Marvel at Comic-con 2019

marvel-phase-4-movie-tv-announcements-comic-con

I have not gone to San Diego Comic-con in over a decade, and of course not Hall H. I frankly don’t miss all the crowds and the annoying press of people , especially for Hall H where it can get really packed and  bit hot. And it seems that a lot of studios are not going for the big wall to wall presentations anymore like that have done before. Warner Brothers and DC had nothing to bring  to comic con this year. And originally, neither did Marvel. But  Kevin Feige being the smart marketer that he is, realized that this year was the perfect opportunity to dominate the geek news cycle with Marvel news. So on Saturday, July 20th, Feige and Marvel brought the boom to the room.

Since I could not be there personally, I had to rely social media feeds and YouTube streamers who were also watching social media feeds. It was actually kind of fun. The slate of announcements were for many things were already expected. However there were a few surprises such as casting, and a major reveal in the end.

Obviously if you are not up to date on the most recent Marvel films, including Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home, there will be spoilers ahead.

The Eternals

I know that most fans know very little to nothing about the Eternals. And I highly doubt that anyone out there were thinking “Yeah! Eternals! This is what I’ve always wanted.” And in the history of Marvel comics, they were not a top tier title,  or middle tier for that matter. But their existence as the early inhabitants of earth feeds into that History Channel Ancient Astronaut itch. Their inclusion into the Marvel Cinematic Universe could be huge, though. For one thing it is possible this lays down the foundations on why some people become super powered instead of getting killed by, say gamma rays, a radioactive spider, or a super soldier serum.

The Eternals are not exactly a superhero team, they are a race of beings that have existed on earth since the beginning of time. Marvel’s panel introduced audience to the cast: Angelina Jolie will star as Thena alongside Richard Madden as Ikaris, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, Salma Hayek as Ajak, Lia McHugh as Sprite, and Don Lee as Gilgamesh.

That is a huge stable of talent. And I looks forward to seeing what they do with this. For a more informed take on the significance of The Eternals and what the implications are for the MCU, I recommended Robert Jefferson of Comics Explained to break it down for you.

 

Thor: Love and Thunder

Gracing Hall H were Chris Helmsworth, Tessa Thompson, and Natalie Portman. Now Ms. Portman has had very little to do in the Thor movies since the Dark World and even her scenes in Avengers Endgame was previously shot footage with some post audio recorded by her. That would beg the question on why she is there. Director Taika Waititi was a fan of Jason Aaron’s comic run of The Mighty Thor where Jane Foster assumed the mantle of Lady Thor. I don’t know how they are going to handle the handing over of ther mantle because the circumstances are unique in the comics and the way the MCU is set up now, it doesn’t seem to be going in the same direction. For the film, though, Jane Foster will be known as Mighty Thor.

Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Yeah, I know a lot out there have no clue who Shang Chi is but I have to say I have never been more dreading and excited. I am excited because Shang Chi was one of my favorite comics in the 70s and especially when artist Paul Gullacy was drawing the comics where he straight up modeled Shang Chi after Bruce Lee to the point that Marvel probably told him to cut it out.

Now, Shang Chi comes with some baggage and the big one is of course that he is the son of Fu Manchu which is possibly one of the worst racist Yellow Peril Stereotypes in history. Marvel lost the rights to the Sax Rohmer characters a few years back. And now they have cast Hong Kong legend Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as the true Mandarin who had been hinted at as a character since Iron Man and did wrong in Iron Man 3. Now the Mandarin is still a problematic character as far as race, but the name doesn’t have the racist baggage that Fu Manchu has.

Newcomer, Simu Liu was introduced as Shang Chi who had only received news that he got the part four days before the panel.  But Mr. Liu is not a stranger to Marvel Studios as he had been campaigning for an Asian superhero before Shang Chi was ever officially announced as a project. He seemed to interact really well with the crowd and has a natural charming personality.

I’ll have more thoughts on Shang Chi in an future post. But Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a lot riding on it that casual fans may not be aware of.

Black Widow

After the events of Endgame, many cynics hve coiced the opinion on why people would want to see a Black Widow movie. Which begs the question of why not? Just because Tony Stark dies in the finale of Endgame does not mean that there is no reason to watch the previous movies with Iron Man. Black Widow is no different. And make no mistake, this is going to be an origin. Joining the cast besides Scarlet Johansson  will be David Harbour as Alexei, the Red Guardian.

This looks to be a more grounded film as well as a spy thriller. Besides the Red Guardian which is essentially Russia’s version of Captain America, will be Taskmaster who is a master mimic of fighting styles, making him very difficult to defeat.

