Category Archives: superhero comics

Why “The Boys” Is The Ultimate Superhero Satire

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In the history of superhero media, 2019 will likely go down as one of the greatest years of all time. This year included three superhero movies that grossed over a billion dollars, including the first female-led superhero movie to gross a billion dollars and one that became the highest grossing movie of all time. Whatever the future holds for the genre, there’s no doubt that 2019 will go down as a banner year.

Regardless of what the James Camerons of the world think, superheroes have made their mark on the pop culture landscape. They’ll likely keep making their mark for years to come, especially after Marvel’s latest announcements for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, in the same year that superhero media achieved some of its greatest success, something comes along to utterly deconstruct it.

Whereas a movie like “Avengers Endgame” showed us just how great superheroes can be, a TV show like “The Boys” shows us just how depraved they can be. Being a comic book fan long before this golden age of superheroes, I already knew that. I followed the original comics when they came out in the mid-2000s. Now, thanks to a new TV show, everyone can experience the story that gave superheroes the ultimate gut punch.

Literally.

I’m not going to lie. I was genuinely surprised when I heard Amazon Prime was going to make this show. This is not the kind of story that you can turn into a Disney-approved, PG-13 spectacle for mass consumption. In anything, “The Boys” goes out of its way to explore the kinds of things that would make the censors at Disney and the MPAA throw up.

This is a story that does not hide the brutal violence, intense trauma, and unchecked hedonism that often seems unavoidable in the context of the narrative. Writer and co-creator, Garth Ennis, has a long history of embracing those darker elements of the genre. He did it with “Preacher” and his run on “The Punisher.” With “The Boys,” he took it to another level and beyond.

The world of “The Boys” is not unlike the early days of the MCU. The over-arching story tries to incorporate the fanciful ideals of superheroes into a real-world context. It doesn’t use fictional cities like Metropolis or Gotham. It doesn’t ignore how superheroes would affect society, government, or the economy. The many flaws of the real world are just as relevant in this world.

As are the sentiments about reality, in general.

From here, “The Boys” doesn’t necessarily portray a worst-case scenario for superheroes, but it comes pretty damn close. The “heroes” of this world are the Seven. They include the likes of Homelander, Black Noir, Queen Maeve, A-Train, and the Deep. They’re basically derivations of the Justice League, but in terms of heroic ideals, these characters have none of that.

The Seven conduct themselves as superheroes for the masses. They’re admired, respected, and idolized by many, just like their counterparts in the MCU. However, that heroic zeal is both a lie and a scam. Their entire image is built around a marketing ploy, courtesy of Vought American Consolidated, a defense contractor who incorporates superheroes into their arsenal.

Trust me. It’s even more corrupt than it sounds.

With that corruption comes greed, treachery, violence, and depravity the likes of which Batman would find too grim. These heroes basically get to smile for the cameras, enjoy the benefits of celebrity, and still conduct themselves as self-serving narcissist behind the scene. They can do whatever they want, get away with it, and still be beloved. It’s a recipe for all sorts of disasters.

On top of that, some of these characters are outright psychopaths. Homelander is a mentally unstable sadist who commits many vile acts throughout the comics, including rape. The TV show captures only a fraction of his depravity, but it’s more than enough to highlight the underlying message of “The Boys” and why it’s such a powerful story.

In essence, “The Boys” is the ultimate satire of the superhero genre. It’s entire narrative is built around exploring, exposing, and denigrating the ideals on which all superhero media is built upon. It’s not done for humor or comedic effect, either. The theme of “The Boys” is dead serious in showing how a world with superheroes becomes so depraved.

This is where the Boys themselves come in. They include Billy Butcher, Frenchie, Mother’s Milk, the Female, and Hughie. They both witness and directly experience the breadth of the Seven’s corruption. They take it upon themselves to expose these heroes for who they are.

However, their motivations aren’t entirely heroic. These characters often come off every bit as damaged, petty, and vindictive as the heroes they actively oppose. They don’t stick to high ideals, either. The Boys are brutal, albeit in a more focused and pragmatic sense.

It gets ugly.

It gets violent.

It gets downright traumatic.

It also gets the damn point across.

If “The Boys” has a unifying message that unites both the comics and the TV shows, it’s that superheroes can only ever make things worse in the long run. That ideal of a perfectly altruistic savior in the mold of Superman just doesn’t exist and wanting it to exist can be downright dangerous.

The people behind the scenes with the Seven feed into that. The government, big corporations, and the media glorify these heroes because the people latch onto them. They want these heroes to be the idealized figures that they read about in comics and see in blockbuster movies. They buy into it and both the Seven and the organizations that manage them keep selling it.

It’s a self-reinforcing cycle that only amplifies the corruption. The Boys dare to battle that corruption, but with the understanding they’re fighting a losing battle. They can attack, expose, and frustrate these superpowered sociopaths all they want. They’re never going to destroy those rosy ideals on which the entire genre is build upon. At most, they can just make them pay a price for their egregious misdeeds.

It’s hardly proportional to the many atrocities the Seven commits, but that’s kind of the point. These are superpowered beings who can only be hurt so much, even by other superheroes. The Boys can never punish them in a way that feels equitable, compared to the injustices the Seven inflict. That doesn’t stop them from making an effort and making it better than most would expect.

The right tool for the right job.

How they go about this and how the Seven reacts is a long, tortured story that has many shocking moments that are not for kids or the faint of heart. The trailer for the TV show offers a hint of that, but there are scenes from the comics that even the lenient censors of Amazon Prime wouldn’t dare put on film. I won’t spoil the bloody details, but if you have the stomach, I highly recommend you check out the comics.

More than anything else, the “The Boys” is a brutal reminder that the ideals behind superheroes are probably the most fanciful part of the genre. In a real world full of corruption and collateral damage, superheroes can be far more dangerous than the threats they confront. It’s almost impossible to be a superhero without becoming a self-absorbed asshole to some extent.

