Comic-Con 2011 and controversy

Adam Hughes takes on the women of DC
Women of DC Comics

As I continue catching up after my trip to Chicago just over a week ago, here are some reflections on 2011’s San Diego Comic-Con. Since the largest genre entertainment convention in the U.S. now gets as many as 125,000 attendees, I’m probably better off watching coverage on G4 than trying to make the hajj myself.

As usual, much news coverage of the show focused on movies, television, and fans and “booth babes” in costume. Even as some observers have predicted that comic books and movies based on them have peaked, others have examined the various cycles of different subgenres and media. My impression from afar was that Comic-Con‘s popularity is still growing, even if the intellectual property that it’s based on is overshadowed by nonprint adaptations and tie-ins.

Speaking of comic books and graphic novels, there were still numerous announcements at Comic-Con. Marvel has held onto its position as market leader with the usual rounds of crossover storylines, resurrected characters, and literary adaptations. Independent publishers such as IDW and Dark Horse (as well as DC’s Vertigo imprint) continue to do well with fantasy, horror, and science fiction licenses.

DC Comics released more information about its renumbering, or “soft reboot,” this coming September. The backstories of most of its titles will be compressed to make its main superheroes younger. After Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, characters such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have aged about one year for every two years of real time. Resetting more than 25 years of continuity to put them back in their late 20s or early 30s may cause more problems than it solves.

I hope to post my own ideas on how to balance forever-young vigilantes with evolving storylines and supporting casts, but DC’s editors faced numerous questions from skeptical fans. I’m not especially worried about costume redesigns or re-resurrections. I was disappointed, however, that DC’s management got defensive when questioned about diversity among its artists, writers, and characters. Marvel has had a slightly better track record lately of encouraging women and people of color to both create and read its comics.

DC eventually acknowledged people’s concerns and said it would keep trying. One blogger pointed out that major comic book characters are more of a corporate brand than an artistic vehicle, and I agree that our favorite franchises have taken on a life of their own, with profit often overcoming common sense or freedom of expression. For example, thanks to Chris Nolan and Christian Bale’s live-action movies, Batman is one of the biggest brands in the world right now, even as Warner Bros./DC is eclipsed by Disney/Marvel in most other areas.

On the other hand, I’m not quite ready to boycott DC and am giving the publisher the benefit of the doubt. I ran Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition for a year before switching to Pathfinder, and I’ve found that TV’s Star Wars: Clone Wars has made up for George Lucas’ stilted prequel films. If Dan Di Dio, Jim Lee, and company can learn from their early missteps, DC could yet increase its readership through refreshed storytelling, modern digital issues, and more timely comics (no pun intended).

In coming posts, I’ll look at other Comic-Con news, review Cowboys & Aliens, and describe my favorite superhero games!

Captain America movie review

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers

On Sunday, 24 July 2011, Janice and I returned to the Showcase Cinemas at Legacy Place in Dedham, Massachusetts, for Captain America: the First Avenger. I’m pleased to report that the latest movie adaptation from Marvel Comics is one of the best genre movies so far this year and could be one of my favorite superhero flicks ever!

Director Joe Johnston is no stranger to World War II and action films, with experience in the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Rocketeer franchises. Despite some anachronistic costumes and dialogue (not counting the deliberately science fiction premise and villains), Johnston keeps a steady hand on the proceedings.

For those not familiar with one of the older and more popular comic book heroes, Steve Rogers is a runty kid from Brooklyn who seeks to serve his country and is given a chance to do so by scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine. Turned into the super soldier Captain America, Rogers fights Nazis before being trapped in ice and finding himself in our era, decades later, surrounded by modern superheroes.

The First Avenger is faithful to the comics of Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Ed Brubaker, and Steve Epting. In fact, the work of the latter two brought me back to reading some Marvel titles. Actor Chris Evans, who played the cocky Johnny Storm/Human Torch in the Fantastic Four flicks, is properly virtuous and a blank slate for his physical transformation from a skinny street kid into the buff war-bonds salesman and eventual combat leader. It wouldn’t be Cap if he didn’t get to sling his trademark shield.

Evans is initially overshadowed by the performances of veterans Tommy Lee Jones as the gruff Col. Chester Phillips and Stanley Tucci as the humane Dr. Erskine. He later is supported by Sebastian Stan as sniper sidekick Bucky Barnes, Dominic Cooper as inventor Howard Stark (father of Iron Man‘s Tony Stark), and Star Trek: First Contact‘s Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan of the Howling Commandos. Hayley Atwell (from The Prisoner remake) as comely Peggy Carter and Natalie Dormer (from The Tudors) as minx Priv. Lorraine are among the few women who get to interact with Rogers.

The visual effects are good, especially in the beginning of the movie, where Evans’ face is transposed on a slight-framed body in Depression-era New York. I did notice some blue- or green-screen lighting in later scenes, but the requisite explosions, slow-motion combat, and airborne stunts were all decently rendered. A motorcycle chase scene, attempted train heist, and flying wing all pay homage to the other franchises that Johnston has worked on. The instrumental soundtrack evokes the jazz age but isn’t especially memorable.

