Thursday, 24 March 2016

Batman v Superman: Dissection of Justice

The DC Cinematic Universe is now officially on the move, beginning Warner Bros' attempt to catch up with their rivals at Marvel and leverage their vast catalogue of comic-book heroes into a multimillion-dollar multimedia empire. Batman v Superman brings together the two most iconic superheroes on the planet in a battle for supremacy... and falls flat on its face as soon as it leaves the gate. It is not a promising start for this brave new world.

This isn't going to be a conventional review, as much as it is an examination of all the areas that this film went wrong - at least in my opinion. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

But before we start digging around in this movie's guts, a few words on what I did like. Ben Affleck is a good Batman, and Wonder Woman steals pretty much every scene she's in; it's a pity she only has about 15 minutes of screen time. The action is mostly very good, and the final battle is actually quite spectacular - there's no denying that it's extremely cool to see the Trinity team up to fight Doomsday, as rubbish a character as he is. Sadly, the finale is also where the film's fatal flaws become most obviously apparent.

Not unlike Iron Man 2, the main problem here is that far too much time is spent laying the groundwork for the inevitable Justice League film instead of focusing on the story they're trying to tell here. The clue's in the title: it's trying to be a story about Batman fighting Superman as well as a prelude to the Justice League, and as a result it's cluttered, overly busy and a bit directionless. There are a bunch of cameos from the Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman that serve no purpose in this narrative, and an utterly baffling nightmare / vision of a dark future that serves only to confound and confuse.

The final battle, as great as it is, has the effect of making the preceding two hours of film seem almost completely irrelevant. The conflict between Batman and Superman gets wrapped up quickly and perfunctorily, and then they're off to beat up Doomsday. It takes no time at all for them to become friends, which makes almost the whole film seem like one giant act of misdirection. Which may have been deliberate, but all it does is make you wish they'd skipped this instalment and just jumped straight into Justice League, because it's much more entertaining watching these characters work together than fight each other. Honestly, the Trinity united is awesome, and it's such a shame that it takes so long to get to that point. It's not helped by the big Batman v Superman fight being curiously dull and unengaging.

There are two reasons why I haven't really discussed the first two thirds of the film. The first is because, as I've said, they basically don't matter in light of the ending. The second is that they're so cluttered and convoluted as to make Age of Ultron look like the Platonic ideal of narrative efficiency by comparison. It doesn't help the titular fight's sense of irrelevance that it's founded on misunderstanding and manipulation instead of any real ideological conflict, and the ways they're manipulated into fighting are far too Byzantine and labyrinthine to be worth getting into here. Suffice to say, it's Lex's fault. Spoiler warning!

This is actually the part where we do get into serious spoiler territory, so if you want to see what few surprises this film has in store without knowing them in advance, look away now. Come back soon, because this stuff's pretty juicy.

Sticking with the Batman v Superman conflict and how pointless it is: the way it gets resolved truly has to be seen to be believed. It is laughable, pathetically poorly written, and makes it all the more obvious that the two halves of the film's title don't gel together at all. In brief: Superman is down for the count from Kryptonite poisoning, and Batman is on the brink of murdering him in the face with a Kryptonite spear.

(Batman kills a lot of people in this film. Loads of them. He's practically a serial killer.)

Before he's stabbed, Superman blurts out his mother's name, Martha, because she's been kidnapped by Lex and is being used as leverage to make him fight Batman. At which point, Batman loses his fucking mind and starts screaming "WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?! WHO'S MARTHA?!" in his patented growly voice, because his mother was called Martha too. He then puts down the spear and they become friends. Let that sink in: he went to war against an indestructible alien who obliterated a city and was partially responsible for the deaths of thousands, and he called a truce because their mums have the same name. It beggars belief.

Even more hilariously, Batman then goes on to rescue Martha Kent and introduces himself as "a friend of your son's". To reiterate: not ten minutes ago he was about to stab Superman in the face with a Kryptonite spear. Friendship is cheap when you're the Batman, apparently!

There are any number of other problems as well. The villains are extremely weak: Jesse Eisenberg as Lex actually isn't as bad as I feared, but his motivation is practically nonexistent; and Doomsday is crap, has always been crap and will always be crap. The film goes to great lengths to make it clear that they're fighting in uninhabited areas, but the heroes decide to bring Doomsday back to the city anyway, presumably because it's not a proper fight without at least some civilian casualties. Most of the film involves very little happening at great length, and some of the dialogue is truly atrocious, like Lex declaring that it's "Fight night!" He might as well have gone all the way and yelled "Llllllllllet's get ready to ruuuuuumblllllllllle!"

