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The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters for “What If? Punisher #1.” Enjoy!

‘What If? Punisher #1’ Toys With Spider-Man’s Concept Of Power And Responsibility

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October 11, 2018 · 5:28 pm

Jack’s Quick Pick Comic: What If? Punisher #1

Every Wednesday, a new batch of comics comes out and for comic fans like me, it’s the biggest highlight of the week that doesn’t involve ice cream and whiskey. Within that batch of comics, it’s hard find the gems that really stand out. That’s why every week, I pick out a comic that I feel warrants extra praise.

This week, my quick pick is “What If? Punisher #1.” Now, this may seem like an odd selection. In fact, this comic is very much an anomaly. There was once a time where Marvel had an ongoing “What If?” series that basically offered alternate history takes on iconic characters and stories.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about how these stories are handled. For the most part, they’re hit or miss. They’re either really good or really bad. Rarely, if ever, are they fleshed out stories.

What If? Punisher #1” finds a way to stand out because it does more than speculate on what would happen to Spider-Man if he chose a slightly different path. It actually explores the entire premise that with great power comes great responsibility. It even makes the case that the mainline Spider-Man in the long-running “Amazing Spider-Man” series is wholly irresponsible in his methods.

This is an idea that I’ve actually explored before. I once made the argument that Spider-Man is the most inept hero of all time. I got a lot of hate for that piece, mostly by long-time Spider-Man fans. I don’t blame them for a second. However, this comic actually takes some of the concepts I discussed and puts them into a cohesive story.

It doesn’t radically reinvent Peter Parker or Spider-Man. It also doesn’t radically alter his origin. He still fails to stop a burglar that goes onto murder his Uncle Ben. From that tragedy, he learns that critical lesson about power and responsibility. The only difference in this timeline is that great responsibility means killing his enemies, just like the Punisher.

It’s a line that the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man doesn’t dare cross most of the time. In nearly every famous iteration of Spider-Man, Peter makes clear that he does not kill. However, “What If? Punisher #1” makes the case that not only is this irresponsible. It actually played a part in hurting his loved ones.

How that happens and how it makes this case is something I won’t spoil. Since this is a “What If?” comic, though, there’s not room to dig deeper. There are more than a few gaps and oversights, but most of that is due to logistics rather than merit. At the very least, this comic asks some pretty damning questions about how Spider-Man approaches power and responsibility.

Even though most “What If?” comics are quickly forgotten and have no impact on the actual canon, this issue is worthy of my pick because the concept is so intriguing. It’s too brief and very much incomplete, but the ideas it presents are pretty remarkable. Not all Spider-Man fans will like it, but it’ll definitely get them thinking.

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A (Partial) Symbiosis Of Awesome: My “Venom” Review

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Certain movies are subject to unique standards. Nowhere is this more apparent than with superhero movies. A sci-fi movie can be flexible with its use of sci-fi elements. The same can be said for generic genres like romantic comedies, horror, action, and even stoner movies. A superhero movie, whether fairly or unfairly, will be judged by much stricter criteria.

This is the problem “Venom” faced before it even started shooting. Most fans, especially those who follow Marvel Comics, were probably intrigued by the possibility of a movie about Venom. Casting Tom Hardy in the lead role definitely help. No offense to Topher Grace, but he’s far more qualified to play Eddie Brock than he’ll ever be.

Even so, “Venom” had a lot of logistical problems from the beginning. It wasn’t going to feature Spider-Man. It wasn’t going to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It wasn’t even going to get input from Kevin Feige and everyone else at Marvel Studios, who have made creating billion-dollar movies seem inane. By some standards, that’s a serious handicap.

Most Marvel fans, and I consider myself one of them, aren’t too keen on the idea of a Venom movie that doesn’t involve Spider-Man or have any connection to the MCU. Even if you have a passing familiarity with Venom in the comics, you probably know that a lot of his story is connected with Spider-Man. Telling a Venom movie without Spider-Man is like telling a Joker movie without Batman.

Actually, that may be a bad example. Forget I said that.

Logistical issues aside, I was still intrigued enough to give “Venom” a try. Like many other Marvel fans, I was not pleased with how his story was handled in “Spider-Man 3.” The only good that came out of that was a slew of dancing Toby Maguire memes. I felt Venom deserved better.

