Short Hiatus

Hi friends. I’m madly looking for a place to live in New York right now. I can’t seem to think about much else for the time being, so until I find a place and get settled the blog is going to go on a (hopefully) short hiatus. Next post will be about either the video game Journey or Tom Hanks’ web series, Electric City. Until then!

Great article about women in comics from the LA Times Hero Complex.

Hero Complex - movies, comics, pop culture - Los Angeles Times

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Selina Kyle’s lacy red bra and its ample, curvy contents fill the first panel of “Catwoman” No. 1, published last year when DC Comics relaunched 52 of its most popular titles. By the last page, she’s straddling Batman and spilling out of her leather suit once more.

Catwoman wasn’t DC’s only female superhero to make her “New 52” debut in lingerie. In “Red Hood and the Outlaws” No. 1, extraterrestrial princess Starfire strikes a Playboy-like pose, bursting out of her purple bikini as she propositions Red Hood. And Voodoo, a shape-shifting half-alien hybrid, spends half of her first issue stripping.

Comics blogs buzzed with debate, and critics cried sexism, pointing to the company’s predominantly male creative staff. DC’s rival Marvel Comics often faces similar criticism — the superhero comics genre historically has been a boys’ club.

But a broader look at the world of comics and the women who…

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The End of an Era: The Dark Knight Rises

Official poster for The Dark Knight Rises. Owned by Time Warner and DC Comics.

This past weekend was easily one of, if not the biggest opening movie weekend of the year all because of a masked hero who made his debut in the twenty-seventh issue of DC‘s Detective Comics back in 1939. Batman was an instant hit then, and his popularity as a character has continued in the seventy-three years since his debut. Batman was one of the first comic book heroes to find his way to the silver screen as a serial in the early 1940s, he was the star of a terribly campy yet extremely popular TV show in the 1960s, and garnered mainstream critical acclaim in the 1980s and 1990s. But perhaps the peak of Batman’s popularity has come with Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy that began in 2005 with Batman Begins. Its sequel, The Dark Knight, was a massive success both financially and critically, and earned a posthumous Academy Award for Heath Ledger‘s portrayal of Batman’s archnemesis, the Joker. Fans knew that a third movie was inevitable—even if Christopher Nolan voiced some misgivings regarding third films—after the success of The Dark Knight. After four years of anticipation, wild speculation, and worry that a third movie could never compare to The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight Rises finally debuted. I can’t speak for others, though it seems that plenty agree with me when I say that The Dark Knight Rises has blown away all of our expectations with its tight story, great characterizations, and surprising but emotionally satisfying ending.

What can I say about The Dark Knight Rises that someone hasn’t already said? It is truly overwhelming the amount of acclaim Nolan’s Batman trilogy has garnered from critics and fans alike, and I’m unsure of my ability to contribute to a discussion of the movies themselves. While it may be an impossible task, I’m going to tackle it the best I can by talking a bit about the movie, and then approaching the series from a different angle through its relation to classic Batman comics.

The Dark Knight Rises takes place eight years after the conclusion of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent has become Gotham City‘s martyr, and his death inspired the creation of the “Dent Act” that has given Gotham’s police and judicial branch unprecedented power in convicting criminals and cleaning up Gotham’s dirty streets. But the hard-earned peace has come with a heavy price. The fact that Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent’s descent into madness and murder weighs heavily on Commissioner Gordon. His conflicted conscience mulls over the possibility of disclosing the truth about the fateful night that Harvey Dent died. Batman, after escaping police pursuit following his capture of the Joker and, supposedly, killing Dent, has disappeared and Bruce Wayne has become a cane-carrying recluse. But the bad guys of the world haven’t forgotten about Gotham, or its caped crusader. Elsewhere, a brutal mercenary known as Bane hatches a plan to bring Gotham, and perhaps all of Western Civilization, to its knees. After Bane and his thugs capture and wound Commissioner Gordon, Bruce Wayne discerns that Batman must return to fend off the approaching evil. But, like the Joker before him, Bane is no average villain, and making him all the more deadly are his ties to Batman’s past that run deeper than Batman realizes.