Narrative illogic abounds: Batman, the World's Greatest Detective, has seemingly done shockingly little research into Superman's motives, and apparently doesn't watch the news, blaming Superman for a bomb blast which he clearly wasn't responsible for. And to return to that dream sequence: it can't be a dream because Bruce has no way of knowing that Darkseid Is; but if it's a vision of the future, why has Superman apparently teamed up with Darkseid? Or did they just not think this through? Also, why is Future Flash's costume so awful?

I feel like I've dwelt on the final act too much, but honestly, vast swathes of this film have just blurred together in my memory. It's only in the final third that anything interesting happens, while paradoxically undoing everything that happened up to that point. It really does feel like two films awkwardly smushed together, and it made me yearn for the World's Finest film that could have been if Zack Snyder weren't fixated on recreating the iconic fight from The Dark Knight Returns, which even there only happened because Frank Miller couldn't figure out how else to end the story.

I'll wrap this up as I'm going on at some length here. It's really quite depressing. Superman is my favourite superhero, and I wanted this movie to be good. I liked Man of Steel and I thought Watchmen was genuinely brilliant, so I was prepared to give Batman v Superman the benefit of the doubt. But sadly, cool fight scenes cannot rescue a botched screenplay that can't make up its mind which of two distinct stories it's trying to tell. Here's hoping that Wonder Woman's movie is an improvement - she's the best thing about this one, even if she's only really here to promote her solo outing. But that just sums up Batman v Superman, really: everything here only exists to set up potentially much more interesting films in the future. It's a pity we couldn't cut to the chase.

Images: Warner Bros.  

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Emlyn's top 10 films of 2015

I shan't bother faffing around with the introduction, but instead get straight to the (hopefully) interesting stuff. 2015 was a very good year at the cinema, and these are my picks for the ten best films of that year. So in no particular order, here we go!


Whiplash is a film that manages to make endless, self-indulgent drum solos unbearably tense and exciting, so it definitely gets points for that. But more than that, it's a fascinating investigation of what it takes to succeed, the drive you need to have and the price you have to be willing to pay for it. It's also propelled by two of the year's best performances, and J.K. Simmons' monstrously evil, yet oddly understandable, Terence Fletcher remains one of 2015's most memorable characters.


I don't know why I like this film so much. Genuinely. I have no idea what it was about, and I barely know what happened in it. But it creates an atmosphere like nothing else I've seen this year; it's not a horror film, but it's weird, haunting and unsettling in all the best ways. An under-seen gem, it's definitely one to seek out. 


Carol is the main reason why this list is a little late. I only got around to seeing it the other day, and I had a feeling it would end up here. I'm happy to have been proved right. An understated, beautifully performed illicit romance in 1950s New York, it's safe to say that many Oscars will be coming this one's way. Cate Blanchett is one of the best actresses alive, and the final shot may be my favourite of the year.


Ridley Scott made a good movie again! It's been a long while, but he finally returns to the genre that made his name with smashing success. The Martian is a compelling survival drama that's also one of the most unexpectedly funny films of the year, and is a shining example of how you can make a smart, scientifically accurate (mostly) film that doesn't feel the need to talk down to its audience.


I'll probably catch flak for this one, but I thought Crimson Peak was a hoot. The marketing was terrible, it's not a horror movie, but if you go into it in the right mindset, it's great fun. It's an over-the-top Grand Guignol gothic melodrama, with gorgeous set design and just the right amount of self-aware silliness. It's as if the old Hammer horror team decided to make a pantomime. 


After a raft of middling-to-good sequels like Monsters University and original films like Brave that didn't quite live up to expectations, Pixar finally returned to their usual level of quality with Inside Out. Maybe a little too clever for kids, you certainly have to admire their guts in putting a character struggling with depression in a children's movie. One of the most emotionally complex and rewarding animated films we've seen in some time. 


The best pure SF film of year, Ex Machina proves that complex, talky, thoughtful science fiction still has a place at the multiplex. Its dissection of tech-bro culture, the complicated implications of beautiful female robots, and the risks and rewards inherent in the idea of artificial intelligence add up to a film that practically demands multiple viewings. Alicia Vikander kicked off a remarkable year with a star-making turn here, and it would be great if she could join her co-stars Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson in a future Star Wars film. 


Without question the most staggeringly gorgeous film released this year, Song Of The Sea confirms Cartoon Saloon as the Irish equivalent of Studio Ghibli. Weaving Celtic mythology amid a story of a young girl growing up and finding her true identity, it's really quite hard to overstate how stunning this film is to look at. It should have won the 2015 animated feature Oscar. Yes, it's better than The LEGO movie. 


