Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Comics to TV: Supergirl 2-3 - Welcome to Earth

Supergirl manages to present a surprisingly deep and intelligent episode about integration and discrimination, while still running lines like "I picked a bad time to get rid of all my kryptonite!" This is an extremely busy episode, marking the point where the series really seems to be kicking into high gear, throwing in all sorts of ongoing developments and new characters. We have the refugee alien (Chris Wood) waking up and eventually being revealed as not Kryptonian after all, but the last child of Daxam, Mon-El. We have the first appearance of President Marsdin, played by the legendary Lynda Carter, introducing the Alien Amnesty Act. We have the introduction of Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima) as a new recurring character for the series. And, right at the last moment, we have the reveal of M'gann M'orzz, aka Miss Martian.

So, taking each element at a time... I initially assumed that Wood's character was going to be Superboy, the variant of the character as a clone of Superman, and that this would lead back to anti-alien group Cadmus. This was obviously totally wrong, but the script has fun with the obvious inference that the super-strong guy in a Kryptonian pod is a Kryptonian. Instead, by making him Mon-El, we get an unexpected strand dealing with Kara's own prejudice against the people of Daxam, here presented as the sister world of Krypton. It's an interesting direction to take, with Kara's usual inclusive nature, exemplified by her fighting for the Alien Amnesty Act, at odds with her initial unwillingness to see Mon-El as anything but an undesirable element. Wood's natural charm and likeability makes Kara seem even more unreasonable in this regard, and he is initially more accepting of her than she is of him, even if it's a fine line.




It's heartbreaking watching this episode after the appalling result of the US election. The script is, if not exactly pro-Clinton, profoundly anti-Trump. "Who even voted for that other guy?" asks Kara, rhetorically, and the answer is, nearly half of America. God, it's depressing. Fortunately, we have Lynda Carter charming the pants off everyone present as President Marsdin to make it all much more bearable. Plus, two blatant and beautifully on-the-nose references to Wonder Woman ("You should see my other jet"? But it's invisible!) In a country where "alien" is still frequently used to mean "foreign immigrant," an episode championing alien integration into society is a profoundly left-wing statement. Such a pity more of America don't see things that way.

Maggie Sawyer is a welcoem edition to the cast of characters, and Lima is extremely likeable in the role. It's a different take on her character, making her part of an alternative cultural movement that accepts aliens in society, but the core elements are the same. She's a tough cop who is proudly out, and this is always good to see on TV. Her relationship with Alex begins with the most cliched Feds-vs-State cop rivalry dialogue I've heard this side of 2000, but it's essentially a meet-cute. The two characters are clearly being set up for a romance and I can't wait to see how it develops.

Finally, Miss Martian... well, we'll have to see how that one develops. Needless to say, it changes things considerably for Jonn Jonnz. I'm all for the inclusion of more aliens in the series, particularly less humanoid ones. I've said since season one that the series would be at its best going down a more Men in Black type of storyline, with lots of peculiar creatures and out-there weaponry, rubbing shoulders with everyday America. While it's a bit of a continuity snarl (so, everyday Americans know there are aliens livign amongst them now?), I think it really works for the series and adds something different to the mix, making it stand out more against the, largely alien-free, Arrowverse series. Plus, we get what's basically a low budget Cantina scene, only with lesbian cops, which can only be described as a good thing.

Along with all this, there's some more interesting developments in the friendship between Kara and Lana Luthor (Katie McGrath). We all know she's going to turn out to be a wrong 'un, but it's entertaining watching how far it will run before the characters are at odds. Among the male characters, Winn is far more successful a character working at the DEO, but James is just as dull as the unlikely new head of CatCo. At least we have Snapper Carr (Ian Gomez) to make CatCo life intersting, even if his brand of hard-boiled journalism seems to have stepped in from another show entirely. The episode was rather finely directed by Rachel Talalay, who has previously directed an episode each of The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow. She also directed the season closures for the last two runs of Doctor Who, and I'm excited to read she'll be kicking off the next series of Sherlock. Overall, a busy, fun and successful episode.