Even the Boys, who actively battle the superheroes that fuel this fantasy, never come off as entirely altruistic. They’re simply more respectable and less narcissistic. In that dynamic, nobody can ever come off as truly heroic. There’s just too much room for corruption and ego.

While “The Boys” wasn’t the first comic to satirize superheroes, it’s definitely the most complete. “Watchmen” may get more praise and respect, but even in that story, the heroes still try to act like heroes in their own perverse way. What characters like Ozymandias and Rorschach do is framed as something heroic, even if it gets violent and brutal. There’s none of that with “The Boys.”

In an ideal world, even assholes will find a way to be heroic under the right circumstances. Tony Stark proved that in “Avengers Endgame.” However, in the world of “The Boys,” there’s no such thing as right circumstances. If anything, the entire superhero genre has it ass-backwards. Heroes will inevitably find a way to become assholes and if nobody stops them, then they’ll just push their assholery to new heights.

The Boys” is a unique comic in its own right, but the TV adaptation is coming along at just the right time. I would even argue that this kind of satire is necessary in the current cultural landscape. We need something like this to remind us that the ideals of superheroes are still ideals. Like most things in the real world, ideals tend to crumble when subjected to scrutiny.

At a time when people are consuming the ideals of superheroes at an unprecedented level, it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective about the genre. A satire like “The Boys” may never have the same impact as anything from the MCU, but it’s still a story worth telling, if only to remind us that great power can also breed greater assholes.

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Filed under political correctness, psychology, superhero comics, television

Why Natalie Portman Becoming Thor Is The Biggest Story From San Diego Comic Con 2019

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If you’re a fan of comic books, superhero movies, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this past weekend was like Christmas, Halloween, the 4th of July, and the Super Bowl all rolled into one. The San Diego Comic Con is essentially the epicenter of geek culture. In recent years, it has only gotten bigger, becoming a staging area for major pop culture events. This latest convention was no exception.

While there was plenty of news to follow at this year’s Comic Con, especially for X-Men fans like me, the biggest event was always going to be Marvel Studios. It has already been a historic year for superhero movies, especially on the Marvel side of the genre. Shortly before the convention began, “Avengers Endgame” officially passed “Avatar” to become the highest grossing movie of all time.

It’s a good time to be Kevin Feige.

It’s a good time to be Bob Iger.

It’s a good time to be a Marvel fan, in general.

With the end of “Avengers Endgame,” however, the story that began in 2008 “Iron Man” has concluded. The Avengers assembled in a truly spectacular battle for the ages. Thanos is defeated. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is once again secure, but after making the highest grossing movie of all time, how can Marvel Studios keep raising the bar like this?

In Hall H of the San Diego Convention Center, the next phase of the MCU was finally revealed. Some of the announcements were expected. News of a “Black Widow” movie, as well as an “Eternals” movie, had already been reported months ago. News of a “Blade” movie within the MCU was more surprising, but that wasn’t the biggest story by a long shot.

By far, the biggest Marvel Studios news to come out of San Diego Comic Con 2019 was Natalie Portman returning as Jane Foster to play a female Thor. I’m not going to lie. When I saw this news, I had to blink a few times and slap myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Once certain this was real, it finally sunk in.

Natalie Portman is returning the MCU as Jane Foster to play a female Thor.

To appreciate why this is a huge deal to longtime comic readers like me, I need to provide a little context. Jane Foster being Thor is a concept that only recently gained prominence, thanks to one of Marvel’s top-tier writers, Jason Aaron.

Back in 2014, the Thor comics underwent a major upheaval. After a fateful encounter with Nick Fury, Thor suddenly became unworthy of lifting Mjolnir. It was a dramatic moment that defined the character for years to come. Then, after everyone in Asgard failed to lift the hammer, Jane Foster came along to wield it. In doing so, she became the new Thor.

If you haven’t read the first few volumes of that story, I cannot recommend them highly enough. Even if you’ve only seen the movies, you’ll still find plenty to love about these comics. They made me a fan of both Thor and Jane Foster. If Marvel Studios and Natalie Portman can even capture a fraction of this story’s greatness, then it’ll be a bold new era for superhero movies.

Now, make no mistake. Jane Foster becoming Thor was not without controversy. In fact, the timing of this story couldn’t have been worse. It came out right around the same time that efforts to promote diversity within superhero comics had become mired in regressive politics. It was a time when iconic characters were being replaced and new characters were being created, albeit with mixed results.

This is how mixed it got and NOT in a good way.

I’d rather not go into all the issues, controversies, and absurdities from that era, but I will say that Jane Foster becoming Thor was one of the success stories from that tenuous period. Her journey as the new Thor didn’t supplant that of her predecessor. If anything, it complemented his story. The title of Thor was greatly improved because Jane Foster wielded that hammer.

Now, Marvel Studios is in an even better position to do the same. The success of both “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel” has established that there is a market for female superheroes. The events of “Avengers Endgame” also opened the door for someone else to step in without diminishing Chris Hemsworth’s character, who may still have a part to play in “Guardians of the Galaxy 3.”

It also helps that Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster has been MIA since the events of “Thor: The Dark World.” While her reasons for leaving were somewhat obscure, the announcement at San Diego left no room for ambiguity. She’s coming back and she’s going to play a major role in the next phase of the MCU.

In my opinion, this will go down as one of the most pivotal announcements in the history of the MCU. Why do I believe this is bigger than the Eternals, Blade, Black Widow, or any of the upcoming shows on the Disney+ streaming service? To answer that, it’s necessary to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

The Jane Foster that Natalie Portman played in the first two Thor movies is not the same Jane Foster who has established herself as a prominent force in the comics. Throughout her history, she has maintained a strong connection to Thor and not just as a romantic interest. In many respects, she has been the character through which ordinary, non-Asgardian people explore Thor’s world of gods, demigods, and monsters.

