Saturday, 25 April 2015

Avengers Age of Ultron: A Mixed Bag (SPOILERS)


Avengers Age of Ultron is a mixed bag. On the whole it's an enjoyable film but comparisons with other Marvel films are inevitable, and this film suffers in comparison with its predecessors. It's probably the weakest and least satisfying of all the movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but to be fair most of those films are exceptionally good, and there's still lots to admire in AoU.


Ultron looks and sounds amazing. I could listen to James Spader's evil voice all day. Spader's obviously been motion captured and it works brilliantly. They've managed to make a CGI robot, with limited facial expressions, full of personality. Spader's performance is evident in every shrug of Ultron's shoulders.

The relationship between Banner and Black Widow serves to flesh out both characters nicely. In lesser hands it could feel tacked on but here it feels natural that these characters, both of whom are trying to deal with their darker natures in different ways, would be drawn to each other. Mark Ruffalo's performance is superb, conveying Banner's angst, humour and repressed emotion with considerable charisma. I usually find Scarlett Johansson wooden but she did an excellent job here and really helped us get into the Widow's head.

The increased focus on Hawkeye was very welcome since he spent most of the first Avengers movie hypnotised. I'm still a little disappointed that Jeremy Renner is playing a character who's closer to Ultimate Hawkeye than classic comics Hawkeye. But that's a personal bugbear on my part, the handling of the character here, by both the script and Renner, can't really be faulted.

Tony Stark continues to get a lot of attention, but that's fine with me, since as far as I'm concerned, out of all The Avengers he's the best and most complex character, and is also played by the best actor. Tony continues to struggle with the glimpse into infinity he experienced at the end of the first Avengers movie. The fact that this still affects and motivates Tony shows a level of maturity not usually present in a genre where ordinary people are usually able to process and accept the fantastic with no ill affects. Tony is a man with a big ego who's used to being in control and now he's scared by his (and the Earth's) vulnerability and insignificance. This is all conveyed beautifully by Downey Jr's performance. More than any other MCU character Stark is on a journey and I look forward to following it further in Captain America 3: Civil War.

I'm really hoping that the appearance of a supporting character called Dr. Helen Cho might lead to an appearance in the MCU at some point by Amadeus Cho. Amadeus is a teenaged boy who's also the seventh smartest person on Earth. He's one of my favourite Marvel characters. Anyone who's curious about him should check out Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente's Incredible Hercules.


Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and the Vision are played brilliantly by their respective actors and they look great, but there's just not enough time spent on them to give them the development that the plot requires. Scarlet Witch becomes a new member of the Avengers. Vision is a creation of Ultron who sees the worth in humanity and thus proves the villain wrong. Quicksilver (SPOILER) makes a heroic sacrifice at the end of the film. All of these things mean they're too significant to have such little attention given to them. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch hate Stark and so they ally themselves with Ultron. After realising that Ultron plans to destroy the world they switch sides. Fine, makes sense, but why is their hatred of Stark instantly forgotten? By the time Quicksilver dies we just don't know enough about him to care.

Vision sees the worth in humanity. Why? Because he's also Jarvis? Maybe, the film doesn't spend a lot of time on it. As it stands it feels like humanity has Vision's trust without earning it. Vision comes out of his little creation pod with his personality and motivation fully formed, and he even pulls his costume out of nowhere. Ultron also suffers from being rushed into existence. Just as the Vision has no clear reason for liking humanity, Ultron has no clear reason for hating it. Banner and Stark literally create him over three days. Ultron then scans the internet and decides the best way to fulfil the mission Stark has given him (protect the world) is to kill everyone. It makes no sense, he's a baddie just because. Also, why does he even need Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch?

In any other series of films all this might be forgiveable, but Marvel is notable for having fleshed out their characters over several films. With a hero as fully formed and complex as Tony Stark running around, the dodgy motivations of Ultron, Vision, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver stand out like a sore thumb.

The ending of the film also left me feeling dissatisfied. Ultron levitates a huge portion of a city into the air. He plans to drop it back to Earth like a meteorite, causing the extinction of the human race. Captain America is faced with an impossible decision. Destroy the floating city with people still on it or continue to try and rescue them and risk the extinction of mankind. Just as Black Widow is convincing him that they have to blow the whole thing (including themselves) to kingdom come, Nick Fury turns up in a helicarrier and saves them all. I found it extremely disappointing that a character like Cap, who sees right and wrong in simple terms, was posed a dilemma like that and then spared from having to make a decision by a big, fat cop out. Don't get me wrong, I don't think The Avengers should have blown themselves up, but if you're going to give your characters difficult ethical dilemmas I think the solutions should be a bit better than Nick Fury pulling a helicarrier out of his arse.

