Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Age of Ultron is a B-plus, and here's why.

So I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron on Friday night and much as I liked most of it, and much as I thought I'd never need to say this—Joss Whedon, you need to move on.

I know, I know, Joss is moving on; this is his last contracted Marvel movie, and the Russo brothers (of Winter Soldier fame) will be taking over future installments in the Avengers franchise. But this isn't the sendoff I would have liked. I wanted to miss Joss when he was gone.

Okay. Time to put on my big-fangirl pants and deal. I had very high expectations for this movie and they weren't met, that's all. Most of my disappointment here is that I expected this movie to be as awesome as the first one and it was just kinda goodish. Goodish isn't so bad. It's only bad when you expected better.

For those who want the capsule description, Avengers: Age of Ultron mostly focuses on what happens when the ad hoc superteam of the first Avengers movie has to grow up and deal with the world in a systematic, adult way. Spoiler: it doesn't go well. When Tony Stark decides to use a little evil science to kickstart his world-defending AI system (because what could possibly go wrong with that?), the world pretty much goes to hell in a handbasket and the good guys spend two hours trying to fix it, with mixed results. I'm going to start with the good before I move on to the problematic.

Now, because this is me and I tend to dwell on the things that annoy me, I'll probably have more to say on the negative side of the balance sheet, so I want to establish right up front that as much as I dislike the problematic stuff, I consider AoU a pretty good movie overall. If the first Avengers was an A, this is a B-plus. It's good, okay? You'll have fun. It's just not without its problems, is all. And one or two (or three) of those problems are significant.

All right. Here we go. This is your last spoiler warning ...

The good:

1. This is a really darned good superhero movie. Seriously. Everything you look for in a tentpole popcorn flick is here. And it's all done really well. A lot of stuff blows up. There's a whirlwind tour of the endangered globe. There are moments of real excitement and humor. If there's a checklist for how to make a good superhero movie, this one checks nearly all the boxes. Anything involving the Vision, in particular, is damn near perfect (and gorgeous to boot). It's just a well-made superhero movie by the standards of what makes a good 'un.

2. Nice action sequences. That's an understatement. This movie doesn't just go for spectacle—it pays real attention to how the Avengers would function in combat after some practice together. They use their strengths and compensate for one another's weaknesses. Whether it's Captain America using a motorcycle as both personal transportation and blunt instrument, or Iron Man having a contingency plan for the Hulk losing his few remaining marbles, or Hawkeye doing his mere-mortal schtick in places where the superpowered gods can't go, this movie has everything you want to see in the way of the Avengers in action.

Early on, a bad guy asks his henchman why their defenses are failing, and his baffled henchman replies, "They're the Avengers, sir." And that pretty much sums it up.

3. Hello to the funny. It's a Joss Whedon movie, so this shouldn't be a surprise, but there are more than enough jokes. I'd guess I had to lip-read maybe fifteen to twenty percent of the dialogue because the people around me were laughing so loudly at what had just been said. It's funny, okay? There's plenty of funny.

4. Hawkeye! If you felt there wasn't enough Hawkeye in earlier Marvel movies, this movie will be your jam because he's everywhere. He gets a lot of the best action and the best snark. And as the movie delves into his personal life, including glimpses of his home (yes, he has one), he carries a lot of the film's emotional weight, too. And he does it well. Jeremy Renner, I would start a petition to give you your own solo film except that this movie kind of was that film.

5. Ultron is a hoot. James Spader is hilarious. If you've ever snorted a drink out your nose at something he said or did in The Blacklist, you'll be happy here. There's nothing quite like hearing him say, "Stop it!" like the annoyed parent of a toddler after Captain America tries to kick him in the face for the fourth or fifth time. Spader does for Ultron what Tom Hiddleston did for Loki—take a two-dimensional megalomaniac and turn him into something complex, sympathetic, and charming. I don't think Ultron will be getting a fangirl army any time soon, but it's not for lack of effort on Spader's part.

6. Sam Wilson is an Avenger. I repeat, SAM WILSON IS AN AVENGER. Yes. He makes it. Anybody who's been rooting for the Falcon to make it to the big show, you will be pleased. He's in the final roll call, with a new set of wings.

6. NEBBISH! This is a personal thing, but I was delighted (and actually screamed in the theater) to see the return of one of my favorite minor MCU characters. Remember the SHIELD technician who refused to launch the helicarriers? The guy who started the "captain's orders" meme? He doesn't have a name in the canon, but after I saw him in Winter Soldier he quickly became my personal Figwit. I loved the fact that he was obviously scared out of his mind, the last person who should be fighting somebody like Rumlow, and yet he was the first speaking SHIELD agent we saw resisting Hydra's takeover. While everyone else was looking at each other and wondering what to do, this little nebbishy guy proved himself more heroic than Captain America (and nearly got his brains blown out for it, in a nice touch of realism). It was established that a lot of SHIELD agents died when the Triskelion fell, and unlike named characters like Agent 13 and Maria Hill, Nebbish didn't get an epilogue in Winter Soldier. He wasn't important enough to be shown, alive or dead, at the end.

Well, it looks like Nebbish made it out okay, because he's shown (briefly) working for Nick Fury in the climax of the film. And that was probably my favorite part.

Yeah, Nebbish was the best. Because a lot of the other good in this movie was soured by ...

