Arrival – A Case of Déjà vu

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Walking into Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, I only knew a little about the movie. I knew that it was based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by author Ted Chiang which I have not read (it’s on the shelf). I knew that it was starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. I was pleasantly surprised to see Forest Whitaker around the ten minute mark. I knew this was going to be a movie about first contact with aliens. And yet as the movie began, I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen this all before. I mean that as the highest of praise, incidentally.

Twelve alien space ships land on Earth. Nobody knows why. Professor of linguistics “Louise Banks” (Amy Adams) is recruited by the US government and sent to the alien arrival sight in Montana, where she is partnered with “Ian Donnelly” (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist. Together, they are charged with finding a way to communicate with the visitors.

As Louise and Ian learn to communicate with the Heptapods (cheekily dubbed Abbot and Costello by Ian), Louise begins to uncover the Heptapods’ strange circular written language, which has no beginning or end, and begins to have flashbacks to her daughter Hannah, who died of an incurable disease.

Right away this is where Arrival separates itself from so many other “first contact” movies. In Louise and Ian, I can see every goofy pair of scientists in science fiction, sidelined as the comic relief while someone brash and bold fires a rocket wrapped in the American flag to save the day. But not this time. Arrival has billed itself as a film of intelligence, and it remains so to a fault.

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But still, Arrival is intensely aware that it belongs to a canon. Maybe not to everyone in the audience, but to someone like me, who lives and breathes science fiction of this nature to the point that it’s tattooed on my body, I can see where all the elements come from. I can hear Close Encounters of the Third Kind in sound effects of the Heptapods. I can see 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar in the aesthetics of the alien ships. I can see The War of the Worlds in the design of the aliens, and District 9 in the TV news footage of the world’s reaction to their arrival. I can even see Independence Day in the scale of the story. Hell, I can see E.T. in Louise’s growing connection to the Heptapods, and Slaughterhouse Five in the nature of the aliens themselves.

I can see where all these elements of famous science fiction staples were drawn together to make this film, but this is far from a bad thing. Sharply aware of the pastiche of its particular sub-genre, Arrival focuses on what makes it so smart.

Every shot of this film is beautiful. From a spaceship hovering over a field in Montana, to Amy Adams framed by the sunset streaming through her backyard window, to the interior of the spaceship itself, every frame suggests a world that is vast and expansive.

Louise is an interesting character. She’s a workaholic, a loner, has a sense of humor, empathy, and everything else that an interesting lead in a movie like this needs to have. The only thing that stretches my suspension of disbelief when it comes to Louise is how nice her house is. I’m not sure what school she’s a professor of linguistics at, but there is no way on Earth (pun intended) that she can afford a beautiful modern home in the woods overlooking mountains. No way.

In Arrival, we get two stories, and both are equally interesting. We get Louise and Ian learning how to communicate with Abbot and Costello. The movie spends a lot of time and energy on discussing the Heptapods’ written language. They write in beautiful, arching spheres, with no sense of linear time. Within their language, past, present and future happen all at once. Louise and Ian are learning to communicate with their Heptapod ship, even as eleven other nations around the world begin to communicate with their own ships. Tensions mount as the nations of the world start refusing to share. Arrival becomes a story about overcoming differences, and learning to cooperate with one another.

For those with an eagle eye, the first time the Heptapod language is explained, a big twist is given away. At least, part of it is. Yes, I have no problem saying that there is a time travel element to this story. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.

The second narrative is about tragedy, as we follow the story of how Louise’s daughter Hannah grew up, why her father left them, and how Hannah dies. This is about a grieving mother learning to cope with the death of her daughter, and understand that even though death is inevitable the time before death is still worthwhile.

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Arrival is a story about grief, and making connections, and aliens, and time. It never fails to be smart, it never devolves into the action-oriented blockbuster format of so many others, it never falters in the ideals that it strives to put on screen. It is everything that a modern science fiction movie should be.

If you want to go see a movie that does science fiction right, with intelligence and integrity, is beautiful for every frame of its runtime, and might make you cry like the little baby we all secretly still are, Arrival is the movie for you.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

The Poor Teaching Practices of Professor Dumbledore

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Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore was a great man. A champion of wizard and muggle rights, defender of the innocent, genius, scholar, warrior, philosopher, and general. Founder of the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore single-handedly stopped the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald’s reign of terror, kept the dangerous Elder Wand safe from those who would abuse its power, and waged two wars against the Dark Lord Voldemort (yeah, I can say his name) over a period of twenty years, even giving his life in order to stop the darkness.

Dumbledore’s life stood for kindness and compassion for others, and the value and power of love. I love him and I will challenge anyone who disagrees to a duel. And yet… how well suited was Dumbledore to be the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?

Here, to the detriment of my own soul, I admit that as great a man as Dumbledore undoubtedly was, he wasn’t a very good headmaster.

Let us start with the dangers that Dumbledore allowed into his school. Does everyone remember in The Philosopher’s Stone when three eleven year old children stumbled into a room that held a gigantic, vicious three-headed dog? I sure do, that book was great. But you might be shouting, “Fluffy and the other traps were there to protect the philosophers stone you moron!”. And yes, I know this.

It was a very decent thing of Professor Dumbledore to do, to keep safe the most important possession of a dear friend against the forces of evil. But…why exactly did Dumbledore decide to do this in a school? Yeah sure, he mentioned at the feast that year that the third floor was out of bounds to any who didn’t want to suffer a horrible death. This is a school full of children! It was wildly inappropriate for Dumbledore to hide the philosopher’s stone inside of the school where his priority should be the children. Yes, he had the best intentions, but he still endangered the lives of his students in order to prevent the return of Lord Voldemort.

