Thoughts on ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’

A league united…and redeemed?

DC core heroes are brought together to face cosmic evil in Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

After much anticipation and feverish expectations, Zack Snyder’s Justice League – affectionately known in fan circles as the ‘Snyder Cut’ – arrived this Thursday courtesy of a long fought, passionate fan campaign and a costly endeavour by Warner Bros. Pictures and the burgeoning streaming platform HBO Max (the film available to U.K. viewers via Sky Cinema/Now TV as part of its international roll-out).  $70 million dollars and some hard but dedicated work later, Zack Snyder’s original vision for Justice League has been ceremoniously brought forth into the light and the differences are significant and often astonishing.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a spectacular effort that provides an almost completely different viewing experience from that of the more compromised theatrical version which saw Marvel Studios veteran Joss Whedon (director of The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) brought in to replace a grieving Zack Snyder, following the tragic suicide of his daughter Autumn (to whom this version of Justice League is lovingly dedicated), to oversee post production and studio mandated rewrites/reshoots.  It can be argued (though few would) that there is still entertainment value in the flawed but fun theatrical version of Justice League (read the review from 2017 here), as it’s perhaps more easily digestible and no doubt more palatable to the general viewer unaware or less troubled by the commercially-driven ills that befell the final product.  For those more inclined to commit to a four-hour running time then there is much to offer in Zack Snyder’s film.

Less of an extended cut (in the vein of Snyder’s superior ‘Ultimate Edition’ of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) of Justice League and more of a total reworking of it, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a longer, deeper and in many ways more satisfying, often more mighty effort.  It’s not for the timid or for audiences attuned, or accustomed to, and with a preference for the brighter, tirelessly upbeat popcorn blockbuster fare of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as phenomenal as they often are, of course) as this is unmistakably a Zack Snyder film.  Visually grand, operatic, mythological and of serious mind and intention, it’s an unconventional superhero epic that demands more from the viewer with a tone that’s more adult (beyond an uptick in bloody violence and peppering of bad language) and delves more deeply into it’s characters, providing expanded back stories and greater depth for the likes of newcomers Cyborg (Ray Fisher, whose role is greatly enhanced), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) joining the already established Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and the resurrected Superman (Henry Cavill – thanks to digital tooling, here dons a version of the iconic black rebirth suit from the 1990s Death/Return of Superman comics).  The film takes an existing villain, Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarin Hinds) and adds more dimension – as well as tweaking his physical appearance with stronger CGI – as well as reinstating the overlord of proceedings, the formidable power-hungry cosmic conqueror Darkseid (Ray Porter), who was excised from the theatrical cut.  There are a few small character moments from the theatrical version that are sorely missed, such as Batman’s encouragement and reassurance to an overwhelmed and inexperienced Flash during the tunnel battle, but on the whole there is a lot more to chew on (and less goofiness) in Snyder’s cut.  Another major change of note is the music score with Tom Holkenborg’s (who, as Junkie XL, collaborated with Hans Zimmer on Snyder’s Batman v Superman) music replacing Danny Elfman’s score and proves stylistically more suited to Snyder’s film.

Admittedly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is only likely to appeal to hardcore fans of not only the director and his vision for these core DC characters but also is more of benefit to readers invested in the rich mythology of DC comics history, well-versed in classics such as Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come (to cite a couple of celebrated works). The film treats the titanic DC heroes seriously, recognising the fundamental differences between the DC and Marvel universes.  Marvel succeeds greatly by putting the human in superhuman and whilst there is some element of that within the DC pantheon, the DC Universe is largely concerned with mythological fantasy.  Is this all to say that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is perfect?  No, it’s a little slow in it’s set-up and perhaps a tighter three-hour cut would be more refined, leading more quickly into the pacier urgency of the second half.  Is it the greatest superhero film of all time?  Again, no, but in many ways it is ground-breaking in delivering something different from the maligned rough-edged romp of the theatrical version.  Sadly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League leaves us hanging with the narrative doors wide-open for the envisioned sequels that are no longer on the table with the theatrical edition remaining part of the official DC Films canon, but ignoring it’s epilogue the story is fairly complete, if only to now occupy its own abandoned corner of the multiverse.  Whilst Zack Snyder’s Justice League is left as a sort of DC Elseworlds one-shot live-action graphic novel and a promising glimmer of what might or could have been, just as the icons of DC Comics endure, the DC Extended Universe goes on.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Comic Review: ‘Justice League’ #40

Writer Robert Venditti takes on DC’s premier superhero team… 

Justice League #40

Cover art by Bryan Hitch & Jeremiah Skipper (image credit: DC Comics).

