Monday, September 30, 2013

My Thoughts on the Breaking Bad Finale -- with Comparisons to Dr. Horrible and Star Wars!

The Breaking Bad finale was a poetic ending, but not a wholly satisfying one. After all, it was neat, unsurprising, and almost devoid of true tension. When were you biting your lip aside from the 90 seconds Walt was separated from his machine-gun-activating keys?

In other words, it was everything the Ozymandias episode wasn’t. Looking back, Ozymandias was the true climax of the series -- the point where everything came to a head and was never the same after. The following two episodes were more resolution than anything else. We saw the dots connected from all of the cold openings featuring shaggy Walt. We saw everyone die who deserved to die. Everyone we wanted to live lived. It was what we all wanted to happen, which isn’t always the best way to go.

According to storymaster Robert McKee, the best endings are ironic ones, and I am inclined to agree. Ironic endings are the kind where you achieve your goal, but have to give up something important to get it. Where good and bad meet in the middle. A great example is Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog in which (spoilers!) Dr. Horrible finally gets into the Evil League of Evil by killing someone, but the person that died was his one true love. In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Luke finally redeems his father, but his father pays for his sins with his life. There were ironies to Walt’s end story, but they weren’t pronounced enough in the finale to ring true.

In fact, for a story about a man breaking bad, he wound up being more of a hero by the end. I think that had to do with Vince Gilligan and the other writers wanting to redeem Walt in the eyes of the audience, even if it went against what they had been writing towards for five whole seasons. I would have preferred to see him fully break bad by the end and for that to have dire consequences. Let him become the man his actions have built him up to be and nothing less.

Gilligan built the show on the premise of wanting to turn a protagonist into an antagonist, but we saw a protagonist turn into an antagonist and then become an anti-hero. Why focus an entire series on the concept of a man becoming a monster, only to end it in a way that will make you go, “Oh, well he wasn’t that bad of a guy in the end!”

I’m not saying this was the worst finale ever. Far from it. There were many awesome moments. Lydia dying via her obnoxious tea-drinking habit. Walt “buying” sympathy with the lottery ticket. And every single scene with Jesse. This finale was Walt’s show, but it was Jesse who made me feel the most. His wood-carving heaven was a thing of sad beauty. The way he took care of Todd with the very chains that made him his prisoner was sweet justice. And his tearful elation at being free from not only from the Nazis and the meth cooking but from Walt was, well, beyond perfect.

And for a moment I thought he was going to shoot Walt. He had me feeling for him and I was unsure of what he was going to do. Walt, on the other hand, seemed to be on autopilot. I believe this is mainly because of the cold openings showing so many elements of the final episode. When the pieces were put together, they didn’t create anything unexpected. The season two finale -- as ludicrous as it was -- was at least genuinely thought-provoking. The whole season would have been better served without the one-year jump. I would have been more invested in the end if the events of the final episode had occured soon after Ozymandias.

Perhaps my biggest reason for not absolutely adoring the finale was a lack of revelation. It’s unclear about what brought about Walt’s final change of heart. Why did he give up his life of seclusion to get back at Gray Matter? From what we saw, it was only to threaten Elliot and Gretchen into giving his money to Walter Jr., making his monstrous actions at least be good for something. Saving Jesse, ending Lydia’s blue meth business, and taking out the Nazis were all an afterthought that he decided on after Badger and Skinny Pete mentioned it in the car. What would Walt have done if those two dorks never mentioned it? Gone back to his cabin and wasted away to death from cancer?

Breaking Bad defined itself by keeping you guessing every step of the way. To get a finale with such a weak poker face is a bit of a disappointment, but on the other hand, to get such tight closure -- however telegraphed -- is a blessing in disguise. One need only think of the absolute mess that was LOST to be grateful for the tight ending of Breaking Bad.

LOST had a complicated tangle of unanswered questions that it swept to the side at the end. Yes, there were unanswered questions in Breaking Bad, but they were the good kind. Who was Gus back in Chile? What exactly went down with Gray Matter? Those answers are tantalizing teases that anyone watching the show would want to know, but they are all secondary story elements that don’t matter in the grand scheme of Walt’s character arc. Plus, they’re more fun to just wonder about than actually know -- like the Joker’s multiple choice origin.

