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Comic Review: A-Force #1

I admit, A-Force wasn’t on my radar until I got wind of the critical cross-talk regarding the cover. For those of you without the background, Jill Lepore wrote an opinion piece in The New Yorker in part lamenting the “pervy” costumes and stature of the all-female Avengers squad on the cover of the brand-new title. She also complains that they’re all derivative–a female Loki, Pepper Potts in an Iron Man suit, She-Hulk. In response, G. Willow Wilson, co-author of A-Force and also author for the recent run of Ms. Marvel, addressed some of the concerns. With both the argument over the cover and the new fondness for Wilson after devouring the first Ms. Marvel trade paperback, I grabbed the first issue when it hit the shelves. I leave the article links for you, gentle reader, to evaluate on your own.

a-force cover


Marvel’s Mightiest Women finally get their own explosive series! In a secluded corner of the Battleworld, an island nation is fiercely protected by a team of Avengers the likes of which has only ever been glimpsed before… Fighting to protect the small sliver of their world that’s left, the Amazing A-FORCE stands shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to take on the horde!

Writer: Marguerite Bennett and G. Willow Wilson
Artist: Jorge Molina

This is the second issue I’ve picked up that falls into Secret Wars. I’m not wild about continuing down that rabbit hole, but I must admit I’m intrigued by this multiverse version of the Avengers that is wholly comprised of women. The cover features an array of these women, some of whom are derived as female versions of their male originals, but many, many others who are unique characters unto themselves but are frequently pushed to the background or fell out of fashion after a particular run of popularity. Dazzler, Storm, Phoenix, Rogue, Jubilee, Wasp, Scarlet Witch, Black Widow, Elektra, Medusa. Heck, even the two living female characters from Runaways are here. Good to see you, ladies. Honestly, seeing all of these spectacular women teamed up together on the cover is worth the price of admission.

In Secret Wars, these women are the guardians of an island called Arcadia. It’s their little piece of their alternate Earth that has remained in the fragments-combined Battleworld. She-Hulk is the woman calling the shots from within the Hall of Justice. Sidebar: This is the Marvel universe, but the female protected island of Arcadia reminds me of DC’s paradise island of Themyscira which Wonder Woman called home, and The Hall of Justice is the Justice League of America’s headquarters. Anyway, it brings an interesting new level to a set-up that’s already twisting reader’s previous knowledge of multiple series, not just Avengers, but also Captain Marvel, X-Men, and Thor.

Since this is issue #1, we open with an introduction to some of the major players: She-Hulk, Captain Marvel, Sister Grimm, Dazzler, and Ms. America. The first is leading the team, composed of the rest, as they patrol the island. They come under attack from a giant, prehistoric shark, a Megalodon, extinct two million years. Like with the Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps opening, this issue is setting up a mystery for the super women to unearth and the law and will of Doom to violate in an effort to find the truth.

I love the big players of the Marvel universe, but there’s a joy at getting to see Dazzler (donning her rollerskates) and Sister Grimm tear up the skies with Captain Marvel. Further, the scenes of mega-shark fighting action are balanced with familiar, intimate, and emotionally-charged scenes of the women’s relationships playing out. It’s clear that this title is going to nicely balance the character-driven narrative with the women kicking ass.

aforce team

The art by Molina beautifully depicts Arcadia and its female guardians in a full spectrum of color and a layered effect in the line-work to give depth. Close-ups of the characters are emotionally clear. The action is easy to parse. With so many different characters coming together in this title, the art serves the multiple masters well, showing a flexibility to character and super powers that adapts but also bridges the myriad styles.

I don’t know if A-Force will continue after the summer’s Secret Wars are played out, but I hope so.

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Practical Stunts and The FX of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

WIRED Magazine’s new installment of Design FX gives insight into our beloved Mad Max: Fury Road. The three-minute video discusses how George Miller’s crew used CGI in the film for the beautiful saturated colors, the dust storm, the Citadel, and the brilliant night shots (actually shot during day!).

The film is getting all kinds of accolades for the complex practical stunt-work with the car chases. As it should be. George Miller, his crew, and his cast worked their butts off for those 60-mile-per-hour chases, fights, and flames. What I think this video makes clear is that despite the amazing things CGI can do, truly believable physics are not among them. The Hobbit has been harangued for its less-than-believable fights because so much more within them were CGI than The Fellowship of the Ring–and the direct comparison was right there. Even Avengers: Age of Ultron had CGI fight work that just didn’t have the impact–punches just didn’t have the weight, nor did bodies when thrown. Because Fury Road’s actual human stunts were done for real and the CGI was used mostly for set dressing, the physicality of the film was always bearing down with the action. And it had real impact–full engagement.