Written by:  Robert Venditti / pencils by:  Doug Mahnke / inks by:  Richard Friend / colours by:  David Baron

What’s it about?

“Impact” Part 1 : crashing to Earth, ex-Green Lantern Corps member Sodam Yat delivers a stark warning of an incoming invasion to the Justice League, lead by an old foe of Superman’s…

In review

Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps and Hawkman writer Robert Venditti takes the reigns of DC’s leading team-up title Justice League as issue #40 presents a fresh start with the first chapter of a new story arc, “Impact”.  Venditti’s tenure follows a largely enjoyable run written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV and with Justice League #40, necessarily scales things back a little and neatly streamlines the superhero group’s roster to a core line-up of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and John Stewart’s Green Lantern.  It seems that Snyder’s close to issue #39 may not have been what readers may have expected – a cliffhanger of sorts (that in hindsight maybe wasn’t?) – as it isn’t addressed by Venditti who instead favours a clean break whilst acknowledging recent events in the wider DC Universe, such as Superman’s reveal of his true identity to the world (in last December’s Superman #18 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ivan Reis).  After the mind-bending plethora of ideas infused into the book by Messrs Snyder and Tynion it’s an appropriate reset that allows ongoing readers to re-orientate themselves and provide an access point for new fans to jump onboard – and it generally works (there is of course a lot going on in the DC canon of late), making for a solid first issue for the new Justice League writer.

Robert Venditti builds an entertaining and appealing opening instalment of “Impact”, quickly demonstrating his knowledge of the DCU and the characters he utilises for Justice League – with an effective grasp of the familiar dynamics between the various heroes (the conflicted but brotherly Batman/Superman interplay providing some small but key moments).  It may be quite a wordy narrative, and a great deal of the issue is merely setting the stage, but there’s still a decent helping of action to accompany the drama, tension and the high stakes (dialling things back to the more manageable and comprehensive playing field of a single universe) established, wasting no time in introducing a new threat for the League to face: the return of the Eradicator – the cold and ruthless Superman clone who debuted during “Reign of the Supermen” in the 1990s.  Receiving warning from former Green Lantern, Daxam’s Sodam Yat, who crashes to Earth, the Justice League learns the news that the Eradicator has engineered an army of Daxamites free from their Kryptonian vulnerabilities and plans to decimate the planet, beginning a campaign of conquest across the universe.  The Eradicator can often be overlooked and perhaps underrated as a Superman villain and Venditti affirms that in the right hands he can be a powerful (both literally and figuratively) antagonist, without violating the known traits of the character and is bound to provide a significant challenge for our heroes to unite against.

The art by penciller Doug Mahnke (with inks by Richard Friend and colours by David Baron) is very good and although there are some rough and sketchy spots here and there, it’s a great looking comic that’s visually epic and exciting in all the right instances with the more confined, character-focused scenes being equally well-defined and together with Venditti’s script it all keeps the reader engaged and provides plenty of anticipation for what’s to come.

The bottom line:  Robert Venditti takes up writing duties on Justice League and with penciller Doug Mahnke delivers a solid first chapter of a new story arc that promises high stakes for DC’s core heroes.

Justice League #40 is published by DC and is available in print and digital formats now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Shazam!’

The Worlds of DC greets its newest hero…

Spoiler-free review

Shazam

Zachary Levi enters the Worlds of DC in ‘Shazam!’ from Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema (c. Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema).

Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans

Directed by: David F. Sandberg / written by: Henry Gayden (story by Henry Gayden & Darren Lemke, Shazam created by Bill Parker & C.C. Beck) / 132 minutes

What’s it about?

Foster child Billy Batson, granted god-like powers by a mysterious wizard finds he must grow-up sooner than expected when he finds himself faced against the threat of an ancient evil…

In review

Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema’s Shazam! Is the latest offering from the ‘Worlds of DC’ cinematic universe, a sweet, fun and funny superhero romp that wears its childlike innocence and sense of adventure with pride. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel or stand amongst the very best of the genre but Shazam! is non-the-less a good time and a crowd-pleaser with a spirit that harkens back to the Christopher Reeve Superman films.

