Thursday, 20 June 2013

Review: Age of Ultron #10

Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Alex Maleev, Bryan Hitch, Butch Guice, Brandon Peterson, Carlos Pacheco, David Marquez, Joe Quesada and others
Published by Marvel Comics

With Wolverine's plot to assassinate Hank Pym averted, the Marvel Universe is allowed to unfold unaltered. Unfortunately, there's still the matter of a killer robot to deal with and the consequences of abusing the timeline. In saving his own world, has Wolverine damned others?

I'd like to say this was a triumphant conclusion to both the Age of Ultron and Brian Michael Bendis' time with the Avengers, but I can't. At least not in good conscience. As sad as it is to report, the man who turned around the entire franchise with his New Avengers relaunch back in 2004, has turned in one of the worst event comics of all-time. Remember how jumbled, confusing and unsatisfying Grant Morrison's Final Crisis was? Well it's got nothing on Age of Ultron, which is lazily plotted, disappointingly resolved, schizophrenically-drawn and far more concerned with what comes next than what's happening in the present.

The issue opens with a brief sequence of Heroic Age Hank Pym working in his lab, being gifted with the knowledge to avert the Age of Ultron, literally delivered to his doorstep. Apparently, he'd developed the relevant programs to put down Ultron years earlier, during Wolverine and Sue Storm's visit, but had the information wiped from his memory so to allow the Marvel Universe to develop undisturbed. It's a wonderfully drawn sequence by Alex Maleev, who could draw two people sharing a cup of coffee and it'd hold my attention. However, it's hard to escape the fact he's had the story's Deus Ex Machina placed in his hands, ready for use. It robs the entire event of all tension and may as well have been a big red button reading "ULTRON ON/OFF SWITCH".

Sufficed to say, there's a prolonged fight scene between the Avengers and the reawakened Ultron, but knowing Pym has the answer stashed in his back pocket, I spent the majority of the issue screaming "GET ON WITH IT!". Bendis tries his best to make us believe that the virus won't work and Ultron will still end up taking over the Earth, but at issue 10 of a series, who is he trying to fool. Pym uploads the virus in the nick of time and the robot falls out of the sky like a tin can. This scene can only be described as going through the motions. Certain things are expected of an event finale and a giant battle is one of them. Taking down Ultron was a foregone conclusion, but the structure of comic books dictated we needed a few extra pages of Thor swinging his hammer to go home happy. If I had to guess, even Bendis himself was disinterested by this point of the story and wanted to move on to juicier subjects i.e. the cliffhangers.

With Ultron defeated and the world saved, Wolverine and Sue Storm are back in the present day, patting each other on the back for a job well done. Or at least they thought it well done. Just when it couldn't get worse, the entire time space continuum shatters panel by panel, causing everyone to convulse in pain. Despite time travel being a long-time trope of superhero comics, this was one time too many. Wolverine's abuse of the timeline has sent tears careening through the Multiverse, even being felt as far away as the Ultimate Universe (who now have 616 Galactus to deal with!). This was clearly Bendis' endgame for the series (and several others if All-New X-Men is anything to go by) and he couldn't get there fast enough. I'm all for wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey shenanigans (I'm a fan of Doctor Who after all), but I'll be damned if these hiccups have any rhyme or reason. It's far more akin to the writer throwing all his toys in the air and seeing where they land. Especially, the bizzare random addition to the Marvel Universe on the final page.

While time travel stories can be a lot of fun when done right, when done poorly they can be utterly disastrous. This genre is a double-edged sword and Bendis' Age of Ultron came down on the wrong side. No real lesson has been learned, no characters can remember it, hell, besides a few upcoming crossovers between realities, this may as well have never happened. That is the biggest sin a time travel story can ever commit - making the journey utterly pointless.

3 out of 10

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Review: Superman Unchained #1

Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Jim Lee
Published by DC Comics

An unknown force is disabling satellites and sending them hurtling towards Earth. Only one man can save the day - Superman. Or could there be another?

Superman has always been a particularly difficult character to write, especially in the New 52. His self-titled series has floundered from the get-go, at first under the "guidance" of George Perez and then the omnipresent Scott Lobdell. 'Action Comics' fared slightly better with Grant Morrison's big concepts set in the Man of Steel's early days (essentially rehashing his origin for the billionth time), but has sputtered to a halt due to creative differences that saw top tier talent Andy Diggle leave after only one issue.

'Superman Unchained' is DC's chance to start all over again, giving us the Superman book we should've had in September 2011. Taking their top writer in Scott Snyder and pairing him with their top artist Jim Lee, DC are hoping to give this franchise a super kick up the behind.

I'm loathe to judge a series based solely on one issue, but so far this hasn't been the knockout blow that the publisher was intending. If anything, it's a fairly by-the-book Superman yarn. He performs a few herculean feats of strength, checks in with his supporting cast of Lois and Jimmy (despite no longer working at the Daily Planet) and butts heads with life-long nemesis, Lex Luthor. Even the new threat introduced at the end of the issue failed to illicit any real reaction from this humble writer.

The initial action sequence featuring Superman saving astronauts from a falling space station was quite fun, but nothing terribly original. My favourite part being Superman activating the falling station's heat shield with his eyes to protect the astronauts in their free fall. Having astronauts survive re-entry from space in only their standard issue suits was always a big question mark, so I'm happy to see it addressed and solved somewhat.

Big Blue's interaction with Lex Luthor was another fun scene, with our hero accusing the supervillain of orchestrating the issue's events, even from behind bars and without any evidence whatsoever. I've always been a big fan of the antagonistic relationship between the two characters and in this respect the issue was no letdown. I can't remember the last intelligent confrontation between the fan favourites, so the more Snyder mines this dynamic, the better.

I won't write this series off straight out of the gate, but it does no better job of attracting interest in Superman than his other two ongoing series. Which personally, I find hugely surprising, given the talent involved. In this week's batch of comics alone, Scott Snyder had two absolute masterpieces in Batman #21 (the beginning of Zero Year) and his American Vampire one-shot, The Long Road to Hell. To see him turn in a story so generic is a genuine mystery. Maybe his take on Superman will simply take a few issues to gain traction, but this one makes for a rare stumble on the prolific writer's resume.

6 out of 10

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

News: Mock-up of Captain America 2 costume

A piece of preliminary artwork for the upcoming 'Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier' has hit the web and features Steve Rogers in his new costume.

The design has clearly been influenced by the recent Ed Brubaker mini-series 'Steve Rogers: Super-Soldier'.

This makes for Captain America's third costume in as many films, as Marvel continue to tweak the Star Spangled Avenger's look.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Review: X-Factor #257

Written by Peter David
Art by Neil Edwards
Published by Marvel Comics

As the end of X-Factor draws near, the team are still busy dealing with the repercussions of the Hell on Earth War. Namely, their leader Jamie Madrox is still trapped in the form of a Demon!

Wrapping up a decade old series is no enviable task and this first installment of "The End of X-Factor" is bizarrely stand-alone. You'd think with so many plot threads left dangling, Peter David would have his hands full, but somehow he makes time for a completely different story that doesn't necessarily star X-Factor themselves.

While tracking down the missing demonic Madrox, his wife Layla Miller finds herself butting heads with a devastated Uncle and Nephew, desperate to resurrect their lost loved one. Coming into possession of the transformed private detective, the pair believe him to be a D'jinn capable of traversing a dimensional portal and bringing their deceased relative back to them. Unfortunately, they may not like what they find on the other side.

The story itself is nice enough, with a few cruel twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. Most notably, Layla's knowledge of the future is completely wrong in this case. Where memories would tell her that she'd find a Human Madrox and that the Uncle's magic would fail, she stumbles across the still demonic Madrox and very much working magic. Throwing this traditionally all-knowing character into the middle of a genuine mystery makes for a fun dynamic.

The Uncle and Nephew, while noble in their pursuit of bringing back a loved one, tend to veer a little too close to crazy to be 100% sympathetic. By the time their plan has come to fruition, it has failed abysmally, brought a vengeful god unto our world and cost the young Nephew his life. The death of the boy is particularly shocking, as he rushes towards what he thinks is his Mother and crumbles to dust. Rarely do you see such needless death, particularly visited upon a child. One would have thought such a fate would be better suited to a wrong-doer.

However, I still can't wrap my head around the notion that we had six entire issues of the beloved series left and this standalone story was one of them. By all means, David should address the current demonic form of Jamie Madrox, as I fully expect him back to his wise-cracking Human self by the end of the run. But the issue didn't even solve that problem, offering a random side adventure in it's stead. This is the time for prioritizing and the issue simply ignored that.

