ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Marvel Comics

Marvel Month V – ‘This will be a long one,’ or ‘Damn you Hugh Jackman.’

Right,

So here it is – a little later than planned thanks to things like laptops crashing and my dissertation needing to be written, but together we’ve made it to the end of Marvel Month. It’s been a long road and sometimes a painful journey, (yes I am looking at you again Ben Affleck) but this month is nearly done. So where to finish? Which franchise best sums up the Marvel universe and has been turned into a franchise that everyone would know? Only one place to go people! A school. Full of gifted youngsters. That’s right. It’s X-Men time.

Once again it seems that this is yet another cultural juggernaunt that simply wouldn’t be around were it not for the considerable talents of Messers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, (Whatever it was they were doing in the 1960’s to give these guys those ideas, I think it’s a shame the creative industry stopped doing it. They were golden days, clearly) when in 1963 the X-Men debuted in X-Men #1.

From then and until now the X-men have gone from one of the lowest selling titles to one of the most enduringly popular, so when superhero movies took off it was only a matter of time untill the studio came looking for some mutants. The development process for X-Men was much longer than for some hero films, stretching as far back as the late 1980’s when James Cameron was rumoured to be involved. 20th Century Fox picked up the script in the late 1990’s and finally, after treatment after treatment, (including one by a certain Mr Joss Whedon) in 2000 the first X-Men movie was released, directed by Bryan Singer.

As this franchise is one of the more successful actions film series I’m not going to spend much time going over the elements of the plot. Suffice to say, this is a really well designed and interesting action film. The design and aesthetics of the film is clearly influenced by the comics but moves the style on from some of the more cartoonish elements – no yellow spandex being the most immediate example. Also serving as one of the few times I can think of that a film has influenced the medium that influenced itself. Grant Morrison’s run on X-Men which started soon after the first film does bear some striking similarities.

The cast function well as an ensemble, particular highlights for me are Patrick Stewart in a wheelchair and Gandalf in a cape. The two are by far the best actors in the film and whilst this kind of film doesn’t necessarily require top-notch acting as opposed to people who can give you good reactions on green screen. That it isn’t to say the rest of the cast are bad, I am just trying to keep some perspective. Having done some googling of different reviews the best way I found of summing up the first film is  a nice quote from James Berardelli who said”the film is effectively paced with a good balance of exposition, character development, and special effects-enhanced action. Neither the plot nor the character relationships are difficult to follow, and the movie avoids the trap of spending too much time explaining things that don’t need to be explained.”

The quality of the film is just that, setting everything up for the sequel – after the first one took nearly $300 million, the sequel came out 3 years later in 2003 as X2. Or X-Men 2 here in the UK. The film again is a very well put together action film, based on Chris Claremont’s graphic novel from 1982, God Loves, Man Kills. The cast is bolstered in the acting talent  department with Brian Cox playing a villan and Alan Cummings having a small part too. This film was a bigger success than the first, so the third film swiftly hoved into view.

The third film was by far the most troubled with Bryan Singer departing and being replaced by Brett Ratner and whilst the film was by far the most successful of the franchise it is by far the weakest. The subtle issues that X-Men have always dealt with (regardless of form)  was sacrificed for explosions, explosions and more explosions. Whilst  the film had been trying to lead up to a climatic struggle the whole thing felt stale and soulless – typified by the choice of Vinnie Jones as the Juggernaut. loud, annoying and lacking in any kind of nuance.

Then, the low point, X-Men origins Wolverine. I won’t waste much time on this turkey suffice for a few points. The film is entirely pointless from a dramatic or character point of view. Everything we, as people completely unfamiliar with the X-Men history needed to know about Wolverine,  was explained ALREADY! In two flash backs during the second film. Yes, you can fill in all the details but why would you? Regardless of who the character is give your audience a little credit, let there be some room for imagination, or ambiguity. This film didn’t add anything new to Wolverine and, if anything, made me think less of the character. We didn’t need to know anything about his past because he was cooler without it! Next, Deadpool. For those not used to the world of comics, Deadpool is a brilliant and completely insane character prone to over the top explosions and awesome fourth wall breaking jokes. Ryan Reynolds was a great casting choice. SO WHY STITCH HIS MOUTH SHUT!?!? There is no clearer example of completely missing the point of what that character is for! The relationship between the two brothers, that should really form the emotional core of the film is underdone as instead of coming off like a struggle Hugh Jackman and Liev Schrieber both seem to dislike each other.