The bad:

1. It's too many movies in one movie. Maybe there's a way to do Ultron and the birth of the Vision and the introduction of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch and the foundations of Civil War and build Hawkeye into a fully developed character—but this wasn't it. There was just too much going on—so much that it was hard to care about any one plot thread when the next action scene (however excellent) was barreling at you before you could process. This was about a movie and a half packed into only one flick, and not in the good way.

2. Wait, are there three SHIELDs now? And other plot holes. Let's just say there was insufficient attention to detail, which is a lousy thing to say about a Joss Whedon production. But there are plot holes you could drive a truck through. Like the part where Bruce finds Natasha in the oh-so-secret dungeon in the middle of Ultron's base. How? She was unconscious when she was brought there, so she couldn't have correctly described her location to Clint. How did Bruce find the place? How did he get in there? How did he find her inside a sprawling building? Honestly, would one shot of Bruce creeping down a hallway have been too much?

Similarly, when Nick Fury randomly shows up out of nowhere with a helicarrier, it's a little weird. Seriously, dude, where were you an hour ago? And does this mean that you have your own SHIELD faction now, to replace the two that have been squabbling all season on Agents of SHIELD? How did you suddenly become a slick and well-funded operation again at the end?

And perhaps most importantly, why does nobody notice that smashing robot bodies does absolutely no good in the age of cloud computing? There's nothing to suggest Ultron hasn't backed himself up somewhere online. Breaking the hardware shouldn't do anything of substance. So the movie ends with only token evidence that the bad guy has even been defeated, yet everyone relaxes like they won.

I could go on, but ... seriously, there's just a lot of plot holes. Enough to be distracting.

3. Why is there a romance in this movie? And why is it this romance? One of the things I liked best in the first Avengers movie is that there wasn't much in the way of romance. The whole thing happened over, like, two days, and there was just no time for it. I liked that a lot better than a typical action movie where the love story feels shoehorned in.

Well ...

The big romance in this movie is between Natasha and Bruce. And I don't care whether you ship that or not, but I have two problems with it strictly from a filmmaking perspective. First, Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo don't have that much chemistry together. Their scenes feel dull and forced. So you're adding a romance that doesn't work, from a strict filmmaking standpoint.

Second, the romance is pretty much all Natasha does in this movie. Seriously, even Bruce gets to weigh in on the creation of Ultron and how to defeat him. Natasha just gets kidnapped and turned into Bruce's damsel in distress. I don't care what your view of Joss Whedon's self-described feminism is—that is a waste of a good character. Why is Natasha even here if this is all she does? You could have swapped her for Betty Ross and gotten the same results.

4. Tony Stark is an idiot. This is the first of many signs that Joss Whedon hates his job. Tony was the darling of the first Avengers movie, the wisecracking scene-stealer who got all the best snark. That is a sign that Joss loves you right there. And he got to make the big dramatic sacrifice to save the world.

This time? Tony is still snarky, but it's pointlessly mean snark—lines like a joke about reinstating prima nocta when he rules Asgard. There were a million jokes Tony could have made while trying to lift the hammer, but somehow we ended up with a rape joke. And yeah, Tony then turns out to be unworthy, which has led a lot of online pundits to suggest that this was Joss trying to undermine Tony's jerkishness, but that's not what bothers me. What bothers me is that Age of Ultron makes Tony out to be the kind of jerk who would make a joke like that. Never mind his development over four previous movies—none of that counts now, because Joss Whedon needs a straw man to tear down.

And then there's the stupidity! In Age of Ultron we get a Tony Stark who is literally unable to learn from his mistakes, even in engineering, which is supposed to be his primary area of genius. Bruce even calls him on it, saying he's "stuck in a time loop" when Tony suggests countering an out-of-control AI with another out-of-control AI, effectively repeating an action and expecting different results. And yeah, it turns out okay this time—but not because of anything Tony did.

Apparently, this movie just couldn't get along without a version of Tony Stark who was so obviously wrong about everything that no rational person could agree with him on anything. That's a terrible way to set up an antagonist for the upcoming Civil War movie. What's the matter, Joss? Couldn't be bothered to write a little complexity and nuance into someone who had to be on the wrong side of the argument?

5. Steve Rogers is unrecognizable. I guess not, because Steve got an even rawer deal than Tony. I noted in my review of the first Avengers that my one major issue was that every one of the Big Six got a serious character arc except Cap, who just kind of piddled around until it was time to punch aliens. When the Avengers Blu-ray came out with a bunch of deleted scenes that appeared to show Cap's arc, all was seemingly forgiven. It was cut for time. Understandable.

I'm not so understanding now.

The Captain America we get in Age of Ultron is nothing like the one we see in the other MCU movies. He's the most hidebound member of the team, primly correcting Tony's casual profanity (and reacting with very little grace when ribbed about it later). This is just dumb. The guy fought through World War II (in the American infantry!) and casually says things like "light the bastards up", but he has a problem with Tony saying "shit"? That's so far out of character that it's a non sequitur.

In fact, there's very little of the Steve Rogers we've come to like in other movies. The guy who tried to drink an entire pub and cried himself hoarse when Bucky died in The First Avenger is now saying things like, "If you get killed, walk it off." The guy who dismantled an Orwellian intelligence organization in Winter Soldier ends up apparently running one. And even when Sam Wilson says he's happier not being an Avenger, Steve goes and makes him one (presumably because he knows Sam can't tell him no). There's no indication that he's still actively trying to find the person he nearly killed himself saving in his last movie; Bucky's not so much as mentioned by name. Even during the downtime on Clint's farm, Steve never seems to pause and reflect on his gaping emotional wounds. He's the Tin Woodsman to Tony Stark's scarecrow—no heart, no brain.