6 out of 10

Review: Green Lantern #21

Written by Robert Vendetti
Art by Billy Tan
Published by DC Comics

It's the dawn of a new era for the Green Lantern Corps as new leadership ascends through the ranks. Meanwhile, Larfleeze the Orange Lantern aims to take advantage of their distraction to plunder Oa for all it's hidden treasures!

Robert Vendetti faces no easy task. Coming hot on the heels of Geoff Johns' masterful finale mere weeks ago, the new creative team have to keep the proverbial plates spinning, whilst planting seeds for their own run. To his credit, Vendetti turns in a hell of an issue. He effortlessly follows on, without missing a beat.

In a rare breather for the series, Hal Jordan finds himself at a loose end (at least for the moment) and decides to catch up with girlfriend, Carol Ferris aka Star Sapphire. In a clever twist on their powers, Carol fears losing her love for Hal, which is becoming harder each day given his penchant for the dramatic. Should this great love fade, so too would her control over her ring. Something she's just not willing to sacrifice. It's a really clever spin on their dynamic and manages to keep them apart, despite acknowledging their feelings.

Soon called back to Oa to report to the next generation of Guardians, Hal finds them packaging their bags and making for the door. Rather than reverting to the age old status quo, these new Guardians have no intention of leading the Corps. They know being locked away for a millenia would make them terribly ineffective leaders and fearing making the same mistakes as their recently-deceased brethren, they have no desire to follow in their footsteps. In one of their final acts, they appoint Hal the new leader of the Corps, much to his surprise. Seeing this natural rebel have to fight against his own instincts and become a respectable leader is sure to be a major driving force in Vendetti's run. Not to mention, I'm pleased to see Hal partnered up with Kilowog once again. Their double act in the recently cancelled animated series was a sight to behold and I'm glad it's making the leap to the page.

There are several villains in play that threaten the Corps in this issue. The much hyped Relic appears to menace them in a flash-forward that opens the story. While the book closes with Orange Lantern Larfleeze making a play for all the treasures of Oa. I can't imagine the two threats are linked, as Larfleeze reeks of opportunism, while Relic strikes me as far more sinister. The thread that links them both is the call to arms sent out by Hal, as he dispatches hundreds of rings out into the Universe to replenish the Corps' diminished ranks. The rookies the rings bring back appear rather sheepish and nonthreatening, but to be fair, they've just been plucked from obscurity and thrust into a heated battle, so I'm impressed they haven't wet themselves yet.

Ultimately, this is a solid foundation upon which Vendetti can build. He's essentially promising that Johns' legacy remains intact, with wonderful additions like Larfleeze still out there, just waiting to be used. On the flip side, he's using these comfortable surroundings to introduce his own new characters into the fold. The Green Lantern series has been left in such a healthy, successful state, that a writer would have to actively sabotage one's self to muck it all up and Vendetti is no fool. While it will always be sad to see a changing of the guard, we appear to be in able hands for the months to come.

8 out of 10

Monday, 3 June 2013

Review: Doctor Who - Prisoners of Time #5

Written by Scott & David Tipton
Art by Philip Bond
Published by IDW

Landing on an alien planet to recharge the Tardis, the Fifth Doctor and his companions find themselves caught in the middle of a thousand year old war between the Rutan Host and the Sontaran Empire!

What better time to review an issue of Doctor Who than after the Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith, announces his departure from the long-running serial! The structure of this mini-series has always been somewhat puzzling, having eleven Doctors and yet needing twelve issues. The final issue had been theorised to simply be a multiple Doctor story with all his many incarnations teaming up to defeat the as-yet-unknown villain. Nevertheless, come December, could we be treated with an appearance of the newly minted Twelfth?

But that's ages away and we're not even halfway through the Doctors yet, so let's focus on Peter Davison's installment of this yearlong epic. I'm not terribly familiar with the original series Doctors, so you'll have to forgive me for any glaring misconceptions. However, I know Davison's Fifth Doctor was the closest in spirit to his modern day counterparts, bringing a youthful vigor to adventures, rather than the craggy old man that'd come before. Instead of scalding companions, he'd run and bound and play cricket. A little outdated maybe, but an incarnation I can certainly relate to.

Caught up in the alien war, the Doctor and his companions find themselves in both enemy camps at various points of the issue. Firstly, the Rutan Host, who can only be described as floating jellyfish. Lastly, the potato-headed Sontarans. While the Rutan most definitely hold a grudge against the Doctor for his foiling of a previous scheme of theirs, the Sontarans can surprisingly see the funny side and despite having butted heads with the Timelord before, at the very least respect him as a warrior.

Asked to look over their battle plans, the Doctor quickly surmises that the Sontarans are caught in a no-win situation. Their only choice is to charge the enemy in a frontal assault and die trying i.e. a suicide mission. Ever the diplomat, the Doctor tries to broker peace between the bitter enemies and even offers to evacuate one of the armies in his Tardis. Unfortunately, their true natures win out and they can't resist the allure of a warrior's death, running toward their own demise.

The plot itself hinged entirely upon the old 'Frog and Scorpion crossing a river' metaphor, which even featured as narrative over the resulting battle. I've heard this story so many times over the years, it's almost as if every good (and bad) science fiction series has to make that point at some time or another. Heavy-handed doesn't even begin to describe it. Having seen the Sontarans in action in the television series over the past few years, I'm honestly not surprised to see them charge into danger without a care for their own well being. Even so, it's hard not to view their behaviour as idiotic. How their war lasted a thousand years with strategy like this, we'll never know.

Meanwhile, the overarching threat of the series continues to lurk in the background, periodically popping up to abduct the Doctor's companions for his nefarious scheme. Whoever this is, they're clearly a disgruntled Time Agent ala Jack Harkness. Hell, I wouldn't even be surprised if this IS Jack Harkness. Albeit, his grumpy old man equivalent. The thing I don't understand about the villain's scheme is that shouldn't removing such important pieces of the Doctor's life have had catastrophic effects on the timeline by now? Are we to assume that five Doctors' lives have proceeded exactly as before, only their companions mysteriously disappear each time? That's a hole so big, you could fly the Tardis through it.

6 out of 10

Monday, 20 May 2013

Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, etc.
Director: JJ Abrams
Studio: Paramount

When rogue Starfleet operative John Harrison bombs a secret installation in the heart of London, Captain James T Kirk must risk war with the Klingon Empire to bring the terrorist to justice.

Remember how Star Trek used to be the thinking man's science fiction? Well those days are long past, as JJ Abrams brings us the dumbest incarnation yet. Where his original 2009 reboot just barely held together under examination, this sequel is so full of holes, it falls in upon itself under the weight of it's own stupidity. An argument can be made that the general masses prefer this stripped down, trigger happy, bare bones version of Star Trek. I mean, just look at the box office receipts. Clearly, the audience is getting something they like...and that couldn't be more depressing.

The strangest part of this whole disaster is that despite all the promises to make the franchise easily accessible and new viewer friendly, it's basically a remake of 1982's classic 'The Wrath of Khan'. Where previous entries had simply mimicked the structure and brought a crazed tyrant up against the Enterprise *cough*Nemesis*cough*, 'Into Darkness' is far more literal. Entire sequences are copied from three decades ago. Writers Orci and Kurtzman could be accused of plagiarism, it's so blatant.

If the news hadn't already reached you, the film's lead villain is fan favourite, Khan Noonien Singh. Only it isn't really him and he isn't really the lead villain. But he should've been. Benedict Cumberbatch crafts a truly unique reinterpretation of the classic villain. He isn't remotely like the Ricardo Montalban version, in look, in speech, in mannerisms, in action. Cumberbatch is so unlike what came before, it's puzzling as to why he even needed to be Khan. He could've easily been a Starfleet terrorist called John Harrison, just as the film initially presents him. The twist of his true identity won't make the slightest difference to new viewers, while the fans will have seen it coming a mile away.

Similarly, Khan's war against Starfleet is nonsensical and ultimately fruitless. The true villain of the piece is Peter Weller's Admiral Marcus. With the post 9/11 vibe of future Earth, Marcus' worst instincts are coming to the fore, making him believe war with the neighboring Klingon Empire is inevitable and the only logical recourse for Starfleet is fierce militarisation. His plans are meant to be top secret, evoking Deep Space Nine's Section 31. However, I'm pretty sure they didn't have scale models of their mysterious evil ship displayed prominently in their office for all to see. I had to restrain myself from shouting at Kirk and Spock for not asking "gee, what's that ship, sir?". If that wasn't ridiculous enough, Marcus hands over 72 "advanced" torpedoes to the Enterprise and orders them to fire every single one at the Klingon homeworld. Not once do the crew wonder about the awfully specific number of torpedoes, what's inside of them or whether it's overkill to fire 72 missiles when one would do nicely. In terms of evil schemes, this is right up there with Scooby Doo's old man Withers. He would've gotten away with it too if not for those meddling kids!

