Christopher Nolan Becomes “Controversial” for…Speaking Truth?

  • unnamed-1

A year ago, director Christopher Nolan was still considered the most bankable auteur filmmaker around. But in the Bizarro world of 2020, he’s now been cast as the crazy uncle everybody avoids at holiday gatherings. 

Why? Well, first, he dared to maintain belief that there was a place for cinema in a post-COVID world, standing firm in debuting his latest film, Tenet, in theaters. Then, in just the last three weeks, he made a few logical observations about film markets and consumer tastes. The nerve!

On releasing Tenet during the pandemic, I’ll only say I saw it in (a socially distanced) theater myself, and I thoroughly enjoyed this quote from Forbes’ Scott Mendelson (whom I don’t always agree with): 

“I’m not going to lecture you about attending movie theaters, since we’re all adults.” 

As far as Nolan’s remarks, here ya go:

1. On Tenet’s box office performance, LA Times Interview

“I am worried that the studios are drawing the wrong conclusions from our release — that rather than looking at where the film has worked well and how that can provide them with much needed revenue, they’re looking at where it hasn’t lived up to pre-COVID expectations and will start using that as an excuse to make exhibition take all the losses from the pandemic instead of getting in the game and adapting — or rebuilding our business, in other words.” 

Nolan is exactly right. Despite making “only” $56.3 million in the U.S., Tenet has wracked up a global total of $353.7 million at the time of this writing. The U.S. may be locked down and shy about returning to theaters, but clearly, there are viable markets elsewhere around the globe.

2. On his much-maligned sound-mixing, The Nolan Variations (Book)

”I was a little shocked to realize how conservative people are when it comes to sound. Because you can make a film that looks like anything, you can shoot on your iPhone, no one’s going to complain. But if you mix the sound a certain way, or if you use certain sub-frequencies, people get up in arms.” 

Look, I have as much (if not more) trouble hearing dialogue in a Christopher Nolan film as the next guy. But I’m fairly sharp, and I also go in knowing that Nolan flicks are crafted to be taken in over multiple viewings. So, I buy the home video release and put on the subtitles. Then, after 600 screenings, everything finally makes sense. Mostly. 

But Nolan is making a larger point about the inexplicable, irrational double-standard in media consumption among audiences. I’ve lost count of how many times someone has stuck a cell phone up to my face to show me a poor-quality viral video, on a microscopic screen, with the low quality sound playing through worse quality speakers. And I’m the crazy one for not wanting to watch it. (I would watch it on my TV, but then it’s a vertical image on a horizontal screen, which may be equally annoying.)

Yet, attend a theater with a high-quality picture and the sound mixed a certain way and “everyone loses their minds!”

But let’s not stop at movies. The same baffling phenomenon happens in music.

When I was editor for Southern Senses, we received an album submission from a band that was making serious moves in the indie scene. I was excited they had contacted us…until I listened to the material. There’s a difference between being intentionally lo-fi and just recording badly, and to this day, I’m not sure which of the two I was hearing. 

But recording quality aside, the musicianship and singing were just not good. I sent the record to another of our reviewers, and he agreed. Yet, the band is still going strong five years later. Meanwhile, somewhere, another poor talented slob loses all his money on a polished studio record that nobody will listen to.

But let’s take it a step further with social media. If I had a dollar for every articulate, clever, succinct post I’ve seen that was generally passed over for illiterate, profanity-laden rants, we’d be having this conversation on my private island in the Caribbean. (Well, actually, no, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you at all.)

I can’t explain it, and neither can Nolan.

3.  On making The Dark Knight Trilogy, EW Interview

“The other advantage we had was back then you could take more time between sequels. When we did Batman Begins, we didn’t know we’d do one, and it took three years to do it and then four years before the next one. We had the luxury of time. It didn’t feel like a machine, an engine of commerce for the studio. As the genre becomes so successful, those pressures become greater and greater. It was the right time.”