Well, without getting too deep into spoiler territory, I can affirm that “Venom” definitely succeeded where “Spider-Man 3” failed. It’s not just a good movie about Venom. It’s a good movie, overall. It had a lot of things working against it, but it still worked.

I know that the movie didn’t exactly thrill critics, nor did it blow the minds of hardcore fans who saw it. At the same time, it wasn’t messy or cumbersome like the theatrical cut of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Yes, this movie probably would’ve benefited by taking the “Deadpool” approach and gone for an R-rating. However, it still succeeds in many ways.

At its core, “Venom” works because it’s less about alien symbiotes infecting random people and more about Eddie Brock. This is his story and Tom Hardy does an excellent job capturing his persona. You don’t have to read a single comic to understand that Eddie Brock is not Peter Parker. He’s not exactly a hero, but he’s not a blood-thirsty villain, either.

Although that’s not necessarily obvious.

Eddie Brock is one of those guys who’s a loser and not just because he ends up bonding with a parasitic alien. One of the best things this movie did was show that Eddie’s life falls apart because of a decision that he makes. He’s not a victim of bad luck. In the beginning, his life is actually really good. However, he makes a fateful choice that completely changes that.

At the same time, the movie establishes that Eddie is not the kind of guy who jumps at the chance to be a hero. He has a few opportunities before he bonds with the Venom symbiote. He doesn’t take it and unlike Peter Parker, it’s not purely out of responsibility. He’s just not the kind of guy who embodies the selfless spirit of Superman or Captain America.

Then, when he encounters the symbiote, these personality flaws intensify. At first, he’s just overwhelmed. He reacts in a way most people would. His first instinct isn’t to help people or be a hero. He’s actually petty and self-serving for the most part. As the story unfolds, he and the symbiote literally and figuratively feed off one another. They both grow and evolve, as characters.

That process involves plenty of action, some of which is pretty visceral. If you’re looking for the kind of cartoonish beat-downs we got in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” you’re going to be disappointed. The action here is quite violent. It’s not on the same gratuitous level as “Deadpool,” but it’s close and it even holds back at times.

Given Venom’s brutal nature in the comics, this can be a bit of a problem. In watching this movie, you get the sense that the effects team worked overtime to keep the violence just below PG-13 levels. At times, it feels forced and that impacts the story to some extent.

This moment could’ve been MUCH bloodier.

That’s not the only issue, nor is it the biggest. While I believe the story works, I also can’t deny that it’s missing some key components. Those not familiar Spider-Man’s history surrounding Venom probably won’t notice, but it’s hard for me to be a Marvel fan and overlook some of these flaws.

The story of how Venom and Eddie Brock come together is solid, concise, and compelling, as it’s presented in this movie. However, it still feels like it’s missing a lot of emotional depth without Spider-Man. A big reason why Venom, and Eddie by extension, becomes so menacing is because of Spider-Man’s role in his story. Removing him from that story is glaring, to say the least.

To fill in those gaps, the movie creates a new source of conflict through the Life Foundation, which acts as the primary antagonist through its unscrupulous Mark Zuckerberg wannabe, Carlton Drake. That’s not to say Drake isn’t a decent villain, but he’s not even in the same hemisphere as Erik Killmonger or Thanos.

Pictured here is NOT Thanos.

Even by non-superhero standards, these villains are pretty bland. It’s basically Venom versus and evil corporation who ends up serving an alien agenda. There’s nothing memorable or iconic about them, but that’s okay in the context of this movie because they still fulfill their primary purpose. They create the necessary moments that move Eddie’s story forward.

On top of that, the lack of connections with the MCU make this movie feel small by comparison, especially in a year when “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” broke box office records. “Venom” has everything it needs to connect with the MCU. There’s nothing in the story that precludes it from having a role, but Sony has gone on record as saying that this movie is completely detached from that world.

The shared reaction of many Marvel fans.

As much as I’d love to see Tom Hardy and Tom Holland battle in a future movie, the lack of MCU connections still don’t take away from everything this movie does well. Overall, “Venom” is good movie that had a lot of factors working against it. This movie faced an uphill battle from the beginning, but still managed to achieve a lot. If I had to score it, I’d give it a 7 out of 10.

I’ve heard some claim that this movie belongs in the early 2000s and just doesn’t work within the current market of superhero movies. I say that’s bullshit. Good movies work, regardless of the year or era they come out. “Venom” is a good movie, but it’s also one that could’ve been much greater.