Chris Pine is once again back as the young Captain Kirk. Despite working through his growing pains in the first movie and earning the Captain's chair, this film has him learning the exact same lessons twice over. 'Into Darkness' begins with Kirk flouting the Prime Directive, having a huge impact on a pre-Warp society (hell, pre-Wheel society) and most importantly, lying about it. William Shatner's James Kirk may've had his roguish moments in the course of his five year mission, but Pine's is ten times more reckless and prone to making bad decisions. Personally, I thought we'd gotten over this stage of his evolution by the end of the first film and now we'd see Pine living up to the rich heritage of the character. Unfortunately, this younger incarnation is little more than a petulant child, who doesn't hesitate to throw a hissy fit when he can't have his way. Even when he tries to martyr himself towards the end of the film, it doesn't play as heroic, but dumb. Pine simply isn't likable in the role of Kirk and I don't think any future films will evolve him to a point where he is.

Zachary Quinto's Spock comes off much better, having several strong scenes lamenting the loss of his homeworld in the first film and the resulting death wish he's working through. Where Leonard Nimoy once played the Vulcan as well-adjusted and open to exploring his burgeoning Human emotions, this is a Spock who's been dealt a devastating blow and is in the process of shutting those emotions down. He can't bring himself to become attached to people for fear of losing them. Even pushing away his closest cohorts in best friend Kirk and girlfriend Uhura. By the time he's chasing down Cumberbatch's Khan across the futuristic skyline, his top has well and truly blown. His frustrations fueling his fight against the literal superman. Ironically, it's this emotionless green blooded alien that gives the movie what little heart it has.

While JJ Abrams may have failed abysmally to draw out worthwhile performances or stories from the otherwise talented crew, the one area where he overwhelmingly succeeded was in the visuals. I can pick holes in virtually every aspect of the film, except this one. Whatever it's flaws, 'Into Darkness' looks absolutely fantastic. The colour palette is positively vivid, there's a number of ingenious fades and the image of the Enterprise falling out of the sky is unmatched. If they put as much thought into the story as into the visuals, we would've had an outright classic on our hands.

Being a long-time Star Trek fan, I'm almost the wrong audience for this movie. While it features more fan-service than ever before, this is not the Star Trek I knew and loved. The franchise as it was would've done anything humanly possible to avoid violence, in favour of finding the peaceful solution. This new incarnation solves it's problems at the end of a phaser. Why travel the hard road and understand your enemies, when you can fire a torpedo at them and marvel as it explodes in a variety of pretty colours. Where once Star Trek preached philosophy, it now screams spectacle. The franchise may be more profitable than ever before, but I left the film questioning whether it is now creatively bankrupt.

4 out of 10

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Thursday, 16 May 2013

Review: X-Factor #256

Writer: Peter David
Artist: Leonard Kirk
Publisher: Marvel Comics

After capturing all the remaining Lords of Hell, Mephisto has declared himself the winner of the Hell on Earth War. But victory may be premature, as Rahne's son Tier seeks to embrace his destiny and end the threat once and for all!

The "Hell on Earth War" has been brewing for a long time in the mind of writer Peter David. So on one hand, it must be freeing to have this story finally told. However, on the other hand, it's largely read as incoherent demonic gibberish. I'm the biggest X-Factor fan possible, so it genuinely pains me to say I haven't much enjoyed David's masterwork. Even with all the foreshadowing, I've felt the team wildly out of place dealing with the mystical side of the Marvel Universe. I much prefer the series when it focuses upon it's characters with personal stories in a noir detective agency setting. As a regular super-team battling the hounds of Hell itself, the premise loses a lot of it's luster. Here's hoping the final six issues bring the series back around to where it all began.

That's not to say it's been a complete loss. There have been a few noteworthy beats strewn throughout this muddled arc. Most notably the transformation of series lead Jamie Madrox into a mute horned demon. While it's sad to lose the central character for so long a time, there is a palpable sense of fear as to his eventual fate. His demonic dupes play a huge role in the eventual defeat of the villain, but upon vanquishing, our hero is swept away with all other magical beings to god knows where. I very much look forward to the team attempting to reclaim their lost leader and the end of his role as detective as the series wraps up.

Another big payoff contained within the issue comes in the form of Guido's ascension (or fall) to become the King of Hell. He's traditionally been a great source of humour amongst the many misfits of X-Factor, however in recent months, it's come to light that a brush with death left him a soulless husk of the man he once was. As a result, he's become a huge wildcard in the team's ongoing work, never quite knowing whether logic or reason will win out over simple opportunism. This issue serving as the perfect example, as Guido abruptly kills the supposed saviour Tier and takes the power of Hell for himself. David had spent so long building Tier up as the begrudging hero, I don't think anyone was expecting his life to come to such an unfulfilled end. Similarly, Guido was off to the side dealing with Monet for so long a time, it simply didn't occur to me he'd have a major role in the conclusion. It was not a selfish act however, as Guido took the power simply to resurrect the fallen Monet. Just how soulless the big lug is, remains to be seen.

I'd be remiss without mentioning the cold dismissal of X-Factor mainstays, Rictor and Shatterstar. They both perish in similar fashion, with Mephisto vaporising the pair in a blaze of glory. For David to get within sight of the proverbial finish-line of the series, yet still be able to casually murder two long term characters in a matter of panels, is damned impressive. Their sudden deaths at the hands of a mystical being leave the door open to a quick and painless reversal in future issues, however, I can't help but feel as though leaving these cruel acts in place may be the preferred option. How often are we, as readers, disappointed to find a character's death reversed within a ridiculously short amount of time. It's far ballsier to admit beloved superheroes could perish at the drop of a hat in the most unspectacular way possible.

This particular arc may've not been to my personal taste, but the writer Peter David has earned such good will over the course of these 100+ issues, I'm happy to give him a free pass on this occasion. The character beats of the story are as poignant as ever, I simply believe the team were out of their element on this case.

7 out of 10

Review: Age of Ultron #8

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Brandon Peterson
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Finding themselves captured by the Defenders, Wolverine and the Invisible Woman must escape their Starkguard captors and try to make sense of this new world of their own creation.

While there is nothing technically wrong with the Age of Ultron, as we enter the home stretch, I can't help but feel the entire exercise has been utterly redundant. After the last few issues worth of reality-shifting, we've been introduced to a radically different Marvel Universe. One featuring a bizarrely mutilated Iron Man, his personal Starkguard army and Captain America's merry band of rebel Defenders. All brilliant reinterpretations in their own right, but given how little time we're likely to spend with them in the final two issues, I'm struggling to care as to their fates or even their current plight. They're given just enough panels to react to how strange it is to know they're living in a broken timeline, before protagonists Wolverine and Sue Storm break out and seek to change everything back again.

Even more distressing is the apparent death of this universe as well. If it wasn't bad enough that Ultron trashed the regular universe, we're now witnessing an entirely new scenario of everything going to hell. As in the final pages, the Starkguard's mortal enemy, Morgana Le Fey attacks New York with her Doom/Loki hybrids and two Helicarriers crash into one another, taking the entire City with them. This new universe won't even get the chance to come back in future stories ala House of M or the Age of Apocalypse, it's done and dusted within two issues of it's creation. This seems utterly wasteful on Bendis' part. Why introduced all these new concepts, simply to eradicate them with a wave of a hand.

My favourite part of the issue comes when this new version of Tony Stark, more machine than man, marvels at the original universe and like any sane individual, points out all the ways this mess could've been easily averted. I know Wolverine has never been the smartest guy in the world, but his whole "kill Hank Pym early" plan is so full of holes, even the characters within the story are pointing them out! Tony rightfully asks whether Logan attempted to talk his colleague out of creating Ultron or could've planted a time-release virus in Ultron's programming, that would've allowed the Marvel Universe to unfold as it once did. Of course, being the same old stubborn Canuck we're used to, Wolverine would much rather solve the problem with his claws, Butterfly Effect be damned.