For those remarks, Nolan is being lambasted for criticizing the modern comic book movie genre (which would mainly be Marvel, since DC has had a rough go of it since Nolan left.) Well, he’s not criticizing. He’s merely observing that he had more freedom with Batman because the superhero genre had yet to become a corporate process. And once again, he’s right.

The superhero genre a decade ago was not what it is today, and Nolan is simply happy that he was able to make his films in the less restraining environment. Why wouldn’t he be?

It is amazing to me how innocuous, apt, and accurate comments can become sources of controversy, but, alas! Such is 2020! Or perhaps, such is 21st-century humanity. 

*Note: Unfortunately, Disqus comments have stopped loading on new blog posts, and I have yet to resolve the issue. If you’d like to reach out for any reason, please feel free to drop me a note via the Contact Form!

Book Review: KING’S FOLLY (KINSMAN CHRONICLES Book 1) – Jill Williamson (2016)

  • kings-folly

Written as a clean alternative to modern fantasies such as A Song of Fire and Ice, King’s Folly serves as an outstanding inaugural installment to the epic Kinsman Chronicles saga. Though it’s targeted to a Christian audience, the book never shies away from mature themes; instead, it opts to present adult content delicately, refraining from graphic descriptions and never glorifying immoral behavior. 

The ensemble cast of characters is expansive but perfectly balanced, and, whether dealing in physical landscapes, intra-kingdom politics, or fractious religious sects, the world-building is exemplary. Williamson also draws from other genres, including western and spy thriller, deftly blending a variety of elements with standard high fantasy tropes. 

For me, the only weak point of the entire affair is the frequent occurrences of one character recounting to another character events which the reader has already witnessed unfold. These instances seem to be presented to further flesh out character dynamics through a question-and-answer-flow dialog. Sometimes, it works; other times, it feels repetitive and slows down the narrative pacing. Still, this is a minor criticism and not a grievous enough offense to detract from the novel’s overall excellence. In fact, it may just be a personal problem on my part!

With all the black magic, palace intrigue, and shocking plot twists, King’s Folly is ready-made for a live-action TV adaptation—which, unfortunately, will probably never happen due to the Kinsman saga’s status as “Christian fantasy” (though not a single reader nor Hollywood executive bats an eye at Lord of the Rings or Narnia, two blatantly religious fantasies from unabashedly Christian authors). It’s a true shame, because Williamson’s book is seriously that good.

Rating: 10/10

 


(This review originally appeared on this site as part of Cole Powell’s 2019 Reading List feature.)

Every Theatrical STAR WARS Movie Ranked and Reviewed in One Sentence or Less

  • Star Wars OT Banner edit
With Rise of Skywalker a mere hours away from hitting cinemas across the U.S., I’m taking a look at every big-screen outing in the galaxy, far, far away, with a rating, quick review, and theatrical trailer for each.


 
11. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) – 2/10
Overly long CGI battle sequences, rudimentary dialog, juvenile humor, contrived, often preposterous plot—this ill-advised cinematic retool of the originally intended inaugural episodes of The Clone Wars TV series is every terrible thing about the prequels, wrapped tight in a mind-numbing hour and 40-minute package.


10. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) – 4/10
 
Beyond Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon, Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan, the villainous Darth Maul, and that trio’s epic light saber duel, the film is a half-baked, CGI-fest that goes all-in on selling toys to the kiddies.


9. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) – 5/10
 
It’s more mature, and overall better, than its immediate predecessor, but it’s still plagued by many of Episode I’s problems, as well as an ill-conceived and poorly executed romance plot, which is central to both the film and the Star Wars saga.


8. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) – 6/10
 
Writer-director Rian Johnson tosses franchise tropes in favor of expectation-defying non sequiturs and sociopolitical commentary, all to the film’s (and saga’s) detriment.


7. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) – 7/10
 
Though the best of the prequel trilogy by far, it’s overly-long and suffers from the same CGI-overkill that plagues its trilogy brethren.