MAGGIE SAWYER

Detective Sawyer is a character I am very pleased to see join the roster. Sawyer is a character who has been a major part of both Superman and Batman mythos for the last thirty years, making her first appearance in Superman #4 in 1987. Part of a special unit that handles metahuman crimes, Sawyer represented the police force's response to alien and transhuman threats, opposed to vigilantes like Superman and Batman. Over time, Sawyer came to value the superhero role and worked well with Superman to protect Metropolis. In Action Comics #600, she made an enemy of Lex Luthor after she threatened to expose his illegal activities. Maggie was married to James Sawyer, a fellow officer, but later questioned her sexuality, becoming one of the few major LGBT characters in 20th century comics. Luthor threatened to out her as gay, but this eventually led to Sawyer accepting her sexuality and going public.

In the 2000s, Sawyer transferred to the Gotham City Police Department and worked her way up the ranks to become Commissioner, albeit briefly, in Jim Gordon's absence. Sawyer met Kate Kane, aka Batwoman, in Detective Comics #856, a significant moment that would led the two characters to begin a romance. Kane eventually proposed to Sawyer in the 2011 Batwoman title, Alongside Renee Montoya, Kane and Sawyer became the most high profile lesbian characters in comics. Unfortunately, DC dropped the ball by refusing to allow the actual marriage of Kane and Sawyer go ahead. Amid the controversy, head writers of the series quit the comic in protest to DC's corporate decision.

Maggie Swayer has previously been seen on live-action TV in the latter seasons of Smallville, played by Jill Teed. The castin go Floriana Lima in the role on Supergirl adds a new dimension to the character by being, in her words, "non-white, non-straight," making her particularly well-placed to understand discrimination in the USA.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Comics to TV: Legends of Tomorrow 2-2 - The Justice Society of America

Catching up with Legends, and the second episode is a slightly more serious, but generally just as fun and silly as episode one. It's wonderful that a franchise that began with the Dark Knight-eqsue grim realism of Arrow season one has advanced to the point it can include a team-up with a 1940s superhero team to fight a Nazi hulk. Making the JSA a super-secret society helps with some of continuity issues of having a superhero team active decades before Arrow started, even if it is a bit hard to swallow. But none of this matters, when we have such great scenes as the Legends getting their asses thoroughly handed to them by the JSA, with Dr. Mid-Nite, easily the coolest member of the team, doing the full sonar-vision battle that he perfected years before Daredevil. I particularly love their low-tech outfits. Stargirl, in particular, looks like nothing so much as a sexy cosplayer (I must point out that this is in no way a bad thing). If she reappears, though, please may we also have her giant robot sidekick, STRIPE?

The undoubted highlight of the episode has to be Victor Garber flexing his vocal cords as Stein performs "Edelweiss" in a Nazi nightclub. The showrunners had better find some way of brigning him into the upcoming musical crossover with The Flash and Supergirl. Time-travellers fighting Nazis is a sure-fire recipe for a fun episode. There are plenty of effective moments throughout, and all the remaining Legends get a strong moment, with the exception of Rory who barely gets to do anything at all. Ray Palmer again shows he's at his best under extreme pressure (i.e. in captivity under threat of torture), the Stein/Jax relationship is played better than it has been in the past, and Sara Lance proves perfect for the position of new team leader having finally developed into a rounded and entertaining character.

The episode also acts as the required origin story for Nate Heywood as the new Steel. Nick Zano gives a sympathetic turn as the haemophiliac historian, out of his depth in a team of assassins and superhumans and overwhelmed at the prospect of meeting his legendary grandfather. The sequence of events unrolls with predictability, but that's not always a bad thing. These story beats work and it's fun to follow along, knowing where it's heading. Also impressive is Maisie Richardson-Sellers as the new (old) Vixen, set up to become a series regular. She has some good chemistry with Brandon Routh's Ray Palmer and it'll be interesting to see how the relationship between the teams develops, especially as Vixen presumably suspects the Legends are responsible for Hourman's death.

