Category Archives: Comic Books

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

After the disaster of “Spider-Man 3,” which all but destroyed the hero that made superheroes box office gold, the world wasn’t exactly craving more Spider-Man. “The Amazing Spider-Man” isn’t the superhero movie we needed, but we got it, and it’s actually a stellar installment of the myth of a man in red spandex.

To compare “The Amazing Spider-Man” with Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” is to tiptoe on a tightrope, as saying that the new one is better than the old one would be potentially putting down something that I deeply cherish. “Spider-Man” was one of the first movies I watched multiple days in a row when it first arrived on DVD, and it spurred an interest in comic books that led me to a giant box full of them in the attic (benefits of having an older brother). But then again, what makes “The Amazing Spider-Man” work is its ability to build on and improve the flaws of its predecessors.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” seems most similar to the fantastic, revisionist Ultimate Spider-Man graphic novels. However, “The Amazing Spider-Man” also takes on a life of its own. It starts at the very beginning, during one of the crucial moments of Peter Parker’s life. As a child, Parker’s father, a brilliant scientist with a controversial view on genetics, is under constant threat. In order to keep Peter safe, he is to go and live with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt Mae (Sally Field) in their working class Queens home. One thing remains constant throughout the evolution of the Spider-Man Story: poor Uncle Ben can never catch a break.

Years later, and Peter is the nerd we always knew. Except this time, he’s more of brilliant punk than a plain old brainiac. Spotting a skateboard, square glasses, and an old jacket, he looks more like the new generations definition of cool kids as seen in “21 Jump Street” (hint: reduce, reuse, recycle). Andrew Garfield plays him with just the perfect amount of teenage awkwardness that is uncomfortable and funny all at once. Because of this, him and Emma Stone, who portrays Gwen Stacy, bounce off each other well as love interests.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” is very slow to start. However, there is a lot of necessary world-building that goes on which does not pay off until later in the story. But really, the movie could have done without the scene in which Peter researches the mystery of his father’s death by searching on the Internet. Obviously, this is the way research is done nowadays. However, there is nothing interesting about watching someone typing words into a search engine, nor does it make someone look any smarter.

Once Peter is bitten by the radioactive spider and starts to experience symptoms does the story really take off. It starts off with a series of ingenius sight gags, directed to comedic perfection by Marc Webb. Webb, who previously directed “(500) Days of Summer,” shows off flashes of self-awareness that first established his talent. After all, we are dealing with a man with spider-like powers who wears a tight red body suit. There is something inherently silly about that. Webb plays around with the humor, but without ruining all seriousness in the story. This was the biggest problem in “The Avengers,” and it does not get the best of the new “Spider-Man.”

Unlike many blockbusters, the action here is well shot and edited. It moves at a pace that anyone can follow, and it doesn’t alternate shots every millisecond. Webb’s indie sensibilities, overall, bring a much more humanized feel to the entire movie. However, there is a major action set piece towards the end, coupled with some emotional backstory, that comes off as quite trite. All I will say is that it involves crains, and I can picture the writers saying something like “we need an easy way to get Spider-Man from one place to another. I know: deus ex machina!”

The fact that “The Amazing Spider-Man” at all had me thinking about the nature of superheroes and comic books shows just how different of a superhero movie this is. It all stems from the creation of a “new” Spider-Man and Peter Parker. Putting a mask on is a way of being two different people at once, and then gaining the ability to do what you couldn’t without a mask on. The old Peter Parker is timid and clumsy, while the old Spider-Man will climb up the tallest of buildings without fear. Meanwhile, the new Peter Parker and Spider-Man are almost one in the same: they are both brilliant, sarcastic, and sometimes too proud and too much in need of getting even. As Peter Parker, he gladly shows off his new ability to jump by playing basketball and smashing the backboard. As Spider-Man, he spends a large chunk of time trying to track down Uncle Ben’s killer.

In addition, Spider-Man is not just a superhero here. Rather, as Police Chief Stacy (Denis Leary) describes him), he is an outlaw, roaming the city with his own code of justice, while hiding behind a mask. When he swings through Manhattan alone on silk ropes, it now feels more like a cowboy walking off alone into the sunset.