Also, speaking of monsters, remember how there was a giant child-killing snake hiding in the Hogwarts castle? The first time the Chamber of Secrets was opened, Dumbledore was a professor! A child was killed, and that was absolutely out of his hands. But later, once the attacks stopped, Dumbledore just kind of went, “Well, I know there is a child-killing monster somewhere in this castle. Neat.” and he did nothing about it! There is no evidence that in the fifty years between the times the chamber was opened that Albus ever so much as peeked under a bed to try and look for it.

Now we must come to Dumbledore’s teaching practices. Professor Quirrell can be excused, as he was hired before supergluing the Dark Lord to his head. I will also fight anyone who says it was inappropriate to hire Remus Lupin. Even Hagrid I would say was a perfectly decent choice for the Magical Creature’s professor, although some limits as to what he was allowed to teach at what level (and what he was allowed to breed) should have been firmly put in place before Hagrid accepted the job.

So this leaves us with six teachers we know were hired by Albus Dumbledore during his tenure as headmaster of Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry: Severus Snape, Gilderoy Lockhart, Sybill Trelawney, Firenze, Mad-Eye Moody, and Horace Slughorn.

The most obvious and insane mistake of Dumbledore’s hirings: Gilderoy Lockhart. Lockhart, who is a barely-competent wizard, a selfish fraud, and a charlatan, is hired by Albus Dumbledore, a man adept in seeing through people, has the power to read minds, and hopefully the ability to check references. What on earth prompted Dumbledore to hire a man who is so obviously incompetent that a bunch of twelve year olds figured it out after a couple weeks of lessons? Really, there are only two possible explanations.

  1. He did it because it was funny. Yes, Albus has a great sense of humour. No, it should not be at the cost of the education of the youth under his care. Or…
  2. Dumbledore thought Lockhart was very pretty, and so hired him on the basis of how pretty he was. This is horrible and his students suffered as a result, though admittedly, since I too am hoping to get by in life by being so very pretty, it does give me hope for my future.

Sybil Trelawney is a true psychic. Indeed, it was her prophecy which caused the deaths of James and Lily Potter, and ensured that their son Harry would be the one to bring about the downfall of Lord Voldemort. Knowing her importance, Dumbledore agreed to hire her as the divination professor in order to keep her safe from Voldemort’s forces.

But just to be clear, so far as Dumbledore is aware, Trelawney has only ever made one real prophecy in her life. Albus believes that the rest of the time, Trelawney is a fake. He does not hire her to teach his students, he hires her as a chess piece in his war against Voldemort. An asset in a supernatural war is really not a good reason to hire a bad educator.

Now how about Mad-Eye Moody, eh? Yes, I know Moody himself never got a chance to teach since he had been secretly replaced a Death Eater. That wasn’t the real Mad-Eye. But we still meet the real Mad-Eye Moody in later books. We get to see how paranoid, abrupt, and extreme he is. This is a man with intense PTSD from his time as an officer of the law. He is brilliant, but he is also prone to violence, shouting, and telling people that someone is going to come and try to kill them at any moment.

Albus Dumbledore thought it would be cool to put this man in charge of eleven year old children. Maybe I’m being judgmental here, and it could have turned out that if given the chance, Mad-Eye would have been a great teacher and had hidden talents in working with youth.

But I don’t think so.

And finally: Snape and Slughorn.

Slughorn is a more than competent potions master. He is perfectly capable to do the job he has been hired to do and, creepily making students join his pseudo-cult aside, he seems like a good teacher. But this is not why Dumbledore hires Slughorn. Slughorn is actually hired so that Dumbledore can have Harry Potter extract a memory from the old professor, so that Albus may confirm his theory on Voldemort’s seven horcruxes. Slughorn is hired so that Albus can continue the fight against Voldemort. It had nothing to do with his teaching ability.

And finally, Snape. Snape, who is Dumbledore’s valued spy. Snape, who Dumbledore entrusts with both his life and his death. Snape, who brutally tortures the child of the woman he loved, just because she didn’t love him back. Snape, who was biased in the classroom, cruel, and abusive. Snape, who made thirteen year old Neville Longbottom more afraid of his teacher than anything else in the universe.

I understand that Snape was ultimately not the villain he pretended to be. Snape did what he needed to do on Dumbledore’s orders. He was an excellent spy and soldier. But he was a terrible teacher. Maybe Harry could forgive Snape for his treatment of children, but I can’t. Dumbledore brought Snape to Hogwarts to fight a war against evil, and they won. But he did so at the cost of allowing a teacher to bully his students until they trembled when he approached.

I will never forgive Snape for being the thing that the Bogart became at the sight of Neville.

If there is an underlying theme of my criticism of the headmaster, I think it is that Dumbledore often put his fight against evil over the safety and education of his students. Yes, he did the right thing, he stopped a terrible dark wizard from destroying his people. Albus worked as hard as he could, and saved as many as he could. But really, did he do so as a teacher? No. Many of his hiring practices were to do with fighting evil, which was good for the fight, but bad for the school.

Dumbledore might have turned down the position of Minister of Magic, believing he could not be trusted with power. But really, it might not have been a bad idea to go and run the war from the Ministry instead of the school. If anything else, he could have at least found a place for that giant three-headed dog where an eleven year old girl couldn’t break the lock.

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. Great man. Lousy school administrator.

