In this episode, we temporarily set aside our “clean” rating to wind up our four-part series on Watchmen with a discussion issues #10-12 of the landmark comic-book series written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons, and published by DC Comics!
As President Richard Nixon prepares to launch nuclear missiles, Nite Owl and Rorschach discover that the person behind the Comedian’s death and Dr. Manhattan’s self-imposed exile is their former colleague, Adrian Veidt! When they track him to his Antarctic retreat, the “world’s smartest man” shares with them his plan to avert a nuclear apocalypse—presenting them with a horrific moral dilemma!
Can these hopelessly outmatched heroes, along with Laurie Juspeczyk and Dr. Manhattan, look on Ozymandias’ works without despairing? Can they prevent Veidt from killing millions of innocent people? And will Curt and Kevin judge this paradigm-shifting 12-issue series worthy of admission into that stronger, loving world known as … The Comics Canon?
It’s been 19 years since the 2000 release of X-Men and the June 7, 2019 release of Dark Phoenix, the 12th film in the franchise of Marvel mutant superheroes. Things have changed in almost two decades: When the first X-Men came out, Bill Clinton was still the U.S. president, George Clooney was the most recent movie star to play Batman, and Sophie Turner, Dark Phoenix’s lead actor, was 3 years old.
The X-Men series has been running so long, with such a haphazard continuity, that the series has granted itself do-overs. X-Men Origins: Wolverine presented Deadpool as a mouthless, shirtless, overpowered goon, but his solo film reintroduced the “merc with a mouth” as the madcap killer that made him popular in the first place. Dark Phoenix takes another stab at the comic series’ most famous storyline, The Dark Phoenix Saga, which provided plot points for the bloated third film, X-Men: The Last Stand.
Written and directed by Simon Kinberg, Dark Phoenix tries to put more focus on the characters and their conflicts, but somehow still isn’t even as good as The Last Stand, and The Last Stand was pretty crummy. Drab, perfunctory and cheap-looking, Dark Phoenix ends the X-Men film series (at least as a 20th Century Fox property) on the weakest note imaginable.
The film takes place in 1992, with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his school for gifted youngsters enjoying public support for a change. When an extraterrestrial anomaly threatens a space shuttle mission, the X-Men, led by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), blast into orbit to help. But in saving the astronauts, telekinetic Jean Grey (Turner) is attacked by the alien cloud, which comics readers will recognize as the wildly destructive Phoenix Force.
The close encounter causes Jean’s psychic powers to significantly level up, which leads to uncontrollable super-powered outbursts. She’s also able to discover and eliminate old mental barriers Charles put up to protect young Jean from traumatic memories. Perhaps Dark Phoenix’s best idea is the characters’ willingness to criticize Charles for using mind control without other people’s consent, despite his good intentions.
A confrontation between Jean and the X-Men results in tragedy, further alienating Jean from the team and motivating Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) against her. The Dark Phoenix Saga found plenty of melodrama in the heroes’ struggle against one of their own turned evil and wrestling with how to hold her accountable for her actions. This concept feels as watered down here as it did in Last Stand.
The new film introduces a group of shapeshifting aliens who infiltrate Earth with plans for the Phoenix Force. Jessica Chastain wanly plays their leader, who’s credited with the name Vux (yes, Vux). The aliens provide some handy exposition for the Phoenix Force’s outer-space origins as well as a train fight that’s one of the film’s few signs of life. Their inclusion is otherwise a ruinous choice, detracting from characters we (theoretically) care about for ones far too vague to be compelling.
Through its handling of Jean, Mystique and Vux, Dark Phoenix flirts with some feminist ideas, such as a man trying to justify his attempt to control a female character and women arguing for their independence. Mystique even points out that the women on the team take some of the biggest risks, even though the team is called the X-Men. But it all comes across as a half-baked take on themes better explored a few months ago in Captain Marvel (which, coincidentally, was also set in the 1990s).
Part of the problem is that Jean’s personality remains rather sketchy. Just who is she, really? We don’t know her very well before the Phoenix Force and the unlocked memories come into play, so it’s not clear what she wants or how she’s changing. At least Turner does her best to capture the complexity of Jean’s feelings, even while the script seems uncertain about them.