The film also proves to have one of the best examples of one of my personal bugbears with action films. The idea of getting the audience to emotionally connect with someone we do not know. so Logan ends up in Canada after leaving his secret army unit and falls in love with a wonderful woman called……er…….. She is on-screen for about 6 minutes and is then killed off to give Logan the reason he needs to start kicking ass again. Fine. What really annoys me is the films insistence of playing this for emotional pathos. WE DO NOT KNOW HER! So, why should we care? Well, I didn’t.

Thankfully though, for the next film we got something much MUCH better; last year’s X-Men First Class. A little clichéd, but this really felt like a return to form for the franchise. The two leads of James Mcavoy and Michael Fassbender were both amazing, the set pieces were done well, slick action and a fantastic bad guy. Crucially, the film was paced well, building up the drama untill the climax actually felt like it had dramatic weight as things hadn’t been exploding from minute one. Yes, I could pick holes in it, but here’s the important thing. I don’t want to. I’m aware it isn’t perfect but this film actually feels like it was made with care, and attention to the enjoyment of fans rather than with an eye to huge profits. Soul, in short, matters as without it, you end up with Hugh Jackman being angst-ridden. With it, you get one of my best films of 2011

So, how does this compare then to the X-Men comics? Well, here’s where it all got a little difficult. Asking around and doing my own reasearch I found that the best run on X-Men was widely considered to be by a writer called Chris Claremont. Seeking out his work I realised that he wrote X-Men for sixteen years. Sixteen YEARS! SIXTEEN years! So obviously reading that whole run would be impossible, (this column is already late as it is) I decided instead to focus on one single story from that run and see how it matches up.

The story is the classic Dark Phoenix Saga, written by Chris Claremont, with art from Dave Cockrum and John Byrne. The reason this was chosen was for the allusions made to  in X2 and the similarities between this and The Last Stand make it probably the best one to do. Perhaps the most striking thing about the run is that it really made me feel out of my depth. This isn’t a criticism, but is worth noting – the X-Men universe is big. Really big..(I’ll stop before this turns into a HitchHiker quote) and as someone unfamiliar with the world and the backstory it does mean that there are elements here given more room, time and space that any of the movies could or should have done.

The plot is galaxy spanning and feels in a way much bigger than the earth bound stories of the films – though this has been something of a repeating theme in Marvel Month as writers have space and fewer limitations than a film crew. The look of the comics is very different too, the art feels other-wordly and keeps the reader on edge. so how does it compare as an adapative source for the films? Well…

Well….

Well…it is good.

But not great. The problem is that the films depend on the most visually recognizable members of the X-Men canon, Xavier, Magneto Wolverine and so on and when the films attempted to deal with the psychological elements of the story that make up Dark Phoenix it doesn’t feel right, coming off as staged and overly loud. That said, the comics would be impossible to adapt completely – the X-men have become a vast sprawling bloc in the Marvel universe and I really shouldn’t be too harsh on it as an adaptation because of poor choices one director made.  The things that work from the comics are kept in the films; the dealing with questions that still ring true today, the sense of comradeship and the struggle of the few to do the right thing in the face of opposition are all things that the films do pick up on. At it’s best (cough, First Class, cough) the franchise grounds itself in reality well too, enabling us as viewers to relate to this world as believable whilst still being excited about the possibility of having the ‘X-Gene.’

So, there we are. A mixed bag to be sure, but the lessons are still here to be learnt. Find the soul of something and do the best you can, with the medium at your disposal. That’s how you make a good X-Men movie.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

PS. Can we all agree that Storm is by far the most annoying one out of all the X-Men? Seriously…

PPS. And in the Deadpool movie HE HAD BETTER TALK!!