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Rat Queens Not Widows, Representation in Numbers

RatQueensV2_CoverRat Queens is written and illustrated by men–Kurtis Wiebe and Stjepan Sejic. For this reason, it perhaps shouldn’t be a feminist tentpole for contemporary comics. But the simple fact is its foursome of female leads, and the handful of ancillary female and gender-bending characters, make writing a fun, kick ass, but also feminist comic look easy. What seems to make the difference here is numbers.

In the bruhaha that spun up around the developments in Black Widow’s character in Avengers: Age of Ultron, there was wide discussion of whether making her a love interest to Hulk or giving her a tragic backstory involving forced infertility strengthened or weakened her character. It ended up being a kind of stalemate. On the one hand, the romance with Bruce Banner illuminated deep truths about her character. And certainly women world over deal with the psychological trauma that can come with the loss of fertility. To deny her either the character insight that she too identifies with being a monster or the authentic experience of many women dealing with barrenness also seems to be at a cost. But by making her a love interest or a woman deeply traumatized by her infertility, Black Widow took on the cliches of women in film.

johanssenruffaloThe wise Mark Ruffalo pointed out in an interview on the topic:

I think that what people might really be upset about is the fact that we need more superhuman women. The guys can do anything, they can have love affairs, they can be weak or strong and nobody raises an eyebrow. But when we do that with a woman, because there are so few storylines for women, we become hyper-critical of every single move that we make because there’s not much else to compare it to.

And this is where I get back to talking about Rat Queens. Because each of the Rat Queens is both flawed and wonderful in her own ways. There is diversity in their body types, sexualities, gender-expressions, motivations, fears, weaknesses, and strengths. And because there are four of them (plus the side characters who are being developed as well through Wiebe’s writing), none of them becomes a Widow, holding the depiction of all womankind on their shoulders, playing to or subverting cliches alone.

I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but there is a big reveal about one of the characters’s choice of hairstyle late in Rat Queens Vol. 2 trade paperback collection. If this reveal had been given to a Widow, a sole woman bearing the load of having to be awesome, it would have played pretty directly and damningly into a female stereotype. But because the character involved is surrounded by other dynamic and round female characters, her story doesn’t get flattened by the load it carries. Consider this gem of a thought from Linda Holmes on the difference with Black Widow:

To be honest, I can’t think of another Avenger whose story Natasha could have swapped with who wouldn’t, in some way, raise questions of whether the story was influenced by gender stereotypes. If she had Tony’s story, she’d be the one who messed up and wouldn’t listen, who created the need for a rescue. If she had Cap’s story, she’d be the one who tries to keep everyone from being vulgar – the behavior cop. If she had the Hulk’s story, she’d be the one whose superpower is being carried away by her uncontrollable emotions. If she had Thor’s story, she’d be the one who doesn’t have very much to do and is omitted from a large stretch of the movie. If she had Hawkeye’s story, she’d be the one who just wanted to go home and be with the kids.

post-60212-Unbreakable-Kimmy-Schmidt-Dong-4JLzSo ultimately, doing right by women on screen and in comics comes down to multiple portrayals of heft and depth. This is true of nearly every underrepresented group–consider the mixed responses to Dong on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Dong’s character has plenty of stereotypes attached to him, but he’s also full of heart and sincerity. He’s easily one of the most likable of the characters on the show. But because there are so few depictions of Asians on television, the show’s reputation of race depiction rests in large part on his shoulders. Then consider Jacqueline Voorhees, Kimmy’s rich boss. She’s likewise a mess of stereotypes (with a couple of curveballs thrown in), but she’s also only one of multiple women who are developed on the show. She’s more offensive as a character but less responsible for being anything else.

But lets not pretend that Kurtis Wiebe doesn’t also have a gift for writing whip-smart, audacious, funny, and strong as hell female characters. Because that is also true. He just didn’t see a reason to stop with one. And that’s what makes Rat Queens an absolute joy to read and a game-changing comic for diversity of representation.

