My Faves: Young Justice

I know I’ve mentioned this show briefly before, but it got taken off Netflix yesterday, and I’m feeling sentimental.

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Young Justice
Creators: Mostly Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti
Starring: Danica McKellar, Jesse McCartney, Nolan North, Khary Payton and so, so many others…
Aired: 2010-2013-2018?
Rated TV-PG

As the name might imply, this is a show about a team of young superheroes–or teenage sidekicks, to be more precise–who work alongside the Justice League. It starts when fellow sidekicks Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad go on an unauthorised mission together and end up saving Superboy, a Superman clone, from the evil lab that created him. Their mentors still don’t think they’re ready for the Justice League, but after seeing what the four kids are capable of, they agree to let them form a super-team of their own. Miss Martian, Martian Manhunter’s niece, and Artemis, a Green Arrow protege, are quickly added to the group (presumably to balance out the testosterone), and eventually it expands to include more than a dozen former sidekicks. But after a few covert crime-fighting missions together, the Team (no, they never get a proper name) begin to realise most of their enemies are connected through a shadowy organisation called the Light. And they’ve barely scratched the surface of the Light’s nefarious plans.

This was one of the first DC shows I ever watched in full, and it was a great gateway into the rest of the DC universe. It has a gigantic cast, plucked from every corner of comic continuity, and almost every character is at his/her best. I went into this show knowing a little bit about Batman, Superman, and the Flash, and that was it. I came out of it as a huge fan of the rest of the Bat-family (particularly Nightwing), the rest of the Flash family, Blue Beetle, Miss Martian, and quite a few other heroes I’d never heard of before. And as I’ve become a more informed fan, I’ve just come to appreciate this show’s unique take on many of its characters even more.

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For example: Best. Lex Luthor. Ever.

But the main reason I love this show has nothing to do with my love for DC. It has to do with my love for smart stories about smart characters. The cast of Young Justice is almost entirely made up of master strategists, cunning manipulators, and double agents, all trying to outwit each other at once. This naturally leads to a convoluted plot full of unexpected twists, in which nothing is quite as it seems in the beginning. It’s great fun. And the fact that many of these smart characters are teenagers, who do occasionally act like normal teens when they’re not saving the world, does surprisingly little to hinder the fun.

In fact, the characters are a big part of what makes this show work. Like Justice League Unlimited and other great super-team shows before it, Young Justice manages to give every one of its many, many main characters a chance to shine. (At least for the first season. More on that later.) But on this show, it’s usually more than just a moment in the spotlight. Each member of the original Team has a layered personality and a complex character arc that lets them grow and change naturally over the course of the show, which is pretty impressive, considering each episode is only a half hour long and a lot of that time has to be spent advancing the plot. While some of the protagonists’ actions can seem dumb or annoying at first, there’s almost always an understandable reason behind them. The show also doesn’t shy away from showing the kind of impact a crime-fighting lifestyle could have on a teenager. Everyone on the Team struggles with issues related to their job, from Robin’s fear of becoming as ruthless as Batman to Miss Martian’s insecurity and anti-heroic tendencies. Not to mention the drama that naturally results from a bunch of hormonal teens working together. But they all manage to rise above those issues whenever the day needs saving, which is fun to see.

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They’ve even got a sweet day-saving ship!

Unlike some of my other “faves,” however, I will admit this show has flaws. Its soundtrack and voice acting aren’t nearly as good as anything in the DCAU, for example, and it tends to rely a little too heavily on exposition. Also (and this is a minor spoiler, so…sorry) Season 2, dubbed “Young Justice: Invasion,” starts five years after the first season’s cliffhanger ending. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it means a lot of important character development happens offscreen, which is usually a bad thing for any story. It also introduces a ton of new characters, some of whom never get enough development for us to really care about them, and it stretches the suspension of disbelief a bit, since some of the major plot points from Season 1 really shouldn’t have taken five years to resolve. On the other hand, some of the new characters do get plenty of development, and they’re fantastic. Blue Beetle and Impulse are the stand-out examples, but there are others. Also, skipping ahead five years means Robin ages into Nightwing, which is always a good thing.

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For…multiple reasons.

Story-wise, the second season is as good or better than the first, and after the first few episodes, the time skip problems get much less irritating. So overall, I’d say the good outweighs the bad. Which is also true for Young Justice as a whole. It has some of the best animation I’ve ever seen in a TV show, tons of cool action, and unforgettable characters. It’s also incredibly tightly plotted. Not a single episode could be considered “filler.” Not a single character is expendable (except maybe Lagoon Boy from Season 2, because he sucks). Not a line of dialogue is ever wasted.

And yet, this show only has two seasons at the moment. It seems to have endured Firefly levels of sabotage from Cartoon Network, where it first aired, with long hiatuses being imposed with no warning, episodes airing at the wrong times, etc. It was cancelled after the second season, and the reason I’ve heard cited most often is that it wasn’t selling enough toys. But thanks to ongoing fan support and tons of views on Netflix, it’s been renewed for a third season, to be called “Young Justice: Outsiders”! I’m pretty excited. Even though it won’t be on Netflix, apparently. And I have to wait until 2018, apparently.

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I need a time machine.

In the meantime, there are always DVDs…and if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this show, I highly recommend  you make every effort to do so.

