Monday, October 26, 2009

World's Finest Crap

I originally posted this on the Hooded Utilitarian blog.

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies

When I learned that DC was releasing another animated movie, this one starring Superman and Batman, I was intrigued. When I learned it featured the triumphant return of Kevin Conroy (Batman), Tim Daly (Superman), and Clancy Brown (Lex Luthor) from the Batman and Superman animated series, I was excited. And when I learned it was based on a comic written by Jeph Loeb ... well, I was disappointed, to put it mildly.

There are some people who will claim that Jeph Loeb wasn't always a bad writer. Do not believe these people! Make no mistake, even Loeb's "good comics" weren't actually any good. But despite the fact that every comic he writes is worse than the last one, Loeb remains one of the most successful and sought after writers in the industry. Depressing as that may be, it comes as no surprise then that DC would turn one of his stories into an animated feature. Though it's strange that DC picked the opening arc of the "Superman/Batman" comic rather than one of Loeb's more famous works.

But saying Jeph Loeb is a terrible writer is like saying the sky is blue; no aesthetic judgment is actually being made. What about the animated movie itself? The animation style combines the simple line-work of previous DC cartoons with the character designs of Ed McGuinness, the artist of the "Superman/Batman" comic. The unpleasant result is that all the characters look puffy. Not in a puffy fat way, but as if they all have air pockets right on top of their muscles. They remind me of those inflatable muscle suits that people wear on Halloween.

If the animation is a little off-putting, the writing isn't any better. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies has a very simple story. Lex Luthor is President of the United States, having run successfully as an independent candidate. He's like a better looking, slightly less crazy version of Ross Perot. Things are actually going well for Luthor until a giant kryptonite meteor is spotted heading directly towards Earth (if I remember correctly, the meteor in the comic was a chunk of Krypton that brought Supergirl to Earth. No reference is made to Supergirl in the movie, which begs the question why the filmmakers decided to include this plot). Rather than swallow his pride and ask Superman for help, Luthor concocts a sure-to-fail scheme to destroy the meteor and frames Superman for murder. Batman gets involved because he's got nothing better to do, and the dynamic duo are forced to fight off both supervillains looking to collect a bounty and superheroes who blindly follow the President's orders. Quick synopsis: Awkward man-flirting between Superman and Batman, fight scene, more flirting, fight scene, Luthor goes crazy, fight scene, Luthor makes out with a morbidly obese woman, fight scene, more flirting until Lois Lane shows up and ruins the moment, the end.

While the plot is easy to follow, the movie is needlessly packed with cameos. Villains like Mongul, Grodd, Lady Shiva, and Banshee Babe (that's probably not her name, but it should be) show up out of nowhere with no introduction and are quickly dispatched. Then comes the parade of heroes, including Power Girl, Captain Atom, Black Lightning, Starfire of the Teen Titans, and the descriptively named Katana. The character selection is so utterly random it feels like they were chosen by drawing names from a hat. And at no point does the movie explain who these characters are, how their powers work, or what their relationship is to Superman or Batman. I actually have a great deal of familiarity with the DC Universe (or at least I thought I did), but I had a hard time figuring out who everyone was and an even harder time caring. Of course, most superhero comics do this sort of thing all the time, but those books are marketed to a fanboy audience that presumably has an extensive knowledge of, and affection for, Z-list characters. One would think an animated feature would at least try to appeal to a slightly broader audience.

Out of all the superhero guest stars, Power Girl is the only one who gets any significant screen time. Now, if I'm going to talk about Power Girl, let's get the obvious out of the way. Even by superheroine standards, Power Girl is famous for being well-endowed. I'm saying she has a big bust, mammoth mammaries, jumbo jugs. But there's no reason she has to be solely defined by her humongous hooters. This is 2009. Power Girl could be written as a strong, intelligent, and courageous woman who just happens to have brobdingnagian breasts. Unfortunately, Power Girl doesn't really do much here except look meek, follow other people's orders, and validate the moral superiority of our heroes. In other words, she's "The Girl" of the movie, including the obligatory moment where she's rescued by the strapping male lead. By the end of the story, the only thing remotely memorable about the character is emphasized by the hole in her costume. Like everything else in the movie, the filmmakers simply didn't put much thought into her. Power Girl only appears in the movie because she appeared in the comic.