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Marvel Month III: ‘Spider-man, Spider-man’, or, Why puberty sucked for Peter Parker

Right,

A while back I had an idea for a hero. A hero for our time. A hero for the little guy. A hero that me, as someone trapped in the gulag of teenage angst would be able to relate to. This hero was going to change comics for ever, and, make me very rich indeed. Ready? Here it is. THE MAN-SPIDER! A spider, bitten by a radioactive man develops the proportional speed, strength and agility of a man, and hiding a tortured past dons a secret identity to battle crime and injustice. His nemesis? A giant bath-tub and of course, the deadly glass trap!

Thankfully though, Stan Lee has been alive for a lot longer than me and before I could unleash this horror upon the world, he decided to put out Spider-Man in August of 1962. Following on from my column on Thor, (please see last weeks if you haven’t read it, you’ll entertain yourself and increase my views. We both win!) I decided that I needed to review something a little more grounded, something that everyone had heard of – something core to the Marvel brand, and they really don’t come anymore core than Peter Parker – Spider-man.

Do I really need to explain what Spider-man is about? I mean, really? Then OK, for the few readers who have recently emerged from vegetative states lasting the last 50 years; firstly, congratulations and secondly pay attention. Peter Parker is your average down on his luck, angst-ridden teenager; through a freak accident he is granted his powers and tragedy strikes to make him come to terms with the responsibilities and costs of power.

Now, as I said last week with Thor, (seriously, go read it…) the problem I had was trying to find the defining run on the comic; THE story that defines the character like nothing else. This is a little difficult when the character is nearly 50 years old. When it comes to Spider-Man, the problem is a little more pronounced. Here’s why, Peter Parker is, in comic terms, a huge deal. Seriously. Here’s a little list of just how many Spider-Man titles that have, at one point or another, been monthly ongoing since the early 1960’s…

– The Amazing Spider-Man

–  Marvel Team Up

– Web of Spider-Man

– The Spectacular Spider-Man

– Spider-Man

– Sensational Spider-Man

– Untold Tales of Spider-Man

– Spider-Man Unlimited

– Spider-Man 2099

– Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man

– Spider-Man’s Tangled Web

– Amazing Spider-Man Family

– Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man

And that isn’t even all of them. At one point Spider-Man had five monthly ongoing titles. That is, to use a touch of understatement, a hell of a lot of comics. So, in order not to get swallowed by a tsunami of titles, continuities and general geekiness that I just couldn’t cope with I decided upon focusing on a rarity in comics – the complete storyline, Ultimate Spider-Man – by Brian Michael Bendis. Now, if this isn’t the run you think I should  have chosen – please, let me assure you that this wasn’t a choice I took lightly, plus doing a little research I found that Ultimate Spider-man was a big influence on the look and style of the first of the Spider-Man movies.

From the horror of Spider-Man 3, (and don’t worry – I’m getting to it)  some of you may have forgotten just how good the first film was. Even when considered in strictly financial terms this was a blockbuster in the truest sense of the word, being 2002’s highest grossing movie and even today it is the 30th highest grossing movie of all time. EVER! In terms of plot, this is the Spider-Man story that everyone knows. Peter Parker, the nerd we can all relate to gets bitten by a radioactive Spider and fights evil and get the girl, kind of.

Whilst the film is really very good there are a few things that really start to stand out now I have re-watched it. the design of The Green Goblin is dreadful. The dialogue is clunky and as cheesy as a teenager’s socks in places and the CGI often leaves a lot to be desired; though at the time it was quite impressive. What made it such a success is, in my opinion, the performances. Especially the two male leads, Toby Maguire as Spider-Man and James Franco as his best friend Harry Osbourne. These two carry the film – Maguire especially as the teenager forced to deal with something vastly beyond what he’s used to. I’m not wild about the other cast members, though that being said Willem Defoe hams it up as the bad guy and Mary Jane and Parker’s aunt and uncle aren’t really as fleshed out as they should be. Regardless, it was a huge success so as night follows day, the franchise was soon upon us.