A big part of what made Jason Aaron’s story surrounding Jane Foster becoming Thor so powerful was how she proved her worthiness of that title. As a mortal woman with many mortal limitations, she embraced that role and proved herself against gods, monsters, and even other superheroes. It was easy to cheer her on every step of the way.

In any era, it’s a powerful story, having an ordinary human embrace god-like power to bear god-like burdens. In this current era of superhero movies, Jane Foster becoming Thor isn’t just a fitting, comics-accurate way to build her story in the MCU. It’s a story that almost feels necessary.

The MCU is a world that has become densely populated by super soldiers, aliens, gods, monsters, and demigods. With the conclusion of “Avengers Endgame,” the world is in a tenuous state. Friendships, families, and teams have been decimated due to the conflict surrounding Thanos and the Infinity Stones. There are voids to be filled, including a few once populated by gods.

Ordinary people becoming heroes is a story that the MCU has told many times before, the latest being “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” Stories about ordinary people becoming gods haven’t been nearly as common and with the Eternals already poised to join the MCU, I think that story should play out in some manner, if only to keep humanity connected to this world.

Jane becoming the Goddess of Thunder is the perfect story to maintain that connection. Unlike Carol Danvers, Jane is not a soldier or a warrior. She’s a scientist who got caught up in the world of gods and superheroes, but she didn’t run from it in the comic. Now, armed with Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning talent, she’s poised to make a similar journey in a world that needs new heroes to step up.

It’s an exciting, but uncertain time for the MCU. However, when you’ve got a story like that of Jane Foster becoming Thor and an actress as talented as Natalie Portman leading the way, the future has never been brighter.

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Filed under Marvel, movies, superhero comics, superhero movies, Wonder Woman

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” Review: An Amazing Movie With One Spectacular Flaw

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In this golden age of superhero movies, Spider-Man occupies a special place. Aside from being one of Stan Lee’s most famous creations, this franchise has undergone many triumphs, failures, scandals, upheavals, and everything in between. No matter where it stands among other franchises, Marvel just isn’t Marvel without Spider-Man.

The first “Spider-Man” movie helped revolutionize the superhero genre alongside “X-Men.” It’s not unreasonable to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn’t exist without that first movie. That’s why when Spider-Man entered the MCU with “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” it carried a lot of weight.

With “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” both the standards and the stakes are higher. This movie is coming off the historic success of “Avengers Endgame” and is poised to close out Phase 3 of the MCU. It’s tasked with building on the foundation of its predecessor and dealing with the dramatic aftermath of the battle against Thanos. That’s a tall order for any franchise.

Look at this face and tell me I’m wrong. I dare you.

At the same time, it feels like Spider-Man has to be the franchise to pull this off. Between its special place in the genre and its cast of emerging stars, including the inherently lovable Tom Holland, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” feels like the only movie worthy of such a task. It has everything going for it. The question remains. Does it succeed?

In my humble opinion, I say it does, but not without some major flaws.

In terms of the big picture, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is a quality Spider-Man movie that checks a lot of boxes, both for the franchise and for the MCU. It seamlessly weaves itself into the evolving narrative of the MCU in wake of “Avengers Endgame.” The first five minutes of the movie touch on the lingering aftermath of that climactic battle. It even injects some of that trademark MCU humor into some heavy moments.

On a more personal level, Peter Parker’s story builds upon the drama of Tony Stark’s death in “Avengers Endgame.” Throughout the movie, Iron Man’s presence looms large. Spider-Man is essentially stuck in the shadow of another hero who really affected his journey as a character in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It makes for plenty of dramatic moments that guide Peter throughout the story.

In terms of it genre, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” even succeeds in maintaining the increasingly high bar that Marvel Studios has set for its villains. While Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio won’t rank as highly as Josh Brolin’s Thanos, he proves himself a daunting foe who doesn’t just test Spider-Man. He comes very close to breaking him.

I would even go so far as to say that Gyllenhaal’s take on Mysterio is worth the inflated ticket price. He makes “Spider-Man: Far From Home” work on multiple levels. I would argue that he’s the primary reason why the movie succeeds, despite its critical flaws.

Now, this is where I’m probably going to diverge from the those who have given this movie such glowing reviews. I may even upset some of my fellow Marvel fans who recoil at the idea of an MCU movie faltering. However, I believe the flaws are there and are being overshadowed by factors beyond the scope of the movie.

To me, the biggest failure of this movie isn’t in how it tells Spider-Man’s story. It’s in how it develops Peter Parker’s story. The battle between Spider-Man and Mysterio is beautifully developed. It’s what happens when Peter is out of his mask where the story stagnates and it has everything to do with Zendaya’s character, “MJ.”

I put “MJ” in quotes because she is definitively not Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man’s most famous love interest in the comics and the character that Kirsten Dunst portrayed in the first three Spider-Man movies. That’s not the issue, though. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” established her and Peter’s friends as something very different from the comics. It wouldn’t be the first time the MCU made such changes.

The problem with MJ, Peter, and their shared role in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is how poorly their romantic sub-plot plays out. It’s not a trivial sub-plot, either. A good chunk of the plot involves Peter following this elaborate plan to tell MJ how he feels about her. On paper, it’s pretty romantic. In practice, it’s a catalyst for too many cringe-worthy moments.

There’s no polite way to say it. The romance between Peter and MJ in this movie is awful. I won’t say it’s as awful as the nonsensical babble we saw between Peter and Gwen in “Amazing Spider-Man,” but it’s pretty close and for the high standards of the MCU, it’s just unacceptable.

While “Spider-Man: Homecoming” did an admirable job of establishing the dynamics between Peter and MJ, it falls incredibly flat in “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” In fact, if you didn’t see “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Peter’s efforts to get with MJ seem more obsessive than romantic. At one point, he becomes downright vindictive when someone else tries to get with her. It does not reflect well on Peter.

MJ isn’t much better. Zendaya is a great actress, but she comes off as flat and unemotional throughout this movie. Say what you will about Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Mary Jane, but she still displayed a wide range of emotions throughout three movies. Zendaya’s tone and facial expressions barely change throughout this movie.