WandaVision

Coming to Disney Plus. When the creators outright say that the show is going to be strange, they probably. It will feature Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, and Vision who we last saw dead in Avengers Infinity War. And it will take place after the events of Avengers endgame.

Now, how they bring Vision back from the dead has not been revealed but there are no shortage of theories as to how this can be done. Most likely it has to do with what Shuri did at the last minute in a scene in Infinity War.

I had also been promised that other MCU characters would make appearances in the show as well. The rumors that the show would take place during the 50’s was a bit off. It will apparently have a 50’s feel to it, whatever that means. But it will explore the nature and powers of Wanda more. That brings us to her joining Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness

“Just because Quentin Beck made up lies about the multiverse, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”  Declared Kevin Feige. Director Scott Derrickson promises that this will be the first Marvel Studios horror movie. Benedict Cumberbatch showed up and received a belated happy birthday from the host and audience.

The title itself opens up a lot of possibilities and it has also been confirmed that not only will Benedict Cumberbatch be reprising his role as Strange, but that he will be joined by Elizabeth Olsen reprising her role as Scarlet Witch. My personal theory which is total speculation is that an event will happen within the WandaVision series that will lead up to being resolved in Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.

And it could all lead to Marvel’s House of M, which would be epic. Robert Jefferson is once again, on hand to give an in depth explanation to one of the major storylines to shape the Marvel Comics universe in his four-part House of M videos. Part 1 is below.

Falcon and Winter Soldier

Coming to Disney Plus in 2020 will be Falcon and Winter Soldier in their own limited series. It’s not Captain America and the Winter Soldier. Let me say why this title really works and just may shot down the nerdy theorist out there. Just because Steve Rogers gave his shield to Falcon does not mean he is Captain America. In my opinion, these things may work in the comics where you have month to month to sell the transition. I may even work as a television series. This series is only supposed to be six episodes, however.

From a storytelling standpoint it makes sense that public wants Wilson to be the new Captain America, and maybe he even tries to assume the mantle for a while. But Sam Wilson is not Steve Rogers and he has to come to terms with his own identity too. This really

What If

For Disney Plus, this has the potential to be the most fun and experimental of any series they have on their table or even their movies. What if? was a comic series that was popular for some time in the 70s through the 80s which were usually one issue speculations such as “What if Conan was in the Modern Age?” “What if Mary Jane were Bitten by the Radioactive Spider?” The comics would start with an introduction by a Watcher who basically served as the Rod Serling of the series.

Jeffrey Wright, who has been seen in such big franchises as The Hunger Games, Westworld, and Boardwalk Empire will be providing the voice of The Watcher.

Hawkeye

Also coming to the Disney Plus streaming service is a Hawkeye series. Apparently it will be focusing on Renner’s Hawkey character training Kate Bishop to be the new Hawkeye. “I get to teach someone else how to be a superhero without super powers.” They used the same graphic as the title graphic for Matt Fraction’s run of Hawkeye, which Io9 called one of Marvel’s greatest comics. Yes, there will presumably be a female takeover of the Haweye mantle. Cue anti SJW outrage. But I am intrigued.

Loki

So some bloke named Tom Hiddleston showed up for the announcement of a show that was no secret. Loki will be a limited series streaming on Disney Plus although he had died in Avengers Infinity War, he was very much alive in the time travel portion of Avengers Endgame. And we saw that he had an out. And the version of Loki that will be on the show is going to be the evil Loki, not the chaotic good one that we saw at the end of Thor Ragnarok and the beginning of Infinity War.

Blade

Two-time Academy Award winning actor Mahershala Ali came out on stage at the very tail end of the Marvel presentation. At this point, everyone on stage and in the audience were handed Black Widow hats, but Mr. Ali did not have one. WHen Kevin asked him why he did not have a hat on, he said he brought his own. He put it on and it had a newly revamped logo for Marvel’s Blade. Mic drop of the con.

d_9mcobvuayl1yw.0

Blade had a decent following and had some success as a film franchise starring Wesley Snipes. This would mark Marvel Studio’s foray into the darker universe. The original movies were rated R and Bob Iger, CEO of Disney has said in no uncertain terms that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would not be rated R. Deadpool would be on his own at Fox. It is not impossible for Blade to be rated PG-13. The original comics were written under the outdated days of the Comics Code.

Nevertheless, the it will be some time before we see Blade on screen as Kevin Feige said after the presentation that it would not be part of Phase 4 but rather Phase 5. So many things can happen behind the scenes. Maybe Bob Iger will change his mind.`

Fantastic Four and More

A reboot of Fantastic Four was essentially name-dropped as the panel was closing as well as mentions that Black Panther 2 and Captain Marvel 2. We know the sequels are coming, but there is no release time frame set but it is inevitable. They were name-dropped as well as Fantastic Four. And like Blade, these sequels look to probably be in Phase 5.

