Monthly Archives: June 2008

Ultimate Spider-Man: Double Trouble

For the most part, the third volume of Ultimate Spider-Man is more of the same. But when you consider what a high watermark that is, the phrase turns out to be praise rather than pejorative. Pete’s got a handle on his powers, he’s sort of got a handle on how to use them, and he has a solid ally in his corner. Naturally, therefore, the stakes get ratcheted up commensurately with his new stability. Not only is there a person at school who believes he’s seen though Spider-Man’s secret identity, not only is a philosophical, attractive, and anti-bully switch-blade wielding Gwen Stacy causing tension between Peter and Mary Jane; on top of these, one of the people who worked in the lab where Peter was bitten by the genetically-modified spider that started all the upheaval in his life has awakened from a coma with strange new powers and a grudge, and Australian Animal Planet personality Kraven the Hunter[1] has decided that a defeated Spider-Man would make an awesome trophy, not to mention bolster a flagging career.

As usual, though, it is Spider-Man’s gradual ascent towards genuine super-hero talent, Peter Parker’s lightning-quick banter, and Aunt May’s struggle to keep rein on a boy about whom she knows far less than she thinks (though far more than he thinks) that combine to steal the show. (I seriously cannot say enough good about May Parker in this series. With appearances in fewer than half of the twenty-one individual comics I’ve read over these three volumes, she has managed to redeem a character that I expected to dislike forever.)

[1] If this sounds kind of familiar, well, I expect it’s supposed to.

Ultimate X-Men: Return to Weapon X

The X-Men are still the clear also-rans in the Marvel Ultimate universe, although Return to Weapon X marked a substantial increase in series quality. It turns out that in addition to Professor X’s eponymous X-Men (dedicated to peaceful co-existence between humans and mutants) and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants (dedicated to a world where homo superior reigns supreme, either through conquest or extinction of homo sapiens), there is a third organized group of mutants in the world: a black-ops division of S.H.I.E.L.D.[1] called Weapon X kidnaps mutants, adjusts them genetically and psychologically to fully weaponize them in defense of freedom, justice, and apple pie, and throws them away like so many apple cores when they’re of no further use, which seems to happen within months or less for most such kidnapped mutants. And now they’ve got their eyes on the X-Men.[2]

Yeah, on the whole it was pretty good. There are characters I disliked, though I have trust that it was often on purpose and some of them will be redeemable in the course of time. Most egregious of all was someone who thankfully will not be involved in the X-Men stories much: Nick Fury (you may remember him as Samuel L. Jackson in the Ultimates comics as well as the Iron Man movie from earlier this summer) is supposed to be a hard-bitten, tough-as-nails spy who can be covert but is more comfortable punching commies (or whoever) in the face. Whereas this guy was a particularly poncey version of James Bond who, even worse, looked nothing like Samuel L. Jackson! So every time he was on-panel, I wanted to punch a commie my own self.

[1] Shield are the people who set up the Ultimates that I’ve reviewed elsewhere, and in general they’re movers and shakers in the Marvel universe who tend to combine the best aspects of the CIA and NSA into one unstoppable unit.
[2] The return in the title refers to the fact that Wolverine escaped from Weapon X before the events of the previous volume, the only mutant ever to have done so. Because he’s awesome.

BioShock

It only took me, what, 8 months to finish BioShock? 10? And yet, that puts me well ahead of any number of games that I still intend to finish, much less the ones I’ve long given up on. At any rate, it was well worth it. On top of fantastically fluid gameplay that allows for practically any tactics you can imagine, the enemies vary from simplistic to extremely challenging but without the penalty of being unable to proceed because of constant death-resets. It may not be my favorite gameplay, but it’s easily in the top ten.

Where BioShock shines, though, is in the storyline. I’ve never read Atlas Shrugged (though I intend to retry someday), so I can’t tell you exactly how stood on their head Rand’s theories are, but I can certainly tell that she would be entitled to quite a lot of energy generated by her grave-spinning corpse, were she ever to see it in play. The premise is simple: while on a trans-Atlantic flight in 1959, your plane crashes near the entrance to an underwater city commissioned in the mid 1940s by suspiciously-initialed industrialist Andrew Ryan, who built Rapture to escape from the communists, governments, and religions that wanted to steal his money and ideas. The sole survivor of the crash, you naturally enter the city as it’s the only place to find shelter from the elements. Before you can draw a breath to admire the fantastic art deco architecture, you’re plunged into the middle of Rapture’s civil war between Ryan and newcomer Atlas, who seems to be a rallying point for the people but now only wants to escape with his wife and children. And everyone you meet is infected with plasmids that give them strange biological powers, such as the ability to shoot fire and lightning from their fingertips. (Plus, they’re infected with Randian libertarian philosophy, and half of them appear to be undead; hooray for Objectivist zombies!) And then, things start to get mysterious.