In essence, there’s no real chemistry between Peter and MJ. Given how critical this relationship is for the plot of the movie, that’s not a trivial oversight. It frames their actions and their decisions as something petty and selfish. There’s never a sense that Peter and MJ make each other better. If anything, they’re liabilities to one another.

In both the comics and the previous movies, this is not how the romantic sub-plots play out. While Spider-Man’s relationships have always complicated his efforts to be a better superhero, they ultimately make him stronger. They make his decision more heroic and his triumphs more satisfying. In “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” the romance was more a handicap than a challenge.

Compared to how other romantic sub-plots in the MCU, Peter and MJ’s is by far one of the weakest. It’s established that they’re attracted to one another. That’s the critical first step in any romantic sub-plot. However, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” skips the part where they actually start caring for one another before they develop deeper feelings.

Again, that’s not a trivial oversight. Compare that to other relationships like Starlord and Gamora, Pepper Potts and Iron Man, or even Thor and Jane Foster. It starts with attraction. The characters flirt and tease one another. Then, at some point, that flirting turns into genuine care. They show concern and emotion when they see one another in danger. From there, deeper feelings emerge.

None of that happens with Peter and MJ. Their interactions lack drama, which limits the personal stakes for Spider-Man’s battle against Mysterio. It helps that there are other personal stakes besides MJ that guide this struggle. If anything, those stakes would be a lot more powerful if the sub-plot with MJ were completely removed.

As bad as this romantic sub-plot is, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” still works because so many other elements of the movie are well done. Mysterio is a great villain who really capitalizes on the post-Thanos landscape of the MCU. Peter’s supporting cast, from his teachers to his Aunt May to his best friend Ned, all get a chance to shine. They help give this movie the right impact.

Compared to other Spider-Man movies, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” definitely exceeds the quality of the two “Amazing Spider-Man” movies that came before it. I would also say it’s slightly better than “Spider-Man 3,” albeit barely. If I had to score this movie, I would give it a 6 out of 10. It’s great, but not amazing.

For the MCU, especially after “Avengers Endgame,” the standards for a great superhero movie have never been higher. This movie met many of those standards, but a major flaw in a key sub-plot kept it from exceeding those standards. While I doubt this will hinder the franchise, I believe it’s a flaw that will only get worse if it’s not addressed in the sequels.

If you see the mid-credits scene, then you know what I’m talking about.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, Marvel, Movie Reviews, movies, superhero comics, superhero movies

Why Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique Is The Best Version Of The Character

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Everybody has at least one unpopular opinion that draws ire from the vast majority of people. I’m not referring to extreme political stances, though. Those who identify as full-fledged communists, anarchists, or theocrats are more defined by an ideology than an opinion. I’ve shared plenty of opinions in the past, some of which I’m sure qualify as unpopular.

Regardless of what those opinions entail, I’ve tried to make my point and most of the time, I can find a substantial group of people who share my views. It’s part of why I enjoy doing what I do. However, there’s one particular opinion I have that might be the most unpopular position I’ve ever held.

It has nothing to do with politics or ideology. It has to do with comics and superhero movies, another popular topic I’ve discussed many times before. I’ve shared it before in other forums and in almost every case, I have a hard time finding anyone who agrees with me. Knowing how dangerous it can be to share unpopular opinions on the internet these days, I’m going to take a chance and share it here.

I believe that Jennifer Lawrence’s take on Mystique is one of the best version of the character in any medium.

I’ll give X-men fans, comic book fans, and fans of superhero movies a moment to stop fuming. Take all the time you need. Believe me, I’ve heard and read all the vile insults you want to throw at me. Before you flood the comments section with a fresh batch of frothing hate, please hear me out because I feel like there’s a point worth making here.

If not, please take this stunning image as a consolation prize.

Before I get into the details of the comics and movies, I freely acknowledge that Jennifer Lawrence is one of those high-profile celebrities for which many have mixed opinion. Ever since she rose to fame, she has been a polarizing figure. People either love her or hate her with very little in between.

Regardless of how you might feel about her, as an actress, there’s no denying that she played an instrumental role in revitalizing the X-Men movies, beginning with “X-Men: First Class.” As Mystique, she succeeded a very popular version in Rebecca Romijn, who set the precedent for blue-skinned shape-shifters who favored nudity. However, there was one important distinction with Ms. Lawrence’s version.

Unlike Ms. Romijn, and every other version for that matter, Ms. Lawrence’s take on Mystique included a backstory that provided unprecedented depth for the character. That story, and the depth that came with it, proved critical in the role that this Mystique would play in “X-Men: Days Of Future Past.” I would go so far as to argue that both movies work largely because of how Ms. Lawrence carried this character.

I can probably find more than a few people who agree that Ms. Lawrence’s Mystique was important in making her first two movies in the role work. Where I probably lose those people is when I go a step further and claim that this version of Mystique is superior to most other versions.

Some might call that hyperbole and maybe it is, to some extent. I still contend that there is an argument to be made and anyone familiar with Mystique’s history in the comics can appreciate it. I doubt I’ll change anyone’s mind, but it’s that very history, or lack thereof, that helped make Ms. Lawrence’s take on the character so compelling.

Mystique, like many other comic book characters, has a history that is more convoluted than most. She’s been around since 1978, but in all that time, her character has never been developed beyond a certain point. In fact, in the grand scheme of Marvel’s vast universe, it’s remarkable that she has managed as well as she has with so little backstory.

There’s no canonical information about where she was born, who her parents are, or even how old she is. She has never appeared as a child or a teenager. She’s always been an adult who goes by the name, Raven Darkholme. It’s not even clear that’s her actual name. Being a shape-shifter, it’s impossible to tell.

Beyond her unexplored history, Mystique’s personality has been pretty flat over the years. She’s a villain. That much is made clear. However, her brand of villainy is not nearly as refined as others. She’s basically a sociopath whose only purpose in life revolves around tormenting the X-Men, especially Wolverine.