Final thoughts

Now, if you think this is Marvel’s mic drop, remember that their appearance at Comic-Con was a last minute decision. And there is still D23 coming up in August which is the major convention run by Disney which they have been promoting for some time to supplant San Diego. Expect to hear more details on Black Panther’s sequel, Captain Marvel, and expect a team-up film to close out the phase. I am sure Marvel has a lot more news to make and more details on the films already mentioned.

There is going to undoubtedly be some pushback against Marvel for having such a diverse cast of characters in their upcoming phase of movies and it will probably be from the same corner of the internet that were going to boycott Captain Marvel and drive its box office numbers down, you know, the same ones who thought that Black Panther was pandering to minorities and was going to be a box office failure. Well, they are proving themselves to be nothing more than circular group of people echoing each other. And we know that half these people on YouTube making their little screeds could not care less or really even believe in what they say. They do it for the clicks and the views. And the fact that there is supposed outrage over diversity shows exactly why there is a need to have diversity. Now these movies may fail. But it probably won’t be because of diversity or more representation of marginalized people. If they fail, it will fail because they are just bad.

If I made any errors in the announcements, forgive me. I will make corrections in the comment section if needed.

Advertisements

Review: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

36136118._sy475_

Catherynne M. Valente’s Hugo nominated novel, Space Opera, tries its best to channel the spirit of Douglas Adams. And it does so well occasionally but in the long run its homages and self aware attempts style trip it up. What could have been a science fiction comedy of absurdities ends up being an uneven mixture short novel that feels like it could have been a novella.

We are not alone. Yes, there are not only other intelligent species out there in the galaxy, they are not sure if humans are sentient. So in order to gain acceptance into the galactic circle of civilized worlds they must prove they are sentient by participating in something called the Metagalactic Grand Prix – a singing competition. The participants must come from a list of acceptable singers that the council has picked. Unfortunately the list is all full of either dead people or people that are incapable of participating. The only one of the list able to compete is washed up glam rock star Dinesh “Decibel” Jones. The act doesn’t have to win, they just don’t have to be last.

Yeah, so the people of earth have to participate in an inter-galactic Eurovision competition. And if Earth finishes last, the human race gets eliminated and evolution is allowed for the future development of other sentient beings. Dinesh is reunited with his one surviving band member Oort St. Ultraviolet. With no real clue on what they have to do and no knowledge about how backstage machinations can take them out even before they reach the stage.

Catherynne M. Valente packs the book with some very colorful prose. And your mileage may vary, I though it was a bit too much flowery prose. You can forget any sort of science in this science fiction setting. You can, however, expect some intriguing aliens with some really bizarre backstories and unique personalities. But yet it does fly in the face of our expectations or even perceptions of reality. I am assuming that this is a conscious choice to be so esoteric and poetic. It has a time travelling Red Panda. Come on, you can’t tell me that’s not different.

Valente’s universe of strange aliens are without a doubt colorful and creative. Some feel almost dreamlike or straight out of a drunken hallucination. Your mileage may vary. Ultimately though it is a silly premise and while it is inventive, it unfortunately feels like a comedy skit that has been dragged on a little too long. Now, looking on the reviews on Goodreads, it is clear that I am in the minority in my opinion. That’s fine. It’s just my opinion and some things I just don’t get into as others. You are free to like whatever you like. And there is definitely much to like about Space Opera. Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet are an interesting pair that pair off of each other believably as old bandmates that have since gone their separate ways. The prose is certainly engaging but often left me with the feeling of “what did I just read?”

Space Opera is nominated for the 2019 Hugo award for best novel of 2018. I wish it luck. It is definitely different and an interesting ride.

Final Score: 7/10

Review: I Believe in ‘Yesterday’

 

mv5bmtc2nti3oduwmf5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzkzmte0nzm40._v1_sy1000_cr006311000_al_

The first record I remember ever playing was by the Beatles. It was a 45 RPM single of “Let it Be” and I played it again and again. I was maybe twelve or thirteen with my little AM/FM with built in turntable. I have been a fan of the Beatles ever since. I distinctly remember the time and place when I heard over the radio about the death of John Lennon and it broke my heart.

Yesterday, a film directed by Academy Award winner, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) poses an interesting , and rather bleak idea. What if the Beatles had never existed? Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a struggling musician who has been working the pub and small club scene in and around Suffolk England for years now, and is about to lose all hope and just pack it in and go back to being a school teacher.