This isn't The Wizard of Oz, Joss. Heartless Steve Rogers is not what I bought a ticket for.

6. Natasha Romanoff is ... I don't even know what. All right, before the whining starts, I am going to be absolutely clear about what bothers me about Nat's role in this film. It's not what happens. It's that this is not Natasha Romanoff.

Let's discuss the elephant in the room—the "monster" line.

At one point, Bruce tells Nat they can't be a couple because he can't have children. Nat replies that she can't either—the "graduation ceremony" in the Red Room was a mandatory surgical sterilization. Okay, fine, bad people do bad things. But Nat then goes on specifically to say that the sterilization was done so she would be a better assassin (because having a hysterectomy makes you a better murderer?) and tells Bruce that he's not the only monster on the team.

And that is where I put down my popcorn.

I'm sorry, but "monster"? Let's be charitably dense and say this isn't what it looks like—this movie saying an infertile woman is a monster because she's infertile. Let's say Nat thinks she's a monster strictly because she's killed a bunch of people. Let's ignore the fact that she was discussing her infertility right before she switched to the topic of monsters, and that she explicitly said she was rendered infertile so she'd be better at doing monster stuff. Let's assume that Joss in no way meant to imply that non-motherhood equals monsterdom, that he never meant to say that a woman who can't have children should consider herself no longer human. Let's even assume that this is not a reflection of the movie's view, just a moment of character for Nat—that she holds this idea, true or not, because that's just how she feels and feelings don't have to be logical or popular with the audience if they work as part of a character's overall arc.

That still leaves the fact that Nat calls herself a monster, on a par with the giant green rage machine that just destroyed a city, and nothing and no one in the rest of the movie contradicts that point of view. Bruce never says, "I don't think you're a monster" (even though the Hulk is shown in a middling positive light in other scenes). No one is shown treating Nat like a hero, unless you count Clint naming his next kid after her (sort of), which was apparently the plan even before the M-word entered the conversation. Steve makes her his second-in-command, but since this is the Steve Rogers who tells hypothetical dead people to walk it off, he might as well be amending "monster" to "useful monster". Of the two people in the movie who appear to care about Nat, in the end, one leaves her and the other is understandably distracted by all the kids he's got.

This is a movie that pretty much lets Nat call herself a monster, entirely or in part because she can't have babies, and replies, "Yup, you are."

And that's about 50% of Nat's role in this film (the other 50% being her damsel-in-distress routine).

Sorry, but that's not the Natasha Romanoff I bought a ticket for. I want to see the version that's slowly discovering she isn't a monster—the consummate spy of Iron Man 2 who became a steadfast best friend in The Avengers and whom Steve Rogers explicitly trusted to save his life in Winter Soldier. I want to see the Natasha Romanoff who's never perfect, but who keeps growing. Who doesn't accept the "monster" label. Who takes her vicious, sexist codename (Black Widow, poisonous man-eater) and shoves it down the throats of everyone who dismisses or underestimates her.

Natasha Romanoff is not resigned to being a monster. And damn you, Joss Whedon, for implying that she is, or should be.

7. I just don't care. Maybe it's the movie overload, maybe it's the fact that several characters went off the rails, but I just wasn't emotionally invested in this movie by the end. I wanted to be. I was sitting in that theater in a superhero hoodie, holding a teddy bear dressed up as my favorite Marvel character, in a row full of friends who were doing the same thing. I wanted to like this movie. I expected to like this movie.

And it had its moments. The Vision was gorgeous and very well done. There were moments of joy and wonder and fear. But when it comes right down to it, a group of characters I loved—had come to consider my friends, in the way really good fictional characters become your imaginary companions—either didn't show up or were treated so poorly that they'd have been better off staying home.

It's a pretty goodish movie. If it were anything other than an Avengers movie made by Joss Whedon with the Avengers in it, it would be an excellent movie. But it's not.

So I give it a B-plus. And after I saw it, I went home and Googled Chris Evans' tweets about filming the next Captain America flick.

Maybe my imaginary friends will show up for that one.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Everything you need to know before you watch Daredevil on Netflix

Okay, there's no way to explain everything you might possibly need to know about Daredevil before April 10, but this blog entry should cover the basics. For more of everything here, I recommend you check out the awesome fansite The Other Murdock Papers. Tell Christine I sent you, and be nice.

How about a nice trailer, huh?
Now, to answer the most pressing questions ...

1. Who is this Daredevil guy? Short version? Daredevil is a Marvel Comics superhero created by Stan Lee and in print since 1964. His origin is weird, even by the standards of the mid-sixties. As a boy growing up in poverty in New York's Hell's Kitchen, Matt Murdock was struck in the face by radioactive waste and blinded for life. In true comic-book fashion, he developed superpowers instead of cancer:  all his other senses are now cranked up to eleven. He can hear heartbeats, finger-read ordinary print like it's braille, identify even the most subtle smells, and ... well, his sense of taste is equally awesome, but all the examples are stupid. He also has a kind of crude "radar sense" that tells him where things are and some rough details about them. After training with ninjas (yes, really) and surviving his boxer father's murder by mobsters, he is now working as a criminal-defense lawyer. He upholds the law by day and breaks it by night as the vigilante protector of Hell's Kitchen.