Fassbender and McAvoy are charismatic enough to remain compelling performers, but Lawrence seems bored and unengaged. Tye Sheridan, as Scott “Cyclops” Summers, comes across as a kid in over his head. But the terrible production values bring everything down–it looks more like the pilot episode of a superhero show on a new streaming service than the latest entry in a profitable film franchise.
If you get bored during Dark Phoenix–and you probably will—you can crunch the numbers regarding the chronology of the recent X-films and the characters’ ages. Fassbender plays a Holocaust survivor who should be in his 60s here, with Hank and Mystique in their 50s. In X-Men: Apocalypse, Jean and her classmates were teenagers seeing Return of the Jedi in 1983. Nine years later, are they old enough to drink? Are they taking classes, or teaching them?
Since Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, social media has chattered about the idea of the X-Men joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But can you look at their recent movies and say you really want that? Is there anything left to say about, say, Magneto, even with the Avengers around? With the likes of Hugh Jackman unlikely to reprise their roles, do you want new actors playing Wolverine and company?
Dark Phoenix suggests it’s time to borrow a phrase from the X-Men House of M storyline and apply it to the movies, at least in the short-term: “No more mutants.”
Dark Phoenix. D. Written and directed by Simon Kinberg. Starring Sophie Turner, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy. Rated PG-13.
Like sands through the hourglass, our four-part series on Watchmen continues with a look at issues #7-9 of the groundbreaking comic series written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons, and published by DC Comics!
As the world marches closer to the brink of nuclear war, Dan Drieberg and Laurie Juspeczyk become lovers. They also defy the nation’s ban on costumed heroes and rescue the residents of a burning building. Determined to find out who’s killing other masked adventurers, Nite Owl hatches a plan to spring Rorschach from prison, bringing the police to his front door.
Just when things couldn’t get any worse, Dr. Manhattan appears and whisks Laurie away to Mars to talk, with the literal fate of the world hanging in the balance!
Can Dan and Rorschach avoid being collared by the cops? Can Laurie convince her godlike former boyfriend to save the world? Can any of them survive long enough to make it to that floating crystal palace known as … The Comics Canon?
Like clockwork, our four-part gaze into the abyss of Watchmen continues as we analyze the hidden meanings of the inkblots contained in issues #4-6, written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons, published by DC Comics!
Alone on Mars, Dr. Manhattan examines his past, jumping back and forth through time as he recalls the accident that gave him his godlike powers. Back on an Earth growing increasingly fearful of atomic conflict, a homeless Laurie Juspeczyk moves in with lovestruck Dan Dreiberg and Adrian Veidt survives an assassination attempt. Meanwhile, the outlaw vigilante Rorschach, framed and arrested for the murder of the former villain Moloch, tells prison psychiatrist Malcolm Long who he is and how he came to be.
Can this overmatched analyst shake off the all-consuming darkness of his patient’s pitiless worldview? Can Curt make it through the episode with a sore throat? (Spoiler: Yes!) And can our heroes survive being thrown into that atomic disintegration chamber known as … The Comics Canon?
In this episode, Curt and Kevin start the clock, kicking off a four-part exploration of one of the most acclaimed comic book series of all time with a look at Watchmen #1-3, written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons, and published by DC Comics!
In an alternate-reality version of 1985, a man named Edward Blake is thrown to his death from his penthouse apartment. Investigating this Manhattan murder mystery, the faceless vigilante known as Rorschach discovers that Blake was once the government-sanctioned crimefighter called the Comedian!
Fearing that someone may be targeting former costumed adventurers, Rorschach attempts to warn his onetime allies—Dan “Nite Owl” Dreiberg, Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt, Laurie Jon “Doctor Manhattan” Osterman and his live-in girlfriend, Laurie “Silk Spectre” Juspeczyk. But Rorschach’s warnings seem far-fetched, until the godlike Doctor Manhattan is accused of causing cancer in his friends and enemies—and abandons Earth for Mars!
With America’s atomic protector gone, can President Richard Nixon prevent an impending nuclear conflict? And will our protagonists live long enough to retire to that home for hidebound heroes known as … The Comics Canon?
Things Discussed in This Episode:
The kid gloves come off!
Watchmen’s Charlton Comics roots
The signature trope of Watchmen
Why is he called The Comedian when he doesn’t tell any jokes?
What kind of person would want to become a costumed vigilante?
Tales of the Black Freighter: The feel-good book of the year!