Based on one of DC’s lesser known – but oldest – characters (who at one point was selling more comics than Superman and originally known as Captain Marvel until legal issues got in the way), Shazam! sees troubled fourteen year old foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), struggling to adjust to life with his new adoptive family, encounter a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who believes Billy to be pure of heart and selects his as a successor to his incredible powers – by merely saying the word “Shazam” (which on the face of it seems silly but is actually an acronym of Greek gods Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury), Billy’s body transforms into that of a muscle-bound adult (Zachary Levi) endowed with an almost limitless range of powers and becomes the only hope of preventing evil demons, known as the Seven Deadly Sins, from being unleashed upon the world by the crazed Dr, Sivana (Mark Strong – formerly Sinestro in Warner’s ill-fated Green Lantern) who plans to seize the power of Shazam for himself.

Shazam! doesn’t hide from the fact that it’s essentially a superhero version of Tom Hanks classic Big (with a hint of Spielbergian magic) and much like Spider-Man: Homecoming did with the coming-of-age films of John Hughes, it simply goes along with it. Although the opening act may be a little sluggish it serves to give viewers a proper introduction to the characters and draw you into Billy Batson’s story – a significant part of which is his friendship with his foster brother and superhero fanboy Freddy, superbly played by It’s Jack Dylan Grazer and it’s the chemistry between the cast and their respective characters (which also includes an undeniably cute turn from the talented Faithe Herman as young ‘sister’ Darla) that really makes things click. Angel and Grazer are obvious standouts but it’s when Zachary Levi enters the frame that Shazam! hits its stride. The former Chuck star is absolutely the perfect choice to play the empowered version of Billy and he exudes the right combination of youthful excitement, awkwardness and physicality the role demands, handling all the action, heart and humour (an integral and well executed element of the film) with equal skill and with a believability and vulnerability that sells the idea of a boy in a man’s body. As Sivana (whose father is played by John Glover – Smallville’s Lionel Luthor), Mark Strong provides a decent amount of menace and danger – pitched with an appropriate touch of corniness. Sivana is by no means one of the all-time “great” villains but Strong does well with the character, for which we do get a bit of a backstory that helps define his motivations.

Shazam! is not as action orientated as other comic book blockbusters but it still has a fair measure, mostly reserved for its hero-forging middle section where Billy/Shazam must quickly master his abilities in a deadly face-off with Sivana and the climactic finale as he grapples with the creepy CGI-horde of the Seven Deadly Sins and director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) has a firm grip on it all. These moments are certainly exciting but in the end it’s the family-focused, character driven aspects of Shazam! that make it all-the-more appealing and whilst it may make some fans hungry for a return of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman it expands the DC film universe as it continues to find itself on firmer footing.

The bottom line: a solidly entertaining comic book flick with a great leading cast, Shazam! successfully balances emotion, laughs and superhero punch-ups to engage the masses.

Shazam! is in cinemas now.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Captain Marvel’

The MCU’s newest hero takes flight…

Captain Marvel

Brie Larson heads up the cast of Marvel’s latest blockbuster, ‘Captain Marvel’ (c. Marvel Studios).

Spoiler-free review

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Clark Gregg

Directed by: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck / written by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet (story by Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet / 124 minutes

What’s it about?

Granted incredible powers but left amnesiac when a test-flight of an experimental aircraft goes awry, Airforce pilot Carol Danvers is taken to the homeworld of the alien Kree where she joins them in their war against the Skrulls, which ultimately endangers Earth…

In review

With anticipation for Avengers: Endgame building and after all the marketing fanfare, Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel arrives – but does it fly ‘higher, further, faster’? Alas, although Captain Marvel is mostly an entertaining ride it isn’t extraordinary, lacking the cultural impact of DC’s superior Wonder Woman and Marvel’s very own awards darling, Black Panther and despite a robust and appropriately heroic turn from lead star Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island), it doesn’t do quite enough to stand out from the crowd or add anything fresh to the genre.

In Captain Marvel we’re introduced to Carol Danvers, a human gifted with powerful abilities, living as a disciplined, emotionally bereft soldier of the Kree in their war against the shapeshifting Skrulls. With no memory of her former life on Earth or the incident in which she gained her powers – ‘Vers’ is committed to the cause of the Kree but when a mission to rescue an undercover operative goes wrong, events lead Danvers back to her home where she seeks to uncover the mysteries of her past and save humanity from a Skrull invasion.

Taking into account that Captain Marvel doesn’t quite soar as much as it could (and maybe should) have, there’s still a fair amount to enjoy – as mentioned, Brie Larson is pretty much perfect casting, tackling the role of Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (albeit not actually referred to as the latter onscreen) with a solid and assured portrayal of the Marvel Comics hero that deftly weaves in subtle strokes of comedy and an otherworldliness that adds a dash of the alien to the otherwise human Danvers. Larson plays it in more of an understated than charismatic manner, but that’s the beauty of it.

