Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Superhero Media: Wonder Woman (2017)

It's really interesting to be able to see a film like Wonder Woman and the impact that it's had in real time, rather than learning about it in a lecture like Star Wars or Thelma and Louise. For most of this review, I'm going to be focusing on the broader implications of the film and the film as an individual piece of art, but let's get the bit you want to see out of the way first. Wonder Woman is, at the time of writing (May 2018) the best film that the DCU has produced in its current format, though I will admit to actually enjoying Justice League on its own merits. More importantly, Wonder Woman is the first major cinema release to be a solo outing for a female superhero. I'm not going to get too heavily into the feminism on this one, (see my Tank Girl review for that sort of thing), but I really think it's great that so many girls and young women have gravitated towards this character, especially this version. 

 (Good to see that Diana's leaned a thing or two from Captain Falcon)

So here we are, in this interesting space where Wonder Woman is something of a classic, without nesescarily being a particularly good film. Yes, Wonder Woman is very watchable, Gal Gadot is a brilliant actor in her own right and perfect for the role and despite still being too CGI-heavy, the film looks better than any of the other DCU efforts. On the other hand, the narrative runs out of steam before the third act, the villains are pretty forgettable, Diana is far too naive for how smart she's supposed to be and the Great War setting still really irks me on a number of levels. The decision behind the setting is obvious, Wonder Woman needed to be differentiated from Captain America - The First Avenger, so World War 2 was out, but the Great War doesn't make much sense, especially if we're to believe the "Evil Germans" aspect; yeah, a country with a decaying government and collapsing economy are a real Wonder Woman level threat. Even if it invited the Marvel comparison, WWII would just have been a better fit, or hell, be gutsy and do the American Civil War, Spanish Civil War or Vietnam.

Also, the DCU music problem raises its ugly head again; "Is She With You?" is the only iconic piece of music produced for any of these films, and although it's from Batman V Superman, I thought we'd get it here as well. No such luck, though we do get a few not quite as good "versions" of the theme. C'mon DC/WB, pull your fingers out and do the damn score properly. Although I did really enjoy this film both times I've watched it, I probably won't be revisiting it again any time soon. This version of Wonder Woman is brilliant and I hope she survives whatever Flashpoint turns out to be and maybe gets the script she deserves in any sequels. If you love this film to bits, great! I like the Tom Jane The The Punisher and Affleck Daredevil, but don't think they're necessarily "good" films. Wonder Woman may not reach the heights of Superman - The Movie, The Incredibles or Black Panther, but it is a milestone that has inspired a generation of women to pick up comic books and I don't think that's ever a bad thing.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

MI:13 - Part IX

As Pete Wisdom and the team return to MI:13 HQ, Quincey Harker requests that the trusted members of the team are brought into a meeting separate from the rest of the Ministry to start the investigation. With a returned Sandman, the Medic, Union Jack and Wisdom gathered around Harker who mumbles something about vampire spies before splashing the quartet of superheroes with water from a bottle hidden in his shawl. Harker explains that it is probable that Vampires have infiltrated MI:13 and the first order is to discover how many spies are in the ranks. The Medic, Union Jack and Sandman are handed UV torches and told to look for people's reactions, Vampires will begin to sweat and panic under the light. The heroes are sent to the main MI:13 office, several floors down, told to keep things quiet so as to not cause a panic and let any vampires slip away. 

Being subtle and clever have never been strong suits for the team, so it takes the trio a while to get the hang of looking through the office workers for any signs of vampire infiltrators. Quite by accident, Union Jack uncovers a vampire in an office and, reacting in panic, punches the undead square in the face. In panic at being uncovered, the vampire turns to mist and starts to flee; all of this supernatural activity starts a panic and the remaining office workers begin to flee for an exit. Leaping into the fray, The Medic uses his power to drain off the abilities of others to remove the vampiric talent of turning into mist, leaving the panicking vampire defenseless. To cut off the monster's escape, Union Jack throws Sandman towards it, luckily, Sandman lands safely and is able to use his gas gun to knock the creature out and trap it. Acting in the best interests of Occupational Health and Safety, The Medic convinces the fleeing workers to take the stairs rather than the lift. 