Daredevil is a big deal for a lot of reasons, including the unusual level of artistic experimentation that's gone into his stories over the years and his status as one of the first mainstream superheroes to have a serious disability. In the new series, he's played in and out of the courtroom by the usually suave Charlie Cox.

2. So it's basically a superhero legal drama? Well, no. The thing I keep trying to explain to non-comics readers is that comic books are not a genre. They're a medium, like TV or movies or novels or plays. Any medium can tell stories in multiple genres, and this is especially true of comics. Although the basic setup of Daredevil's world—blind crimefighter who's also a lawyer—lends itself to legal hijinks, surprisingly little of the comic's time is spent in the courtroom. (This may be because most of the people who've written it over the years know very little about how the legal system works. Oops.)

The early stories written by Stan Lee were standard colorful superhero goofery with a side order of soap opera. The early to mid-1970s saw more outré villains and kind of a disco feel. Then, in the late '70s and early '80s, a hot young writer named Frank Miller came along and began deconstructing the B-list hero piece by piece. Miller's stories delved into Daredevil's origins, adding the mysterious blind ninja master Stick as Matt's teacher. He also explored Matt's relationship with his father, his ambivalence toward the law, and his complicated lifelong dance with Catholicism. Miller retconned in Elektra, an assassin who was Matt's first love and in some ways the defining archetype of his love life. As the stories went on, Miller's run delved into psychodrama and some insanely gritty crime fiction.
Also some kung-fu movie cliches like the staff to the head.
That last thread was picked up by later writers, and for much of the 1980s and early 1990s Daredevil was basically living in a Tarantino movie (or sometimes RoboCop—also created by Miller, by the way). In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a series of writers tried various approaches—funny, tragic, metafictional—but nothing really stuck until Brian Michael Bendis came along and made the entire comic the grimmest political and crime drama you've ever read in your life. Follow that up with Ed Brubaker (yes, the man who turned Bucky Barnes into the Winter Soldier, and one of my all-around favorite comic writers), who fused his career-long fascination with noir with a deep insight into Matt's broken psyche, and you have one hell of a ride.
It looked like this.
Then there was some nonsense with ninjas (it was called Shadowland; don't read it) and the whole comic was rebooted by Mark Waid, who has taken a brighter, cheerier, but still very humanistic approach to our favorite blind superhero.

So really, a Daredevil series could occupy any genre. The best material has been crime-infused, noirish, occasionally mystical and deeply psychological, and that's where the Netflix series looks to be headed, but there have also been stories where Daredevil fought circus clowns and made psychic connections with Old West vigilantes like the Two-Gun Kid. And a few stories involving actual courtrooms. So the field is wide open.

3. Welcome to Hell('s Kitchen). No description of Daredevil and his world would be complete without the neighborhood he inhabits. For most of his publishing history, Daredevil has been firmly rooted in the working-class (now somewhat gentrified) New York neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen. The place has changed a lot over the last half-century, obviously, but Marvel held on for way too long to the mid-century image of the neighborhood as a working-poor district heavy on Irish immigrants and their kids and noticeably lacking in residents of color. By the late 1970s and 1980s, the Kitchen was portrayed as a crime- and drug-ridden hellhole, in keeping with a lot of mass-media portrayals of inner cities at the time. Only in the last couple of decades has the fictional Kitchen slowly caught up to the real one. But basically, imagine a stereotypical working-class slum, populated by immigrants, poor people, drug dealers, organized-crime figures, and anybody else you might find walking around a crime novel. Add more shadows than usual, and you've got Matt Murdock's home turf.

The Netflix series appears to have gone for the grimmest, grittiest Kitchen imaginable. Watch where you step.

4. Foggy Nelson for the defense. No hero can be without his supporting cast, and in Daredevil's case, that list (somewhat unusually) starts not with a sidekick or a love interest, but with Matt's lovable, bumbling law partner. Franklin "Foggy" Nelson met Matt when they were freshman roommates at Columbia University, and they've been almost inseparable friends ever since—in spite of the fact that Matt kept Foggy in the dark about the whole superhero thing for decades. Foggy is Matt's best (often his only) friend, and his defining characteristic is his unshakable loyalty to a man who often doesn't deserve it. Foggy is the voice of the ordinary man in the story, the reality check. He's sometimes the comic relief, too, but more and more in recent decades he's been the story's heart. Matt's a classic obsessed hero, and all too often it's Foggy who pulls him back from the edge—or, in a few memorable cases, goes bungee-jumping off it to save him when he's already fallen.

We haven't seen much of the Netflix Foggy, played by Elden Henson, but he is there and the fans have high hopes for him.

5. Karen Page. Matt's dated a lot of women over the years, including the Black Widow (yes, imagine Charlie Cox snogging Scarlett Johansson), but somehow his original love interest, Karen Page, holds a special place in the fans' hearts. Karen started out as a generic pretty secretary, the receptionist at Matt and Foggy's law firm, and the angsty point on the comic's awkward love triangle. It worked like this: both Matt and Foggy had the hots for Karen, but Karen only had eyes (no pun intended) for Matt. Matt, meanwhile, had to keep pushing Karen away, partly because of the complicated life of a Marvel superhero but also because, in a bit of not-at-all-funny retrospective comedy, he didn't want to "burden" a nice girl like Karen with a blind boyfriend.

