Monday, July 11, 2016

Batman v. Superman Review

My less than enthusiastic review of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice that originally appeared on The Grim Tower on 28 March, 2016. I'm gonna preface this by saying that Zack Snyder is an overrated hack that got lucky once.

Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
Starring: Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman

Warning: This is a film review and may or may not contain spoilers. I’m not very good on what does or doesn’t constitute a spoiler as I don’t review new films very often. You have been warned.
When it comes to the big two comic book publishers, I am a DC fan. For me, DC has always been much better in the writing department than Marvel. Their characters feel more three dimensional, and the story lines (for the most part) seem more well thought out. Contrast this with Marvel whose characters seem much more defined by their visual style than by their backstory, and whose story lines sacrifice depth and complexity for shallow convolution. When it comes to cinema, however, Marvel has fared much better. From Fox’s X-Men film franchise (barring, of course “X-Men Origins” and “The Last Stand”) to Marvel Studios’ own “Marvel Cinematic Universe” franchise, Marvel’s stable of shallow, overpowered, super guys just seem to translate better to the screen than DC’s cast of tortured vigilantes and “meta-humans.” Given the resounding critical and financial success of Marvel at the box office, DC decided to try and get in on the action. The first installment of the “DC Extended Universe” came in the form of 2013’s critically polarizing, but financially successful “Man of Steel,” a reboot of the “Superman” film series and an apology for 2011’s poor CG laced fiasco, “The Green Lantern.” While it wasn’t perfect, bearing the distinctly Zack Snyder trait of being dark for darkness’ sake, it was a decent first offering that actually left me with a little hope for a better sequel. That brings us to “Dawn of Justice.”

There was a lot of hype surrounding this movie, and right off the bat I have to say that it did not live up to it. The story kicks off roughly two years after the events of “Man of Steel.” Bruce Wayne witnesses the destruction of Metropolis at the hands of Superman and General Zod first hand. He sees the Wayne Financial building destroyed and several of his employees killed or maimed as collateral damage by the two warring aliens. He spends the next two years plotting to bring down the man of steel. Meanwhile, the public at large are coming to grips with their feelings toward Superman and his actions. Many have come to view him as a potential threat, including business magnate/psychopath Lex Luthor and a security obsessed senator from Kentucky. Meanwhile, some other stuff happens too. So much other stuff, in fact, that seems to have a barely tangential, if any at all, connection to the main story. It leaves the film having, despite it’s rather generous two and a half hour running time, a rather disjointed feel. Some of the characters’ motivations don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense either. While I can understand why Batman doesn’t like Superman, Superman’s disliking of Batman does not make a whole lot of sense. This is a guy who flies around the world and beats people to death’s door without due process of the law, but an average Joe who just happens to have a lot of money doing the same thing is somehow beyond the pale. It’s a bit like Joseph Stalin lecturing Adolf Hitler on the moral repugnance of mass murder. Why is Lex Luthor attempting to use Superman to kill Batman? Furthermore, why is Batman so suspicious of Lex Luthor in the first place? Surely it’s not due to Luthor’s attempting to gain access to kryptonite so he can kill Superman, because that seems like something they should ally on, am I right? Lois Lane’s presence seems unneeded in many parts of the film, particularly during the film’s four way climactic (and frankly forced) battle between Doomsday, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Doomsday’s presence also felt like a forced and pointless addition so they could build to a faux shocking conclusion. The circumstances of his creation in the DCEU are incredibly stupid. The CG on the character, and indeed the CG on the entire climactic fight looks absolutely dreadful. This is inexcusable in a film with a 250 million dollar budget. Marvel’s “Deadpool” boasts better CG on a budget one fifth the size of this film’s. Wonder Woman also seems out of place. Her presence in the film is completely irrelevant to any of the depicted events, save for when she is used as deus ex machina near the end.

While it may seem like I am heaping on the negatives (and there are a lot of them), there was some to like about this film. While Jesse Eisenberg is absolutly terrible as Lex Luthor, the other actors turn in pretty good performances. Henry Cavill is a good Clark Kent, despite his story line being a little boring. Gal Gadot is pretty memorable as Wonder Woman as well. While her presence was completely unneeded in the film, as she served little to no real function in any of the events she was shoehorned into, she plays the character convincingly. Of course, the real standout is Ben Affleck as Batman. While there was a lot of skepticism at the casting choice, including on the part of this writer, Affleck is one of the most comic book accurate live action depictions of Batman to date. The Batman solo sections of this picture were also some of the most memorable. That being said, there are some criticism to be leveled at these sections as well. Many of the dream sequences stupid and sort of out of character for Batman. The scene of him falling down the well and then being lifted up by the circling bats, the giant bat that bites his neck vampire style, it was just all very distracting and unwarranted. The Batbrand was also a little dumb. Seriously, why is he branding people?