Grade: A for Aster

Spider-Man: Homecoming

There comes a time when every spider-boy must become a Spider-Man.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming
Director: Jon Watts
Writers: Jon Watts, Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers 
Soundtrack composer: Michael Giacchino
Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, etc.
Released: July 7
Rated PG-13

The movie starts immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Peter Parker is extremely excited about meeting the Avengers and fighting alongside some of them, and considering Tony Stark specifically sought him out for the job, he assumes this is going to become a regular thing. But after two months, nobody has called him back for another mission, or even an Avengers costume party. So he goes on with his life: going to school, hanging out with his best friend Ned Leeds, and swinging around New York City in his new high-tech suit, attempting to stop crime as the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” When he runs into a gang of thieves who have gotten their hands on alien tech, Stark tells him to let the experts handle it. But Peter has a little bit of teenage rebellion going on, and staying away from dangerous criminals isn’t really his style.

Like I said in my Civil War review, I thought Spider-Man was one of the most enjoyable things about that movie. But I was still a little wary about his solo outing, and not just because I spent a good nine months being bombarded with over-long trailers for it. (I don’t need to see half the movie beforehand in order to get excited for it, thank you very much!)

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I think I watched this scene a dozen times before the movie came out.

I’m a huge fan of the original Sam Raimi movies. Yes, all three of them. They were my first introduction, not just to Spider-Man as a character, but to superhero movies in general. So they have a huge nostalgia value to me, but they’re also just incredibly fun movies. To this day, I still haven’t seen many action scenes that can top the train fight in Spider-Man 2, and supervillains don’t get much better than Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin and Alfred Molina as Doc Ock. Also, J.K. Simmons is the only person who should ever be allowed to play J. Jonah Jameson. Even though Andrew Garfield arguably gave a better performance as the title character than his predecessor, I couldn’t stand the Amazing Spider-Man movies because they felt like unnecessary and inferior re-tellings of a story I already liked. So as we approached yet another re-boot, I tried not to get my hopes up too much, despite my usual love for the MCU.

My fears were (mostly) unfounded. This movie brings as much fun, humour, and excitement to its storytelling as I’ve come to expect from Marvel. And at no point does it feel like yet another re-telling of the story Raimi told so well 15 years ago. This movie wisely continues to assume that audiences already know all about Spider-Man’s origin story, so apart from a brief reference to the spider bite and some subtle hints that Aunt May is still mourning Uncle Ben, it doesn’t come up. Instead, we get to know this version of Peter Parker after he’s already decided to be a hero, and the story focuses on his journey to becoming a good one.

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First lesson: Make sure you’re alone BEFORE you take your mask off.

Because at first, he is reeaaallly bad at being Spider-Man. Turns out it takes more than superpowers and a high-tech suit to effectively defend New York City. It also helps to be able to tell when someone is stealing a car (as opposed to just getting into their own) and to know how to avoid unnecessary property damage. Spider-Man sure causes a lot of destruction for someone whose hero and mentor signed the Sokovia Accords to prevent that sort of thing. In fact, most of the big problems that arise throughout the movie are, directly or indirectly, his fault. Then again, he is only 15, and despite his inexperience, his heart is definitely in the right place. Over the course of the movie, he learns how to be a better fighter, even without the Stark gadgets, and finds a purpose for his powers beyond trying to prove he’s a grown-up Avenger.

Basically, this is your typical high school coming-of-age story…except it’s about Spider-Man. While there are plenty of action scenes, a good chunk of the movie is about Peter dealing with normal high school problems, like trying to win a big trivia competition or asking his crush out to the homecoming dance. Although high school movies aren’t normally my cup of tea, that aspect of the movie was actually my favourite. It allows us to see more of what life is like for normal people in the insane Marvel universe, and provides some great laughs along the way. For example, Peter’s school shows educational videos narrated by Captain America (apparently Cap even filmed a PSA about puberty, which is AMAZING). Peter’s friend Ned is also an excellent source of comic relief.

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“Can you summon an army of spiders?…Do you lay eggs?”

Before I get into my problems with the movie, I have to talk about the villain, Adrian Toomes, or Vulture. He’s the best MCU movie villain yet. That’s partly thanks to Michael Keaton’s excellent performance, and partly thanks to a very effective surprise twist concerning his character late in the movie, but it’s mostly because, out of all the villains in the franchise so far, Vulture is the most…human. He’s just a regular blue-collar worker who turned to dealing in illegal high-tech weaponry to provide a better life for his family, and he only goes after Spidey when he gets in the way. It’s such a refreshing change of pace from the usual “Let’s destroy the world because muahaha!” motivation of Marvel villains. This is the second decent villain they’ve had in a row, though, so maybe it’s a sign of permanent change.

Looking at this movie strictly on its own merits and in terms of its place in the MCU, there’s not a lot wrong with it. I could complain about the blatant product placement, or about how weird it is to see Spidey using high-tech gadgets and an AI, but those were minor issues that didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the film. It’s a fun, breezy adventure with good actors, decent action, and a clever, funny script.

But that’s all it is.

This movie is so much better than the Amazing Spider-Man movies that I’m hopeful it may cause them to fade out of public memory entirely. It has fewer problems than Spider-Man 3 had, by a long way. But in my opinion, it still falls short of the standards set by the Raimi trilogy as a whole. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 may have had flaws, but they also had high moral stakes and a compelling arc for the hero. That version of Peter Parker had a motto–“With great power comes great responsibility”–and the whole trilogy, even the much-maligned third movie, was about his struggle to live up to that motto, despite various temptations to abuse his power or ignore his responsibility. Like all post-Raimi Spider-Man movies, Homecoming studiously avoids the “great responsibility” line for reasons that are unclear to me. And I miss it. This version of Peter Parker never wavers from his heroic intentions, which is great, but it also means his internal conflict is limited to trying to prove he’s a “grown-up” hero to Tony Stark, which is a comparatively weaker arc. The movie also misses an opportunity to show real consequences resulting from his inexperience (conveniently, no one we care about is ever hurt because of his mistakes) and have him learn a lesson about, well, responsibility. I was left wishing for more.