6. Rogue One (2016) – 7/10
 
Though it isn’t exactly the gritty Star Wars, “heavy-on-the-war,” film we were sold, and the extensive reshoots are glaringly noticeable, Rogue One sports impressive moments, including a 5-minute finale that ranks as one of the franchise’s best sequences.


5. Solo (2018) – 8/10
 
For viewers who can accept the fact that lead Alden Ehrenreich isn’t Harrison Ford, Solo is a fun, fast-paced, space adventure that hearkens back to the original Star Wars in ways very few subsequent franchise installments have—though it may ultimately be a pointless exercise.


4. Return of the Jedi (1983) – 9/10
 
The final installment of the original Star Wars trilogy discards the darkness of the previous chapter for a more humorous, child-friendly adventure but still manages to serve as a satisfying closer to arguably the greatest saga to ever grace the silver screen.

3. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) – 10/10
 
It parallels, amalgamates, and inverts the best plot points and characters from the original trilogy, creating something familiar yet fresh, effectively washing away the unpalatable flavor of the prequel saga and paving the way for an exciting new era in the galaxy far, far away.


 
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – 10/10
 
The first Star Wars sequel can’t top the original in…well, originality, but it does manage to surpass it in depth, scope, visual delight, and bleakness.


 
1. Star Wars (1977) 10/10
 
 
Still the standard-bearer for blockbusters, George Lucas’s original sci-fi masterpiece boasts groundbreaking special effects and a big dose of old-fashioned fantasy/adventure.


Every STAR TREK Movie Ranked in One Sentence or Less

  • external-content.duckduckgo
Before the internet gets swept up in The Rise of Skywalker tide later this week, we should all take a moment to commemorate an entry in that other important sci-fi space franchise, as Star Trek: The Motion Picture celebrates 40 years of life this month.  To that end, here is every theatrical outing in the seminal series, ranked, reviewed, and accompanied by an original theatrical trailer.


13. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) – 2/10
An occasionally tasteless and ultimately ridiculous attempt at skewering theism, The Final Frontier is a major blemish on the franchise and a disappointing effort from co-writer/director/star William Shatner.


12. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) – 5/10
An overly long, big-screen debut for the franchise that fails to live up to the heights of The Original Series and that other space movie with which it’s so obviously trying to compete.


11. Star Trek Beyond (2016) – 6/10
A generic, pop-corn auctioneer that inexplicably wastes the indomitable Idris Elba in the lead villain role; an abysmal capper to the Kelvin Trilogy.


10. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) -7/10
A writer completely obsessed with the source material and a director totally detached from it—Nemesis oscillates between too much and not enough but is ultimately salvaged by a young Tom Hardy as Picard’s evil clone and a gut-punch ending.


9. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) – 7/10
Heart, humor, intelligence, a formidable foe—Insurrection possesses many classic Trek elements and probably would have been stellar as two-part TNG episode, but as a big budget film, it’s a little flat.


8. Star Trek: Generations (1994) – 7/10
Though the writers were right when they said they should have saved the “Yesterday’s Enterprise” concept for the first Next Generation film, Generations is nevertheless an enjoyable installment, for the Kirk/Picard team-up if nothing else.


7. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) – 8/10
Suffering the most from an ethnical miscast in Benedict Cumberbatch as the primary antagonist, this Kelvin universe version of Wrath of Khan is an unfairly derided spin on a classic tale and a solid Trek flick in its own right.


6. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) – 9/10
The Enterprise crew goes rogue to get the mind of Spock out of Bones and into the former’s resurrected body, while fending off Christopher Loyd’s villainous Klingon captain in Leonard Nimoy’s wild and exceptional directorial debut.


5. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) – 9/10
An interstellar political thriller that deftly plays off the immediate post-Cold War era in which it was made.


4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) – 9/10
In a daringly comedic entry, adroitly directed by returning Nimoy, Kirk and crew travel back to the 1980s to appropriate a pair of humpback whales to save the 23rd century from certain doom.