Coming out of the theater, I was satisfied, but felt as though there was a lot of potential left on the cutting room floor. It’s hard to know whether this movie would function better with an R-rating or as part of the MCU, but it manages to do plenty within its many constraints. Tom Hardy was handicapped in bringing Eddie Brock and Venom to life, but he still pulled it off.

Again, with all apologies to Topher Grace, Tom Hardy is now the definitive face of Venom and this movie sets him up for a promising future.

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What I Learned At The “Dark Phoenix” Panel At New York Comic Con 2018

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There were a lot of wonderful moments at New York Comic Con this year. While I’ve already shared a few, it’s safe to say that the biggest highlight for me was being able to attend the panel for the “Dark Phoenix” movie. Since I’ve made my excitement and concerns about this movie very clear, I don’t think that should surprise anyone.

The panel itself was very well-attended. Anyone who claims that nobody is interested in this movie since Disney is buying Fox can officially piss off. As soon as Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner walked out onto that stage, there was a huge cheer that echoed throughout the Jacob Javits Center. It was a really powerful moment.

I had to fight my way through a lot of equally-eager X-men fans to get a good seat. These pictures, by the way, are not taken from some comic reporting site. I took these with my phone and I’m very proud of how close I managed to get. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to celebrities like this for the rest of my life.

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While at the panel, I learned a few things of note that made me all the more excited about this movie. Some of those things have already been reported by some sites. Here are a few others I picked up on.


Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan have great chemistry, more so than James Marsden and Famken Jansen did in the original X-men movie.

This was obvious by how how well they got along, how close they sat, and how much they smiled around one another. You can usually tell when an actor and actress don’t get along. It really shows and it tends to undermine the movie. If you don’t believe me, just look at how that worked out for Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman in “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.


This movie will fully embrace the cosmic nature of the Phoenix Saga.

Those aren’t my words. That’s what Simon Kinberg said outright during the panel. He flat out admitted that “X-men: The Last Stand” did not do justice to the Phoenix Saga, which actually drew some cheers. He then made clear that the cosmic part of the Phoenix will be a big part of the movie and the footage they showed definitively proved that.

This is huge because anyone who claims this movie is just a remake of “X-men: The Last Stand” will not be able to say that with a straight face after seeing how it plays out.


Jean Grey is NOT the one in that grave during the funeral scene depicted in the trailer.

 

I was kind of surprised that Kinberg confirmed this, outright. He said during the interview that the funeral scene was not for Jean. There was someone else in that grave and the identity of that person, which he did not reveal, is what really divides the team.

On top of that, Kinberg made clear that this moment really undermines the faith the X-men have in Charles Xavier. Before this moment, they trust him implicitly. Jean, especially, trusts him. After what happens here, though, the team somewhat turns against him and he struggles to regain their trust.

That’s another powerful bit of drama that “X-men: The Last Stand” did not do much to develop. Xavier makes some hard choices and the consequences of those choices hurt many.


Cyclops really steps up and becomes the true leader of the X-men.

This also got plenty of cheers from the crowd. To hear Tye Sheridan talk about his character was a powerful moment. He talked about how Cyclops finds himself in a tough position where he has to make decisions that put him against others. He has to go against the will of friends, teammates, and even Charles Xavier. He isn’t given the role of leader. He earns it.

For the many Cyclops fans who hated how he got treated in the original X-men trilogy, this should be music to your ears. I could feel Tye’s enthusiasm for the character, along with many others in the crowd. I also noticed Sophie Turner smiling a lot when he talked about it, which I also think was a promising sign.


Jennifer Lawrence, more than any other cast member, tried to get “Game of Thrones” Spoilers out of Sophie Turner.

This was a serious question that also got some cheers, mostly from people dressed as “Game of Thrones” characters. Sophie Turner didn’t hesitate when she answered. She said that Jennifer Lawrence made her love of “Game of Thrones” very clear on set. She tried on more than one occasion to get some details from Turner. She didn’t say how much she succeeded, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Lawrence knows something we don’t.


There are a lot of other details I could mention from this panel. I’ll keep them to myself, though. They are now among my most precious memories of New York Comic Con and I honestly don’t know how they’ll be topped in the years to come. After being part of this panel, though, I’m a lot more hopeful about this movie. I genuinely believe it’s going to be the movie X-men fans have been waiting for.