In this episode, Curt and Kevin mark the 1,000th issue of Detective Comics and the 80th birthday of Batman with a look back at three early milestones in the career of DC Comics’ mega-popular Caped Crusader—beginning with his first appearance (as “The Bat-Man”) in Detective Comics #27 from 1939!
From there, it’s on to the world’s best-known origin story from 1939’s Detective Comics #33! And last but not least, since a snarling Dark Knight Detective is only as good as his anarchic arch-enemy, it’s the first appearance of the Joker, from 1940’s Batman #1!
Can the World’s Greatest Detective crack the imminently solvable Case of the Chemical Syndicate, overcome the death of his parents, and survive his first encounter against the deadly Clown Prince of Crime? And can he strike terror into the hearts of the superstitious and cowardly gatekeepers of … The Comics Canon?
Things Discussed in This Episode:
What’s the appropriate gift for an 80th anniversary?
In this episode, a week ahead of the April 12 debut of the Hellboy movie, Curt and Kevin awaken ancient spirits to explore the origin of everyone’s favorite wisecracking monster-hunter in 1994’s Hellboy: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola and John Byrne, published by Dark Horse Comics!
During World War II, the Russian psychic Rasputin conjures an otherdimensional being to help the Nazi war effort, resulting in the appearance of a young demon boy among Allied forces. Nearly 50 years later, that demon, now named Hellboy, is a paranormal investigator looking into the strange death of the man who raised him, Professor Trevor Bruttenholm. The case leads Hellboy (along with colleagues Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman) to a crumbling English manor where he faces hideous frog-men and the tentacled abomination known as the Sadu-Hem!
Can our hell-spawned hero stop the mad monk from freeing the demonic Ogdru Jahad and unleashing apocalypse upon the world? And can he scale the mountains of madness to reach that graveyard smash known as … The Comics Canon?
Things Discussed in This Episode:
The Right Hand of Doom
Hellboy and Robotman: Separated at Birth?
“Sadu Hem is a big dud!”
Ron Perlman’s performance and the Guillermo del Toro Hellboy movies
Join us in two weeks as we celebrate the 1000th issue of Detective Comics with a look at two early Batman stories—his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 (1939) and the first appearance of the Joker in Batman #1 (1940)!
In this episode, Curt and Kevin wrap up their series on comics’ Captains Marvel (and prepare for the April 5 release of Shazam!) with a look at the Big Red Cheese himself, the original Captain Marvel, aka Shazam, in 1940’s Whiz Comics #2 and 2007’s Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, written and drawn by Jeff Smith and published by DC Comics!
In Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s charming origin story, homeless young orphan Billy Batson boards a crazy train to the subterranean lair of an ancient wizard who grants him magical superpowers seconds before dying a gruesome death! That fateful moment set the stage for one of the most popular comics of its day, a kid’s wish-fulfillment epic filled with talking tigers, evil worms, mad scientists, and a whole family of super-powered siblings!
Almost 70 years later, Jeff Smith, award-winning creator of Bone, tries his hand at Earth’s Mightiest Mortal, adding elements of Arabic folklore and post-9/11 sociopolitical commentary in a four-part story featuring giant robots, talking alligators, and lots and lots of roaches!
Can 1940s Billy Batson and his strapping alter ego stop the evil Dr. Sivana from ridding the world of terrestrial radio? Can their 21st-century counterparts stop him and Mr. Mind from destroying all of humanity? And can they make it into that Rock of Eternity known as … The Comics Canon?
Directing a huge franchise film like Captain Marvel poses such a challenge, it might seem like an almost superhuman task — even for two people.
The filmmaking team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, known for character-based indie films like Half-Nelson, took the helm of the 21st film of Marvel Cinematic Universe with considerable weight on their shoulders. They had to present the origin story of the female superhero with a complicated background (originally named Ms. Marvel after her 1970s debut), while balancing the lore from decades of comics and the continuity of 20 previous films. And given that Captain Marvel takes place in the mid-1990s, it has the kind of narrative ceiling that constricts many prequels.
Plus, as the first MCU movie with solo female protagonist, Captain Marvel faces high expectations. Wonder Woman, Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse arrived like landmarks of cinematic inclusion, so the bar is high, while toxic, sexist fans have been actively trying to sabotage the film.