Spider-Man 2 was in the world two years later, and let’s be honest, the warning signs were already there. Yes, Maguire and Franco are as good as ever, and it was fun to see them show the struggles Peter Parker has trying to balance his normal life and his life as Spider-Man. Even the CGI had taken leaps and bounds forward. And yet…The whole film suffered from some major problems of tone – whilst Spider-Man as a character has always been slightly more light-hearted than others this film failed to pull it off. Poor Alfred Molina as Doc Ock suffers here, as he looses his wife in one scene then starts building a GIANT DEATH MACHINE in the next. The film feels crowded and emotionally cramped as they desperately try to squeeze enough cameo’s and pointless ‘zany’ scenes in to keep cinema go-ers and fanboys alike happy. But it made even more money than the first and then…along it came; Spider-Man 3.

Spider-Man 3…Now, to be honest I was really excited about the idea of the third film. The trailer looked amazing and I was really excited to see Venom on the big screen. And it all went so, SO wrong. If the second film was crowded then the third is standing room only. The goofy fun moments started to stack up and the whole thing felt almost schizophrenic. Yes, that’s right – I’m talking about “EVIL PETER!” There have been plenty of criticisms of this whole thing which have been made already, but I will just say this. Milk, cookies and jazz dancing in the club is not a subtle or dramatically consistent way to articulate the tortures of the hero. NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT!

So, how does this compare to the comics? Well, actually, the place I think it all went wrong is when the films stopped being influenced by the comic books. The first film, for its slightly corny moments is a really solid hero movie. It’s fun when it needs to be, but it also takes the time to keep a tone that is…well, good. As a medium, the novel is a slightly slower paced one than the film and I think this holds true even for comics. The comics are action packed and do keep things consistent by not over doing it. Whilst it’s true that even now some of Bendis’s dialogue isn’t quite as hip or zany as it might have been when it first came out the writing is generally of a very high standard, and the influences to the first film can clearly be seen. Regardless of the criticism I said previously I really do like this run and I struggle to come up with any real substantive problems with it. The art is bright, dynamic and very clean and the stories the creative team come up with made me remember why Spider-Man can be so much fun to read. What I really enjoy about the comics is that it manages to balance the tone between fun, light-hearted banter and some kick ass action scenes. I think that maybe one of the most enjoyable scenes in the run is Spider-Man’s first battle with the Kingpin, who beats Spider-Man, tears off his mask and throws him out of window. Spider-Man’s comeback? A stream of fat jokes. It’s funny, it’s active and it just works.

Maybe I’m being harsh or unfair but I think that if this run had carried on influencing the screen writers then maybe the second and third films would have been better. Maybe the power and success of the franchise went to Sam Rami’s head and he wanted to see how much he could get away with. But again, the question has to be, as a franchise just how good an adaptation are these movies. The more I’ve thought about the more difficult I’ve found it to honestly answer, so there comes the best thought I could really muster…Ready…?

The three films, considered as a whole seem to come off as the product of someone who read the comics, but didn’t really pay that much attention to things like structure, or tone. Or emotional consistency. Or how to write dialogue. Or how to design a villain costume. Whilst I think, solely as films, these films are good fun entertainment, as an adaptation I really don’t feel like they do Peter Parker justice. Well, they almost do, they come so close to pulling off the tricky combination of Spider-Man as the everyman and the avenging superhero. I like the films, I do, but I don’t love them as the closer something gets towards being really good, the more disappointing it is when it falls short.

Look, maybe if I read a different run, (and believe me, I will be) I would have come to a different conclusion. Reading Ultimate Spider-Man has made me want to check out the classic runs from Stan Lee and Jeff Loeb and Gerry Conway and Dan Slott. Maybe these films have taken elements of other parts of the Spider-Man canon and maybe, if I read some more comics I’ll get the films.

This trilogy could have been great. It’s good but massively flawed and as an adaptation it takes some elements of this great run but somehow doesn’t quite come off. So, an ambiguous ending to this week’s column and I know it sounds like I haven’t quite managed to get to grips with the entire thing. But honestly, when I had this much source material to deal with, I’m just impressed I managed to get this column out within three years!

It’s never easy when dealing with a character as big and as omnipresent in comics as Peter Parker and if you think that I’ve missed something important, then please let me know and enlighten me as to what you think.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

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Marvel Month II, or, ‘Why I love Kenneth Branagh’

Right,

Marvel month kicks off properly here, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one who, when thinking about the Marvel Comics films, immediately jumps to a middle-aged Irish-man with a burning desire to be Lawrence Olivier. Ah, Kenneth Branagh – good old Kenny; big Kenny B, a man who has been nominated for an Oscar in five different categories, a man who was married to the wonderful Emma Thompson and decided to have an affair with Helena Bonham-Carter as well as playing the title role in five different films/TV shows. In short, this man is the ultimate classically trained and RADA educated LAD. (not in the misogynistic, horrific rape culture endorsing way, mind you – that wouldn’t be cool..)