Yeah, that's right. As big a deal as Daredevil is to visually impaired comics fans—and as a reader who dealt with her secret childhood terror of deteriorating eyesight by reading Daredevil comics, I can tell you he is a big flippin' deal—he also engaged in some pretty spectacular ableism. He routinely assumed he couldn't be accepted or loved simply because his eyes didn't work. Handsome, well-educated, wealthy, successful, superpowered—none of that was enough for Matt Murdock. He couldn't pursue Karen because he just wasn't "man" (read: sighted) enough.
Because DRAMA.
Karen eventually got sick of waiting and left the book to become a Hollywood starlet. She returned a few years later during Miller's classic "Born Again" storyline, where she appeared as a heroin-addicted porn actress who sold her ex-boyfriend's secret identity for a fix. (This may be the most Frank Milleresque sentence I've ever typed.) Karen stumbled back into Matt's life after his enemies destroyed it, and the two rebuilt each other over the next 15 or so years of comics.

Karen was killed off by one of Matt's recurring foes, Bullseye, in the late 1990s. The Netflix version, played by Deborah Ann Woll, looks to be a cross between the original sweet Karen and her tougher, more streetwise later self. It's also worth noting that Woll has a more personal stake in the project than a lot of performers—her boyfriend, EJ Scott, is legally blind and apparently something of a Daredevil fan.

Night Nurse being awesome and showing Dr. Strange a few things.
6. Night Nurse? There's a character called Night Nurse? Yes, and she's awesome. A revamped version of a 1950s Marvel romance character, Night Nurse is (in the comics) the major healthcare provider for superheroes who don't want their secret identities to show up in an ER with unexplained gunshot wounds. When you get injured as often as Matt Murdock and you can't really explain acid burns to your HMO as a byproduct of your law practice, you're a Night Nurse regular. On Netflix, she's played by Rosario Dawson and looks to have a big role. Sounds like Matt's going to take a lot of beatings.

7. Bring on the bad guy. By now, you've heard Vincent D'Onofrio's voiceover and, if you're anything like me, you've noticed how much he sounds like he could be the gritty hero of the series. That's no accident. Wilson Fisk (also known as the Kingpin) has a lot in common with Matt Murdock. They faced similar levels of poverty and violence in childhood, and both have been tempted by the wrong side of the law. The difference is, Matt had a caring (if occasionally abusive) father who insisted that he study hard and better himself, while Wilson was the son of a hapless career criminal who brought young Willy into the family business. Both men discovered they were very, very good at their chosen occupations, and both men thrived in them—right up until they ran into each other. Wilson Fisk at one point had pretty much all of New York's crime families under his thumb, and Matt at various times had a successful law practice and an Avengers membership (though not simultaneously). But they've also taken each other apart a couple of times each. Matt's lost his money, his identity, and his sanity to the Kingpin's operations, while Wilson's lost his U.S. citizenship, his criminal empire, and his wife, Vanessa, to Daredevil's adventures.

I would say that by now, the antagonism is a personal one, except that it basically started being personal five minutes after these two met. Short version? Matt Murdock sees himself as the protector of Hell's Kitchen, Wilson Fisk sees himself as its king ... and each man thinks he owns it. This will get messy.

8. Who the hell is the Purple Man?! Wait, is there really a supervillain named the Purple Man, and is he really played by David Tennant? Yes, and yes, and be afraid. The Purple Man is a silly-sounding villain who is absolutely terrifying in the right hands. He has one bit of schtick—mind control. Thanks to exposure to an experimental nerve gas (oh, Marvel and its appalling lab security), Zebediah Killgrave began emitting pheromones that make anyone in the vicinity susceptible to his verbal suggestions. Basically, he's got hypnotic body odor. Sounds dumb, right? Especially when Daredevil's physiology is so weird that the pheromones don't actually work on him? Well, it gets scary. For one thing, Killgrave's powers can affect almost everyone around Matt—so Killgrave can do things like tell Karen and Foggy to jump off different roofs and force Matt to choose whom he's going to save, or just start a riot and get the mob to attack Daredevil.

But it gets much more sinister. At least twice, Killgrave has kidnapped people and subjected them to long-term enslavement, usually with a sexual component. (In fact, he has about half a dozen kids with different mothers, all fathered under the influence of his mojo.) Imagine all the awful things that can happen when the bad guy can make just about anyone do just about anything ... and he's getting increasingly frustrated by a random blind guy in a devil suit beating him up two or three times a year. One of Killgrave's best-known long-term victims was a minor superheroine named Jessica Jones, a.k.a. Jewel, who's getting her own Netflix series soon. Jess probably suffered more torment at Killgrave's hands than anybody else before he sent her to kill Daredevil, and her inclusion in the Netflix corner of the MCU suggests that her terrifying version of the Purple Man is the one we'll be seeing.

Now imagine David Tennant in that role. And if you don't know why that should creep you out, do a quick Google search on the phrase "Time Lord victorious" and see what comes up. Enjoy the nightmares.

Which seems as good a segue as any into ...