This one is a cheat, I freely admit, but I just can't choose between them. If forced to, I might give the edge slightly to Star Wars, largely by virtue of being a really good Star Wars movie in a world where it looked very unlikely that there would be any more good Star Wars movies. And it was wonderful - it feels like Star Wars like nothing else has for a very long time, and with a certain moment involving a blue lightsaber at the climax, it's safe to say the old magic is back. The fact that a new generation's heroes are a black man and a woman is a truly wonderful thing, as well, bringing some long-overdue diversity to the Galaxy Far, Far Away.

But where The Force Awakens was a loving, nostalgia-drenched return to a world we've loved for nearly 40 years now, Fury Road took a much different, bolder approach. Eschewing continuity and chronology altogether, George Miller's magnum opus is post-apocalyptic science fiction as epic myth, where the films and characters don't match up or make much sense when considered together, but still manage to resonate as these kinds of stories are meant to.

I'm a devoted Star Wars fan, but I had no such fondness for the Mad Max franchise. The Road Warrior is an excellent film, but I wouldn't have said I was a fan of Max. But Fury Road, with its turbo-charged, unbelievably ludicrous action sequences, surprising narrative weight and magnificent feminist hero Furiosa, is simply one of the greatest action films ever made, and will be considered a classic in the years to come.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Musings on Star Wars

Star Wars has always meant a lot to me, and I know I'm far from alone in that. I first saw the Holy Trilogy when I was six, so it's quite difficult for me to remember a time when I didn't love Star Wars. So when they announced that they were going to make more movies, I wasn't quite sure what to think. And when J.J. Abrams was confirmed as director, I was sceptical - Star Trek Into Darkness had just come out and was, honestly, a bit of a mess. I was worried he wouldn't do justice to the films I loved so much.

I'm happy to report that I was completely and utterly wrong.

Ever since the first teaser for The Force Awakens came out a little over a year ago, I'd been very excited. Watching that teaser for the first time, when the fanfare blares and the Falcon swoops overhead, I distinctly remember gripping my desk and trying not to squeal with joy because I was in the office and that would have been embarrassing. From the opening crawl to the climactic lightsaber battle, The Force Awakens is packed with moments like that, and it's marvellous.

It has flaws, undeniably, and it doesn't reinvent the wheel or try to do anything drastically new. But the flaws are easy to forgive in light of how simply, purely entertaining it is - and that's why it doesn't matter that it feels a bit familiar. That's part of the point, arguably, and it's why "Chewie, we're home" was the closing line of the second trailer. Yes, it's familiar, because it does feel like coming home. It's a simple, uncluttered space adventure story whose main priority is to be fun, and it's a huge success.

I can't speak for the experiences of new fans, but I expect they'll have a great time. And as a long-time fan, it had huge emotional payoff (I was welling up every time Binary Sunset started playing) without being dependent on nostalgia to get the job done. In truth, the only thing that can really be considered a problem is the story's overall similarity to A New Hope, but even that feels appropriate for a new beginning to the saga.

The ability to nitpick a movie is insignificant next to the power of the Force. And the Force is awake.

Friday, 3 July 2015

I have many questions about Terminator Genisys

Terminator Genisys is not a film that makes a whole lot of sense. The time travel shenanigans spend most of the runtime spiralling out of control, and that provokes a lot of questions about just what the hell is happening. Here are a few of mine.

Who felt the need for most of the first act to be a shot-for-shot remake of The Terminator?

How many different, mutually contradictory timelines are we dealing with here? Four? Five?

How did Kyle Reese immediately know that Old Arnie was a Terminator if he's never encountered this model before?

How did Old Arnie get back to 1973? Who sent him? Why? When did they send him from? Considering that this is the event that completely fucks the timeline, why didn't they explain it?

How did the T-1000 end up in 1984? Was it the same one that tried to kill Sarah in 1973? If so, why hasn't it been hunting her all this time?

Why do people keep casting Jai Courtney in things?

Why is Kyle Reese built like a brick shithouse? Do they still have protein shakes in the post-apocalyptic future?

How did Old Arnie and Sarah build a time machine in a garage in 1984? Did Doc Brown help them?

Did Terminator 2 happen any more or not? Future John says Judgment Day was August 29th 1997, so I guess not?

I can understand wanting to retcon Terminators 3 and 4 away, but did Terminator 2 have to go as well? Terminator 2 was fucking awesome!

Since Sarah time travelled from 1984 to 2017, does that mean there's a very confused T-1000 wandering around 1991 L.A. wondering where his targets are?

If Sarah wasn't around in 1991 to blow up Cyberdyne, why was Judgment Day delayed until 2017?

How does John Connor even exist in this timeline if Sarah isn't even pregnant on the day that is supposed to be Judgment Day?

