Comic Review: ‘Dark Days: The Forge’ #1

DC lift the veil on Rebirth’s next big mystery…

Spoiler-free review

Written by:  Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV / pencils by:  Jim Lee, Andy Kubert and John Romita Jr

What’s it about?

Batman is suspected of hiding a dark secret that could spell disaster for all…

In review

Not long after Tom King and Joshua Williamson delved briefly into the mysteries of DC’s Rebirth in “The Button” readers are thrust into another enigma as Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV present us with Dark Days: The Forge #1, the first of two one-shot titles serving as a prelude to the forthcoming Dark Nights: Metal event which will see Snyder reunited with his Batman collaborator, artist Greg Capullo.

Dark Days: The Forge #1 may be billed as a prelude to Metal but this one-shot could very easily have been a ‘zero’ issue as it really does feel like the opening chapter of something grand, setting the stage with epic scope and hints of looming threats that are more than adequate in whetting the appetite.  Framed by the narration of Carter Hall – aka Hawkman – Snyder and Tynion IV weave an intriguing tale that draws connections between the earliest ages of the DC Universe, Snyder’s New 52 Batman run and beyond.

The script is rich with atmospheric mystery, crazy action and drama with reliably strong characterisation as the story moves between the pairings of Batman and Mister Terrific, Batman and Superman (teasing the return of a long absent DC hero) and Green Lantern Hal Jordan and Batman protégé Duke Thomas, the latter matchup providing some particularly fun moments with Thomas befuddled at Jordan’s ability to miraculously combat the colour yellow and Jordan’s retorts at Thomas’s current lack of a name for his ‘not Robin’ superhero persona.  Both Snyder and Tynion IV are veterans when it comes to the Dark Knight but in these moments demonstrate their ability to write characters in general, whether they are long-established DC heroes or more contemporary ones.

In the end it’s the apparent ties between Metal and Snyder’s Batman arcs that are the most satisfying elements of the story, the relationship between Thanagarian Nth Metal and the Court of Owls being the most tantalising…but the biggest punch of The Forge is rightfully reserved for its denouement as the truth behind Hal Jordan’s mission to the Batcave is revealed, setting up potentially hefty stakes for the second part of this prologue in next month’s Dark Days: The Casting.  Despite all these connections though, Dark Days: The Forge #1 is accessible enough that it can be enjoyed without the need to be overly knowledgeable of DC Comics lore and past storylines – it merely sweetens the deal for those readers who are.

Art duties are divided between Jim Lee, Andy Kubert and John Romita Jr, with inks by Danny Miki, Klaus Janson and Scott Williams and colours by Alex Sinclair and Jeremiah Skipper.  It’s a little problematic as there’s no clear narrative break in the change between the three pencillers, leading to some slight visual inconsistency.  The transition isn’t quite as jarring as it could have been (mainly thanks to the cohesion between inks and colours) but it’s a shame that Jim Lee couldn’t have pencilled the entire issue on his own or at the very least with backup from Andy Kubert as John Romita Jr’s style doesn’t quite fit with theirs, his more cartoonish and blocky figure work at odds with the powerful characters and detailed environments Jim Lee excels at.

The bottom line:  A tantalising introduction to DC’s next big mystery, despite some slight issues with the art Dark Days: The Forge is a decent and enjoyable prologue to the larger event to come.

Dark Days: The Forge #1 is published by DC Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Dark Days the Forge

DC Comics teases forthcoming event “Metal” with ‘Dark Days: The Forge’ #1.

Film Review: ‘Wonder Woman’

DC’s iconic female superhero bursts onto the big screen in her first solo feature…

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nelson, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Ewen Bremner, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Eugene Brave Rock

Directed by:  Patty Jenkins / Written by: Allan Heinberg (Story by Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg & Jason Fuchs) / 141 minutes

What’s it about?

Rescuing crashed pilot Steve Trevor, Diana, princess of the Amazons, leaves her homeland to bring an end to the Great War which is ravaging humanity…

In review

Despite the relative financial success of the DC Extended Universe thus far, there’s no escaping the divisive opinions from various fans and critics that loom over Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad.  Could Wonder Woman turn the negative critical tide and foster some much needed appreciation for the Warner Bros’ DC Comics films?  Thankfully, Wonder Woman is a resounding success on various levels.  It retains a layer of gritty seriousness that will please those that actually enjoyed the previous DCEU entries and deftly marries it with a vision of hope and optimism in dark times and a heartening message that although humanity has it’s ugly side, good will ultimately prevail over evil…all it needs is a hero to lead us into to the light.