3. Star Trek (2009) – 10/10
Director J. J. Abrams updates the franchise for mainstream, 21st-century audiences, while maintaining most of the elements that made Trek great form its inception.


2. Star Trek: First Contact (1996) – 10/10
The Next Gen crew’s finest outing is a deep, dark venture that serves as a worthy sequel to one of Trek’s greatest stories, while proving beyond a doubt that Jonathan Frakes was born to direct.


1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – 10/10
Nicholas Meyer’s script and direction are near flawless, but it’s Ricardo Montalban’s tour de force return as the titular villain that solidifies this film’s place in Trek canon.


SPIDER-MAN: TAS 25th Anniversary Special – 10 Essential Episodes

  • spider-man-tas-2
My generation’s iteration of Spider-Man hits the quarter-century mark tomorrow (UNBELIEVABLE!), and to commemorate, here are ten top episodes from the series, all now streaming on Disney+.
 
“The Alien Costume”  S1 E8-10
 
In this adaptation of the symbiote saga, Peter actually turns evil (not emo), and Eddie Brock actually becomes the Web-head’s perfect psychological and physical antithesis. 
 
“The Hobgoblin”  S1 E11-12
 
In a switch-up from the comics, Norman Osborn outfits the Hobgoblin (voiced by Mark Hamill, basically reprising his Batman: TAS Joker voice) before going green, commissioning the homicidal maniac to assassinate Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin, but things soon go awry.
 
“The Insidious Six/Battle of the Insidious Six” (Neogenic Nightmare, Chapters I-II)  S2 E1-2
 
Though the writers may have had to change the comics’ “sinister” moniker to please the sensors (which makes no sense, considering sister show X-Men featured Mr. Sinister with no problem), the evildoer team-up two-parter is no less a blast, and Peter inexplicably losing his powers during the ordeal raises the tension level significantly.
 
“The Mutant Agenda/Mutants Revenge” (Neogenic Nightmare Chapters, IV-V)  S2 E4-5
 
Honestly, in and of itself, the plot isn’t that spectacular. (Heh, heh. Get it? No? Never mind.) But it’s got the X-Men, and Cal Dodd’s Wolverine teaming up with Spidey is worth the price of admission (which, ya know, was free in 1995). 
 
“Enter the Green Goblin” (Sins of the Father, Chapter IV)  S3 E4
 
The Wall-crawler’s archnemesis makes his debut, and his introduction does not disappoint.
 
“Framed/Man Without Fear” (Sins of the Father, ChaptersVI-VII)  S3 E6-7
 
Possibly the best story in the entire series run, these dual episodes see Peter Parker framed for international espionage and lawyer/secret vigilante Matt Murdock/Daredevil come to his aid.
 
“Venom Returns/Carnage” (Sins of the Father, Chapters X-XI)  S3 E11-12
 
The titles say it all, plus Iron Man/Tony Stark joins the festivities, before Iron Man/Tony Stark was cool.
 
“Goblin War!/The Turning Point” (Sins of the Father, Chapters XIII-XIV)  S3 E13-14
 
First up, it’s Hob vs. Green, then the series presents a pretty shocking take on The Death of Gwen Stacy—except Gwen isn’t in this series, and the writers aren’t allowed to actually kill anybody. But those minor details aside, it’s still rather gripping.
 
“The Return of the Green Goblin” (Partners in Danger, Chapter VIII)  S4 E8
 
Harry picks up the Goblin mantle and loses his marbles along the way.
 
“I Really, Really Hate Clones/Farewell Spider-Man” (Spider Wars, Chapters I-II)  S5 E12-13
 
Years before Spider-Verse events would become a regular occurrence across media platforms, the ’90s animated series swan song saw the ol’ Web-slinger join with several alternate universe Web-slingers to prevent a crazed, Carnage symbiote-possessed Peter Parker (or possibly a Peter Paker clone; nobody knows for sure) from destroying all existence. ’Nuff said!