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But hey, at least he managed to get his mask off in the final fight.

Not every Spider-Man movie has to be an iconic superhero classic, though, and this movie isn’t trying to be one. It’s simply a light-hearted high school story with superheroes, and if that’s all you’re expecting when you walk into the theatre, you’ll probably be satisfied. Despite my nit-picking, I laughed my head off at all the jokes (especially the Captain America PSAs), and I still think Tom Holland makes a fantastic Spider-Man.

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Best. Cameo. Ever.

Oh, and the final stinger is totally worth waiting through the end credits. Your patience will be rewarded.

Grade: A-

The Flash

It’s high time for me to talk about my other favourite DC superhero.

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The Flash
Creators: Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns, Andrew Kreisberg
Starring: Grant Gustin, Candice Patton, Danielle Panabaker, Carlos Valdes, Tom Cavanagh, etc.
Aired: 2014-Present
Rated TV-PG

The Flash is the second of (currently) four shows that make up the CW’s DC universe, usually dubbed the “Arrowverse.” And it is by far the best. The third season just hit Netflix, but things got started back in Season 1 with 11-year-old Barry Allen witnessing his mother’s death at the hands of a mysterious figure who appears in a bolt of lightning. No one believes his version of the story, so his father is blamed for the murder. Fast forward a decade or so, and Barry’s working as a (ridiculously young) CSI tech in his hometown of Central City. Ever since the incident with his mother, he’s been obsessed with finding proof of the “impossible,” and he gets his wish one night when a particle accelerator at nearby S.T.A.R. Labs explodes, causing him to get struck by SCIENCE!-infused lightning. When he finally wakes up after a nine-month coma, Barry discovers he has super speed. With the help of the team of scientists who were working on the particle accelerator (Harrison Wells, Cisco Ramon, and Caitlin Snow), he learns how to use his powers to become a superhero. Good thing, too, since he’s not the only person who got superpowers in the explosion, and most of the other new “metahumans” in Central City put them to less than altruistic purposes. When he’s not chasing them down, The Flash works to find out what happened to his mother, woo his longtime crush Iris West, and, of course, fight the Big Bad of the season, who usually has similar powers to his own.

So why is this the best of the Arrowverse–and, in my opinion, the best CW show ever? Well, for one thing, out of all the live-action superhero stories I’ve seen, this is the one that best captures the comic book spirit. It makes absolutely no attempt to make its stories more “grounded” or “mature” than their source material, but instead does its best to embrace the wackiness at every opportunity. It’s got colourful costumes, goofy dialogue, giant psychic gorillas, convoluted time travel, parallel universes, and enough technobabble to make Spock’s head spin. There are big crossover events with the other shows in the Arrowverse (which tend to be hit or miss, thanks to those shows’ inferior nature). Every season ends with an epic finale, but along the way there are plenty of light-hearted episodes dealing with the metahuman of the week. There’s even a freaking musical episode!

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And it’s amazing.

That’s the first reason I got hooked on this show: it’s just so darn fun. The action is cool, there’s a good amount of humour sprinkled throughout, and most of the stories are campy and cheesy in the best possible way. What has kept me watching, though, even through some of the show’s less fun episodes, are the characters. Every member of the main cast is extremely likable in their own way. Barry himself is the kind of hero who will stop a bank robbery, give the would-be robber a heartfelt talk about how to change his life, and then re-paint someone’s garage on the way home. All while making awful speed puns. He’s a caring, optimistic hero who tends to inspire people both in- and out-of-universe. Of course, he struggles with his own set of flaws, mainly not thinking things through before doing them (a logical flaw for a speedster), but he usually manages to work through those things and emerge as a better person.

Then there’s the supporting cast: Detective Joe West, Barry’s loving, supportive father figure/Commissioner Gordon figure; Caitlin, the frosty-tempered but warm-hearted S.T.A.R. Labs team medic; Iris, who starts out pretty one-dimensional but eventually grows into a strong woman worthy of the Flash’s affection; and Harrison Wells, who is technically a different character every season because he keeps getting replaced by alternate-universe versions of himself. But whether he’s a wise mentor, a grumpy anti-hero, or the designated comic relief, he’s always entertaining thanks to Tom Cavanagh’s flexible acting skills. My personal favourite character, though, is Cisco. Not just because he’s the biggest nerd in an already nerdy cast (always an endearing trait), but because he is, if possible, even more principled and pure-hearted than Barry. He’s always quick with the jokes and one-liners, but he’s also perfectly capable of saving the day when he needs to. All these characters share a very heartwarming bond of friendship, proving over and over again that they’d do anything to help each other.

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And no wonder. How could you look at Cisco’s adorable face and NOT love him?