While the Spider-Man of the 2000s gained the ability to shoot webs from the spider bite, the Spider-Man of Stan Lee’s creation had to create the web blasters himself. This makes a big difference, as it reveals even more how smart Parker is. No more of that “Go web go!” stuff. Unfortunately, the movie forgets to include what happens when Spider-Man runs out of his webs, which was always one of the more interesting elements of the comics. Seeing Spider-Man fight bad guys without his webs is like seeing Samson without his hair. Only this Samson can jump much higher.

Superheroes, in general, were created to pull of the physical feats that humans could not. The first villains of Captain America and Superman were Nazis. “The Amazing Spider-Man,” in a way, is about what makes a hero. Peter can be a hero with or without the mask. If superheroes are made to do what humans are incapable of, then the point of one armed Dr. Connors’ (Rhys Ifans) cloning experiment was to prove that humans on their own are weak, and only with the help of the genetics of others can they truly excel. Maybe this is foolish, as the experiment goes awry and turns Connors into an evil lizard monster (not as ludicrous as it sounds). Humans might not have the strength or ability to grow back dismembered body parts that other life forms have the ability to do. However, they do have the ability to distinguish right from wrong.

I might be overanalyzing a bit here, but the fact that “The Amazing Spider-Man” at all put these thoughts into my head shows that this reboot runs deeper than one might imagine. It is in line with “Prometheus” as smartest blockbuster of the summer. The real difference between this Spider-Man and Spider-Mans past is character. By adding motivations to every action, the story no longer feels like a bunch of set pieces of a teenager having fun with his magical powers. “The Amazing Spider-Man” is far from perfect, but I truly appreciate its ability to take long stretches of time without blowing something up. The superhero movie has truly come a long way since its humble rebirth ten years ago.

Sidenote: Don’t see this in 3D. 

Movie Review The Avengers

At one point, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) describes what is basically the film’s premise, in which a bunch of superheroes are put into a room in order to see what happens. What he just described could also be a pitch for a new MTV reality show called “Real World: Superheroes.”

At its worst, “The Avengers” is cheesy and derivative. At its best, it is fresh, funny, and exhilarating. There was never one moment in which I wasn’t in some form of awe at what was occurring on screen.

Before this review goes any further, I will admit that I am only a half-committed comic book fan. I read “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” comics pretty passionately when I was younger. I relish the new “Batman” movies as well as the first “Iron Man.” Yet, I never saw the “Hulk” reboot, “Captain America,” or “Thor.” I lost some faith in movies based on comic books after seeing “Iron Man 2″ and witnessing the “Spider-Man” movies go under. I will be as accurate as I can be in this review. “The Avengers” doesn’t necessarily make me want a slew of new comic book movies in the future, but it is certainly a worthy addition to the multimedia-spanning genre.

“The Avengers” will leave those who missed the last few big comic book adaptations scratching their heads. “The Avengers” allows us to catch up on bigger details, but it expects the audience to come in already knowing about the character and the worlds they inhabit. The truly amazing thing about Marvel Comics is the way that characters from separate stories can inhabit the same world. Over the years, each movie has built up to a sort of common universe usually only seen in Quentin Tarantino movies. However, each new entry into the universe should be able to be enjoyed even through a fresh pair of eyes.

“The Avengers” are the superhero dream team, “The Westminster Dog Show” of superheroes, as Roger Ebert described it. With Earth under threat, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) calls seven of the most qualified superheroes alive. There’s Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who shares her namesake’s stealth and deadliness. However, her greatest skill is the ability to get information out of someone without actually interrogating them. Captain America (Chris Evans, or the secret scene stealer of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) somehow ended up in the future and is now adjusting to life in the present. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) came down from whatever planet he’s from. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), well, I don’t really know much about him. he’s a skilled archer.

But there are two superheroes who’s backstories I actually know about. Tony Stark a.ka. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) moved bases to New York City with the innovative Stark Tower. He’s still as cheeky and pompous as ever, with most of his dialogue consisting of “okay, [insert character from pop culture that looks like Thor, Hulk, etc.]!” It gets a little annoying after a while. And then there’s Bruce Banner a.k.a. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Banner has been traveling the world for some time, trying to find ways to keep his rage from getting the best of him. Hollywood finally solved its Hulk problem with Ruffalo. This is the most entertaining and personable Hulk yet. That’s probably because a Hulk who smashes things is more entertaining than an existential and moody Hulk.

