A totally unexpected reappraisal of Justice League

Yesterday I activated my free month of Amazon Prime to take in Picard, the new Star Trek series. That was excellent and I especially loved the subtle Brexit reference, but that’s for another day. After that I had a look at what Amazon offered, and had Zack Snyder’s Justice League film recommended to me, but I’d found the film a mess not to mention a chore to get through when I’d seen it the only time a few years back. I thought I’d give it a few minutes to see if things had changed expecting to stop and have an early night.

And I liked it lots more than I did previously.

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Maybe some distance has passed, and although the issues still stand it really is more enjoyable than a number of other superhero films, plus it has an actual sense of a directorial vision which the Marvel films, on the whole, have lost.  Sure, the scenes shot by Joss Whedon stand out a mile, the villain is badly done, the script has gaping holes, and that CGI lip is an awful bit of work to appear in a big-budget Hollywood film.

However, the League themselves are actually interesting. Affleck’s Batman is an interesting portrayal of an older man who’d lost his way finding redemption. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the standout star character of the DCEU and should be its bedrock as Iron Man was for Marvel. While Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman and Ezra Miller’s Flash have a genuine spark on screen. Hell, even Cyborg seemed less tokenistic this time round.  The big loser here is Henry Cavill and his Clark Kent/Kal El/Superman as once he’s allowed to play Superman not as a brooding Emo type, but actually as Superman, he’s a revelation.

It’s a flawed experiment and yes, I’d be interested in seeing what a full ‘Snyder cut’ would look like because again, there’s a bland generic quality creeping in to the point you couldn’t tell who directed one Marvel film to another. With this it is pretty clear it’s Snyder’s vision. You may not like it, but there’s a clear vision which makes the Whedon footage clash so badly, and also, there’s a bit of irony as the Marvel template is based on what Whedon did with the first two Avengers films.

It is unlikely DC/Warners will do a Justice League film again in some time, which  is a shame as it’d be good to see this group together again but in a film free of studio meddling.

But there you go, I never thought I’d write any of that but it shows opinions do change…

What I thought of Crisis on Infinite Earths

Imagine trying to do Avengers: Endgame on a budget akin to Scarlet Johansen’s hairdresser? That’ll be the CW’s version of Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s comic Crisis on Infinite Earths.

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A five-part series designed to partly clean up issues with the CW’s Arrowverse and to act as this year’s big crossover event to end all events. Overall it manages to just hold together, and just work though the problem as usual with the Arrowverse programmes is the budget holds back the ambition so what should be a cosmic level event (something Marvel have shied off adapting fully as yet) comes over as sometimes small, and in the case of episode two, slow and stretched.

The other problem is that when it needs action we get exposition, or worse, exposition from people standing round the set looking a bit stiff. However the producers clearly love the source material, and they clearly love what they’re doing so for all the multiple flaws they manage just about to live up to this fan made poster from a few years back.

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Crisis works because they realise the entire thing is daft, and they know that superhero comics are essentially melodramas so they embrace that, so we have all the usual aspects of a CW show mixed with these overaught moments of superhero comics, mixed with possibly the biggest, and first, comic book mega-crossover.

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They manage to tie every DC TV series to the Arrowverse bar Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman series and the Shazam! series from the 70’s due mainly to the reason that Warners have successful film versions but remarkably, everything else did make an appearance from the Titans, to Tom Welling from Smallville, Brandon Routh reprising his role as Superman which means the Christopher Reeve films are canon, through to the surprise cameo of Ezra Miller as the DC film version of The Flash.

I enjoyed the entire crossover a lot, with that Miller cameo especially making me like Miller’s depiction of my favourite superhero more than I did. Yeah, some of it is awful, cheap and badly acted/written at times but this is soap opera and it’s also great entertainment which has the good guys beating the baddies which in 2020 is a great message to send out.

My last fanboy wish would be they repay the cameo and bring in the TV Flash for the film due sometime in the next few years, but that can’t happen can it?

What I thought of Batman: City of Bane

Tom King’s run on Batman has been controversial to say the least, but reading it as a whole (all 85 issues of it) will throw up problems. For example, the first issue of Batman: Rebirth is awful, awful stuff read now, and not even average as I thought at the time. However over the run, King gets to redefine not just Batman, but Catwoman and Bane in a way that future writers now have more to play with which is why it depressingly looks as if it’ll be ignored or skimmed over in future.

King’s entire run is essentially building up to City of Bane, a ten-part story that wraps everything up, and there’s a lot to wrap up.

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Over the course of King’s run, we’ve seen Bane scheme to destroy Batman once and for all. As this storyline starts, Bruce Wayne has been broken. Defeated by his father Thomas, the Batman of the Flashpoint reality saved by the Reverse Flash and Bane, Bruce Wayne is expelled from Gotham leaving it under the control of Batman’s rogue gallery, who are themselves controlled by Bane thanks to the Psycho Pirate who can control anyone.