Since the only way to make even a little sense out of this film is to have seen all the previous ones, why is there a lengthy prologue explaining the backstory of the future war? We know this already!

Matt Smith (henceforth Doctor Skynet) had clearly infiltrated the resistance long before the final battle, or else John would never have taken him to the attack on the Time Displacement Chamber. That attack must have been months in the planning. So why not just kill John before he even launches the attack to destroy Skynet, instead of letting him and then sending a Terminator back?

If letting its central core get destroyed was part of the plan somehow, why didn't Doctor Skynet sabotage the time machine so Reese couldn't be sent back? Did it want Sarah to be protected?

Why do these movies keep anthropomorphising Skynet? Do they want it to be less intimidating?

If Doctor Skynet wants to ensure its own creation in the "original" timeline, why not send Evil John back to 1997, since that's when the world ended in this timeline?

Why the bloody hell was Evil John building a time machine in 2017? Did he have somewhen else he needed to be?

If yes, why didn't Doctor Skynet just send him there in the first place?

Was Steven Moffat a script consultant?

What was the point of J.K. Simmons' character? I love J.K. Simmons, and "Terminator conspiracy theorist" is actually a pretty neat idea, but did he actually do anything to affect the plot?

Why does an incomplete time machine explode when activated? Shouldn't it just not work?

How does the exploding time machine destroy Evil John but not Old Arnie?

Is Old Arnie a T-1000 now? How does that work, exactly?

Are we really meant to believe that Arnie is 6 foot 6? Come on, guys.

Why would you try to recreate the pathos of Terminator 2's ending and then reveal that Old Arnie managed to survive? WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT.

Why do they destroy Doctor Skynet at the end, only for the credits stinger to reveal he's still alive? Isn't that just admitting that nothing of any consequence actually happened in the entire film?

Couldn't anybody come up with a better stinger than "Oh whoops the bad guy's not dead after all"?

Why am I even trying to make sense of this movie?

Friday, 22 May 2015

We Are Not Things: a lesson Game of Thrones needs to learn


If you've been on the internet in the last week, chances are pretty good that you already know about the latest controversy surrounding Game of Thrones, so I won't waste your time recounting it here. Suffice it to say that, while I'm not yet convinced that I'm done with the show - I'd like to see if they can salvage anything from the corner they've written themselves into - any enthusiasm I had for it is basically gone.

And for me, that's heartbreaking. At the risk of being That Guy, I was a huge fan of the books before the show started, and I can still vividly remember the sheer glee I felt when they announced that Charles Dance would be playing Tywin Lannister. I've met GRRM; my copy of the first book has been signed by him; the point is, I genuinely love this story and these characters. And yet, for the first time in five years, I'm not looking forward to the next episode of Game of Thrones.

It's not that I have a problem with fiction including incidents of rape, or wanting to deal with the effects and consequences of it. Nothing should be off-limits in fiction, and exploring the darker side of human nature is absolutely worthwhile. The problem in this case is that GoT is obessed with rape and sexual violence, and with rare exception has only ever included them for shock value, not because it actually has anything to say on the subject.

You'd think they'd have learned after that Cersei/Jaime scene last season blew up in their faces, but apparently not - they're digging the same hole even more enthusiastically than before. More than that, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have decided to change the source material so that characters who don't get raped in the books do get raped on the TV show, and that's just sick. Why would you look at great books like these and think "You know, this is really good and all, but you know what it needs? More rape."

I've had enough. I've defended this show's female characters in the past, writing about how their struggles against adversity are what allow them to become great - but Benioff and Weiss don't seem to be interested in that any more. They just seem to want to brutalise and demean their characters without any regard for the character's arc or how the audience is going to react. I've given Game of Thrones the benefit of a lot of doubt, and stuck with it in the hope that it might be able to learn from its mistakes and do better, but they aren't even trying any more. They've bought into their own reputation as the shocking show that does horrible things to its characters, and shock value is seemingly all that matters now. So thank you, David and Dan, for making me look like an asshole. Much obliged.

I think part of what made this scene hurt so much was that I was still on a pretty massive high from seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, which deals with much the same subject matter but does so in a tactful, respectful way that acknowledges the horror of what its female characters have gone through while never diminishing their agency. The Five Wives, who drive much of the plot, are rape survivors, and the Immortan Joe, the villain, is their rapist. And yet, there's no scene of rape in Fury Road. They didn't feel the need to show us that, because it wouldn't have benefited the story they were trying to tell.

Instead, the very first thing we see the Wives doing is reclaiming their agency by removing their chastity belts with bolt cutters. It's a gesture symbolising their freedom from slavery, and their way of saying they'll sleep with whomever they damn well please from here on. As a man, director George Miller could easily have bungled a story about rape survivors as he presumably has very little experience with this sort of thing - so he hired Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, to consult on the film and help the actresses playing the Wives with their characters.