Don't get me wrong, the story is wonderfully written and aptly drawn, but the Marvel Universe as a whole has passed this story by. Most series had a single AU issue to their credit, but then carried on with regular storylines as if nothing ever happened. The final two issues of this jaunt will have to pull off some major twists and turns if this story is to become anything more than a footnote in continuity. The idea would've been better served as an isolated arc during Bendis' reign over the Avengers titles. As an event though, it's woefully short-sighted and easily dismissed. Just look at how all the attention is going on Jonathan Hickman's 'Infinity' instead of the end of 'Age of Ultron'. Wrap this one up quickly and it'll be no more remembered by the audience, as by the time-warped combatants.

5 out 10

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Review: Superman Unbound

Starring: Matthew Bomer, Stana Katic and John Noble
Director: James Tucker
Studio: Warner Premiere

After a deadly probe crashes to Earth, Superman must venture out into the Universe to stop the looming alien menace of Brainiac and save his adopted homeworld once again. Hearing tales of the cybernetic despot abducting entire cities from unsuspecting planets, could Krypton's capital, Kandor, be amongst them?

Adapting Geoff Johns' renowned Action Comics arc from 2008, this film marks a distinct departure from the DC Animated features which precede it. For acclaimed 'Batman: The Animated Series' producer Bruce Timm is no longer involved in these ongoing DVD releases. Replacing him is long-time colleague, James Tucker, who has an equally impressive resume featuring the likes of 'Legion of Super-Heroes' and 'Batman: Brave & The Bold'.

The difference in styles, both visually and creatively, between the two teams is immediately apparent. Where Timm had been aiming slightly more adult in his latest offerings 'Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Parts 1 & 2', Tucker brings us back to a more innocent family friendly vibe. A ridiculous statement considering this film features the massacre of multiple civilisations at the cold robotic hands of Brainiac, however, the plot is almost an afterthought, instead relying upon an endless stream of action scenes. After you've seen Superman (and Supergirl) punch something, the thousandth variation isn't going to do much more for you.

White Collar's Matthew Bomer takes on the role of Superman this time around, offering his usual blend of caring charm. Having been rumoured to play the big screen equivalent for several years, it's fitting that he should have his turn at bat, even with the change in medium. As such, he practically disappears into the role, as if it were one he were born to play. The fight scenes don't leave him much to do besides grunt, but he gets several juicy scenes with Supergirl and Brainiac.

Castle's Stana Katic, who you would imagine would make for a tremendous Lois Lane, simply did not have the material with this script. The opening scenes featuring her kidnap were surprisingly tiresome, as the disaffected Lane refused to fear for her safety, knowing either Superman or Supergirl would rush to her rescue at any moment. It's meant to be played as cool, calm and collected in the face of the danger, yet when even a hostage doesn't care about her plight, the audience struggles in turn. Similarly, her character beats whilst engaging with Bomer's Clark Kent failed to spark, leaving the feisty reporter coming across as nagging the poor hero.

John Noble makes for an intimidating Brainiac, with any sympathetic human tones being hidden behind a terrifying voice synthesizer. The visuals are equally as scary once the signature villain exits his technological cocoon, managing to swat Superman as if he were nothing but an insignificant bug. Which I was hugely grateful for, as the initially daunting robot probes quickly proved ineffective and our Kryptonian survivor was left with nothing but the true mastermind to challenge him.

'Superman Unbound' makes for an unspectacular debut for incoming producer James Tucker, his sensibilities far more blunted and child-friendly than recent classics from the very same DVD series. This adaptation failed to engage me in the same way that Geoff Johns' story did five years ago and the visuals were also too generic and lightweight for me to invest in any meaningful way. Not even attempting to match the stunning sights of Gary Frank's art. Think of this film in the same vain of 2007's 'Superman: Doomsday' i.e. big dumb fun, lots of fights and explosions, but lacking the heart and punch of the original material.

5 out of 10

Review: Iron Man 3

Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce and Sir Ben Kingsley
Director: Shane Black
Studio: Marvel

After close friend Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is hospitalised in the wake of a terrorist attack, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is forced to confront his demons and don the Iron Man armor anew. This time to defeat the ever-elusive Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley), a cult leader with a terrifying global reach. Meanwhile, with Tony's attention elsewhere, Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) fends off the ruthless advances of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and his  emerging A.I.M. organisation.

Never have I known a Marvel Studios film to be so divisive among it's audience. Origin films have every right to be, as they're the first exposure an audience will ever have to a character and their world, but to create such split opinion with a third entry is unheard of. By this point, you're either enjoying Tony Stark's shtick or you've long since left. However, quite a few long-time Iron Man fans have derided this entry, calling it ridiculous, overblown and nonsensical. As such, I'm here to say they're utterly wrong and it's simply a matter of astronomically high standards in the wake of 'The Avengers'. If your sense of humour is firmly attached, 'Iron Man 3' is the most fun you're likely to have in a cinema this year. Forget all others because they're simply pretenders to the throne.

Taking the directorial reigns from Jon Favreau this time around is cult favourite Shane Black. Where the first two entries in the Iron Man franchise had a definite mainstream feel, this third attempt is a lot more subversive. Black's story often comes out of left field, giving you the last thing you'd ever expect in a summer tentpole movie, but rather Black's own 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang'. Those of you sensitive to hard themes and choice cussing, be warned, because Black doesn't pull his punches. One of the best moments of the entire film comes from Downey's Tony Stark saying something to a small child that we've probably all thought, but would never dare say.

Speaking of which, after three wildly successful outings as the eccentric billionaire playboy, it's impressive that Robert Downey Jr still has something new to bring to the table. This time suffering from debilitating panic attacks in the wake of his sacrificial play at the end of 'The Avengers', Tony Stark is a broken man. He's the world's biggest egotist confronted by the reality that not everything revolves around him. There are bigger players on the board than he and far more powerful at that. This unspoken realisation manifests itself in the form of his near-obsessive-compulsive creation of new Iron Man suits. Fearing his traditional armour will fail when it counts the most, Stark has manufactured suits for damn near every scenario humanly (and inhumanly) possible. That giant weightlifting suit? I swear to god that's a Hulkbuster if ever I saw one.

As for the wise-cracking hero's supporting cast, they all acquit themselves nobly, frequently stealing big moments from the lead. However, they never truly take the spotlight as their own. No matter their crowd-pleasing antics, the focus will immediately shift back to the man on the poster and rightfully so. Both Favreau and Cheadle (as Happy Hogan and Jim Rhodes respectively) have developed a fantastic rapport with Downey Jr, trading barbs as if old high school buddies. The former delivering such big laughs, it's genuinely a shame the film can't feature more of the bumbling bodyguard. The latter getting his big hero moment in the climax of the film, rescuing the President no less. The switch for Rhodey from War Machine to Iron Patriot never quite gels, but I honestly don't think it was meant to. Playing up blind patriotism for the media is the entire crux of the film, so it's only right the theme should be explored on both sides of the proverbial coin. Even Rhodey himself isn't a fan of the rebranding, so I'd expect a hasty return to the War Machine identity with any future films.

Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts simultaneously becomes more inactive and yet active than ever before. She has more than few scenes whereby she is simply the cliche damsel in distress, however, being so smart and funny, the character nearly always rises above her station and eventually becomes a hero in her own right. She's not essential to 99% of the film, but in that lone 1%, she is absolutely vital and it makes three prior films of her being Tony's Girl Friday totally worth it.

As for the Mandarin, the major talking point about the villain is something I feel I should address and yet can't without spoiling a very big twist in the middle of the film. Anyone who hasn't seen the film already, shame on you for missing out, go and watch it immediately. Those of you who have seen the film already and know what I'm referring to, I was just as clueless upon entering as the rest of you. Having such a long and storied history with the Fu Manchu-like nemesis, it never once crossed my mind that he wasn't genuine. The Mandarin and his magic rings are usually the Joker to Stark's Batman. Unfortunately, this traditional approach would be next to impossible to adapt without coming across as a horribly racist characature. Marvel HAD to make these changes to the character or risked veering into bigoted territory. At first, I believed making him an Osama Bin Laden style terrorist to be an ingenious way for the studio to have their cake and eat it too, little did I know they'd have something far more profound up their sleeve. The eventual reveal of Sir Ben Kingsley to be a down-on-his-luck, drunken, womanising British thespian was downright masterful.

The true villain of the piece turns out to be none other than Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian and his A.I.M (Advanced Idea Mechanics) organisation. Borrowing heavily from the infamous Warren Ellis' Extremis arc, Killian has been developing this fusion of organic technology for the span of the entire franchise, albeit off-screen. His initial portrayal as a crippled geek features him chewing the scenery in all manner of ways, but after that fateful night meeting Tony at Cern in 1999, present day Killian is reigned in immediately. Instead taking on a quiet seething rage aimed towards those he feels betrayed him. An impressive feature of the Extremis virus allows Killian himself to go toe-to-toe with the Iron Man in the climax, adding a much needed human touch, something the previous films had lacked towards their end.