City of Bane details Batman and Catwoman taking Gotham City back from Bane and the villians. There’s lots of fighting, and lots and lots of characters standing on rooftops spouting exposition done in the most tedious ways, but it is a way to work out what Batman is by pitting him against a twisted shadow in the shape of Thomas Wayne. Eventually of course Batman and Catwoman defeat Bane and Thomas, while expressing their love for each other, which is just one of the way King changes the Batman dynamic along with the murder of Alfred by Bane.

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You rarely get runs of 85 issues or more by a writer these days. Most go in for 12-24 issues, enough for a trade or two, tell a story and get out so King being allowed the time to tell his story is admirable of DC. Though sales figures probably dictated that King curbed his planned 100 issue run, and even with the 85 issues there’s a hell of a lot of padding.

King’s problem is his storytelling is sometimes poor for superhero comics, so instead of dynamic, exciting pages which move the action on there are just pages at times of characters standing around talking spouting exposition for panel after panel.  Rob Leifeld of all people pulled up this point on Twitter the other day.

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And you know, Liefeld has a point. Superhero comics have swung so far towards cramming pages full of dialogue, they’ve forgotten they’re comics, so storytelling is being lost because writers are forgetting, or are unable, to trust artists to let the story be told by pictures. King would be a better writer if he wasn’t trying to be a third-generation Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman.batman85

King though has done something amazing in today’s climate which is produce a vision for one of DC’s big money-earners which wasn’t just pandering to a decreasing hardcore of fans who see Batman as a flawless character who can do anything. King resets Batman as a flawed character but now accepting his limits but knows he has support when he needs it. He’s become a bit more human by being allowed to love.

An 85 issue run is an achievement and although King’s run won’t have changed comics for any much the better or worse, he’s told a Batman story at times massively entertaining, at times awful and at times frustrating but it has been interesting which Batman in the comics hasn’t been for some time now. King now moves onto other things, including helping adapt Jack Kirby’s New Gods for the screen so his comics work could take second place to his new career in film but he’s now a writer who is one to keep an eye on just in case le learns to curb his faults and become a vastly better one.

What I thought of Doomsday Clock

Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Watchmen sequel, Doomsday Clock, is the best example we’ll ever get of how much corporate comics treat creators as only money generating units even though that creator is firm that their work was never meant to be exploited as it has been with this 12-issue mess designed only to weld parts of the Watchmen story onto the main DC Universe.

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The problem lies in the fact that Geoff Johns has never actually read and understood Watchmen. Sure, he’s read it, but these 12 issues show he’s read it purely at a superficial level. All the stuff about the comics industry, creativity and humanity has been replaced by cold, hard cynicism and the need to drive forward with Big Event Comics to increase sales rather than do anything which advances the medium.

For Johns, Watchmen is just a story about a plot to kill superheroes and how that developed. It’s an entirely superficial reading of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons book. Johns fills each issue with typical superheroic violence but Watchmen violence is used sparingly, so when it is used the effect is shocking. Here, Johns and Frank just throw it around so it becomes meaningless which is exactly the opposite message Watchmen sends out.

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Here the message is ”how cool is it we’ve got Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan fighting Batman and Superman?” and that ultimately is the only premise behind the book. The plot, as it is, exists only to drive things towards a climactic meeting of Dr. Manhattan and Superman. In effect, Doomsday Clock is a device to revamp Superman in the image of Geoff Johns regardless of what current writer Brian Bendis thinks. Same goes with Batman, where here Alfred plays a crucial part in the story but in the series, he’s been murdered by Bane so he is very dead. Of course, superhero comic death isn’t real death but the fact is that Dr. Manhattan in this comic is analogous to Geoff Johns casually waving his hand and changing things as he wants.

The irony here is that Johns places the blame for ‘dark, grim and gritty’ comics at the feet of Alan Moore, but the reason those comics gained traction was because of people like Geoff Johns who neither had the talent to ape people like Moore, or the inclination to do something different so much of his work seems nostalgic but its nostalgia dipped in the grim cynicism of the dark and gritty phase of comics. In short, he’s trying to have his cake and eat it but trying to blame the disaster of things like The New 52 (DC’s short-lived attempt to gritty up all their line) on anyone but themselves.

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Ultimately all this was designed to do was to use Alan Moore’s name to give this project a legitimacy it never deserved as reducing a work which stands as one of the best mainstream comics ever made to just a product to exploit for new content to keep fans happy because they care more about Superman and Dr. Manhattan fight than the creative rights of Alan Moore or indeed, any other creator who have been shafted over the decades. These fans have all the stuff back. Multiple Earths are back, the Legion of Super-Heroes are back, the JSA are back and so is the New 52 because DC just can’t let go of failed ideas so they’ve dug up Grant Morrison’s old concept of Hypertime and rebranded it for a new generation.

So there it is. DC’s latest roll of the dice, even if it wiped its collective arse with the concept of creative rights and the kick is that the comic builds in future crossovers to prolong the Big Event Comic for the decade ahead and creator wishes be damned because there’s no solidarity among most fans or creators. As long as they get their toys to play with and the content to read they don’t care and that ultimately was all Doomsday Clock was. Content that does nothing for the medium of comics, and doesn’t even care if it does.