While riding his bicycle back home, there is a power outage…a worldwide power outage which lasts twelve seconds. Jack is hit by a bus and wakes up later in the hospital a bit bruised up, and missing a few teeth. He gets some really nice implants pretty quickly, later. I don’t know if that’s a commentary on British healthcare or not. By his hospital bed, when he wakes up, is childhood friend and manager Ellie played by Lilly James.

When Jack says jokingly, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” she has no idea what he’s talking about, but he lets it go. Later, when he meets his friends, they give him a nice shiny new guitar. Appreciating the gift, he decides not to play one of his own songs, but “Yesterday,” one the most iconic songs in the Beatles songbook. His friends are mesmerized by the song, thinking it was something that Jack wrote and saying they have never heard of the Beatles. Jack thinks the joke has gone on too far and heads home. Looking online, he finds no results for the Beatles of the names of the individual Fab Four. His album collection is missing his Beatles records. At least David Bowie and the Rolling Stones still exist.

It dawns on jack that he may be the only one in the world who remembers the Beatles, so he decides to remember as many Beatles songs as he can, write them down and pass them off as his. What could possibly go wrong? He doesn’t quite achieve instant success, and still plays pubs but manages to get a demo disc made and a TV appearance on a local TV station. It is after the TV appearance that he is contacted by some bloke name Ed Sheeran, played by some bloke named Ed Sheeran. He is invite to join him on a tour as an opener.

Thus begins his journey towards stardom as he is approached by Sheeran’s American agent Debra, played to scene stealing perfection by SNL’s Kate McKinnon to sign him up for a recording contract. But left behind is Ellie who chooses to stay back in Suffolk as a school teacher, but not before admitting herself into the friend zone before Jack had a chance to process her confession.

Debra’s plan is to make Jack a viral hit before his first album is released. before long, his songs are getting huge buzz as they slowly get out into the internet. The early release songs are a hit and he is hailed as a genius songwriter.

Yesterday may not be the most original idea. It has probably been done before in other mediums, but this is definitely full of British humor and sweet charm. Himesh Patel performs the songs and plays the guitar with soulful dedication to the classic songs made famous by the Beatles and there are quite a few amusing scenes of Jack trying to remember words to certain songs. Eleanor Rigby apparently is his most beguiling.

Underlying the road to stardom is Ellie’s relationship with Jack, hiding her love away ever since they were seven years old. Jack goes from clueless to realizing that the only thing he needs is love. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can kind of see where this will end up. But even then, the payoff is warm and touching. And speaking of payoff, how he deals with that impeding wealth and fame is straight up fairy tale stuff.

There is no explanation on why the world no longer has the Beatles, or a couple of other things like Coke and Cigarettes. But with most fantasy, we are given the fantastical premise and whether it works for us or not is up to us. To me, a world without their music would be a pretty horrible world.

Yesterday is not a perfect film. It has a few flaws especially with the middle portion of how Ellie and Jack interact, but it is full of charm with of course music that the world loves. Himesh Patel is charismatic, and Lilly James is the perfect girl next door. Ed Sheeran seems to be having fun playing himself. And Kate McKinnon just steals every scene she is in.

Sick of blockbusters, remakes, and sequels? Give Yesterday a spin. Recommended

Final Score: 8/10

Godzilla: King of the Monsters Roars to Life

godzillakingofthemonsterscharacterbanner1200x627

I am an unabashed Godzilla fan and have been for as long as I can remember. Throughout the decades there have been ups and downs in the quality of the Godzilla movies, but my love for the guy has never waned, whether he was a good guy or bad. There is something joyful, perhaps whimsical about giant monsters duking it out amidst a backdrop of a crumbling cityscape with no care for how much destruction is caused that speaks to the inner child in me playing with miniature toys. And before anybody thumbs their nose in blockbuster snobbery, consider the appeal of the Jurassic Park films and Superhero films that promise just as outrageous premises.

The first attempt at an American adaptation of the iconic monster was the dismally received 1998 version. It wasn’t until 2014 that another version would be made with more active participation from Godzilla rights owners Toho. It received more positive reviews and as far as I was concerned it was indeed a genuine Godzilla film with the exception that it centered too much on the human drama and not enough on Godzilla itself. But it was successful enough that a sequel would be on the way.

Since 2014’s Godzilla director, Gareth Edwards was unavailable due to working on Star Wars: Rogue One, horror director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus)was brought on board. Michael Dougherty was himself a huge fan of Godzilla. He was not only offered to the chance to direct a Godzilla sequel but to direct one that featured multiple monster from the Toho stable of monsters. These monsters would be Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah. Needless to say, he jumped at the chance and we are all the better for it.