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The Whedon Western From ‘Serenity’ to ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

After having recently watched both Joss Whedon’s first big screen writer-director debut, Serenity, and his most recent writer-director film, Avengers: Age of Ultron, I was struck by a shared theme, in fact, a theme that is most at home in the classic Western.

[Spoilers for Serenity, Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Searchers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier]

Civilized vs. Savage

In the Western, the baseline theme is civilization vs. savagery. Sometimes it’s played straight, as in The Magnificent Seven where the semi-savage gunhands fight for the livelihoods of the civilized farmers, but other times the two ideas get muddied. In John Ford’s The Searchers, Ethan (John Wayne) hates the Comanche and especially their leader, Scar, for massacring his family. The hatred drives him out of a civilized head-space until at the end he actually scalps Scar in revenge, becoming the savage thing he hates. The movie goes to great lengths to show Ethan and Scar as foils, more alike than they are different, two sides of the same coin. Ethan, after becoming near savage himself, doesn’t belong in civilization. The final shot of the film symbolizes this acutely.

Ethan taking a last look at his family before heading back out into the wilderness.

Ethan taking a last look at his family before heading back out into the wilderness.

In Serenity, Ethan and Scar become Mal and the Operative. Malcolm Reynolds is “not the pluky hero” as the Operative points out. Mal finds out the Operative isn’t armed in their first meeting and immediately fast draws and shoots him. Mal does point out that he “doesn’t kill children,” as the Operative does, but the Operative points out that the world he’s trying to create through his belief and actions doesn’t have a place for either himself or Mal. “I’m a monster,” the Operative says of himself. They are both outsiders, uncivilized. Fit only the margins of society, broken by violence–perpetrated by and on them.

Ironically, in an attempt to make the universe more civil, the Alliance government introduces a drug into the air processors on the planet Miranda that causes most of the population to simply become detached from themselves and die, but .10% respond with an extreme aggression, becoming what is called Reavers in the film–rage-driven savages who rape, cannibalize, and generally terrorize whomever they can. They make the uncivil outer planets of the ‘Verse look homey and quaint by comparison. So the governors of civility, in Serenity, manufacture the ultimate savage in the form of the Reavers.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the theme of civilized vs. savage is explored through the inner struggles the Avengers face regarding whether they are actually heroes or monsters (an echo of the Operative). This is most readily seen in our two mad scientists: Tony Stark aka Iron Man and Bruce Banner aka Hulk. In the aftermath of the Battle for New York and the murky reveal that Hydra and SHIELD were in cahoots from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the good and bad sides of power are stone gray. Some consider the Avengers heroes–a statue in New York gives this view–others consider them monsters–as Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Ultron do.

Tony Stark believes he is working to protect the world by creating Ultron. He is trying to save the world from even needing the Avengers. But ultimately, the vision he is shown by Scarlet Witch is ambiguous in terms of what leads to the Avengers’ deaths. Is Ultron the cause or response to the possibility of Tony being responsible for his team’s demise? When Scarlet Witch tells Captain America that Ultron has gone crazy and doesn’t know the difference between saving the world and destroying it, she tags it with the question, “Where do you think he gets that from?” The answer–Tony Stark–is left hanging in the air. Stark’s past weapons sales have already placed him in monster-territory, and his movement to Iron Man has largely been a redemption arc. But the transition from monster to hero hasn’t been an easy one, and Tony’s decisions haven’t always had the best outcomes. Ultron is a case in point–he’s meant to protect the world, but the greatest threat to the world is humanity. So true, but not really what Tony was going for.

Bruce Banner’s inner struggle is somewhat more straight-forward. Bruce is a thoughtful, intelligent guy. The Hulk is muscle-bound rage. Banner’s not much use in a fight, but Hulk is difficult to control. The Avengers are learning ways to contain the extraneous damage Hulk can do–civilizing him with the “lullaby” or trapping him with “Veronika.” But ultimately Bruce cannot deal with the damage Hulk does–he’s a monster. Widow attempts to connect with him on this, pointing out that she was made to be a weapon. Even Captain America doesn’t seem himself anywhere but at war now. His civilian days are over.

The final battle of Age of Ultron sees the Avengers attempting to come down hard on the hero side by doing everything they can to rescue every civilian. To keep their civility over the savagery of violence, the Avengers must risk themselves for the people–all the people. Widow makes the relativity argument early on in the battle, suggesting that they drop the city now, sacrificing the population of the town but saving countless others by doing so. But Cap rejects this idea, and with the help of the helicarrier, the Avengers are able to pull off being heroic.

