Thursday, 26 April 2012

Review: Avengers Assemble

It is fair to say that the Avengers movie, or Avengers Assemble to give it its full title, has been a long time coming. Ever since an unexpected post-credits scene in 2008's Iron Man  made mention of the 'Avengers Initiative', the question has been when, not if Marvel's premier team would be making its way to the big screen. Handing the project over to Joss Whedon seemed a match made in heaven, but the director has  had his work cut out with perhaps one of the most ambitious cinematic projects in history. Although Avengers Assemble is at times a gloriously entertaining summer blockbuster, it is difficult to truly state whether it is a total success.

Dealing with plot threads from both Iron Man films, the Incredible Hulk and last years Captain America and Thor, the Avengers immediately fills like a project filled to the brim with ideas. Although Loki, primary antagonist of Thor, is the villain for the majority of the films running time, he is backed up by a truly gruesome cast of alien creatures, and a plot that contrives to turn the Avengers against themselves several times over. Whedon's narrative is not overly complex, but he should be commended for 'assembling' the team relatively quickly without it ever coming across as rushed or forced. The scope of the film feels suitably epic throughout, aided by some superb set pieces and breathtaking action sequences.

At times though, it seems like Avengers struggles a little under the weight of its own expectations. The final battle, while often spectacular, feels a little self indulgent and overly long. The action is of course, entertaining enough but is never backed up by the sort of emotional resonance that would have lent it slightly more depth. It is inevitable that in a film with such a bloated cast some characterisation must be sacrificed, but while there are some flimsy attempts at it, they feel perfunctory at best. The films large scale, while probably necessary, also seems overdone - the alien's that serve as fodder in the climatic fight scene serve little purpose other than as things to hit. There is little attempt to flesh them out and they come across as flimsy antagonists. Loki, on the other hand is terrifically portrayed by Tom Hiddleston, following on from an impressive turn in last year's Thor. Often though, his strongest moments are the quiet ones that allow him to actually act, rather than the bloated, special effects heavy action sequences that he is often lumbered with.

The film's tone seems confused at times too. It is true that humour has become a staple of action films, but it often feels misguided here. When it comes off, it works very well, but much of the laughs feel forced, and their frequency often threatens to undermine a plot that should have been an epic. Whedon's dialogue - usually one of his stronger suits - feels a little laboured here, and took me out of the action more often than it drew me in.

The film's cast do a largely fantastic job. Robert Downey Jr and Tom Hiddleston are standouts, but the rest of the cast are convincing throughout and bring a lot to their roles. Chris Hemsworth is a little bland, but certainly looks the part, as does the rest of the film. Even the background characters are given enough attention to make the world of the Avengers a richer one than arguably any other super hero's seen on screen.

Avengers Assemble could have been one of the more memorable comic book adaptations of all time but as it is, Whedon's epic feels as though it is trying too hard. The action feels overdone, with the characters suffering as a result despite attempts to the contrary, and the humour, while of course a necessity, also seems more prominent than it should be. Joss Whedon deserves credit for crafting an entertaining summer blockbuster, but has fallen short of producing the stand out super hero film that the Avengers franchise has promised us for years.


Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Review: I, Vampire #8

I, Vampire #8 By Fialkov / Sorrentino

This issue brings a close to I, Vampire's first real crossover - the four part arc 'Rise of the Vampires'. Despite its short length RotV managed to bring with it a palpable sense of impact, and a highly unexpected change of direction for the series. Although I was hesitant about picking up Justice League: Dark in order to understand the storyline it managed to impress me - Peter Milligan has created an intriguing cast of characters and although Daniel Sampere's pencils failed to bring the sort of atmosphere that Andrea Sorrentino excels at, they managed to hold up their end of the story in style.

Andrew Bennet's return from the dead in the crossover's previous issue was perhaps a little predictable, and seemed to herald a triumphant vanquishing of the vampire forces that Bennet has opposed since the series' d├ębut issue. It does seem however that I didn't give Joshua Hale Fialkov nearly enough credit, as this issue brought with it a twist that came right out of left field, without seeming forced or inconsistent with previous events. Bennet's defection to the side of the vampires initially seems a rejection of everything that made his character so interesting, particularly given the apparent reignition of his relationship with former partner and current arch-villain, Mary. To his credit though, Hale Fialkov did manage to convince me with the rest of the issue that it was a twist that not only made some twisted sense, but was more than worth persevering with.

In truth, this issue is more composed of exposition than much of the action that it promised, but it is told in predictably captivating fashion by Andrea Sorrentino, whose ethereal style continues to be the perfect fit for Fialkov's story. Although Daniel Sampere's pencils on the Justice League: Dark segments of the crossover were perfectly adequate, Sorrentino's work feels very much like a return to form for the story.

I, Vampire's new direction may not be one that everyone will agree with, and it certainly seems to go against much of what made the books opening arc such a delight. What it does show however, is a welcome unpredictability and a willingness on Fialkov's part to go against the grain. Whether it will be a success is not immediately clear, but this issue certainly serves as both an entertaining wrap up to a solid crossover, and a mouthwatering set up for the series' new direction.


Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Review: Avengers Vs X-Men #2

Avengers VS X-Men #2 By Aaron / Romita

I swore I wouldn't do this anymore...

Avengers VS X-Men is the latest event book to come out of the House of Ideas, following the moderate success of last summer's 'epic', Fear Itself. Thankfully AVX looks to be a much more successful proposition than that largely failed production. Fear Itself - ominously enough - also began fairly well before collapsing under the weight of its own expectations and lack of real ideas, not to mention some really poor storytelling. AVX at least promises to tell a story with a real impact. Whereas Fear Itself dealt with the more obscure Asgardian corner of the Marvel Universe, this series sees two of Marvel's biggest properties - the Avengers and the X-Men - trading blows, not to mention the return of the Phoenix, star of one of the most critically acclaimed Marvel storylines of all time, the Dark Phoenix Saga.