In the future, DC would probably do well to choose a director other than Zack Snyder. Yes, the film was nice visually, aside from the Doomsday fight, but it seems like he doesn’t know how to keep the narrative focused. The actors, other than Eisenberg, played their parts very well, but a good performance in a confused movie doesn’t warrant parting with eight dollars. Rather than release this film, a solo Batfleck film and a proper sequel to “Man of Steel” would have been preferable. Here’s hoping that “Suicide Squad” is better. If Marvel can recover from “Iron Man 3,” DC can come back from this. I mean, it's not "Green Lantern," right?

Oversaturation in Gaming

Originally appeared on The Grim Tower. 16 May, 2015

It seems that not a day goes by these days that I am not treated to an article on some video game outlet bemoaning the proliferation, and in some cases the very existence of AAA games. Today’s outing was courtesy of PC Gamer. According to a contributor of theirs called Tom Marks, yearly AAA games oversaturate the market with “unfinished and unoriginal games, warping the perception of gaming as a whole.” I don’t feel the need to quote him further because the rest of his article is a constant fit of whining around that premise. In his mind, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, and Madden now represent the whole of gaming to the public at large. I don’t know about you, but reading that made me throw up in my mouth a little. Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, and Madden do not, by any means, represent the whole of gaming. I routinely hear people complain about the glut of Assassin’s Creed releases, I haven’t played or seen a Madden game since 2001, and Call of Duty’s demographic is not exactly the hardcore gaming crowd. Ubisoft, EA, and Activision pump out never ending sequels to these games because they know they will sell. These games are the spigot that keeps money flowing into new and interesting ideas. At the end of the day, gaming is a business and the lifeblood of business is money. You can not change that, not even in a full blow command economy. A quick perusal of the economic history of the Soviet Union will show that. The problem with his logic, and the logic of many an indie hipster attempting to position themselves as a gatekeeper of gaming culture, is that these companies do not make these games successful year after year. The gamers do. Games exist in a free market. The AAA games are readily available right alongside the supposedly unique but often times ripped off of an older game and sometimes unique but so pretentious it’s alienating experiences offered by indie games. Who wants to spend five hours walking around an empty house to deduce that the player character’s sister has run off with her lesbian lover (this is seriously the plot to a game, somebody actually thought that was entertaining, can you believe it), when you can spend 100 hours in a beautiful and immersive game world hunting monsters and running afoul of ancient demons and other dastardly entities? Couple this with the fact that many an “innovative” and “interesting” indie title has proven to be vapourware or a scam or has died somewhere in the late alpha or early public beta stage. Gamers these days have a choice: naked pretension masquerading as entertainment or fun? They have routinely and consistently chosen fun. This is not me advocating for yearly or quarterly sequels. There’s a reason why out of fourteen Assassin’s Creed games, I’ve only purchased four of them. Too much of a good thing can, after all, be a bad thing. There’s no sense in publishing long articles in vaunted gaming publications pissing and moaning about it though. Eventually, the very same free market that afforded these gamers the ability to make these games a success, will allow them to punish their wallowing in sameness. Case in point: music games. Just a few short years ago, music games were all the rage. Harmonix and Activision’s respective Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises were moving huge numbers. It was not an uncommon sight to walk into Game Stop and see people standing in line to buy drum sticks. Drum sticks for god’s sake. People who couldn’t hold down a steady rhythm to save their lives, standing in line at a store that had nothing to do with music to buy a pair of Vic Firth’s. The walls were lined with little plastic instruments, youtube was flooded with idiotic videos of “(insert person here) plays (insert song here) on expert.” Then suddenly, seemingly overnight, it was done. The games stopped selling, little plastic instruments became a rare sight (and I had to drive 45 miles to get drum sticks again). So, what happened? Over saturation. Between 2005 and 2010, there were nine Rock Band games and fourteen Guitar Hero games (give or take a few because of spin offs). After so man entries without much change, there was a market revolt. The same thing will likely happen to games like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Madden at some point in the future. Of course, unfortunately for the self-appointed gatekeepers, this does not mean that indie games are going to explode into financial juggernauts. At least not until they realize that people want to play games that are entertaining. They don’t care about playing through a feminist diatribe or a preachy or a lazy re-imagining of a classic game with worse game play. The simple truth that the indie snob brigade needs to realize is that AAA gaming is the Atlas of the game world. It is the titan that holds the entirety of the industry on its back. Nobody decides which new console to purchase or whether or not to spend a few hundred dollars upgrading their PC gaming rig based on which platform(s) the next installment of Fez is coming to. The existence of the indie game market is a trickle down effect based on the success of AAA gaming. To bemoan the existence of AAA games is to bemoan the existence of games in general. Of course, at the end of the day, the indie scene is no better in terms of the sheer glut of releases. There may not be a rush of sequels year after year, but there certainly is a profusion of indie games. This is a problem that Kotaku spoke about at this time last year. According to Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett, by May of 2014, there had already been more new release than there had been in the entirety of the previous year. Of course, this wasn’t just the assertion of a writer at a journalistically compromised online gaming magazine, it is an idea also asserted by indie developer Jeff Vogel. As fashionable as it is to ask the question “are annual AAA releases bad for gaming,” one could just as easily flip that and wonder is indie gaming’s constant stream of clones, misfires, and half-ass spiritual successors bad for gaming? The constant stream of releases may be seen as a good thing, but how many of these games has anyone actually played? According to Ars Technica, there are roughly 781 million games registered to various users (as of April, 2014), and of those nearly 37 percent have never been loaded once. A study conducted by Kotaku (conducted last March) of roughly 1400 Steam users found that the average steam customer had purchased 11 to 25 games between March 2013 and March 2014, and that of those, they had not played 40 percent. No sector of the economy is immune to the business cycle; that includes video games. The game industry has been riding high for a long time, and even seemed to weather the recession fairly well. The bottom line is, while it is fashionable to try and blame AAA games for every perceived drop in the quality of games, there are no innocent parties. Oversaturation is oversaturation. It doesn’t matter whether the entity peddling the product is a 30 year old software conglomerate with a staff of hundreds developing on the latest incarnation of the Unreal Engine or a couple of enthusiasts in an apartment working in Blender on a cheap Linux rig. The gaming industry has had a correction once before, it will happen again.