I genuinely can't say enough good things about this film. Both Marvel and Downey Jr make the process of these films appear effortless. If there's a scene where the actors and director aren't having fun, I've yet to see it. While this third entry neatly wraps up what is potentially a perfect trilogy, there is still such creativity on display that I would happily watch the further adventures of Tony Stark for several films yet. Roll on 'Avengers 2' or 'Iron Man 4'. Whichever comes first.

9 out of 10

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Review: The Superior Spider-Man #9

Writer: Dan Slott
Artist: Ryan Stegman
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Having quietly guided the Superior Spider-Man's actions for the past eight issues, Peter Parker's number is up all over again, as Doc Ock has become aware of our Spectacular narrator and intends to wipe him out once and for all!

In what can only be described as an encore to Amazing Spider-Man #700, writer Dan Slott is once again in the Peter Parker extermination business. Having physically killed our hero mere issues ago, now comes the psychological death. The ghost we've seen haunting Otto's exploits is explained away as the sum of Peter's memories having taken on a life of their own. These memories have held the former super-villain back at key junctures, but this issue marks his official coming out, well and truly off the leash of morals.

Rather than the simple medical procedure hinted at in the real world, the issue takes on a far more meta-physical bent, taking place almost entirely in the crumbling memories of Parker as they're wiped away by the controlling Octavius. This allows for one final battle between the pair, providing valuable insight into the minds of Spider-Man, old and new.

At first, this plays out as one would expect any other mindscape story to, with the memories of Peter's friends coming to his aid, almost wrestling control of the body back to it's wise-cracking original owner. However, that soon changes, as Octavius unleashes a legion of Spider-Man's deepest nightmares on the unsuspecting young man. Confronted by his most renowned villains, his own personal failures and the stark realisation that Ock may infact be a better hero than him, Peter's resolve crumbles. Particularly, at the notion he would've let an innocent child die in an effort to save himself last issue. Peter Parker died as he lived, laying a colossal guilt-trip on himself.

The Superior Spider-Man began with the promise of Otto Octavius assuming the mantle, but the gesture has often felt half-hearted, as the presence of Peter Parker continued to loom over the book. Nine issues late, the series will finally get to live up to it's premise, devoid of any semblance of it's former star. Going forward, the actions of this Superior Spider-Man will be his and his alone.

Given the radical nature of this paradigm shift, Dan Slott has spent the past few months easing us into the new status quo. Now that all the purists' complaints have been voiced and even the most hardened fanboy is done crying, Peter's role is fulfilled and we're ready for the band-aid to be ripped away entirely.

9 out of 10

Preview: New concept art from Captain America 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy

Monday, 29 April 2013

News: Peter David closes X-Factor Investigations

Since returning in 2004 with the acclaimed 'Madrox: Multiple Choice' mini-series, Peter David's X-Factor has gone from strength to strength, weathering numerous Mutant storms, carving out it's own noir niche in the Marvel Universe. Unfortunately, that comes to an end with September's issue 262, as the writer brings the series to a close.

Rather than facing cancellation or a relaunch, David himself has chosen to end the series. After completing the "Hell on Earth War" storyline, the writer believed he'd reached a natural conclusion.

"It was basically decided that the 'Hell on Earth War' was as major a storyline as we were going to do,"

"I'd been building toward it for so long that it simply seemed a logical culmination to the entire series. So we decided to wrap it up. It's been going for 10 years, after all."

I, for one, will be sad to see the series go. No matter which radical crossover was happening in the core X-Men titles, X-Factor provided a safe haven for casual readers. Off in it's own little corner, it told intelligent standalone tales, that weren't beholden to the rest of the line.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 9 #20

Writer: Andrew Chambliss
Artist: Karl Moline
Publisher: Dark Horse

Dawn is at death's door because of her Sister's decision to destroy the Seed of Magic in this world. To save his girlfriend from this terrible fate, Xander takes desperate measures.

Xander Harris has always had the short end of the stick when it comes to his role in the "Scooby Gang". He isn't a Slayer, he isn't a Witch, he isn't a Demon, he isn't a Werewolf, he isn't a Vampire, he isn't even a Watcher. Through nine years, the man has remained just that, a man. No different than any one of us reading this comic. In a way, he is us. Where everyone else has had fantastical stories, taking them further and further away from normality, Xander has been the character the audience can identify with. This detachment from the monstrous world around him is both a gift and a curse. While he gets to be their dependable rock in a crisis, their one lone island of sanity, he's powerless to help them. They live in a world that would be lethal to him. One lone moment with a villain and he literally loses an eye. Which makes stories like this one all the more impressive. When the average man isn't content to merely watch his loved ones suffer and steps up to the plate.

In seeing his girlfriend, Dawn, on the verge of death, Xander is compelled to take action. Throwing his hat in with some extremely questionable characters, with the best of intentions. This pair should be familiar to regular readers, being rogue Slayer Simone and power vacuum Severin. Two of the most dangerous original creations for the Buffy comic so far. This is them stepping up from Big Bads in waiting to full blown Mwah-ha-ha. The scariest thing is just how logical and convincing their pitch to Xander is. There's a distinct vibe of "sure, they're dicks, but this could actually be helpful". So I'm expecting it all to go horribly wrong in 3...2...1.

The plan itself is rather ingenious, assuming everyone is playing above board and telling the truth. Having usurped the visiting Illyria's time travel powers in a previous issue, Severin is now capable of going back and changing history however he sees fit. As all three of their problems started around the end of Season 8, they believe travelling back to before Twilight and ensuring the villain's rise never comes to pass, everything will be solved with a big bow on top. Giles won't die, Dawn won't die, Severin's girlfriend won't die, Simone can give being a Slayer one last try (yeah, right), etc. But that's just too easy. Not to mention, insulting to anyone who happens to have bought and read 40+ issues of this "Season" via Buffy, Angel & Faith, Spike, Willow. There's no way in hell they get to press that big red cosmic reset button, no matter how much they want to.

This issue also marks the return of one Williow Rosenberg, who has been absent for the best part of Season 9. Having struggled with losing her connection to Magic, Willow has spent the past few months travelling through various Demon dimensions in an attempt to harness their power and bring it back to our own world. This took her through a fair few issues of "Angel & Faith", as well as her own five issue mini-series. So she hasn't exactly been gone from us, just the usual suspects like Buffy and Xander (and boy did they screw up in her absence). Given the creepy addict vibe the television series reveled in towards the end, this quest of Willow's to bring Magic back to the world has always sat uneasily with me. She can dress it up however she wants, about how we're now lacking hope and inspiration, but I feel like she just couldn't cope without it. She's an addict and she needed her fix. When she gave up before, it was her choice and she knew it was still out there, should she ever need it. But this time, Magic was ripped away from her. It literally wasn't an option anymore and I would've loved a deeper exploration of those themes. This is more the light and fluffy version, where she turns up with Magic in tow and everyone's happy again.

With this issue, it feels as though Season 9 is gearing up for a big sprint to the finish. The villains are finally in play in a meaningful way, beloved characters lives are at risk and there are moral quandaries aplenty. If Andrew Chambliss can keep twisting that proverbial knife in their backs, we're in for a treat. Season 9 is most definitely living up to it's mantra of more personal, less fantastical. Xander being the living embodiment.

9 out of 10

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Thursday, 18 April 2013

Review: Justice League #19

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Ivan Reis
Publisher: DC Comics

While the heroes are distracted by the tragedies in their lives, a masked assailant breaks into the Batcave. Taking out the unsuspecting Jason Todd and Alfred Pennyworth, the thief proceeds directly to a vault, containing dangerous items Batman has gathered secretly, designed specifically to take down the Justice League!

Now, it's impossible to address this issue without first pointing out the striking similarities to the famous "Tower of Babel" (JLA #43 - 46) storyline. Back in 2000, Mark Waid wrote a story whereby Batman had secretly compiled contingency plans for taking down specific members of the Justice League, should they ever go rogue and need to be dealt with. The idea of the Dark Knight safeguarding the world against his own friends seems to be a popular trope, as it's been repeatedly re-used since then. Between 2005's "The OMAC Project" and 2012's "Justice League: Doom", Batman has defeated his teammates numerous times. So to see these very same ideas pop up yet again, in a Geoff Johns book no less, tells me Bruce really needs to stop plotting the downfall of everyone he cares about. When he sits down to write these plans, he shouldn't be anticipating having to use them himself, but figuring out which villain is going to make a beeline towards him and use that plan to their own ends!