How she goes about it varies, but why she does it rarely gets explored. Granted, there have been times when she has joined the X-men, but it never lasts and often ends with her betraying them. It has happened so often that it’s somewhat predictable. Even when it seems like she has undergone some major growth, she always ends up regressing back to her psychotic ways.

She still looks sexy every step of the way.

That’s not to say she has no depth. Being the biological mother of Nightcrawler and the adopted mother of Rogue has been a major source of drama over the years. Her romantic and sexual entanglements have also been colorful to say the least, albeit not always in a good way. However, this drama rarely ever adds depth to her villainy.

While Rebecca Romijn’s version had some nuance, especially in the second movie, she didn’t deviate much from her comic book counterpart. For three movies, she was one of Magneto’s top henchmen and little else. Jennifer Lawrence’s version of Mystique dared to be more than that.

The first minutes of “X-Men: First Class” did more for Mystique’s backstory than three movies and four decades of comics had done to that point. It established her as a mutant who’d run away and had nowhere to go, something that has real-life parallels for certain minorities. From there, she develops a close sibling bond with James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier, which does plenty to develop his character as well.

However, what truly makes this version of Mystique special is how she grows over the course of several movies. Like her comic version, she shifts her allegiances repeatedly. She starts off as an ally of Charles Xavier. Then, she leaves and follows Magneto. Eventually, she returns to Xavier’s side, but not without undergoing major personal upheavals.

In both “X-Men: First Class” and “X-Men: Days Of Future Past,” she finds herself at a crossroads on multiple occasions. Sometimes, she walks a more villainous path. Other times, she’s more virtuous. They’re all contingent on difficult choices and, regardless of where they take her, there’s an underlying sentiment to those choices.

In “X-Men: First Class,” she chooses Magneto because she believes Charles wants her to hide her true form. In “X-Men: Days Of Future Past,” she choose Charles because she realizes the consequences of her actions. Friends and enemies alike try to influence her. When she finally makes a choice, it feels like something a real character would make.

In the comics, you can always assume Mystique will make villainous choices and be right most of the time. With Ms. Romijn’s, you can assume she’ll choose whatever Magneto chooses and be right, as well. The choices of Ms. Lawrence’s Mystique are truly uncertain and for a character defined by her shape-shifting traits, that’s more than fitting.

It wouldn’t be accurate to call Ms. Lawrence’s Mystique a hero. In “X-Men: Apocalypse,” she resents that label. It wouldn’t be accurate to call her a villain either, even though she doesn’t always side with the X-Men. She adapts to whatever her situation requires, like anyone would expect of a skilled shape-shifter. It’s an understandable, and even admirable, take for a character in a superhero movie.

While her ultimate fate was tragic, as revealed in “Dark Phoenix,” her journey has been remarkable. Regardless of how the events of “Dark Phoenix” played out for everyone else involved, it’s still the most complete story that Mystique has ever had. That’s why I feel Jennifer Lawrence’s take on Mystique is the best we’ve seen to date.

That’s not to say she’s without flaws. I don’t doubt that her diminished role in “X-Men: Apocalypse” undercut her development. Even with those flaws, she’s still more balanced than anything the comics or previous X-Men movies have given us. Whatever happens with the X-Men as they joint he MCU, I hope Ms. Lawrence’s Mystique inspires the future of the character for years to come.

To all those who disagree with me, and I’m sure there are many, I welcome your comments and thoughts. I only ask that you keep it civil.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, Marvel, movies, superhero comics, superhero movies, X-men

“Dark Phoenix” Review: An Astonishing End To An Uncanny Era

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It’s never easy, trying to capture the essence of an iconic story. It’s even harder when you’ve tried once before and failed miserably. To say that “Dark Phoenix” faced more challenges than most movies would be like saying tobacco companies have an image problem. Many of those challenges go beyond the story, the franchise, the studios, and even the movie industry, as a whole.

Despite so many confounding circumstances, the most important challenge of “Dark Phoenix” was always the same. After this iconic X-Men story was horribly botched in “X-Men The Last Stand,” this movie’s primary goal was to do that story justice. The director and long-time X-Men producer, Simon Kinberg, has gone on record as saying he failed in his first attempt. This movie gives him a chance to rectify that.

Before I get into the fiery details, which may include light spoilers, I’d like to offer my personal sentiment after having seen the movie. I understand that not everyone will agree with me, but as a long-time lover of X-Men, this movie means a lot more to me than most in the superhero genre so I like to think that sentiment is strong.

Yes, “Dark Phoenix” does justice to the X-Men’s most iconic story.

Yes, “Dark Phoenix” succeeds where “X-Men The Last Stand” failed.

Yes, “Dark Phoenix” is a satisfying conclusion to this era of X-Men that has spanned nearly two decades.

I realize that many might disagree with my assessment. That’s perfectly fine. Every movie impacts people in different ways. For me, though, “Dark Phoenix” struck all the necessary chords and then some. It focused on the core components of what makes the Phoenix Saga so endearing and runs with it.

That means that there aren’t multiple plots being juggled constantly. From the very first scene, the focus is on Jean Grey and her journey towards becoming Dark Phoenix. It’s a journey that has a foundation in tragedy, lies, love, betrayal, and loss. What happens to her is never just a matter of circumstance. There are tough, meaningful decisions made before, during, and after the darkness consumes Jean.

At every turn, there is plenty of drama. Jean Grey isn’t just some obscure side-character. She’s surrounded by people who love her. Charles Xavier loves her like a surrogate daughter. Mystique loves her like a sister. To Cyclops, she’s the woman he loves and for once, there’s no terrible love triangle that detracts from that love.

That love gives the drama incredible weight, which is critical for any story derived from the Phoenix Saga. It also ensures the losses leave a major impact and, as one of the trailers revealed, those losses are pretty devastating. They’re not just glossed over or forgotten, which was a huge issue with “X-Men The Last Stand.” They resonate throughout the story and inform the decisions of multiple characters.