What I thought of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker

SPOILERS BEWARE.

The final Skywalker related Star Wars film (if you believe that, then I have a bridge or three to sell you), The Rise of Skywalker is not the worst film in the series. In fact, it manages to wrap everything up nicely in a bow literally, but it is a film that suffers from the problems of all this trilogy that came from a failure to sit down at the start of this and plot out three films in advance rather than make it up as they went along.

Director J.J Abrams returns to steady the ship after the fan mauling of The Last Jedi which was a Star Wars film which tried to be more than just a stepping stone to the next film. This takes things back to basics and panders wherever it can to fan service which at times is great, especially with the welcome return of Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, but often it’s there to rewrite the last film. Also the film moves at some pace trying to cram as much into 2 hours 20 minutes as possible so in fact this film could have done with another 10-20 minutes to allow characters to breathe and develop. The exception to this is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren/Ben Solo who lifts the film dramatically while working with an average script.

The problem with the film is the pacing. It is going through so much that the film doesn’t breathe; for example the new trilogy trio of Rey, Poe and Finn isn’t really formed til this film when it should have been done back in The Force Awakens. Then there’s the return of the Emperor (a gloriously over the top Ian McDiarmid channeling a similar look of Kenneth Cranham in Hellraiser 2) out of nowhere to give the film a grand villain after Snoke’s death in the last film, then there’s bringing back Billy Dee Williams which again should have been done sooner. A bit more room would have helped, so we’ve got what we have.

And what we have is a rushed, flawed ending (and if you expect there never to be another one with these characters at some point in the next 30 years you’re a tad naive) which is entertaining and fun which manages to tie everything up over the previous eight films. I do wish though the script had at least another six months work on it, and indeed, the film needed a longer time to develop as it does feel like an unfinished draft. For example, a legacy character’s death is teased twice but we don’t have any time to take it in before the characters are revealed to be just fine or the reveal of Rey’s parentage is changed from being insignificant to vitally important. That bit would have been more vital had it been built up in the previous film.

Which is a shame. A little bit more time would have helped, along with a plan akin to the Marvel films who plan a fucking decade in advance! So this aside it is fun, it is entertaining and you also get to see the Emperor ham it up, as well as Adam Driver show he’s an actor who is destined for very great things.

So go see Rise of Skywalker. Set your expectations and strap in for a ride that doesn’t stop for the entire running time.

Losing Clive James

Clive James is dead. That sentence has been getting ready to be typed for nearly a decade as he fought leukemia, but he managed to fight it longer than predicted in turn giving us work that told us about how a man knowing he’s going to die sees the world. Even near the end he could still show signs the cancer hadn’t beaten him.

I, like many people of my age, first experienced James via his chat shows after Clive James on Television made him a mainstream star as he introduced and spoke about American and Japanese television especially.

This programme was a gateway drug for me. From here I went and found his writing and criticism (remember how great libararies are) which meant I discovered probably the greatest television critic of the 20th century however it really was his work on TV that topped the education his writing gave me.

His interview with Peter Cook and Barry Humphries is an essential for anyone who loves comedy, as well as watching three people on utterly top form as James just feeds the pair lines, which is enough for them to perform. I especially love Cook’s contempt for the forthcoming 87 election coverage.

We won’t see the likes of James again. A lack of critical thinking in criticism, plus the lack of sheer ability to play with different mediums as well as tailor material to different audiences without dumbing down is impossible in today’s media landscape, especially in the UK where mixing intellectualism into the mainstream is now frowned upon.

But his work lives on. As a tip for any budding critics I suggest you read any of his work, but I started with The Crystal Bucket and this work made me appreciate criticism as a need for us to understand art, plus it showed criticism could be an artform in itself. For that alone I’m eternally grateful to James for. He’ll be missed.

Happy birthday Cartoonist Kayfabe

Comics in the media is a minefield. Comics on YouTube is slightly betteronce one wades through the endless ‘geek’ sites featuring a host desperate to be seen by a major channel, or endless lists of comics, or videos like ‘Why XXXX is REALLY bad!!!’.Sure, there’s some good sites out there (and more of them another time) but comics are mainly served badly by YouTube. Stuff like What Culture does fuck all for the medium, nor do I think those involved with channels like that care about comics.

Then a year ago came along Cartoonist Kayfabe featuring cartoonists Jim Rugg and Ed Piskor. Their first video was about Wizard #1

From these beginnings, the channel has grown into the best comics channel out there anywhere on the internet. A big part of that is down to Piskor and Rugg’s complete enthusiasm and love for the medium of comics, and no, not just the usual suspects but things like early Image and 80’s black and white independents, including from the likes of Aircel.

Because the pair love comics, and because they’re coming to comics from a different perspective, even an auld hand like myself is learning things about how comics are created, marketed, sold and with things like their history of Wizard, I learned a few things about a time in comics which history does badly, and that my brain cells have lost memories of.

In short, if you have a genuine love of comics then you should be watching this channel which you can find here. Go over there now and join in their first birthday celebrations!