Thursday, August 11, 2016

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (animated film)

Voice Actors: Justin Chambers. C. Thomas Howell, Michael B. Jordan, Kevin McKidd

DC's animation has always been better than Marvels. I don't think that's really disputable and it goes all the way back to the days when Batman: The Animated Series went up with Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man and the others that were tossed an animated show back in the 90's. Their films have, as expected, been mixed, but I'd say there have been more hits than misses. Up to this point, they had all mostly been their own entities. After this point, they endeavored to connect them all a bit more in a loose continuity.

In a way, the Flashpoint Paradox ends up serving the same purpose it did in the comics, if not quite as directly; as a bridge between the old and the new.

The plot is a fairly basic messy alternative timeline tale. Barry Allen wakes up at his desk one day to find that everything has changed. His mother - murdered when he was still a boy - is alive, his wife Iris is married to someone else, Bruce Wayne died in the alleyway instead of his parents and his powers are missing. What's resulted is a dark, bleak alternative timeline where the world stands at the gate of annihilation due to a looming war between the forces of Wonder Woman and the forces of Aquaman, each ruler of their respective kingdoms. Flash has to find a way to figure out what happened and fix it before it's too late.

I like these kind of stories, typically, because you can go places you usually can't. That said, this tale, much like the comic it's based off of, goes a bit too far, in my estimation, and ends up feeling very much the opposite of what the DC universe should. It comes down to a lot of things that build to a whole and not any one thing.

The part that chaffes the most is that, in painting this bleak setting, this film - and the comic, really - went a little too far with the characters in this timeline. Of the groups we see, only a few are true heroes, not including The Flash. That's Cyborg and the people he associates with, including the Shazam kids. Everyone else has gone crazy loco to the point that it's hard to believe even the ripple effects in time surrounding a point of divergence would do this.

Wonder Woman, for instance, has gone full straw feminist, to the point of suggesting she might just kill off men at the climax of her fight with Aquaman. Speaking of Aquaman, he's now completely unreasonable and nuts on the level you might expect from his brother, Ocean Master. He has a doomsday device that sank a good portion of Europe in an attempt to strike at Wonder Woman and not only does he not care, he seems alright with the idea of sinking all of land right up until it's suggested using his doomsday weapon again might kill everything. Not even JLU Aquaman was this unreasonable, and when he first appeared he was kind of a prick.

Wonder Womans entire deal is compassion. I'm not even a huge fan of the character, but you're going to have a hard time convincing me she could go this far over much of anything. I have a hard time believing she'd just behead Mera amidst an assassination attempt and wear her crown like a trophy. I have a harder time believing she'd become the killer of kids, even if those kids could become Shazam with but a word. Seriously, she kills Billy Batson near the end.

There's also the case of the film alluding to - or showing in truncated form - a lot of the subplots and side stories the comic event had in its tie-ins. In some cases, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's all but outright stated that the loss of Bruce drove Martha Wayne insane, to the point she became this worlds Joker, but thankfully they don't try to waste everyones time showing the story of the tie-in in truncated form. Instead, it gives just enough hints to inform Thomas Waynes character and make you wish you could see that story without wasting time giving a version without proper attention. Lois Lanes "Resistance Fighter" plotline is given a few minutes, but manages to tie into the main plot by ultimately giving Flash a clue, so that's fine.

Others, however, are pointlessly done. There's a subplot about the US government trying to find and disable the doomsday weapon that ends up utterly pointless. It shows Deathstroke and what he did in truncated form, seeming to build that whole thing up, but 'Stroke doesn't get anywhere other than informing them where it is. Then Hal Jordan's the second part of this subplot, wrenching in his story from the tie-in miniseries. Only, oops, he can't get the job done. The US brass give up and hide at this point and Aquaman doesn't even bother to retaliate. At the climax, the weapon goes off. So we wasted a good ten to fifteen minutes trying to tie both in to the film in some way, ultimately going nowhere. The Superman arc doesn't fare much better; they rescue him mid film, he flies off, then he returns at the climax, fails to save Cyborg and ceases to be a part of the overall struggle. So, why even bring him into the film?

You could argue that it gives the world color, but you know, that's what the comic tie-ins were meant to do. Here, we're supposed to be adapting the main story and if the side stuff can't really be tied into that, there's no point. They could have cut twenty minutes of this movie, come up with ten minutes of original stuff to connect the dots more and get the runtime back up a bit and ultimately end up with a tighter movie.