It’s not often a sequel tops its previous film but Godzilla King of the Monsters does that by embracing its kaiju movie roots and treats the audience to jaw dropping scenes of giant monsters wrecking havoc while fighting each other. Although much of the battles take place in murky or dark conditions, it is never so dark that you can not make anything out.

The plot is clunky to be kind. But if you were to compare it to any other plot of a Japanese Godzilla movie in the last fifty-plus years of Godzilla films it is serviceable. Five years have passed since Godzilla left San Francisco in ruins and since then he has not been seen. Monarch, the not so secret monster hunting organization, has been tracking and containing other kaiju, or titans as they are called. There is conflict with the government as to whether to destroy these creatures or keep them alive.

Emma Russel (Vera Farmiga) is a researcher for Monarch and has developed a device called an Orca (this is the McGuffin of the movie) that has the ability to tune into the frequency of the titans and potentially control them. She puts this device to good use at the hatching of Mothra , one of the titans under Monarch observation. Suddenly the base is attacked by eco-terrorists led by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Mothra is set loose, Emma and her daughter (Millie Bob Brown) are taken. Ostensibly, the idea is to release the other titans to bring balance back to the world since humans are responsible for more global devastation than the titans. I guess that involves killing billions? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  It’s a bit of a Thanos solution, but whatever.

Kyle Chandler plays Emma’s ex-husband, Mark who was once also a Monarch member, becomes involved with Monarch again after his daughter and ex-wife not only are taken but so is the invention she created. His motivation is getting his daughter back. Seriously the family dynamic theme from the last film did not work great the last film and it doesn’t work now.

The saving graces of the weak plot and the script is the talent of the actors who all do well at selling material that is not so stellar. Reprising their roles from 2014’s Godzilla are Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa and Sally Hawkins as Dr. Graham. Look also for Zhang Ziyi playing not only a mythologist that researches the legends that are the historical basis for the titans.

Make no mistake who the real star of the film is. Godzilla is the centerpiece to this saga and is without a doubt a force of nature as he and Ghidorah, the three headed titan have been eternal rivals since the beginning of time. Throw into this stew of monster mayhem supporting action by Mothra, Rodan, and several surprise originals, and you have a kaiju tag-team match of epic proportions, leveling cities across the globe. But this is a showcase for Godzilla, and in this he is not just a force of nature or balance as in the last movie, he must save the planet.

Every single one of these monster look amazing as each has their unique personalities and quirks. It’s not guy in a rubber suit, but it does use motion capture animation which really adds a sense of…uhm…realism to the fight scenes. The titans are rendered with incredible detail not only to their giant bodies, but also their facial expressions convey emotion beyond that of a a raging creatures. Ghidorah, which has three heads, each have their own personality (they don’t always get along either). And this Ghidorah is one huge motherfucker. Rodan is pure menace from the moment it emerges from a Mexican volcano, emitting lava from its body. Its aerial combat against a squadron of jets one for the ages. Mothra, who has always been a bit of a silly monster for me is absolutely majestic in this movie and is possibly one of the best representations of the moth-like kaiju ever.

There are elements of eye popping scale that include the monsters against cities buildings but also from the viewpoint of humans on the ground. It makes them truly imposing and massive. The sheer level of destruction is apocalyptic in its imagery and is almost biblical in its fearful imagery.

Another star of this film is one that does not appear on screen but makes its presence known with its own monstrous presence and that is the epic orchestral score by Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica, Outlander). I’ve long been a fan of McCreary’s work since Battlestar Galactica and he tackles the score with nods to the some of the famous Toho themes by Akira Ifukube while adding his unique ability to incorporate music from around the world such as taiko drums, Buddhist chants, and a chorus in Ancient Babylonian. The cherry on top of this is a cover of the classic Blue Oyster Cult song “Godzilla.”

In the end, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a magnificent triumph of special effects monster action and battles. It manages to rise above a fairly dismal script filled with a few character with heavy plot armor (seriously Millie Bobby Brown’s character should have died several times over). But the real reason one sees a Godzilla movie is for the action, destruction, and monster versus monster action and this movie delivers on that promise. It lays enough seeds for the upcoming Godzilla vs. King Kong match-up next year.

The most positive thing I can say about the story is that it does a better job of diving into the lore and mythology of the titans. Much of this is handled by Zhang Ziyi who has a surprising connection/homage to the classic Toho era. It does provide perspective and if you are like me love world building, it’s very informative. They try to do some other science exposition but that just doesn’t hold up.

