Tuesday, 28 April 2015

A Character Definition Masterclass

I won't bang on about the Avengers: Age of Ultron film overall, save to say that I enjoyed it very very much. However, I would like to examine one tiny scene quite a long way into the film, which is an excellent example of efficient storytelling.
Here's the situation: a new character is introduced a long way into the story. Said character is an artificial being in a movie awash with villainous robots bent on destruction. In fact the new character is the creation of evil 'bot Ultron himself. The themes of betrayal, suspicion and switching sides are threaded throughout the movie. The various (Avenger) protagonists have every reason to suspect this android newcomer and bog the film down in tiresome 'how can we possibly trust you?' interplay, consuming minutes of valuable screen time.
So how does the film-maker efficiently subvert that expectation and establish the character's credentials, short of a lame 'No wait, I sense his good intentions' declaration from the nearest empath?
Simple, you let the character casually pick up Thor's hammer and hand it to him.
Perfect. They've already established earlier on that only the worthy can lift the hammer, and even Cap can only shift it a smidge. So simply having the Vision pass it to Thor - without even realising the significance of his action - has this incredible effect both on the other characters and the audience (there was a ripple of collective 'whoa's when I watched the film). He Is Worthy. Now move on.
Excellent use of the existing mythology to keep the story moving forward at a pace.
Also, Paul Bettany in a cape with Thor's hammer. What's not to love.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

What’s Wrong With The Avengers Comics - a review of Avengers 42

I was in Orbital Comics in central London a couple of weeks ago I prefer it to Forbidden Planet, I think. It’s nicely laid out, there’s no ridiculous post office rat-run at the tills, and the shop doesn’t coyly hide its comicky shame downstairs like a Soho bookshop.

I haven’t really been following Avengers for a few years, not since just after the Heroic Age relaunch. Mainly this was because I couldn’t commit to buying multiple Avengers series, but also because I could no longer tolerate writer Brian Michael Bendis’ overuse of ‘heroes sit round a kitchen table in their civvies and discuss who’s on child-minding duties for Jessica and Luke’s sprog’.

So I’m in the comic shop and can’t very well flick through a few titles and just leave. I have to buy something to show willing. What I end up buying are, just like when I was 12, things with catchy covers (way back when, that would have been the Thing punching out a T-Rex while Ka-Zar the savage straddles its neck delivering dialogue like ‘STRIKE GRIMM! BEFORE THE THUNDER LIZARD DOOMS US ALL!’).

I pick up an Alan Davis-covered something and an Alex Ross-covered something, and then I see this here Avengers cover.

It's all going on.

 It’s got all sorts of dudes - most of them I presume baddies, at least they’re baddies this week. There’s Gladiator giving it grrr, Annihilus (it took me years before I realised you didn’t pronounce his name ‘Annie-Hillers’), the chick from the Imperial Guard with the bunches (Astra, I think), a grumpy Skrull and a Brood or two flashing their choppers like Sram from Terrahawks. All flying straight out the page at the reader. Awesome. I presume inside there is a mega-battle between the Avengers and all these spaceborn enemies, so I buys it and reads it on the train home.

Now do a Google image search for Moid. Genuinely disturbing.

I am less than satisfied by the contents. Here’s a page-by-page breakdown of what I plonked down £2.76 of my hard-earned for…

Page 1

Previously in Avengers (I am hearing this in Clark Gregg’s voice). Lots of people standing around talking. Very few of them appear to be the Avengers.

Page 2

Headshots of 45 characters from different teams. There seem to be two teams of Avengers, some Illuminati (heroes from other teams colluding for the Greater Good), the Cabal (I dunno - some space baddies and Namor), the Guardians of the Galaxy, and some other leftover dudes who must have been sent invites to this comic by mistake.

Page 3

Title page. There is a shot of the now aged Steve Rogers looking like Gary Cooper in High Noon, and Reed Richards sporting a vast hipster beard like he’s converted to Islam or trawler fishing.

Page 4

Yellowjacket, the Beast and some dude I figure is Amadeus Cho in a spaceship above the moon. They talk a bit.

How does it work without a visor?

Page 5

The Hulk and Captain Britain in spacesuits. They talk and go EVA over the body of the Living Tribunal on the moon’s surface, which is where all self-respecting cosmic entities go to die these days.