But those are mostly problems with structure. They're not so glaring that they really kill the film. Plus, they could be fixed. No, the real problem with this film is the same problem the actual comic it's based on had.

This just isn't a very heroic story.

Spoilers Ahead.

As it turns out, the cause of the altered timeline isn't even the Reverse Flash, as we assume along with Barry. Nope, that's the twist. The culprit is actually Barry Allen. See, Barry went back in time to save his mother, but that one act unfortunately had a ripple effect, as Barrys run to change time caused some kind of sonic boom in time that threw everything off or something. Hence why everything went wrong.

Okay, so, not a big deal. Flash made a mistake, right? Heroes can do that. He can fix it. That's what the story is about.

The problem is Barry cannot even save the world he's in before he changes everything. To his credit, it's every bit his intention. He does not want to go back and fix the timestream until he's saved THIS world, because dammit, that's what heroes do. But he can't. Everything goes horribly wrong. The climax of the film is pretty much everyone dying in the big, final fight while Reverse Flash beats the crap out of Barry. Then, the doomsday device goes off and everything dies. The world is actually ending and Flash has to run fast enough to escape that, go back in time and stop all of it.

The climax of the film is constructed so that the world basically ends, the hero cannot save it and he actually has to run away from it and hope that changing the timeline means it never existed. That's your ending. The day is saved by the hero running away from doomsday, because he could not stop doomsday and ultimately accomplished nothing there, in the world his actions created. If there's an animated multiverse and that world split off and ended up one of them when the timeline was changed back, safe to say it's freaking gone.

Yeah. I don't know either, man.

You probably think I might hate this film by now. It would be a safe guess. The comic series itself wasn't one of my favorites for similar reasons. Yet, somehow, I kind of enjoyed this?

I'm not sure how, but I had a decent time watching it. Maybe it's just because it's hard to get me to hate something, I don't know, but there were good qualities, including the animation. The bookends were great too, with Bruce Wayne and Barry Allen interacting. The last scene, with Barry giving Bruce a message from his father, had some weight. The first scene had the Flash in top form, fighting some of his rogues and calling his friends for help in the League, who manage to handle the situation well. Batman shows a subtle moment of caring about Barrys well being. The action scenes were nice. The voice cast worked well, with some old school favorites returning to voice the role they - or in one instance, their father - are best known for; Sam Daly as Superman, Ron Perlman as Deathstroke, Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne, so on.

I don't know. It's not the best story and it's not a particularly heroic story, which I think is something DC really ought to play up more. But I had fun with it? It's hard to explain. It's troubled but still strangely enjoyable. You might still like it. Just be aware going in that it has problems. If it doesn't sound like your cup of tea - and I completely understand that - you won't miss anything if you give it a pass.

One last note. Despite the billing, this isn't really a Justice League film. It's very much a Flash movie in disguise. Maybe more of a team up film between the Flash, an alternate Batman and Cyborg, really. The actual Justice League, as a team, is only in the opening.

My Opinion: Skip It

Heartwarming Batman Moments: Reverse Flash basically tells Flash, at the end of the opening scene, that he can never save everyone or get the job done when it counts. Batman immediately moves to dismiss those words before they can get to Flash, saying the man is a sociopath who knows just how to get under your skin. When Barry still seems affected, Batman cares enough to ask Barry if he's okay. Later, when Barry gives him the letter from his father, he actually tears up a bit and tells Barry he's a hell of a messenger, which is obviously an unspoken "thank you".

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Superman: Earth One vol. 3 (comics)

Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artist: Ardian Syaf
Original Graphic Novel

I get the feeling JMS realized he screwed up.

When I reviewed Volume 2 of Superman: Earth One, I mentioned a bunch of story points that, to be blunt, destroyed the work and anything it was trying to do. New supporting character Lisa Lassalle working escort on the side - because of course - was one. Lois Lane going full stalker was another. Even if you could excuse that, Superman incited a full on revolution in a Middle Eastern country, one that was heavily implied to be violent. I know I've taken a sarcastic shot or two at people who have a rigid, immovable idea of Superman in the past, but there are some things you just don't do with him.