Through a series of clunky lines that are supposed to come off as cool, we learn that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) wants to take over the world. He wants to teach humans a lesson [Editor's Note: That's why you always leave a note] that freedom is an illusion and Loki is a boot and humans are ants. Until Nick Fury points out that Loki is actually the ant and The Avengers are the boot. See what they did there? Just about every other character will somehow repeat that line throughout the movie.

In order to defend the world from Loki and the mysterious energy he is using against Earth, Fury and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) assemble a team of heroes whose abilities can help end this mess. It never feels like The Avengers are just thrown in together. Each member (with the exception for Hawkeye, the least developed of them) feels like they are there for a reason. On the scale of “The Magnificent Seven” to “Some Terrible Standard Blockbuster,” the assembling of the team sequence ranks out about a 6.

Let’s Go to the Mall!
“The Avengers” is directed by Joss Whedon, one of the gods of Comic Con. Among many achievements, Whedon is responsible for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly.” The latter is one of the best modern sci-fi television shows. As director, Whedon treats the Marvel universe with love and respect, and he shows his knowledge of the mythology. Yet, in both writing and directing, he adds a self-aware nature which proves at times to be the movie’s saving grace. However, it’s strongest point is the visuals, which often resemble the panels of a comic book coming to life. 
While I am sure Mr. Whedon and the rest of the writing staff put a lot of time into crafting this story, but the writing proves to be the biggest downfall of “The Avengers.” While the writing doesn’t seem to be the biggest draw of this movie, or the reason that most people will see it, the clunkiness of some of the dialogue does have an impact. Imagine reading a comic in which the dialogue bubbles sound downright terrible. It wouldn’t be readable. Some of the movie’s dialogue should have been given a closer listen before it was filmed. 
“The Avengers” will make a lot of fans of the previous comics and movies very happy. However, it may leave others confused. Black Widow and The Hulk are the most fun to watch, because Black Widow is convincingly intelligent and The Hulk smashes things just as The Hulk is supposed to do. Yes, it is awesome.
After “The Avengers” ended, the first comment I had was about the writing. My friend argued that nobody is really coming to see this movie for the writing. In a way, he might be right. But no matter what, everyone is coming to see a movie for the way it is written, and the entertainment value is hinged on the script. Obviously, the world the Avengers occupy is not a real one, but it still must seem plausible during the entire viewing experience. 
For example, The Hulk has been praised widely, but there is a flaw in him. At first, Banner does his best to never get angry and when he does, he has absolutely no control over what he does as The Hulk. Suddenly, Banner says “I’m always angry” and immediately turns into The Hulk and whilst The Hulk, he shows emotional change and even the ability to have a conversation. This goes against the rules set up at the beginning in an unexplained way and therefore, took me out of the world.
Now that “The Avengers” has been out for a week, this can serve as both a review and a reflection, because I can’t really encourage people to see or not see it now that it’s already grossed over $200 million. With a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, “The Avengers” has been labeled by most critics as an ideal summer blockbuster. While it is definitely a very good one, that does not excuse its flaws. I wish the movie was clearer to those who aren’t already so aware of the universe, and I wish it didn’t try to resolve so many plot lines, and fight so many villains at the end. “The Avengers” might be memorable now but once “Prometheus” and “The Dark Knight Rises” roll around, the “ideal summer blockbuster” will be truly defined.

Movie Review: Iron Man 2

I might’ve enjoyed watching the superhero genre be mercilessly mocked in “Kick-Ass,” but I’m no hater. I’ve been anticipating “Iron Man 2″ ever since the moment the first movie ended. This one comes with some minor disappointments and a few major promises. While I can certainly recommend “Iron Man 2,” there isn’t enough to truly give it flat out praise.