Charging into the fight, Union Jack fails somehow to hit the sleeping vampire, so withdraws and places himself in front of the fire exit. Seeing that the vampires are vulnerable to his sleeping gas, Sandman begins to dose the fleeing workers and search them, finding that one was, indeed, a vampire. Whilst Sandman and the Medic continue to check the officer workers for signs of vampirism, Union Jack proceeds to beat the vampires into unconsciousness with a combination of his fists and nearby cubicle walls. As the remaining workers stampede towards the blocked fire exit, Sandman spays his gas once more to keep them from escaping. After missing a sleeping vampire for the second time, Union Jack finally connects and takes another monster out of the fight. As some of the workers come to, they run back towards the lift, only to find that the Medic is blocking their path.

Quite by chance, Sandman uncovers another Vampire, which immediately turns into a pall of mist and attempts to escape the rampaging superheroes, but only gets a few meters before the Medic deactivates its powers. As the workers panic around him, Union Jack grabs the vampire, running around the room for no discernible reason. The Medic sabotages the lift to prevent any health and safety violations before charging towards Union Jack and his captive. Between the three heroes, short work is made of the last Vampire. Taking the three captives to Harker, MI:13 soon learn that Dracula is planning to attack an enchantment that is keeping him out of England. Harker explains that in 1941, a coven of witches cast a spell to deny Hitler and the Axis forces access to the British Isle, which, as the Axis included Dracula at the time, also prevents Vampires from crossing the channel. Dracula's Forces are planning to attack the magical circle in New Forest and dispel the enchantment. 

Our trio of heroes camp for a couple of days near a stone circle in the New Forest, keeping an eye out for any vampiric action. In a flash of eldritch light, a seductive and demonic figure appears, with a bodyguard of vampires; wasting no time, she begins to weave her magic, spellfire blasting Union Jack. In return, Union Jack charges the demonic sorceress, who hardcore Marvel comics fans may recognise as Lilith, only to be immediately dog-piled by the vampires. The Vampire soldiers surround the Medic, keeping him pinned down. No one seems to be bothering with Sandman, who is throwing up in a nearby bush due to chemotherapy induced nausea. The trio of vampires sink their teeth deep into Union Jack's flesh and drink his blood, preventing him from closing on Lilith whilst she casts her spells. Things look bleak for a moment, as the Medic is unable to drain the magic from Lilith and Sandman finds he can't land an attack on the vampires. Thankfully, Union Jack's [slightly bullshit] powers enable him to walk straight out of combat with no damage and kick Lilith into unconsciousness in two quick rounds.

Harker does his best, but Lilith is such a powerful entity that she soon escapes, but not before MI:13 is able to extract Dracula's plans. Dracula has allied himself with Captain Fate, a mystical entity capable of creating magical ships that can travel through space and the air; together they have constructed a giant battleship, filled with vampires, on the moon. Soon, the ship will descend on the United Kingdom and the only hope our heroes have is to intercept it and try and eliminate Fate's control. The plan is to use magic provided by Wizlord and Pete Wisdom to teleport the team to Fate's ship, where they will engage in battle, hopefully preventing the attack and somehow surviving reentry. Desperate times call for desperate measures. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Superhero Media: Ratchet & Clank 3 - Up Your Arsenal

Best game in the series, hands down. Off the back of Going Commando, the adventure starts with a news report of planet Veldin being attacked by the alien Tyhrranoids and Ratchet loading up the ship for a return home. From the first landing, Ratchet and Clank are thrown into a Galaxy-wide war against Doctor Nefarious and his Tyhrranoid allies, fighting alongside the Galactic Rangers, a team of Robot soldiers. The whole game feels like a natural progression from the previous two, growing bigger without feeling bloated, building on the foundations set way back in the first game, but still being of something new and interesting. Despite the fact there are things that would be done better in the Future games on PS3, Up Your Arsenal still finds the high watermark of the series because it comes across as the most 'complete', with all of the elements being improved from the previous games, rather than introduced here. The weapon-leveling is better, though needing to get through 10 "levels" does make it feel more like a chore at times than a reward. The Skill Points also work really well here, fitting into the game organically and being fun to shoot for. 