Captain America‘s story moves easily from stateside to overseas. Richard Armitage (Guy of Guisborne in the BBC’s recent Robin Hood and Thorin Oakenshield in the upcoming Hobbit) is a Nazi assassin. He is soon surpassed in villainy by Toby Jones (from Doctor Who) as meek scientist Arnim Zola and Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, and V for Vendetta) as Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. the Red Skull and mad leader of Nazi splinter group Hydra. Their ambiguous fates, however, were refreshing for what could have been a uberpatriotic plot.

As with Thor and other recent Marvel origin stories, Captain America is somewhat predictable and obviously leads into next year’s Avengers (stay after the closing credits for a preview). The alternate-history war movie, which reminded me of Inglorious Basterds, leaves enough room for Capt. America to have flashbacks in future films.

Overall, Disney/Marvel has continued its winning streak, staying ahead of rival DC Comics in live-action adaptations. I’d give Captain America, which is rated PG-13 for violence, an “A-,” four out of five stars, or an 8.5 out of 10. I liked it a bit more than Green Lantern or Thor, if not as much as the 1978 and 1980 Superman films.

In other superhero news, I’ve watched the first few episodes of SyFy’s Alphas, which combines the ordinary people with powers from Heroes and No Ordinary Family with the covert teams from various espionage shows. It’s decent — I’d rate it a “B-” so far, but I doubt it’ll last.

Even as Marvel’s Super Hero Squad and DC’s Young Justice have yet to return, I’m looking forward to this week’s premieres of the anime-style Iron Man and Wolverine on G4, to eventually be joined by Blade and yet another incarnation of the X-Men. I expect Season 2 of The Avengers to be the strongest of these cartoons.

Also premiering this coming weekend is the Thundercats revival, whose previews gave me a good Avatar: the Last Airbender vibe. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will be getting another computer-animated makeover, similar to Star Wars: Clone Wars and Bruce Timm‘s upcoming Green Lantern TV series.

DC is holding onto its lead in direct-to-video cartoons, however, with Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, among other projects announced at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. So many superheroes, so little time! And I haven’t even touched actual comic books or RPGs based on them yet!

The end of Harry Potter and Borders

Banner for the final Harry Potter movie
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

On Sunday, 24 July 2011, Janice and I screened Harry Potter [8] and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. The movie was a mostly satisfying conclusion to J.K. Rowling’s fantasy saga, if not as lighthearted or filled with wonder as some of its predecessors.

A generation of young readers has grown up with the boy wizard, Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the villainous Lord Voldemort. Rowling’s ear for Dickensian names and characters, eye for detail, and increasingly intricate plots are generally well served by director David Yates.

Lead actors Daniel Radcliffe as Mr. Potter, Emma Watson (whom I saw in person at the British Museum last year) as the smart Hermione Granger, and Rupert Grint as the long-suffering Ron Weasley have matured before our eyes. They remain sympathetic, aided by eccentric tutors (most notably Maggie Smith as Prof. Minerva McGonagall and Michael Gambon as Prof. Albus Dumbledore) and too many classmates to name here.

Since she had rented Part 1 of The Deathly Hallows just last week, Janice had a somewhat easier time following the muddled story, which involved our heroes collecting and destroying reliquaries called horcruxes to weaken Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). After several chase scenes, the dark lord’s hordes of corrupt wizards, lycanthropes, and giants has a final confrontation with Dumbledore’s “army” of students at Hogwart’s.

The visual effects were solid (I saw the 2-D version), the script had more humor than the preceding entry in this series, and romantics will be comforted as people pair off and the fallen are avenged. The many supporting characters each get only a brief moment in the spotlight, but I was glad to see Matthew Lewis’ Neville Longbottom rising to the heroic challenge, as well as the motivations of Alan Rickman’s Prof. Severus Snape finally explained.

I’d give The Deathly Hallows Part 2, which is rated PG-13 for violence, about a “B,” 7.5 out of 10, or three out of five stars. How does it compare with the rest of the live-action adaptations?

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) ***/B+

The Chamber of Secrets (2002) ***/B

The Prizoner of Azkaban (2004) ****/A-

The Goblet of Fire (2005) ***/B+

The Order of the Phoenix (2007) ***/B+

The Half-Blood Prince (2009) ***/B+

The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010) ***/B-

The Harry Potter franchise has been more popular than any other young adult fantasy series, such as The Chronicles of Narnia or “His Dark Materials,” but horror melodrama Twilight may eventually challenge it for box office receipts. I’d rather see Redwall than many of the more angsty alternatives.

On a more adult level, I’m looking forward to the new Conan the Barbarian movie, as well as Peter Jackson’s two-part adaptation of The Hobbit. I don’t expect them to be especially faithful to the source material, but I hope that they at least capture Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien’s spirit.

