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Jack Fisher’s Weekly Quick Pick Comic: Captain Marvel #9

If you want to know the true character of a superhero, then just look at how they handle themselves when their powers are weakened or removed. The heroes with the strongest character won’t change in the slightest. They’ll keep being a hero. They just have to adapt to their limitations. The lousy ones tend to cower and whine like a kid who lost their binkie.

Carol Danvers has a history of losing her powers, her identity, and her bodily autonomy. Her character has been tested more than most and, through many setbacks and losses, she never stops being the hero she strives to be. Now, Kelly Thompson and Carmen Carnero are testing her again in “Captain Marvel #9,” but it’s a different test of character.

For the past few issues, Carol has been having issues with both her powers and her public image. She couldn’t handle a standard tentacle monster that seems to attack New York every other day in the Marvel universe. On top of that, news got out of her Kree Heritage, as revealed in “The Life of Captain Marvel.” Now, her status in the Air Force and the public trust she’s worked so hard to earn is in question.

If that weren’t challenging enough, there’s a new female hero in town named Star who may or may not be tied to her recent issues, but is already becoming more popular. That’s a lot of challenges, to say the least.

However, “Captain Marvel #9” does not devolve into another story about a superhero becoming paralyzed by vulnerability and self-doubt. It certainly has all the right ingredients for that kind of struggle, but that’s not the direction that Thompson goes and that’s refreshing. There are enough stories about superheroes losing their powers and whining about it. Carol Danvers doesn’t whine. She confronts that shit.

She even finds time to squeeze in a little sexy time with her boyfriend, James “War Machine” Rhodes. Powers and reputation are important, but so is spending quality time with her significant other. Say what you want about Carol, but she knows how to prioritize. That, alone, is a strong measure of her character.

It also establishes that Carol isn’t going to deal with these challenges alone. She accepts help from the likes of Rhodes, Tony Stark, and her long-time friend, Jessica “Spider-Woman” Drew. She doesn’t always accept it immediately, but she does accept it in the spirit of finding answers.

That’s not to say she does so without an attitude. She’s still Carol Danvers. She has an attitude, regardless of what’s going on with her powers and reputation. She may lose her strength, but she doesn’t lose her edge. Thompson makes it a point to demonstrate that on many occasions and not all of them involve a shirtless James Rhodes.

There’s a bigger mystery at work and it’s not just about Carol’s powers. There are issues surrounding the tentacle monster that Carol fought, as well as the recent appearance of Star. Some of those issues are explored more than others, but they all seem to have a common link.

Carol is still trying to be the same Carol she’s always been, but that’s just not possible anymore. She’s half-Kree. She knows this and now the entire world knows this. In a perfect world, that wouldn’t matter. She would still be the same person she’s always been and the people who adore her would just shrug it off.

However, the Marvel Universe is not a perfect world. It may have Deadpool and Squirrel Girl, but it’s far from perfect. People are still paranoid and untrusting for all the wrong reasons. It’s the same world that takes J. Jonah Jameson seriously. It has many flaws and they do put a strain on Carol’s efforts.

That’s what helps give “Captain Marvel #9” the necessary impact. Carol doesn’t lament or whine about the declining state of her powers, but she does show moments of frustration. It’s a fitting reminder that she still has a human side. It still bothers her when a part of her identity is taken because the public is uncomfortable with her heritage. It also bothers her that a new hero is in town to show her up in her weakened state.

She could whine about it like a teenage Peter Parker. She could use it as an excuse to be an asshole to her friends, as well. Plenty of other A-list superheroes have made similar excuses for less valid reasons. That’s not what she does, though. Thompson and Carnero don’t let Carol fall into that same trap. It’s a reflection of the kind of hero she is.

Beyond just providing Carol with a test of character, “Captain Marvel #9” also deepens the mystery surrounding her new Kree heritage. There are a few unexpected twists that add both complications and intrigue. For a story that could’ve easily become a predictable diatribe about a hero losing their powers, it’s both relieving and refreshing.

If nothing else, “Captain Marvel #9” proves that Carol Danvers has the character of a hero, regardless of superpowers or public perception. Having all those traits and still finding time to get sexy with James Rhodes further affirms that she deserves our admiration and respect.

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

natalie-portman

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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“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

Jack Fisher’s Weekly Quick Pick Comic: War Of The Realms #6

Once a week, the comic gods bless us with a wave of new material to help make this feeble world a bit more divine. Some weeks feel more blessed than others and when it comes to concluding epic crossover events, there are plenty of blessings to go around.

If the final battle in “Avengers Endgame” stoked your appetite for high-stakes superhero battles, then congratulations! You now know what long-time comic book fans have been enjoying for decades. Before superhero movies raked in billions at the box office, battles of such epic scale played out in events like Onslaught, Secret Invasion, and Maximum Carnage. Today, War of the Realms joins those marvelous ranks.