An origin story told via flashback, Wonder Woman opens on Themyscira, an island paradise populated by the Amazons – a female society of immortal warriors lead by the wise Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson).  It’s here that the Hippolyta’s daughter, Diana grows to adulthood and trains under the guidance of Antiope (Robin Wright – House of Cards).  When Diana rescues American pilot Steve Trevor after his crashes off the shores of her homeland, she learns of a great conflict raging across the outside world – one that she believes is being orchestrated by the god of war, Ares.  After German soldiers storm the beeches of Themyscira, Diana, in defiance of her mother’s wishes, decides to pursue the callings of a hero and accompany Trevor back to the war-torn theatres of the First World War and bring an end to the bloodshed and needless suffering of the innocent.

After making a memorable debut as DC’s iconic Amazonian princess (created by William Moulton Marston and first appearing in All Star Comics #8 in 1941) and champion of justice in Batman v Superman, Gal Gadot delivers a pleasingly nuanced performance as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in a turn that conveys equal measures of strength (both physical and emotional), compassion and heart with a touch of innocence and naivety as she embarks on her hero’s journey.  Despite her relative inexperience as an actor, Gadot is actually quite wonderful in her first solo DC outing, demonstrating a clear affection for the character and embodying the values and spirit of an important and enduring pop culture icon with reverence and conviction.  Star Trek Beyond’s Chris Pine is the perfect co-star, infusing his portrayal of Captain Steve Trevor with charm, humility and a dose of earnest humanity.  He also shares great chemistry with Gadot, a key component to the film’s rich and often touching emotional core.

There’s some well implemented comic relief from Lucy Davis as Trevor’s plucky secretary, Etta as well as drunken marksman Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and fellow comrade Sameer (Said Taghmaoui) that along with participation from Gadot and Pine provides dashes of levity that feels natural and fitting without compromising the film’s more dramatic moments.  Although underdeveloped, Danny Huston and Elena Anaya provide adequate enough villainy as devilish German General Lundendorff and the deranged Dr. Maru respectively, their plot to unleash a deadly new gas creating reasonably high stakes for Diana, Trevor and their group (which also includes “The Chief”, played by Eugene Brave Rock) to grapple with.  Ultimately, it’s the characters and themes, bolstered by a solid script that really makes Wonder Woman work.

Director Patty Jenkins (at one time in the frame to helm Marvel’s first Thor sequel) draws fine performances from her cast that lift the overall package whilst proving skilful in presenting grand visuals (enhanced by the finely tuned eye of cinematographer Matthew Jensen) and staging some thrilling and slickly executed action sequences (with composer Rupert Gregson-Williams adding to the excitement as he incorporates Hanz Zimmer/Junkie XL’s WW theme from BvS).  Some viewers may feel fatigued by the bombastic CGI-laden finale, yes, we’ve seen it in numerous superhero films by now, but it’s arguably necessary to close the film on an epic high and it’s executed with some satisfying emotional beats.  Yet there’s no denying that Wonder Woman’s finest and most effective set piece comes from earlier in the film as Diana, frustrated by the horrors and injustices of war, emerges from the trenches as she heroically pushes her way across the battlefield, plunging through the barrages of the German war machine.

It’d be all too easy to cynically write-off Wonder Woman as a mere symbol of feminism, but peel away the layers and she’s so much more, with all that’s wrong in the world these days heroes are needed and though a work of fiction, blended with popcorn entertainment and comic book fantasy, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is an inspiring tale and one filled with plenty of heart.

The bottom line:  A triumph for the DCEU, Wonder Woman is an exciting and epic story of a hero’s origin that’s enhanced by strong characterisation, dynamic action and great chemistry between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.

Wonder Woman is in cinemas now.

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Ready for action: Gal Gadot stars in ‘Wonder Woman’ from Warner Bros.