“Iron Man 2″ leaves off directly where the first one left off, with weapons connoisseur Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) admitting to the media that he’s Iron Man. The world has changed since then. Thanks to Stark’s design, the world is now safer. For now at least. The movie catches Stark at something of a crossroads in his life: he’s more successful than ever, yet the same technology that’s kept him alive is now turning against him. He becomes more and more narcissistic than ever.
While Stark remains in denial that the Iron Man technology can ever be doubled, someone looks to do just that. There’s Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), an even more smug version of Stark who’s looking for a job in the Pentagon, and psychotic Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) who’s seeking revenge on Stark for past injustice.
One thing I must hand it to director Jon Favreau for doing is putting his own comedy background into an action film. His natural eye for comedy always adds a good extra entertainment value to the “Iron Man” films. The brand of humor he incorporates here probably wouldn’t be a good fit for a Batman or Spider-Man film. However, this particular story involves a character who’s CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world, yet he’s still willing to call a senator a jackass.
In Favreau’s strength, unfortunately, lies his weakness. While he knows his way around humor, he just couldn’t quite nail a lot of the action here. Strangely though, he seemed to know what he was doing in the first movie. In “Iron Man,” some of the war sequences had an odd sense of realism while the scenes where Stark was just mastering his suit were sometime even quite graceful. Here, much of the action was either too silly to take seriously or too quick to ever appreciate. I call it the “Quantum of Solace” complex: a sequel to a great action film which looses hold of the great action of the original.
Take for example, the final battle. I’ll do my best to spare the details. What I will say is that for a battle built up so much, in a location so tight, it turns out to be a major letdown. It’s as if the whole scene, the whole plot line, was simply to end with a giant laugh.
One of the main factors that keeps “Iron Man 2″ from falling apart is its superb cast. Downey is almost too perfect for the part. Only a free spirit like him could portray a free spirit like Tony Stark. But unlike the first film, “Iron Man 2″ adds a level of emotional vulnerability to Stark. He’s certainly not the Messiah he once thought he was. Downey manages to balance that fine line, without turning Stark into a total contradiction.
Then there are a few supporting actors truly worthy of recognition. While this film suffers from a loss of The Dude, it makes up for it with the presence of Mickey Rourke. Call it a stretch, but his performance reminded me somewhat of The Joker with more motivation. He always seemed to take such ease in being such a psychopath. While I can sometimes be annoyed by too much backstory for a villain, here it’s used simply to show motivation rather than to create unnecessary sympathy.
But I digress. Rourke shows here why he’s such a great actor. He is an actor who needs no direction. All he needs is a character description, and he makes it into his own (his odd relationship to his bird was all his idea). The only problem is that Rourke is given such limited screen time. Maybe with a little more freedom, and a little more time, Ivan Vanko would’ve been even more of a villain to remember.
Yet another scene stealer is the even better Sam Rockwell. He taps into all the anger, frustration, and even dark comedy that define his other performances (especially in “Moon”). His character differs from most other villains of superhero mythology because he doesn’t achieve evil through highly advanced weapons or murder. Rather, he is so creepy because he’s such an egomaniac that he will resort to literally any means to get to the top. View him as a much less intelligent version of Hans Landa.
While the cast is sprawling, one problem is that many are either underutilized, or are just plain useless. No offense at all to Gwyneth Paltrow, but her performance mainly consists of her yelling “Stop!” and “Don’t!” at Tony. While Scarlett Johansson’s Natalie Rushman certainly has a little more purpose than that, her role in the film would’ve been better in another sequel.
Again, “Iron Man 2″ is a film I can recommend, but only give slight praise to. It can be hard to give a movie a passing grade for entertainment value alone, but “Iron Man 2″ manages to deliver a solid two hours that never has a dull moment. Yet, with the high standard set by recent comic book films (“Spider-Man 2,” “X-Men,” “The Dark Knight,” “Sin City”), “Iron Man 2″ could’ve been a lot more. And with the extreme likelihood of a third film, Favreau and the “Iron Man” crew should stick to the factors that made the first film great rather than the ones that made the sequel decently mediocre.

Movie Review: Kick-Ass

Remember those people that always said that you should never be the hero? They never told you why: because you might get knifed repeatedly before being mixed up with a bazooka and some samurai swords. Thank you for that valuable lesson, “Kick-Ass.”