Like The Dark Knight before it, The Dark Knight Rises hooks viewers right from the get-go with an amazing opening sequence. While there are a few lulls in the onscreen action, the emotional tension never lets up for a second of the movie’s nearly three hour run time. The actors’ performances and characterizations are strong, and the dangers faced by the good guys—both physical and emotional—are impressively real despite their fictionality. Without a doubt, Christopher Nolan has overcome the third movie obstacle and provided his vision of Batman with a tremendously satisfying conclusion. I don’t doubt that there will always be naysayers who dislike the direction of The Dark Knight Rises, but such is the case when any tremendously successful franchise comes to an end.  My own thoughts on the end to the “Dark Knight Legend” can be summed up in three words: totally worth it!

But my response to The Dark Knight Rises and Nolan’s previous Batman movies doesn’t end there. For me, one of the reasons that I find Nolan’s work with Batman’s character so appealing is his ability to take some of the best Batman stories, adapt them, and give them enough originality to appeal to massive, mainstream audiences.

Yes, I said “adapt.”

Comic book lovers have known this since Batman Begins, but to the uninitiated it may not be so clear that each of the movies in Nolan’s trilogy draws extremely heavily from some of the best Batman comics and graphic novels. Batman Begins found its own beginnings in the single issue, “The Man Who Falls,” and the graphic novel collection Batman: Year One by comics guru Frank Miller. At its core, The Dark Knight is an adaptation of Jeph Loeb’s 13 issue arc known collectively as The Long Halloween. Finally, The Dark Knight Rises finds its spiritual predecessor in Frank Miller’s insanely popular The Dark Knight Returns, and its story from the arc that created the character of Bane, Knightfall.

Cover for the graphic novel version of Batman: Year One. Owned by DC Comics. Written by Frank Miller, and art by David Mazzucchelli.

The cover of the graphic novel collection of Batman: The Long Halloween. Owned by DC comics. Written by Jeph Loeb, and art by Tim Sale.

Graphic novel cover of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Owned by DC Comics. Story and art by Frank Miller.

Cover art for Batman: Knightfall. Owned by DC Comics. Various authors and artists.

Similarly to what I said regarding Joss Whedon’s work on The Avengers in a previous post, one of Christopher Nolan’s greatest strengths is taking these established stories and owning them. And by owning them, I don’t just mean that he does a good job adapting the stories for the big screen. He realistically grounds the stories making believable both the world the films depict and the emotions they convey. Perhaps with the exception of Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, he found actors capable of portraying his complex emotional vision of the various characters from Michael Caine as Alfred to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Finally, he turned Batman into more than a man and more than a superhero, and into a symbol of hope, courage, endurance, and indomitability. Each of the three movies is compelling in its own, unique way, and it is my opinion that this success stems from Nolan’s respect for the characters and the comics. It is that respect that allows him to elevate the characters and stories to their highest emotional levels, and show the world the importance of the hero residing in all of us.

With The Dark Knight Rises comes a tinge of sadness. This is the end of Nolan’s Batman. Nolan, who saved Batman’s reputation from the mostly bad Batman Forever and completely terrible Batman & Robin, likely won’t be working with the character again. Warner Bros. has already announced its intentions to once again reboot the Batman film franchise, and apparently this reboot is already underway. Nolan is off to do other things, and I can’t deny it is kind of scary thinking of where the Batman movie franchise as well as the rest of DC’s movies will go from here. Zach Snyder‘s upcoming reboot of SupermanMan of Steel, does look especially promising (and thankfully Nolan is a producer), but if last year’s Green Lantern is any indication, we could be entering another phase of comic book movie blandness with DC’s characters. Apparently DC is poising to follow Marvel’s lead with its own cinematic universe that will culminate in its superhero team-up movie, Justice League. I’ll be honest, I really couldn’t care less about a Justice League movie. I’m unsure if that is because of my own aversion to most long-lasting superhero team-ups, or if the superhero movie market is becoming too saturated for its own good.