Flashback: ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’

The original Star Trek cast bow out as they face a battle for peace… 

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‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’: a satisfying conclusion to the voyages of the original crew.

Year:  1991

Starring:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Christopher Plummer, David Warner, Kim Cattrall

Directed by:  Nicholas Meyer / Written by:  Nicholas Meyer & Denny Martin Flinn (Story by Leonard Nimoy, Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal)

What’s it about?

When the Klingon Chancellor is assassinated enroute to peace talks on Earth, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are accused of the crime leaving Spock and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise to uncover the true culprits…

Retrospective

With the lukewarm reception of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (read the retrospective here), Star Trek’s future on the big screen seemed to be in doubt.  Yet, with the franchise’s 25th anniversary approaching, Paramount Pictures decided that the original cast deserved one more adventure before relinquishing the silver screen to their younger (and by this point, less costly) successors on the increasingly popular spin-off series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Determined to deliver a classic and rewarding finale for the original crew (albeit William Shatner, James Doohan and Walter Koenig would cameo in Star Trek Generations) and one that would be equally redeeming for the audience, Paramount enlisted Leonard Nimoy and Nicholas Meyer to help shape Star Trek VI, both having been involved in the more successful and more popular entries in the series – Nimoy as director of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Meyer as director (and uncredited writer) of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and co-writer of The Voyage Home.  With Harve Bennett feeling jaded by the troubled production of Star Trek V and disagreements with Paramount over the direction of Star Trek VI (the concept for a prequel featuring a new cast as younger versions of Kirk, Spock, McCoy et al being rejected by the studio) he would decide to depart the franchise leaving Ralph Winter in place as the film’s head producer.

The creative matchup of Nimoy (receiving executive producer and story credits) and Meyer would prove to be a strong and vital component to Star Trek VI, both looking to do what they felt the franchise did best – tell a compelling story that explores the human condition and discusses the issues of the day in an entertaining and engaging manner.  With the social and political climate of the 1990s being shaped by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the climax of the Cold War, Nimoy felt that this would make for a suitable and relevant topic of discussion for a good Star Trek story, one that would once again feature the original crew’s greatest adversaries: the Klingons.  Given that the Klingons were conceived by Star Trek writer/producer Gene L. Coon as a stand-in for the Russians and to provide conflict allegorical of Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, their role in the story would be a natural and logical fit.  From this central concept, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (a title lifted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) was born.  Working from Nimoy’s premise, Meyer would craft the film’s screenplay with co-writer Denny Martin Flinn, providing a dark, yet ultimately optimistic tale infused with all the fun, humour and excitement audiences had come to expect from a Star Trek film.

Star Trek VI opens with the destruction of the Klingon moon Praxis, the Klingon Empire’s key source of energy (an event likened by Nimoy as a galactic version of the Chernobyl incident), leading to a call for peace with the United Federation of Planets.  Three months from retirement, Kirk and his crew are ordered to rendezvous with the Klingon Chancellor’s delegation and escort them to Earth to open negotiations, but when the Chancellor is assassinated, Kirk and McCoy are put on trial for plotting Gorkon’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.  What follows is a thrilling ‘whodunit’ which sees Spock and the crew of the Enterprise in a race against time to uncover the perpetrators and rescue their comrades before peace talks falter and all-out war becomes certain.

Heading up the guest cast are David Warner (who had appeared as St. John Talbot in The Final Frontier and as a time-travelling Jack the Ripper in Nicholas Meyer’s directorial debut, Time After Time) as the “Lincoln-esque” Klingon Chancellor, Gorkon, Christopher Plummer as his villainous chief of staff, the Shakespeare-spouting General Chang, Rosana Desoto as Gorkon’s daughter (and successor) Azetbur and a post-Mannequin, pre-Sex in the City Kim Catrall as the Enterprise’s new Vulcan helmsman, Valeris.  Reprising their roles from The Voyage Home are Brock Peters as Admiral Cartwright, John Schuck as the Klingon Ambassador and Mark Lenard as Vulcan Ambassador and Spock’s father, Sarek.

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Christopher Plummer as General Chang.