Also, while I'm not adverse to opening up the Justice League's world and using some of the individual character's supporting casts, I was truly taken aback when I flipped to the first page to find Red Hood and Alfred the Butler. It felt so random to have them there, even though they have every right. You just don't expect them to be mourning the events of Batman Incorporated in a Justice League book. Even though they both feature the adventures of Batman, there's usually a huge degree of compartmentalisation and the two portrayals to have no real effect on one another. I was similarly surprised with last month's issue, when Nightwing turned down League membership because he was still pissed at Batman due to "Death of the Family. Geoff Johns is clearly trying to make the DC Universe one big cohesive whole, I guess I'm just not used to it yet.

Two characters who are definitely benefiting from a functional shared universe are Firestorm and the new female Atom. Neither hero has had much success since the New 52 began, so bringing them both into the fold of the core Justice League book gives them a nice boost, where previously readers could take them or leave them. Firestorm has had a particularly traumatic time of it lately with his troubled ongoing series, which could never truly find a workable status quo. The union of Ronnie Raymond and Jason Rusch has had more than a few growing pains, so it's a joy to see them back to their more affable pre-Flashpoint selves. All the more credit to Johns for the creation of this new Atom. Where a typical fanboy may question his not using the original Atom, Ray Palmer, I didn't have much of an attachment to the character in the first place, he just happened to be the first attempt. So who is under the cowl is neither here nor there. For what it's worth, this new girl taking on the mantle seems like a lot of fun and is sure to find fans quickly.

The Superman/Wonder Woman romance continues to simmer in the background of the series. Where in the recent "Throne of Atlantis" crossover, Clark was attempting to soften Diana's view of humanity and potentially calm her warrior's instincts, the dynamic flips here. Rather than expose Clark to a noble trait of her own lifestyle, Diana shows him the worst humanity is capable of and has a speech that borders on a mustache-twirling supervillain, looking to impose her "just" will by any means necessary. Batman appears before she really puts her foot in her mouth, but it's clear that this incarnation of Wonder Woman isn't quite as friendly as she had been in the past. The Amazon could very easily lead Superman down the wrong path with the best of intentions, so I'm hoping their fling is short-lived before they do something they can't take back. After all, as we saw in the Justice League International Annual, one kiss between the pair was enough to erase Booster Gold from history. There's no telling what could go wrong the longer these two stay together.

Unlike the beginning of this volume, which tended towards big dumb fun, Johns is slowly returning to his traditional nuanced approach, preferring genuine character drama over the sight of muscly gods hitting one another. Every character in this book is working on several different levels, whether it be acting out, holding back suspicions, cracking wise, the works. There are genuine mysteries at play in this series and only now are we beginning to feel the ominous vibe sweeping across it's pages. Johns has finally found his feet on Justice League, I just wish it hadn't taken a year to get here.

9 out of 10

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Review: Nightwing #19

Writer: Kyle Higgins
Artist: Brett Booth
Publisher: DC Comics

With last issue's revelation that his parent's killer (Tony Zucco) is still alive and loose on the streets of Chicago, Dick Grayson packs his bags and heads for the Windy City! A change in venue for any series can be risky, as that generally means uprooting an entire cast and trying to justify their presence in this new location. For some inexplicable reason, the one hero who seems to be friends with everyone, has zero ties to where he sets up shop. Just like when Chuck Dixon packed Dick up and sent him down the river to Bludhaven all those years ago, it really is as simple as hopping a bus. Nightwing has to be the most transient superhero in history!

To be fair, I think this latest volume has been blighted somewhat by it's reliance on the core Bat-books. While building the central mystery of Haley's Circus, the writer Higgins often got sucked into the crossover flavour of the month. Where Dick was meant to be reacting to his own problems, he instead had the consequences of "The Court of Owls", "Death of the Family" or "Batman Incorporated" to deal with. To any Nightwing fans not reading those other books, they must have been wondering just what the hell was going on. The move to Chicago and a healthy distance from the rest of the Bat-family will most likely solve these complaints, allowing Nightwing to be a hero in his own right.

Ironically, within these first few pages of being in Chicago,  I was struck by the similarity to Gotham. Not necessarily due to the style of building or even the people, but by Nightwing being chased across rooftops by the local Police. The sequence bore an uncanny resemblance to the opening pages of Geoff Johns' Justice League #1 from several years ago, wherein Batman was chased in identically framed panels by the GCPD. But the similarity ends quickly, as where Batman had the good luck to stumble across Green Lantern, who made short work of his pursuers, Nightwing is well and truly on his own. Taking two shots to the back for his troubles.

The story itself is mostly scene-setting, as Dick moves to this new city and attempts to set himself up in both his civilian and superhero guises. His hours as Nightwing are the relatively simple part, as hitting the criminal underworld where it hurts is what he does best. However, finding somewhere to stay in his off-hours is another trial entirely. Having made the journey to Chicago on such short notice, he's basically at the whim of whatever cheap listing he can find on the internet. Soon settling upon a simple sub-letting, future issues will inevitably show Dick having to deal with hiding his double life from a roommate. A genre staple if ever I heard one! Gail Simone's Batgirl has been dealing with a similar situation recently, but let's hope this roommate is as normal as they come, as I'm not sure we need another random transgender announcement any time soon.

The incoming artwork of Brett Booth is sure to be a major talking-point going forward. Up until this point, the series was anchored by Eddy Barrows' real world aesthetic, however if you've read an issue of Teen Titans recently, you'll know Booth is anything but. Don't fret though, as this isn't a bad change. Booth's art echos the vintage days of noted former Nightwing illustrator Scott McDaniel, who would always have the hero in mid-air, leaping over rooftops, pulling off daredevil acrobatic feats, even in his quieter moments. As such, Booth brings us our most athletic depiction of Nightwing since the New 52 began. He adds a few unnecessary flourishes to the uniform around the neck and waist, but I think that's just an effort to put his mark on the character.

The villain of the piece (and for the foreseeable future) appears to be the Prankster. We don't learn much about the new(?) rogue in this lone issue, merely how much of an inconvenience they've been to the Mayor of Chicago and his criminal cohorts. The costume doesn't do much for me and so far they're only pestering generic corrupt officials, ergo not the most revolutionary story ever told. I was hoping Higgins might've swung for the fences with these latest issues, having been freed from the constraints of Haley's Circus and essentially being gifted a new beginning. Nightwing's rogues gallery is especially in need of work, having been gutted over the course of several years worth of terrible DC editorial decisions. Not since the days of Blockbuster, Torque, Nitewing, Shrike, Brutale, Lady Vic, etc, has Dick actually faced a legitimate threat. But while Prankster may not be my cup of tea, I have high hopes for the returning Tony Zucco. You can't have a villain with more pathos than having murdered the heroes' parents in cold blood. If Higgins plays his cards right, he could have a Nightwing story for the ages.

7 out of 10

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Review: Age of Ultron #6

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Brandon Peterson and Carlos Pacheco
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Now the survivors have split into their respective teams, with their own unique ideas as to how to stop Ultron, it's backwards and forwards, as we travel to the far-flung future and back to the early days of the Marvel Universe itself. Continuity is officially swiss-cheese!

As mentioned in my last review, the far more linear side of things is handled by Captain America's team, who've elected to travel to the far future and attack Ultron at the source. But that's frustratingly narrow thinking for a team that includes a futurist like Tony Stark. They shouldn't be thinking about avenging the havoc already wrought, they should instead be focusing their efforts on making sure it never happened in the first place. But more on that later. The future team don't really have a lot to do, truth be told. They arrive at their destination, make a bolt for what's left of New York, are promptly attacked and most likely killed. Ultron isn't known for his mercy and he shows none here. Captain America takes an especially nasty hit, which may have outright vaporised his head, but that could just be awkward art, as it was a little unclear. I did however enjoy the Iron Man beats that came before the attack. As someone who deals in technology day in, day out, Tony Stark has a unique perspective on what Ultron has done with the world in their absence. It's beautiful. Completely devoid of life, but damn does the robot do machines justice.

While I'm loathe to agree with another of Wolverine's infamous "let's murder the threat, even if it's innocent" plans, the tiny Canuck definitely has a point with his plan to eliminate Hank Pym and it's this begrudging acceptance that leaves his time-travel partner, Sue Storm, conflicted for the whole of the issue. The Invisible Woman has just suffered the loss of her entire family at the hands of Ultron and despite initially being drafted to the future team, inexplicably finds herself drawn towards the assassination side of things. This is a Sue Storm unlike any one we've met before, as she's clearly stricken with grief and willing to entertain any notion that brings her loved ones back. There are shades of the moral woman we've been reading about for the past fifty years, but like all human beings, we're oh so flawed and that leads to our favourite heroine looking the other way at a vital juncture.