9. Oh, my God, so much violence! Yes, those trailers—and by all early accounts, the series itself—feature staggering amounts of screen time devoted to guys whumpin' on each other. And it's not the pretty, almost balletic violence you'd expect from a character whose fight training is heavily influenced by boxers and ninjas. Daredevil violence comes in two flavors—graceful and appalling. And it's usually the second one.

There are a lot of reasons for this. First and foremost is the way the stories have to be told. Although comics are a visual medium, the stories' narrator literally can't see what he's doing. He perceives the world through sound, touch, smell, taste, and radar. If the visuals overwhelm the narrative, it doesn't feel like a story about a blind superhero anymore. That means the fight scenes have to be narrated non-visually—think of things like the crunch of breaking teeth, the coppery scent of blood, the buzz and spin of a concussion. That's the only way Daredevil can perceive a fight, so his fights must include those visceral elements. The fights have to get dirty if you want your hero in danger. Either Daredevil is dancing around his foes because he's so much better at this than they are, or somebody's on the ground bleeding. Usually the latter.

This is me saying "I told you so".
The second reason the fights are brutal is because Daredevil is one of the more underpowered superheroes out there. His superhuman abilities make him vulnerable even as they make him strong. Yes, he can hear your heartbeat and tell whether you're lying, but he also can be paralyzed by an unexpected air horn. His radar can (sometimes) see through walls, but he can't read street signs. And even though he's one of the best hand-to-hand fighters in the Marvel universe, he is acutely aware of his own mortality. He's not Captain America. He doesn't heal fast, he can't bench-press a bus, and bullets definitely don't bounce off his skin. He punches people ... with hypersensitive hands. Everything he does, on some level, hurts.

And he goes out there and does his thing anyway. A regular undercurrent in the Daredevil stories is the idea that this guy should not be a superhero. Ideally, he should be in a white room somewhere. But he does the job, even though it hurts him more than anybody else, because it needs doing and he believes it's right. He pays a ridiculously high price to fight the good fight—friends and family murdered, body broken, sanity in tatters—but he keeps paying, keeps fighting. So don't expect that fight to be pretty.

Speaking of not pretty ...

10. Wait, wasn't this a crappy Ben Affleck movie? Yes and no. Yes, there was a 2003 movie allegedly based on the comic book. Yes, the movie sucked. But very importantly, Daredevil fans talk about that movie as little as possible. We're all exasperated by it. I said when it came out that we'd spend the next ten years trying to live that movie down, and what do you know? I was right. So don't watch the crappy Ben Affleck movie. Not even the director's cut. If you can't live without seeing previous screen portrayals of Daredevil, I suggest you track down the TV movie Trial of the Incredible Hulk, which co-starred pop singer Rex Smith as Matt Murdock and actually did a darned good job of portraying the character (albeit on a low budget with a so-so script). And it may or may not be coincidence that a lot of the promotional materials for the Netflix series have Matt in a costume that looks more like Smith's than Affleck's. (I will never not be a fan of eyeless Daredevil costumes. They're just awesomely spooky. Shut up—we all have our tastes.)

11. So what do I read?! You've got lots of options after fifty years of comics! I recommend:

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (Miller/Romita)—The ultimate "gritty" take on Matt's origin. This one has it all—his father, the accident, Stick, the murder, Matt's training, Elektra, and the first encounter with the Kingpin. It's also a pretty clear stylistic forerunner of the Netflix series. It doesn't hurt that this was, after a couple of random back issues from the mid-'70s, my own entry point into the character.

Daredevil: Born Again (Miller/Mazzuchelli)—probably the high point of Frank Miller's Daredevil run, a great entry point into the classic world of Hell's Kitchen, with Matt, Foggy, Karen, and the Kingpin prominently represented. This is, in many ways, the definitive Daredevil story.

Daredevil: Yellow (Loeb/Sale)—The other major take on the origin. This series goes for more of the brightly colored, nostalgic, early-sixties feel of the earliest Daredevil comics. The frame story is Matt recalling his earliest days as Daredevil (he wore a yellow costume for his first six issues, hence the title) and particularly his early romance with Karen. It's basically a fluffy, bittersweet romance story, but the Purple Man plays a prominent role, too. If you want to make your head spin, read Yellow and Man Without Fear back-to-back and realize that these two protagonists are the same guy and both stories are canon.

Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev—If there's any run that influenced the Netflix series as much as Miller, it's the nearly decade-long Bendis story that starts with Matt Murdock's identity being leaked to the New York tabloids. From there, it's a magnificently gritty tale of Matt's life going violently to hell. Read it. Just read it. It's the updated Frank Miller in the best possible way.

Daredevil, vol. 1 (Waid/Rivera)—The current writer, Mark Waid, is winding down his run on the title, but this is where it started back in 2011 and damn it is good. Great writing, great art, great storytelling—if there's a perfect way to tell Daredevil stories without a lot of blood and psychosis, this is it. And oh, hey, it's a Comic Book You Should Be Reading!

So what's the takeaway from all this? Don't expect Netflix's Daredevil to be much like the cinematic Marvel universe, but do expect it to be a solid companion piece, focusing on the street-level world and the heroes who get the job done while Spider-Man and the Avengers get all the headlines. Expect lots of blood and broken teeth, and probably a bit of romance and psychodrama. And expect a hero who perceives the world in a way you've never quite thought about.