Revisiting "Spawn"

A bit of nerd nostalgia. This originally appeared on The Grim Tower during December of 2015.

The year was 1993, I was 8 years old, and I had never read comics before. I came home from school one day, and my mother had purchased a large stack of them for me. Among the stack of mostly usual suspects titles like X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, etc was a pristine copy of Spawn issue 13. You know the one where Spawn infiltrates the Youngblood compound and kidnaps Chapel? I flipped through it, and I immediately fell in love with the character designs. When I actually read it, I was hooked. A morally ambiguous undead assassin with a living costume and a chip on his shoulder on a brutal revenge quest. To 8 year old me, this was the stuff of unfathomable coolness. I became a regular reader of Spawn with Issue 16. For the next 7 years, I followed the series monthly. I read it all, all the crossovers, all the miniseries, everything. By the time I was 13, if you had asked me what my dream job was, I would have told you it was to be a comics illustrator at Image. So, needless to say, when I got on a graphic fiction kick a couple of months back, Spawn was a series that immediately popped into my head. I guess it was the sepia eyed nostalgia monster digging its fangs into my neck. I ordered the first five volumes, curious if I would still enjoy the series that I hadn’t really read since I was 14 and my interest shifted sharply toward video games and trying to be a musician. These trade paperbacks collect the McFarlane/Capullo issues. In other words, the time when the series was at its pinnacle. As of this writing, I have made it though volumes 1 through 5. Volume 6, for some reason, has been very difficult for me to track down (although I finally have a copy coming in sometime soon). As was the case in ’93, when I first read the series, I was immediately struck by how well drawn it was. The Capullo issues look especially good. For all the criticism that was leveled at image during the 90s for their writing, their comics were always among some of the most beautifully drawn. So, how did the writing hold up 15 years on? Reading through these old comics, there were some details that I didn’t really pick up on when I was a kid. The references to various conspiracy theories (such as the surveillance state being the true power behind the throne in U.S. and Chapel being purposely infected with H.I.V. by the government), for one, were things that I didn’t pick up on when I was a kid. I also found the writing to be quite good. Granted this may have been helped by the fact that the last comic I read before this was The Shade. Spawn is a much wordier comic than I had remembered. Often times, it reads like it could stand as a novel without the pictures. My favourite aspect of the early series, though, has to be the manner in which it plays out. Unlike most comics that play out as a series of unrelated vignettes that are later forced together in some act of deus ex machina, Spawn’s narrative unfolds as a single, seamless story. Well, for the most part. Some of the late 90s issues rely too much on jump cuts and lapse into stereotypical comic book convolution. Thankfully, these were few and far between. However, if this is indicative of the direction the series took in the 2000s, I can see why it fell from its lofty perch atop the comic book heap. In volume 5, characters are introduced as if they are going to be pivotal to the story, whether it is the reappearance of Angela or the introduction of the novelist suddenly overcome with an obsession with the paranormal, and are then never seen again or at the very least don’t have the kind of impact that their introduction hints at. It’s almost enough to make one think James Robinson may have written these particular issues. On the whole, though, I have greatly enjoyed the series. It has aged better than many of the Marvel comics that I enjoyed so much in my younger years. It’s not as well written as Gaiman’s Sandman or Books of Magic (what is really), but is much better than the seemingly nonsensical yarns that dominated much of Marvel’s continuity during the 90s. The one regrettable thing about these collections is that a few issues are missing from volume 1 due to some issues between McFarlane and Neil Gaiman, so the introduction of Cogliostro, Angela, and Sir John of York a.k.a. Medieval Spawn are not present. Regrettable omissions, but their exclusion doesn’t really cause any detriment to the overall narrative. If you were a comic reader during the 90s and looking for a fun nostalgia trip, or you’re a new school geek looking to see what the beginning of the whole reckless anti-hero fad was like, then these books are worth a look.