The last point I want to make deals with age-appropriateness. Compared to the animated Wonder Woman movie, Superman/Batman is remarkably tame in its violence. There are quite a few fight scenes, but they consist of typical superhero punching and smashing. The onscreen deaths are bloodless and one of them involves a robot, and we all know that robots don't count. There's no sex either, unless you count Superman and Batman occasionally eye-fucking each other. But the filmmakers must have really wanted that edgy PG-13 rating, because they threw in some profanity. Nothing too hardcore, but Lex Luthor calls a woman a "bitch" at least once. Apparently, that's how you separate the grown-up cartoons from the silly kid stuff.

It's an odd movie. Far too much fan-service to be accessible to anyone who isn't religiously devoted to DC Comics, but the decision to make it a stand-alone story removes the continuity elements that were important to fans (like the re-introduction of Supergirl). Who is this movie for? And why this particular story? Surely there are better Superman/Batman adventures to pick from. There are probably better Jeph Loeb stories too.

In case you want a comparison to other DC animated features:
Superman: Doomsday < Superman/Batman < Wonder Woman

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I see the future, and it is in MOTION!

Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD, Episodes 1-3

Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Alex Maleev
Spider-Woman/Jessica Drew – Nicolette Reed

In my first foray into comics blogging, I thought I’d discuss something that doesn’t even technically qualify as a comic. Paper is for Luddites, motion comics are the future, so what does the future look like?

Short answer: a really cheap cartoon with an impenetrable plot.

Long answer:
After her solo title was canceled in 1983, Jessica Drew vanished into character limbo while the Spider-Woman name got passed around to various heroines, none of whom found any lasting success. In the mid-2000s, Brian Michael Bendis pulled Drew from obscurity and placed her on his high profile revamp of the Avengers. Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD is the first serious attempt at a Spider-Woman ongoing in more than 20 years, as well as Marvel’s first go at motion comics.

Considering that motion comics are sold through iTunes rather than the Direct Market, you’d think that Marvel would target the casual “I liked Downey, Jr. in that movie” fan. But Marvel is nothing if not predictable, and instead the story launches out of the last mega-crossover, Secret Invasion (also by Bendis). Jessica Drew was apparently kidnapped by Skrulls, a shape-shifting alien race, and replaced by the Skrull queen. So the Spider-Woman that readers had been following for the last couple of years in New Avengers was a fake. Now the real Spider-Woman is back and she’s understandably pissed. Lucky for her, Abigail Brand, director of S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient World Observation and Response Department), offers Spider-Woman a job hunting down Skrulls, thus allowing her to work out her issues and beat up illegal aliens at the same time. Spider-Woman’s first assignment takes her Madripoor, the crime capital of Asia. As these things always go, her mission quickly goes to shit and she’s on the run from HYDRA (like G.I. Joe’s Cobra, but no ninjas). And just when you think things can’t get more complicated, in episode 3 Spider-Woman is targeted by the Thunderbolts, a super-powered hit squad run by Norman Osborn, the Big Bad of Marvel’s current Dark Reign mega-crossover. In other words, it’s a story only a hardcore superhero fan could love.

Thankfully, Alex Maleev’s artwork is easier to appreciate. His penciling is fairly realistic and detailed, but he applies multiple layers of color to his work, causing every image to appear dark and washed-out. While the coloring can make certain details hard to see, it effectively establishes the mood and atmosphere of an espionage thriller.

The main attraction though of Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD is neither the story nor the art, but the format. Each motion comic episode runs about 10 minutes, and consists of three types of visuals. The first type is a sequence of still images accompanied by dialogue and other sound. During conversation scenes, the same images are frequently re-used. The second slightly more sophisticated visual involves moving an image in the foreground while keeping the background still. The third type of visual, which is used for the vehicle chase scenes, is just low budget computer animation (which seems like cheating to me).