This is a movie that is clearly made by a Godzilla fan and for Godzilla fans. It is an absolute love letter to fans and I believe it elevates it to classic status. The film’s only shortcoming in in some of the plotting, but it is an absolute blast of a film. The action is above top-notch and is filled with stunning iconic moments. If you are already a fan of Godzilla films, this is the one to see on the biggest screen possible. Highest Recommendation

Final score: 9/10

PS. Why do soldiers continue to think shooting regular guns at giant monster do any good?

Why Violet Evergarden is One of the Best Seasonal Anime in Years

violet-evergarden-visual

In the piles of anime that come out seasonally it can be easy to overlook some of the good ones. For me, there is just too much anime to stream and watch on Blu-ray and my backlog is huge. And sometimes I’m just not in the mood for certain things. So it’s easy to just start off with the latest moé blob show and complain how current anime is in a quagmire of overly cute lolis, isekai, and shonen trash.

And then Violet Evergarden comes along to to show that anime can be original, emotional, and yes beautiful.

Violet Evergarden is a thirteen episode anime series (plus one bonus OVA) presented by Netflix. Produced and animated by Kyoto Animation, a studio with a track record of high quality titles such as the Full Metal Panic series, Clannad, and the beautiful A Silent Voice, It is an anime that maintains feature film quality in every episode.

The world is one that is similar to early 20th century, post World War I Europe. And that world is just recently recovering from a devastating long war. The differences are subtle, ch as the written language and the technology. And of course it’s history is different.

58048b4747f17c043719de63cad69dc8

We first meet the main character, Violet recovering in a hospital from war injuries that has left her without both hands. She is fitted with mechanical prosthetic hands that give her full motor function. Her last memories are of watching over her severely wounded commanding officer Major Gilbert Bougainvillea. One of the last things he says  to her are “Live and be free.” Violet, having been in the army since she was a child,  is used to following orders and has always carried them out without question and often lethally. She believes her purpose is to only be a military tool. But the war is over and she knows no other life. She has a certain naive quality to her about anything outside her world of military service though.

Claudia Hodgins, a friend and comrade of Major Bougainvillea takes Violet in and gives offers her a job, initially as a postal carrier for his company, a postal service. They write and deliver letters at the request of clients who don’t know how to write. She ends up wanting to be a “Auto Memory Doll.” A service where a person not only writes what a person says to be written, but must see what is in the person’s heart for their true meanings. Normally, people become Auto Memory Dolls, because they understand three words, according to Claudia, but Violet wants to become a doll, because she wants to understand the meaning of those three words, “I love you,” the last thing the Major said to her.

The next handful of episodes are concerned with development of several members of the postal service. The series itself is episodic in nature, yet should be seen in sequence for the development of the main character of Violet as she becomes more in tune with not only her job, but her abilities as an auto-memory doll. The supporting characters are also unique in each of their personalities and have their own back stories that are revealed as the show progresses.

Every episode, though self-contained, is a piece of character development for Violet. It becomes clear that when people say they don’t know how to write, it is more of an analogy that they don’t know how to express themselves from the heart. Almost every episode conveys the importance of communicating inner feelings. And it is the auto-memory dolls, ghost writers for these clients, who draw out a person’s true meaning and feelings while sitting with them taking and listening to their feeling.

One of the most unique and beautiful episodes is a of a playwright who is suffering from writer’s block. By this time in the show, she has been able to connect more emotionally with others and  and grown as a an auto-memory doll in her ability to convey a client’s emotions to paper. Through several days of Violet’s time with the writer, we realize that he is suffering from a great loss that he has yet come to grips with. We are also beginning to know more about Violet’s bloody past when she dispatched enemies without question and with dispassion.

ve

By the time you get to episode ten “Loved Ones Will Always Watch Over You,” you would have been exposed to peak emotions as it is deals with family love, death, loss, and the eternal love a mother will have for her child. And as much as the ending is telegraphed, the emotions still hit you like a ton of bricks by the end. Episode ten even became a YouTube meme as there are dozens of episode ten reactions posted on the video channel of people reacting to the episode live.

Violet-Evergarden-10

As the series winds up, Violet’s history unfolds as well. Her sad story as a tool of war is explored more as well as her relationship with the Major. And as the series unfolds, she not only becomes more in touch emotionally but must eventually come to terms that is of no surprise to us, that the Major is never coming back even though his body was never found.

Not just every episode, but every minute, every shot of the series is an example of high quality animation that you would usually find in high budget feature anime films. The music, by relative newcomer Evan Call, is not only beautiful in its work but is remarkable for its ability to carry emotion whether it is in scenes of lyrical beauty or intense action.

violet-evergarden-0505

 

Violet Evergarden is anime storytelling that does not fall into typical genre categories. It is not an action show, a romance, nor cute girls doing cute thing, or even a slice of life, and definitely not any of the dozens of isekai shows out there. It is instead good storytelling set in a near fully realized alternate world. Though some of the themes can be mature, it is handled with care and not gratuitous, especially when addressing the impact of war and the effects of its violence on people.