Join Mailing List
And receive a FREE digital copy of Cole Powell’s latest album, Redux


GARGOYLES 25th Anniversary: The 10 Best Episodes

  • Gargoyles Banner
Twenty-five years ago yesterday, I caught the last twenty seconds of an episode of a new animated Disney series airing in the early week day morning block on my local Fox affiliate. That series was Gargoyles, and those last few seconds hooked me forever. Sure, it’s ultimately a 90s kids show, but it’s one that holds up spectacularly on repeated, adult-aged viewings—personal experience speaking.
 
Incorporating almost every genre of fiction from Shakespearean drama to futuristic sci-fi, the series was dark and serious, with complex characters, intricate plot lines, and weighty themes. The show also boasted a stellar voice cast, including quite a number of Star Trek alumni, many from the main cast of The Next Generation. Plus, the science fiction and fantasy concepts featured in the series were just plain cool.
 
In commemoration of a quarter century of excellence, I’m counting down the ten best Gargoyles episodes, all of which will soon be available to stream on the new Disney+ streaming service, launching November 12.
 
10. “Vendettas” – S2 E46, 05/01/96
 
Having been an unintended victim of Gargoyle shenanigans, a hitherto unnamed, non-speaking background character (Jeff Bennett) sets out with a giant bazooka to “cream” Gargoyle leader Goliath (Keith David). A severely underrated, rare comedic episode. (Clancy Brown guest stars.)
 
9. “The Gathering” – S2 E44-45, 04/29-30/96
 
Though the episode is the least of the series’ multi-parters, the mind-blowing revelations of “The Gathering” make this two-part outing a must see. (Laura San Giacomo, Kate Mulgrew, and Brent Spiner guest star.)
 
8. “Future Tense” – S2 E43, 04/27/96
 
Goliath, best human friend Elisa Maza (Salli Richardson), and Gargoyle dog Bronx (Frank Welker), finally return from the mystical isle of Avalon to find that forty years have past and the villainous Xanatos (Jonathan Frakes) rules over a dystopian New York. But is this future immutable? It’s essentially Gargoyles’ “Days of Future Past,” but with a nifty twist at the end.
 
7. “Avalon” – S2 E21-23, 11/20-22/95
 
Though the tale’s three-part length causes it to be more rushed than it should be, not a single other Gargoyles episode can match the sheer audacity of the Medievalic fantasy tale that is “Avalon.” (King Arthur may or may not show up. Just sayin’.) (David Warner guest stars.)
 
6. “Eye of the Beholder” – S2 E7, 09/13/95
 
A halloween-themed episode that features the iconic “Beauty and the Beast” moment between Goliath and Elisa, “Eye of Beholder” is perhaps most interesting for showing Machiavellian villain Xanatos’s human “vulnerability”: love.
 
5. “Long Way to Morning” – S1 E11, 01/20/95
 
It’s villainous Demona’s (Marina Sirtis) youthful vigor vs. seasoned soldier Hudson’s (Ed Asner) aged wisdom, played out in two time frames—one of which packs in quite a lot of world-building that proves to be very important as the series progresses.
 
4. “Hunter’s Moon” – S2 E50-52, 05/13-15/96
 
The series comes to a bittersweet conclusion as many of the show’s best plot points converge for a riveting and heart breaking finale.
 
3. “Deadly Force” – S1 E8, 11/18/94
 
Broadway (Bill Fagerbakke), the lovable, over-weight, “teddy bear” Gargoyle, accidentally fires a slug into the abdomen of Elisa, critically wounding the woman. Ignorant that the culprit is one of his own, Goliath sets out to kill the mob boss he believes to be responsible for the deed. And, yes, I promise this is a Disney children’s cartoon!
 
2. “Awakening” S1 E1-5, 10/24-28/94
 
The five-part pilot that started it all, “Awakening” establishes the heroes, villains, backstory, frontstory, and everything else it needs, while juggling two disparate time periods, ultimately delivering one of the best blends of modern science fiction and Medieval fantasy to ever grace any medium.
 