So, much as I loved Portal, this game here? Best game I’ve played not merely in 2007, but probably in most of the decade. I cannot realistically praise it enough. I know I’m late to the party here, but if you haven’t played it yet? It’s on the “must” list, I promise. It’s even forgiving to people who do not play first-person shooters.

Kushiel’s Justice

Something more than a year went by after I read Kushiel’s Scion, mostly because I read it so close to publication and that’s the approximate schedule for these books, before I found Kushiel’s Justice in the used bookstore. It had no cover, which has been a constant source of annoyance since; and in fact, if I’d known I would wait this damn long to actually read it, I would have left that copy sitting on the shelf. In further fact, while reading this one I learned that a friend was slightly further into the third one than I was into the second. Which was a little bit embarrassing, but I at least avoided big-huge spoilers, so yay! Anyway, though, I actually did read it, so you may be expecting a review?

Now that he’s home from college, Imriel is forced to face the truth that sent him fleeing to alternate-Italy in the first place: he’s in love with the heir to Terre d’Ange’s throne. Which doesn’t sound so bad, as he’s a prince of the realm himself, and in any event the only law laid down by their god, Elua, is “Love as thou wilt.” Things are always a little more complicated than that for Carey’s characters, though: Imriel’s birth parents (one of whom yet lives in hidden exile) hatched a plot before he was born to steal the throne for him outright. So naturally, there are a number of people who would not look kindly on his winning it through marriage.

So he and Princess Sidonie keep their infatuation secret and do their best to quell it, now that Imriel has been promised in a political marriage to an Alban princess (alternate-England, that is). This seems like the right thing to do, except that in being sensible, are they violating that self-same lone law to which they should be bound? The rest of the book is an examination of the repercussions of love, future foreknowledge, and bloody revenge, with more focus on Alba than has been provided in previous books, as well as new travels across northern alternate-Europe. It runs slow at the beginning, but I devoured the second half of the book around work in two short days: the moment past which stopping is impossible came barely halfway in, which is a pretty neat trick.

One spoiler after the cut. Continue reading

Get Smart

I know I used to watch the old Get Smart TV show, and that I maybe even saw a previous theatrical release with a nude bomb, which strikes me as a hilariously ’70s conceit, thinking back on it now. What I remember of the show is pretty limited, although I have access to all manner of catchphrases and signature devices in my brain. I think I’d be willing to watch it a couple of times, just to see how it holds up, but my expectation is that it’s one of those shows where the heroes win implausibly despite being consummate bumblers for the most part. Funny and definitely influential, but probably an ultimately flawed product of a less advanced television environment.

But I wanted to see the movie anyhow, because Steve Carell is awesome and Anne Hathaway is both hot and has performed well in every role I’ve seen and Dwayne Johnson deserves to be supported for any role he takes that isn’t family-oriented, so that he’ll go back to making cool movies. (See also: Diesel, Vin.) So when I learned that the Dallas contingent was going to see it on Saturday, and in my neck of the woods no less, I was in. Plus, bonus massive serving of Shiner Bock available at the theater. Worst case, good company and beer, right?

Here’s the thing, though. This was decidedly best case. I cannot tell you the last time I’ve seen a more consistently funny movie, plus it was neither one of the infinite disposable parody movies we’ve been blighted with lately nor the much better (though still not quite to my taste) gross-out comedies that seem to fill the rest of the slots. And on top of being a purist comedy, it had a fun, non-throwaway plot and characters chock full of heart. Like I said, I think of Maxwell Smart as a bumbler who manages to win despite his dubious talents rather than because of them, a la Clousseau or Inspector Gadget. Whoever wrote this saw a much more earnest character; Carell’s Smart is overly enthusiastic and incredibly green, but with genuine spy talent buried underneath that, and limitlessly optimistic. I just love homages, adaptations, or remakes where you can tell that the person in charge has genuine love for the original work, rather than just a desire to cash in. In this case, I have the impression that it was not just the people in charge, but everyone involved from top to bottom. And they done good.

