Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I saw Ultron come of age...

Joss Whedon's new Avengers adventure, "Age of Ultron", has arrived, and our favorites are back: Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans); Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr); Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo); Thor (Chris Hemsworth); War Machine/James Rhodes (Don Cheadle); Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner); Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson); the Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie)...and a special appearance by SHIELD's fatherly force, Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson). 

New to the mix is Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff (Aaron "Kick-Ass" Taylor-Johnson), though not to be confused with Evan Peter's hero in "Days of Future Past"; the Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and the majestic android, the Vision (Paul Bettany, who also voices Stark's digital butler, JARVIS). 

The computer angle is big in this sequel, with a robot army on the loose, led by the power-hungry Ultron (voiced by James Spader). However, the concept of fickle technology isn't new in science-fiction/fantasy fables. We've seen it depicted in "Terminator", "2001: a Space Odyssey, and "Colossus: the Forbin Project". As far as acrobatic robots dominating the landscape goes, we've seen that, too, thanks to the RoboCop and Transformers sagas, but "Age of Ultron" somehow manages to keep things fresh, despite the recycled trimmings. 

On the flip side, as significant as the mechanical infiltraton is, it never dominates our heroes' presence or their sense of family. Sure, the members possess enough variance to be dysfunctional, but they also subscribe to a common cause: keep Earth safe.

As seized from Hydra's Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), the technology involved is culled from Loki's scepter: its harbored "artificial intelligence" deemed worthy of implantation in Stark's defense project, designed (ironically) to protect us from villainous penetration.

Ultron, a creation fashioned as a learner/watcher of sorts within the expansive program, develops an egomaniacal consciousness, which then constructs a body and breaks free to take over the world with a league of his own. He's also quite a sight to behold: a towering cross between Superman's Brainiac and a pumped-up Terminator prototype. 

Stark is, perhaps, the most adversely affected by the robot rebellion, for having activated the computerized Frankensteins, which leads Rogers to push further toward the Avengers forefront. Considering that Ultron and his army are equivalents to Nazis, Commies, and any other variety of on-and-off-again evil-doers, Cap's prominent presence feels right. After all, this is a war-time mission, and through his cordial relationship with Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), he increases the Avengers' chance for victory with his stalwart perspective. 

With this established, the movie advocates that we, as cognitive, freedom-loving creatures, have full right to combat and destroy such cold, calculating monsters. To fight is essential and all-out war (particularly under the film's harrowing circumstances) a non-debatable necessity. 

All the same, this staunch angle will likely unsettle negotiation advocates, but as the turmoil mounts under Whedon's emotional script and tense direction, "Age of Ultron" can't help but inspire one's righteous angst: the need to shout out a hardy "action not appeasement". Its message, though seemingly simple, should prove profound for anyone with any sort of practical, moral conviction. 

Philosophy aside,the movie is jammed with vivacious action sequences. The prelude is one of the best rendered (and that's saying a lot considering how sleek the Bond intros have been), and the battle between a confused Hulk and Stark's Hulk Buster is a grand feast in it own right, guaranteed to rattle one's senses with rumbles and roars, heightening the adventure to near Wagnerian proportions. 

I can't yet say that "Age of Ultron" surpasses the original "Avengers", which had the charming novelty of bringing the gang together, and it's certainly nowhere near as politically intricate as "Winter Soldier". It does, however, soar consistently high, never losing its momentum even when it dares to spotlight the relationships between Hawkeye and his wife, or the burgeoning one between Widow and Banner/Hulk. (The latter scenarios surely could have derailed the film, as had the superfluous romance in "Amazing Spider-man 2".)

Regardless of what the future holds for the Avengers, this current chapter does an admirable job of nurturing the traditional comic-book format. That should certainly please purists. The movie is also a terrific way to start the spring/summer blockbuster season, delivering thrills, chills and above all, a sense of wonderment. So, don't delay; jump on board and join the fun!!!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Collectible Time #23: Titan Hero Tech Thor, Iron Man and Ultron

To round out my "Age of Ultron" 12" Titan Hero Tech Avengers figures, I've obtained the following: Chris Hemsworth's Thor, Robert Downey's Iron Man (Mark 43 edition) and James Spader's Ultron!!!

Thor elicits such robust declarations as "Have at thee, villain", "It's time to fly", "We are a mighty team" and "Captain, 'tis an honor to stand with you."

Iron Man offers such profound utterances as "Mark 43 online", "Give up, Ultron", "Cap, watch your back" and "Where's the Hulk Buster?"

Last but not least, the monstrous Ultron mechanically conveys, "I will crush humanity," "Bow before the might of Ultron", "Iron Man, I expected more" and "Avengers, you disgust me." (Incidentally, Ultron's head and neck light up: a nice, eerie touch.)