Miller made the effort to ensure that his film's female characters were treated with the respect they deserved, and that effort deserves to be recognised. Plenty has been written about the magnificent Imperator Furiosa - the short version is that she's up there with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor on the list of all-time great action ladies. But even though the Wives have undoubtedly been through a horrifying ordeal in their captivity, the film doesn't dwell on it. The performances of the actresses tell us everything we need to know: as we're told when the Immortan first discovers they've escaped, "We Are Not Things." They're never victimised and play a crucial role in their own escape, and are willing to stand up to their rapist to do so.

In one of the film's most striking images, which is saying a lot, Angharad puts her pregnant belly between Furiosa and the Immortan's gun, knowing that he'll never risk hurting his unborn child. It is an astoundingly powerful moment, showing that in spite of everything she's gone through, Angharad actually is "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" - in contrast to the episode of GoT in which Sansa was raped, which used that title in frankly revolting irony. Fury Road isn't perfect, but it still depicts women who refuse to be defined by the horrors in their past and who are always treated as actual human beings instead of punching bags. It makes the effort, and that counts for a lot.

That's the big difference between Mad Max and Game of Thrones. You can have deal with difficult subjects in fiction, and you can do it well. You just have to fucking try.

All images: Warner Bros.  

Friday, 25 July 2014

Let us cavort like the Greeks of old! (You know the ones I mean)

I saw Hercules on Wednesday, and it got me to thinking about the use of relationships in adaptations of Greek myth and history. Specifically, where are all the gay romances? Why don't any of these films have awesome gay battle couples killing their way to fame and glory?

With Hercules, you'd definitely need a different director for it, because Brett Ratner isn't the sort of person you want handling a homosexual relationship. But it's still a shame, because there was such a big opportunity for it in the film. Hercules is depicted in myth as having many male lovers, but by far the most important was Iolaus, and he's actually in the film. There was a shrine to him in Thebes where male couples worshipped, and yet in the film he's recast as Herc's nephew, in the same way that Achilles and Patroclus are almost invariably "cousins." Considering how woefully under-represented gay couples are in the media, this would have been a great film to show two men in a romantic relationship.

The absence of such relationships is presumably down to the same "think of the children" nonsense that's usually to blame for this sort of thing, and a desire held over from the Victorian era to try and forget about just how gay ancient Greece was. Ancient Greece was fucking fabulous. Granted, thinking about homosexuality in this context is wildly anachronistic, because they didn't distinguish between hetero- and homosexual partnerships in the way we do. Regardless, relationships between men were extremely common and a big part of how that society functioned, and it's very depressing that people seem to be actively trying to minimise their importance.

In both Hercules and the 2004 Troy, the removal of the heroes' male lovers is presumably to draw the focus onto their relationship with a female character, which, to be fair, is an important part in the stories of Hercules and Achilles. In the movie, Hercules is motivated by the death of his wife Megara, and while the film gets the order of events pretty muddled, that was the reason the mythic Hercules undertook the Labours: to absolve himself of the blood guilt for killing his wife in a fit of god-induced madness. In Achilles' case, he's likewise motivated by the loss of his trophy girlfriend Briseis, so both these examples could be put down to wanting to streamline the narrative and focus on the characters' main motivation.

As with so many things, though, it's that work of dribbling, vaguely fascist claptrap 300 that's the most objectionable. I have a lot of problems with that film, but one of the worst (and most unintentionally hilarious) moments was when one of the Spartans mocked the Athenians for being "boy-lovers." Now, we know Frank Miller is a homophobic asshole, so there's that problem to begin with. More than that, though, to depict a Spartan mocking anyone for being gay displays a contemptible ignorance of the evidence. Even by the standards of ancient Greece, the Spartans were keen on encouraging relationships between men. It's generally believed that part of the reason the Spartan army was so unstoppable was because lovers were fighting side by side, and they wanted to protect and impress each other. The lack of self-awareness is pretty funny too, considering that the entire male cast of 300 wore nothing but leather briefs and a cape.

It wouldn't have been difficult to mention that Hercules was (by modern definition) bisexual, and in the comic that film's based on, he apparently is. It just seems like yet another case of tailoring to the default straight male audience, leaving out opportunities for richer characterisation in the interests of playing it safe. Some might say that a big summer blockbuster isn't the place for gay romances, but honestly? Fuck those people. Gay relationships shouldn't be the exclusive territory of arthouse films which most people will never see, and there's no reason gay romance should be terra incognita in big summer blockbusters. These films almost invariably have a straight love interest, after all. Why not a gay one for a change?