The Incredible Hulk

I can’t really explain what went wrong with The Incredible Hulk. It was much more of a super-hero movie than Ang Lee’s much derided The Hulk from a few years ago. It did a really good job of pulling in numerous sly references to the ’70s TV show, plus of course to the original Marvel comics. The effects were always spot on, as they have been of late. And I have to geek out a little bit at the way that the various movies are being tied into a cohesive Marvel Universe, just as the comics have always done.

These all sound like pretty good things. And yet, it felt like a late winter release from Marvel a la Daredevil, rather than the summer renaissance they’ve provided so often this decade, most recently with Iron Man. I know that part of the problem has got to lie with the Hulk himself; at least, what I’ve read from 1962-1967 reveals him as an insufficiently interesting character with especially uninteresting villains. And sure enough, the majority of the movie related to Bruce Banner being hunted by the army, angered, transformed, eventually captured anyway, and so on, because the army and General Ross are practically his only interesting foes, and they because of the human element. Which is good and all, but falls flat in an ostensible superhero movie. You need super villains for things to work.[1] If you don’t believe me, ask Ang Lee.

On the other hand, though, whatever pejorative comments have been thrown at Lee over the past few years, the primary flaw of his Hulk was in making a movie whose reach far exceeded its grasp. There are worse epitaphs to be cursed with, and among them is to make a movie that simply didn’t bother to reach very far at all.

[1] And, okay, this had a super-villain. Which was pretty much an alternate brute strength guy who we do not like because he isn’t green and because Liv Tyler doesn’t like him. (Well, and he’s kind of a douchebag.) Still, not much of an improvement on the army, which he is incidentally a part of in the first place. On the bright side, they laid groundwork for the only interesting Hulk villain I’ve seen in the comics to be present in a potential sequel. So that’s something.

The Strangers

I’ve mentioned this before, but the horror genre really is experiencing a renaissance. The slasher film is once more falling by the wayside, alas, but that’s a personal preference and not a big deal in the scheme of things. Plus, it always comes back to life.[1] My point, though, was that once or twice a year since earlier this decade, I’ll watch a mainstream, theatrically released horror film, and it will be scary. Which seems like it should be trivial, given the genre, but I mostly don’t get scared by demons and zombies and the like anymore, and my enjoyment for those kinds of movies is in the amusement value instead.

The Strangers falls solidly into the genuinely scary category, and all the more so because of its stark simplicity. A couple goes to a family vacation home in the woods late at night, and are terrorized by three people in masks who are always one step ahead of them in realistic ways, despite the couple not doing very many unrealistically stupid things while trying to figure out what is going on and protect themselves. The result is building, unrelenting tension that lasts until almost the final frame. Which, yeah, is what I’m looking for in my horror movie. So, yay, this one, and yay renaissance.

[1] I know, right?

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

I finally saw Prince Caspian over the weekend, and it was kind of a weird experience. As a fantasy adventure movie, it kind of works. All those kids from the first movie are magically summoned back to Narnia when Prince Caspian, marked for death by his usurping uncle, stumbles across Susan’s magic get-out-of-jail-free horn where she dropped it in the woods while trying to escape his uncle’s army and blows it.[1] Or, considering he wouldn’t have known to, maybe someone gave it to him instead. Or maybe he didn’t know and was just hoping someone would show up to save him? I’m not sure.

Anyway, there they all are, and it’s been over a thousand years and their whole castle is fallen apart, because evil Spaniards (who we call Telmarines) attacked and subjugated Narnia quite a while ago, driving the magical creatures and talking animals so far into the forest that they are believed to be extinct, plus nobody has seen Aslan in pretty much that whole time. Although Caspian is heir to the Telmarine throne, the fact that his people want him dead and that plot necessity demands it combine to get all the Narnians willing to support him. His enlightened reign, he promises, will see his people and the Narnians peacefully co-existing, which one supposes is better than hiding so well everyone thinks you’ve died out.

Then he and the Narnians and the Pevensie kids (aka Kings and Queens of Narnia, aka Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy) all get together and have a war against Uncle Miraz and the Telmarine army, with mixed success, all culminating in a grand finale of some kind, as movies often do. So, yeah, that worked.