With a screenplay laced with strong dialogue and characterisation, Nicholas Meyer draws out fine performances from the principal and guest actors alike ensuring that each of the core Star Trek characters get their moment in the spotlight, especially George Takei who relishes the advancement of the loyal Mr. Sulu to Captain of the U.S.S. Excelsior.  Christopher Plummer makes for a great villain, excessive and passionate quotations of Shakespeare only adding to his increasing malevolence.  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley are once again on top form with Shatner and Kelley in particular sharing some memorable scenes together during their trial and subsequent sentence to the penal mining asteroid, Rura Penthe.

It’s reported that Gene Roddenberry (whose health was in serious decline) had concerns about The Undiscovered Country, specifically the prejudice and bigotry displayed by the Enterprise crew and the more militaristic approach to Starfleet, conflicting with the more altruistic vision he had for Star Trek and its characters.  These are certainly valid points but can largely be forgiven when taken in the context of the film’s story and the history of the conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire and those aforementioned parallels to America and Russia.

Climaxing with a tense and exciting finale featuring an explosive space battle between the Enterprise, Excelsior and a prototype Klingon vessel and a desperate race to prevent the assassination of the Federation President (played by Robocop’s Kurtwood Smith), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a fitting conclusion to the original cast’s tenure and a satisfying celebration of the franchise that remains one of its most enjoyable big screen instalments.

Geek fact!

Star Trek VI includes a cameo from one of Hollywood’s hottest rising stars of the 1990s – and Star Trek fan – Christian Slater.

What are your memories of Star Trek VI? Share your thoughts below!

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Once more unto the breach: the original cast of ‘Star Trek’ assembled for their final adventure…

Film Review: ‘Alien: Covenant’

In space no-one can hear you philosophise…

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride

Directed by:  Ridley Scott / Written by: John Logan and Dante Harper (story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green) / 122 minutes

What’s it about?

Diverting to investigate the origins of a mysterious signal, the crew of the colony ship Covenant are soon fighting for their lives against horrific and unstoppable creatures…

In review

In 2012, director Ridley Scott reawakened the dormant (some would even say stagnant) Alien franchise with Prometheus, a sort of quasi-prequel to the original 1979 classic that took place within that universe whilst charting its own course by exploring deep existential and philosophical themes concerning the origins of life and the horrific consequences of playing God.  Although divisive amongst fans of the iconic science fiction/horror series, the questions posited by Prometheus and a desire to correct some of its perceived shortcomings have lead to this latest instalment, Alien: Covenant, with mixed results acheived.

Picking up ten years after the close of Prometheus, we are introduced to the colony ship ‘Covenant’, whose core crewmembers are awakened prematurely in critical circumstances by on board synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender).  As vital repairs to the ship are attended to, the interception of a mysterious signal leads to the discovery of a nearby Earth-like planet that the crew believes may be a more idyllic site for colonisation than their original destination and an investigative course deviation warranted.  It’s needless to say from there that ‘paradise’ is ultimately not what it seems and harbours dark secrets that will turn the colonist’s hopes for a prosperous new life into a fight for survival.

Whilst Prometheus took strides to set itself apart from being a traditional Alien film (more an extension of the universe rather than a completely devoted tie-in or continuation of it), Covenant is unmistakably that, returning the series to its harder horror roots, with some twists on familiar elements as it works to further develop the Alien prequel story and continue discussions of life and creation.

For its first half, Covenant takes a slow, measured approach, allowing a steady build-up of intrigue and an ominous sense of foreboding before unleashing monstrosities – both new and old – upon the unsuspecting human players.  It’s as grisly and bloody an affair as director Scott has been teasing, the terror aided by a mix of classic Giger designs with the new ‘neomorph’ creature – a suitable evolution from the creations we saw in Prometheus.  It’s in the film’s second half where things start to derail and go awry as the script, despite lofty ambitions as it references Byron and Mary Shelley, falls victim to cliché and predictability as it begins to check off a grocery list of scenarios similar to what we’ve already seen before and not necessarily helped by lashings of fan service.  It culminates in some exciting but perhaps slightly misguided blockbuster CGI spectacle that attempts to meld Prometheus with Alien and Aliens, leading to a derivative finale that feels rushed and lacking in suspense.  There are also some questionable narrative choices along the way, particularly those concerning the origins of the alien ‘xenomorphs’ that may irk long term fans of the franchise especially considering that (much like Prometheus) it further demystifies Alien.