With occasional exceptions, the show also tends to have excellent villains. The Big Bads have, so far, always been evil speedsters with personal grudges against Barry, which did feel a tad repetitive by the third season, but each one still manages to be menacing in his own unique way. My least favourite is Season 2’s Zoom, because he got the least amount of characterisation, but even he wasn’t bad. The other two evil speedsters, the Reverse-Flash and Savitar, are equally great in my book. But there are plenty of memorable meta-of-the-week villains, too. The Trickster is the closest thing we’ll ever get to a live-action Mark Hamill Joker, and he even manages to make an epic Star Wars reference. Grodd is the aforementioned psychic gorilla, and while his CGI appearance sometimes leaves a bit to be desired, he’s still plenty intimidating. Then there’s the cool, sarcastic, morally conflicted Captain Cold, whom I love with all my heart, whether he’s fighting for or against Team Flash.

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He’s just a really chill guy.

Of course, while it is a glorious DC comics show, The Flash is also a CW show, and it comes with many of the problems that that implies. There are far too many romantic subplots, and they take up far too much screen time. Lots of conflicts arise because the characters don’t communicate well enough, or make stupid decisions, or just happened to be written by someone who decided they should be arguing that day. The special effects are not exactly cinematic in quality, and neither are all of the supporting actors. But as someone who has watched more CW junk than she’d like to admit, I have to say that those flaws are much less noticeable in this show than in most of its fellows. The romance is annoying, but it never overtakes the main plot. The special effects aren’t perfect, but they’re far from terrible for TV. And some of the conflicts may be unnecessary, but at least they’re usually resolved within an episode or two rather than being dragged out through a whole season, as I’ve seen happen elsewhere.

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I guess you get over your problems quicker when you can run faster than the speed of light.

I’ve heard some people say The Flash has gone downhill with each season. While I can understand why some might think that way–the repetitive story arcs, the more serious tone of Season 2, etc.–I’m not sure I agree. Yes, the first season is probably still my favourite, but that’s mostly because it was my first introduction to The Flash and his universe. Later seasons may have had similar Big Bads, but they also brought in more great characters, more development for existing characters, and, of course, more comic book wackiness. Season 3 also brought a significant change to the show, one that seems like an exceptionally bold move for the CW (though it has plenty of precedent in the comics). Of course, it could all be undone within the first few episodes of Season 4. For now, though, I maintain that The Flash, with all its flaws, is a thoroughly enjoyable show that brings several wonderful superheroes (and supervillains) to life.

If it keeps up this way, I’ll be running back to this show for years to come.

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“Run, Barry, run!”

Grade: A-

P.S. In case anyone was wondering about my opinions on the other shows in the Arrowverse, the short version is: Arrow’s pretty good for the first two seasons, then gradually becomes unwatchable by Season 4; I couldn’t finish the first season of Supergirl because it was preachy, overly political trash; Legends of Tomorrow is good whenever it focuses on characters who were introduced on The Flash.  Also it has Rory Williams playing the Doctor, so there’s that.

Wonder Woman

Today is a happy day, my friends. It is a day that shall live on in history.

We finally have a good female superhero movie.

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Wonder Woman
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writer: Allan Heinberg
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine
Rated PG-13

Diana is a princess of the Amazons, a race of warrior women created by the Greek gods to protect the world from evil. She’s grown up on the island of Themyscira, which is magically hidden from the rest of the world, and has trained since she was a little girl to be the greatest warrior her civilisation has ever known. She gets her first chance to really use those skills when a man comes to Themyscira: Steve Trevor, a World War I pilot who crash-lands near the island and accidentally brings a bunch of angry Germans after him. When Diana finds out that the entire “world of men” is at war, she believes only one person could be responsible: Ares, the god of war, sworn enemy of the Amazons. But the rest of her people refuse to help, leading our hero to steal some special weapons (including a sword aptly called the Godkiller) and run away with Steve to try and save the world. Tank-flipping and lasso-throwing ensue.

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I am Diana, princess of Themyscira, and I am here to save the DC universe!

Wonder Woman is not the best superhero movie ever made. In fact, this has been such a great year for movies that it’s not even the best superhero movie of 2017 (that would be Logan). But it’s special. I drove for an hour to get to the earliest possible showing, just because I wanted to be there when the most famous superheroine of all time finally got the movie she deserved. I’m a woman, and I love superheroes. I can relate to male heroes when they’re written and acted well, but when all the cool ones are male, it starts to feel like Hollywood writers think fans like me don’t exist. Either that or they think it would be totally implausible for a woman to be a cool hero capable of carrying her own story, and that’s even worse.

And even with all the good early reviews, I was still a little bit nervous about this movie. There are so many ways Wonder Woman could go wrong on the big screen, and with the DCEU’s track record so far, I didn’t have a whole lot of faith they could do her justice. But they did! This movie is everything I could possibly have hoped for, in a female superhero movie, in a Wonder Woman movie specifically, and in a DC movie. I loved it!

But before I gush any further, I will admit that Wonder Woman has some flaws. The biggest one, for me, was the overuse of slow motion. It’s not as bad as it was in the Snyder-directed movies, but it does get to be a bit much during most of the battle scenes. Slow motion is kind of a pet peeve of mine, because unless it’s done exceptionally well, it usually just makes a scene cheesier than it needs to be. Also, as is so often the case with superhero movies these days, the villain in this one is a bit weak. His motivations are vague, and he doesn’t really get much of a personality. He’s played by a good actor who does his best to sell the part, but it’s still pretty forgettable.

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This chick, on the other hand, was successfully creepy.