Samuel L. Jackson’s return as Nicholas Joseph Fury (or just plain “Fury”) is reliable, as we’ve come to expect, and the digital de-ageing effects employed for himself and Clark Gregg (also returning as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson) are astonishing. There’s good chemistry between Larson and Jackson making the Danvers/Fury ‘team-up’ all-the-more enjoyable, adding a slight Lethal Weapon-esque buddy component to the narrative. The always brilliant Jude Law provides a presence as Kree warrior (and Danvers’ mentor) Yon-Rogg and Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn brings the right mix of playful villainy to the game as Skrull general Talos, an antagonist with realistic motivations. Star-credentials are broadened further by the inclusion of Annette Bening in a pivotal role and the film’s emotional core is strengthened as Larson’s Danvers reunites with her old friend, Maria Rambeau (played by Lashana Lynch).

There’s a certain sense of empowerment that’s laudable and important but doesn’t feel as potent as it did in Wonder Woman, perhaps it’s down to the fact that DC were first out of the gate with their female lead superhero hit, or it may just be something else but it’s still a positive element of Captain Marvel.

Competently directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck with a screenplay by a muddle of writers that hits all the requisite beats – action, humour (that’s not forced and actually genuinely funny in the right places), heart – Captain Marvel gets the job done, with some pleasing visuals (particularly when it comes to the Skrull shapeshifting transformations) and set-pieces, bolstered by those key cast performances together with its nifty and nostalgic mid-1990s setting, accentuated by the sight of the VHS-stacked shelves of Blockbuster Video and iconic tunes from the likes of Nirvana, Elastica and No Doubt. It also has to be noted that how Captain Marvel pays tribute to Stan Lee is touching and simply wonderful.

In the end Captain Marvel is just another superhero blockbuster, a decent if unspectacular one that’s a little formulaic but it establishes a new hero in the MCU who has great potential as we approach the end of one era and prepare for the dawn of the next.

The bottom line: an entertaining superhero blockbuster, Captain Marvel isn’t a revelation but thanks to its stars has a certain heroic appeal.

Captain Marvel is in cinemas now.

Images used herein remain the property of the copyright owner(s) and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Have you read… ‘Superman Unchained’ ?

The comics and graphic novels you may not have read that are worth checking out…

superman unchained

Art for ‘Superman Unchained’ by the phenomenal Jim Lee (image credit: DC Entertainment, used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  2013

Written by:  Scott Snyder / pencils by:  Jim Lee (main story) & Dustin Nguyen (epilogues) / inks by:  Scott Williams / colours by:  Alex Sinclair

What’s it about?

As Superman tries to prevent the escalating attacks of a cyber-terrorist group, events lead to him crossing paths with General Lane and a mysterious and powerful alien being called ‘Wraith’…

In review:  why you should read it

Originally published as a nine-issue limited series, launched in June 2013 to coincide with Superman’s 75th anniversary as well as the release of Man of Steel on the big screen, Superman Unchained is a bright spot in DC’s divisive ‘New 52’ reboot.  Whilst other DC characters and titles such as Batman (for the most part) and Justice League were well served during the New 52, Superman, generally, was not with both Superman and Action Comics something of a mixed bag, if not mediocre.  Superman Unchained remedied that with an epic and exciting story that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Written by Scott Snyder, who was already in the midst of his popular run on Batman (with artist Greg Capullo) and with pencils by Jim Lee (with inks and colours by his regular collaborators, Scott Williams and Alex Sinclair), Superman Unchained sees the Man of Steel faced with the threat of a cyber-terrorist group known as Ascension, whose attacks lead to an encounter with General Lane and his forces, the discovery of a military facility called ‘the Machine’ and a secret weapon: Wraith, an alien being – with powers to rival that of Superman – who arrived on Earth in 1938 with an equation that is the key to unlocking technological advancements.  Amidst this, humanity faces even greater danger as a further threat from the stars looms.

As well as drawing in appearances from Batman and Wonder Woman, Unchained also gives Lois Lane her own share of the action as she investigates and is ultimately captured by Ascension, learning that they are in possession of a powerful crystalline technology known as ‘Earthstone’ which they plan to utilise to devastating ends.  It also wouldn’t be a good Superman story without Lex Luthor and Snyder has fun with him, presenting a Luthor who’s at his megalomaniacal and ingenious best.  Luthor’s escape from maximum security detention (aided by a mech-suit of his own construction) and subsequent kidnap of Jimmy Olsen exemplify all of those qualities and remind us that he’s Superman’s most formidable nemesis.  The main story is complemented by back-up epilogues that run sporadically throughout, written by Snyder and pencilled by Dustin Nguyen and which provide tantalising teases of things to come.