As readers of my blatherings will know, I love all this time travel stuff, and it's not coincidence that this episode openly references Back to the Future (in the same week as The Flash was, no less). Nate's past slowly disappearing after his grandfather looks certain to die is straight out of that movie. Completely nonsensical, of course, but narratively sound. Quite why ongoing villain Thawne is trying to so drastically alter his own past is a mystery, though - if the Nazis have access to supersoldiers, his civilisation will surely never come about. Just possibly we'll get some logical answer to this as the series carries on, although I'm not optimistic on that front.



The History of the JSA

The Justice Society of America was the first ever superteam, giving rise to the later Justice League and similar teams such as the Avengers. The Society made its first appearance in All Star Comics #3 at the end of 1940, featuring a bunch of superheroes from across the publications of National Comics and All-American Publications in what was a groundbreaking team-up. The original team-up consisted of Dr. Fate, Hourman, the Atom, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Sandman, the Spectre and Hawkman, many of whose modern equivalents continue as some of DC's longest-running heroes. I can only imagine how exciting this was for the kids reading comics back then.

Early on, characters with their own titles weren't permitted to appear in All Star Comics, so Superman and Batman were considered honorary members, with Green Lantern and the Flash leaving active team duty as they hit the big time. The exception to this rule was Wonder Woman, who appeared in issue 11 as the JSA's secretary, before eventually taking an active role in adventures. The inclusion of characters from the different companies varied a little over the years before National and All-American amalgamated to form Detective Comics Inc. Dr. Mid-Nite and Starman joined the team in issue 8, Johnny Thunder in issue 6. The JSA's archenemies, the Injustice Society of the World, debuted in issue 37, and the Black Canary joined the team four issues later.

The JSA disappeared as superhero titles were phased out over the years, but returned during the resurgance of the Silver Age. The Jay Garrick and Barry Allen versions of the Flash teamed up in 1961's The Flash #123 - "The Flash of Two Worlds" - which introduced the idea that the JSA existed on Earth-Two. This led to team-ups between the Society and the League across the two Earths against major threats throughout the sixties. The JSA members were expanded to include Quality Comics characters after DC's acquisition of the rights, and were presented as older, more experienced superheroes in contrast to the JLA. Later crossover events changed the nature of the DC universe, with the JSA becoming earlier heroes of the main continuity in some versions, and an Earth-Two team in others. Some versions included older versions of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, while others introduced equivalent characters. 

The JSA vanished for some time before being reincoroprated into continuity during the various shake-ups, but they generally remained as older, WWII heroes in most iterations. The New 52 impression had the Earth-2 title, in which alternative versions of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman had been killed, leaving the JSA behind to defend their Earth. Perhaps the most well-known modern interpretations of the JSA have been on TV, with appearances in the latter seasons of Smallville, or as the veteran crew in the animated Batman: The Brave and the Bold. There have been many members of the Society over the years; the Arrowverse team features Hourman, Commander Steel, Obsidian, Dr. Mid-Nite, Stargirl and Vixen. Of these, only Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite actually date back to the 1940s.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Comics to TV: The Flash 3-4 - The New Rogues

Catching up with my comicbook telly shows, and "The New Rogues" is a very fun episode which captures a lot of the spirit of the earlier episodes of The Flash. (Rather better than the following episode, "Monsters," in that regard, although that had some excellent character moments and is well worth a look too.) With Captain Cold missing, Central City has been lacking a really fun villain for a while and bringing in a couple of his old rivals spices things up. Sam Scudder is a charming and malevolent crook, and I'm hopeful he'll turn up again to cause more trouble as the Mirror Master. His girlfriend Rosalind Dillon makes for a great new twist on the Top, even if the actress is pretty dreadful, and I love that her codename, never one of DC's best, is a rather desperate attempt by a harried Cisco. The regulars and semi-regulars do well too. The aforementioned Cisco is back on form, always at his best when he has Wells to bounce off, while Caitlyn's gradual transformation into Killer Frost is making her more interesting than she has been in, well, ever.