Only time will tell, but in the meantime I’ll at least be able to start the tradition of a new trilogy day by watching Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Thanks Mr. Nolan! And good luck in your future endeavors!

Disney and Pixar’s Brave

This is what happens when I actually go to bed at a decent time: I wake up at 3:15 a.m.! Oh well, nothing I can do about it. So I’ll be productive and write a blog post.

I’ve realized that keeping up with pop culture is hard work. I was looking back over some of my older posts and realized I totally spaced it in making posts about thatgamecompany‘s Journey (yes, the company’s name is spelled correctly), and Disney and Pixar’s Brave. I figured I’ll work my way backward with the more recent topics first. Journey will likely be pre-empted again by The Dark Knight Rises, which I’ll probably be seeing today, and no later than Monday if not. For now, Brave.

Movie poster for Brave. Taken from Wikipedia. Owned by Disney and Pixar.

To start, Brave was not at all what I expected. From its darker visual tone and the mention of war in one of the trailers, I was expecting an adventure movie more along the lines of Dreamwork’s How to Train Your Dragon. To be fair, Brave is an adventure movie to some extent, but not in the arrow shooting, horse riding way the trailer might make one think.

The story of Brave centers around Merida, the teenage princess of Clan DunBroch. Being the first born child in the family as well as the only daughter, Merida’s family expects her to marry one of the princes from the neighboring Scottish tribes to maintain peaceful relations. Merida’s mother, Queen Elinor, takes it upon herself to train Merida in the ways of noble womanhood to prepare her daughter for the marriage she thinks is Merida’s duty. Merida feels smothered. She does not want to be a lady, nor does marriage appeal to her. But fate is not on Merida’s side. The neighboring clans’ princes arrive to compete for her hand; none of them are charming, and marriage seems inevitable until Merida thinks she sees a hole in the land’s customs and declares she will compete for her own hand. The result is a total falling out between Elinor and Merida, and Merida flees into the woods. Amid the mist and mystery, Merida discovers the power to change her fate. But it comes at a higher cost than Merida is willing to pay, and she must race against time to undo the fate-changing spell before the damage becomes permanent and war ensues between the clans.

Such is the basic story of Brave though I have to admit that I’m also being misleading in the above description. Let me say it again, Brave is not an adventure movie in the traditional sense. It has some elements of a good fantasy adventure—magic, mystery, impending doom, and even a bit of action—but adventure is not the focus. Instead, Brave is about the relationship between a mother and her rebellious teenage daughter. As one might expect from the setup of the story, Merida and Elinor don’t see eye-to-eye, and the bulk of Brave is spent exploring their deteriorating relationship and eventual reconciliation. Over the course of the movie, they begin to understand one another. Merida realizes how much her mother loves her and only wants what is best for her, and Queen Elinor learns how important Merida’s independence is to her. I know most have probably seen the movie by now, but I still don’t want to spoil the story any more than that for any who haven’t. So I won’t say more.

I will say that while Brave is not what I expected, it is still a fun movie. The humor is wonderful, and the story is touching. I don’t think it is the best Disney Pixar movie (for me, that is Up), but it is still great. I also have to give the movie props for its impressively strong, well-rounded depiction of Merida and Elinor. There have been some standout characters amongst the Disney Princess pantheon, like Jasmine and Belle, but plenty of them have been flat, static characters. Not so in Brave, and that fact coupled with the humor, story, and wonderful animation all make Brave another great addition to the Disney Pixar lineup.

Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith

I’ve been hard at work on the job search the last few days, so I thought I’d take a break tonight and write about Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith.

The cover of Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith. Art by The Heads of State.

For the uninitiated (including me until a few weeks ago), Seth Grahame-Smith is the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This is his third book featuring a classic story with a twist this time starring the Three Wise Men of the New Testament.