Also, the movie does take some liberties with Wonder Woman’s origin story, the biggest of which is that she enters “man’s world” during the first world war instead of the second. I kind of wish the writers had kept to the original time period, if only because punching Nazis is the greatest and most time-honoured of superhero traditions. But since the villain is the god of war, I guess it does make sense that he would be around for the War to End All Wars, which ended up sparking most of the major conflicts of the 20th century. And finally, I don’t think the “bookend” scenes at the beginning and end of the film, showing Diana in modern-day Paris, were strictly necessary. But maybe that’s just because I don’t appreciate being reminded that this movie takes place in the same universe as Broodingface vs. Sulkypants.

Now, on to the good stuff! Without a doubt, this movie’s greatest strength is Wonder Woman herself. Gal Gadot absolutely nails the role, bringing an infectious joy to the character alongside tons of physical confidence. There is no moral ambiguity about Diana. She’s a kind, compassionate, brave hero who wants to make the world a better place. Her weakness is that she’s a little too optimistic, wanting to believe that all people are good and would never harm each other unless they were under the influence of an evil god. Naturally, the horrors of World War I prove to be more than a little disillusioning for her, and she ultimately has to decide whether she still wants to fight for humanity, despite all our faults, or just give up on the species altogether. But along the way, we get a bunch of endearing scenes that just show her falling in love with the world: seeing a baby for the first time, or getting introduced to things like snow and ice cream. Her unfamiliarity with the social norms of the 1910s also lead to a lot of comical moments, and, shock of all shocks for a live-action DC character, she actually has a sense of humour herself! She’s a three-dimensional character with a compelling arc, and my word, is she incredible in a fight. I could spend hours just watching the scene where she walks across No Man’s Land in full Wonder Woman attire, deflecting machine gun fire off her bracelets. I think I actually let out an audible squee during that scene.

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“I am no man!”

But Diana isn’t the only great character on display. Steve Trevor is also a lot of fun to watch, as per usual for a Chris Pine character. He, of course, falls love with Wonder Woman over the course of the movie, and their relationship develops in a very natural, believable way, as each of them is shown learning from and inspiring the other. You know, like how a relationship should be. And Steve is every inch the hero his girlfriend is, just without the tank-flipping ability. It would have been easy to make Wonder Woman look good by making Steve weak or “un-masculine” in some way, as has been done so many times in movies about tough action girls. But this movie doesn’t go that route, instead portraying both of them as brave, capable heroes with different strengths and weaknesses. Which, again, is the way it should be! 

They’re joined by lots of colourful side characters, from Steve’s British secretary, Etta Candy, to the ragtag bunch of multicultural soldiers and ex-soldiers he’s friends with. They’re all mostly there for comic relief, but most of them get some good character moments as well. Also…a heroic soldier named Steve, played by a guy named Chris, who leads a band of misfit soldiers during a world war, dates a tough brunette, and crashes a plane into the ocean? This movie is like the alternate universe version of Captain America: First Avenger!

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Like that other Steve, he also looks good in a uniform.

Anyway, leaving aside the fact that it’s about a woman for once, this is simply a great superhero movie. It has awesome fight scenes (apart from the slo-mo), plenty of humour, a dash of ridiculousness, and, most importantly, a hero who is unafraid and unashamed to fight for truth, justice, and human decency. It respects the hero’s roots (even throwing in some nods to specific comic book storylines), but takes her in slightly different directions when it suits the story. It doesn’t try too hard to be “gritty” or “realistic,” but instead just gives us good characters so that we become emotionally invested in their journey. Oh, and Wonder Woman’s theme music remains among the coolest I’ve ever heard in a superhero movie.

Wonder Woman also leaves us with an important message: No one person can solve all the world’s problems, even if that person has superpowers. But everyone, superpowers or not, can choose to do good. And that choice is always worthwhile.

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“I will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”

All that to say, superhero movies are no longer a “man’s world,” and I could not be happier, either as a woman or a superhero fan. And as a DC fan, well…this movie actually gives me some hope for the rest of the Justice League movies. All may not be lost for my favourite super-team.

May Wonder Woman be a sign of things to come.

Grade: A for Amazon

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Time for some thrilling heroics–and great ’80s music!

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Writer and Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Pom Klementieff, etc., etc…
Released: May 5, 2017
Rated PG-13

Fair warning: The following review assumes that you have seen the first Guardians movie. If you haven’t, go and do so immediately.

After a brief flashback to show Peter Quill’s parents together back on Earth, this sequel begins a few months after the first movie left off. Our heroes are now famous for saving the galaxy, so of course they’re using their reputation to make money. They succeed in their latest mission–killing a tentacled space monster that was eating a precious resource on a planet called The Sovereign–but thanks to Rocket’s kleptomaniac tendencies, they still find themselves being pursued by a horde of angry starships. They’re saved in the nick of time by a mysterious figure…who turns out to be Peter’s long-lost father. Space dad says he’s been searching the galaxy for his son, but he’s not the only one on the group’s tail. Nebula’s still out for revenge on Gamora after the events of the last movie. The Sovereign, good at holding grudges, hire Star-Lord’s old band of Ravagers to hunt down the Guardians. Yondu, captain of said Ravagers, has his hands full with mutinous crew members and his own mixed feelings about the Terran kid he raised. And in the midst of the ensuing hijinks, it becomes clear that the galaxy needs saving again.

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Who you gonna call?

 

Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favourite parts of the MCU, which is saying something. The first movie took an obscure comic that featured a talking tree, and turned it into the rebellious love child of Star Wars and Firefly, with a soundtrack truly deserving of the name “Awesome Mix Vol. 1.” It made me smile a lot. And most of the other Marvel movies that have been released between 2014 and now haven’t been half bad, either. So this sequel had a lot to live up to.