If all that appeals, you're welcome to join me and a bazillion other people as we start streaming the series on Friday, April 10. I'll be the one kvetching from the peanut gallery and wearing this bracelet (quick plug for the fabulous Alice of which says, in braille, the two words every Daredevil fan has taken to heart:

"Without Fear."

Monday, June 9, 2014

Comic Books You Should Be Reading: All-New Invaders

Hello! I’m not dead! Wow, I say that a lot.

This week’s blog is both another installment in CBYSBR and the start of what I hope will be a semi-regular tradition—Bottom of the Stack. Check the end of upcoming blog entries for an informal list of comic series I’m really enjoying at the moment. I won’t post everything I buy—just the two to five series at the bottom of my monthly comic stack. (I read in reverse order of preference, so the best stuff is at the bottom.) I hope it’ll help those of you who are contemplating getting into comics to find a way in. Not everything I read is for newbies, but my very favorite comics are usually well-written and all-around fun, so if you’re not too picky about needing to know all the continuity in advance, they should all be a good read.

Cool? On we go!

I’ve agonized over whether to add All-New Invaders to Comic Books You Should Be Reading. It is, hands down, my favorite monthly comic book at the moment. Hell, even Flatmate’s gotten into it—she asks me every couple of days when the next one hits the shelves, and complains loudly that she’s gotten so sucked into the plot and characters that she wants a new installment every week, like a TV show.

On the other hand, I yet cling to the last shreds of my journalistic objectivity, and I know that All-New Invaders, for all its virtues, is not going to be everyone’s favorite comic in the universe. I buy it for specific reasons, I love it for specific reasons, and some of those specific reasons are personal to me rather than universal to comic readers, or even general to the readers of my blog.

But what the hell. It’s my blog, and you wouldn’t be reading it if you couldn’t stand to hear my opinions now and then.

Here’s the SparkNotes version: All-New Invaders is a standard Marvel superhero comic, done extremely well, with a strong flavor of Band of Brothers and just a touch of Joss Whedon about it. If that sounds good, buy it. Seriously. Go buy any or all of the first five issues. I’ll wait here until you come back.
Captain America and the Human Torch will have coffee while they wait for you.
Here’s the backstory for the uninitiated: back during World War II, there was a superhero team called the Invaders whose membership included, among others, Captain America, Bucky Barnes, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch. (There were also other members who came and went but don’t much matter right now.) The group broke up around the end of the war, and the heroes mostly died or disappeared. In the present day, the core team has been resurrected and/or recalled from obscurity in various Marvel books, and now they’re banding together again to handle stuff they can’t trust anybody else with. That’s where the Band of Brothers homage comes in—the core of this book is the relationships among the team’s central players and the fact that they trust and understand each other in ways that are utterly alien to most modern superheroes. 
"Don't worry, Jim." "We've got your back."
-Scene from My Little Invaders: Friendship is Explosive.
So while the main plot of All-New Invaders is standard superhero fare, the engine that drives the story is the friendship between four extraordinary men. I’m a big fan of this kind of storytelling, not least because I think the Western world would be less screwed up if there were more cultural space for intimate platonic male friendships. And the fact that writer James Robinson manages to balance excellent World War II flashbacks and present-day action with the complexity of those relationships bodes well for the future of this series.

Robinson is best known for his series Starman for DC, which itself balanced the legacy of a Golden Age superhero with a hip modern sensibility and beautifully delineated family dynamics. It’s no surprise, then, that he can turn that knack to a new family—a group of superpowered freaks and loners who essentially adopted each other in the middle of a world war, and have found those bonds unexpectedly resilient despite their decades spent apart. Robinson has also gotten lucky in his artist, Steve Pugh, whose work incorporates both gorgeous anatomy and action shots that make the book a smooth read and distinctive, expressive faces that add another layer of meaning to Robinson’s dialogue.

Don’t believe me? Take this panel, which takes place after Captain America has spent several pages insisting that another World War II hero, Aarkus the Vision, will help the Invaders out just because they palled around with him during the war. Nobody has believed Cap because Aarkus was always kind of weird and now he’s fully off his nut. But when asked, Aarkus basically says, “Of course I’ll help—you guys are my brothers,” and this panel happens:
See that wry, slightly smug smile on Captain America’s face? That’s how the nicest guy on the Avengers says, “I told you so.” It’s not easy to get that kind of expression out of a face that’s 75% covered, but Pugh does it.