1. “City of Stone” – S2 E9-12, 09/18-21/95
 
For me, Gargoyles is best when it’s simultaneously playing in both the Dark Ages and 1990s timelines, and the four-part “City of Stone” is the best of that best. Whether it’s the spectacular alt history take on Macbeth (John Rhys Davies), Demona’s emotional character arc, or the fact that a Disney children’s cartoon [SPOILER] unceremoniously wipes out an untold number of New York’s citizenry, this epic installment is a gripping and entertaining thrill ride from top to bottom.

Join Mailing List

And receive a FREE digital copy of Redux


X-MEN: TAS Iconic Theme Song a Rip-off?

This one’s rich. Zoltan Krisko, a man claiming to represent deceased Hungarian composer Gyorgy Vukan, is suing Marvel, Disney, Amazon, and more over the X-Men: TAS (1992-1997) theme song, a tune Krisko alleges is an uncredited, blatant derivative of Vukan’s work for the 80s Hungarian TV series Linda.
 
Here are both songs:



 


Now, the two themes sound similar, I’ll grant you. But is it a rip-off, a subconscious copy, or a complete coincidence? I don’t know, but there are a couple of questions that come to mind:
 
1. Why is this guy filing on behalf of a 6-year deceased composer?
 
and
 
2. Why wait 27 years to bring this up?
 
I think the answer to both these questions is simple:
 
It was just revealed X-Men: TAS would begin streaming on Disney+ when the service launches November 12th. Hmmmmm.


Want free music?
Join Mailing List


Every Live Action Batman Movie Ranked in One Sentence or Less

  • proxy.duckduckgo

 


2019 has marked a couple of big anniversaries for the Caped Crusader, including 80 years of existence (celebrated on “Batman Day” last weekend) and 30 years of the Tim Burton-directed cinematic blockbuster, titled simply Batman. In commemoration of these marks in the Dark Knight’s illustrious career, every big screen outing for the hero is ranked and reviewed below in easy to swallow capsules.

9.  Batman & Robin (1997) – 1/10

 

Clooney isn’t bad as Bruce Wayne, but unfortunately, that’s about the only positive thing that can be said of this big budget camp fest.


8.  Batman Forever (1995) – 2/10

Gone is the shadowed, adult-oriented tone of the previous installments, and in it’s place sits a 90s rendition of the 1960s series’ spoofiness, resulting in an over-blown, ludicrous adventure for the Cape Crusader.


7.  Batman v Superman (2016) – 2/10

Attempts at realism and thematic depth play as unnecessary grimness and surface philosophical musings, while the plot and action sequences flow as a series of “wouldn’t it be cool if…” ideas kicked around among comic book super-fans over pizza.


6.  Batman Returns (1992) – 6/10

Though unbridled Burton allows his weirder sensibilities a little too much latitude, the first Bat-sequel is at least passable, if not good.


5.  Batman (1966) – 8/10

Young viewers can be enjoy it as a colorful action/adventure, while more mature audience members can guffaw at the farce it actually is. 


4.  The Dark Knight Rises – 8/10

Though not quite as good as its predecessor,The Dark Knight Rises is nevertheless a compelling picture and a fitting closer to one of the greatest cinematic trilogies in history.


3.  Batman Begins – 9/10

Director Christopher Nolan strips away the goofiness associated with the superhero genre and delivers the darkest, grittiest, most realistic comic book origin tale to date.


2.  Batman (1989) – 10/10

Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson are superb as Batman and Joker respectively, while director Tim Burton proves a darker, more adult take on superheroes can work just fine. 


1.  The Dark Knight – 10/10

Featuring breathtaking sequences, a stellar ensemble cast, an intelligent script, and Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as The Joker, The Dark Knight is not only the best super hero film of all time but also an exceptional crime-thriller. 