 

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Remember To Save What Keeps Us Human: Looking At “Childhood’s End”

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Childhood’s End is a 1953 science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke. In the twentieth century, Clarke was considered to be one of the three greatest science fiction writers, alongside Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

The story that has stood the test of time for over sixty years. Now, after various failed attempts (Stanley Kubrick once tried to make it a movie, and the BBC did a radio adaption in the 90s), Clarke’s favourite of his own novels has reached the small screen thanks to the efforts of Matthew Graham and the Syfy channel.

But does the adaption live up to the source material? Well… yes. Many of the things that made Clarke’s writing great are alive and well on screen, yet so are his weaknesses. Some deviations from the source material don’t seem to hurt, but neither do they improve the story much.

Let me explain myself.

This show perfectly adopts the atmosphere that Clarke was once so famous for. There is a real sense of scale and power to Childhood’s End. When you are told to believe that the events of the show are affecting the whole world, you really believe it. Clarke’s novels always gave an impression of size and, just like in the books, when spaceships appear in the sky above Earth in the show, you really get a sense that they are vast. His ideas have enormous scale, and that scale is represented perfectly in the series.

Unfortunately, like Clarke’s books, the characters aren’t quite as impressive as the world they inhabit. Yes, they serve a purpose, and can be charismatic and cool, but you never quite invest in them the way you should. Character development takes a back seat to the grander, more fascinating story being told. As a result, it’s hard to care about the characters’ complicated relationships.

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Mike Vogel as Ricky Stormgren

However, credit must still be given to Mike Vogel as Ricky Stormgren for giving what otherwise is a bland and tired trope some charisma and weight. In addition, Osy Ikhile as Milo Rodericks manages to pour in some good emotion, and the wonderful Charles Dance as the alien “supervisor for Earth” Karellen turns out to deliver an absolutely stellar performance.

But like I said, characters are a secondary feature. The story and its ideas are what sells.

One day, spaceships appear in the sky. The human race is told not to be afraid. A peaceful alien invasion proceeds, with aliens titled the Overlords now watch over the skies of planet Earth. They have decrees that it’s time for the world to become a utopia—but at what cost?

The book is split into three parts: Earth and the Overlords, The Golden Age, and The Last Generation. Similarly, the show is split into three two-hour long episodes titled The Overlords, The Deceivers, and The Children. Though the names are changed, the focus of each episode mostly correlates with the novels’ plots.

The Overlords begins with an ominous flash to the future, in the ruins of a post-apocalypse, where a man named Milo stumbles through the wreckage of a city and claims to be the last living human being.

With that to hang over us, we are thrown back in time to our present-day Earth, with the arrival of giant spaceships in the sky, and the grumbling tones of Charles Dance introducing himself as Karellen. Karellen proclaims himself to be the supervisor for Earth, and he has come to pull humanity into the future by ending war, poverty, starvation, and every other blight on Earth.

The Ooverlords choose a farmer (though in the book it was a UN secretary) named Ricky, a calm, self-assured, almost painfully all-American boy as their liaison. Ricky is periodically brought to the Overlords’ ship. Karellen advises him, and there is slowly a real sense that the two have become friends. This is by far the most interesting relationship in the show.

Together, they end war, pollution, famine, and slowly transform the world into a better place. There is some resistance to the Overlords, but it is quickly defeated. During this time, a young wheelchair-bound boy named Milo is shot through the heart. A beam of light comes down from the sky, and  Milo is suddenly alive again and able to walk. Milo then tells an old man who he shares a friendship with that he wants to grow up to become the first person to see the Overlords home planet.

 Everything is wonderful, but as Karellen continues to stay in the shadows, Ricky becomes more frantic and paranoid as to why his alien friend won’t reveal himself. When Ricky finally catches a glimpse of his friend, he decides that it’s better that the Overlords go unseen. Then, after fifteen years on Earth (fifty in the book), Karellen reveals himself to the world.

Cloven hooves for feet, horns, bright red wings, and fiery eyes—Karellen looks like the devil.

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Charles Dance as Karellen

Episode two, The Deceivers, might be the weakest of the three episodes. This is not the fault of any particular element. Episode two must deal with the consequences of the first episode while setting up for the finale. That’s a lot to do, and its storyline is hindered by some sub-par new characters. While we are invested in Milo and Ricky, it’s hard to care about the new Greggson family and their seemingly possessed children. Meanwhile, when Ricky falls ill from exposure on the Overlords’ ship, it simply seems like a way to continue to include him now that his role has been fulfilled. Milo is still fascinating as the only human to still yearn for answers, but he’s mostly just waiting around to take the spotlight in the finale.

The quality of episode three, The Children, is somewhere between the two preceding episodes. Ricky’s inclusion seems pointless, though with some nice beats, and the Greggsons’ story continues to be annoyingly flat. Their deaths in the climax occur without any emotional resonance. We simply don’t care about these people.

Nevertheless the Greggsons do serve a purpose. They help show that, though humanity has reached utopia, it has done so by sacrificing its imagination and its culture. The world may be perfect and free from all evil, but it’s a dull perfection. This is contrasted by the small community that rejects the Overlords’ help, and lives as the humanity of days gone by, in which culture, creativity, and scientific inquiry are seeping back in. They are also included in the series because their child, Jennifer, grows to possess psychic abilities, linking her to all other children and showing the eventual fate of Earth.

It’s Milo who takes the final spotlight however. As a man who grew up wanting to be a scientist, he is distraught to find that scientific inquiry on Earth is dying, and he’d like to know why. Milo believes there is a time distortion that occurs when the Overlords travel from their world to Earth, so he hides aboard their ship, thinking it will be a forty days journey between worlds.

Milo is awakened on the planet of the Overlords, and it is there that their true purpose is revealed to him before he is taken back home. He was wrong. As Milo stumbles through the wreckage of the Earth, eighty years after he left, we are finally back where we began.

