Monday, 28 August 2017

Happy 100th Birthday Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby, who was born 100 years ago today, created or co-created so many amazing characters, including Captain America, the X-Men, Mr Miracle, the New Gods, Kamandi, OMAC, Hulk, Etrigan, and Iron Man (to name a few). But my favourites remain the Fantastic Four.

This image is from Fantastic Four #7 (1962), one of the first FF stories I ever read, and it's a perfect example of Kirby's storytelling genius. It's not just because of the intricacy of the design, or the depth of the image & the way it conveys the scale of this alien world, or the fact that it's such a brilliant concept for an advanced, alien version of a lift. It's the way the FF are descending in character! Sue is frightened, her arms are outstretched (her status as Marvel's maternal powerhouse had not yet been established), and yet she is still falling gracefully. Reed is calm, confident, & has complete faith in the science of the alien device. Johnny has thrown his whole body into the descent in a dramatic fashion and Ben is lumbering into it face first. So much is conveyed in just one image. One page tells you everything about these characters and their adventures.

This is just one example of why Jack Kirby was a true comics genius.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Doctor Who: The 13th Doctor, a change too far?

“I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender. Because this is a really exciting time, and Doctor Who represents everything that’s exciting about change. The fans have lived through so many changes, and this is only a new, different one, not a fearful one.” 

The 13th incarnation of Doctor Who has been announced! Jodie Whittaker will replace Peter Capaldi as The Doctor at the end of this year's Christmas special. As you might expect there's a lot of unhappy fans online, but I'm pleased to say I'm not one of them. I couldn't be more excited. Having said that I can kinda, sorta understand their discomfort, even if I do think they're daft. After all, the show itself, or rather it's lead character, has always had a funny relationship with the concept of change.

Even before it's producers came up with the genius concept of regeneration to explain the recasting of their ailing star, Doctor Who was a TV show that thrived on change. A new setting and a new story every four to six weeks. Sometimes it's a period drama, sometimes it's hard sci-fi. Sometimes it's a fantasy adventure, and sometimes it's an emotional melodrama. All of time and space to explore, anything and everything. The only limits are the imagination of the creators and the size of the BBC's budget. And yet at the heart of all this we had the Doctor, a character who, despite all his assertions to the contrary, clearly hates change.

On the few occasions we've seen other Time Lords either discussing or experiencing regeneration they've always seemed to take it in their stride. In Destiny of the Daleks (1979), Romana is shown casually trying on a few different bodies before settling on her second incarnation. Recently, in Hell Bent (2015), the General is seen regenerating from a man into a woman (after being shot by the Doctor!) before shaking it off and carrying on with her job.

The Doctor on the other hand usually takes his regeneration in a less than heroic fashion. In Logopolis (1981) the Fourth Doctor spends four episodes in a foul mood after a ghostly watcher warns him of his impending doom. The Tenth Doctor, in The End of Time (2009 -2010), weeps and rants before finally sacrificing himself to get Bernard Cribbins out of a cupboard. Famously, his last words are "I don't want to go!" Each regeneration is usually followed by at least one episode of traumatic after effects. These after effects have included being comatose for most of the episode, an uncontrollable desire to throttle his companion, failure to distinguish between his companion and a villain in a wig, and having to be carried through a forest in a cupboard.

The Doctor's aversion to change isn't just evident in his attitude to regeneration. He also has trouble saying goodbye to his companions. He has a history of abandoning his companions rather than putting himself through the heartache of them abandoning him. His own granddaughter, Susan became the first companion to suffer this fate in The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964), while Sarah Jane got booted out of the TARDIS at the the end of The Hand of Fear (1976) under the flimsy pretext of the Doctor's home planet having a 'No Humans Allowed' rule. Whenever companions leave of their own volition the Doctor usually responds either with a sulk, a strop, or a cry. The Chase (1965) sees the First Doctor responding to the departure of Ian and Barbara with childish anger. The Green Death (1973) ends with the Third Doctor having some sulky alone time in his car, Bessie after Jo Grant leaves him. When Rose Tyler gets trapped in a parallel universe at the end of Doomsday (1996) the Tenth Doctor is devastated and never truly recovers, even after he meets her again a couple of years later and leaves her with a weird, human doppleganger of himself.