 

Want free music?
Join Mailing List


Archives: MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS (2012) Review

  • Avengers
(Original version published on comicbookmovie.com, 05/03/16.)


With solo outings for Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, Marvel Studios spent four years and five films gingerly crafting it’s cinematic universe, the intention being to eventually bring together all these heroes for the ultimate, super-powered team-up venture.  But a disparity of tones between films about a genius playboy inventor in a robot suit, a mild-mannered scientist turned giant green monster, a 1940s super soldier, recently thawed after spending 70 years encased in ice, and the Norse god of thunder himself certainly made an ensemble film seem unworkable.  However, as history shows, writer/director Joss Whedon put all the nay-sayers to shame by delivering one of the best on screen displays of super heroism in the history of the genre.
 
Having five solo movies worth of setup, Whedon is able to jump into the story with a fast-paced opening that immediately sets up the plot and the piece’s lead villain, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, making his return to the screen after a stellar turn in 2011’s Thor.  It’s nearly impossible to say enough positive things about Hiddleston’s deliciously evil take on the character.  The performance combined with Whedon’s dialogue makes Loki one of the greatest comic book movie villains to grace the screen.  I’d dare say Hiddleston’s Loki ranks only behind Ledger’s Joker as the greatest.
 
The rest of the main cast, almost all reprising their roles from previous MCU installments, are top notch as well, but one new comer really steals the show:  Mark Ruffalo replacing Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner. Though I was a huge fan of Norton’s take on the character, Ruffalo brings an oddly pitch-perfect combination of quiet, quirky, geeky, awkward, and tortured that makes Bruce one of the most likable and empathetic characters in the film.  Though Bruce is only half of the film’s Jekyll/Hyde character, he isn’t the only half to shine, as the not-so-jolly green giant is finally given the screen treatment he deserves in both character and visual representation.  The digital Hulk (whose face is finally, appropriately based on the actual actor playing his alter ego) looks phenomenal, as do the rest of the effects, which are plentiful.
 
But, though effects-driven action abounds, not an ounce of character development and interaction is sacrificed.  Every character gets its own arc, due screen time, and chance to shine, and each character is allowed to interact with every other, giving the audience the feeling of real relationships being formed in a real world.  Even secondary characters like Cobie Smolders’s Maria Hill and the lovable Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson have important roles and never feel shoehorned or superfluous.
 
This balancing act must be credited most to Whedon, who cut his teeth on sci-fi/fantasy ensemble pieces, developing the pop smash Buffy the Vampire Slayer and cult classic Firefly television series.  Whedon juggles each character and subplot marvelously, keeping the story grounded and the humor realistically funny and sometimes subversive of genre tropes.
 
If I have to lay one criticism, it’s on the climactic battle, which to me, feels a bit too long.  Yes, we need to see that the whole world is at stake from the threat of invasion by aliens who are pretty powerful and not easy to stop, but at some point, the action begins to feel overblown and gratuitous.
 
Finally, after the dust settles and the credits begin to role, we’re treated to the best fan service credit stinger since Nick Fury popped up at the end of the first Iron Man:  a glimpse of the visage of the Mad Titan himself.
 
Thanks to Mr. Whedon and company, the film is a beautiful spectacle of the highest caliber, and I would say very few of its peers had ever reached these lofty heights before, and, dare I say, none have since. 
 
Packed with action, humor, perfectly balanced character interaction, stellar performances, and a villain for the ages, Marvel’s The Avengers stands as one of the greatest comic book superhero films of all time.


X-Men’s “Phoenix Saga” Was Adapted to Perfection 25 Years Ago

  • phero
As the much-maligned FOX-Men swan song, Dark Phoenix, begins floating around digital platforms this week, another, better-received version of the story celebrates its silver anniversary. Debuting on September 5, 1994, the 9-part X-Men: The Animated Series epic fully embraced the space fantasy elements of the comics, taking the superhero cartoon genre to new heights and becoming the definitive onscreen Phoenix adaptation, yet to be topped.
 