As the Earth crumbles around him, Milo asks Karellen to save something, anything of Earth culture, so that it may survive them. Karellen obliges, and as the Earth vanishes from the universe, music remains.

Music floats in space as a symbol of the culture and creativity that once was the human race.

Childhood’s End is by no means perfect, nor is it an exact replica of Clarke’s great novel. The inter-human relationships fall flat, to the point that I didn’t even bother to mention some of them here. But the story is as beautiful and fascinating as it was on the page, a story that I’ve only partially spoiled here—if you’d like to know it all, go watch for yourself! The love and attention payed to Clarke’s story has resulted in six hours of television that are definitely worth watching.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Trying to Be Happy – Exploring the Issue of Humanness in “Swiss Army Man”

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image source: aintitcool.com

Human bodies are weird and gross. They are scary, and we are often ashamed of them. Our bodies can make us feel alone. However, our bodies are beautiful.

Life is weird and gross. We are often afraid of it, and ashamed of being afraid. It can be lonely. But life is also beautiful.

Trapped in our bodies, and trapped in this thing called life, we don’t have to be alone.

This is the message I’ve taken away from a movie which opens with Paul Dano almost committing suicide on a deserted island before he spots a dead body on the beach, pulls the pants off Daniel Radcliff’s corpse, and uses his super powered farts to ride him like a jet-ski away from an island into the ocean while singing joyously. I cried a little bit.

Yeah. You heard me. Super farts made me cry.

For the majority of Swiss Army Man, there are only two characters: Hank (Paul Dano) and the dead body of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). For the first half hour of the movie, Hank carries the corpse that saved his life with him through the woods while he searches for civilization, with a dying phone.

Why does Hank carry the body with him? Perhaps it’s an act of compassion from someone lonely, perhaps anything with a face will do for company, perhaps it’s a sense of duty to the body of a human being that once saved his life.

On his journey through the wilderness, Hank slowly discovers that Manny’s body has special powers that might help him survive. He can fire projectiles from Manny’s mouth, he can light his farts on fire like a rocket. When Hank gets dehydrated, Manny vomits up clean drinking water. This is already an insane premise for a movie. But wait, there’s more.

“I need you to help me get home,” Hank says to the dead body, because he hasn’t got anyone else to talk to. “Okay buddy?”

Okay buddy,” answers Manny, and this is when everything begins to slide into place.

Swiss Army Man flits around several different genres of cinema, many of which I normally don’t enjoy, but loved here.

I don’t really enjoy survival movies, but I thought this one was magical.

I don’t like most musicals. I feel the same way about acapella as Indiana Jones does about snakes, but here I found both not only fitting, but moving. I have already downloaded the soundtrack.

I only sometimes enjoy coming of age movies, and while I would understand the label, I don’t think it fits here. This is a story about coming to life, and coming back to life.

I do love buddy/friendship movies, which this absolutely was, exploring the vulnerability of male friendships without the tiring bravado that so many Hollywood movies bring as a filter. This is instead a story about two young men exploring their feelings about themselves and each other, as well as their bodies and the world beyond them.

I would also say that parts of this movie are a romance. At one point, Manny and Hank seem to be falling for one another (represented in the music like everything else, with the line “are we falling in love?” sticking out among the lyrics). And yes, maybe what could be considered the third of a four act movie does end in a kiss (but not for the reasons you’d think), but I would argue that the movie quickly transcends that.

Manny and Hank become a kind of platonic ideal of friendship, with all the honesty and awkward grossness of being human. This is fitting, since the audience must occasionally wonder if Manny is even real, or if Hank just went mad after so much time alone.

All of this is backed by a surprisingly beautiful soundtrack, mostly featuring the voices of the two actors themselves. It is only once the two characters finally stumble back into the real world do we finally remember how alien the world that the two have been hiding away in was, free from the shame and limits of the society we have created.

Swiss Army Man isn’t for everyone: it will make some uncomfortable as it touches on the grossness of our bodies and the strangeness of what it feels like to connect with another human being. I will say that in a world where movies feel constantly over-saturated with reboots and sequels and generic nothingness, Swiss Army Man stands out as something I’ve never seen before.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

4 Heroes. 4 Movies. 4 Mistakes. 4 Puns.

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image source: d.gr-assets.com

There have been four attempts to bring Marvel’s first family to life on the big screen. First in 1994, then 2005, 2007, and most recently in 2015.

Whatever grand cosmic meaning might be found in four failed Fantastic 4 movies escapes me, but all of them have sucked.

I’ve heard people say maybe the Fantastic 4 just suck as a concept, or maybe they can’t be translated well into live action, or maybe they’re just too far out to get right. But… no. I’m here today to tell you that isn’t true at all.

The reason that we’ve never seen a good Fantastic 4 movie is because, well, nobody has ever made a real Fantastic 4 movie. Almost none of what made the comics so incredible for so many decades has ever been realized on screen.

Let me elaborate in the form of four major points, because that structure both allows me to argue what I want and also kind of make this whole thing a Fantastic 4 pun, which means this is the best day of my life.

1: We have never actually seen the real Doctor Doom.

In the comics, Victor Von Doom is the iron-fisted dictator of a sovereign island nation called Latveria, and grew up as an orphan living with a band of gypsies. The group he was in stayed on the move to avoid the wrath of the oppressive regime, until, through a combination of inventions and black magic, Victor lead an uprising and seized control.

Because yes, Doctor Doom can do magic.

A once-handsome man, Victor Von Doom’s downfall started when he summoned a portal to hell in order to bring his mother back to life; however, true to comic form, the portal exploded in his face instead, forcing him to seal himself inside a suit of magical armour.