Volume 3 feels almost like an apology tour at times. The book goes out of its way to deal with the Lois Lane situation up top, addressing how screwed up her actions were - with Clark himself calling her out - while also attempting to give her some legitimate reasons for her paranoia without throwing her under the bus. I'm not sure it entirely works, but it does a fair job of letting us move on, especially considering Lois feels more like herself for the entire volume. Lisa's time as a hooker on the side is mentioned offhand at only one point and implied to be over, with any future reference relegated to vague mentions of things she regrets doing. Supermans actions in the foreign country are also central to the conflict of the book. I'm not sure that salvages what he did - that ending felt kind of sinister and acknowledged or not it's something that should not be done with the character - but addressing it goes a long way to making it easier to move forward from it, especially when Superman himself admits a couple times that while trying to do what he felt was right, he just wasn't thinking. At the very, very least, it can come off more like an impulsive action by a young adult prone to making mistakes on the way to figuring this out.

I don't think everything landed there, but at least we can try to move on.

Moving on seems like a decent idea anyway, because this book is far easier to enjoy than the last. Make no mistake, this story hits some pretty familiar beats. Zod is the main villain and the Luthors - yes, more than one - come into play. Obviously, we've seen this kind of thing before. I think the same basic Zod story has been told a solid six times now. But it works out fairly well, especially as Zods plan plays heavily into the worlds growing fear of Superman, which rightfully results in a "what the hell" from Superman himself. The odds are pretty believably stacked against Superman - and, as is acknowledged, it's kind of his own fault - but it does so without throwing humanity under the bus or undermining Supermans faith in it.

The big speech to the UN might not work for everyone - I'm sure some won't like that Superman appeals to the worlds sense of self interest rather than its more positive traits to convince them never to pull this kind of crap again - but it works in the context of the series and allows Superman to make some pretty salient points about what happens if he ever loses.

Regarding the Luthors, it's not the most amazingly different spin I've ever seen, but sometimes even the simple tweaks make for the best ones. Here, the usual, male Lex Luthor has a different set of values than we're used to seeing; while cautious regarding Superman, see's himself as purely a scientist and not a man interested in killing another being, even an alien. His wife is the one who is a bit more down with the idea, even if she has nothing against him for ninety percent of the volume. If nothing else, it plays into the climax well, with what I think might be the first time one of Supermans primary villains actually does something for selfless reasons. It didn't rock my world, but I liked it.

Ardian Syaf takes over for Shane Davis as the penciller. I'm not sure why the switch was made - maybe Shane Davis just got busy - but the book is in capable hands. I might even like Syafs work a little bit better than Davis. He's very, very good with character expressions and his sense of comic storytelling is pretty spot on. I also feel like he has a bit more varied a take on some characters and their fashion choices; Lisa Lassalle isn't always wearing form fitting clothing this time, for one. For an extra bonus, I didn't spy any panels or poses with Clark/Superman that felt... off, or sinister, as occasionally happened previously. I liked the art on previous volumes, but if Syaf's going to be the regular going forward, I'm cool with it.

All told, volume three is a marked improvement over the second, even if it doesn't necessarily redeem it, and is worth giving the series a second chance.

My Opinion: Read It

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Uncanny X-Men: Revolution (comics)

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: Chris Bachalo, Frazier Irving
Collects: Uncanny X-Men (vol. 3) #1-5

I swear, I can't escape. Whenever I think I'm out, Marvel will throw Chris Bachalo and Frazier Irving at me and suddenly I'm reading about Cyclops again. It never ends.

Revolution picks up after Avengers vs X-Men* and deals pretty heavily with the fallout from said event. Cyclops has since escaped and - after a stop to his tailor for an upgrade to the coolest costume he's ever had - he's attempting to get the crew back together**. Problem is, their time as the Phoenix Five has effectively broken their powers in a way they don't understand. Regardless, Cyclops proves that's not enough to keep a good douchebag down, so he opens a new school, recruits some new mutants and doubles down on his previous rhetoric. He's not just threatening people anymore; Cyclops is straight up calling for revolution. Meanwhile, Magneto's gone triple agent; he's playing both sides of the field so well even we can't really tell whose side he's actually on.