Unlike a great many Sci-Fi/Fantasy games, the "battle" sections of Up Your Arsenal really create a hectic atmosphere and evoke the mood of being in the midst of a war, even if the Galactic Rangers rarely demonstrate a great deal of competence. The new villain, Doctor Nefarious, is used well, with a good balance of humour and menace that easily makes him the best antagonist in the series. Also not having anything tied in with Ratchet's origins really helps Nefarious as a character in his own right, especially retrospectively, when it will turn out that all of the Future antagonists have another piece of the puzzle that is the disappearance of the Lombax species. Nope, none of that, instead we get a building of the characters we've come to know and love, with Clank being the "breakout" character of the pair in their own setting and Captain Quark getting a close to his narrative arc. New characters like Laurence, the irreverent robot butler and Sasha, probably the only potential love interest for Ratchet that is also interesting in her own right, also bring up the overall quality. 

I will never get sick of playing this game, everything about it just works for me in a way most video games don't. Unlike the previous games, there's not too many sections of "busy work" and, unlike the next games, none of the weapons are functionally useless. I'm still not fond of Captain Quark, but he does reach a good character point here, just a pity he keeps coming back. There are so many little things I could list here that really stick in my mind, like the Swingshot and Dynamo becoming the one item, having multiple quick-select rings, ship upgrades only costing bolts rather than another resource and only one set of collectables that trade for cash. Not that I'm the kind of blogger inclined to do something like a "Top 10 Video Games" list, but if I were, Up Your Arsenal would be on there somewhere; I will keep playing this for as long as I can get something to run it. I really hope Insomniac do something good with the characters again at some point, but we'll get to that as we get to later games.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Thinking Out Loud: Super Smash Prescience

If you're the kind of person to keep up with the Smash Bros Ultimate news, like I am, you'll know that expansion characters two and three are The Hero (from Dragonquest) and Banjo Kazooie. Now, I'm not going to rant too hard about another JRPG sword character joining the roster (but, like, really? Another one?), but I am naturally ecstatic to see Banjo and Kazooie coming down the pipeline, Banjo Tooie being one of my favourite games from the Nintendo 64. As always, there was outcry from fans that their personal pick didn't make the cut, especially the Waluigi set, but here's the thing kids; Waluigi is coming, I guarantee it. Much like Ridley and King K Rool, fans have been clamoring for Waluigi to join the Smash Bros roster since the Melee days, so of course he'll be appearing soon; if I had to guess, he'll be number five. Now, I'm not keen on Waluigi, I find him off-putting and simply don't get why he has such a following, plus there's already too many Mario characters in Smash, but I get that he will have his place soon enough and I'll deal with it. As it stands, I'm very much aware that I prefer the "mascot" characters to the more human ones, because that, to me, is part of the charm of the Smash Bros series. 

Where one draws the line between the mascots and the "realistic" humans is completely arbitrary, of course, I let Captain Falcon slide (and dive, punch and kick) despite never having owned an F-Zero game, because his cartoony behaviour charmed me in an instant. In contrast, the only Fire Emblem character I ever cared anything for was Roy, because he had a fun set of moves in Melee. Although I play neither, I really like that Sonic and Mega Man joined the roster over the years, because, to me, as someone who grew up with a SNES and a N64, that's what video games looked like, and Smash Bros was the crossover I had always wanted. The days of the "Mascot Platformer" dominating the market are long gone, but still I find myself more interested in characters like Rayman, Dixie Kong, Mouser and Daroach joining the game, probably because I'd much rather throw stars and/or bananas than swing a sword in a slightly different way to how at least nine other characters already swing a sword. See also; I'd much rather a Booster Gold film than another take on Batman. 

