics/text blog Hyperbole and a Half into book form, and its bright construction-paper colours and purposely crudely-drawn figures do have a way of standing out on bookstore shelves. The book contains only the highlight stories from Brosh’s still-updated blog and those stories are readily available as easily-skimmed posts rather than on more tactile pages (albeit with fewer of her delightful drawings, in many cases). Still, the collection and binding of them offers a prime opportunity to consider Hyperbole and a Half in traditional critical terms as a work of literary artistic expression.

It may seem incongruous to even rhetorically place Brosh’s cartoonish drawings and neurotic prose on par with, say, Wuthering Heights, but at least Hyperbole and a Half boasts a healthy awareness of the ridiculousness of its narratives. The stories chosen for inclusion in the book are nearly evenly split between recollections of Brosh’s childhood, tales of the vagaries of dog ownership, and startlingly open examinations of her own psychological quirks and history of depression.

Brosh herself generally appears in the stories, drawn with pipecleaner limbs of hard black lines, a polygonal pink dress, pointy blond ponytail, and a white bug-eyed head bisected by a wide mouth. The lack of vanity apparent from this cartoon depiction of herself proceeds from the surprisingly unflinching honesty of the stories themselves. This frankness, in its turn, proceeds from the share-heavy nature of autobiographical (or autobio-graphic, to rehash a term I once coined in academic work for comics self-portraits) millenial cultural discourse, especially on the internet.

Yet Brosh’s meticulous analysis of the decisions of dogs, of the psychology that underlies behaviours and social conventions of people, and of her own emotional and mental processes is never uncomfortable in any soul-baring way. Lathering these examinations with thick, sweet humour certainly helps; it is very hard to read this book in public without laughing inappropriately, a situation which I can imagine Brosh writing/drawing about. The cartoonish amplification by simplification of the visual elements of her storytelling contrasts and effectively emphasizes the rational puzzling tone of her prose while also distancing the author herself from the embarrassing undercurrent of what is essentially a series of personal confessions of eccentricity, over-reaction, and weakness. So much constant, pitiless self-deprecation should be unsettling to experience. But instead it’s endearing, poignant, and cathartically hilarious.

Everyone who reads Hyperbole and a Half will have their favourite stories. Certainly those focused on Brosh’s depression have a moving gravitas that comes out of nowhere, and her descriptions of her reactions to unexpected events are complex psychological readings that Freud might even find worthy. The bizarre tales from her childhood (in particular “The God of Cake” and “The Party”) are laugh riots, as are the stories about her simpleton dog and her over-aggressive, over-emotional rescue dog. The most kookily inspired for me, though, has to be “Dinosaur”, an odd, serendipitous satire of horror-movie convention that involves a goose invading Brosh’s house and causing unimaginable terror. “Dinosaur” in particular makes a solid argument for Hyperbole and a Half in book form, as Brosh produces new art to illustrate the narrative in imagetext rather than the more spartan blog form of her original post of the tale.

While it’s certainly possible to consider and produce informed readings of the blog form of Brosh’s work, its adaptation to literature focuses and strengthens its effects and pleasures. Far from constituting mere amateurish drawings and neurotic outpourings, Hyperbole and a Half has been embraced and adored by a larger audience because its brazen, warts-and-all honesty pulls the reader closer even while its suffusion of humour disguises this encroaching intimacy. It’s so much more than silly pictures and funny words; it’s personal, entertaining, meaningful art.

Film Review: Man of Steel

December 6, 2013 1 comment

Man of Steel (2013; Directed by Zack Snyder)

Probably the most consistently satisfying feature of Zack Snyder’s lavish re-launch of the Superman franchise is its impressive, insistent bigness. From the extraterrestrial pinnacles and shimmering organic technology of Krypton in the prologue to the epic architecture-smashing demi-god fisticuffs that occupy the movie’s later acts, Man of Steel does not leave its overweening enormity to chance, nor does it reconcile its problematic implications. So impressive in scope is Man of Steel that its motions towards a more intimate soulfulness and character-based emotional integrity feel rote and underheated.