Also in the comics, Victor is a master of science and technology, rivalled only by the mind of his college roommate, Reed Richards. Both studied science that I assume Stan Lee made up on the fly. This all happened in his early twenties, until, after getting his doctorate, Victor was kicked out for unethical practice and sent back to Latveria (where he lead the aforementioned uprising shortly after.)

See? Doctor Doom isn’t even a supervillain name, you guys. Victor has a doctorate. His actual name is just Doctor Doom.

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image source:vignette2.wikia.net/marveldatabase/images

Word play jokes aside, Doctor Doom is arguably one of the greatest supervillains ever put to page. He once took on the Celestials (otherworldly beings of infinite power) and forced Galactus to kneel before him, and became essentially God as the most powerful being in the entire Marvel Universe (twice). He can occasionally do good as well, proving that he actually cares about the people of Latveria, and in one instance he even protects Franklin and Valeria Richards (the children of his worst enemy) from harm.

In fact, Doom has actually saved the world several times, because when all the heroes are sitting around contemplating what to do, Doom just busts open the door with a cry of “DOOM CARES NOT” and that’s that.

None of the details of this incredible character have ever appeared in a movie. In the 2005 movie, Doctor Doom was a seedy business man who gains the power to shoot lightning, and in 2015 he was a… programmer? I guess? Why is Fox so afraid to make Doom the magical science tyrant he truly is? They even have a problem with his name. In each live screen version, they tried to change his name (“Victor Von Damn”, and “Victor Domeshev “, respectively), and then changed it back at the last second.

The ongoing dynamic between Doctor Doom and Mr. Fantastic is probably one of the most interesting relationship in comics, save for that of Professor X and Magneto from the X-Men. Their rivalry and hatred of one another is strangely contrasted by the respect and kinship they try so hard to hide. Despite being morally polar opposites, deep down both Reed and Victor know that the only true equal either one has on the entire planet, maybe the entire universe, is each other. They are the two smartest men in the universe, both of them convinced that they have the right way and authority to save the world. But while Reed gets to be the hero, Doom is the villain.

In the movies we’ve never gotten past “Victor is jealous because Reed is smarter and can make out with Sue”.

If you need more convincing of how great of a character Doctor Doom is, go read the entirety of Jonathon Hickman’s Fantastic 4 run, half his Avengers comics, and his colossal finale Secret War. I promise, it will convince you. Doctor Doom is the number one Marvel supervillain according to Newsarama, and the third greatest comic book villain of all time according to IGN. So why are the studios so afraid to give us the Doom we deserve?

2: Where is Galactus, the devourer of worlds! 

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image source: cdn1.sciencefiction.com

Does anybody actually remember Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer? 

I mean, no, not really. Because that movie was terrible. But it is pretty easy to name both the best and worst thing that movie managed to do. The best? I’ll admit, the Silver Surfer looked damn cool.

This is a character that Jack Kirby created supposedly because he was tired of drawing spaceships. It is the shiny, nearly featureless outline of a man who flies on a surfboard. It’s not such a hard thing to get right and they did. So what was the worst thing?

Probably the evil space cloud. That was not Galactus. Like Doctor Doom, Galactus is a genuinely fascinating and complex character.

The gargantuan planet eater Galactus is the only survivor of the universe that existed before our own. In fact, Galactus essentially is the universe of before, bonded to the last mortal of its existence, and was reborn into the giant purple-hatted being that constantly clashes with the Fantastic 4. But the fascinating thing is that the character of Galactus himself is not actually evil. He is a thinking being that can be reasoned and debated with, as well as a force of nature. Galactus destroys what he feels he must for his own survival, and for what he believes is best for the universe as a whole. He even created the Silver Surfer in order to seek out uninhabited planets that Galactus could eat without committing genocide.

And sure, Galactus often goes back on his word in that respect and tries to destroy the earth. But he is also a being that Reed Richards and the Fantastic 4 have spoken to, and have come to an uneasy alliance with.

So, as opposed to a boring space cloud, imagine superheroes fighting a planet sized alien being with a purple helmet who has existed since before the dawn of time itself.

I mean, maybe it’s just me. But a movie dealing with that character sounds genuinely interesting.

3: Science Fiction Extraordinaire

Silver Surfer
image source: s-media-cache-ako.pinimg.com

Right off the bat, lets skip the origin story.

Over half of the Fantastic 4 movies that have been made have been about the Fantastic 4 getting their powers, and then spending the whole movie trying to get rid of their powers.

That is genuinely the least interesting premise for a Fantastic 4 movie I can possibly conceive of, unless someone were to film Ben Grimm sitting on the toilet for two hours reading a newspaper. Seriously. Most superheroes don’t actually require that much context. That’s why so often the second movie for a superhero character is the better movie (The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, The Winter Soldier, and X-Men: United all come to mind).

So why not skip ahead to when the Fantastic 4 are genuinely an interesting family of pure insanity? So many of the classic FF tales are huge science fiction adventures into the depths of the earth, or the depths of space, or occasionally into another dimension entirely!

The early days of the Fantastic 4 were illustrated by Jack “The King” Kirby, who is basically the godfather of comic book art. Kirby’s FF days were punctuated by massive otherworldly images, shapeshifting aliens, mind-bending space battles, and galactic invasions of Earth.

In one comic, Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards) was once inducted into an inter-dimensional organization called the “Council of Reeds”, which was entirely populated with alternate reality versions of him trying to save the multiverse. Best part? The story culminated with Doom defeating a race of Gods and the Human Torch locking himself in another dimension to fight an endless army of insect monsters. I mean that is… that would make the most wacked-out movie ever, right? And there’s the fun of the Watcher, an alien who lives on the moon and can see everything and has a giant head.