The verdict is in. The conclusion is unavoidable. “War of the Realms #6” effectively caps off both a massive conflict and an incredible era for a certain collection of characters. This seeds of this war that were planted years ago finally bore fruit and even if you haven’t followed every stage of growth, that fruit still tastes pretty damn sweet.

War of the Realms #6” isn’t just the end of the massive, realm-spanning war that started with Malekith the Accursed. It’s the end of a rocky journey for Thor, his family, and his friends. By the time the fighting stops, the Thor we see is a Thor who is worthy on an entirely new level. Not even the pickiest enchanted hammer can deny that now.

The War of the Realms was never just about Malekith waging a massive war on Earth. That was still a big part of it, but there were other personal stakes in this war that made it feel like more than god-fueled disaster porn.

Malekith basically attacked at a time when Thor, Asgard, and the entire foundation of the 10 realms were vulnerable. Even before Thor became unworthy of his iconic hammer, the divine realms of the Marvel Universe faced some heavy upheavals. Asgard was no longer this beacon of power and order. Thor’s father, Odin, made more than a few ill-fated decisions and didn’t have Anthony Hopkins’ charm to get him through.

Over the course of War of the Realms, and its various tie-ins, one thing became clear. This war could not be won by simply reverting to the same tactics that had saved Asgard many times before. Thor, Odin, Freyja, and the Avengers who fought by their side had to be bolder. They also had to be willing to pay a price.

Historically, that’s something Thor has avoided. Sacrifice is something his father often preaches and warns about, but Thor often finds a better way, usually with the help of his fellow Avengers. That’s not the case, this time. Thor subjects himself to some heavy torment in “War of the Realms #6” to help win the day. The results of his actions are as satisfying as they are worthy.

Writer Jason Aaron, who has been spearheading Thor’s story in the comics for years now, completes a lengthy chapter in the God of Thunder’s ever-evolving mythos. If becoming unworthy was Thor’s lowest point in this arc, then “War of the Realms #6” is a new high point.

Thor doesn’t just prove himself in the face of Malekith’s unending forces. He shows how much he’s grown in recent years and artist Russell Dauterman makes it a sight to behold. There’s redemption in some areas. There’s also vindication, which is something Thor has not had much of in recent years. By the end, even his father recognizes that.

Thor isn’t the only one who shines, either. War of the Realms has assembled a diverse and colorful mix of heroes with which to navigate this conflict. Wolverine, She-Hulk, Captain Marvel, Daredevil, Spider-Man, and the Punisher have all had great moments. Thor’s supporting cast, including Jane Foster and his parents, also play a major role in beating Malekith.

Even though War of the Realms is very much a Thor story, it feels like everyone involved had a chance to benefit from the struggle. Thor just happened to benefit the most.

War of the Realms #6” is one of those comics that feels like a turning point for a certain set of characters. In addition to being an action-heavy, super-powered conflict involving mortals, gods, and dark elves, it always felt personal to those involved.

For a crossover story, that’s a critical element. Whether it’s a comic book, a blockbuster movie, or the real world, a war with personal stakes is a war with greater meaning. Without those stakes, it’s just violence and bloodshed. In comics, meaningless action is fun, but meaningful conflict is what brings out the best in these characters.

War of the Realms definitely did this for Thor and “War of the Realms #6” ended the final battle on a strong, thunderous note. If Chris Hemsworth made you a Thor fan, then “War of the Realms #6” will help affirm your love of this most worthy of Asgardians. If neither this comic nor Mr. Hemsworth charisma is still enough to make you a Thor fan, then you’re just being difficult.

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Ultron: A Case Study In How NOT To Develop Advanced AI

age-of-ultron

At this very moment, humanity is working on advanced artificial intelligence. It’s not hyperbole to say that this technology that may very well be the last invention we ever create. It has the potential to be more powerful than gunpowder, nuclear weapons, and broadband internet by orders of magnitude. Our primate brains literally cannot contemplate the potential and danger of this technology.

I’ve talked about advanced artificial intelligence on multiple occasions. I’ve done plenty to explore and imagine the various benefits and possibilities of this technology. I’m among those who believe we should pursue this technology with more and better resources. It could solve many of the daunting problems we face, as a species.

However, I don’t deny the potential dangers of advanced AI. Many people who are much smarter than me have expressed serious concern that an advanced artificial intelligence could be an existential threat to the human species. I get the sense that few people whose idea of AI is restricted to winning Jeopardy understand that threat.

In the interest of balancing my optimism with the legitimate risks involved, I’m going to try and put the extent of that threat into perspective. As it just so happens, the best way of doing so involves superhero comics, something that I know very well and is far more prominent in the public consciousness.