Before I say anything else, I need to clarify a few things about this book. The title, Unholy Night, is only an attention grabber, nothing more. Nowhere in the book does Seth make claims that Christ isn’t Christ, and the book’s story makes clear that there is a greater power protecting the child. Second, while it is an enjoyable read, the story is actually very serious. Most of the humor in the book is dark, and there are some exquisitely detailed descriptions of violence throughout.

That being said, the basic premise of the book is: “What if the three wise men weren’t really wise men at all? Who would they be?” Seth’s answer is a group of thieves and cutthroats who take refuge in the Bethlehem manger while on the run from the Judean army. After knocking poor Joseph around a bit, the three wise guys decide the new parents are a couple of crazy zealots. But the thieves soon find that Mary and Joseph share their enemy in Herod, and the trio chooses to protect Mary, Joseph, and their baby after Herod’s men slaughter the newborn children in Bethlehem. But protecting the child turns out to be more trouble then they expect, and the three thieves may not be so noble.

What results is a fun, and very well-written adventure story that centers around the thief Balthazar, notoriously known as the Antioch Ghost, and his struggles in coming to terms with his past while protecting the newborn Jesus. Balthazar’s story is solid, and told with a great sense of action and setting as he deals with his demons and comes to terms with his fate of being the guardian of Christ. Unfortunately, Gaspar and Melchyor, who you think would be pretty important characters, are very flat and they get lost in all of the plot complexities that occur as the group is traveling toward Egypt. Their ultimate fate is only revealed at the end of the book, and that fate is tacky at best. But Balthazar’s story, and the struggles the group faces trying to keep Christ out of Judean and Roman hands was more than enough to keep me coming back for more.

Unholy Night is a great adventure book that is definitely worth the time of anyone interested. The prose is spot-on, and matches the story’s tone perfectly. Even though Melchyor and Gaspar disappoint, Balthazar, Mary, and Sela (Balthazar’s love interest), are all endearing characters. So if you like some mayhem with your Christianity, check it out! And in the meantime, it has a great book trailer!

The Amazing Spider-Man

Well, here I am. I finished the NYU Summer Publishing Institute on Friday, and now I’m going to spend the next three weeks looking for a job and a place to live here in New York. I’ll also have a bit more time to blog. To start, I want to talk about The Amazing Spider-Man!

Official poster for The Amazing Spider-Man. Owned by Marvel and Sony Pictures.

A lot of people, including myself, were pretty surprised when we heard that Sony canned Spider-Man 4 and instead opted to reboot the franchise. To be honest, I think it was a good move as I thought Spider-Man 3 was pretty awful. I enjoyed the first two movies a lot even though I have a strong dislike for Kirsten Dunst, and only think Tobey Maguire did a mediocre job as Peter Parker. The third movie killed everything I actually did like, and if I were to see another Spider-Man movie then things needed some change.

And to my pleasure the change happened! The Amazing Spider-Man is a great reboot, and made the characters and setting far more contemporary than its predecessors. Peter may be bullied, but he isn’t the completely hopeless social outcast he was in the previous movies. He’s even been turned into a bit of a rebel. He has attitude, which may sound like something you’d hear me say in the early 90s, but I think it makes his character more relatable in some ways. While a part of us could all relate to the previous portrayal of Peter Parker as a down on his luck, extremely polite, can’t-get-a-date-for-the-life-of-him social reject, he may come off as almost too good at times. Add Tobey Maguire’s whininess and the portrayal can become laughable. That doesn’t happen this time around. Andrew Garfield is perfectly cast as Peter Parker. Pete still has some of that innocence in The Amazing Spider-Man, but it is tempered by his rebelliousness, and his quest for vengeance.

Spider-Man does catch bad guys at the start of his career, but only in search of his Uncle Ben’s killer. He doesn’t realize his heroic potential until he chooses to save a young boy trapped in a car. It was a very powerful scene that added some nice transformative depth to Spider-Man’s character. After that, Spidey learns he can be more than a vigilante. He is a hero.