As the Christian metaphor that one expects from the Narnia property: well, mixed success fits well here, too. There’s a bit about not making a deal with the devil, even if it is the devil you know. And there’s a bit about not ignoring God’s little nudges in your life. Which, okay, I suspect that they maybe aren’t as obvious as seeing a lion waving you over, but that’s how metaphors work, so fair enough. But even though most of the failures in the movie were blamed on not following Aslan, as is a good and proper metaphor, the fact is there was just no real way to tell what it was that Aslan wanted of them. He just sat around waiting for things to be terrible, and then rolled in to save them all, while proclaiming that the whole point of not coming and saving them to start with, as he’d done in the previous movie, is that things aren’t ever the same twice. Except really, what he did was exactly the same, because, after all, the whole point of the metaphor is that ultimately you can’t face the evils of the world without Aslan there to carry you down the beach some of the time.

I mean, if they’d made a show of “I didn’t help you because you never asked me to”, that at least would have been a prayer metaphor, and I could get behind it working, pretty well in fact. But I mean, there was no show. And by ‘show of’, I mean not even a single line of dialogue, which is approximately how much it would have taken. Maybe another line or two of reaction, but this is not a long conversation I’m describing here. This also might have tied into the part where nobody in Narnia really believes in Aslan anymore, since nobody has much seen him in the past millennium, although at the same time, I imagine that the Narnians were looking for him to come help back when the war started and their castle was being smashed and they were doing the extinction-hiding and it had been less than a thousand years since anyone had seen him. (I mean, I don’t know how long, but this is the 10th Caspian, so it’s been a little while.) And since he obviously didn’t show up to help out then, well, that would kind of hurt the metaphor a bit, I guess.[2]

Also, the above review probably contained spoilers, and if you care about such things, you should not have read it.

[1] I just reread that sentence, and as much as I considered rewording it because it loses track of proper antecedents at least twice, I choose instead to let it stand as a monument to my awesome clarity of communication.
[2] I just remembered another complaint. It bothered me when they said that Narnia is only ever right when a Son of Adam or Daughter of Eve rules the country. Even though I understand the whole ‘man shall have dominion over the creatures of the earth’ thing, it’s just, these are centaurs and talking mice[3] and morally conflicted dwarves, and they all seem to have agency, you know, so the concept comes off a lot more as White Man’s Burden to show up from a different, far away place and take care of the poor misguided natives so they don’t screw things up too badly than as the Genesis metaphor that is apparently intended.
[3] To be clear, Reepicheep was in fact awesome. So that’s nice.

Ultimate Fantastic Four: N-Zone

As we rejoin the youthful, modern Fantastic Four, they are still trying to determine how to reverse the changes that have been wrought upon them.  Well, at least those who actually want to go back to normal, which number is shrinking as they begin to realize that the potential for the future outweighs whatever burden they may feel. Since I’m not that big a fan of the reluctant hero, this is pretty much fine by me. In any event, in this volume, they plan a trip back into the N-Zone that was the source of their new lives, for science!

The story was basically fine, with all the sci-fi trappings that attached to the original FF moreso than any other old-school Marvel comic, including a spooky extra-dimensional universe with inexplicably giant skeletons and a bad guy named (roughly) E-Vil. I don’t know if the problem lies with the objective quality or with my just having read a much superior Ultimate Spider-Man book, but this one left me mostly dry. The good news is that the character interactions among the four of them that have been the best aspect of every book so far are just as solid here and if anything continuing to grow in quality. There’s nothing worth skipping, but if it was what I had to recommend the series from, I probably wouldn’t bother to.

Ultimate Spider-Man: Learning Curve

Once again, expectations have served me greatly. With a name like Learning Curve, I expected this second Ultimate Spider-Man story to mostly revolve around Peter learning to deal with his new powers, such as climbing on walls and being strong, and that this would be basically fine, but nothing to write home about while waiting for the next good story to start up.

Instead, I got a sensible revamp of several eye-rollingly silly criminals from the early Spider-Man run (and also Kingpin, who I haven’t even gotten to yet in the originals), as well as the beginnings of Peter’s work as a freelance photographer and the beginnings of a relationship with Mary Jane. On top of this, there are some seeds scattered about for future plot development, and Aunt May seems like a real and interesting character, which I would not have guessed was possible; in my experience she has only ever been a device to serve as a limiting factor on Peter’s choices in life. All this, plus the learning curve in question is Spider-Man learning to behave intelligently instead of bulling forward into fight after unwinnable fight. Which is to say, something that’s actually interesting to read about, and not filler in the slightest.

All of that plus the beginnings of the smart-mouthed banter that was, at least to my eye, Spidey’s first real trademark maneuver have gelled this series in my mind as my clear favorite in the super-hero genre, and in the top 5 of graphic novel series generally. Looking forward to more quite eagerly, let me say.