The consequences of Wolverine's murderous act are likely to be far-reaching, creating a Marvel Universe entirely unlike the one we've come to know and love. What does the world look like minus one Hank Pym? Numerous adventures over the course of five decades have hinged upon the quick thinking of this man. While Logan and Sue may have put an end to the Ultron threat for the moment, they've opened a whole new can of worms, which may be impossible to put back the way they were. Just in recent memory alone, the entire Skrull invasion hinged on his involvement, he deftly led the Mighty Avengers into battle multiple times and even mentored the next generation at Avengers Academy. There's no telling which one of those situations would have proved lethal to the world without Hank at the helm. For all the evil the man unleashed upon the world, he did just as much good trying to redeem himself.

The story itself remains consistent with the previous five issues, keeping the same decompressed pace that Bendis' Avengers comics are renowned for. However, with Bryan Hitch leaving the series with last week's issue 5, all visual continuity is out the window. Peterson and Pacheco are wonderful artists in their own right, but struggle to match the realism of Hitch's issues. To look at it, it feels less like an event and more like filler. Certainly not carrying the weight that the events involved deserved. If they had been the art team from the beginning, things probably would've been different, with the story coming together as a coherent whole. But in it's current form, it's as though three series were meshed as one. Comic book publishers are becoming far too concerned with the scheduling of their series, meaning the end product gets rushed in a effort to meet a certain date. It's clearly taken Hitch several years to complete the first five issues, yet Peterson and Pacheco could've knocked this one out in the past month. It's a change of pace that's difficult to ignore.

Don't get me wrong though, I enjoyed this issue far more than the others, simply due to the increased plot progression. The heroes have felt remarkably static for the past five issues, not truly taking any action against their mechanical menace. The actions they do take here, while flawed and sure to end badly, at least they're up off their asses and doing something. The time for wallowing in self-pity is over, now it's time to kick some ass!

7 out of 10

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Review: Uncanny X-Men #4

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Chris Bachalo
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Arriving at the doors of the Jean Grey School in Westchester, rebel leader Cyclops goes on a recruitment drive! Declaring "to me, my X-Men", the former Headmaster certainly has guts. But not for much longer if Wolverine has his way.

The divide between Cyclops and Wolverine has been the driving force of X-Men comics for the past three years. Ever since the "Schism" event led to half the team choosing to stay with Scott on the Mutant isle of Utopia and half choosing to leave with Logan, aspiring to restart the School in keeping with Professor Xavier's dream. There is a fundamental divide, straight down the middle of the Mutant community, neither side entirely sure of how best to proceed in a world that hates them. But where Wolverine preaches peaceful co-existence (yes, I know how ludicrous that sounds), Cyclops sees the reality of the world around him and wants Mutants to be a force to be reckoned with. If Humanity won't leave his people alone to live in peace, he'll fight them tooth and nail for every second of freedom. Not unlike the Magneto of old. Only younger, dashing, not ranting like a mad man and definitely not leading a team of self-proclaimed EVIL Mutants (yeah, dumb move there Erik).

Whereas the biased opinions featured in sister-series "All-New X-Men" would have you believe Cyclops to be a radical lunatic looking to incite full-blown war and Mutant Genocide ( exactly would that benefit him again?), "Uncanny X-Men" tends to feature the man himself and as such, a far more reasonable, grounded representation of the racial icon. The sad thing is, the worst insults come from people who used to call him a friend mere months ago. Honestly, you kill one mentor under the influence of a cosmic-being and suddenly you're a different person. Under those rules, half the Marvel Universe shouldn't be speaking to each other! Any scenes featuring Kitty, Storm, Wolverine or Beast are borderline insufferable with their inability to hold an adult conversation with a long-time friend like Scott. They'll teach forgiveness of Humanity to their pupils, just not forgiveness of their friends and colleagues. Real mature, guys.

Thankfully, the Cyclops character assassination takes a backseat, as Bendis examines the same scene that ended "All-New X-Men", only from the on-looking perspective of the Stepford Cuckoos (and Emma Frost, when she can get her powers to work). You see the same actions as before, taking place in the background, but this time with the true focus on the borderline torture of Frost at the hands of her former students. The Cuckoos are not happy to see their mentor again and aren't shy about showing it. Quickly realising that Emma's powers have been "broken" in the wake of the Phoenix disaster, the person that the Cuckoos once feared most, becomes little more than frightened prey, toyed with by a superior predator. Honestly, by the time the issue closes, you get the sense the Cuckoos have joined up with Scott's Uncanny team not out of any ingrained loyalty, but simply to mess with Emma some more.

With a book called "All-New X-Men" on the stands, it's ironically "Uncanny X-Men" that features the greatest wealth of new Mutant characters. While the adults are off having a pissing contest with their former friends, Scott's new recruits are making themselves at home in the former Weapon X facility turned Xavier School. It's only now dawning on them that this is their life and it's not simply a matter of "going home". Thankfully, Bendis doesn't wallow in the angst of their new situation, but instead has fun with it. As questionable as the leaders have become, these children are 100% goofballs and very quickly find themselves getting into japes in the Danger Room. Not to mention, something as simple as picking which room to sleep in.

An unfortunate side effect of Marvel's scheduling means that this issue of "Uncanny" unintentionally spoils the big reveal of which original X-Man joined the team in the wake of last week's "All-New" cliffhanger. I'm sure the consequences of this character's "defection" will be touched upon ad infinitum, but as far as shock and awe is concerned, the cat is out of the bag. The man of the hour is none other than Warren Worthington III aka Angel. After his failed attempt to bolt back to his own time (even if he can't remember it), it's really no surprise that he wants nothing more to do with the Jean Grey School. If he can't get home, getting away from those do-gooding nutjobs is the next best thing! As evidenced by the issue of "All-New" in question, these time-displaced original X-Men are beginning to ask the right questions, ones that are making the teachers at Wolverine's school all the more uncomfortable as they struggle to justify their own lies. Say what you want about Cyclops, the man is telling the truth.

8 out of 10

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News: Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier Concept Art

As you may have noticed over the past few days, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier has begun filming and as such, is leaking concept art like a sieve.

The most prominent pictures to have hit the net show Cap sporting yet another new costume, making this his third in as many movies. Admittedly, his Avengers garb had it's flaws and looked somewhat out of place in the context of the real-world heroes. I mean, when Thor comes out looking better, you know you've got a problem.

This particular model appears to be based upon Ed Brubaker's "Steve Rogers: Super-Soldier" costume, which the character wore once returned from the dead, only to find his partner Bucky filling the role of Captain America. Taking the position as Director of SHIELD, Steve opted for this paired down, basic look. Far less colour and pomp than the icon he was originally intended as.

Speaking of Bucky, the former sidekick appears to have made the transition from page to screen almost entirely intact. While I'd never personally envisaged Sebastian Stan in the role, even in the first film, Marvel have nailed the look. Metal arm, check. Long shaggy mane, check. All looks in order here.

Last but not least, we get a feel for Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson aka The Falcon. The character has long been a partner to Captain America, but has fallen into obscurity in recent years. I'm genuinely excited to see him dusted off for the big screen treatment. His costume, while not as colourful as his comic book counterpart, looks far more in keeping with the world of SHIELD. It's all about sleek leather jumpsuits with those guys. The wings themselves are appropriately high-tech and I expect to see him gliding gracefully throughout the film. Now, whether he'll talk to his pet falcon, that's another thing entirely.

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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Review: Batman #19

Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Greg Capullo
Publisher: DC Comics

With the death of his son, Damian, fresh on his mind, Bruce Wayne may be about to lose himself, only not in the way you think!

While not strictly a "Requiem" issue for the recently fallen Robin, this issue holds another important piece of the grieving process for our favourite Dark Knight. Amid an outbreak of uncharacteristic robberies, Batman can be found locked away in the deep dark recesses of the Batcave, watching footage of recent missions with his dearly-departed partner from the comfort of his cowl-cam. After the relationship-breaking antics of "Death of the Family", seeing Bruce retreat into himself, with no one other than Alfred to fall back on, is heart-breaking. This is clearly a time for the entire Bat-family to pull together, but they're further apart than ever before. And if the cover wasn't clear enough, writer Scott Snyder even seeks to challenge Jim Gordon's faith in his long-time trusted friend.