It did not disappoint.

This movie has everything that made me love the original: humour, memorable characters, crazy action, and dancing. But it also ups the ante in a lot of ways, raising the emotional stakes for all the heroes and giving many of them some much-appreciated character development. Baby Groot is adorable, which is no surprise to anyone who saw the trailers. There are lots of laughs, some truly epic action scenes, and a surprisingly emotional climax. Everything feels bigger and brighter than the last time around.

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Except for Groot. He’s smaller.

But before I get into what I really loved about the movie, let me get my few complaints out of the way. As is the nature of sequels, this one doesn’t feel quite as fresh and original as, well, the original. Yes, we have reached a point in pop culture where the sheer novelty of seeing a raccoon and a talking tree save the galaxy in a big summer blockbuster has worn off a bit. What a time to be alive. I also didn’t find this movie quite as funny as the first one–not because there were fewer jokes, but because more of the jokes were a little on the raunchy side, and to me, raunch is not especially funny. Drax would probably say I have “hang-ups,” but whatever. Even if you like that sort of thing, a few of the earlier jokes seem to be reaching a bit. Finally, this movie has FIVE stingers in the end credits, which seems excessive, even by Marvel standards. And some of them didn’t make a lot of sense to me because I know nothing about the original Guardians of the Galaxy comics.

But Vol. 2 has one very important thing that its predecessor, and most of the other Marvel movies so far, lacked: a good villain. Marvel finally did it! They created a villain whose motive makes sense, who poses a genuine threat to our heroes and their universe, who the audience comes to hate for very good reasons, but who is also kind of fun to watch. And I think it’s largely because of the villain that I found this movie even more emotionally satisfying than its predecessor. It felt like something was really at stake when the Guardians teamed up to fight this new threat, and it brought out their heroic sides beautifully.

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“And if you don’t love me now/You will never love me again…”

But I can’t give all the credit to the villain. Like I said, everyone goes through a lot of character development in this story, even some semi-villainous people from the first movie, like Yondu and Nebula. We get to see more of the screwed-up sisterly relationship between Gamora and Nebula, which is something I really wanted in this movie. We get to see Rocket, and the rest of the team to some extent, trying to figure out how to parent Groot, who does indeed act like a particularly troublesome baby for most of the movie. And we get a lot more of Star-Lord’s backstory, including more glimpses of what it was like to be raised by space pirates, and several big revelations about his extra-terrestrial heritage. Family is a major theme throughout the movie. Everyone’s problems seem to be caused by their families in some way, but familial love is also what gets them through most of those problems. And of course, the Guardians themselves are basically a big dysfunctional family, as they openly acknowledge in this movie. They may argue a lot, but when push comes to shove, they’ll do anything for each other. Which leads to some heartwarming moments and some misting of the ol’ eyeballs.

All this does give Vol. 2 a more serious tone than its predecessor, but it doesn’t get rid of the fun. Even in the most emotional, epic moments, we’ve still got Rocket and Star-Lord arguing about tape, Baby Groot being a troll, a big monologue about David Hasselhoff, and a Pac-Man reference. These are still the funny, oddball characters we know and love from the first movie, but now they have just a little more depth to them than before. And personally, I think that’s a good thing.

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“I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!”

We also get a few new characters this time around. Peter’s alien father, Ego, has a layered personality and a complicated relationship with his offspring that adds a lot to the story. But my favourite addition to the cast is Mantis, an empathic alien who can feel what another person is feeling as soon as she touches them, but still manages to be socially awkward. She’s cute and funny, and she strikes up an amazing friendship with Drax that leads to some of the movie’s funniest scenes.

Of course, the movie does indulge in a few of Marvel’s staple cliches, but even they come across as less annoying than usual. Sure, there’s some gratuitous Dairy Queen product placement, but how can I get mad at a movie for promoting the Zune, of all things? Our heroes do face an army of faceless goons a couple times, but at least this time they’re starship drones instead of living things, and the people controlling them are played for laughs. Even the Stan Lee cameo didn’t annoy me this time around–maybe just because he seems to fit in better in the Guardians’ crazy galaxy.

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‘Nuff said.

I might have to watch the movies again once or twice to decide which Guardians movie is my favourite, but I know it’s a close call. They’re both a ton of fun, and this one has a more uplifting message: Appreciate your family, even if they’re not perfect. And listen to more Fleetwood Mac.

Seriously, I forgot how awesome “The Chain” is.

Grade: A

Batman Beyond

I am on a mission to experience every amazing TV show and movie that the DC Animated Universe has to offer. And the next stop on that journey is Batman Beyond.

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Batman Beyond
Writers and Directors: Loads, but mainly Butch Lukic, Dan Riba, Alan Burnett and Paul Dini
Starring: Will Friedle and Kevin Conroy
Aired: 1999-2001

Batman Beyond is the sequel series to Batman: The Animated Series, taking place in the same continuity. It starts off many years after Batman’s last chronological appearance in Justice League Unlimited, with a prologue that shows his decision to hang up the cowl after his failing health forces him to pick up a gun to defend himself. Twenty years later, Gotham is as crime-ridden as ever, and Bruce Wayne is a recluse with only his guard dog for company–until he runs into a teenager named Terry McGinnis, who stumbles upon the Batcave. At first Terry agrees to keep the secret to himself. But when his father is murdered for knowing too much about the dealings of a corrupt CEO, he decides to steal the Bat-suit (which has received a few upgrades over the years) and bring the killers to justice. Bruce isn’t happy about this at first, but once he sees Terry in action and understands his intentions, he agrees to teach him the ways of crimefighting. The rest of the show follows Terry’s adventures as the new Batman, battling foes that range from a gang of teenage Joker wannabes to the radioactive supervillain Blight, all while trying to keep his grades up. He occasionally clashes with Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon, picks up a part-time sidekick named Max, and is constantly guided by Bruce’s expert, if grumpy, advice.