That’s not to say every aspect is caught up in personal dramas. “Dark Phoenix” still utilizes a villain to maintain some basic superhero dynamics. That villain, played by Jessica Chastain, isn’t as iconic as Magneto or Apocalypse. She and her villainous henchmen are aliens known as the D’Brai, who actually play a critical role in the original story from the comics.

While Chastain is no Thanos, she and her fellow D’Brai have clear, understandable motivations. They’re not just there to cause more suffering and upheaval. They sense the power in Jean and they want to use it to serve their agenda. That’s perfectly consistent with what Jean and the X-men faced in those same comics.

It also firmly establishes that the Phoenix Force in “Dark Phoenix” is not at all like the one on display in “X-Men The Last Stand.” The Phoenix isn’t some split personality within Jean. This movie actually embraces the more cosmic aspects of that story. While it only does so to a point, it helps raise the stakes in a way that goes beyond trying to save or kill Jean Grey.

Even with these cosmic elements, however, “Dark Phoenix” never loses its focus on Jean, her struggles, and the X-Men’s efforts to save her. The pace of the movie rarely slows down. Things happen quickly and concisely. There are still plenty of intimate character moments along the way, but they never drag. The plot keeps unfolding until the very end.

I won’t spoil too many of the details, but I will say that the ending is far less dire and depressing than what unfolded in “X-Men The Last Stand.” Jean isn’t a coward this time around. She doesn’t constantly whine or beg others to kill her before it’s too late. She is the one who ultimately decides her fate. More importantly, she is the one who makes those difficult choices.

Making all this drama and action work wouldn’t be possible without Sophie Turner turning in a truly uncanny performance as Jean Grey. She goes through many emotions over the course of the story. There are scenes in which she goes through more in five minutes than Famke Janssen did in the first three X-Men movies combined. She carries herself wonderfully through the movie’s most intense moments.

The collective efforts of James McAvoy as Charles Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Magneto, Tye Sherridan as Cyclops, and Nicholas Hoult as Beast perfectly complement Turner every step of the way. They capture those essential elements of family and team that’s so critical for every X-Men movie. This being their last ride with these characters, they make the most of the opportunity.

Unfortunately, some characters don’t get as many chances. Alexandra Shipp’s Storm and Evan Peters’ Quicksilver have fairly limited roles, although Shipp turns in a powerful performance in the final battle. Chastain’s alien character, and the D’brai in general, only gets so much refinement. However, that doesn’t make “Dark Phoenix” any less effective because it is, at its core, a story about Jean Grey.

There are other flaws in the movie. To some extent, the constant focus on Jean and the rapid pace of the action prevent other characters or side-plots from getting much emphasis. The long-running romantic sub-plot between Beast and Mystique had some moments, but not nearly enough to maximize the impact of the story.

There are also times when the visuals of “Dark Phoenix” aren’t as colorful as they could’ve been. To some extent, that’s more a reflection on the overall style of the X-Men movies, going back to the first one in 2000. These movies have never focused too much on the flashy costumes that are so prominent in the comics. Considering the iconic styles teased at the end of “X-men Apocalypse,” it’s somewhat disappointing.

This movie might have been able to get away with that 10 years ago, but the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its embracement of iconic superhero attire make the overall style of the movie seem uninspiring. For most of the movie, nobody even wears a uniform or costume. While a movie like “Logan” can pull that off, it doesn’t work nearly as well in “Dark Phoenix.”

There are some moments where the visual effects really shine, but not in the ones that would’ve really complemented Jean Grey’s journey. While that fiery halo does show up at one point, it feels like it doesn’t show up enough and wasn’t quite as radiant as its brief appearance in “X-men Apocalypse.”

The finer details of the story aren’t flawless either. While they remain concise until the end, there’s a bit of ambiguity in terms of how the events in this movie tie to the epilogue in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” There’s certainly enough to imply that this movie does not completely undermine that ending, but a lack of specifics leaves a lot of gaps for the audience to fill in.

Even with these shortcomings, the most important components of “Dark Phoenix” still work. It seeks to tell a focused Phoenix story for Jean Grey and it never loses sight of that goal. The acting, the drama, and a brilliant musical score by Hans Zimmer simply add more gravitas to the mix.

Over two years ago, I wrote an article that laid out how the “Dark Phoenix” could succeed in this golden age of superhero movies. Pretty much everything on that list came to pass. This movie embraced the passion surrounding this iconic story. It made use of the Cyclops/Jean romance, kept the Phoenix as the primary plot, and ensured every dramatic moment felt genuine. It didn’t check every box, but it came pretty damn close.

Does that mean that “Dark Phoenix” is among the greatest superhero movies ever made? No, I wouldn’t make that case, especially when it came out the same year as “Avengers Endgame.” The bar for superhero movies is higher than it has ever been before and it’s a difficult standard to apply to a movie like “Dark Phoenix.”

Does that mean that “Dark Phoenix” is the greatest X-Men movie ever made? No, I wouldn’t make that case, either. There are other X-Men movies that rank above this one in terms, but it still captures the most important elements that makes these movies so endearing.

Is it a great movie in general? Yes, I certainly would say it is. If I had to score this movie, I would give it an 8 out of 10. It sets out to do a fitting adaptation of the Phoenix Saga and it succeeds, utilizing all the necessary drama and action along the way. It also caps off 19 years of X-Men movies.

Now, as the X-Men stand poised to enter the MCU, this part of their journey can end and “Dark Phoenix” ended it on a truly uncanny note.

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Multiverses, Mutants, And The (Uncanny) Implications Of “Spider-Man: Far From Home”

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Anyone who has read more than a few comics, seen a few movies, or consumed more than a little sci-fi knows what often happens when multiple universes enter the picture. First, the overall story becomes bigger in scope, scale, and complexity. Second, a host of major complications emerge. Third, when done poorly, it becomes next to impossible to follow.