So far, we have seen none of that in the attempts at bringing them to screen, because the studios seem weirdly embarrassed of the more science fiction elements of the Fantastic 4 universe. Really, if you want these characters to work, abandon self-consciousness at the door. Give us the insanity and true scope of science fiction possible with these characters.

We were all happy to watch a talking raccoon with a space gun mourn the death of his talking tree friend.

We can handle it.

4: Family                                                                     

Above all else, the Fantastic 4 are a fundamentally different group dynamic than any other super team in comics. They aren’t the collection of mighty heroes like The Avengers, or the collection of outcasts like X-Men.

The Fantastic 4 are fundamentally a family. So you want to make them stand out from the rest? Make them an actual family. Instead of the painfully awkward romance between Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman (who where near strangers), Give us the actual married Reed Richards and Susan Storm. But more than that. Give us their children, the occasionally cosmically-powered Franklin Richards and the super-genius Valeria Richards. Give us The Thing and the Human Torch being referred to as “Uncle Ben” and “Uncle Johnny”. Give us that super uncomfortable kinship between Valeria Richards and Doctor Doom, who see eye to eye on slightly more than her parents might wish.

Because that, more than anything else I’ve mentioned, is what sets the Fantastic 4 apart. This is a story about a real, developed and mature family that behaves as such. Please, someone out there, give us all these things.

Give us the real Galactus and Doctor Doom, and Mole People and shapeshifting aliens, give us the family dynamic and science-fiction insanity that have graced the pages of comic books for over half a century.

Give us the Fantastic 4 movie we deserve!

– Contributed by Ben Ghan

Doing What’s Right: A Review of Captain America – Civil War

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Image source: marvelcinematicuniverse.wikia.com

“No. You move.”

Captain America: Civil War needed to be a lot of things. As the introduction of both Black Panther and a new Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron, the final instalment in the Captain America trilogy, and the sequel to both First Avenger and Winter Soldier, this movie is also the culmination of a journey that Marvel has been headed towards since Robert Downey Jr. first appeared on screen in Iron Man.

It feels very much like we were always heading for this.

Amazingly, it works. Civil War works as an Avengers movie (with, oddly enough, more Avengers than either of the movies to actually use the title), but more importantly, it works as a Captain America movie. The grander scope and moral debate at the heart of Civil War is all filtered through Cap. Even if you disagree with him, the morality makes this not only a thrillingly engaging action movie, but also one of the most emotionally investing that Marvel has ever produced.

Let’s set the scene: the characters in the Marvel U have finally noticed what we the audience have been pointing out for years. When the Avengers save the day, there is always a ton of destruction and collateral damage. Avengers fought a war in New York, (the ramifications of which are still felt on the Marvel Netflix series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones), The Winter Soldier destroyed Washington, DC, and then Age of Ultron lifted the city state of Sokovia thousands of feet into the air then vaporized it.

The Avengers come to fight and people die. Finally, the world has noticed. When an Avengers mission chasing the mercenary Crossbones through Lagos in Nigeria ends with the accidental destruction of a building, and the death of several diplomats from the nation of Wakanda, it seems to be just one step too far.

The Avengers are issued an ultimatum in the form of “The Sokovia Accords”.

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Once signed, the Avengers will no longer act autonomously, but be sanctioned and controlled by a United Nations panel. This mirrors the “registration actof the Civil War comic which ordered heroes to register with the government; however, since practically nobody in the MCU has a secret identity, this element has been stripped away.

What is brilliant about the motivations of the characters in this movie is that they all make sense. You understand why some characters sign the accords and others don’t. When the lines are drawn, you understand why each Avenger has chosen the side they do.

Tony Stark (Iron Man) began as the ultimate capitalist. In his second movie, he famously stated that he’d “privatized world peace”. But over the years, from the first Avengers movie and Iron Man 3 to Age of Ultron, we have seen Tony becoming increasingly paranoid and obsessed with security. He is shown time and time again that he and others are not responsible enough keep the world safe on their own. So this is the Tony Stark entering Captain America: Civil War. He signs the Accords because he believes the Avengers operating above the law is no longer the right thing to do.

Then we have Captain America. Steve Rogers, who, in his first movie, had such a powerful faith in the systems of government, has been repeatedly shown that these systems fail. The Army tried to stop him when he could save the lives of Bucky and his friends, so Steve disobeyed orders and saved the day. In The Avengers, Steve finds a government that lies to him, and a Shield that pilfers Hydra technology and is willing to launch a nuclear bomb at the island of Manhattan. Then, in Captain America: Winter Soldier, Steve finds his trust in systems totally shattered as Shield is revealed to be mostly controlled by the Nazi death cult of Hydra. As Steve says in the movie: “The safest hands are still our own.”

Tony can only trust systems, and Steve can only trust individuals. So with a small push from Sharon Carter, who gives Steve a speech that Cap famously gives to Spider-Man in the Civil War comic, Cap refuses to sign the accords and the Avengers are split. It’s a testament to the even footing that both points of view are given that even after having seen the movie twice, I still can’t completely commit to one side or the other.

That could have been the whole crux of the story, but of course it isn’t. This is a Captain America movie, and the sequel to Winter Soldier. And that means Bucky, and not just as an afterthought. The movie starts with a flashback to the 1990s of the Winter Soldier making an assassination on an old lonely road. When the signing of the Accords are sabotaged, the Winter Soldier takes the blame.

This is where the mysterious villain Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) enters the picture, having uncovered an old Hydra book containing the code words that can hypnotize poor Bucky, bringing out his murderous Winter Soldier side.