And he needs to be, because this movie needs a hero! Entertainment Weekly compared The Amazing Spider-Man to Christopher Nolan‘s reboot of the Batman film franchiseThe Amazing Spider-Man is a lot darker than its predecessors both visually and thematically (Spider-Man even gets grazed by a bullet!). There is a sinister air hanging over Spidey’s version of New York City that goes beyond the insanity of the villain, The Lizard. There were numerous allusions to something far deeper than a good guy/bad guy slug fest, and Peter Parker’s late father is somehow involved. The questions posed by the allusions are never resolved in this movie, but there was a teaser for a sequel during the credits roll. We’ll likely see more.

In summary, I really enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man. It isn’t the best superhero movie out there, but it is a solid reboot of the series that shows promise for its upcoming sequels. Until then, swing high Spidey fans!

Mickey Spillane’s Dead Street and Hard Case Crime

Here it is! My first blog post about a book!

I’m currently in New York attending NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute. Last week, Charles Ardai spoke to us about launching a book imprint. Charles launched an imprint of his own in 2006 called Hard Case Crime, and I fell in love with the concept. When Charles and his partner launched the imprint, their goal was to create books that hearkened back to pulpy, hard-boiled detective fiction from the 40s and 50s. This includes everything from republishing classic pulp mystery novels, to publishing new novels written in that good ol’ hard-boiled style. And it isn’t just the stories that get the pulp treatment, but the actual books too!

Dead Street Cover

The cover for Dead Street by Mickey Spillane. Art by Arthur Suydam.

The book covers feature great 40s and 50s style artwork, and the books are printed in mass market formats that really bring back that classic look and feel of hard-boiled detective fiction.

I couldn’t resist, and not just because there is a leggy lady on every cover. I wanted to read a hard-boiled story written by one of the masters, so a few days later I picked up Mickey Spillane’s Dead Street at Barnes & Noble. It was only seven bucks, and easily worth the price of admission. For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Mickey Spillane is the author who created the classic hard-boiled detective, Mike Hammer, and is one of, if not the bestselling author of 20th century. His novels are action-packed, brutal, and gritty.

The main character of Dead Street is retired NYPD cop, Jack Stang. Twenty years before the book begins, Jack was in love, but for reasons unknown his fiancé, Bettie, was abducted by the mob and presumed dead when the abductors’ van  plummeted off a bridge and into, if I remember correctly, the Hudson River. As it turns out, Bettie actually survived the crash. Unfortunately, she lost her memory and eyesight in the process. Her rescuers, upon learning she was a mob target, decided not to let the world know she survived, and took her under their wing to protect her. After twenty years, the beneficent family, thinking Bettie is finally safe, inform Jack that she is alive. Her memory from her previous life with Jack is still gone, but Jack leaves New York to join Bettie who now lives in Florida. But when Jack leaves, old cogs start turning that put both his and Bettie’s lives in danger once again, and it is up to Jack to put an end to it once and for all.

Okay. The story is hokey. But you know what? I don’t care! Stories like this one are what Hard Case Crime is all about. As Jack Stang might say, sublimity and emotional nuance can go suck an egg. However, an unbelievable story does not automatically preclude that Dead Street is poorly written. It is in fact just the opposite. Spillane’s style is raw, rough, and brimming with wry, understated humor that is a pure pleasure to read. Jack’s first-person voice is as unforgiving as his Colt .45, and just as full of bangs and pops when the occasion calls for them. If all the Hard Case Crime books are as fun as this one, I’ll definitely be back for more. I had to put Dead Street down over the course of the few days it took me to read it, but not because I wanted to put it down.

Hard Case Crime does have some big titles coming in the not too distant future, including a new one by Stephen King. Next up for me though is the book, Fifty-to-One by the publisher, Charles Ardai, written to celebrate the publication of Hard Case Crime’s fiftieth book. I probably won’t get to it for a few more weeks as I have tons of new books waiting to be read, but I’ll definitely try to get to it before September.