In terms of the cast, Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts) does a decent job of portraying Daniels, another strong female character type who is actually something a little more than the mere Ripley-clone the marketing suggests.  Watchmen’s Billy Crudup is also great in a believable turn as Oram, the Covenant’s captain and man of faith, whose spirituality permits further exploration of the existential ponderings posed by Prometheus.  It’s also worth mentioning Danny McBride who proves to be another notable member of the cast – and certainly not comic relief – as the ship’s pilot, Tennessee.  However, Alien: Covenant really belongs to the excellent Michael Fassbender who excels in the dual role of android ‘synthetics’ Walter and David.  With a captivatingly subtle and nuanced performance (and an effortless switch between accents) he is arguably the film’s strongest draw.

Although the script for Covenant may be problematic, there’s no faulting Ridley Scott’s direction as he once again demonstrates his talent for world-building and the ability to present a visually astounding film by marrying beautiful and striking photography from its New Zealand locations with brilliant production design that’s only let down by a reduced emphasis on practical effects in the creature action.

Despite its flaws, Covenant is still an enjoyable enough addition to the Alien franchise.  It’s by no means its greatest instalment but there’s no doubt that Ridley Scott’s film is superior to Alien: Resurrection and Alien vs Predator albeit far from being on the same level as Alien and Aliens and is quite likely to prove as divisive as Prometheus.

The bottom line:  Hindered by predictability and a rushed finale, as well as controversial story choices, Alien: Covenant is carried by its arresting visuals and the performance of lead actor Michael Fassbender.

Alien: Covenant is in cinemas across the UK now and opens in the US and worldwide from 19th May.

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It’s back: the iconic xenomorph returns to reign terror in ‘Alien: Covenant’.

Comic Review: ‘Secret Empire’ #1

Hail Hydra-Cap?

Written by:  Nick Spencer / pencilled by:  Steve McNiven

What’s it about?

Hydra has taken control with Steve Rogers as its leader…can the remnants of the superhero community prevail and restore hope before all is lost?

In review

Building on the prelude chapters in Secret Empire #0 and the Free Comic Book Day issue (and spilling out of the pages of Nick Spencer’s Captain America: Steve Rogers series), Secret Empire #1 thrusts readers into the midst of Marvel’s latest comics event.  You’d be forgiven for finding the word “event” wearying, especially with the disappointment of Civil War II still lingering in the thoughts of many, but with this opening salvo and the shocking revelations of issue #0 it seems that writer Nick Spencer is stirring up a rich brew that will truly shake up the Marvel Universe.

As even the most casual comics reader will by now be aware, Secret Empire is the culmination of Hydra’s plans to seize control of the United States – and the free world beyond – with Steve Rogers’ Captain America as their leader.  The reveal of Rogers’ Hydra allegiance (thanks to some reality altering meddling via a sentient cosmic cube named Kobik – see the Avengers: Standoff crossover) way back in the premiere issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers caused significant controversy, with heavy ripples of discontent still reverberating throughout fan circles.  To see Marvel’s greatest patriot become a symbol of evil is understandably distressing and although Spencer has not been restrained in this regard, he has managed to construct a compelling arc that any true fan of comics should approach with an open mind.

With Secret Empire #1, Spencer keeps the controversy flowing as we skip ahead some months after issue #0 with citizens of the U.S. under the rule of Hydra and kept in check by Steve Rogers and his forces.  With the bulk of the superhero community either stranded in space battling endless hordes of Chituari or trapped beneath a Darkhold ‘bubble’ over Manhattan, it’s left to an underground resistance lead by Black Widow and Hawkeye to plot Hydra’s downfall.  Whilst new readers will likely be lost (luckily Marvel have just published catch-up collection The Road to Secret Empire), having the story told mainly via the perspective of a young schoolboy named Rayshaun helps to ease us in without an overload of exposition as images of schoolchildren raising a ‘Hail Hydra’ immediately establish that there is an ominous shift in the Marvel U’s status quo.