Snyder creates a busy narrative, with multiple threats, fast action and several interconnected story threads but luckily it all hangs together quite successfully.  The fan-favourite writer has a good handle on the character of Superman in his New 52 iteration (later defined during DC’s ‘Rebirth’ initiative as an alternative version, whose essence would merge with that of the original pre-New 52 universe Superman…whoever said comics could be confusing?), who has a bit more of a gritty edge than the traditional take but still upholding those nurtured values of truth and justice.

Whilst Unchained may seem predominantly focused on Superman, there’s still a place for Clark Kent as we see his efforts to investigate Ascension and enlist the assistance of Bruce Wayne/Batman in tackling the group.  Snyder also incorporates a flashback of a traumatic event in Clark’s childhood that plays thematically into the present.

Although there’s a lot going on in Unchained and parts of it may seem overly wordy, it’s more a case of substance than waffle and Snyder does take time to focus on characterisation, even when there’s fists flying and satellites crashing and we get a sense of what motivates everyone.  The conflict between General Lane and Superman is a good example, both are sworn enemies with opposing viewpoints but Lane has an argument and a personal perspective with a commitment to duty and service that drives him, adding some dimension to the age old battle between the two characters.

Some of Snyder’s more recent works (and to an extent, the latter parts of his Batman run) tend to be a little overindulgent and unnecessarily convoluted but Superman Unchained is a more positive and coherent example of his writing and being paired with the amazing Jim Lee certainly helps.  Lee’s visual storytelling speaks for itself and his style here is as you would come to expect – powerful, detailed and cinematic – Superman Unchained reads and looks like a superhero blockbuster.  Lee’s renditions of Superman are confident and his depictions of the action scenes are exciting, all adding to the appeal.  Lee proves he can handle the scale and also the craziness of Snyder’s script, Superman’s battle against Lane’s forces in a Kryptonian armour suit being a particular highlight.  There’s also the design of Wraith, a hulking stone-grey creature emanating flaming tendrils of energy – simple, yet effective and when married with Scott Snyder’s dialogue together they create an interesting adversary for Superman with a foe who is not just physically imposing but also challenges the Last Son of Krypton on a philosophical level.  Having been in the service of the U.S. government since his arrival and intervening clandestinely in conflicts throughout history, Wraith believes in what he is doing just as much as Superman does and having our hero team up with Wraith against Ascension creates an unusual dynamic given Wraith’s declaration that once they’re done he has one more task to perform: kill Superman.

Superman Unchained is a highly entertaining read and easily one of the best Superman stories of the last decade and it wouldn’t be surprising if in the years to come it ends up ranking amongst some of the Man of Steel’s all-time greats.  Even if you weren’t a fan of DC’s New 52, it’s well worth the dive.

Read it if you like…

The Man of Steel by Brian Michael Bendis (as well as the writer’s current run on Superman with artist Ivan Reis), Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee and Superman: For Tomorrow written by Brian Azzarello with more fantastic visuals from Jim Lee.

Superman Unchained is published by DC and is currently available in print and digital formats.

Film Review: ‘Aquaman’

Warner Bros.’ Worlds of DC heads for the seven seas…

Aquaman 2

King of the sea: Jason Momoa leads the action in ‘Aquaman’ (image credit Warner Bros. Pictures, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison

Directed by:  James Wan / written by:  David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick & Will Beall (story by Geoff Johns, James Wan & Will Beall, Aquaman created by Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris) / 143 minutes

What’s it about?

As the kingdom of Atlantis prepares for war, Arthur Curry – aka ‘Aquaman’ – finds he must fulfil his destiny and take the throne in order to unite the underwater world and prevent a deadly conflict…

In review

Aquaman, the latest of Warner Bros. Pictures’ slate of superhero films under the ‘Worlds of DC’ banner (which was previously and unofficially referred to as the ‘DC Extended Universe’, or DCEU) is a fun, albeit partly derivative, comic book blockbuster that’s highly entertaining if inferior to previous Warner/DC outings Man of Steel and Wonder Woman.  It’s fair to say that some of the narrative beats are predictable and unoriginal and comparisons to Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther are easily drawn but with that in mind, Aquaman holds its own and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is – a swashbuckling and visually jaw-dropping popcorn action adventure.