In terms of a larger narrative, it’s a huge gamble. It’s one of those plot points that is easy to mess up, not unlike time travel, wizards, or clones. Very few franchises, be they movies, comics, or TV shows, can make that gamble pay off. If ever there was a franchise that could make it work, it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Between the record-breaking box office of “Avengers Endgame” and the adulation of countless fans, including myself, Marvel Studios is uniquely equipped to make the concept of a multiverse work within its over-arching story. To some extent, it has to. The finality of “Avengers Endgame” means it will have to find some way to grow without the iconic characters that helped make it.

The stage has already been set for a larger multiverse to emerge within the MCU. Just as fans like me are finally recovering from the emotional upheaval we experienced in “Avengers Endgame,” the second trailer for “Spider-Man: Far From Home” dropped and, beyond dropping some heavy spoilers, it revealed that the multiverse is officially a thing in this world.

There are a lot of implications for this, many of which go beyond Spider-Man’s story in the MCU. As the trailer reveals, the universe-altering events of “Avengers Endgame” opened a literal and proverbial door to new conflicts within the MCU. These conflicts offer many opportunities for some of Marvel’s many cosmic characters, but I believe the biggest opportunity is for the X-Men.

I say that not just as a huge X-Men fan who has already written extensively about their potential in the MCU. I believe that Marvel Studios could reinvent the X-Men and the entire concept of mutants in a way that’s fresh, engaging, and very relevant to events unfolding in the real world.

Marvel and their Disney overlords have already reported that the X-Men will be rebooted into the MCU in the coming years under the skilled hand of Kevin Feige. However, the method and details of that plan have yet to emerge and chances are, it’ll be several years before we see that full-on reboot that X-Men fans have been pining for since Hugh Jackman hung up his claws.

Imagining Wolverine without Hugh Jackman.

Even for Marvel Studios, it’s going to be a challenge. How do you introduce mutants, an entire race of super-powered beings, into a world in which they’ve never been mentioned? In fact, thanks to conflicts over movie rights, nobody in the MCU could even utter the word “mutant” without incurring the wrath of Fox’s lawyers.

That’s a problem because in over 10 years of movies, TV shows, and tie-ins, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become populated with many super-powered beings that include gods, super soldiers, and teenagers armed with spider powers. On top of that, they already have a race of genetically modified people called the Inhumans, who basically acted as a stand-in for mutants at one point.

This complicates the whole premise of the X-Men. A big part of their story and their appeal is the parallels between mutants and real-world minorities. The X-Men emerged during the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and have since come to represent oppressed minorities from many eras, from racial minorities to the LGBTQ community.

That’s a tougher parallel to establish in the MCU because how can mutants be hated and feared in a world where Asgardians, super soldiers, and talking raccoons exist? Granted, mutants have a unique aura of unpredictability in that anyone could potentially be a mutant. Unlike the Inhumans, there’s no catalyst or radioactive spider necessary to activate their powers. They need only survive to puberty.

It’s still a stretch because the hate and fear of the 1960s is very different from that of the early 2000s century. It’s one thing to just be afraid and hateful of mutants. It’s quite another to craft killer robots to hunt them while ignoring entire populations of similar super-beings.

This is where the multiverse could enter the equation. With the proper sci-fi machinations, it could both bring the X-Men into the MCU while framing mutants in a context that makes them very relevant to contemporary issues. The key is linking the struggle with mutants with that of refugees.

Whereas discussions over minority issues have become somewhat predictable in recent years, debates about refugees have been much more heated. It has triggered protests, empowered populist uprisings, and caused a rise in xenophobia that far exceeds the old-school racism of the mid-20th century. These are the kinds of heated politics in which the X-Men thrive.

The “Spider-Man: Far From Home” trailer establishes that something happened in the battle against Thanos that opened the door to the multiverse. It’s easy to envision a scenario in which a population from a more hostile universe seeks refuge in one that is already used to super-powered beings.

It’s not difficult to imagine things getting that bad for the X-Men or mutants. Both “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “The Gifted” explored a world where mutants where hunted, imprisoned, and outright murdered. The comics also have a lengthy history of dystopian futures in which the X-Men could not stop humanity from hating and fearing their kind.

Then, just as things look hopeless, a doorway to another universe unexpectedly opens. Mutants suddenly have a chance to escape their rapidly-decaying world and start anew. It’s an opportunity many desperate and traumatized refugees seek in the real world. Their stories are full of horror and atrocity. It’s a story that resonates beyond the superhero genre.

In addition to providing a mechanism for entering the MCU, it also solves another critical issue with respect to narrative. It gives the X-Men a new type of story that hasn’t been told before in the movies. For the past 19 years, almost every X-Men movie has followed a similar formula.

Mutants are hated and feared.

The X-Men try to combat that fear.

Someone, often Magneto, tries to provoke a war between humans and mutants.

The X-Men stop that war from occurring.

It’s a story that has played out many times. Sometimes, it has been great. Other times, it has been god-awful. Just telling that same story again in the MCU won’t be enough. By making mutants refugees, the entire dynamics change in a way that could cause all sorts of upheavals that could impact many other MCU franchises.

One possibility.

Like real-life refugees, they come to a new world out of desperation, escaping horrors that they had no part in creating. The world they enter is inherently suspicious of them. They see them as strange, dangerous outsiders who could bring their problems to their homes. These are real concerns from people other than the reactionary radicals who often preach hate.

It’s one of those issues that has no good resolution. These people are victims of a war that they want to escape. They flee to wherever they feel they’ll be safe. Often, their options are limited and when an opportunity comes along, they have to pursue or die. If the events of “Avengers Endgame” somehow create such an opportunity, then why wouldn’t someone take a chance?

It would put mutants and the X-Men at odds with everyone in the MCU, from the Avengers to SHIELD to the average person still recovering from invading aliens in New York. It would also establish a clear divide that could one day manifest in a full-blown “Avengers Vs. X-Men” movie, which has already been teased.