This impression of the film as a thumbnail sketch of the sort of epic superhero origin story its scale aspires to is further supported by the unconventional, nonlinear nature of its narrative construction and pacing, at least in the first hour. The backstory of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) is imparted in contained, tenuously-connected vignettes, moving back and forward in time and space. His birth and escape as an infant from dying Krypton, enabled by his forward-looking parents (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) and nearly prevented by the grim super-soldier General Zod (the ever-intense Michael Shannon), might be the purest science-fiction-style telling of Kal-El’s alien beginnings ever committed to film, all operatic drama and CGI bombast and high-flown technobabble uttered to floating robot servants.

Further flashbacks depict his adoption by the rural Kansan couple (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both wonderfully naturalistic) who found his pod after it crashed to earth and his gradual process of growing up and coming to terms with his superhuman abilities and their social consequences. Young-adult Clark becomes an introverted Wolverine-esque drifter, laying low at his plain-spoken adoptive father’s counsel, working on fishing trawlers and in northern small-town bars under fake names as he tries to conceal his godlike powers. He occasionally fails to adequately normal up, saving oil rig workers from fires, chivalrically trashing a waitress-fondling jackass’ freight truck, and pushing his foundering school bus out of a river as a teenager.

It’s a version of Superman tailored to contemporary tastes, which tend to privilege heroes of all stripes that are moody, introspective, reluctant, and flawed. Clark begins to lose some of his hermit tendencies when a Kryptonian scout ship is found encased in Arctic ice and a hologram of his alien father informs him of his off-world origins and provides him with his iconic suit as a physical embodiment of his inheritance. A more public emergence is forced upon him, however, by two figures. First, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams, a much better casting choice than she’s ever allowed to prove herself to be) traces him back to the Kent family farm, discovering his secret identity before he even properly has one. Then, in a more dire development, General Zod and his eugenicist followers are led to Earth by the lost son of Krypton’s activation of the frozen ship.

Zod demands that Kal-El turn himself in to the General’s custody. After a long night of the soul (which includes a blithely unironic confession to a priest that includes some blatant Christ-figure framing of Supes in front of a stained-glass window depiction of Jesus), he does, only to discover that Zod plans to terraform his adopted planet into a new Krypton. This process won’t be a pleasant one for humanity; a dreamworld nightmare vision of Superman slipping beneath a sea of human skulls prefigures the genocidal likelihood, and the New York City proxy Metropolis bears the brunt of the initial destructive power of this endeavour.

The inter-Kryptonian punch-ups and related widescreen action setpieces that this conflict deems necessary are impressively staged, conceivably “badass”, and shot with Snyder’s rare sense of corporeal clarity. But they are largely without moral consequence, even when they belatedly become openly about morality. The sheer inevitability of the romance between Clark and Lois is also not effectively rendered into a rapprochement that is not telegraphed or rushed. Cavill, though gorgeous and equipped with a triangulated masculine physique that appears nigh-on impossible, seems faintly ashamed by the Byronic hero Superman that David S. Goyer (writing the script with a story assist from Dark Knight trilogy auteur Christopher Nolan) places, Atlas-like, on his shoulders. He does better giving subtle humanizing colour to the classic stand-up all-American superhero, working with uncomplaining dedication to render this Superman as less of an übermensch, as the film would generally have it.

When Superman’s internal struggle externalizes, Man of Steel is undeniably entertaining blockbuster gristle. But the audience’s doubts grow as Clark Kent’s diminish. Without much investment in or engagement with the considerable comic-book cult around this foundational superhero to go on, it’s hard for me to say how Man of Steel rates as an adaptive text. This Superman is certainly not as resistent to large-scale collateral mayhem as the morally upright protector of humanity has tended to be; great swaths of both Smallville and Metropolis are laid to waste as he awesomely fights off his Kryptonian foes. Certain details of his Kryptonian origins and his Kansas upbringing (especially the manner of Jonathan Kent’s death) have shifted slightly, it seems. And of course Lois being in on Clark’s secret identity before it’s even required is a pretty massive canonical change whose dramatic implications are likely to ripple out into sequels, where her collaboration in protecting his secret might prove more narratively rich than a bizarre inability to recognize the square-jawed overman behind the thick nerd glasses.