This is actually the last major show in the DCAU that I watched, and not just because it’s a little harder to find than any of the others. I was honestly pretty reluctant to try out a show about a Batman who wasn’t Bruce Wayne or even any other member of the established Bat-family. How could some random kid from the future ever hope to be worthy of the name?

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And one with an emo haircut at that!

Well, as it turns out…he kind of is. Terry’s a compelling character in his own right, with a sarcastic sense of humour, a bit of a rebellious streak, and the same upright morals and compassion that helped make the original Batman great. And since the we never really got an origin story for the Dark Knight in this universe (except for the flashbacks in Mask of the Phantasm), it’s nice to be able to watch someone becoming Batman. Terry starts out as a hotheaded kid with a super suit and some natural athletic ability, but over the course of the show, he gradually becomes a better detective and fighter until he’s almost at the level of his mentor. Note that I said almost. Thankfully, said mentor is still a major character who appears in almost every episode. Even though he’s no longer the protagonist, Bruce has lost none of his awesomeness with age, and he delivers some of the show’s best lines and coolest scenes.

One of my favourite things about B:TAS was its dark, noir-style atmosphere. Atmosphere is also one of Beyond‘s biggest strengths, but this show ditches the noir in favour of cyberpunk. We’ve got flying cars (including the Batmobile!), super-advanced robots, futuristic slang, gene splicing as a fashion trend, and a city-scape that could have been ripped straight from Blade Runner. I love it. Not only does it provide a cool backdrop for the action, this setting also allows the writers to explore neat sci-fi concepts like artificial intelligence, instant gratification technology, the morals of messing with DNA, and dangers like nuclear waste and pollution.

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Gotham’s a lot…shinier, these days.

The funny thing about this show is that, from what I can find on the Internet, it seems to have been conceived as a way to get younger kids into Batman–thus the idea of making him a high school kid. But in addition to having just as much nuanced, mature writing as its predecessor, it’s actually far less child-friendly. It features lots of gruesome deaths that occur just off-screen, more brutal violence in general, and lots and lots of drug metaphors. Unlike in B:TAS, drugs are never mentioned by name (isn’t it weird how censorship changes over time?) but several episodes show the consequences of addiction in rather graphic detail by inventing sci-fi substitutes for real illicit substances. Many of the villains are still tragic, but this show really drives home the fact that “tragic” isn’t always the same thing as “sympathetic.” Beyond villains have a tendency to act like they could be redeemed, up until the last second when you realise that they were either faking those good impulses or they’re just much too far gone.

When you come down to it, this show is good for the same reason that B:TAS and every other show in the DCAU is good. It’s smartly written, constantly going beyond (heh) the basic superhero premise of “good guy fights bad guys” to explore deeper questions about what makes a hero and a villain. The voice acting is top-notch as always, as is the animation. And the theme song…well, like the one for B:TAS, it does a great job of establishing the story and the universe where it takes place in just a few seconds. And in the words of Terry, it’s “unbearably cool.” Take a look-see:

My problems with this series can basically be boiled down to three. 1) It establishes that Bruce and Barbara Gordon were in a relationship at one point. If I were to list all the reasons I think that pairing is sick and wrong, it would take up the rest of this review. I will never understand why cartoon writers are so obsessed with making it a thing. So in my mind, it never happened, and Barbara is just losing her memory in her old age. 2) Speaking of relationships, this show focuses on Terry’s just a wee bit more than I would like. One of the many things I love about the original Batman is that he never had a steady girlfriend who knew him as Bruce Wayne, so he never had to do what I call the “secret identity dance,” where the hero constantly has to make excuses to a love interest about why they’re sneaking out every night. Terry does a lot of that, and it’s rather dull as conflicts go. His girlfriend, Dana, is also rather dull. 3) I wish the show could have done more with Blight. He’s something of an archnemesis to Terry in the first season, and an effective one, but he just kind of disappears after that. Seems like a bit of a waste to me.

But those are minor issues, in the grand scheme of things. For the most part, this is an excellent show that lives up to its predecessor in almost every way.

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“Very good then, Mr. McGinnis. Welcome to my world.”

A note on formatting: In the version of the show that I watched (which I streamed from Amazon), several of the episodes are listed out of order. They’re self-contained enough that it’s not usually a big deal, but once in a while a character will mention something from a previous episode that you won’t get if you’re watching in the Amazon order. Also, like B:TAS, this show never got a proper finale during its own run, but it does have a movie (Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker) and its storyline gets wrapped up for good in an episode of Justice League Unlimited called “Epilogue.”

Whatever order you watch it in, I highly recommend this show, especially for fans of the original Batman series.

Grade: A

Iron Fist

Everyone’s favourite superhero team-up is back. That’s right: Marvel and Netflix made another show!