It's yet another reason for me to love Age of Bronze, because it shows Achilles and Patroclus in a caring sexual relationship. While I'd love to get more people reading that comic, it would be more expedient to have a blockbuster which everyone will go and see with that sort of romance in it. So next time you adapt Greek myth or history into film, don't leave out the gays.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Dark Knight Returns is not a good Batman story

What with it being Batman's 75th anniversary this year, and since it looks very much like the upcoming Batman v Superman film is going to be taking its cues from Frank Miller's seminal comic book, I thought I'd take a look at it and see how it holds up. And I have to say, it doesn't hold up well at all in my opinion. I understand that it was hugely influential in redefining who Batman is for the modern age, even if its dark, gritty reaction to the Adam West show stops just short of outright begging to be taken seriously, but it just doesn't work as a story.

My main problem is the depiction of Batman himself. He's almost unrecognisable compared to what we expect him to be: sure, especially in this post-Nolan world we expect him to be the Dark Knight, but the Batman of this comic is little more than a thug. This is a Batman who uses guns and kills people, and if you know the first thing about Batman, you know that's a problem.

He's a hypocrite as well, which makes it even worse. There's a panel in issue #4 where he breaks a gun in half and declares it the weapon of the enemy, and that's great stuff. He calls a gun "a coward's weapon. A liar's weapon", and that's exactly how a man whose parents were murdered with guns ought to act. Trouble is, it follows on from him chasing after Two-Face while carrying a sniper rifle, straight up shooting one of the Mutant Gang in the face, and mowing down the rest of the gang with the Bat-tank's "rubber bullets. Honest."

It's at its worst in the third issue though, where the Joker breaks out of Arkham again, goes on a rampage, and Batman spends most of the issue debating whether or not it's morally justifiable to kill him. This is after the aforementioned shooting a guy in the face, by the way. In the end, he snaps the Joker's neck, but he somehow does it so precisely that he just paralyses him. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. Funny how everyone (rightly) cried foul at Superman breaking Zod's neck in Man of Steel, but no one ever comments on this.

I have other problems with the book, too. There really isn't any plot to speak of, for one thing: Batman just comes back out of retirement because Gotham is a wretched hive of scum and villainy - you know, just like always - and eventually ends up punching Superman in an alley because Frank Miller couldn't figure out how else to finish the story. It's very disjointed and episodic; in the four issues, he fights Two-Face, the Mutant Gang, the Joker and Superman, each for one issue. Maybe it read better as single issues back in 1986, but as one story it doesn't flow at all.

I know there are people who like Miller's art, but I find it so unpleasant to look at that it took me about three tries to even get past the first issue. It's not the problem I have with Scott Pilgrim where the style just clashes with my sensibilities, I just think the art in DKR is ugly. Batman's showdown with the Joker looks like a DC Comics-themed sumo fight, there's a panel in the last issue where Superman is winking but looks more like he's having a stroke, and the cover of issue #2 (see above) is one of these big iconic images that I find utterly hideous. Plus, when the number of panels on the page is routinely in double figures - sometimes as many as 16! - it's time to dial it back a bit. 

Which brings us to the characterisation of Superman, which is somehow even worse than that of Batman. I love Superman. He's one of the most noble, wonderful ideas in all fiction: a man who could conquer the world is his lunch hour and rule it with an iron fist, but who chooses not to because of his unshakeable sense of right and wrong. His powers aren't what make him Superman, it's the fact that he invariably uses them to do good and help people. In his own words, "Do good to others and every man can be a Superman."

Miller writes him as a minion of the US government who obeys the President's order to go to Gotham and punch Batman to death.

The Dark Knight Returns depicts a version of Batman and Superman, the World's Finest Superheroes, that I just don't want to read. Batman is an angry, psychotic thug, and Superman is a mindless government drone. They're unlikeable, they aren't heroic, and I don't want to read stories about these versions of the characters. It pains me that this book altered their relationship so much, changing them from close friends and allies to antagonistic, incompatible people who just happen to have similar goals.

If you can convince me I'm wrong, by all means do. I want to see what everyone else sees in The Dark Knight Returns, but it doesn't work for me. For the record, Frank Miller's other Batman opus, Year One, is a book I think more highly of every time I read it, and though post-Sin City Miller is a raving lunatic, he did a lot of genuinely great work in the '80s. I don't think DKR is a good comic, though, and I'm dreading the influence it's going to have on the already pretty grimdark DC movie universe.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Rat Queens is like the funniest D&D campaign you've ever played

I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but other stuff kept coming up. Anyway, a few weeks ago I finally got around to reading the first volume of Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch's new series Rat Queens, and it's amazing. I'd been looking forward to reading it since I first heard about it late last year, and it doesn't disappoint. It reminded me a lot of Rich Burlew's Order of the Stick, and I mean that as very high praise.