All that being said, the powers that be at Marvel Studios may opt for an entirely different approach. In that case, everything I just described may be a moot point. This is just one approach that I found myself contemplating after seeing the “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” It’ll probably be a while before we know the full implications, both for the multiverse and for mutants in the MCU.

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A Fitting Endpoint: My (Spoiler-Free) Review For “Avengers Endgame”

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Starting an epic journey is a daunting challenge. Keeping people engrossed in that journey for over a decade is exceedingly difficult. Ending that journey in a way that’s dramatic, appropriate, and satisfying is damn near impossible. Despite those insane stakes, that’s the primary goal of “Avengers Endgame.” It attempts to cap off the story that began in 2008 with “Iron Man.”

Without spoiling the many dramatic details of this three-hour cinematic experience, I can safely confirm that it did. “Avengers Endgame” achieved that seemingly impossible goal of completing a decade-spanning story that included 22 movies, a cast of top-notch actors, and one talking raccoon. It’s one of those feats that shouldn’t be possible, even with Disney’s deep pockets, but Marvel Studios pulled it off.

It isn’t hyperbole to say that “Avengers Endgame” is a historic cinematic achievement that fundamentally changes the standards for just how bold a movie can be. All the praise from fans and critics alike that this movie has garnered is well-earned, but still doesn’t do justice to what this movie achieved.

It’s not just another step in the ever-expanding saga that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This movie does not set the stage for another sequel or lay the groundwork for the next big battle between the Avengers and the next Thanos-level threat. The movie is true, polished ending that manages to beautifully encapsulate the scope and scale of the story it told.

As a life-long comic book fan and a fan of superhero media, going back to the days of Saturday morning cartoons, this movie was both satisfying and impactful. I came out of the theater with my heart still racing and my mind still reeling from what I just witnessed. Part of me was sad. Part of me was elated. In all, though, I felt like I’d completed a journey alongside these beloved characters.

Even if you’re not a fan of comics and only know these characters through the movies, “Avengers Endgame” still succeeds in terms of raw storytelling. Years of world-building and character development really come to ahead in this movie. The shared journeys of characters like Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Bruce Banner provide plenty of dramatic weight to everything that happens.

Make no mistake, though. A lot happens. This movie will test your bladder almost as much as it tests your heart. There are so many characters to juggle and many of them have their own arcs. Tony, Steve, Thor, and Hawkeye are all in wildly different places throughout the story, literally and figuratively. Coming together again in a cohesive plot takes time and effort, something the Russo brothers do not shy away from.

As a result, “Avengers Endgame” is very different structurally from “Avengers Infinity War.” Whereas “Avengers Infinity War” played out like unfolding battle with Thanos leading the charge, “Avengers Endgame” is very much a reaction to the aftermath of that battle. To say it left some traumatic scars would be the understatement of all understatements.

There’s no getting around it. Thanos won and the Avengers failed. Before anyone can even contemplate undoing the damage, these characters have to adjust to a world that has been decimated on an unimaginable scale. Processing, exploring, and reacting to that decimation is a big part of what makes that final showdown sufficiently epic.

That means are sizable parts of this movie that don’t involve Hulk smashing things, Captain America fighting Hydra agents, or Iron Man blowing stuff up. “Avengers Endgame” puts much more time and energy into character moments and interpersonal drama, which were fewer and less developed in “Avengers Infinity War.” However, none of this time ever feels wasted or drawn out.

It helps make that final showdown all the more meaningful. It’ll get you to cheer, gasp, cry, and cringe every step of the way. I can even attest that there are moments in this movie that got the people in the theater out of their seats and cheering. In all my experience with superhero movies, I can’t remember the last time a movie got people that emotional.

There’s a lot I can say about how “Avengers Endgame” succeeds in making the emotional investment of the past 22 movies pay off. I don’t think I need to belabor how important this component was in making this movie work in a satisfying, climactic manner. While the movie succeeds in this critical aspect, there are other noteworthy details.

In terms of pure entertainment value, it is not as great as “Avengers Infinity War.” I would even argue the first “Avengers” movie had more spectacle and was more cohesive, overall. There were times when “Avengers Endgame” felt somewhat chaotic, due to all the character arcs it had to balance. While it managed to juggle them all effectively, there’s only so much that can be done to keep that narrative concise.

It’s also worth noting that some character narratives were managed better than others. I won’t cite specific characters for spoiler reasons, but they fairly obvious within the first hour of the movie. I’m sure fans of certain characters will be conflicted by how things play out, but I doubt those same fans will be too disappointed.

Fans of the distinct humor that often shows up in Marvel Studios productions will also have plenty to laugh at. Granted, the bleak circumstances of the movie make that tricky, but moments are there and they never feel too forced. They’re not quite as numerous as they are in other MCU movies, but given the various plots of the story, I’d say there’s just enough to balance the overall tone.

There are some other flaws within this movie, but the extent of those flaws is never more than minor. It would require an extreme level of pettiness and nit-picking to use those flaws to undercut the movie. “Avengers Endgame” is not perfect, nor does it try to be. Its primary goal is to end this era of the MCU and it does so beautifully.

The ending will leave many with tears in their eyes, both from joy and sorrow. There’s equal amounts of tragedy and triumph. Certain characters get a happy ending. Others must deal with loss and tragedy. Overall, it’s a perfect blend of satisfying conclusion and bittersweet finality. It reinforces the notion that these characters are true heroes.

For a movie that begins under such bleak circumstances, the ultimate conclusion really solidifies “Avengers Endgame” as an incredible cinematic experience. If I had to score the movie, I would give it a 9 out of 10. It hits all the right dramatic notes, evokes all the right emotions, and succeeds on a level that few could’ve imagined 11 years ago.

Like Captain America himself, this movie was willing to do whatever it takes to complete this superhero saga for the ages. Moving forward, it’s hard to say what will come of the MCU, especially in wake of the Disney/Fox merger, but it’s safe to say that “Avengers Endgame” has set a bold new standard for just how great a superhero movie can be.

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