So, ok, let's talk about Goku again, because that's still a thing apparently. Personally, I'm a little disappointed that Jump Stars isn't coming to Switch anytime soon, but will live with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, and doesn't that game just make more sense as a crossover vehicle with Goku in it? I could totally see Goku as DLC in any of the many anime crossover fighting games, but the only anime ascetic in Smash Bros is leftover art style from JRPGs, with most of the classic mascot characters having more in common with the art styles of Disney and Hanna Barbera than anything else. If Smash Bros continues into the future far enough, I'd happily see it expand to include Anime, Film and Television, but to my eye, there's so much more scope for video game characters before that kind of branching out happens. Not just some of the classics I would enjoy like Lara Croft, Bomberman and Starfy, but also some of the newer icons along the lines of Shovel Knight, Cuphead and Sands. I understand the reality that I have absolutely zero influence over who will join the roster in the future, but I hope to see more Banjo Kazooies and fewer "The Hero"s. Dragon Quest is cool and all, but why not let me play as a Metal Slime? C'mon. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Superhero Media: Batman Return of the Caped Crusaders

Holy Caravaggio Batman! What a masterpiece! For the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Batman television programme, Warner Animation put together possibly the greatest Batman film of all time. Ok, that's a bit much, but how are Lego Batman and Return of the Caped Crusaders way better than every live-action Batman since The Dark Knight? You have a problem DC. When a Gotham prime-time variety show is interrupted by Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman, the dynamic duo leap into action and a chase across the city begins, just like the classic programme. Before you know it, there are death traps, colourful gas, hokey fights and dodgy props, everything you could remember from the original, but there's so much more. 

Return of the Caped Crusaders is definitely made for fans of the classic Batman, but there's so much in there for anyone with a decent knowledge of the character. I'm struggling to think of a major Batman comic or film that doesn't get at least a throwaway line; Adam West dropping "this is the operating table, and I'm the surgeon" is fantastic. It's actually Robin who gets the best lines though, "Holy Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!", "Holy unholy alliance!" and, said in response to Catwoman suggesting that she and Batman run away to Europe ala The Dark Knight Rises, "Holy unsatisfying ending!". The scene with three Catwomen is a brilliant nod to the history of the character, remember when, in the 1960s, no one got on the internet and made racist complaints about an established African-American actor playing Catwoman? Crazy times, those sixties.

What else can I say? This is genius. A loving tribute to the classic '60s Batman, a fun film in its own right and a good Batman adventure. Yes, it's silly, but as I've said countless times, the silliness of the genre should be embraced, not shunned. How many "super serious" Batman films have actually been good? Two out of five? Yet Return of the Caped Crusaders is entertaining the whole way through, funny where it needs to be and exciting when the action ramps up. Once again, I don't get why DC and WB are so intent on segmenting their talent when the Warner Premiere/Warner Animation department is able to turn out gems like this on little budget but the live action productions are bloated, dull and overly expensive. As soon as cash allows, I'm picking up Batman Vs Two-Face to bask in more awesomeness.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

MI-13: Part VIII

The halls of MI-13 are buzzing with activity after the declaration of war from Dracula. Almost the entire agency has crammed into the briefing room, with Pete Wisdom up the front gesturing to a screen displaying pictures from the Jaspers Murder. 
"Ok, first things first, vampires are real and pretty much always have been. British intelligence services first became aware of the threat in 1875, when Vladimir Tepes Dracula arrived on our shores and began a brief reign of terror. The incident was hushed-up and fictionalised, but the version you know from popular culture is close to the truth. 
The next major incident came when Dracula joined the Axis powers in the Second World War, supplying Nazi High Command with several Vampiric operatives, the most infamous being Baron Blood, son of the original Union Jack. What Dracula never let on to Hitler was that he maintains mental control of all vampires, no matter how far away they are from his presence, even lasting when he sleeps for decades. When it became apparent that the Axis were going to lose the war, the Vampires withdrew and weren't heard of again for quite a while. 
Since the 1980s, worldwide Vampire activity has been at an all-time low, but now it seems Dracula has been planning an invasion of Great Britain, presumably for that entire time. Why here? We don't know, but what we do know is that Dracula is the leading military strategist of our time. Trained from birth. Centuries of experience. We are in a game of chess against him. Everything from here on out is keeping pace with an immortal genius, any questions?"