Iron Fist begins with Danny Rand returning to New York City after being presumed dead, along with his billionaire parents, in a plane crash that happened 15 years ago. But he’s really spent the last 15 years learning kung fu in the mystical land of K’un-Lun, which exists in another dimension, and now that he’s skilled enough to channel the Iron Fist, a magical punching power, he’s come back to try and make his home city a better place. So he’s basically Bruce Wayne if he were a hippie. Or Oliver Queen if he sucked less, or Stephen Strange if he were more into punching…you get the idea. This isn’t the most original show ever.

But the Meacham family, who have taken over Danny’s company, have other plans for the Iron Fist, as does the Hand, that ninja army that invaded New York in Daredevil season 2. With the help of a few fellow martial arts practitioners, Danny spends his first season trying to take down the Hand, avoid the Meachams’ schemes, and figure out what he’s meant to do with his powers.

You know, besides punch drug dealers. That’s a given.

This is the first Marvel/Netflix show to get panned by critics, and it’s not too hard to see why. First of all, a lot of people were biased against it before it even came out because, as mentioned above, it’s yet another story about a rich white guy who goes to a vaguely Asian place, learns kung fu, and ends up being better at it than any of the Asian people who taught him. It’s an old, old story with a ton of racial baggage, and it’s taken directly from the comics. So I’m not sure there was a way to avoid it in an Iron Fist adaptation. But it certainly won’t make anyone happy who was hoping for a more socially progressive Netflix show.

Even if you can overlook the problematic premise, this show has some pretty glaring flaws. For the most part, they’re flaws that the other Defenders shows have also struggled with. For example, just like Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones to some extent, this series is very badly paced. Hardly anything happens for the first three or four episodes, although things do pick up quite a bit once Claire Temple (my queen!) shows up and the Hand formally challenges Danny.

Colleen Wing’s awesomeness doesn’t hurt, either.

In my review of Luke Cage, I said I would have liked the show better if it were  a few episodes shorter, but I think Iron Fist has a different problem. I don’t wish it were shorter. I just wish the first few episodes had taken place, not in the white-collar offices of New York City, but in K’un-Lun, to show Danny training, develop his worldview and relationships with his fellow warriors, and, I dunno, maybe show the part where he got his powers from punching a freaking dragon! How do you give your character a backstory like that and not show it onscreen?  I can guarantee you, my opinion of this show would have gone way up if it had opened with our hero fighting a dragon.

What is the point of wearing your dragon-punching clothes if you’re not going to punch a dragon? Answer me that!

Speaking of our hero, I’m not a huge fan of Danny as a character. Finn Jones does a decent job playing him, and he comes across as a likeable guy with an appealing sort of innocence to him, but I just don’t buy him as a legendary kung fu warrior. Maybe it’s because he looks so much like a 20-something guy you’d see hanging around a pot shop in a Rocky Mountain tourist town, or the straight-faced bits of fortune cookie wisdom he’s always spewing, but I just have a hard time believing that anyone would be intimidated by this guy. It doesn’t help that most of his fight scenes leave a lot to be desired, especially compared to the ones in Daredevil. Overall, I found the Iron Fist to be the least interesting character in his own show. The side characters are a different story, which I’ll get to in a minute.

But all that being said, I think some people are being a little too hard on this show. It has its weaknesses, for sure, but it also has some notable strengths. Besides the pacing, one thing that disappointed me about Luke Cage was its lack of good villains. Iron Fist, thankfully, does not have that problem. The Big Bad of the season is Madame Gao, who has always been the most intimidating Defenders villain, and she hasn’t lost any of her old menace. The delightfully dysfunctional Meacham family brings a stronger inter-villain dynamic than I’ve seen since the first season of Daredevil, and the father, Harold Meacham, is a special kind of creepy. (Although that might just be because it’s so surreal to watch Faramir being a horrible father.) Even the minor Hand members Danny fights tend to be pretty memorable, especially the guy who nearly beats him while drunk and uses his liquor bottles as weapons. I kind of want a show about that guy now.

Apparently this delightful actor auditioned to play Iron Fist, before Finn Jones was cast. Hmm. Awkward.

The other “good” characters are just as interesting. Of course we have Claire Temple in all of her usual awesomeness, and she even gets to do a little fighting this time around, which is great. But I was also surprised by how much I liked Danny’s love interest, Colleen Wing. She’s a kind-hearted lady with a passion for teaching, who lives by a code of honour but still has some dark secrets up her sleeve. Plus she fights with a katana, and I have a major soft spot for katanas. Jessica Henwick does a great job playing her, and honestly I felt a lot more invested in her story arc than Danny’s.

All in all, I think this is a decent show that could have been a lot better. It’s got some great characters, some decent story ideas, and a few cool fight scenes. But this is the last stand-alone series before the Defenders team up, and it just doesn’t feel like it had as much effort put into it as its predecessors. The lead character is kinda bland, the action isn’t nearly as cool as it should be, and a lot of time that should have been spent on the awesome, over-the-top wuxia scenes you’d expect from a show like this is instead spent on corporate politics and pointless subplots. While it never sinks to the level of, say, Arrow, it never really rises above the unfortunate premise it shares with that show, either.

“My name is Danny Rand. After 15 years in heaven, I have come home with only one goal: to save my city.”

I just hope the actual Defenders show is better than this. Or that Daredevil season 3 and the Punisher series come out soon. Now that I’m thinking about it, one mediocre show out of a potential six isn’t really that bad. I’m not writing off the Marvel/Netflix team-up just yet.

Grade: C+