Page 6-7

Cyclops, Sunspot and Cannonball look at some sentinels and talk. Cyclops’ new incarnation post AvX as a complete tool shows no sign of abating.

Page 8-9

Black Panther and Reed Richards With Beard stand in front of a screen and talk about something that looks like the Odyssey from Ulysses 31. Variable-age Valeria Richards eats ice-cream but still comes across as a horrific Stepford child that should have been shot into the sun years ago.

Page 10

Sunspot and Cannonball have left from Cyclops’ Brotherhood of Douchebag Mutants and in homage to Brian Michael Bendis, are in their civvies talking about a toddler. This page is the issue’s highlight for levity, characterisation and superheroics (the baby is wallcrawling on the ceiling).

Keep thinking of a brick wall, Reed.

Page 11-12

Smasher puts on her goggles, goes down on one knee and gets her marching orders from Gladiator. There is talking.

Page 13-14

Namor and some albino woman who has a daft name like White Void sit on a rock and talk.

Page 15-17

Gladiator (him again - maybe they should call this comic Gladiator and his Amazing Friends) sits on his space throne and talks to the Imperial Guard.

Page 18-19

Includes gummy-mouthed Acanti with a distressingly textured spacewhale tongue. This is the closest the comic gets to any action, apart from the superbaby on the ceiling.

Page 20-21

The Guardians of the Galaxy sit in their spaceship and talk. They may or may not be flying alongside all the spaceships from pages 18-19. It’s not clear. The different characters of the Guardians are clearly conveyed. Presumably because the writer has just seen the film so didn’t have to think too hard.

Page 22

Rocket talks at lots of superheroes, who may or may not constitute the Avengers. It’s hard to tell.

Page 23

Closing shot of spaceships closing in on Earth. I suppose it’s a kind of dramatic ending.


I am genuinely at a loss to explain how this constitutes an Avengers comic. It ought to be called Stuff Happening Everywhere Involving Everyone!, including the increasingly tedious Illuminati, two flavours of Avengers, leftover baddies the Cabal and the Guardians of the Galaxy (who are rapidly approaching Wolverine levels of comic ubiquity). Oh, and Cyclops in his silly X-mask and Valeria Richards (who varies in age between 7 and 16 depending on who draws her).

I get why there are several Avengers comics out at the same time; they’re hot property, what with the films and all. But man, they should really try to feature the Avengers, rather than d100 random characters from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

I think there are about 4 Avengers series out right now, but it’s bloody hard to tell. There’s Avengers, New Avengers, Avengers World, and Secret Avengers. And maybe Uncanny Avengers, Real Avengers, Original Avengers, Avengers Lite and My Big Fat Avenger Plastic Surgery Nightmares.

But they all look the same. They all have an A logo in the top left corner of the cover and a tiny ickle word bit for Secret, World etc. It’s incredibly hard to tell them apart in the shop. Rubbish. In the old days you had a big fat readable title splashed all the way across, and a groovy picture of the hero or heroes in a box top left. Ah, halcyon days.

If the upcoming Netflix shows don't have Stiletto and Discus, I shall be most put out.

But the main problem with this comic lies with its writer, Jonathan Hickman, who perpetrated the exact same approach to story-telling on Fantastic Four a few years ago. He takes a team title, expands the cast by a factor of ten and starts spinning about 5 simultaneous global/interstellar plot-plates. He totally loses any focus on the original central characters, because there are no central characters. You can tell this by page 2 of the Avengers comic - there are 45 - forty bloody five - characters listed.

Not that Hickman can actually write characters. He is plot-oriented to the nth degree - nobody has any discernible character to differentiate them from each other. Apart from a little charmless Rocket Raccoon snarking, everyone in this issue talks the same and behaves the same, to wit they like to stand around and deliver dialogue. They also don’t like to do boring old superhero things like run around and hit things.

Closing Thoughts

I am mystified as to exactly who this sort of title is aimed at. Not the casual reader - even with a Previously On page and a preposterous 45-character cast list, it’s near impossible to pick up what’s happening. And it’s not aimed at the younger reader - there’s nothing here to satisfy someone after fun, action or fights. Or indeed any sort of drama.

But if it’s endless pontificating by a bunch of characterless stuffed shirts you want, some sporting Beards Of Sombreness, then step right this way.

Secret Wars, the company-wide Marvel event is coming soon - which will apparently reboot everything and start again. I can only hope they reboot the writers as well.