The premise is simple: four twenty-something women with modern attitudes living in a Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy world. The plot is good, and I enjoyed how it takes a sharp turn towards the end and goes somewhere completely different from what I was expecting, but it's the characters that drive the book.

There's Hannah, the confrontational mage who's sort of the team's leader; Violet, the hipster fighter who's surprisingly kind-hearted once she stops killing things; Dee, the cleric who kind of stays in the background because she's not great with people (my favourite character); and Betty the thief, who reminded me a lot of Molly from Runaways in that she's basically weaponised cuteness.

It's a terrific cast, and most of the book's humour comes, as it should, from the character dynamics. There is drama in this comic, but it's mostly a fantasy comedy, and it's one of the funniest comics I've read in quite a while. The Rat Queens are all foul-mouthed, hard-drinking adventurers, and they act pretty much like you'd expect people who kill monsters for a living to act. It highlights the absurdity of what these sort of people, so commonplace in D&D, would actually be like in any sort of realistic society: they don't fit in with the town at all, and are as big a threat to it as the monsters they fight.

It's because these characters are so fun and so likeable that we get completed invested in them, and towards the end of the volume when the stakes get higher, Wiebe shows us it's not all laughs: he's great at comedy, but when things take a turn for the serious it's genuinely gut-wrenching. The last issue is full of lovely character beats, and is the point which cemented Dee as my favourite character for reasons I won't spoil. It's a great conclusion to the first arc.

And I can't go without mentioning how refreshing it is to see a comic like this on the stands. Image are on a ridiculous winning streak these days with damn near everything they're publishing being solid gold, and a lot of their success is the drive to do something different with their books. You can't pin their output down to a single genre, and they're doing what Marvel and DC have struggled so hard with: reaching beyond the core audience.

They're making books that aren't just male power fantasy, that people other than teenage boys will want to read, and Rat Queens is a perfect example. The four main characters are all female, which is depressingly rare in itself, one of them is black and one of them is gay. It is so damn gratifying to see a comic which actually puts characters other than straight white men on the page, and as the fan reaction has proved, it's been a huge hit with female readers. It shows how easy it really is to appeal to different audiences: they've made a book for the female demographic, which superhero comics have traditionally found so hard to crack, by writing great female characters. It really is that simple.

Rat Queens is a real treat, and one of my favourite comics currently being published. If you want to read a comic that actually gets women right, go and buy it right now.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Can we stop calling them graphic novels?

The term 'graphic novel' has long been a pet peeve of mine, and for some reason it's come back into mind lately; probably something came up on my Facebook feed. In any case, it's a term that really bugs me, and I thought I'd talk about it a bit here. Calling them graphic novels is pretentious, it's unnecessary, and it's symptomatic of the comics medium's inferiority complex. Let's just keep calling them comics.

As far as I know, people first started talking about graphic novels when Watchmen first got collected into a single volume, presumably because DC realised that it was too good to let it go out of print and because there was a lot of money to be made from selling it in conventional bookshops. I love Watchmen as much as the next person, and the comics medium's desire to be taken seriously and accorded the literary merit it deserves is admirable, but appropriating terminology from other media isn't the way to go about it.

To me, 'graphic novel' just comes across as a bit condescending, as if comics aren't good enough in themselves and so have to borrow another, more respectable medium's name before they can be treated with the same respect as traditional literature. Admittedly, there are many cases where it is a fairly appropriate description, but even in those cases I simply don't see what's wrong with calling them comics, because that is fundamentally what they are.

When a comic is conceived of, written and published as a single, reasonably long volume, in the same way that a novel is, then it is fair enough to refer to it as a graphic novel, even if my aforementioned issues with the expression still stand. For instance, Blue is the Warmest Colour is a graphic novel, and Hellblazer: All His Engines is a graphic novel. There are certainly advantages to be had in writing and publishing your work in a single, novel-length work rather than serialised in periodicals, and there have been no shortage of great books in that format. The authors arguably have greater creative control, aren't constrained by page limits, and don't have to worry about deadlines. I've no issue with the format, I just think the terminology is a bit pretentious.

The real problem for me is that, nine times out of ten, when people say 'graphic novel' they mean 'trade paperback,' and while the terms are almost always used interchangeably, they ought to mean completely different things. Most of the time when people refer to graphic novels, they're talking about collected editions of monthly comics, in which several issues have been put in one book for convenience, ease of reading, and so that it can be sold in traditional bookshops.

