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