Picking up where he left off in Justice League (and with backstory that’s interspersed throughout in a series of flashbacks), Jason Momoa is the likeable lead infusing Arthur Curry/Aquaman with roguish charm and swagger, offset by just the right touch of vulnerability that provides the character with an essential element of relatability.  It sounds cliché, but it’s a significant part of what draws audiences (and readers) to these colourful heroes in the first place and through the efforts of Mamoa and the film’s screenwriters it’s hard to believe that Aquaman could ever have been one of DC’s most ridiculed characters.  Opposing Mamoa is Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson as Arthur’s half-brother Orm – aka ‘Ocean Master’ – whose militant rule of Atlantis and a desire for conquest threatens war with the surface.  Wilson is great and is a formidable presence, providing Aquaman with an effective villain.  Another standout is the reliably excellent Willem Dafoe as Arthur’s childhood mentor, Vulko and Nicole Kidman adds further star power in the role of Queen Atlanna.  Amber Heard is fine as Mera (whose father, King Nereus is played by action legend Dolph Lundgren) but is no Gal Gadot and unfortunately Yahya Abdul-Mateen II similarly underwhelms as Black Manta – it’s not entirely the actor’s fault given he’s handed some cheesy lines that undercut the threat value.

Whilst there are familiar tropes – the reluctant hero searching for purpose and fulfilment has been seen countless times – and there’s a shameless riff on Indiana Jones as Arthur and Mera search for a powerful Atlantean artefact, the writers of Aquaman deliver an enjoyable and fairly pacey tale that despite some droll dialogue is enhanced greatly by astonishing visuals.  Director James Wan (Furious 7) and his team take the fantasy of the lost city of Atlantis and really run with it, depicting vast and rich uaquatic realms teeming with a variety of life that’s wonderfully bizarre and inventive – the sight of an army of soldiers riding sharks and battling gigantic crab-like creatures is both odd yet strangely believable.  Wan executes it all rather well and injects the epic scale action of Aquaman with energy and skill, although the use of slow-motion in superhero action scenes is becoming a little tiresome.

In terms of the film’s tone it’s fairly light and family friendly with dashes of humour (that’s thankfully not too goofy or forced), continuing Warner Bros.’ plan of course-correction from Zack Snyder’s darker, more introspective and existential vision.  In some ways that’s a shame as there are some merits to the latter but from a crowd-pleasing perspective (and in pursuit of Marvel-level popularity and healthy box office returns) it’s understandable.  It’s also completely accessible to new or casual viewers – whilst Aquaman is certainly part of the overall main DC cinematic universe, bar a single reference to the events of Justice League it favours a standalone approach and that’s totally fine and allows Wan’s film to be what it needs to be and provide firmer foundations for the Worlds of DC going forward.

The bottom line:  A fun popcorn adventure, Aquaman doesn’t break new ground but is an enjoyable and visually exciting comic book romp.

Aquaman is in cinemas across the U.K. now and opens in the U.S. and worldwide from 21st December.

Flashback: ‘Superman: The Man of Steel’

Decades before the New 52 and Rebirth, John Byrne was tasked with redefining the Superman mythos…

The Man of Steel 86 #1

John Byrne’s cover art for ‘The Man of Steel’ #1 (credit: DC Entertainment, used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  1986

Written by:  John Byrne / pencils by:  John Byrne / inks by:  Dick Gordiano / colours by:  Tom Ziuko

What’s it about?

A young Clark Kent discovers his true heritage and decides to use his powerful abilities for the greater good to become the world’s mightiest hero, Superman…

In review

Following the multiverse shattering event, Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Comics proceeded to refresh their line and produce new, modern retellings of the origins of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman that redefined the comic book titans in the age of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.  With Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli set to explore Batman’s beginnings with the four-issue “Year One” storyline and George Perez assigned to tackle Wonder Woman, DC enlisted writer/artist John Byrne to relaunch Superman beginning with a six-issue mini-series called The Man of Steel.

Having already crafted iconic runs on Marvel’s X-Men and The Fantastic Four, Byrne was the perfect choice to bring Superman soaring back into the eighties and give the character firm creative footing heading into the 1990s.  Each issue, or ‘book’, of The Man of Steel is a self-contained story that looks at the origin of Superman and a series of ‘firsts’ during the early days of his superhero career.  Book One opens with a prologue focusing on the destruction of Krypton before providing a glimpse of Clark Kent’s early years and the space-plane rescue that leads to the birth of Superman and his first encounter with his future love – Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane.

Byrne’s reimagining of Krypton has become highly influential, seen here as a scientifically and technologically advanced society that is relatively emotionless and where offspring are grown artificially inside egg-like genesis chambers are all ideas that would later be incorporated into Mark Waid and Leinil Yu’s Superman: Birthright, in big screen feature Man of Steel and more recently SyFy’s Krypton television series.