Here’s the casting rundown, with what makes each character distinctive and interesting:
Pictured: not Johnny Storm
Jim Hammond/The Human Torch. Jim was one of Marvel Comics’ first hit characters, way back in 1939. He’s a “synthetic human”—android? robot? accounts vary—who, thanks to a design flaw, can burst into flame and fly. In this comic, he’s a sweet and slightly world-weary Frankenstein’s creature who likes people but doesn’t really understand them and is on the brink of giving up on ever being one himself. By the end of the first arc, he’ll be reconsidering his lost quest for humanity, and wrestling with the question of what kind of man he wants to be.
"Arrogance! Stupidity!" Namor's life words.
Namor the Sub-Mariner. Another classic, Namor is a human-Atlantean hybrid (his parents were Romeo and Juliet with more salt water involved) who’s strong, tough, and able to fly and breathe both water and air. He’s also the most arrogant, imperious character you’re likely to meet thanks to the fact that he’s the honest-to-God king of Atlantis, with a lot to prove to his people because of his half-breed status. Oh, and he’s technically a mutant—among Marvel’s first. All of that translates to a massive chip on his shoulder that he removes only for the guys who knew him before he was king. In the first story arc, his customary arrogance takes a real blow when his stubbornness gets him captured and results in the death of one of the few people he genuinely likes.
"So this is like the old days, gentlemen." Cap's favorite thing to say.
Steve Rogers/Captain America. If you don’t know who this character is, why are you reading my blog? There have been a lot of interesting interpretations of Marvel’s super-soldier, but Robinson chooses to strike a delicate balance between Cap’s military training and his feelings for his friends. Cap is the team leader, the team strategist, and also the guy who always believes his pals will come through for him just because they’re his pals. Captain America is great at reading soldiers and figuring out how they’ll handle a situation … but he tends to see only the best in his closest friends. The unspoken question of the series is who will be the first to let him down, and how he’ll cope.
Falling off a roof while shooting at aliens.
Must be Tuesday.
James “Bucky” Barnes/Winter Soldier. Rounding out the main team roster is Cap’s former sidekick, now a Marvel star in his own right. Of all the team members, Bucky is the most personally loyal to the group (or at least to Cap), but also the most problematic. He is legally dead and supposed to be keeping so far off the radar that even his former allies in the Avengers don’t know he’s still walking the shadows rather than pushing up daisies. The first story arc will leave readers questioning Bucky’s psychological stability even as he puts his life on the line for his team.

The comic has just wrapped up its first story arc, “Gods and Soldiers.” The plot involves a Kree device called the Gods’ Whisper, which can control the actions of deities—Norse gods, Eternals, pretty much anything in the Marvel Universe with god-level power. The Nazis got hold of it during the war, but three Invaders took it away from them, broke it up, hid the pieces, and then had their memories wiped so even the Allies couldn’t be tempted by the possibility of controlling the gods themselves. The story begins when the Kree decide they want their doohickey back and go after the three Invaders in question, kidnapping one of them (Namor) in the process. Once the boys realize what’s going on, Captain America leads the team to the Kree homeworld, Hala, to destroy the Gods’ Whisper and rescue Namor. They’re after the Gods’ Whisper because they don’t think anyone should have it, but they’re rescuing Namor because almost nobody else on earth actually likes Namor, which means he’ll literally die of being a jerk if they don’t do something.
Captain America delivers the team's mission statement.
Also, "Namor being Namor" is going to be that guy's official cause of death.
If that sounds a bit Whedonesque, that’s because it is. This story revolves around a group of veteran heroes (and actual veterans) being there for each other—including lots of shooting, face-punching, and death’s-head humor—because they know nobody else can or will do the job. Oh, and they’re also saving the world for pretty much the same reason. It’s a cross between a war comic, a superhero adventure, and a slightly metafictional family drama.

Meta? Oh, yeah, it’s meta.

Here’s an example. (If you can’t abide spoilers, skip down seven paragraphs RIGHT NOW.) At a key moment in the fourth chapter of the story, the heroes have been captured by the Kree and are being told the fates in store for them—imprisonment, dissection, etc. Now, because this team includes the Winter Soldier, I got to this chapter assuming that he would completely lose his composure at some point because the central macguffin is a device that controls people’s minds. Bucky does not cope well with the prospect of mind control, and the mere suggestion that he’s going to get his head messed with again is usually enough to make him go postal.

And he does go postal, in spectacular fashion—
Leap BEFORE you look!
What, AGAIN?!
I was laughing right up until the body hit the floor. Then I started wondering whether such a popular character could be killed off with so little fanfare. It had to be a fake-out, right? Even though if Bucky were going to get killed on an Invaders mission, that’s exactly how it would happen …

But it turns out, of course, that he isn’t dead, that it was a fake-out, and that this is, in fact, all part of Captain America’s plan.
Note the bodies on the floor.
Because Bucky Barnes.
Let me be clear: Captain America planned to have Bucky completely lose his mind, get shot, and die—because it was exactly what everyone, including readers, expected of him.
"Why can't JIM die this time?" Because he lights himself on fire, that's why.
This may be the best piece of metafictional humor I’ve seen in comics in a while.
All told, All-New Invaders is a wonderful blend of action, humor, and personal drama. The writing is crisp, the art is both lively and technically proficient, and there’s very little continuity that requires actual explanation—you don’t need to know precisely why these guys are friends to understand that they are friends, and very good ones. Sadly, the book is on the publishing cusp right now, not selling enough copies to be a breakout hit but not an obvious failure either. If it’s going to live up to its excellent potential, it needs some more readers. (Hey, editorial! Would it kill you to slap Cap and Bucky on the cover more often? Maybe pull in some movie fans?) It suffers a bit from not being a high-concept book—I can’t sum up its appeal in one sentence that actually appeals to people who haven’t heard of the Invaders. But every issue is like a visit with old friends, combined with a really good action movie, and that’s a rare feat in a comic these days.

If you’ve got the budget for it and you’re in the mood for space adventure, superheroics, and arguments about why it can’t be Jim who fakes his death this time, this is the book for you. A new issue hits the stands this Wednesday.

Bottom of the Stack:
All-New Invaders (Marvel)
Loki: Agent of Asgard (Marvel)
Winter Soldier: The Bitter March (Marvel)
Original Sin (Marvel)
Daredevil (Marvel)