The übermensch stuff is pretty resilient, though, and merges uncomfortably with the Christ poses (there are some literal crucifixion tableaus, the stained-glass visual association, the wandering in the wilderness, the trope of the saviour sent from above, and knowing references to his age of 33, to name just a few). Smashing a surveillance drone does not make this conception of Superman any less of an embodiment of authoritarian elitism; Christopher Nolan is creatively involved here, after all. Although his two father figures, on Krypton and on Earth, diverge on how this incredible boy should approach his inescapable specialness, they converge on the undeniable impression that his superiority would make on inferior beings. He will resemble Nietszche’s shining ideal of enlightened man, of that they agree. How the world will handle his example is less certain. How Man of Steel handles his example is made clear enough: Superman stands apart from humanity but ever above it. Man of Steel is this Superman’s movie, sure enough. It stands above humanity, and far too apart from it.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Captain America – The First Avenger

August 26, 2013 6 comments

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011; Directed by Joe Johnston)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s first venture into its deep well of revised comic-book world history glows with occasionally imaginative takes on 1940s futurism. But it also comes off as oddly prosaic and fairly nostalgic for not only square-jawed all-American heroism but for its dissemination through sweeping wartime propaganda. Director Joe Johnston, who previously produced paeans to just such a half-imagined golden age of corn-fed, selfless duty of a vaguely white-supremacist nature like The Rocketeer and October Sky, swaddles America’s complex wartime experience in the gilded robes of aventurous romance, pits it against implacably foreign evil, and locates it in the realms founded by Raiders of the Lost Ark and since annexed by more recent comic-book blockbusters. That Captain America: The First Avenger was met with fanboy acceptance and commercial success testifies to Johnston’s affinity for translating the source material, but its knottier implications remain problematically unloosened.

It will be no spoiler for devotees of the intentionally patriotic superhero character to reveal that the buff Stars-and-Stripes-embalzoned super-soldier was once a small frail kid from Brooklyn named Steve Rogers, played by a CG-reduced Chris Evans in this form and then as the rippling hero (albeit after a few reps in the weight room). Rogers’ physical embiggening fictionally fulfilled the wishes of many a comics-reading skinny boy marginalized by the Second World War era’s valuation of muscular masculinity. But it’s no Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension exercise regiment that packs the bulk onto this weakling, but a medical serum devised by German exile Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and injected into Rogers’ body under the aegis of a secret experimental unit of the U.S. Army called the Strategic Scientific Reserve.

Headed by the cynical Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, spitting crusty fire) and also overseen by a British officer named Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the SSR initially deploys the Captain as a propaganda tool promoting the sale of war bonds, but Rogers yearns for action on the front as he always has. This is especially the case when he learns that his best bud Sergeant James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and his unit was lost behind enemy lines in an altercation with the shadowy forces of HYDRA, a rogue Nazi organization resembling the SSR and led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). Before Dr. Erskine fell victim to an assassin, he revealed to Rogers that Schmidt is his dark mirror, an earlier injectee of the magic muscle juice whose megalomanical evil was also amplified by the serum, just as Rogers’ aw-shucks decency was.

Rogers forms a one-man rescue mission and springs Bucky and the boys from HYDRA’s secret base. This assault puts his nemesis on the run and allows the freed company to capture an arsenal of powerful energy weapons developed by Schmidt and his team with the unlimited power supplied by a mysterious plasma cube called the Tesseract (which re-appears as the central McGuffin of The Avengers film that this movie sets up) that he smash-and-grabs from a medieval church in Norway in the film’s opening sequence. The Cap also catches a glimpse of Schmidt’s larger plan, and forms a special strike force of international badasses to help him take down HYDRA before it takes down, well, everything.

This is not unexciting stuff, and special-effects vet Johnston melds the digital with the visceral effectively, staging action sequences around the Captain’s punches and shield-throwings as well as aboard planes, trains, and automobiles. The production design is a bit early-1940s theme park mixed with an era-specific futurism redolent of steampunk (motorpunk, let’s call it), especially when Rogers and Bucky visit a version of the 1939-40 World’s Fair in Queens headlined by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), the billionaire playboy engineer/manufacturer father of Tony, a.k.a. Iron Man.