I'm going to just say upfront that this series is not one you can really read on its own. This new volume of Uncanny X-Men shares a somewhat symbiotic relationship with All New X-Men, weaving in and out of that book while trying to do its own thing on the side. On the one hand, it makes for a richer overall experience; Bendis writes both books, so there's a tight connection between the two. On the other, it hobbles Uncannys ability to stand alone; this comic genuinely feels more like a full on spin-off of All New X-Men than its own entity at times.

There's no getting around it. To get the full experience of the Bendis run, you're going to have to read both books.

Is it worthwhile reading? Sure. Look, I can't stand Cyclops. I've made it clear by now. But I have to admit that while, given the choice, I'd rather not read about him, he's still an interesting character. Here, he's not even remotely humbled by what happened in AvX. Oh no, he's doubling down. As a result, he's not only alienating the rest of the mutant community, he's actively putting a target on everyones back by becoming exactly what everyone feared mutants could and would become.

He's so detached from the reality of what he's doing and what he's already done that he actually names his new school the New Xavier Institute. He has more or less rejected the teachings of his mentor - who he killed, Phoenix Force influence or not - while turning around and using the mans name for teaching schools of thought that man would actively oppose. He's ended up perverting Xaviers Dream in a way. This is interesting stuff to read about, even if the end result is that you don't particularly like the character.

If nothing else, we've at least abandoned the pretense that Cyclops is in the right, seemingly for real this time, which is a large part of what made the direction of the line unpalatable for years. Before, no one opposed him and he was treated like some unassailable leader. After Schism, people backed away from his increasingly extreme methods, but he still held enough clout to get the vast majority of mutants to rally behind him against the Avengers. Now, pretty much everyone recognizes the man not only lost his way somewhere up the line but is actively leading mutants into darker days.

I do wonder, however, if Bendis will end up acknowledging some of the problems with this direction and why Cyclops and his tactics have always come off so poorly. Mutants have special, super destructive powers that could easily wipe humans out and have a history of counting people who think that's a bitchin' idea among their number. See half of Magnetos schemes over the years, which at least had the X-Men around to stop them and act as a counterpoint. Hell, if you want to see an example of something like that actually coming to pass, Marvel already did that story; it was called Age of Apocalypse. Granted, the humans of the Marvel universe have taken it to extremes just as scary. The other side of the coin is Days of Future Past. But heroes are supposed to be better.

Point is, Cyclops and company are now punching down and I kind of hope that might be brought up, but I also realize that may be something the X-Men franchise never addresses for various reasons***.

Anyway, regarding the new school, we meet a couple new mutants due to the premise. So far, they all seem appealing enough, but it's early. We don't have a ton of time to really get to know them, especially since a good chunk of the book is about what trouble Cyclops and his team are getting into. So far, Uncanny doesn't quite reach the balance Wolverine and the X-Men has. That said, there's time.

Joining Bendis for this book is Chris Bachalo and Frazier Irving. I don't think I need to reiterate my love for both of these guys; I admit I'd rather they were on a book with a concept I could embrace, but given the fact that I'm going to be reading this comic anyway, it's nice to have such top shelf talent. I will express some reservations, however. Bachalo and Irving have wildly different art styles and they clash hard. So far, I'm not having too much trouble with it - and I completely understand that Bachalo needs an artist to switch off with, as the same thing happened with WatXM - but it's a jarring shift.

All told, it's a pretty good read. If you're already reading All New X-Men, you might as well get this as well. Just don't expect it to read well on its own.

My Opinion: Read It

 Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: Hoo boy. Dude's gone full Che Guevera. He's calling for a revolution now. I'm sure that will work out great. On top of that, he decides the "New Xavier School" is a great name for his new headquarters. Look, I get some crazy circumstances were involved and the Phoenix didn't help, but he still killed Xavier. Maybe name it something else? At the bare minimum, it's tasteless. Oh well. At least he isn't creeping on Jean Grey in this volume.

* Yes, I did read that. The fact that I didn't bother reviewing it should tell you all you need to know. I might get around to it some day, but for now I'll just say that it's about as good as most of Marvels other events. Which is to say, not very.

** Minus Colossus. He kind of hates his sister now and she's on this team. He'll wander off to do his own thing in X-Force for a while. 

*** Chief among them being that acknowledging this might break the "mutant as a stand in for race" metaphor for good. Say what you want about how completely played out it is, but it's meant a great deal to a lot of readers over the years and Marvel has plenty of reasons not to want to toss it out the window.