 

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The Awomsome (And Sexy) Moments Of My Trip To New York Comic Con 2018

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Another New York Comic Con has come and gone. Once again, the experience has left me astonished, amazed, and satisfied. Every year I go, I worry that next year will have to be a let-down compared to this year. Time and again, I’m proven wrong.

This year was probably my most ambitious year at New York Comic Con. In the past, I was just so overwhelmed by the crowds and spectacles that I didn’t really map out all the events and panels I wanted to attend. This year, however, I tried to make a list of all the places I wanted to go and all the people I wanted to see.

Needless to say, it made for a more exhausting trip, but it was so worth it. I got to meet people I really wanted to meet. I got to interact with fellow fans in a way that was very rewarding. I even managed to meet a few celebrities that made my inner child squeal with joy.

It would take too long to detail everything I saw and experienced. However, thanks to having extra chargers for my phone, I managed to take plenty of pictures. What follows are just some of the sights I saw at New York Comic Con. Some of them were just fun. Others were downright sexy. As always, I am deeply grateful to everyone who once again made New York Comic Con an awesome experience.

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On My Way To New York Comic Con 2018!

Today, there’s no need for sexy musings.

Today, there’s no time for sexy stories.

Today is all about me heading to the New York Comic Con! I’ve documented my experiences before. I’ve every intention of doing the same here. Every year seems to bring a new experience, a new spectacle, and a new story to tell. Say what you will about nerd culture and superhero media. It’s a hell of an experience and one that fans like me deeply cherish.

I hope to post various updates throughout the day. If I encounter anything especially exciting or sexy, I’ll be sure to document it here. For now, just know that I am on my way to the Jacob Javits center in New York City where I hope to join those looking to share the experience.

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Gabby Kinney: A Case-Study In Cuteness

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What makes a character cute?

That’s a not an empty question. It’s one that movie studios, TV networks, toy makers, and novelists attempt to answer every day. I’m not just talking about the ones affiliated with Disney, either. While the House of Mouse is legendary for crafting a winning formula for the creation of all things cute and lovable, it’s worth breaking down the components.

Understanding them isn’t just important for creating likable characters. It can be pretty damn lucrative too. Just look at the merchandise sales for “Frozen.” Cute, adorable characters sell. They sell a lot. Plenty has been written about the cuteness of characters created by Disney, Fox, and a multitude of Japanese anime. However, I’d like to single out one particularly adorable character.

As it just so happens, this character is from the world of superhero comics. Specifically, she’s from the X-men comics. If you’ve followed this website for any length of time, this shouldn’t surprise you in the slightest. I promise this isn’t just another love letter to the X-men like the many I’ve crafted before. This is an exploration of a character who forged a unique path to cuteness.

Her name is Gabrielle “Gabby” Kinney, also known as Honey Badger. You probably haven’t heard of her because, in the context of Marvel’s vast history, she’s very new. She has only been around for about three years. In that time, though, she’s done plenty to make her mark on the world.

Think of the cutest characters you’ve ever known. Whether it’s a talking animal, a princess, or a boy band, take a moment to contemplate all the traits that make them cute. From their looks, their personality, their story, and everything in between, think about qualities that make them so adorable.

Without hesitation, I can say Gabby has all those qualities, as well as a few you didn’t know could be so adorable in the first place.

That may sound like a bold claim, but it’s true. After reading every issue of All-New Wolverine, I genuinely believe that she has raised the bar for cuteness for any character, both within superhero comics and in the real world. To appreciate why her story is so remarkable, it’s necessary to know some key details about her backstory.

This should give you a few telling hints.

On paper, she doesn’t come off as the kind of character who can be overly cute. She’s a clone of Laura “X-23” Kinney, who herself is a partial clone of Wolverine. Given the number of clone-based character in comics, including a few who are notably infamous, she doesn’t have a lot going for her at first.

That changes quickly after she’s introduced. She’s actually one of three clones from Laura, but she ends up being the one who makes the greatest impression and not just because she doesn’t go evil, which tends to happen a lot with clones in comics.

From the beginning, Gabby sets herself apart as being the more upbeat, bubbly clone of the bunch. She’s not overly angry or vindictive. She isn’t even that bothered by the fact that she’s a clone. It helps that she’s just a kid, but it also helps that this has never been hidden from her. She knows what she is and doesn’t whine about it. That, alone, makes her more mature than the majority of adult heroes, even the non-clone ones.