Yes, I know that he has got his fair share of dross on his CV but you know something, I don’t care. I think Kenneth Branagh is simply flawless, and yes, that does include his version of Hamlet which is about five days long and earned him the honour of being one of three people who make a punchline in Blackadder. (A shiny penny to the first person to get the other two and no using Wikipedia! That’s cheating!)

So Branagh, (*swoon*) was the man brought onto the juggernaut that is the Avengers franchise to direct Thor. I will admit, however, that at the news I wasn’t delighted. I was distinctly sceptical. Branagh seemed too cerebral a choice, someone reliant on dialogue and character to really handle, what I assumed would be a big noisy blockbuster. Now this attitude, I freely admit, was based on a shocking lack of knowledge about Thor’s comics and a little snobbishness about the kind of work I thought was beneath King Kenny.

Thankfully the film soared over my expectations. It was one of the biggest blockbusters of the year so I won’t waste too much time re-hashing plot, but suffice to say it involves the Gods of Asgard and the war with the Frost Giants, a sibling rivalry between Thor and his brother Loki worthy of the greatest tragedies and, of course, scientists.  In keeping with all Marvel movies there is the inevitable build up towards the Avengers nerd-gasm coming this year but even considered as a separate entity rather than a 120 minute trailer for another film, this is a very solid movie. To a large extent the strength of the movie comes, in my opinion, from Branagh’s direction and the cast. The gods of Asgard are old school in the theatrical sense of the word – these are Gods of wrath, violence and all the worst traits of humanity with the power to destroy the entire world. The relationship between Thor, Odin and Loki has more than an echo of King Lear to it; helped considerably by the thespian legend Sir Anthony Hopkins chewing through the CGI scenery as the Allfather and the hulking presence of Chris Hemsworth as the adolescent and powerful Thor.  Tom Hiddlestone deserves all the credit one can heap on him as Loki and I am delighted beyond words he’s returning as the villain for the Avengers. Idris Elba adds another touch of gravitas as Heimdall, as well as stirring up some cheap publicity by having the gall to be a black actor in an action film!

As the previous paragraph may have given away, I think the films strongest scenes are the ones that focus on the realm of Asgard and the power dynamics of the Gods. Also of note is the sequences where Thor rashly plunges into a fight with the Frost Giants and his final confrontation with Loki really adds to the grand, Shakespearean themes the film is trying to aim for. That said, I’m not a huge fan of the scenes here on Earth, as to keep the films running time down, it feels rushed, (especially the love interest with Natalie Portman) and personally I never get the impression that Thor’s exile on earth is a real struggle to overcome. That being said, the film succeeds for the most part in marrying grand themes of betrayal, power and jealousy with an action packed story.

So, a good movie. But a good adaptation? Well, this is where the whole thing becomes a little more complicated…

As I said in the last column Thor has been around since the early 1960’s in comic form, and his legends have been around for literally thousands years. This is, not just a literary story – Thor is a cultural juggernaut, it surely isn’t possible to fuse Nordic legend into a comic form without being not just crass, but hugely insensitive.

Or so I thought. And then I started reading what I consider to be one of the finest comic runs I have ever read – The Mighty Thor Volume 1 337-382. Written and drawn by Walt Simonsen and lettered by John Workman it is an incredible piece of work. The look of the comic is like nothing else, thanks to Simonsen’s wonderful art style and the sense of scale and grandeur is done so well thanks to the jaw-dropping lettering from Workman. The dialogue too,  is just as good as the film’s and in some respects, much better. This Thor feels even more Shakespearean than the film thanks to the sometimes archaic syntax and tendency of the characters to think or say what is actually happening mid scene! What I love  about this run is the sense of cosmic scale that the creative team has achieved; whilst there are times where the dialogue feels clunky everything is given the time and the space to breathe, all of the action feels like it has a sense of great importance and the characters are given the page space to be given depth and characterised to an astonishing degree. Loki, especially, is shown to be an incredible villain, one who will happily destroy someone’s entire life just for the fun of it.