Many critics have accused Spider-Woman, and motion comics in general, of simply being low budget animation, and there's a pretty strong case for that. But comparing motion comics only to animation ignores their biggest flaw, namely that they sacrifice the communicative aspect of comics without replacing it with the advantages of actual animation. While it probably goes without saying, comics are a sequence of artistic panels accompanied by text. But there’s more to reading a comic than just proceeding from top-left to bottom-right. Artists can influence the pace at which the reader progresses through panels, sometimes by encouraging the reader to linger on a single panel or to move swiftly through a sequence. The layout of panels, their size, the level of detail, and the amount of text are all part of the communication between creators and readers. Motion comics take most of that away. Every “panel” is now just another background that fits the aspect ratio. And the pacing of the story is set by the motion comic producers rather than the artist and readers. Motion comics, in short, are something less than comics AND something less than animation.

Of course, motion comics do have one element that comics can never have: sound. The music and sound effects in Spider-Woman are used quite well, adding to the atmosphere of the story but generally remaining unobtrusive. The dialogue and Spider-Woman’s inner monologue are another matter. Bendis has a peculiar approach to the English language, which seems to consist mostly of repetitions, redundant statements, and pointless asides. Presumably Bendis is going for realism, but I can happily say I’ve never talked to anyone who speaks as strangely as the characters in this comic. I feel pity for the voice actors who had to read his lines and try to make them sound like something non-assholes would say. Nicolette Reed, who voices both Spider-Woman and Madame Hydra, doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with her lines, so Spider-Woman comes across as flat (and British?) while Madame Hydra quickly becomes obnoxious. But her performance seems Oscar-worthy compared to her co-stars. Particularly shameful are the “actors” who voice the Madripoor police detectives, who seem to take the Breakfast at Tiffany’s approach to portraying Asian men.

So the execution of Marvel’s first motion comic is not so good. Maybe a better example would change my opinion of the medium, but I doubt it. Still, it gave Marvel an excuse to come up with another corny character theme song. Behold, the Spider-Woman music video!

Update: the entire first episode is available for free for a limited time on Youtube. Check it out if you're interested.

Friday, October 9, 2009

In the old days, we called 'em expansion packs...

Halo 3: ODST

The fact that they called it Halo 3 colon blah rather than Halo 4 should tell you everything you need to know about the game. It's more Halo 3, with the same gameplay, weapons, vehicles, and story. The plot, drop troops in occupied New Mombasa, basically amounts to a footnote in the Halo mythology. And playing as a non-superpowered helljumper is no different than playing as a SPARTAN. Sure, you don't have shields, but your character is still pretty damn tough on normal difficulty.

It's also really, really short. To compensate, the developers included a second disk with Halo 3 multiplayer, but there are only a few new maps.

There's no way in hell this game is worth $60, but hardcore Halo fans will find more of what they enjoy.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Jesse Eisenberg
Woody Harrelson
Emma Stone

Another month, another zombie apocalypse. Zombieland doesn't break any new ground so much as cast a more humorous slant on the genre's tropes, much like Shawn of the Dead. But whereas Shawn preferred to riff on classic films, Zombieland is more directly influenced by zombie video games like Dead Rising or Left 4 Dead. The rules of surviving a zombie apocalypse (don't use public bathrooms, double tap in the head) are displayed prominently for the audience's benefit. And unlike most video game-to-movie translations, Zombieland works precisely because it understands what gamers love about zombie games: brutal carnage as the heroes slaughter the undead in creative ways.

The story, unfortunately, is fairly predictable. Jesse Eisenberg (doing his best Michael Cera impersonation) plays Columbus, a sad-sack nerd who survives the first outbreak of zombie flu because he's so isolated. Like all Hollywood leading men, he has to learn the values of love and manly courage. To help him with the former, he meets the lovely but devious Emma Stone. But most of the film follows Columbus as he hitches a ride with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a borderline lunatic who's become a zombie-killing artiste. And there's a very funny cameo by a former Ghostbuster.

There honestly isn't much more to say about Zombieland. If watching Woody Harrelson beat zombies with a baseball bat appeals to you, you'll probably enjoy this flick. The rest of the film amounts to a reasonably entertaining diversion.