I’m now working my way through Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith, so I’ll write about it when I finish. My next post will probably be about The Amazing Spider-Man, which I’ll be seeing tomorrow.

Jimmy out.

The Avengers Movie

Ok, this will be the last post from my backlog of things to discuss here on the new blog. I know it was released almost two months ago, but since it was the first blockbuster of the year how can I not talk about Marvel’s The Avengers on my pop culture blog?

There have been plenty of Marvel super hero movies over the last decade. Some good, some not so good, some cool and touching, and some completely inane (how this one has a positive rating is beyond me). On top of my own mixed thoughts on the various Marvel movies, I don’t really care for super hero team-ups. I’m more forgiving of The Avengers than I am the Justice League, but the enemies that super hero teams must face in order for them to have an actual challenge need to be so tremendous that they turn these amazing super heroes into underdogs (especially hard to do for characters like Superman). I don’t mind the occasional crossover, but I normally choose to read the separate adventures of my favorite super heroes.

That being said, I became really excited to see Marvel’s The Avengers when I learned Joss Whedon was writing and directing the movie. I don’t think that many of my friends don’t know who Joss Whedon is, but, to those who don’t, he is the creator of Buffy the Vampire SlayerFirefly/Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and has been involved in various TV showscomics and movies. Knowing that Joss Whedon was so heavily involved in The Avengers was really all I needed to hear.

I could say a lot about the movie that others have already said. It’s great, it’s fantastic, it’s fun, it’s witty, and so on for the rest of the post, but instead I’d like to write about two things that I found particularly striking about The Avengers. 

First, Joss Whedon shows a tremendous amount of respect and knowledge for all of the characters. Of course, the depictions of the big four—Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, and Thor—are spot on in both terms of staying true to the comics and the movies leading up to The Avengers. After watching The Avengers twice in one day, a friend and I noted the fact that all the characters get their fair share of screen time and character development. Black Widow and Hawkeye are the least notable members of The Avengers team, but viewers are still given good indications as to who they are and what motivates them. Even a character who at first appears to be totally minor, Agent Phil Coulson, receives good characterization in the movie for being a tremendous Captain America fanboy who is having relationship problems with a cellist that moved to Seattle or Portland (I forget which, somewhere in the Northwest). Loki too gets some nice treatment even if his allies, the Chitauri, seem more like a plot device that gives The Avengers an enemy large enough for a super hero team-up to fight. But perhaps the best example of Whedon’s tremendous respect for the characters is when Captain America jumps out of a plane to chase down Iron Man and Thor telling Black Widow, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” Playing off the fact Captain America came from an era much more religiously inclined than our own, Whedon turns the Cap’s personal beliefs into an incredibly insightful (and humorous) line of dialogue that gives viewers a better understanding of the character and his emotions.

That respect for the characters in the movie is already enough to make it great, but Joss still manages to make it his movie. One of Joss’s best talents is writing snappy, fun dialogue that can give even the most serious scene a humorous air. Probably the best example is the back and forth between Thor and Black Widow on the bridge of the SHIELD carrier. I can’t remember it exactly, but it goes something like, “[Loki] is an Asgardian, and my brother,” with Black Widow responding, “He killed eight-eight people in two days,” to which Thor can only say, “…He’s adopted.” Situations that may demand extreme gravity from the characters themselves don’t bog down the viewer through Whedon’s use of wit and humor.

Yes, it has been out for almost two months now, but unless you dislike super heroes for some reason (how uncivilized!), I think Marvel’s The Avengers is a great movie anyone can enjoy. There are more movies coming in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including another Avengers movie. Hopefully, the next batch of sequels don’t take a Transformers or Spider-Man turn and get progressively worse though I must admit Iron Man 2 is not an encouraging example. But if they continue to do well then maybe Joss Whedon will sign up to do the next Avengers movie and once again give me reason to be excited about The Avengers.