What Spencer does with Steve Rogers is not to make him purely evil in a one dimensional sense, whilst he may not be the hero we’re familiar with there are layers to the characterisation as he paints a man who feels he is simply doing what is right in the circumstances of his altered history.  Despite the revelations of issue #0 as to the nature of these ‘alterations’ it’s unlikely that Marvel will facilitate a complete and permanent perversion of such a beloved and treasured character.

Secret Empire also has some definite parallels to the current political climate and tenuous international situations we see playing out in the news every day.  To Spencer’s credit it doesn’t feel totally overt or unnecessarily forced in the face of the reader but it’s there as much or as little as any individual might wish to read into it.

It might be dark and pessimistic stuff but there’s still a layer of hope and even fun as the younger, brighter Marvel heroes of the resistance, including Miles Morales’ Spider-Man, Amadeus Cho’s ‘Totally Awesome’ Hulk and Riri Williams’ Ironheart take the share of the action and together with the ever-loving blue-eyed Thing provide some much needed beats of humour and optimism.

Visually, Secret Empire #1 is solid albeit the usual sharpness and detail of Steve McNiven’s pencils are a little muddied by the dark, washed-out colours by Matthew Wilson.  It’s by no means as stunning as McNiven’s work on the original Civil War or Old Man Logan but decent enough and a good fit for the overall tone of the book.  It’ll be interesting to see how much consistency can be maintained with the rotation of numerous different artists on the nine issue series.

Controversies aside, Secret Empire is making for enjoyable reading and will surely pave the way for the hope and heroism promised by Marvel’s forthcoming Legacy initiative.

The bottom line:  A strong ‘start’ to yet another Marvel Comics event but one that builds on an already solid foundation as Nick Spencer presses forward with Hydra’s domination of the Marvel Universe.

Secret Empire #1 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

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A new has risen as Marvel Comics event ‘Secret Empire’ commences (cover art by Mark Brooks).

Film Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’

Marvel’s cosmic Avengers are back…

 Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell

Directed and Written by: James Gunn (based on the Marvel Comics by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning) / 116 minutes

What’s it about?

Falling foul of an alien society they were supposed to be working for, the Guardians of the Galaxy find themselves in deep trouble and thrust into an adventure where Peter Quill finally meets his father…

In review

Marvel’s rag-tag bunch of cosmic heroes return in the fun-filled and heartfelt sequel to 2014’s runaway hit, Guardians of the Galaxy.  Picking up a few months after their inaugural adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 finds the group, comprising Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and ‘Baby’ Groot being pursued by a squad of Ravagers, hired by a race called the Sovereign to take out the Guardians when a mission goes awry.  It’s during this cross-galaxy chase that Star-Lord comes face to face with his long lost father, ‘Ego’ – played by screen icon Kurt Russell.

If the first Guardians of the Galaxy was more concerned about introducing the various characters and the coming together of a team a la Avengers Assemble, then Vol. 2 goes a little deeper and more personal whilst still delivering the charm, laughs (in this instance a Marvel film where the humour is actually a welcome and natural component) and excitement audiences will expect.

As Peter Quill/Star-lord, Chris Pratt is once again the charismatic and heroic lead whose father issues and yearnings for Zoe Saldana’s Gamora form the backbone of the film’s emotional crux.  The casting of Kurt Russell (whose Tango & Cash co-star, Sylvester Stallone also appears) as Quill’s father is a real coup with a reliably great performance from the star of numerous hits from 80s cult classics Escape from New York and The Thing to more recent turns in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and goliath blockbuster The Fate of the Furious.  It’s a role made all the more enjoyable by a solid rapport with Pratt and the script’s satisfying character arcs.

Vin Diesel earns another easy payday as the cute youngling version of Groot (see the events of the last film) who together with the gun-toting mania of wisecracking space Raccoon, Rocket (a well-cast Bradley Cooper) and the hilarious and inappropriate perspectives of Dave Bautista’s Drax, especially in his interactions with Ego’s companion, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), facilitate the biggest laughs.

Complicating matters for the Guardians is the return of Michael Rooker’s Yondu who, having fallen out of favour with his fellow Ravagers, soon finds himself having to ally with Rocket and Groot in desperate circumstances.  Also back is Karen Gillan as Nebula – the ‘other’ daughter of galactic overlord (and mega villain of the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War) Thanos – whose adversarial relationship with Gamora is explored in greater detail, adding some nice dramatic weight that’s to the benefit of both Gillan and Saldana and their respective characters.