Speaking of books, Janice and I also went to some shops this past weekend, including the Borders at Legacy Place in Dedham. I’ve ordered many books online, but I’ll miss the experience of browsing in brick-and-mortar book chains. Fortunately, we also went to Magic Dragon Comics and The Book Rack in Arlington, Massachusetts, before meeting Thomas K.Y. and his girlfriend Kai Yin for a steak dinner at Tango.

Coming soon: Captain America review, Comic-Con, and how I’d reboot the DC universe!

Back to Chicago

Chicago Skyline by
Chicago skyline

This past week, I helped TT’s events staff with BriForum Chicago 2011 at McCormick Place. I didn’t have much time for sightseeing, but since I had visited the windy city twice before within the past year, I can’t complain! I began reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, an evocative urban fantasy, on the flight from Boston.

The virtualization conference went smoothly, and it was a good opportunity to serve alongside Alex H. and co-workers outside of the editorial department. I helped stuff welcome packets, introduced speakers, managed one of the breakout rooms, and gathered session evaluations.

Since we had good wireless connectivity this year, I was able to check in with the Newton home office more often, which rewarded me with more work. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet my cousin’s family, since she was visiting the Philippines.

The days were long but fulfilling, from setting up rooms at 7:00 a.m. to dinner and other events in the early evening. On Monday night, Alex and I tried to go to the Meatloaf Bakery, which I had seen on television, but it was closed. So we had a good falafel dinner instead at Sultan’s Market, followed by decadent desserts at the Austrian Bakery.

After a hike through hot and humid weather to the train from Chicago’s Near South Side to the more upscale Lincoln Park, we took a cab back to the Hyatt Regency hotel. The next night, we went to a vendor-sponsored event at the Howl at the Moon piano bar, near the famous Billy Goat Tavern. I tried a Goose Island Honker’s Ale (although I preferred the Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter at the Yard House in Dedham, Massachusetts).

I returned to my hotel room on one of the earlier buses because of work, but I made up for the lack of socializing the next evening after grabbing a leftover sandwich from the North Shore Kosher Bakery. Alex and I joined Jackie H., Peter D., and Tom K.T. for more food and drink at Kroll’s South Loop and the M/X at our hotel. Among other things, I had a Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale and a Dark Horse Black Bier.

I’ve learned a lot about office politics in the past year, and the remainder of the show went smoothly. We endured a sweltering cab ride on the way to O’Hare Airport, and I had to find my way home after midnight after getting to my car in a parking lot near Logan Airport. I’ve spent the past few days catching up on summer TV such as Warehouse 13, Leverage, White Collar, and Torchwood: Miracle Day.

Coming soon: More movie reviews and Comic-Con reflections!

Winnie the Pooh, a belated review

A scene from Disney's new movie
Winnie the Pooh 2011

I’m still catching up on work, contacting friends, and recorded genre television after last week’s business trip to Chicago. So without further ado, here’s my review for Disney’s latest Winnie the Pooh movie.

Fans of A.A. Milne’s stories or Disney’s 1960s and 1970s film adaptations will be charmed by Winnie the Pooh‘s traditional animation style, its gentle humor, and a cast that’s closer to the familiar voices than the hyperactive shorts or TV shows from the past two decades.

My sister in law Melinda and several young nieces will no doubt be pleased that once narrator John Cleese (of “Monty Python” fame) begins reading from the book of Pooh’s misadventures, viewers are drawn back to Christopher Robin’s playroom and the Hundred Acre Wood as if no time at all has passed since our collective childhoods. The device is similar to Pixar’s Toy Story.

The plot is fairly simple: Pooh Bear goes looking for honey, but his dour donkey friend Eeyore has lost his tail. Pompous Owl, timid Piglet, supportive Kanga and Roo, and nervous Rabbit end up misreading a note from Christopher Robin and look for a monster called “Backson” instead. Sight gags abound, and the script has clever allusions that would likely sail over the heads of younger audience members.

Winnie the Pooh lacks the cynicism, off-color humor, or flashiness of many popular movies, but it is better for omitting them. I’d happily recommend this movie, which was rated “G,” to any parent. Not to slight other works, but Winnie the Pooh is the first film in a long time that felt to me like the Disney classics I watched on Sunday nights.

I’d give Winnie the Pooh a “B+/A-,” three and a half out of five stars, or a solid 8 out of 10. Let’s hope that Disney can continue shepherding quality to the big screen with its upcoming The Greatest Muppet Movie Ever Made, which also looks to revive popular awareness of clever humor, simple joys, and humane (if not human) entertainment.

In related — if somewhat lower-brow — animation, Janice and I have been enjoying the Cartoon Network’s Looney Toons Show, which combines Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck with the absurd situations of Seinfeld.

I’m also catching up on multimedia announcements from San Diego Comic-Con 2011, but I look forward to the upcoming revival of Thundercats, as well as to the return of Young Justice. I’m also impatiently awaiting next year’s Avatar: the Legend of Korra, sequel to the underrated fantasy Avatar: the Last Airbender (not to be confused with James Cameron’s Avatar movie or The Last Airbender movie adaptation dud).

In the coming week or so, I’ve got more movies to review, including Harry Potter [8] and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and Captain America: the First Avenger!