Does it work? Not entirely. Jason Aaron takes over writing duties from Brian Michael Bendis and in truth, has little to work with. After issue #1's status as an exercise in setting the scene, the plot of this issue feels a lot more by the numbers, and features a knock down brawl between the two teams, intercut with brief scenes featuring the Phoenix force journeying to Earth. Aaron's script is fairly forgettable, and lacks the humour and edge that has defined his superb run on Wolverine and the X-Men. Some of his dialogue is fairly hackneyed but it is mostly adequate and sets the tone of the story well. Aided by the interlude scenes, he does a good job of getting the threat of the Phoenix force across, although as a seasoned veteran of Marvel's event titles it is hard to get excited about yet another potential world ending force. The Phoenix does carry rather a larger presence than the antagonists from previous stories though, so it manages to just about work.

The actual action is fairly bog standard, and hampered by the fact that the script keeps jumping from scene to scene. The individual match ups could have been interesting, not to mention visually spectacular, but none of them are really given much of a chance to shine. Romita Jr's artwork is a mixed bag too, as often seems to be the case lately. He gets across the scale of the battle as well as anyone could, but his style lacks the fluidity and dynamism that would have made the battle more interesting to read.

Avengers VS X-Men #2 is a minor step down from the previous issue, largely by virtue of not doing anything particularly interesting. The fight is rather listlessly portrayed, what characterisation there is, is skipped over, and while the plot is advanced a little, there are few shocks. The titles bi-weekly schedule will help with all of these concerns, but taken on its own merits this is little more than an average issue - albeit one that promises more for the rest of the series.


Thursday, 12 April 2012

Review: Scarlet Spider #4

                    Scarlet Spider #4 By Yost / Stegman

Taken at face value, the recently launched Scarlet Spider series does not seem to have a lot going for it. Unmistakably tied to the 1990's -  a bleak era for comic books - through its name and protagonist, and unable to boast the big name creative teams and glittering arrays of guest stars that seem to be a pre-requisite for success in the modern era of comic books. While its sales have been rather modest, the Scarlet Spider's first three issues were however an almost unprecedented critical success. No one seems to have anything negative to say about Chris Yost and Ryan Stegman's fledgling partnership, and while I found the series' opening far from perfect, it was certainly a solid foundation to build on.

It is with this issue, that I think that the Scarlet Spider has begun to truly come into its own and make good on some of the promise that its first three issues showed. The bulk of it is devoted to a fast paced action sequence, yet Yost also manages to fit in a couple of slowly developing subplots. One of my biggest criticism's of Yost's first issue was the lack of a supporting cast, a fact that now seems to have been remedied. Several of these characters have not yet been given much in the way of development, but there is enough there to make them intriguing presences in the series. The subplot featuring the assassination attempt on Donald and Wally is not entirely convincing, but they are well rounded enough characters to make it interesting to read.

The lions share of the issue's page count is reserved for Kaine's duel with the Assassins Guild, and it is a very well done sequence. Ryan Stegman's art is kinetic, energetic, and pops off the page. He seems to have the dynamic of the title character nailed, and is a terrific fit for the title. Yost's script too, elevates the action to a notch above bog-standard superheroics. It is hardly groundbreaking stuff, but well scripted and enjoyable to read.

Already any semblance of a negative stigma that may have been counted against this series is rapidly disappearing. Without many of the sales gimmicks that other titles take for granted, the Scarlet Spider has carved out a solid niche for itself and shows no sign of giving it up. There is some way to go if the character is to become a Deadpool-esque success story, but if Chris Yost and Ryan Stegman continue to create such dynamic, multi-faceted stories I see no reason why it could not happen.


Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Review: Wolverine and the X-Men #8

Wolverine and the X-Men #8 By Aaron / Bachalo

Lauded by most for its humerus properties, this weeks eighth issue sees Rick Remender's Wolverine and the X-Men take a decidedly darker tone. Given his status as arguably Wolverine's greatest foe it must have been a case of when, not if, Sabretooth would show up, relatively recent death notwithstanding. What is perhaps more of a surprise however, is that his appearance in this issue sees him pursuing the girlfriend of the Beast, at the behest of the revamped (and disturbingly youthful) Black King of the Hellfire Club, 12 year old Kade Killgore.

The shift in tone is surprising, and a little jarring, but not unsuccessful. Plotlines introduced in a comical manner are dealt with more seriously here - Angel's psychosis for example, and Aaron manages to fit in comedy too. Ultimately this proves to be the books downfall however. Aaron does not seem content with sticking to one main plot per issue, a tactic that works on occasion but only serves to detract from the two main plotlines here. The storytelling feels a little choppy, and neither is given the attention that it deserves. It would be unfair to label either as a failure however - the students raid is handled with the energy and dynamism typical of this series, and Beast's battle with Sabretooth is grim and tense. The problem is that both could probably have carried an issue in their own right.

Chris Bachalo's art is an enigma. He is capable of terrific work, and excels at times in this issue - his fantastic cover for example. He does, however, sometimes struggle to rein in the excesses of his jumbled style, and his storytelling capabilities often suffer as a result. This issue is typical of his work, beautiful on occasion but not quite clear enough to make for a wholly satisfying read.

Jason Aaron's attempt to bring a little more seriousness to this series has to go down as a success. The seeds have been sown for future conflicts, and Sabretooth works well as a menacing, unrelenting adversary, helping to bring out a side to Beast's character that is too often ignored. This issue is something of a missed opportunity however - it's individual elements work very well, but Aaron seems too eager to include them all, even when it is to their detriment. Sometimes less is more, an adage that is all too true here.