Zemo’s backstory is simple. He was Sokovian military, he feels that the Avengers killed his family in Age of Ultron, and wants revenge. He is a surprisingly effective villain, and (though still a little lackluster, as almost all Marvel villains tend to be), I actually really enjoyed his simple, subtle, and ultimately tragic character. I was also pleased to find a villain who understood he couldn’t just kill the Avengers. Finally, we have a bad guy who doesn’t think himself stronger than Earth’s mightiest.

It is the hunt for the Winter Soldier that truly drives the movie: Cap’s insistence on saving his old friend and everyone else’s insistence on his guilt puts Cap up against UN orders. When Zemo sneaks into the UN under the guise of a therapist, he activates Bucky to escape (who then basically walks through all the Avengers because Bucky is Marvel’s equivalent of The Terminator). But it is Cap grabbing hold of Buck’s helicopter and crashing it down into the river below that brands Cap, Bucky, and Sam Wilson (Falcon) as fugitives from justice.

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Falcon, by the way, seems to be almost solely motivated by the desire to make Steve Rogers smile, regardless of his own personal investment in whatever is happening. And it is amazing.

On this note, Falcon and Bucky share relatively little screen time together, but when they do it’s also incredible. If this were a romantic comedy, Sam and Bucky would essentially be Steve’s two boyfriends jostling for his attention while glaring at each other and thinking “Steve likes me best.”

At this point, it is also important to talk about Chadwick Boswin’s “King T’challa” (Black Panther). The actor invented his own accent for the role, since Black Panther is the king of a fictional African country. Black Panther isn’t on one side, so much as he just really wants to kill Bucky, for reasons that make perfect sense. The character is regal, lethal, and fights like an actual cat. Even his costume is amazing, and I’m incredibly excited for his solo movie. In the end, between the voices of Cap and Iron Man, Black Panther works as the third perspective. He is essential to the plot, and at no point does his inclusion feel forced.

The Avengers eventually meet at the Berlin airport, Cap and his team racing to capture Zemo, and Iron Man and his side determined to bring Cap to justice. Everyone gets their moment in this fight. Scarlet Witch gets a whole bunch. And Ant Man, a character who I was ambivalent about in his own movie, gets a moment here which might go down as one of my favourite in movie history.

Tom Holland’s motivations and reality as “Spider-Man” and “Peter Parker” are set-up beautifully in just one scene. Through his conversations with Tony, we see Peter as the shy awkward kid who just wants to make a difference and protect the “little guy”. Which, by the way, perfectly mirrors the moment Steve had in the first Captain America movie, when Dr. Erskine asks why he wants to join the war effort.

Then we get Spider-Man for the long and glorious airport Avengers brawl.

He’s perfect. Spidey holds his own against even the Winter Soldier (where all the other Avengers have failed), fighting against Cap and his team. He’s strong and fast, flipping through the air with webs flying around him, and he won’t stop talking.

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This is the Spider-Man we’ve always wanted to see. In the twenty-five minutes he appears in this movie, Spider-Man acts more like the famous chatty, annoying kid who’s swung through comic pages for fifty years than any of the five whole Spiderman movies. As a criticism, there is no real reason for Spider-Man to be in the movie at all from a narrative point of view, but he makes up for it by being incredibly fun.

But this is all leading towards a confrontation between Cap, Bucky, and Iron Man. Without spoiling anything, the climax of Civil War has surprisingly low stakes. There’s no classic world-ending scheme or invading army. All of that is traded for emotional stakes.

Civil War is in many ways a tragedy, as the heroes don’t make amends in the end, but instead fall into a greater split that goes beyond politics. Come the end of the movie, Iron Man is fighting for vengeance and Cap is fighting for friendship, in a harrowing, violent confrontation where just for a moment, you might really believe that one of these heroes is going to kill the other.

What’s really well done is at no point does this conflict feel forced. You understand, as everything is slowly stripped away from him, why Cap will fight for Bucky at all costs. But similarly you understand why, by the end of the movie, Iron Man feels he needs to kill the Winter Soldier.

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Usually motives in a superhero movie are pretty simple. The good guy wants to be good, and the bad guy doesn’t, and then they fight. That isn’t Civil War. We understand and accept the motivations driving each opposing side, and that is why this movie works so well. It’s also why at the end, as Captain America and Iron Man fight so brutally, it really is tragic.

In all this, Steve Rogers seems to have completed the arc he began all the way back in his first movie, to transform from a man into a legend.

“You’re trying to do what you think is right,” are nearly Cap’s last words of the film. “That’s all any of us can do.”

Because this is who Cap is: he’s going to do what he thinks is right.

I’m sure everyone will be back together again by the end of the next Avengers movie, but that doesn’t change how powerful this movie was.

Captain America: Civil War, is arguably both the best solo and team movie Marvel has produced. For the first time, we are wrapping up a superhero trilogy without a weak link.

Civil War raises the bar for everything that must follow, and incidentally, this is the first I can remember where I walked out of the theater considering the movie to be better than its source material.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Not My Superman

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Image source: http://hypable.com

The twenty-first century is home to a world that is perhaps a little darker and more complicated than the century that came before it, and our heroes should reflect that.

Or at least, that is the message that some people like to spew to justify a darker, more violent and morally ambiguous Superman. Some portion of our world has become convinced that the Superman who appeared on screen in 1978 just isn’t enough, and that The Man of Tomorrow should be just as grim and uncertain as we all feel the world has become. A simple, righteously smiling Man of Steel just isn’t compelling anymore.