Let's also consider the TARDIS. The exterior has been stuck in the form of a police box since the very first episode in 1963, but he only makes one half-arsed attempt to fix it in Attack of the Cybermen (1985), and in Doctor Who The Movie (1996) he admits "I like it". The iconic white console room with the roundels on the wall is shown in Hell Bent to be only the default setting for a TARDIS, but apart from a brief period in a wood paneled version during his fourth incarnation, the Doctor sticks with that same basic theme (with some slight alterations) for his first seven incarnations.

There's also the matter of the Doctor's clothes. While he does occasionally vary his wardrobe, particularly in recent years, we are still talking about a man who will wear the same outfit for literally hundreds of years.

The Doctor talks a good game about his "life like crazy paving", but looking at the evidence it's impossible to deny he is absolutely terrified of change. Small wonder then that so many of his fans are equally terrified of anything new and different. I've certainly taken comfort in the cosy, familiarity of Doctor Who. New jobs, new homes, and new relationships are unavoidable in life but the monsters, the blue box, and the father/brother figure within are always there. But like most things in life, if the Doctor doesn't change he will die. That is literally what Time Lord regeneration is all about, and it's also true of the show itself.

Before Doctor Who came back to our screens in 2005 the public perception of the show was that it was a kitsch and dated, if fondly remembered, remnant of a bygone era. Your average person on the street knew little about the ambitious scripts of Season 26, and nothing about the mature themes and situations dealt with by Virgin's series of New Adventure novels. For proof of this look no further than the casting rumours that haunted the '90s and early noughties. As late as 2004, Paul Daniels and Shane Richie were being discussed in tabloids as potential Doctors.  Russell T. Davies changed all that when he cast Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor. The casting of an acclaimed actor like Eccleston was a statement. It said "We're serious about this." It changed how people thought about Doctor Who.

I would argue that we're at a similar point today. The recent storylines have been, for the most part, very good, and Peter Capaldi is a truly excellent Doctor, but after 12 years back on our screens and 7 years under head writer Steven Moffat, Doctor Who has become a bit too predictable, at least in the eyes of the general public. This is evident once again in the rumours surrounding the casting of the new Doctor. The main name bandied around for the past few months has been Kris Marshall. Marshall is a decent enough actor, but he's most famous for playing Robert Lindsay's gormless son in dreadful sitcom My Family, a gormless sex pest in dreadful movie Love Actually, and a lovable but gormless dad in a series of dreadful BT adverts. He also plays a detective in the Bahamas or something in some TV drama. I've never watched it but I'm going to assume that his character's also lacking in the 'gorm' department. Kris Marshall would have been the most uninspired choice imaginable for Doctor Who. Cosy, safe, skinny, white, male, predictable. The fact that his was the most prominent name in the 13th Doctor casting rumours is the most compelling argument in favour of the person who was actually cast. The show, and the public perception of the show needs a kick up the arse, and new show runner Chris Chibnall has provided it in the form of Jodie Whittaker.

Back in 2013, when rumours surrounding the casting of the Twelfth Doctor were flying around, I objected to the idea of a woman playing the Doctor. I found the familiar masculine form of the Doctor comforting and I felt that the paternal or fraternal aspect of his character would be too important to lose. After some reflection I've changed my mind. I've heard a lot of people today saying that Doctor Who is all about change, and they're right. But it's not just about change. It's about being absolutely terrified of change and being brave enough to embrace it anyway. The Doctor does it all the time. Can we do any less? And let's face it, the show will still be about the Doctor, in the TARDIS, fighting monsters, and it always will be. Some things never change.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Why I love Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

This article was written with the help and input of my pal, Gareth Madeley. Follow him on Twitter!


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a much maligned film to say the least. Not only does it's rating currently stand at 27% on Rotten Tomatoes but it also won four Razzies. The hostility towards this film baffles me. As far as I'm concerned Batman v Superman is not only one of the best films of 2016, it's also one of the best superhero films ever.

Here's why.

We've all seen Batman's origin hundreds of times, but before BvS we'd never seen it end with young Bruce Wayne ascending to heaven up a big pipe, carried by hundreds of bats. This happens in the first five minutes and it sets the tone for rest of the film. BvS is about modern day gods meeting in battle, if it were anything less than huge then it would be doing the subject matter a disservice. The action, the emotion, the effects, everything about this film is turned up to 11, and punctuated with orchestral hammer blows from Hans Zimmer's soundtrack. Vehicles are flattened or plowed through during the chase scenes and bathrooms are drenched during the love scenes. A nuclear missile is launched during the final battle, but only provides a temporary lull in the combat before the grand finale. During the titular battle between our two heroes, Batman throws everything at Superman, including (literally) the kitchen sink!