I was expecting some crazy twist to come in the finale. Something juicy and polarizing and shocking that would be divisive among fans. But they played it straight and ended it on a safe but sound note. With such huge expectation for the show to stick to its unpredictable guns, perhaps giving us exactly what we wanted is the biggest twist that Breaking Bad ever pulled.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

I Gave Wonder Woman #23 a Perfect 10 on IGN!

A 10 at IGN is something to get excited about. Of all the big comic book review websites, IGN is the only one, to my knowledge, where a 10 is a rare, coveted prize. There have only been seven 10s awarded in its entire history (eight now), whereas other sites award one every week or so. I'm not putting those websites down, but rather pointing out how IGN has made the awarding of a 10 a momentous occasion simply because it doesn't happen that often.

I was actually going to give Wonder Woman #12 a 10 for its mind-blowing climax, but, looking back, I was too scared. A 10 was a big deal to me, and I felt better "saving" it, although for what I couldn't say, because my socks had just been knocked off. The same thing happened with FF #17, but again something held me back; I didn't want to lessen the prestige of a 10, even though the comic deserved it.

Luckily, lightning struck twice. Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang delivered yet another smashing ending, this time for the First Born arc in Wonder Woman. When I got to the end, that haunting end with no dialogue and pitch perfect colors, my head was buzzing with the emotions and energy of the story. I got up and walked around and then pressed my head down into my bed sheets, but the feeling wouldn't stop. That's when I knew that this issue was a 10, and just like Wonder Woman had to make a monumental decision to become the God of War, I decided I was going to award it this time.

In hindsight, I should have gone with my gut and given those other books a 10. As my Editor Joey said when he gave Superman #712 IGN's first-ever 10, I don't want to live in a world where there can't be perfection. Actually, I don't want to live in a world where I can't admit there can be perfection.

"At long last, Wonder Woman joins Superman #712 and Batman #17 to form the Trinity of Perfection. I thought Wonder Woman #12 was going to be as good as it gets for this series, but somehow Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang managed to build on what made that issue so great and deliver the most poignant, powerful, and poetic superhero comic book I’ve ever read. It doesn't get much better than this, folks."

Read the rest of my review on IGN!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel Review

There’s a moment during the third act of Marvel’s The Avengers where we see Hawkeye and Black Widow helping civilians out of a bus as invading aliens attack New York City. It’s a quick shot, but it did it’s purpose in showing us that even amongst all this chaos, their main mission was to save people. In a third act not worlds away from the one in Avengers, Superman does a whole lot of fighting, but not near enough saving -- unless your name is Lois Lane.

Director Zack Snyder no doubt salivated at the thought of bringing Superman to life on the big screen using all the neat tricks he learned making 300 and Watchmen, yet all that over-the-top action proves to be to the film’s detriment. Superman battles other Kryptonians in Dragon Ball Z fashion where every punch sends the opponent careening through cars, storefronts, and skyscrapers -- all of which do not appear to be fully vacated. It’s chilling to think that Superman’s body flattened a room full of people, yet he throws himself back into the fight without a thought of whose remains are on his boots.

But the movie is not all bad. There are some wonderful elements that come from Superman’s two dads, Jonathan Kent and Jor-El. They seem to talk in nothing but Life Lesson Speak, but it’s the eloquent kind that gives you feel-good goosebumps. You’d get why a guy who grew up hearing that kind of rhetoric all his life would turn out pretty super.

While Henry Cavill certainly looks the part with super pecs and super biceps --  and even at one point a super sexy beard -- he never wins the audience over with his personality. And seeing how his actions don’t prove to be entirely super when it comes to saving people, there’s not much to get behind. This Superman is touted to be an inspirational leader for the human race, yet he lacks the charm of one.

Michael Shannon proved he’s capable of turning in a Joker-level performance in Revolutionary Road, but he’s not given much to work with here as General Zod. He screams quite a bit and revels in making extreme decisions. We are told the reason for this is his genetic programming as a warrior protector, and by the end you’ll understand his motivation one-hundred percent. It’s just not the most compelling motivation, making him the greatest one-dimensional villain in superhero movie history.