All joking aside, “Kick-Ass” is a grand new addition to a genre of meta satire where the story becomes both satire and the subject in which it is actually satirizing (on purpose, of course).
The subject being satirized in “Kick-Ass” is a hybrid of the worlds of both comic books and movies. In order to dive into this world, “Kick-Ass” uses Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson). Dave is the archetypal comic book hero pre-transformation: he’s a nerdy teenage outcast with girl troubles. Dave escapes his miserable, almost meaningless existence through an extreme comic book obsession.
Dave’s obsession goes a little too far when he believes being a hero is as easy as putting on a costume, so he sets out to rid the streets of crime. Despite becoming a pop culture phenomenon, his super hero name is Kick-Ass not because he wins every fight but rather because he always seems to get beaten to a pulp.
“Kick-Ass” has what is almost two interwoven plots. The two plots serve as the two separate films “Kick-Ass” strives to be: a comic book movie, and a comic book satire. Dave’s transformation into Kick-Ass serves most of the film’s satirical moments. These moments serve to tell us that the great heroes such as Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman were kept flat on the page for a reason. These heroes served as fantasies for a reason. That reason is that they’re not supposed to exist in reality.
There is another part of “Kick-Ass” that always remains funny, yet also tries to be like a true comic book. The film gives us the dynamic duo of the young, foul-mouthed, and very skilled Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) and her weapon-loving father Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). Wherever they fight crime, they leave an extremely gory trail behind.
“Kick-Ass” has generated a lot of controversy for its sometimes less-than-serious look at ultra violence. To simply dismiss it as a product of violence-loving culture would be to totally miss the point. “Kick-Ass” comments on a society enamored by superheroes and explosions by in a way, becoming a very product of it as well. For example, Hit-Girl’s shocking fighting techniques might produce laughter. This isn’t because the act of murder is supposed to be funny but rather because these moves are all carried out by such a young child. One of the most important rules of comedy is breaking away from the expected. Then again, the often humorous view shows how little the characters understand reality.
Not all of the violence in “Kick-Ass” is pure humor. Director Matthew Vaughn has a Tarantinoesque ability to balance out over-the-top violence with much more realistic (and even dramatic) violence. Nobody gets injured and then heals instantaneously. Vaughn never neglects to remind the audience that in the end, these are just a bunch of inexperienced kids fighting people with guns.
“Kick-Ass” is supported by a flawless cast. Johnson creates a neurotic persona so awkward that it manages to rival the reputation for awkwardness created by co-star Christopher Mintz-Plasse. It was nice to see Nic Cage actually acting for once, or better yet actually playing a character fine-tuned to his own personality. He’s had too long of a streak playing characters abusing women while wearing a bear costume.
Of all the cast, the biggest standout was the most inexperienced actress. Moretz handled such a gutsy role with such gusto. She gave off the sort of ease and believability that only a pro could ever pull off. Despite having such a small role, Moretz turns Hit-Girl into the funniest and most memorable character of the film. She’s even worthy enough of her own spinoff.
The reason that “Kick-Ass” is my favorite film so far this year is because of how courageous it truly is. In this day, it’s hard to make a movie that truly feels daring, that feels as if societal norms were broken in order to make it. “Kick-Ass” is that rare film that seems like a shock that anyone ever produced it. It contains violence that is at times uncomfortably gruesome and at other times uncomfortably funny. It even uses a four-letter word that is still taboo to say.
Yet, the film is never shocking for the sake of shock value. It is shocking because it earns the right to be shocking. It’s shocking because parts of it feel like the kind of story you’d hear on the local news at 11, and then later watch it become a YouTube phenomenon. It’s daring in both its hardcore violence and its storytelling. Vaughn carefully balances both realism and jet pack absurdity into one film. It’s stylish and ridiculous at the same time.
In a world where people can watch movies on laptops and phones, “Kick-Ass” feels like the kind of film that was made to be see in a theater. Its unique story is worthy of a variety of responses. One scene can make some happy, and others angry. It’s also shot well, and contains some humor that works best in collectivized laughter. “Kick-Ass” has something to say and something to give. It’s both a disturbing look at the world, and a hilarious comic book fantasy. Genius couldn’t have come in a more stylish, more fascinating package.