It's grand, melodramatic, operatic, and yes, a bit silly. But what I love about this film's silliness is that at no point does it attempt to apologise for itself with a joke at it's own in expense or a knowing wink to the camera. This film knows how gloriously over the top it is but doesn't care if you know it knows.

Ben Affleck is a perfect Batman. His performance brings to mind quite a few comic book takes on the character. The way Bruce Wayne is distracted by Diana Prince at Luthor's party, and his subsequent almost-flirty encounters with her bring to mind Grant Morrison's "hairy chested love god". The demon bursting from the Wayne tomb is no doubt inspired by the demon Barbathos in Peter Milligan and Kieron Dwyers' Dark Knight, Dark City. But the film's biggest and most obvious comic book influence is Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, with many scenes lifted straight from the comic itself. Unlike Miller however the film doesn't celebrate what Bruce Wayne's various traumas have turned him into. This Batman's anger blinds him rather than fuels him.

In fact "anger blinds" is a major theme of the film, with both Superman and Batman being as blinded by their anger as Lex Luthor. Alfred points out "That's how it starts, sir. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men... cruel." Batman is angry, not only about his parent's death but also about the powerlessness he feels at the seeming futility of his mission. "Twenty years in Gotham, Alfred...How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?" Batman's powerlessness is rubbed in his face by the presence of Superman, particularly during the "Battle for Metropolis" between Superman and Zod. He has once again become the little boy who was forced to watch his parent's die, even after spending his whole life fighting never to be that powerless again.

Henry Cavill's Superman is frustrated by his inability to reconcile his two worlds and the world's unwillingness to accept him as a man. He is viewed either as a threat or a god. Superman is as uncomfortable with the awed crowd in Mexico who gather round to touch their saviour as he is with those who fear him. It is Batman who finally bears the brunt of this frustration when it's unleashed during Superman's battle with him.

This is why the much derided "Martha" scene is one of my favourite bits in the whole film. While the fact that Superman says "Save Martha!" rather than "Save my mother!" feels contrived, it's effect is beautiful. The coincidence of their mothers sharing the same name is a slap in the face for Batman that pulls him out of his anger and forces him to see Superman not as a god or a threat but as a man. Superman finally gets his humanity acknowledged by someone and Batman sees that Superman is just as powerless as him. This one scene resolves not only the conflict between the two men but also plays a part in resolving the conflict that's been raging inside them for the whole film. It is for this reason that a bond is instantly forged between them and they leap into battle side by side.

The only characters not blinded by anger throughout the whole film are women. Until Batman has his moment of clarity, Diane Lane's Martha Kent and Amy Adams' Lois Lane are the only characters who see Superman as a man. Lois is one of the few characters to suspect the extent of Luthor's machinations and manipulations and spends much of the film attempting to unravel them. Holly Hunter's Senator Finch is pragmatic about the potential threat she believes Superman poses. She is disturbed by Superman's unaccountability but she seeks to resolve this by discussion and debate rather than allowing Luthor to build a weapon to destroy him. She is clever enough to see right through Luthor. You could even argue that Alfred, who sees the folly of Batman's rage, is playing a maternal role in Batman's life, with his advice, his concern, and his desire to see Bruce Wayne living a life of safety and contentment.

Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman also plays an important role. She is another example of a woman seeing more clearly than the men of the film. For example she sees right through Bruce Wayne straight away. Although she has turned her back on the world she is inspired by Batman and Superman to join the battle once again. Her presence then helps to galvanise the battered Superman and Batman into one final assault against Doomsday. Gadot is a powerful presence who completely steals the show. For me, the moment she truly nailed it was when she fell back while battling Doomsday and gave a smile that showed how delighted she was to be facing a worthy adversary.

As well as the "Martha" scene, Superman's decision to sacrifice himself in order to stop Doomsday also helps to resolve Superman and Batman's blinding anger. Superman realises that there is no conflict inside him between two worlds because Lois is his world. All he needs is for her to see him as a man. Batman finds a purpose once again. The inspiration provided by Superman's sacrifice and the knowledge provided to him by Luthor (and his own prophetic dreams) of the looming threat of Darkseid provide Batman with a new war to prepare for and a new way of preparing for it. Superman's death also proves his humanity and mortality beyond all doubt. Bruce Wayne is present for Superman's very human funeral in Kansas rather than the grand ceremony in Metropolis.