Parts 1-5: The Phoenix Saga
 
Subdivided into “The Phoenix Saga” and “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” the story begins with Professor Charles Xavier, fresh off an encounter with an ancient alien spacecraft buried beneath New York, experiencing telepathic visions of an intergalactic conflict (i.e. aliens). Convinced that an upcoming U.S. space mission is in grave peril, the Prof commissions the X-Men to break into mission control, incapacitate the crew, and hijack the shuttle. The team hesitantly complies and soon finds themselves embroiled in an extraterrestrial family drama, as malevolent Shi’ar Emperor D’Ken hunts his renegade sister, Princess Lilandra, on the run with the M’Kraan Crystal, a powerful object that D’Ken intends to use to engulf the universe. Then things get really wild.
 
First, Jean Grey is possessed by the titular Phoenix Force, the entity which guards the M’Kraan Crystal and, by extension, the universe. Then, a mentally and emotionally comprised Xavier loses control of his dark impulses and tries to exterminate the X-Men. But things start looking up for Professor X when Lilandra arrives and reveals that she and Xavier have been telepathically linked since birth and are, thus, soulmates. But then Juggernaut shows up, pitches Xavier over a cliff, and absconds with the princess. And that’s just the end of episode two!
 
The first five episodes composing “The Phoenix Saga” are chock-full of comic book character guest stars including, but not limited to, Banshee, Black Tom Cassidy, the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, and my personal favorite, The Starjammers, a team of space pirates lead by Cyclops’s long-believed dead father. (Trivia: When I was 15, I wrote a spec script for a Starjammers TV pilot and mailed it certified to Marvel creative head Avi Arad. Arad left Marvel a few months later. I’m assuming it was because my script was so good he couldn’t stand it.) There are even a few non-X-Men Marvel cameos, including Black Panther and (the hand of) Spider-Man. 
 
Following spectacular battles and plot twists, the first sub-series ends in epic fashion with Phoenix/Jean (Jeanix?) defeating D’Ken and plunging the Crystal into the heart of earth’s sun, seemingly sacrificing herself.
 
Parts 6-9: The Dark Phoenix Saga
 
Fast forward a couple of episodes, and Jean is revealed to be alive, back on earth, and still possessed by Phoenix, who has developed a taste for the dark side of the human psyche. She soon comes to the attention of the villainous Inner Circle (the comics’ Hellfire Club, name-sanitized for Saturday mornings), who attempt to manipulate Jean and the Phoenix for their own evil ends. But Phoenix proves to be no one’s pawn.  
 
Going full on dark mode, she consumes a star, destroying an uninhabited solar system in the process, and attempts to eradicate the X-Men. Together, Xavier and Jean are able to contain Phoenix in Jean’s mind, but it’s too late. Lilandra and the Shi’ar have pronounced judgement, and Jeanix must die.
 
In a battle for Jean’s life fought on the dark side of earth’s moon, the X-Men engage the Imperial Guard and handily lose. The Phoenix then reasserts herself and is about to unleash her fury at full blast, but Jean overcomes the entity and allows Lilandra to execute her. A few moments later, the Phoenix, unfettered from human evil and back to her benevolent protector self, appears with Jean’s lifeless body and apologizes for all the shenanigans. Phoenix then revives Jean by taking a small piece of life force from each of the X-Men—all willing donors—and sends the entire team home. But not all ends well, for Xavier, at least, as the ordeal has irreparably damaged his relationship with Lilandra.
 
I rewatched the entire set of episodes on DVD (when’s the Blu-Ray coming, guys?) in celebration of this momentous occasion, and I was engaged and entertained from start to finish like it was 1994.
 
Look, for modern audiences accustomed to live-action superhero blockbusters and animated fare voiced by Hollywood A-listers, or for folks who didn’t grow up with the comics or cartoon, it might come off as nothing more than Saturday morning children fodder. But for this 90s kid, it’s still the quintessential X-Men adaptation, 25 years later.