Evans’ cocksure Human Torch was perhaps the only good thing about Marvel’s lamentably second-rate Fantastic Four movies, but he’s left in a tough spot as the lead here. Steve Rogers’ earnest sincerity seems like an anachronism even in the period setting of Captain America, and it was later the butt of incessant Whedonspeak jokes at the hands of Robert Downey, Jr.’s younger Stark in The Avengers (Cooper’s elder Stark gets a barb or two in, but never lives up to his name or to the snarky promise of his trim mustache). Captain America’s Greatest Generation devotion to duty and national service can’t help but feel alien to modern audiences, and it isn’t dwelt on for too long once the shooting and punching and explosions ramp up. His courtship with object of affection Carter is nicely underplayed by both Evans and Atwell, but can’t escape generic conventions and as a result undermines a potential robust female foil character. Atwell enters the movie by dropping an insolent, sexist SSR recruit, but her personality and intelligence is siphoned off gradually by plot requirements until she’s reduced to a sex-object appearance in a red dress, jealously shooting bullets at the Captain’s iconic vibranium shield after she catches him with another girl, and a teary farewell phone call to the self-sacrificing male protagonist.

Please allow me to gauge the structural integrity of your nipple. Don’t worry, I’m a professional.

If Captain America: The First Avenger has a defining handicap, though, it’s surely Johnston’s inability to reconcile his own and the material’s nostalgic fondness for the propagandistic jingoism that the character inescapably represents with a more sober, revisionist modern view of the implications of that jingoism as well as of the morally-complicated war that it helped to romanticize. The montage of Rogers’ career as a walking war bond advertisement attempts to lampoon wartime propaganda, but does so only gently. There is some wit to the sequence, as Rogers begins by delivering his exhortations to the crowds to support their brave boys over there awkwardly before warming to the performance, then becoming disillusioned when battle-hardened troops scoff at his bluff act. He also punches out the same creeping, dastardly Hitler proxy in one city after another (Buffalo! Chicago! exclaim onscreen titles like previews of Saturday afternoon serials).

Johnston clearly feels undisguised affection for such clumsily earnest propaganda, and splashes famous images from its annals across his end credits with the brassy accompaniment of Alan Silvestri’s heroic score. He even tosses up J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!”, now a commonly repurposed feminist empowerment image, next to Atwell’s credit, an insufficient atonement for allowing his movie to reduce her independent identity. But the darker side of WWII propagandistic discourse, which traded on xenophobia and racial stereotypes and fed into the national stain of the Japanese-American internment, is glossed over.

Some token lip service is given to multiculturalism with the Captain’s strike force, a microcosm of the Allies which includes a Frenchman, an Englishman, and a multi-lingual African-American, granted (no Soviets, though; old prejudices die hard). But the white supremacist (Aryan, even) implications of a blond-haired, blue-eyed male as the symbol of a complex, multi-ethnic and multi-national democratic resistance to Nazi tyranny is never interrogated, only reproduced with direct intentionality. Additionally, the movie apes Raiders‘ vaguely irresponsible innovation to the long-standing utilization of Nazis as movie villains. Schmidt is constructed as so dangerous and frightening because his lust for power pushes him out from under the National Socialist big tent into a special strain of megalomaniacal world-destroying super-villainy. Compared to HYDRA, the actual Nazis appear fairly reasonable, and hinting at that, even in a silly superhero movie, is a mite troubling.

Now, it’s perhaps not fair to ding Johnston for these ideological lacks in his movie. Had he crafted a genuine revisionist critique of the patriotic mythos of Captain America (like Gore Verbinski’s villified The Lone Ranger offered a proscribed kick at American colonialism in the West), popular audiences may not have embraced the product and fidelity-obsessed comics fanboys would have undoubtedly crucified him on the digital Golgotha of internet fan site comment threads. Like practically all of the successful products of Marvel’s onscreen Avengers stable, Captain America: The First Avenger is assured entertainment that only intermittently condescends to the masses and respects the devotion of comics fandom (although even the latter must agree that Stan Lee’s awful cameos really ought to cease; the man may be a living geek god, but his appearances are hell on the suspension of disbelief and smack of brown-nosing). But there’s not even the commonest poetry to it and what scant political suggestions it carries are unappealing. Unlike Marvel’s usually socially-aware products, this superhero is protected from reality by a figurative shield made of a more impenetrable material than vibranium: nostalgia.

Categories: Comics, Film, History, Reviews