It's so good to have the charming Tom Cavanagh back as Wells, along with Violett Beane as his now-speederised daughter Jesse Quick. The characters bring out the best in each other, and even Wally is likeable when he's enjoying Jesse's company. The highlights of the episode are the silliest parts, though. Barry trapped behind a mirror; the hologram of Captain Cold; and, of course, the multiple Wellses from across the Multiverse. It's a ludicrous idea, fetching a Wells stand-in so that we still get to enjoy Cavanagh while they're not using his main character, but it works because it's played for such laughs. Hipster Wells from Earth-19 looks to be sticking around for a while, and to be honest by the end of "Monsters" I was a bit sick of him, but I imagine he's only a temporary stand-in for proper Wells. I'm enjoying the abandon with which the series is exploring parallel universe now. It should lead to some very fun situations.




MIRROR MASTER AND THE TOP

There have been a couple of Mirror Masters in the comics, but Sam Scudder is the main holder of the title. He first appeared way back in The Flash issue 105 in 1959, a small time crook who rose to prominence by using mirrors to create holograms, hypnotise people and cast illusions. He faced the Flash numerous times over the years, experimenting further with mirrors and eventually finding a way to travel through a mirror realm. The version seen in the episode is most like the New 52 version, who became trapped in the mirror dimension following a scientific accident. In this run, Scudder is in a relationship with the Golden Glider, Captain Cold's sister. 

The main secondary holder of the Mirror Master title is Evan McCulloch, who is mentioned in the episode as being the Mirror Master of Earth-2. The original Mirror Master was created by Carmine Infantino and John Broome, the latter of which receives a nod in the ep: Scudder hides out in a warehouse belonging to Broome Industries. None other than David Cassidy played Scudder in the 1990s Flash TV series, while the modern version is played by Grey Damon.

The Top is, in the world of comics, one Roscoe Dillon, a nutter who was obsessed with tops. First appearing in The Flash #122 in 1961, he found a way to spin round at superspeed, which somehow increased his intelligence, if not his sanity. He created a number of trick tops with various silly abilities and bothered the Flash several times. He even created an atomic top which was aparrently capable of destroying half the planet. He also dated Golden Glider for a time. Like many comicbook characters, Top was killed but brought back, now with the new ability to induce vertigo in his victims. In the New 52, Dillon is known as Turbine, having been trapped in the Speed Force, and could create tornadoes from centrifical forces.

For the TV series, Top has undergone a gender swap and become Rosalind Dillon and is now partnered with the Mirror Master. She has the vertigo-inducing abilities of the later pre-52 Top, leading to some peculiar scenes against Jesse Quick and the Flash. She wears a gorgeous yellow-and-green outfit which evokes the comic villains spandex costume. She is played by Ashley Rickards.


You spin me right round, baby, right round...




Friday, 11 November 2016

Which will end first - 2016, the United States, or the world?

I was going to blog about the result of the election, but after two days collecting my thoughts, I still feel too angry and depressed to write about it. Just, what the fuck is wrong with people?

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

REVIEW: Doctor Strange

Although Marvel Studios  have seemingly reached the point where they can't do wrong, Doctor Strange represented another gamble. Introducing not just another hero, but also magic and demons, into the Cinematic Universe had the potential to alienate viewers. That said, Marvel have successfully translated properties such as Thor, and even the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy, with great style and success, and while they took on sci-fi trappings, they were all essentially high fantasy films full of inexplicable powers and artefacts. It isn't a massive step to say, yes, there's real magic, plus a million other universes, populated by unstoppable forces and devils bent of world domination.

Like Thor, Iron Man and Ant-Man before him, Doctor Strange is another Marvel superhero who isn't unknown, but is far from famous outside the comics-reading community. As with those previous hits, what was required for success is deceptively simple: a reasonable script, a talented director and a charismatic star. Benedict Cumberbatch is perhaps the most obvious choice possible for the role, but sometimes the obvious choice is the right choice. Cumberbatch has said that Strange has "smatterings of the same colours" as Sherlock Holmes, but let's be fair. Strange is 100% American Sherlock (or, to put it another way, House). As an arrogant but nonetheless charming genius who, eventually, becomes a good man, Strange will no doubt remind most moviegoers of Tony Stark. Indeed, Strange runs through essentially identical story beats that Stark did in Iron Man, but it's been eight years, it's not a huge sin to be using these tropes again.