His right-hand woman, Faora, steals the show from him with a few deliciously evil encounters, although, like her General, she doesn’t get much to say other than explaining why she’s superior to Superman as she beats the crap out of him. I would have liked to see her and Zod interact a bit more. A scene while they were at rest in between big action set pieces would have allowed them to talk freely and given us the opportunity to get under their skin. Still, moments where Faora lets loose with full super speed make for the film’s finest action scenes.

The visuals are generally top notch. Krypton is a beautiful alien world with weird creatures, making this more of a sci-fi epic than a superhero movie. The fights are cool to watch, although trimming each one’s length down by two-thirds would have gone a long way to keep them tight and special. When the battles go on too long, the characters start to look like slick, unfeeling cartoons. The strange liquid metal tentacle defenses of the World Engine were a nice sci-fi surprise, even if they seemed pointless by the end of that scuffle. This is a movie with a lot to see, even if it overindulges on a regular basis.

The score starts out as something truly inspiring, adding weight to the dialogue and setting the thoughtful tone of the flashback scenes, of which there are many -- and all are just about perfect. However, once the third act kicks in, the score competes with the many crashing/exploding sound effects, making for an experience so noisy and cluttered that the silence that comes with the resolution feels completely euphoric.

Super SPOILERS beyond this point!

The most heart-wrenching scene in the film was when Jonathan let himself be taken by the tornado to save Clark from revealing himself to the crowd. It showed that Jonathan trusted his adopted son to do what was right, but only when the world was ready. Now, contrast this to the end when Clark snaps Zod’s neck. The puzzle pieces just don’t seem to fit, which unravels all the hard work the filmmakers did to build up the character we know as Superman. 

That Superman killed Zod is the absolute worst moment of the film. I say this not as a Superman fan or because I’m a slave to the comics or because I think I get the guy more than you. I am saying that, within the bounds of this movie, based on everything we’ve learned from his fathers about sacrifice and inspiration, he defied the very moral fiber of the character we saw being built for two and a half hours. I can point to several moments that would show why he would not kill Zod. I can find none to show why he’d take his life, even when faced with such a terrible decision. Is this the inspiration he was supposed to provide? When things get tough -- unbelievably tough -- just kill the bad guy? Yikes.

For as brooding as the Dark Knight Trilogy could be, it had several moments of genuine humor to balance it out. No such luck here. Secondary characters such as Perry White and the hyped-but-sidelined Jenny Olsen seemed the obvious choice to provide that reprieve, but their inclusion is so superfluous it’s a wonder they were included at all. Lois had some good investigative journalist moments, but Amy Adams never so much as remotely engages the audience with even an ounce of wit, snark, or charisma. Not to mention her chemistry with Cavill wasn’t strong enough to sell that big kiss at the end. For a movie about an alien trying to find his place among humans, it was lacking the warm heart and humor that makes humanity so special.

At the end of the day, Man of Steel was not as thrilling, inspiring, or fun as it most certainly should have been. There are several elements worth enjoying, but they are all ultimately ruined by the film’s disturbing ending. As a result, kids are now forced to look up to Superman the Killer. If Batman exists in this universe as the blink-and-you-missed-it Wayne Industries satellite would suggest, then he will surely be on Superman’s doorstep tomorrow, ready to teach him his one rule about being a hero.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

IGN Comics: My Review for the Final Issue of Geoff Johns' Green Lantern Run!

Reviewing comics is never work to me, but I was beyond enthused and even a little bit honored to review the final issue of Geoff Johns' Green Lantern series. Green Lantern has been the most integral part of my time as a comics reader right up there with Archie and Y: The Last Man. It is of course sad to see it go, but when an ending is this good, it's hard to complain.

"Geoff Johns ends his Green Lantern masterpiece with a resounding blockbuster bookend. Just wow! After nine years and over one hundred issues, he took a cheesy character whose weakness was the color yellow and turned him into one of the most consistently thrilling, compelling, and outright enjoyable heroes in comics. He did this by bringing the key element of the emotional spectrum into the fold. The rings now take something special to wield them – rage, avarice, fear, will, hope, compassion, love – and over the course of this series, Johns gave us plenty of reasons to feel those same emotions right along with the characters on the page. This final issue will take you on a tour of the entire emotional spectrum, and that’s exactly the point of the journey of Hal Jordan."