Well, I’m sorry, but today I’m here to disagree. We don’t need a forbidding, morally ambiguous Superman wreaking havoc, nor do we need a Superman who is aware of his immense power.

I think I’m going to focus my argument by citing what I consider to be the best collection of Superman stories in the last twenty years.

From 2005 to 2008, a special out-of-continuity series was commissioned by DC. It was written by the great Grant Morrison (JLA, Batman Incorporated, New X-Men) and drawn by the exquisite Frank Quitely (New X-Men, Batman and Robin, The Authority). This series was called All Star Superman. It was meant to be a Superman tale without the constraints of continuity, and one that would “strip down the Man of Steel to his timeless, essential elements.”

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Image source: http://comixology.com

Apparently the original inspiration for the series came from when Morrison was at a ComiCon and saw someone dressed as Superman who wasn’t posed impressively or flexing. He wasn’t menacing or snarling like the cinematic Superman of the last few years.

In this interview with Newsarama, Morrison describes how “He was perched with one knee drawn up, chin resting on his arms. He looked totally relaxed… and I suddenly realized this was how Superman would sit. He wouldn’t puff out his chest or posture heroically, he would be totally chilled. If nothing can hurt you, you can afford to be cool. A man like Superman would never have to tense against the cold; never have to flinch in the face of a blow. He would be completely laid back, un-tense. With this image of Superman relaxing on a cloud looking out for us all in my head, I rushed back to my hotel room and filled dozens of pages of my notebook with notes and drawings.”

That is what Quitely’s first cover of the series shows: a Superman sitting in the clouds, smiling serenely. It is a Superman at peace with the world. Compare this image of a breathtakingly colourful and unthreatening hero with the tiniest of smiles playing about his lips, to the character’s most recent movie posters: grim and colorless, snarling and aggressive like someone is shouting “Henry, anthropomorphize threatening masculinity!” from behind the camera.

It shows a basic insecurity about the character being portrayed.

This kind of gentle, almost alien kindness is what makes Superman so fascinating all throughout Morrison and Quitely’s book. We have plenty of dark, brooding protagonists, and sure they are interesting, but let’s be honest—they are also a dime-a-dozen. In a world that Superman has to share with Batman (a.k.a. the king of brooding), does making Superman’s disposition as dark and conflicted really do anything to make his character stand out? I think a much better way of showing just how different Superman is from Batman, and indeed from any other hero, is to really show that smiling, almost alien innocence Quitely captured on his cover.

Another problem people often have with the man in red and blue is that being invincible makes him boring in a fight. Perhaps this is why Lex Luther is so often his greatest foe. Lex is human, and Superman, being the hero that he is, can’t simply punch his way through him. But that still doesn’t solve the problem that the only way to inject tension into a Superman battle is either with another Superman (Zod) or by hitting him with kryptonite, which is also incredibly boring.

I’m realizing as I type this that movie studios seem to be terrified of letting Superman battle anyone other than Lex Luther or General Zod, and I could probably spend the rest of this post just babbling about how cool Brainiac would be in a movie, but I won’t.

Zach Snyder and many other people’s solution to this problem is to make his fights bigger, to make Supes knock down cities while battling a god to the death. I understand the argument that Superman had to kill Zod at the end of Man of Steel, but I also point out that it was the writer’s decision to engineer that situation. I would instead argue that a good Superman story is one where violence and murder would never become the only choice.

In fact, I would argue that the best Superman story is one that doesn’t come to blows at all.

Yes, I can hear how shocked and indignant you are. “A superhero without a battle? Boooo!” But you know, with Superman being the most powerful person in the world, what’s the point? I think Superman is a far more compelling character when he is just simply, honestly trying to do the decent thing.

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Image source: http://comicvine.gamespot.com

Think back to the original Christopher Donner movie in 1978, which is the most enduring image of Clark Kent/Superman, and you’ll realize that there is actually very little violence in that movie. It is this huge blockbuster film that has stood the test of time, and it’s all about Superman saving people. He barely throws a punch the whole time. He catches a helicopter, derails a nuke, time travels, and hilariously kicks a football out of the stratosphere, but there is barely any violence. That’s because the character sitting in the clouds in All-Star Superman with that easy smile on his lips doesn’t need to be violent.

Speaking of the comic from which I seem to be pulling my whole argument, I think it’s important to share the most important page from within its story.

A teenage girl, with tears on her face, is standing on the edge of a high roof. She’s working up the courage to jump.

Then, behind her, the panel is filled with that familiar mix of blue, red, and yellow. “Your doctor really did get held up again, Regan” he says, and you can see the surprise on the girl’s face to suddenly not be alone. “It’s never as bad as it seems. You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.”

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Image source: http://comixology.com

And he hugs her.

That, I think, is the Superman that we need right now, more than ever. We don’t need an angry, grim goliath of strength knocking over cities or being forced to kill the villain. We don’t need a boy scout trying to out-grimace Batman.

We have other heroes to be our violent protectors, to be grim and complicated and scary.

But that’s not my Superman. That’s not the character dreamed up by two Jewish-American immigrants who were just wishing for a saviour in the form of a decent person. Superman doesn’t need to evolve to adapt to darker times. He was born out of the imagination of two young men terrified of the rise of the Nazi regime. What is darker than that?

Superman doesn’t work as a dark, complicated character, because that isn’t the point of him.

My Superman is the one sitting up in the clouds with a smile. My Superman is Christopher Reeves telling Lois Lane she shouldn’t smoke.

My Superman is the one who stops a teenage suicide, and holds us all tight. When Superman says “Trust me,” that girl on the rooftop believes him. Because who should we trust more than Superman?

-Contributed by Ben Ghan