Violet Evergarden streams on Netflix in both the original Japanese language with English subtitles or in a well done English dub. You would be fine with streaming it either way. It also comes Highly recommended.

Lightning Strikes for Shazam!

shazam-2019-movie-logo-r2

A Little background

The history of Shazam as a property and as a fictional character is pretty long, muddied, and complicated. Reaching back into the days of the late 40’s and early 50’s, where in the wake of the success of Superman, comic book heroes with super powers were the rage. Fawcett Comics created a character named Captain Marvel. It was subsequently sued by National Comics (Later to change their name to DC) because it was too similar to Superman. Fawcett loses lawsuit, Fawcett stops publishing Captain Marvel in 1953.

Fast forward a couple of decades and Fawcett sells property rights to Captain Marvel in 1972. But using the name Captain Marvel on its cover would have been problematic since Marvel Comics already had a Captain Marvel comic. So they used the magic word Shazam! as the title, yet continued to call him Captain Marvel within the pages of the comic books. The public being what it is kept identifying the character as Shazam as opposed to Captain Marvel.

Since the New 52 era of DC, it was finally made official and the Captain Marvel mantle was no more and embraced the name of Shazam as not only the title of the comics but of the character as well. So from this point forward the character will be referred to as Shazam.

And let’s be honest both Shazam and Marvel’s Captain Marvel (though various versions), were not A-list super heroes and were not top seller. Both have been retconned and rebooted (Marvel believes more in soft reboots whereas DC likes huge universe spanning overhauls). And it’s only in the last few years that Marvel’s Captain Marvel title started selling well.

For a more extensive history of Shazam, Youtube channel Comic Books Explained has a great rundown of him as well as the Variant channel.

The Movie Review with Minor Spoilers

The current adaptation of the Shazam comic book does at least one certain thing in the post BvS and Justice League era of Zack Snyder, and that is fully embrace its comic book  roots and also embrace a self-awareness of itself and superheroes. It takes place in a world where the DC superheroes not only exist but they are looked up to. That in itself is a departure in tone from the world darker world Zack Snyder created. But in distancing its tone from that version of the gritty and drab version of the DC Universe, it ends up trying almost too hard in its levity, especially in the middle portion of the film. It is saved by impressive performances by the diverse cast of young actors.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a fourteen year old orphan who has been bounced around from one foster home to another for constantly running away and refusing to get along with his homes. His motivation has been over the years has been to search for his lost mother whom he was separated from at an amusement park. So he finds himself isolated from the rest of the world on purpose in hopes of finding her.

He is placed into a group home run by the Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans) Vasquez former foster children themselves and now running a big house full of other their own foster kids. His roommate is Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) a paraplegic wisecracker who happens to be a big superhero fanboy.

One day at school, Freddy is bullied by a couple of older boys who almost run him over with their truck. Billy at first tries to walk away but after one of the bullies mentions that Freddy doesn’t have a  mother, Billy steps in and hits them with Freddy’s crutch. This prompts a chase that ends up with Billy getting away in a subway train.

In a reference to his classic subway origin, Billy is magically transported to the lair of the ancient wizard Shazam, who has been waiting centuries for one who is pure of heart and worthy of being a champion.

Unfortunately, we already know that Billy is not pure of heart. He is selfish and has issues with empathy. He even informs him that such a person does not exist. Yet the old wizard is fading and a great evil in the form of Dr. Silvana (Mark Strong) is loose and possessed by the Seven Deadly Sins. Seeing that Billy may not be pure of heart but he has embers of good in him, he passes on the powers of Champion to Billy. By holding the wizard’s staff (yes, they did crack a joke about that) and saying the name of the wizard, Billy is transformed into Shazam (Zachary Levy). Unfortunately for him, the wizard dies and crumbles to dust.

Billy, in the guise of Shazam, seeks out the help of Freddy. He has no understanding of what his powers are or what he is, so his best bet for advice is the superhero fanboy. For a good portion of the film, perhaps too much, Billy tries to learn about his powers. All the while, Freddy is chronicling everything and uploading his super-powered exploits on YouTube.