Despite this, Banner disappears, still unable to see himself as anything but a time-bomb, though he is crucial in keeping Ultron from dropping the city-bomb. The team needed the monster–“the other guy”–but the civilized man within can’t deal with the costs. Wild savagery marginalizes him, just like the Operative and Mal, just like Ethan in The Searchers.


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‘Community: Age of Yahoo’ Trailer Premieres

It’s all new, but nothing has Chang-d.

Community-Season-6-TrailerOnly 14 days until Community Season 6 premieres on Yahoo!Screen and we’ve finally been given a glimpse of what it will look like. And in true Community fashion, the trailer is a parody of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What is clear from the trailer: they will overtly address the loss of Shirley and Troy, the new group members have their own spark, there will be silliness mixed with parody mixed with some social satire. It sorta looks like exactly what I’d hoped for.

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Star Wars Saturday: Original Trilogy Recut as Age of Vader Trailer

The Unusual Suspect, he of the recut trailers in the style of fame, has done his magic once again by cutting the original Star Wars trilogy into an Avengers: Age of Ultron-style trailer. He calls it Star Wars: Age of Vader.

vader ultron

There are a couple of revelations from this specific kind of mash-up.

  1. The tone of the trilogy is much, much darker. Every shot of anguish and pain from the original trilogy with the exception of Luke’s immediate reaction to his hand being cut off, the yelled refutation of Vader being his father, or the Rancor-keeper’s loss of his pet are used in the trailer, and there’s not even an itty-bitty spark of levity.
  2. This highlights exactly why the Age of Ultron trailers have completely turned me off. Although it might be fun to intellectualize who could win in a battle: Hulk or Iron Man sporting his Hulk-Buster suit, I don’t really relish the idea of a whole Avengers movie that’s largely dark and anguished. I want jokes. I want fun. And frankly, that one scene in the original Avengers when Loki’s staff causes them to bicker was all I needed of in-fighting.
  3. The Usual Suspect pulled from a whole trilogy’s worth of battle scenes. Age of Ultron is just a single 2-3 hour movie. So perhaps this emphasizes just how bloated with massive destruction our summer blockbusters have become.
  4. It is always interesting to see what a different edit can do to change the tone and meaning of a shot or scene. It’s hard to “see” what an editor does in movie making sometimes, but I become more convinced each year that theirs is the most influential job in shaping that final project.


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Guardians of the Galaxy: The UK Extended Trailer and the Joss Whedon Connection

Watching the UK extended trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy that came out Tuesday, I was struck by how much it felt akin to Joss Whedon’s Serenity, the cinematic revival of his beloved but short-lived sci-fi western, Firefly.

Now compare that to Serenity’s trailer.

Obviously Serenity lacks aliens and “official” superheroes (but, hey, there’s River). BUT. Both follow a rag-tag group of marked criminals as they run from authorities and attempt to save the galaxy. Both have a roguish lead character attempting to organize the various group members into action. Both have comedy coming from the rebellious, rule-breaking these characters partake in to get the job done their own special way. Both are action-based ensemble movies.

Crew members in FireflyAvengers worked like gang-busters because Whedon is a master of the ensemble. His work in television–Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, and Firefly–and then in movies–Serenity, Cabin in the Woods, and Much Ado About Nothing–all involve juggling numerous characters, making sure they all have personality, motivation, stakes in the action, and an important job to play. Avengers was great because he wove together the personalities of disparate superheroes (and their films’ styles) and had them authentically bounce off of each other while also ensuring each was important alone too. Guardians needs to work in the same way to work at all.

So when Guardians started to seem pretty Whedonesque in that trailer, I did a quick bit of research and turned up an interview with James Gunn, Guardians‘ writer and director, where he speaks directly to Whedon’s involvement. The full article can be read here.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-GroupTurns out Whedon and Gunn are old friends and that Whedon pushed for Gunn to head up Guardians. Because of that and the close connections Guardians is going to have with Avengers 2, it’s no surprise that Whedon has helped shape the story and script. After seeing the first draft of Gunn’s script, Whedon told him to make it more of a Gunn film, which inspired Gunn to write a 7-page dialogue on the spaceship. Ironically, a scene like that would be right at home in Whedon’s Firefly.