In a film packed with memorable performances Jesse Eisenberg stands out. Lex Luthor's "hmmm"s and chuckles and tics all point to a man sitting on a seething cauldron of spite and rage, who's barely able to contain it. At one point Luthor is delivering a friendly speech about his own philanthropy and towards the end of it he begins to trail off as if distracted by his own hate. Luthor violates the personal space of everyone he meets. For example, the way he immediately shakes hands with Clark and Bruce upon meeting them, the way he pushes a Jolly Rancher into the mouth of a politician, and the way he taps Lois on the head. Every interaction he has with another person is about showing them who's boss. But when people invade his space he can't handle it. Senator Finch grabs Luthor's hand to stop his finger's drumming and he visibly flinches. She can beat Luthor at his own game and he eventually kills her for it. His "Granny's Peach Tea" gag is a spiteful reminder of who's in charge before she dies . Like Batman and Superman, Luthor is also blinded by anger. Anger towards god and anger towards his father, the closest thing to a god in his life. In Superman, Luthor is presented with an actual god to direct his anger towards. "No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from daddy's fist and abominations. I figured out way back if God is all-powerful, He cannot be all-good. And if He is all-good, then He cannot be all-powerful. And neither can you." It's ironic that when Doomsday first emerges Superman literally intervenes and saves Luthor from the fist of an abomination.

Luthor also points us to another of the film's main themes, the inversion of gods and demons. He spells this out while pointing at a picture of angels and demons "That should be upside down. We know better now, don't we? Devils don't come from hell beneath us. No, they come from the sky." Doomsday is a demonic inversion of Superman, leeching power from the city, just as Superman absorbs power from the sun. Luthor is John the Baptist literally baptising a resurrected Antichrist in Doomsday. Later, during his battle with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, Doomsday the Antichrist gets a spear in his side. If Doomsday is the "Son" then it could be argued that Steppenwolf, (who vanishes like a ghost as soon as the police turn up to arrest Luthor) is the "Holy Spirit" and Darkseid is the "Father" who talks to Lex through Steppenwolf. The theme of inversion is also hammered home by the film's music. Hans Zimmer's theme for Luthor is an inversion of his theme for Superman.

Batman is another demonic figure in the film. When he first appears in the film he's clinging to a wall like something from a horror film. But the opening dream sequence shows us that this particular devil was once a boy who ascended up towards Heaven rather than descended to Hell. Batman sees himself as a demon who will save Earth from a dangerous god. It can't be a coincidence that when Batman finally realises that Superman is not a god his mask is cracked and his human face is showing. Just as Superman ceases to be a god at that moment, Batman ceases to be a demon.

Despite all this, Batman v Superman is far from perfect. It's most egregious flaw is the fact that we recieved an incomplete film in the cinema and it's only on the Blu-Ray "Ultimate Edition" that the film reaches its full potential. For example, the theatrical cut does not make it clear that Luthor is behind everything that leads to Batman and Superman's conflict. We don't see that Luthor is arranging for prisoners branded by Batman to get murdered and we don't see that Kahina, the witness who speaks of Superman's involvement in the massacre at the start of the film was threatened, paid off and later murdered by Luthor. As a result of these omissions the theatrical cut is less coherent and the role of Lois and Senator Finch in uncovering Luthor's plan is diminished. Steppenwolf is also omitted from the theatrical cut, somewhat spoiling the theme of a "Dark Trinity" and making Luthor's knowledge of Darkseid's impending threat more of a mystery.

To my mind these were key scenes that could have remained in the theatrical cut at the expense of scenes teasing the existence of Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. I will admit to a giddy fanboy thrill experienced when Ezra Miller's Flash appeared to Bruce Wayne, and when Wonder Woman watched the footage of the other heroes on her computer. But these scenes added nothing to the story that was being told in that particular film and served only as adverts for a film that, at that point, hadn't even been made yet. They also slow down the action. Batman and Superman are about to fight, the whole film has been gearing up to this battle, and suddenly we're being shown Wonder Woman doing the equivalent of checking her Facebook. These glimpses of the future Justice League may have fitted poorly into the theatrical cut of Batman v Superman, but they would have made great bonus scenes for the Ultimate Edition. The wrong scenes were cut from this film.

While this poor editing means that Batman v Superman is not as good a film as Man of Steel (yes, Man of Steel is great, read this) it's still a fantastic superhero film that deals with some clever themes, boasts a unique operatic tone, and some brilliant performances. It would have been so easy to make a lighter film in the crowd pleasing mold of Marvel Studios, but Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. went for something bigger, grander and more ambitious. Characters like Batman and Superman deserve nothing less.