A silence falls over the room, spawned mostly by disbelief, when someone finds his voice, Union Jack asks if something so absurd could possibly be real. Wisdom points out that less than 48 hours ago, Union Jack himself was trapped in an alternate universe battling a killer robot. Questions abound of how good a strategist Dracula can really be if he announces his attacks and murders public figures, leading Wisdom to attempt to explain that they are not facing a man, but an immortal monster with unlimited power and abilities beyond imagination. As there is currently no expert in Vampires at MI-13, the first mission is to recruit a man called Quincey Harker, Britain's leading Vampire expert and the descendant of Jonathan and Mina Harker. As Purple Shadow and Psylocke are currently on a mission, and Sandman is undergoing chemotherapy, Wisdom elects to take Union Jack and new recruit, the Medic, with him as bodyguards. 

Landing the MI-13 helicopter on top of a multi-level car park, the trio of heroes walk through the shadows, not knowing what could by waiting out there in the darkness. With a shriek and flaps of loose clothing, a creature leaps out of the shadows, hurling itself at the Medic, only for Union Jack to step between them, absorbing the damage from raking claws. Using his powers to transfer strength and health between people, the Medic 'steals' some muscle mass from the attacking vampire and 'loans' it to Union Jack and Pete Wisdom. Ahead of the team, a squadron of paramilitary-attired figures suddenly transforms into a pall of mist and drifts towards them, leading the Medic to cry out in panic and demand if anyone knew that Vampires could do that. Not wanting to get boxed in, Union Jack charges towards the nearest Vampire, fining Pete Wisdom right alongside him. 

With his strength increased by the Medic's powers, Union Jack quickly pummels the first vampire into submission. Using the mystical knives that are his trademark, Pete Wisdom slashes at the cloud of mist that was a squad of Vampire soldiers, but even the magical energies that he wields seem to have no effect. The final Vampire charges into Pete Wisdom, baring its fangs, but the intelligence officer is surprisingly spry and dodges the flashing canines. As the Vampire Soldiers circle Wisdom, the Medic drains strength from them until a couple collapse, meanwhile Union Jack rips off the boom arm at the front of the parking garage, swinging it with enough force to bisect the last Vampire. Together, the team make quick work of the remaining Vampire Soldiers and quickly make their way to their rendezvous with Quincey Harker. 

The aged and wizened Quincey Harker is spending his twilight years in a rest home, but despite the wheelchair and blanket over his knees, a keen intelligence burns in his eyes. When Harker comes face-to-face with Wisdom, the elderly Vampire hunter is ready with his question; 
"He's back, isn't he?" 

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Superhero Media: Max Steel (2016)

I found this on Netflix a little while back and decided to give it a go on a quiet night, even though I've never seen a single episode of the animated programme. Max returns with his mother to the small country town where his father died over a decade before in a mysterious explosion. Before you can say "Spider-Man, anyone?", Max has stumbled upon an alien computer called Steel and the pair start to work together to fight an oncoming invasion. Unique, Max Steel is not, but it does have a great deal of charm and excellent production values; the scenes in which Max discovers the energy his body produces have some gorgeous CGI, far better than most major release films. The costuming is also excellent, with the "Max Steel" reveal being really neat and the forgettable villain also looking like a refugee from Tron: Legacy, but in a good way. 

There's not a great deal more I can say directly about Max Steel, as the story is pretty basic and the charm that is there comes from the design, rather than the basic script. The world-building that happens is subtle enough to ignore, but the names of the aliens are so forgettable that I haven't even been bothered to look them up for this article. There are shades of Image Comics' Tech Jacket here, as well as the relationship between Max and Steel being reminiscent of Bootser Gold and Skeets. This isn't criticism, this kind of bricolage of existing tropes and ideas is my kind of thing, being a postmodernist, comics like Invincible and Hawkeye - Kate Bishob do this really well. Yes, Max Steel is a combination of Tech Jacket, Spider-Man and Booster Gold, but that doesn't mean that he's not interesting in his own right. It's a good lesson for creating your own supers for gaming. 

I'm not rushing out to give the Max Steel animated progamme a go, but if there were more films, I'd happily watch them. In the same vein, don't expect to see a Max Steel joining my Ultimate Alliance project any time soon. What I really should do is read some more Booster Gold. I really hope we get a good Booster Gold film some day, but until then, Max Steel is enjoyable enough and certainly more fun to watch than a few things I've seen.