But let me be crystal. I am ecstatic to find out that Whedon’s hand has been in the Guardians mixing bowl. His experience with ensembles, his tonal balancing of action, drama, and humor, and his wide-angle view of the Marvel universe means that Guardians will fit in with its siblings while also standing out as its own unique self.

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Explaining My Anticipation of the Guardians of the Galaxy

I must admit, I’m only mildly interested in the raccoon, and that puts me in an odd minority of folks who are excited to see the upcoming Marvel anti-Avengers pic but aren’t in it for the small, furry one.

Guardians of the Galaxy Trailer #1, How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways:

1) Ooga-chucka-ooga-ooga-ooga-chucka! It’s the song. I’m of the age where I became aware of this classic at exactly the moment that I was at a high school party and some much cooler person than I put in the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. So what does this allusion bring to the film? Anti-establishment connotations. Like Mr. Pink and co., these anti-heroes are flawed, but we are meant to be fascinated and even root for them (root–like on a tree–ha!). In a Marvel Universe that has increasingly come to be palatable to even the non-geek masses, Guardians is posing as early Tarantino, all homage and avant garde, ripping up the joint.

2) Chris Pratt. After watching a season and a half of Parks and Rec, Chris Pratt’s dumb-as-a-box-of-hair, free-loading boyfriend was my least favorite character. I haven’t yet seen The Lego Movie. So how do I explain the sudden appeal of Chris Pratt? Well, first of all, he’s gotten buff. Second, his character appears to be your basic Han Solo-type. Third, he flips off his captors. New muscles + new character type + new attitude = attractive Chris Pratt. And yet this is Chris Pratt–not Chris Evans. He’s no beefcake hero. He’s an everyman anti-hero with (I imagine) a heart of gold. He’s a Bogie. He’s a Fillion.

3) Supporting actor: John C. Reilly. First experience with John C. Reilly was Boogie Nights. And while he has certainly done a number of more mainstream films, like Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, he remains, in my mind, a sign of a thoughtful, but funny, independent spirit in a film. Add to that Michael Rooker and Lee Pace, and my indie heart is all a-flutter.

4) James Gunn is an intriguing wild card. He’s got a track record for dark comedy spliced with genre (see: Slither, Super). He’s no Edgar Wright (omg, if Edgar Wright were directing this…), but he’s got the potential to hit it out of the park. Still I think the key is tone–it has to be consistently right. If it goes too silly or too dark, the whole thing could fall to chaos.

5) The return of FUN to the Marvel Universe. Remember, back in 2008, when we geeks dutifully clamored into theaters to check out the new superhero summer flick directed by that guy who did Swingers and starring the soon to be entirely rehabilitated Robert Downey Jr.? No one knew it would be the blockbuster it was. But it shattered the studios’s expectations. Word got around that this was a film everyone would enjoy. Why? Because it was fun. It wasn’t The Dark Knight, who it would share the summer docket with. In fact, it was the antidote to the dour and depressing world of superheroes that Nolan was pushing. Iron Man had fun being a superhero, and we had fun watching him have fun. But as often happens when characters are led into a sequel or two, the filmmakers gotta get all serious. Iron Man 2 was a downer.

Joss Whedon successfully shot some fun back in The Avengers with his distinctive dialogue and wit, but the mainstream Marvel heroes are neck-deep in questions of corruption and compromise. The indie, punk rock spirit that infuses the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer gives me hope that this will be a grin-fest.

6) Oh, and I think there might be a talking raccoon.

Trailer #2 goes a slightly different route. Now they’re showing off the blockbuster special effects.

This is the “get the masses interested” trailer. How do I know? It’s all explosions and exposition–heck, Pratt’s character even gives us their D&D classes–and rather than score with “Hooked on a Feelin,'” we have the rock classic “Spirit in the Sky.”

But what do we also finally get? Raccoon talking. So that’s cool. I’m not unexcited by it.

And there’s plenty of spectacle. For the non-geeks it’s all just pretty lights promising action and awesomeness. For the geeky, we’re drooling over a giant space head.

And I’m all like, they got Glenn Close? They must be doing something interesting/right. Plus there’s the tease of a romance between Pratt and Zoe Saldana’s green-skinned alien. Capt. Kirk, is that you?

So trailer #2 is a little less designed especially for me. That’s okay. They had me with the first one.