The problem is, of course, that the film adaptation has to be something unique to the Marvel comic as opposed to a slice of cultural appropriation in the obligatory cape and big hammer get up. To an extent I wouldn’t say this is what the film is; it certainly encouraged me to actually pick up the comics and see what Marvel writers wanted to do and the stories they wanted to tell. In a way, Thor’s problem is one I feel could be repeated by the rest of these films in Marvel Month. Thor is so well-known that, in a way, the adaptation is always going to fall short. We all know the name of Thor and many of us are familiar with the legends and mythologies of Nordic culture – the Norse gods have even named the days of the week.

Many people might think that there are so many different stories that could be told with  these characters and just as with Batman and Superman there will be people who demand different tales be told. The problem is, of course, that it simply isn’t possible to adapt what is a continuing narrative, you can’t adapt Thor in the traditional sense of the word, as the source material is still being generated. However…what you can do it take the original concepts, and they clearly are the original concepts from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and add to the ongoing narrative that is being told. Strictly speaking, this is a transposition of the original mythos, world and characters into a new medium. And it’s done well. Really well. It makes the world of Thor accessible to a huge new market.

The more I think about this, the more exciting I think comic movies are – it adds to the story and the characters in a way that traditional narrative couldn’t. Roll on next week, as Marvel Month continues!

Thanks

ThePageBoy

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Marvel Month I: An Apology, or, ‘I’m not really a big enough geek for this.’

Right,

First off, let me expunge the first reaction you may be having. This isn’t an apology for me beng too busy to update regularly because I’m out doing things that the internet doesn’t approve of; like having friends who aren’t pixels and talking to girls, (joking! A bit…) This post wasn’t even supposed to be an apology – it was intended to be a huge announcement of the first ever theme month.

This was where I was going to be proud to announce the commencement of…MARVEL MONTH! That’s right, a whole month of me assessing the Marvel movies and the source material they came from. A month of superheroics, kick-ass action, bad guys and saving the world. A whole month of geek awesomeness.

And that’s where I hit just a couple of really small snags. The first one came when I was looking for which comic should be the first one to be reviewed. It should have been obvious, it really should have been but all I can say is that I was so grateful for getting past The Da Vinci Code I just wasn’t thinking straight. Then it hit me. The first comic I wanted to read has been going since 1963. That is a really long time. Really – a loooooooooooooong time. So, there’s 49 years of comics to read. I can’t do that, nobody can. Not in a week, where I also need to watch the movie!

Then, I hit upon the obvious and simple solution. I don’t need to read it all, because the people who wrote the movie probably didn’t, and if its been going since 1963 the law of averages says that a big chunck of these comics aren’t going to be worth reading. sorry to be harsh, but that just seems to be the way things are.  If you don’t believe me just try to read some of the Batman that was churned out in the 1960’s and try and tell me seriously that it  meets any definition of the word good.

So, this is where I hit my second snag, and to be honest, this one I don’t see a way through, so here’s why I need to apologise. Again. Here we go…

I am not an expert on comics. I read them for a bit but didn’t have the money or the dedication to keep up the habit. But some people do. Some people must have read every comic, are familiar with the mythology of the comics, the lore, the references, the jokes even. Sorry, but that isn’t me.

Here’s what I can do though, and maybe what I should be doing. I’m going to spend the time looking into each character and find the run that helps shape and define the character and then treat that as the source material. If it isn’t the run you would have chosen or the writer you love then, sorry… But surely the success or failure of the film shouldn’t hinge on me having read Journey into Mystery #92. Maybe I’ll get round to it, but in the meantime this is the best way I’ve found.

The more eagle-eyed and comic loving may have picked up on the one or two clues in this article, the first film in ThePageBoy’s is Thor directed by Kenneth Branagh, after a little research I decided on the jaw dropping run by Walt Simonsen Vol1 #337-382.

Right, I’m off. Got comics to read.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

Oh, don’t worry; there will be more jokes in the next column. Promise.