Check out the rest on IGN!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Cover Comparison: Batman and the Red Hood vs Age of Ultron

Homage? Parody? Ripoff? Marvel and DC aping each others covers happens with such frequency these days it's hard to say.

MTV: 'Iron Man 3' -- Where Does It Rank In The Marvel Cinematic Universe?

My friend Brett White who works over at MTV asked me to weigh in on Iron Man 3. 

"When the smoke clears and the armor is plugged in to charge, where does 'Iron Man 3' rank? Is it the best of the 'Iron Man' trilogy? Does it come close to 'The Avengers'? Do Captain America, Hulk or Thor's solo films give it a run for its money? We rounded up a panel of specialists to put 'Iron Man 3' in its place." Keep reading on MTV!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Ranking Every Modern Superhero Movie

I just came across a list of The Best Superhero Movies Ever I wrote at the end of 2011 where I ranked every superhero movie I'd ever seen (ie, all of them). It just includes movies from 2000 onward, because I mean how do you compare anything to the first two Superman movies? Unfortunately, this also leaves out the likes of the original Punisher and Blade movies, but they get representation by their more recent additions here.

A lot has changed with the release of The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, and, of course, The Avengers, so I thought I'd revisit the list. I also added in Iron Man 3, which I saw just last night.

New additions are in blue.

After recently re-watching Superman Returns, Ang Lee's Hulk, and Watchmen, I advanced them up the list a bit because they are still coherent movies with strong narratives, but they fell victim to their lackluster tone and misused themes. Green Lantern was originally the Worst Ever second only to the unwatchable Punisher: War Zone, but after viewing GL again I realized that it wasn't quite that bad and advanced it up some, but not much.

As for the movies that went down, Captain America swapped places with Thor and went down a notch. Thor didn't have as much heart at Captain America, but I enjoyed its humor and marrying of science and magic quite a bit. Captain America was such a good movie until he actually became Captain America, turning the movie into a montage of awkward action hero scenes, letting him join Wolverine in the not-so-illustrious club of Marvel heroes who have walked away from an explosion in slow motion without looking.

In all of this, I realized how much I didn't like Kick-Ass. I enjoyed the humor at the start, but its overt violence without consequence became more crass than anything by the end.

Movies that went up are green, down are red.

It's also worth noting that I haven't seen The Spirit, Jonah Hex, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and probably a few others, but given their critical reception, I'm sure they'd wind up being neighbors on this list with the likes of Catwoman and Elektra.

And in case you're wondering why Spider-Man 2 beats The Dark Knight, it's because of two key reasons.

One, SM2 is paced better. There's never a wasted moment in SM2 all the way up to the end. You can say the same for TDK right up until the end when it gets two awkward climaxes, neither of which are wholly satisfying.

And two, SM2 is thrilling. All of the encounters with Doc Ock are breathtaking fights that could only happen between those two characters. They fight up and down a wall; inside, outside, and on top of a high-speeding train; and in the wreckage of a tragically failed science experiment. TDK had its fair share of cool moments, but they don't give me chills every time like SM2 does.

TDK does have the Joker, who is certainly the best super villain ever filmed, but Doc Ock is no slouch and fills the villain role perfectly.

And with that, the revised list:

  1. Spider-Man 2
  2. The Dark Knight
  3. X2: X-Men United
  4. Blade 2
  5. Iron Man
  6. X-Men: First Class
  7. Sin City
  8. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
  9. The Avengers
  10. Batman Begins
  11. The Dark Knight Rises
  12. Iron Man 3
  13. Spider-Man
  14. X-Men
  15. Thor
  16. Captain America: The First Avenger
  17. Daredevil
  18. Hellboy
  19. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
  20. Hulk
  21. The Punisher
  22. Watchmen
  23. The Incredible Hulk
  24. Iron Man 2
  25. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
  26. The Amazing Spider-Man
  27. Superman Returns
  28. Kick-Ass
  29. X-Men: The Last Stand
  30. Blade: Trinity
  31. Spider-Man 3
  32. Fantastic Four
  33. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
  34. Green Lantern
  35. Elektra
  36. Ghost Rider
  37. Catwoman
  38. Punisher: War Zone