Oh noes! Teh end of the MCU?

At least as far as I'm concerned this film has fallen short of the high standard set by Marvel with their previous movies. If Marvel want to set up characters like Scarlet Witch and Vision as the next chapter in MCU history then they'll have to work harder than this to make us care about them. But I'm not especially worried. Avengers Age of Ultron has been getting good reviews everywhere else (what do I know?) and let's face it, Marvel have set the bar so high for themselves that they're bound to fall short now and again. If their other recent offering, the Daredevil TV series, is anything to go by the MCU still has plenty of life in it yet.

And of course, Amadeus Cho is still to come!

Sunday, 12 April 2015

It's a great time to be a Superhero fan!

I was reflecting today while watching Marvel's AMAZING new Daredevil series, on the diversity of all the recent live action superhero stuff we've been getting. After Tim Burton's Batman in 1989 every live action superhero thing aped it to a certain extent. For example, the 1990 Flash TV series had a Danny Elfman score, even though it was massively inappropriate for that type of character and show. These days we have Arrow, Flash, Gotham, Constantine, the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the big screen & on TV, the X-Men franchise, the upcoming Fantastic Four movie, Man of Steel and it's upcoming spin offs, and everything is doing it's own thing & has its own style.

Daredevil and Avengers are set in the same universe and yet they couldn't be more different in tone. Arrow and Flash even crossover with each other and yet they both have their own distinct voices. It would be easy to lump Gotham, Arrow and Daredevil under the same, lazy "gritty" label, but they're all actually completely different. Arrow has more of an emphasis on soap opera than Daredevil. Both Gotham & Arrow are gloriously over the top, while Daredevil is much more grounded. They are all brilliant.

There really is something for everyone out there at the moment. It's a great time to be a superhero fan.

And now, apropos of nothing, here's Grant Gustin inserted into some classic Flash covers.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Morrison on Moore: Miracleman & The Killing Joke

Alan Moore and Grant Morrison are two of my favourite comic creators. They've both got gigantic imaginations and have both found ways of looking at the superhero genre that have changed it forever. They also have a long running feud with each other, which is always good for a laugh.

Whenever Moore has commented on Morrison's work it's always in a dismissive, catty way that frankly is a bit beneath him. Morrison on the other hand is a big fan of Moore's work and always has something interesting to say about it.

Any excuse to trot out this image

I find Morrison's interpretation of Moore's The Killing Joke and Miracleman particularly interesting. I agree with his interpretation of the former 100%, but couldn't disagree more with his interpretation of the latter.

Morrison on Miracleman 

Based on the old 1950s Marvelman strips by Mick Anglo, Miracleman tells the story of a middle-aged man called Michael Moran who one day remembers that he can turn into a superhero. Like Moore's other '80s masterpiece Watchmen, Miracleman takes the superhero archetype to its logical and terrifying conclusion. Moore's run on the character ends with Miracleman and his superhero friends destroying London in a brutal battle with a supervillain and building a new worldwide Utopia out of the city's ashes. The heroes reign over a peaceful, happy planet from a new Mount Olympus, and human beings have absolutely no say in the matter.

In a 2011 article for the Guardian Morrison wrote:
By the end of the story the characters find out that they've been lied to all their lives, and they emerge into the real world. There are beautiful sequences where the superheroes are escorting Thatcher out of No 10 and she's sobbing helplessly: suddenly there's this new power that bombs can't stop, weapons can't stop. The whole last issue is this fabulous liberal fantasy of what the good guys would do if they got in charge and got rid of all the bastards! I like it much more than Watchmen; it was a real triumph for lefties everywhere!
I prefer it to Watchmen too, but the fact that Morrison interprets the ending as a joyful fantasy is frankly, a little disturbing.

For me, the ending to Moore's Miracleman is absolutely terrifying. Between them the heroes decide that they know what's best for the world. Humankind in it's entirety is reduced to the role of a naughty child who needs to be told what's good for it. The fact that the heroes effectively enslave mankind with such kindness and benevolence makes it even more creepy and disturbing. It never even occurs to them to ask what we want, and they're so far removed from us that they don't even realise what they're taking from us.