Byrne also manages to re-establish other classic elements from the Silver Age and reinterpret them in a way that is less ridiculous than in their earlier iterations, specifically an updated take on the oddball alternative Superman known as ‘Bizarro’ who appears in Book Three as an imperfect clone of the original Superman created by Lex Luthor.  Speaking of Luthor, it certainly wouldn’t be Superman without him and the titular villain makes appearances throughout the series as he draws his plans against the Man of Steel, with a slightly more sophisticated and sinister take on the character in comparison to his portrayal on the big screen (as enjoyable as Gene Hackman was in that role).

The highlight of the series though is undoubtedly Book Four, which depicts the first meeting of Superman and Batman.  Byrne perfectly nails the relationship between the two, demonstrating the differences in viewpoints and the values each attributes to their pursuit of justice.  There’s some nicely executed tension as Superman arrives in Gotham City, initially butting heads with the Dark Knight Detective but both heroes ultimately develop a comradery as they set aside their differing ideologies and work together towards a common goal in pursuit of the criminal known as ‘Magpie’.

With The Man of Steel, Byrne goes beyond the comic book action to dig into the man behind the cape.  This focus on characterisation is one of the most appealing aspects of the series as readers get a sense of who Clark Kent really is and how his upbringing by his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, together with his experiences growing up in Smallville shape the person he is to become.  It brings a human quality to Superman that adds layers to the character, making the hero more relatable and interesting.

It goes without saying that great writing in comics needs strong art to visualise it and John Byrne’s compositions are iconic.  Whilst modern art is often more flashy and energetic, Byrne’s style is classic and recognisable – his bold, assured character designs and intricate, realistic landscapes and environments give the series a pleasing look that combined with decent scripts makes The Man of Steel a defining point in the history of Superman comics.

Geek fact!

The origin of Superman would once again be revisited in 2009’s Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, following another DC multiverse cataclysm in Infinite Crisis.

All six issues of The Man of Steel are collected in Superman:  The Man of Steel – Volume 1, published by DC and is currently available in digital format.

Comics Review: ‘Heroes in Crisis’ #1

Tragedy strikes the DCU…

Heroes in Crisis #1

Clay Mann’s powerful and evocative cover art for ‘Heroes in Crisis’ #1 (image credit: DC, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Written by:  Tom King / art by:  Clay Mann / colours by:  Tomeu Morey

What’s it about?

“I’m Just Warming Up” : discovering that several of their fellow heroes have been murdered, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman must uncover the mystery surrounding the circumstances…

In review

Eisner Award winning writer Tom King (critically acclaimed scribe of DC’s Batman and Mister Miracle) teams up with artist Clay Mann for the highly anticipated nine-issue series Heroes in Crisis, which launches with a harrowing and emotionally charged opening chapter that shocks and surprises in equal measure.  Numerous crises have befallen the DC universe over the course of its long history but this one is more personal as opposed to cosmic.

Heroes in Crisis introduces us to Sanctuary – a safe and secure place set-up by Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman where superheroes, unnerved by the rigours of the job, can seek refuge and recovery.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that darkness has fallen as the Trinity race to Sanctuary to face a terrible horror…someone has turned the safe haven into a blood bath of tragedy that will have dire repercussions for the entire community.  Addressing the heart-breaking wave of shootings in America and tapping into his own experiences as a former C.I.A. operative, King infuses Heroes in Crisis with social relevance and an overdue commentary on the state of our world that makes for a stark but compelling read.  It’s quite clear that the core of this story concerns PTSD and King delivers necessary gut-punches of emotion throughout this first issue, which is sure to carry on into the rest of the series.

As readers of Batman will recognise, King employs an inventive narrative structure splitting the book between the perspective of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman as they rush to the scene of the crime, confessional style flashbacks (utilising the iconic Watchmen style nine-panel grids) and a brutal encounter between Harley Quinn and Booster Gold, who are the main focus of this instalment.  King has a great handle on Harley, highlighting the zany humour and unhinged danger of the Joker’s old partner and continues the work he did on Batman to redefine Booster Gold beyond his more beaming and egotistic persona to create an iteration of the character that’s actually interesting.

The art by Clay Mann (who has previously worked with Tom King on Batman) in a word is simply incredible.  Mann’s figures are strong and heroic (his Superman is a particular standout) and his storytelling is cinematic on a variety of scales but proves most skilful in depicting the intimacy of the drama with detailed facial work, expressing every emotional nuance, vocal or not, that the characters experience.  It’s all rendered beautifully with the aid of Tomeu Morey’s organic colours.