Captain Marvel’s $150 million opening weekend satisfyingly shows up the haters, but it’s still disappointing that the film itself proves to be just okay, a second-tier Marvel film around the level of Doctor Strange or Ant-Man. Rather than put their own stamp on the series, Boden and Fleck seem swallowed by Marvel Studios’ machine. But they bring out terrific performances from their leads, particularly Best Actress Oscar winner Brie Larson in the title role.
We’re introduced to Larson as “Vers” (pronounced like “General Veers” from Star Wars), who’s part of an elite strike force of alien warriors called the Kree. From early on, Larson infuses the role with confidence and a sly sense of humor—the actor and creators resist temptation to present the kind of “strong female character” clichés of self-conscious swagger. Whether confronted by hostile alien Skrulls or nonplussed human beings, Larson usually seems bemused and “chill,” and instantly makes a great addition to the MCU.
Working with her slick commanding officer (Jude Law), Vers struggles with amnesia, being unable to remember most of her early life. In an early scene, the Skrulls capture Vers and probe her memories, which suggest that she grew up as a girl facing repeated discouragement from men on Planet C-53, which we recognize as Earth. The creatively presented montage reveals her backstory in a fresh way and has a great payoff at the film’s climax.
Vers learns that the Skrulls are seeking human Professor Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), and she resolves to find her first, hoping to thwart the hostile aliens’ plans and maybe unlock her own secrets. She arrives on Earth by literally crashing through the roof of a Blockbuster Video, one of the film’s many nods to outdated 1990s culture and, perhaps, a meta-commentary on women crashing into a male-dominated genre.
Her arrival draws the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who initially scoffs at the idea of shape-shifting alien Skrulls until he can’t deny the evidence of his own two eyes. (Yes, this is when he had two of them.) Casting the pair as mismatched buddies is a fun gimmick, allowing an established MCU character to pass the baton to a new one, while giving Jackson the chance to offer his loosest, funniest performance in the series. And the film’s de-aging effects are scarcely visible on him (perhaps they relied on practical makeup?), while Clark Gregg’s cameo gets stranded in the uncanny valley as “rookie” agent Colson.
Also terrific is Ben Mendelsohn as Talos, the characters’ Skrull adversary, who alternates between a human appearance and his green, pointy-eared form. (The Skrull makeup is a little reminiscent of the Dark Elves from Thor: The Dark World.) Mendelsohn enlivens his scenes of alien menace with comedic understatement.
But too often, Captain Marvel feels like it’s ticking boxes, delivering the MCU’s patented jokes and Easter eggs. The callbacks (call-aheads?) to future continuity start to elicit groans, while the needle-drops of ’90s pop songs seem rote and arbitrary compared to the “Awesome Mix” of Guardians of the Galaxy. Plus, it has some of the worst lighting of any Marvel movie, with big fights taking place on fog-choked planets and in dim cargo holds. Surely the action choreography took some work to stage, so could we at least see what’s happening?
In a way, Captain Marvel flips the weaknesses of Doctor Strange or Ant-Man and the Wasp, which had unforgettable visuals but iffy character arcs. Captain Marvel’s spotty storytelling doesn’t seriously hinder our investment in the heroine’s empowering journey. And ultimately, a flawed film that truly inspires some people has more significance than an expertly-crafted one that moves no one.
Captain Marvel. B-. Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Rated PG-13. 124 minutes.
In this episode, Curt and Kevin look toward the March 8 debut of Captain Marvel with a look at two key stories featuring Carol Danvers: In Pursuit of Flight (Captain Marvel Vol. 7, #1-6) and 1977’s Ms. Marvel #1, published by Marvel Comics!
The former Air Force pilot has come a long way since her first outing as a superhero, which sees her flying into action against the backdrop of the women’s liberation movement to … save bigoted magazine publisher J. Jonah Jameson??!
Thirty-five years later, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick charts a new course for Carol Danvers: Now an Avenger and one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe, she finally takes the mantel of the late Captain Marvel, just in time to embark on a high-flying adventure featuring time travel, alien technology and some of the toughest woman pilots to ever take to the skies!
Can Ms. Marvel defeat a supervillain with a very phallic appendage? Will Earth’s Mightiest Hero change the course of history … and lose her powers in the process? And has this Top Gun got The Right Stuff to join that elite squadron known as … The Comics Canon?
Join us in two weeks as our series on comics’ various Captains Marvel concludes with a look at the Fawcett/DC Comics hero also known as Shazam! — as seen in Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil and his origin in Whiz Comics #2.