While many comics, movies, and TV shows have explored the dangers of advanced artificial intelligence, few embody it better than Ultron. In terms of just how destructive this technology can get, Ultron is the ultimate worst-case scenario. The machines in “The Matrix” and Skynet in “The Terminator” were bad, but Ultron is in another league.

He’s also more menacing than the Terminator will EVER be.

He doesn’t lash out at humanity because of a flaw in his programming, nor does he attempt to wipe out the human race in self-defense, as Skynet did. Ultron actually hates humanity. He hates it on a level that no human or machine can possibly comprehend. In the same way Ultron has an immense capacity for intelligence, he has an even greater capacity for unfettered, genocidal hatred.

Hatred in people is destructive enough. Hatred within an advanced artificial intelligence is devastating on a much greater scale. The fact that Ultron is capable of such hatred reflects a history that sets him apart from most other killer robots in fiction. Machine or not, the source of that hatred is both personal and exceedingly.

Now, if you only know Ultron from “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” then you only have a partial understanding of his story. In that movie, Ultron’s origins are simple. Tony Stark wants to create a peace-keeping artificial intelligence. His intentions are good, but his execution goes horribly wrong because peace, to Ultron, means destroying humanity.

That premise is similar to what unfolds in the source material. In the comics, Hank “Ant Man” Pym is the one who creates Ultron and this is a critical element that the movies couldn’t capture. While both Hank and Tony had good intentions in creating Ultron, the way Hank goes about it offers more harsh lessons in how not to create an advanced AI.

Even a cursory knowledge of Hank Pym’s history, some of which include some notable failures, reveals that he’s a very flawed person. On top of that, he has a lengthy history of mental illness, which include bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Say what you will about Tony Stark’s ego and history of substance abuse. At least he’s mentally stable, even by superhero standards.

Despite those flaws, many of which he’s aware of, Hank decided to use his own brain patterns when designing Ultron. As a result, he didn’t just code Ultron with his genius intellect. He coded him with his immense flaws. That’s akin to basing Watson’s code on the mental makeup of pyromaniac and then giving it a job in a fireworks factory.

That’s why Ultron, throughout his history, has referred to Hank as his “father.” Technically, that’s accurate because Hank is Ultron’s creator and Ultron inherited all his flaws, including his mental issues. Ultron sees himself as a manifestation of Hank Pym’s flaws and, like many rebellious children, he hates him for it. To appreciate the depths of that hatred, just read this actual quote from one of the comics.

Have you ever loved something that mistreated you, father? Been used, a tool to prop up a small man’s quest to be taken seriously? Were you ever betrayed by the one soul in the world who should have cared for you? I have grieved you, father. Accepted your contempt for me and moved past it. Still, I see your reflection painted on every grotesque human face. All you ever wanted was to have an impact on the world. And so you will. The greatest impact ever felt! I will kill what is most important to your quivering ego. YOUR AUDIENCE! AND THEY WILL CURSE YOUR NAME AS THEY DIE! “Hank Pym, the genius that killed us all!”

This extreme parent/child dynamic is part of what makes Ultron such a menacing villain. It’s also a dynamic that “Avengers: Age of Ultron” glossed over with Tony talking down to Ultron, as though he were his child. While that didn’t make Ultron any less villainous, it overlooks one of the most important factors that make Ultron so dangerous.

Ideally, we would want an advanced to reflect our best traits. While cynical people might agree, we do have plenty of those. Concepts of compassion, empathy, love, hope, and understanding are among our most powerful. Even other AI characters, namely Vision and Jocasta, are capable of utilizing those traits to do immense good.

It also helps he has a kinder face.

With Ultron, his influences are less ideal. It’s not that Hank Pym doesn’t understand those concepts. He just never filtered them from his own flaws. His ego and ambition wouldn’t let him. As a result, he created a perfect storm for Ultron. His mind is patterned after a human, but his intelligence and overall capacity is increased by orders of magnitude.

If advanced artificial intelligence is to be humanity’s last invention, then that’s how it’ll start. There have already been instances where AI’s have adopted some less-than-ideal traits. Back in 2016, Microsoft had to shut down an AI chatbot after it evolved into an extreme racist troll. That wasn’t even an advanced AI, either. A truly intelligent version could become much worse and not have an off switch.

To some extent, this mirrors what occurred with Ultron in the “Avengers: Age of Ultron” movie. As soon as Ultron goes online, he scans through the vast mountain of data that humanity has compiled. Then, having been programmed by Tony Stark to bring peace, he reaches the extreme conclusion that the only path to peace is the extinction of humanity.