So, does all this mean dark times for the DCU, then?  That remains to be seen but it’s probably unlikely in the long run, DC’s Rebirth has been celebrated for its optimism and hopefully Heroes in Crisis will have a resolution that reminds us that there will always, eventually, be light at the end of the tunnel.

The bottom line:  A strong and gripping start, Heroes in Crisis promises to be an important series and couldn’t be in better creative hands.

Heroes in Crisis #1 is published by DC and is available in print and digital formats now.

Film Review: ‘Justice League’

It’s all in or bust as DC’s league of heroes unite in Warner Bros’ Pictures latest comic book blockbuster… 

Spoiler-free review

Justice League

DC’s premier super team unite in the Warner Bros’ Pictures release ‘Justice League’.

Starring:  Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Mamoa, Ray Fisher, Ciarin Hinds, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons

Directed by: Zack Snyder / Written by: Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon / 121 minutes

What’s it about?

In the wake of Superman’s death, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of Wonder Woman to assemble a team of powered individuals in order to protect the Earth from a looming cosmic threat…

In review

It’s no secret that Warner Bros’ DC Comics film universe has had it tough so far.  2013’s Man of Steel was fairly well reviewed but divided audiences, its sequel 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was even more divisive and Suicide Squad…again, more so.  The tide seemed to turn with the critical and financial smash of Wonder Woman this summer, meaning the pressure was well and truly on for Warner Bros/DC with team-up event Justice League, a popcorn superhero action flick that is enjoyable and entertaining even if it doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Directed by Zack Snyder, who helmed Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Justice League is held together by its central heroes, with likeable performances from their respective actors and great chemistry that makes it worth a look.

There are flaws to Justice League that prevent it from being as great as it could’ve been.  Firstly, the film’s narrative is a little messy and disjointed (a criticism that Batman v Superman was able to remedy with its superior extended cut), becoming more problematic as it rushes through various plot points that could have warranted more focus – it seems clear that the studios’ insistence on a relatively slim running time has resulted in a good chunk of material being excised.  Another weak link is Steppenwolf, an adequate but generic CGI villain (voiced and performance-captured by Ciaran Hinds) who, albeit, provides a reasonable enough threat, pales in comparison to some of the stronger comic book film villains.  He’s by no means terrible, just not all that interesting or memorable.  There’s also some disappointingly shoddy VFX work that can on occasion be distracting, especially in the film’s busy and action packed final act.

However, it’s with its main characters that Justice League is elevated.  Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot make strong returns as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman respectively, both providing solid leadership to the rest of the team.  After fleeting glimpses in BvS, we’re fully introduced to Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/the Flash, Jason Mamoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman and Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone/Cyborg.  All three are great, with Miller’s nerdy, excitable and hilarious take on the Flash a particular highlight.  Mamoa is a pleasing surprise with a fun, swashbuckling twist to the iconic heir to the throne of Atlantis and Fisher brings fitting strokes of tortured humanity to the brooding Cyborg.  As for the return of the Man of Steel himself it’s a triumphant one, the rebirth of Clark Kent/Superman forming an integral part of the story and Henry Cavill slips back into the cape and boots with ease, his selfless, heroic sacrifice in BvS and a second chance at life leading to a Superman with a renewed purpose and a more hopeful perspective.

The tone of Justice League is certainly lighter and more accessible than Batman v Superman, with a fair amount of humour sprinkled throughout and it’s generally well-placed and doesn’t undermine the film’s more dramatic moments.  It’s well known that due to personal tragedy, Zack Snyder handed over post-production duties to Avengers Assemble and Avengers: Age of Ultron writer/director Joss Whedon, with Whedon (who shares screenwriting credits with Chris Terrio) scripting some additional material and handling reshoots.  This could’ve easily been to the film’s detriment but gladly, the end result actually feels quite consistent.  Visually, Justice League is most definitely a Zack Snyder film, it’s themes of heroism enhanced by Joss Whedon’s knack for snappy character dialogue.  The screenplay may lack the deeper, more introspective themes and idiosyncratic touches of BvS but it gets the job done.

Although Justice League isn’t perfect its positive aspects make it enjoyable and fun in all the right places, particularly for fans of these iconic characters.  It isn’t on the same level as Marvel’s Avengers but it sets the DC film universe on the right path for the many further cinematic adventures ahead.

The bottom line:  Flawed but ultimately enjoyable, Justice League assembles some of DC’s finest heroes and establishes the road ahead for future outings.

Justice League is in cinemas now.

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.

WW

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