Other roles are equally well handled. Chiwetel Ejiofor reportedly also read for Strange, but that casting would have robbed us of his Mordo, actually a more interesting character than the good surgeon. An outright villain in the comics, here we get to know Mordo while he is still a decent, albeit single-minded soldier, and his gradualy disillusionment and loss of faith is powerfully portrayed by Ejiofor. We'll no doubt see him as the villain in Doctor Strange 2: Don't Text and Drive, and he'll provide what so many Marvel films have sadly lacked: a complex, interesting enemy.

Which brings us onto Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, a character so obscure that most comics readres wouldn't recognise the name without checking the Marvel Database. Mikkelsen is, like Cumberbatch, a reliably powerful and charismatic presence, and faces off against him well. Kaecilius, however, is an extremely one-note villain, and without Mikkelsen's charismatic performance would be instantly forgettable. Sometimes, though, there's enough else going on in a film for a straightforward baddie to be perfectly adequate.

While Cumberbatch and Mikkelsen are safe casting choices, Tilda Swinton has to be one of the most controversial casting decision in years. Replacing the venerable, ancient Tibetan with an androgynous Caucasian woman immediately led to cries of whitewashing. I can't say I agree with this. For one, it seems drastically hypocritical to praise the race-blind casting of Ejiofor as Mordo and then criticise another race change. Also, casting a woman as the Ancient One, the most powerful and significant character in the film, makes up for a heavily male-skewed cast. Other than Swinton, the only significant female role is Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, and while she is excellent in the role, she never gets to really explore the character beyond her relationship with Strange.

It is certainly true that there should have been a stronger Asian presence in a film predominantly set in the Far East. Conversely, though, it would have been easy to fall into the trap of having sterotyped Asian characters, as indeed the original comics did. The Ancient One was very much a stereotypical "inscrutable Oriental" type, while Wong was a subserviant assistant to Strange. Benedict Wong is the only Asian actor to have a major role in the film, but his performance is also one of the most memorable. (He also manages to be both the only actor to share a name with his character, and makes this one of the very, very few films starring two actors named Benedict.)




What people will no doubt remember most about Doctor Strange is its astonishing visual style. It's certainly obvious that Scott Derrickson and his team were heavily influenced by Inception, but it's not as if that came out of the blue. Inception was itself influenced by The Matrix and many other fantastical productions. Elements of Doctor Strange reveal inspirations that go much further back than that; indeed, one brief sequence surely homages the climactic Star Corridor transport in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Whatever the origins of the film's visuals, the voyages into other dimensions and realms of mind are quite breathtaking, making Doctor Strange one of the very few film's I wish I'd seen in 3D. The director's skilled eye extends to the many fight scenes, including surprisingly effective fisticuffs on the astral plane. I particularly loved the look of the spells themselves, with magical weapons seemingly composed from the magical words used to conjour them. Alongside the visual treats and the mystical arts, there's a very effective current of humour throughout, perhaps the best example of Marvel's deftness of touch in its films compared to its rivals'. While far from being a comedy, there are some very funny moments in Doctor Strange, particularly the eponymous wizard's insistance on being called Doctor. (I'm still convinced he should be called Mr. Strange if he's a surgeon. Don't they do that in America?)

For comics readers and followers of Marvel movies, the script was pretty predictable. While just one of many magical artefacts, alongside the Staff of the Living Tribunal and the Pol'ish Remover of Na'il, anyone could have guessed that the great Eye of Agamotto would turn out to be an Infinity Stone. This leaves just one, I believe, unaccounted for, which will no doubt turn up in Thor: Ragnarok. Equally as easy to call was Dormammu's arrival as the Big Bad, played, uncredited, by Cumberbatch using his best scary monster voice. Dormammu's gigantic presence was another treat on the big screen, although I would have preferred him with his traditional big flaming head. There's room in modern film for demons with big flaming heads.