Writer and Director James Gunn infuses Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 with the same enthusiasm and quirks for this second helping of fun space adventure that melds soulful and funky 70s tunes and influences of Star Wars and Flash Gordon with a good story brought to life via lavish, colourful visuals, equally colourful characters and rollicking action that still manages to excite despite culminating in the usual disaster-laden cataclysm of CGI doom.  The only real shortcomings arise from the early separation of the team that the script calls for and like the first Guardians there’s some sluggish pacing here and there and it perhaps feels a little overindulgent at times – but it’s mostly forgivable when the overall results are as entertaining as this.

The bottom line:  A fun, exciting and at times emotional blockbuster ride, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is bound to be another crowd-pleasing hit for Disney and Marvel Studios.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is in cinemas across the UK now and opens worldwide from 5th May.

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They’re back! Marvel’s cosmic crusaders return in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ from Marvel Studios/Disney.

Comic Review: ‘Batman’ #21

DC Comics’ greatest detectives open the casebook on the mysteries of the DCU’s Rebirth…

Spoiler-free review

Written by:  Tom King / pencils and inks by:  Jason Fabok

What’s it about?

“The Button” Part One : Batman enlists the Flash to aid in his investigation into the mysterious smiley button found in the wall of the Batcave…

In review

Almost a year on from DC’s relaunch initiative under the now iconic (and for the most part creatively successful) Rebirth banner, one of its most tantalising mysteries is about to be explored in “The Button”, a four part crossover playing out across Batman and The Flash.

For this opening chapter, writer Tom King takes a simple and steady approach to a slowly unfolding narrative that spends a chunk of its page count depicting a violent brawl between Batman and a returning villain long thought dead.  If this sounds like a criticism, it isn’t, as Tom King masterfully eases the reader in to a story that answers little about those lingering threads from Geoff Johns’ triumphant DC Universe Rebirth #1 but manages to remain non-the-less intriguing whilst setting the stage for what’s to come.  If there’s any concern at this point it’s that four issues may not be long enough for this particular arc, given the potential ramifications it may have for the overall DCU.

As regular DC Comics readers will know, DC Universe Rebirth #1 established a startling and enigmatic connection to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal masterwork Watchmen, the discovery of a certain blood-stained yellow smiley button embedded in the Batcave wall leaving the Dark Knight Detective with the promise of the most challenging investigation he’s likely ever to face.

Tom King (whose run on Batman is only getting stronger) makes good work out of a minimal narrative, throwing in a few shocks and surprises that help hold the reader’s interest through to a feverishly good cliffhanger.  King realises that the strengths of Batman #21 lie in its visuals – so thank the stars Jason Fabok is on hand to provide the art here.  Fabok has been sorely underutilised since Geoff Johns’ pre-Rebirth run on Justice League wrapped and it’s a real treat to see his meticulous, powerful and lavish layouts on show (Howard Porter will certainly need to up his game for The Flash issues), particularly during those pages in which Batman fights for survival against his opponent, whilst the Flash speeds his way through a fight of his own (King proving he has a good handle on the Scarlet Speedster in these moments as he dashes and quips his way through the action) before racing to the Batcave and into the heart of this mystery.

To say too much specific about Batman #21 would spoil the fun but it’s rewarding to see this story have ties to not only the DC Universe Rebirth special but also to DC’s earlier continuity twisting and New 52 birthing event, Flashpoint and of course, Watchmen, which King and Fabok pay homage to with some nifty panel construction that’s pleasingly reminiscent of that classic piece of work.  Although it may seem there’s little narrative progression in Batman #21, it’s via these connections that it actually offers far more than casual readers will appreciate but still provides enough visual thrills to keep any comics fan happy.

The bottom line:  Tom King delivers an intriguing and surprising opening to “The Button”, made all the more enjoyable by the exciting visuals of the stellar Jason Fabok.

Batman #21 is published by DC Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

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Jason Fabok’s incredbile art adds to the excitement of DC’s ‘Batman’ #21.