Again, I've no issue with the trade paperback format. I don't buy single issues because the trade is usually cheaper and doesn't have adverts in it, and the fact that comics are being collected and preserved in this manner is a wonderful thing for the medium. Most writers tend to write for the trade these days anyway; it's pretty rare that you'll come across a single issue that actually works as a standalone story rather than as a chapter in a bigger, ongoing narrative. But this is where we come to the real crux of my problem with graphic novels.

Putting six issues of a monthly comic into one book doesn't make a novel any more than putting six episodes of a TV show on one disc makes a film.

The 12 issues of Watchmen may tell a single story that was clearly planned from the beginning as such, but that doesn't make it a novel. The 8 episodes of True Detective's first season also tell a single story that was clearly planned from the beginning as such, but no one in their right mind would refer to it as a film.

Like I said, it's a symptom of the medium's inferiority complex. It's a pretty old medium at this point, but given that its development as an art form was arguably set back at least 20 years by the Comics Code Authority, comics as a medium still has a reputation as being for kids, as unfair and undeserved as that stigma might be. It's simply a case of a relatively young medium borrowing terminology from an older, more respected medium to describe something that is uniquely its own, and doing itself a disservice in the process. It's implying that the comics medium is somehow inferior to the novel medium, which just isn't true. Neither is superior to the other, they're just different.

So there we are. While there are cases where 'graphic novel' is a pretty accurate description of a comic, for the most part the term is condescending, not applicable to the format, and a statement that comics aren't as good as prose.

And that's just a bit rubbish, isn't it?

Friday, 4 April 2014

Is A Song of Ice and Fire going to collapse under its own weight?

Before I anger the legions of fans, let me first assert that I am absolutely one of them. I've been a die-hard fan of the series for years, I vividly remember losing my mind when it was announced that Charles Dance was going to play Tywin Lannister in the TV show, and my old, battered copy of A Game of Thrones has been signed by GRRM.

But, I worry that the series is going the way of The Wheel of Time, and I don't mean I'm worried that Martin is going to die before he finishes it. (It's not impossible, but he seems to be in very good health by all accounts.) I mean that it's been going for nearly twenty years and there's still no ending in sight. It was initially conceived as a trilogy and is now projected to run to seven books, though Martin hasn't ruled out the option of extending it even further. It's alarmingly reminiscent of what happened with Robert Jordan's series, originally meant to be six books but bloating to 14 by the time it finished.

For the record, I think The Wheel of Time is vastly inferior to A Song of Ice and Fire for any number of reasons which I won't get into here. Yes, I know it's meant to get better as it goes, but the first 800-page tome bored me almost to tears and didn't exactly inspire me to read 13 more of the damn things. A Game of Thrones, on the other hand, was gripping from start to finish and ended on a cliffhanger which almost physically compelled me to rush out and buy A Clash of Kings. And A Storm of Swords (both parts). And A Feast for Crows. And then, eventually, A Dance with Dragons.

As great as Martin's story is, the unfortunate truth is that a story is only really satisfying once it's ended. And as much as I love Ice and Fire – and I love it dearly; it's possibly my favourite series of novels – it's no closer to ending than it was when the first book was published back in 1996. The story's scope and scale, one of the things I most admire about it, has simply got out of control.

In the first book, there are (I think) eight point-of-view characters, and four storylines: the Wall, Winterfell, King's Landing, and Dany. As of book five, there have been somewhere in excess of 20 POV characters, and even if several of those have been immediately doomed prologue or epilogue characters, it's spread the story too wide. Four storylines is a lot to keep track of in itself, and I don't even know how many are going on simultaneously now. To quote that most famous of fantasy novels, it feels thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.

Feast and Dance were by no means bad books, even if Feast did suffer from missing almost all the best characters, but there's no denying that not an awful lot actually happens in them. Yes, Dance ends brilliantly, and the last quarter really picks up the pace and starts delivering on the sort of excitement that was present all the way through Storm, but it takes a hell of a long time to get there.

As much as I hate to say it, at this point we almost need another couple of Red Wedding-style bloodbaths to thin the ranks of the characters and bring some focus back to the story. The intricacy of Dance's plotting and the skill that must have gone into constructing and editing it are nothing short of staggering, but at this point the story is simply too big and spread over too wide a space. There are too many characters, is the bottom line, and as much as I love them – writing believable characters is one of Martin's greatest talents as a writer, and to my mind the main reason the series has become so wildly popular since the TV show – he really needs to kill some of them off.

And I have no doubt that killing characters off is well within Martin's abilities. If The Winds of Winter is as bleak as its title suggests it will be, maybe the story will be back on track by the time A Dream of Spring comes out. I just hope it doesn't take Martin six years to finish it.