She even has a sense of humor about it. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. She doesn’t get too uptight in tense situations, either. That even includes dangerous situations that involve dragons, zombie animals, and alien parasitic bugs. Gabby sees the world through a rose-colored lens, regardless of how ugly it is, and this is the key to what makes her so adorable.

Whether she’s helping Laura battle Sentinels or caring for a pet wolverine, Gabby always finds a reason to smile. She’ll always look for the lighter side of a complicated situation and help others see it. That sort of thing is becoming increasingly precious in today’s overly-cynical world, but it’s especially powerful in the world of superhero comics.

The very premise of any world involving superheroes requires that the world contain the kinds of chaos that can’t be contained with extra police and stiffer fines. In Gabby’s case, she inhabits a world full of evil organizations like Hydra, shape-shifting aliens like the Skrulls, and actual devil-like creatures that go out of their way to ruin marriages between iconic characters.

The fact that Gabby can lighten the mood under those circumstances helps amplify her lovability. Make no mistake. She is disturbingly lovable. I say that as someone who was extremely sick of clone character at the time All-New Wolverine debuted in June 2015. However, the writer of All-New Wolverine, Tom Taylor, went the extra mile with Gabby.

It’s not just in the light-hearted jokes that she makes. It’s not just the fact that she’s a cute kid full of youthful innocence, despite having been cloned in a lab by assholes who wanted to make her a living weapon. Any character can just say goofy things and ignore the horrible crap going on around them. Where Gabby really shines is how she affects those around her.

From the moment she meets Laura to her first hilarious team-up with Deadpool, Gabby has a positive influence on pretty much everyone she meets. She doesn’t get scared or overwhelmed by any given situation, even those involving parasitic aliens. She never lets these situations destroy her child-like innocence.

That, in and of itself, sets her apart in a major way. In so many other stories involving cute characters, their innocence is treated like fine china. It’s easy to crack, easy to taint, and irreparable when damaged. More often than not, a big part of a plot surrounding cute characters is how they become corrupted.

Tom Taylor basically turns that narrative upside down. Rather than build the story around how Gabby loses her innocence, he essentially surrounds her innocence in an adamantium shell that’s every bit as unbreakable as Wolverine’s claws.

This is critical to what makes Gabby uniquely cute, but it’s also important to the presence she brings to the X-men comics and the larger Marvel universe. Instead of having everyone try to protect her innocence, she basically has to shove her cuteness in their face and remind them that she doesn’t need protecting. In fact, they need her more than she needs them.

She gives them a reason to laugh and smile after Hydra has taken over the United States. She gives them a reason to feel good after the Red Skull comes back to life yet again to bring old-fashioned fascism to the world. She goes out of her way to be a positive presence on everyone she encounters. However, it’s her impact on Laura where her cuteness becomes genuinely endearing.

To appreciate why that matters, it’s worth recalling just how dark and brutal Laura’s story has been thus far. That story has closely followed that of her predecessor, Logan. She was born in a lab, subject to dehumanizing treatment, and turned into a living weapon. Unlike Gabby, she didn’t escape it until she’d committed soul-scarring atrocities, one of which included the death of her mother.

Since her introduction in the memorable, yet underrated “X-men Evolution” cartoon of the early 2000s, Laura has personified a worst-case-scenario for a cloned character. Her life, her story, and her personality are driven by loss, anger, and sorrow. Then, Gabby comes along and suddenly, there’s a light in her life.

Gabby is like a breath of fresh air to someone who has only been breathing smog for all their life. She’s like a hot shower after spending 4 hours shoveling snow in a blizzard. She provides an overdue balance to long-suffering characters like Laura that it’s more than just refreshing. It’s cathartic.

Gabby helps give Laura and her story something that benefits them both. She creates an outlet from the endless string of tragedies that plague the Marvel universe and the real world. She dares Laura and those following her story to not let all that ugliness destroy all that is good and pure. A cloud of darkness doesn’t have to cover the entire sky. There’s always room for a ray of light.

Gabby is that ray of light. Cute, adorable characters tend to shine brighter than most. That’s what gives them such a powerful presence. Whether it’s in a Disney movie or a superhero comic, they illuminate the darkness and make the characters around them do more than just lament. The fact that Gabby does all of this and cares for a pet Wolverine makes her a special kind of cute.

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