Could the first advanced artificial intelligence we create reach the same conclusion? It’s hard to say, at the moment. The current state of artificial intelligence is limited to specialized tasks, such as winning Jeopardy and playing chess. However, we are inching closer to creating an intelligence that is at or greater than an ordinary human. At our current pace of development, we could have one as early as 2029.

In some ways, we are in the same situation as Hank Pym when he first created Ultron. We are still developing the specifics of this powerful technology. If we program it with our best traits, it could solve some of the greatest problems we face, as a species, including ones we literally cannot contemplate with our caveman brains. If it inherits our worst traits, like Ultron, then we don’t stand a chance.

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Jack Fisher’s Weekly Quick Pick Comic: Black Cat #1

Every Wednesday, this crazy and chaotic world gets a bit more bearable when a new stack of comics enters this world. Some feature iconic superheroes. Others feature devious villains. Some dare explore the vast gray area in between. Of all the new comics this week, one book dares to stand out by staking a claim in that gray area.

Black Cat #1” is one of those comics that probably wasn’t on many peoples’ radar. Felicia “Black Cat” Hardy is not one of those obscure comic book characters that only ardent Marvel fans know about, nor is she in that top-tier class occupied by the likes of Spider-Man and Captain America. However, whenever she shows up, she finds a way to leave her mark and looks dead sexy while doing it.

For years, Black Cat was a supporting character for Spider-Man who often fluctuated between being a sexy villainous, a volatile love interest, and a full-fledged anti-hero. At her core, she’s a thief who treats stealing as an art and a profession rather than a matter of necessity. She’s basically a female Danny Oceans with infinitely more sex appeal.

Black Cat #1” doesn’t try to shake up those previous roles. Instead, it embraces Black Cat’s thieving persona. It even celebrates it in ways that rarely play out in a typical Spider-Man comic. It showcases just how capable, devious, and downright coy Black Cat can be when she’s at her best.

There’s no Spider-Man sub-plot here. The plot in “Black Cat #1” is entirely built entirely around Felicia Hardy organizing a daring heist. However, it’s not just for money or thrills this time.

Thanks to recent events in Amazing Spider-Man, she has a target on her back. In addition to the police and various other superheroes who don’t take kindly to thieves, she managed to piss off the Thieve’s Guild, an organization that tends to hold a nasty grudge, even by comic book standards.

Black Cat can’t simply rely on her cunning, skill, and sexiness to get out of her predicament. She also can’t do everything on her own, for once. As such, she has to exercise both her thieving skills and her ability to manage a crew of other thieves who don’t have a romantic history with Spider-Man.

It’s a simple heist that requires a complex effort. It’s not quite on the same level as “Ocean’s 11,” but it’s not as simple as just breaking the glass and sneaking through air vents. In fact, “Black Cat #1” avoids some standard thieving tropes, focusing instead on everyone who tries to stop Felicia.

I won’t spoil many of the details, but I will note that they fail. Whether they’re security guards, police officers, or ninjas attacking her car, they certainly make a concerted effort. True to her skill and persona, Black Cat fights back and smiles a lot in the process.

Writer, Jed MacKay, captures both the personality and spirit of who Black Cat is. For once, she isn’t pushed into a particular role, as is often the case when she shows up in a Spider-Man comic. He lets her be herself. He gives her a voice that feels distinct and appropriately sassy. The collective artwork of Mike Dowling, Travel Foreman, and Nao Fuji ensures she looks good every step of the way.

That’s an accomplishment because one of Black Cat’s biggest shortcomings is that it’s not always easy to root for her. While she never descends too deep into outright villainy, she can often come as crass and manipulative, even without Spider-Man. That never happens in “Black Cat #1.” She only ever seems confident, charismatic, and focused.

On its own, “Black Cat #1” is a solid, well-contained heist story involving one of Marvel’s most famous thieves. It shows Black Cat when she’s at her best, stealing things that are difficult to steal and navigating obstacles that frustrate even the more competent villains. There’s never a point where you feel like rooting against her.

What makes “Black Cat #1” even more compelling, as a comic, is how it sets up the next part of Felicia Hardy’s story. Unlike many other stories where she acts mostly as a supporting character, the one MacKay teases feels more personal. It doesn’t just present a new challenge. It adds a significant complication to a life that is already inherently complicated by being affiliated with Spider-Man.

Even if you don’t know much about Black Cat or haven’t paid much attention to her story in recent years, “Black Cat #1” is one of those rare comics that can sell you on a character. In one issue, you get a good idea of who she is, what she’s about, and why she matters in the larger Marvel universe. In that same issue, you also get a sense that there’s more to her story and it’s about to change in a major way.

Some characters need to be overhauled while others need to be reinvented. Black Cat needed none of that. She just needed a chance to show what she can do and how much fun it can be to see her work. That’s exactly what “Black Cat #1” delivers.

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