Like most DC comics this month, it's all about the cover. The "surprising" gatefold covers were meant to be part of a promotion known as "WTF?", but two seconds after releasing the publicity for it, DC realised they'd put a popular swear word on the front cover of a supposed children's medium. Sufficed to say, the promotion was shot down almost immediately and now it's more of a theme than a branding. Unfortunately, these covers seem to be purely about the shock value, rather than any attempt at a genuinely intriguing plot. No matter how gorgeous a picture of Bruce Wayne pulling a gun on Jim Gordon that Capullo can draw, I don't think anyone in their right mind will put much faith in the story to genuinely feature that beat as it appears here. To Snyder's credit, he addresses it far more succinctly than his fellow DC writers, playing the mystery for fun just as much as for shock. I particularly enjoyed the beat where Bruce ran over Jim on his motorcycle, there's something morbidly funny about that panel.

It's difficult to address the story of the issue without touching upon the central mystery of why these upstanding citizens would commit such heinous crimes. But any Bat-fan worth a damn will probably figure out what's going on and who's causing it. There are only so many villains in Batman's rogues gallery that can bring about such behaviour in their victims and I'm genuinely happy to see them make their debut in the New 52, having been almost entirely absent since the line wide reboot several years ago.

Ultimately, I'm hugely impressed by Snyder's continued efforts on this series. While Grant Morrison's "Batman Incorporated" may steal all the headlines with it's Robin-killing shenanigans, that book has always felt disjointed and more of an experiment on Morrison's part to see what messed up things he can do to Batman and see if he'll spring back as an icon. Whereas, Snyder is far more interested in the person under the cowl. This core Batman series grounds the entire line more than I can say, piecing together the puzzle that is 10+ ongoing monthly series and still having the power to tell it's own story. It'd be easy for every Bat-book under the sun to get lost in a sea of Damian-related grieving *cough*Batman&Robin*cough*, but the far crueler realisation is that life goes on, even without that snobby murderous punk with a heart of gold. There will always be a case. There will always be a villain. There will always be Batman.

9 out of 10

Review: Age of Ultron #5

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Bryan Hitch
Publisher: Marvel Comics

We reach the halfway point of Marvel's 2013 summer event and the story that's been quietly simmering for four issues finally boils over, bringing us to the crux of the series - time travel. After last issue's big Vision-shaped discovery by Luke Cage, namely that big bad Ultron isn't even in the same time-frame as our heroes, the survivors weigh up their options from the comfort of Nick Fury's super-secret Savage Land hideaway.

Once arriving, the question isn't so much how the heroes will strike back against Ultron, but when. As it turns out, Fury has been stashing one of Doctor Doom's old time platforms for a rainy day and it doesn't get more rainy than a shower of shiny golden robots systematically destroying the world. If memory serves correct, said time platform doesn't affect the current timeline, merely create a new alternate one. I vaguely recall a Fantastic Four annual hinging on a future Johnny Storm coming back to avert a tragedy, but rather than save his own family, he merely created a world where they continued to live. But that might just be my fanboy mind picking holes in Bendis' chosen plot device.

With the method of the remaining heroes' kamikaze mission decided, they then have to choose the perfect moment to strike at Ultron and the survivors are of two minds on the matter. While the linear side of things is covered nicely by Nick Fury's strike team, heading off into the far-flung future to attack the Ultron directly responsible for this assault, the far more interesting approach comes in the final pages, as Wolverine declares his intention to travel back and kill Hank Pym (aka Ant-Man aka Ultron's creator), before he can birth this monstrous AI upon the world. The small hairy canuck aims to misbehave and there's no telling what affect he'll have on Marvel Universe continuity as a result.

As explored in the opening pages, to much wordier effect, Pym himself had even considered travelling back to a time before Ultron and warn his past self of the horrors his creation will inflict. But as correctly pointed out by his fellow scientists, Tony Stark and Reed Richards, where does one draw the line when "correcting" past mistakes? Do they leave it at Ultron or do they travel back even further and stop Hitler from kickstarting World War II or do they go back even further and knock that insidious apple out of Eve's hand. The message Bendis is trying to relay is that altering time is a slippery slope and there's no clear end in sight. As much as the ability may aid the heroes in this time of need, it's just as likely to be abused by the wrong people. Hell, in this case, the heroes ARE the wrong people. They want to murder a founding Avenger!

Age of Ultron #5 marks a profound turning point in the course of this series, not only with the changing stakes of the situation, but behind the scenes as well. The first half of this ten part story was written nearly three years ago at this point, making for numerous visual and character inconsistencies in the opening salvo. Wrong costumes for the most part, but wrong characterisation entirely in Spider-Man's case, who fails to reflect his new "Superior" attitude. Like most characters in the book, their current status quo's weren't even an inkling in their creator's eye while Bendis was writing and Hitch was illustrating way back in 2010. As such, issue five brings to a close Bryan Hitch's work on the series, gracefully departing with some fine work, before the story kicks into another gear entirely. I'll miss the consistency of his artwork on the book going forward, but I'll be grateful for an up-to-date artist who isn't trying to jam old ideas into present day continuity. It's Marvel NOW, not Marvel THEN.

The story itself continues to tick over, giving us enough to keep our interest, but not really engaging at the same time. There's an inherent flaw in time travel stories, whereby at the back of your mind, you know everything will snap back to "how it should be". Marvel have so many plates spinning at the moment, I can't believe they'd let a three year old pet project dictate their entire line's future. This is basically Bendis wrapping up a few loose ends from his legendary run on the Avengers franchise. It's more of an encore, than a beginning. Play the hits one last time, then respectfully leave the stage. After all, Jonathan Hickman's Avengers series has shot off in another direction entirely. So much so, Age of Ultron is squarely in the rear view mirror, even as it continues.

6 out of 10

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Review: Superior Spider-Man #5

Writer: Dan Slott
Artist: Giuseppe Camuncoli
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Otto Octavius continues to masquerade as Spider-Man in the captive body of Peter Parker. The hero helplessly watches as his greatest enemy forces him to cross the most important line of all!

I haven't been the biggest fan of Spider-Man comics in recent years, what with 'One More Day' having done a decidedly good job at turning me off the character for the best part of five years. However, Dan Slott has done a wonderful job at coaxing me back with this pseudo-relaunch as the Superior Spider-Man. Where I'd grown quite bored of the regular Peter Parker status-quo (great responsibility, yada yada yada), there's a perverse joy in watching one of the biggest supervillains of modern day comics masquerade as said hero. Doctor Octopus in the body of Peter Parker has instantly become far more entertaining than the traditional angst-ridden hero. Having no guilt over his less-than-noble methods has allowed Otto to become a better Spider-Man than Peter ever was!

This particular issue brings Octavius head to head with one of Peter Parker's greatest failures (at least recently) - the mass-murdering psychopath, Massacre. Where the Amazing Spider-Man would capture the disturbed villain and seek justice, the Superior Spider-Man has no qualms with tit for tat. If Massacre is willing to kill, so too must this new Spider-Man. Peter Parker's ghostly conscious was able to stay Otto's hand once already, when the good Doctor was about to kill a hapless villain, but will he have the willpower to do it again?

To me, the most fascinating part of the book is not the hero's dilemma (or lack thereof), but instead the surreal deal a businesswoman is willing to enter into with Massacre. Having seen the negative publicity his actions have brought to her own company (where his last set of killings took place), she's quietly approached by the madman himself, angling for a multi-million dollar payday to commit atrocities wearing brand products from competitors of her choosing. At the expense of innocent lives, this woman can drive business away from her rivals and back towards herself. If it were not a horrifying loss of life, it'd be ingenious.

While this is going on, Octavius procrastinates by visiting a tutor in aid of finishing Parker's long incomplete doctorate. Scarily, this meeting had romantic overtones, at least in my interpretation. Anna Marconi is a delightfully wry little person (her words, not mine) and over the course of their session, the pair develop a playful mutual respect. Science soon turns into dinner, turns into what I think was flirting. I'm not sure though, as Octavius would no doubt be terrible at doing so and the idea of him flirting makes my stomach turn a little. The idea of Doc Ock romancing someone in Peter Parker's body is creepy on so many levels!

Another standout moment comes when Spider-Man is in the middle of saving several of Massacre's hostages. Octavius remarks just what an oddity it is to be saving so few lives, when only a short time before, he was threatening to kill billions and render Humanity extinct. He's clearly learning from his experiences as the new Spider-Man, but something tells me he's going to take all the wrong lessons along the way. He may strive to save lives now, but lots of people are going to suffer for him to achieve that.

8 out of 10

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