By the end of Moore's run there's no money and no crime, and humanity is marching towards a superhuman future through the sharing of alien technology and a programme of eugenics. The very last page depicts Miracleman looking down on his new world, baffled and bemused because his wife Liz turned down his offer of a place among the gods and wants nothing more to do with him and his "perfection". It's a brilliant and powerful ending that never fails to stay with me for days, no matter how many times I read it.

And Morrison apparently interprets it as, "Yay, the good guys won!"

The Margaret Thatcher scene that Morrison describes is perfect example of where he and I differ on our interpretation of Miracleman. I'm by no means a fan of Thatcher or her politics but this is a scene where one of the most influential and forceful world leaders of the 20th Century is reduced to a gibbering wreck by the realisation that humankind is no longer in control of its own destiny. To come away from it saying "Hurray, take that Maggie" seems a little childish to me.

Morrison on The Killing Joke

The Killing Joke chronicles the Joker's attempts to prove to Batman that one bad day can drive anyone insane. Joker sets out to drive Jim Gordon mad by crippling his daughter Barbara (AKA Batgirl) and forcing him to look at pictures of her wounded body. (Yeah, it's pretty grim). Running parallel to this story is a flashback to Joker's own "bad day", the events that bleached his face and broke his mind. Batman eventually rescues Gordon who implores him to bring Joker in "by the book." Batman has a final confrontation with his arch foe that ends, unexpectedly, with the Joker telling Batman a joke. The pair of them laugh together as the police arrive.

While Moore never intended the story to be "canon" the events of the story were nevertheless expanded on by subsequent writers. Barbara Gordon, for example, spent the next twenty or so years in a wheelchair. As a result it was always assumed by most people, including myself, that the story did indeed end with the Joker's arrest. Morrison had other ideas. As he told Kevin Smith in a 2013 interview:
That’s why it’s called ‘The Killing Joke.’ The Joker tells the ‘Killing Joke’ at the end, Batman reaches out and breaks his neck, and that’s why the laughter stops and the light goes out, ’cause that was the last chance at crossing that bridge. And Alan Moore wrote the ultimate Batman/Joker story — he finished it.
While this doesn't appear to have been Moore's intention this is now the only interpretation of the ending that makes sense to me. After hearing Morrison's take, The Killing Joke changed for me into something a hundred times more satisfying than it had previously been.

The story begins with Batman offering the Joker a chance to get off their path of mutually assured destruction. When the story actually ends with that prophesied destruction coming about then that first scene becomes so much more significant and poignant. Batman begins the story still trying to convince himself that there's a way out for both of them, but by the end he's realised there's no hope. The Joker tells a joke about two lunatics escaping from an insane asylum, and the Batman realises that they are the two lunatics. He realises that their dance towards the inevitable is going to hurt more and more people the longer it goes on. He realises there's only one way out and the realisation breaks him. The Joker is trying to prove to Batman that one "bad day" can drive a man insane. The Killing Joke is the story of Batman's "bad day". His "bad day" is not the day his parents were killed (as the Joker speculates at one point), it's the day the Joker wins and Batman breaks his oath never to kill.

Hey, I'm not saying it's the happiest interpretation, but it is I believe, the most satisfying.

Morrison's ending also changes the nature of the Joker's assault of Barbara Gordon. If the story is canon then Barbara's fate is needlessly vicious. We know Joker's a nasty bastard, we don't need a character as significant as Barbara to become collateral damage in order to prove that. It does very little to change Batman and Joker's relationship and does nothing at all for Barbara. (Indeed, it was John Ostrander who used her injury to develop her character in the pages of Suicide Squad.) But if this story is the last ever Batman/Joker story then the assault of Barbara Gordon becomes the worst thing the Joker has ever done, the thing that helps tip Batman over the edge. The nastiness is justified.

For me Morrison's interpretation turns a good story into a great story. And while it wasn't Moore's intention for Batman to kill the Joker, artist Brian Bolland has implied that it was his, so at least half of The Killing Joke's creative team agrees with Morrison.

Regardless of whether I agree with him or not it's always fascinating to read the opinion of a genius like Morrison on the work of a genius like Moore. It's a shame they don't get on because Morrison can enrich Moore's work just by discussing it, and I'm sure if he ever actually gave it a fair chance Moore could do the same for Morrison's work.

Having said that, if his opinion on Miracleman is anything to go by, I hope to god Grant Morrison never gets super-powers.