As fun as this film is overall, the learning powers scenes do become repetitive. Even though Billy has great powers and has become a local celebrity, he skips school and basically panhandles like a street performer, posing for selfies and firing off lightning bolts in the air for tips. These scenes do end up dragging the pace down and the comedy feels too forced. The running joke of making up a superhero name is funny the first time, but not the fourth or fifth time. Ultimately, by the end of the film, he still has not adopted a mantle. My favorite comedic moment is the obligatory bad guy speech delivered so well by Mark Strong, except Shazam is floating half a mile away and can’t hear him.

Zachary Levi jumps into the roll of a young man in the body of a superhero as if he were born for this roll. Unfortunately his performance comes across as actually less mature than his Billy Batson counterpart which is played a little more subdued. Perhaps that is on purpose to let the Shazam persona show the more gleeful side of Billy but I am not sold.

It’s no secret that a central theme to this movie is the bonds of family, whether they are by blood or not. And without giving too much away, I must praise the family interaction of the rest of the foster children in the Vasquez household. Faithe Herman especially stands out as Darla, the youngest in the household. Her character has the most charm among the kids and her character is the one that Billy connects with most besides Freddy.

Shazam! is full of charm, full of heart, wish-fulfillment, maybe a little too much humor, good action sequences and is just plain fun. Warner Brothers, and DC comics  may have figured out finally with his and Aquaman, that comic book movies can be fun movies. It may not be the perfect superhero movie, but without a doubt, it is fun. This movie comes Highly Recommended.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is the Right Stuff for Alternate History Fans

33080122

It seems a lot of alternate history science fiction novels revolve around a major turning point in history. The most popular one is of Germany winning World War II as in Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and SS-GB. Harry Turtledove has an entire series based on the South winning the Civil War unofficially called The Southern Victory Series. Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate history in The Calculating Stars is not just one turning point, but several. The first is that Dewey would defeat Truman and become President of the United States, second that the US would be ahead of the Soviet Union in the space race.

Emma York is a former WASP, who flew with many perilous missions in WWII, and brilliant mathematician. She and her husband, Nathaniel, witness the meteorite impact and survive the subsequent shock wave. Since Nathaniel is literally a rocket scientist he is semi drafted into services to help at the local Air Force base.

This sets the timeline for the most drastic change in history. In 1952, a meteorite crashes into the Eastern coast of the United states and destroys much of the east coast, including Washington D.C. It sets up an environmental change that will eventually render the earth nearly uninhabitable. It is decided that the current space program be accelerated to colonize space, first the moon and eventually Mars.

In the hands of other writers, it may be natural to come up with grand ideas and scope of chronicling the race to space and tell a heroic struggle to not only survive the changing climate but to also do the impossible things such as reaching the moon. Mary Robinette Kowal chooses to make this a much more personal story. It is what makes this novel so unique and relatable.

This is all told through the point of view of Emma as she navigates through this invigorated space program and the issues of the era, mainly the sexism that stands in the way of not only her, but others women in participating in the space program beyond being number crunching computers.

After what was meant to be a PR appearance on the 50’s era show, Mister Wizard, Emma gets dubbed with the nickname of The Lady Astronaut. Thus would begin an unwanted focus on Emma and the role women will have in the fledgling space program. You would think it’s a no-brainer as do the women in the book. To colonize space, you are going to need women. But it is is still the mid-50s and not only is the idea of women’s lib not existent, but it is even predating the major civil rights movement. And Emma not only suffers from the upbringing of the time with the haunting refrain of  her mother’s “What will people think?” to her own issues of anxiety.

Emma feels she and many other friends, most of whom are former WASP themselves are fully qualified. It of course should come as no surprise that women will eventually get the chance to join the program. In fact there are few real surprises in the book, but the joy is the road trip to the final destination.

The characters come across as genuine and, yes, at times you may feel frustrated on behalf of Emma and a reluctance to assert herself as you know she can. But then you realize we are reflecting back on an long ago era of thought. And also that she definitely has anxiety problems.

Yet as an exercise in alternate history it also is an exercise in real history, of the WASPs that flew with honor and in sometimes dangerous conditions during World War II and the almost greenlit real female astronaut program of the era.

Unfortunately the end of the book, though not really ending in a cliffhanger left me wanting more. Fortunately there is a second half of the story called The Fated Sky, additionally there are several short stories and novellas that tie into the story of the Lady Astronaut series. The Lady Astronaut of Mars, though it was published first, is a Emma’s reflection on her past as an 80 year old who helped colonize Mars.

Not only is the book an excellent read, but it’s an excellent listen. The author also serves the narrator for the Audible.com exclusive production. It is not often that an author can pull off such an excellent job of voice performance (only Neil Gaiman seems to come to mind at the moment), but Mary Robinette Kowal is used to performing. She happens to also be a puppeteer.

I highly recommend The Calculating Stars.