These are finely detailed figures and delightful companions to my "Age of Ultron" Captain America, Hulk and Hulk Buster pieces. Yep, it's sure swell to have gotten the entire Titan Hero Tech set!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

An Alternate Reality #3: Watchmen

With the advent of Marvel's "Age of Ultron", I thought it fitting to reminisce on another superhero team-up effort, even though its story is rather unconventional, transcending even the various parallel universes we typically find in comic-book mythology. The film is Zack Snyder's 2009 "Watchmen", based on the classic '80s Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons DC comic-book epic, as adapted to the screen by David Hayter and Alex Tse. 

Though superhero adventures by their very nature are "alternate reality", there are some that carve further niches into the concept, like Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which co-exist with other Caped Crusader offshoots and retellings. However, Moore's story takes the parallel-universe concept one step beyond even the latter, planting an alternate universe that both mirrors the DC and Marvel golden-and-silver-age worlds, but becomes an intricate foundation all unto itself. In other words, "Watchmen" is its own niche, existing in a contemplative crevasse, separate from any series: a place where the Vietnam War falls in U.S. favor, Richard Nixon is re-elected beyond the allowed designation...and superheroes are as sad, scarred and flawed as we everyday folks. 

In a surprising gesture of faithfulness, the film actually mirrors its the graphic novel upon which it's based. Also, like the novel, the film (i.e., any of its various versions) makes a staunch statement on freedom and rights: Orwellian and Huxley-esque in the bold way it analyzes its socio-political views. 

The main heroes are sprung from an original, alternate '40s league called the Minutemen, which includes such groundbreaking figures as the Batman-inspired Nite Owl/Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie); Silk Spectre/Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino); and Comedian/Edward Blake (Jeffery Dean Morgan): an odd cross between Captain America and the Joker, who for the sake of any cause, desires that proverbial last laugh. 

Comedian, we learn, also became part of the later-day Minutemen, the Watchmen, which include Nite Owl II/Daniel Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson); Silk Spectre II/Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman); the god-like Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup); the golden "uberman" Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode); and the tireless crusader from whom the story is conveyed, the mysterious Rorschach/Walter Kovacs, (Jackie Earle Haley), based upon Steve Ditko's legendary characters, Mr. A and the Question. Last but not least, we have Moloch (Matt Fewer), a woeful villain, who due to no fault of his own, becomes part of their plight. 

When Comedian is murdered, the authorities investigate, but so does Rorschach, and what he uncovers is more monumental than he could have conjectured. 

It appears an "Architects of Fear" scam (you "Outer Limits" fans will appreciate the reference) has been implemented: a trick to frighten Earth's factions into forming an alliance against a common foe. It's a noble notion on the surface, except that it's a lie. Rorschach watches, waits and collects the clues, building up toward the revelation, but his mission is sidetracked when he's falsely accused and imprisoned for Moloch's death.

The next generation Night Owl and Silk Spectre venture to break Rorschach out (after revitalizing their sense of cause via a trip in "Archie", the former's aircraft, and along the way saving some folks from a burning building). From there, the secrets and lies unfurl. The consequences aren't pretty, and the conspiracy stays concealed to the public until the adventure's end, deposited in a publisher's "crackpot" bin.

There's insightful interaction among the various characters throughout this basic structure, which reflects the most sophisticated science-fiction writings (think Arthur C. Clarke meets Joseph Stefano). The most poignant of these interludes centers on Dr. Manhattan's after he flees to Mars (once his radioactive shell is said to have infected people with cancer). In this distant realm, the deity ruminates on the process of time (in "Slaughter House Five" fashion), but despite such pensive plot bridges, the importance of revealing (or rather concealing) the truth remains a constant, overriding component. 

In truth, the heroes' very existence teeters on an ongoing distinction between right and wrong. The heft of such falls upon Rorschach's shoulders, but they all participate in it, even Comedian, whose connection to the "Architects" plot leads to his downfall. Also, that the heroes have been stripped of their command, that their aliases have been jeopardized (with Rorschach defying it all, by still wearing his shape-shifting mask), only adds to the copious, dystopian desperation. 

In our current age, when the truth is habitually obscured, when bad antics are rewarded or excused, when belligerent countries are appeased and virtuous ones condemned, "Watchmen" resonates more than ever. In this regard, its alternate-reality view might be more in tune with our own than many of us would care to confess. 

"Watchmen" is also the foundation upon which any serious superhero vehicle should be based: a vessel for stirring not only adventure, but thought-provoking concepts and scenarios. It doesn't require a sequel (any more than "Citizen Kane" does), for any extension of the established tale might spoil its sincerity and moral stance. 

Though several cinematic incarnations of the story exist (including a recommended "motion comic" of the novel), Snyder's original theatrical version is, in its own concise right, adequately designed to extend the yarn's influence and make us ask not only "Who watches the Watchmen?", but who watches any of those we've chosen to rule our lives; and why are we so foolish to grant them this continued, reckless distinction, when they've emerged as imperfect as ourselves?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015



Saturday, April 18, 2015

Batman v Superman Trailer Premieres

The official "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" trailer has premiered, and boy, does it ever do its job. It's riddled with mood, a brush of "Dark Knight Returns" and flows with garrulous, mainstream-media chants and unsettling images: a denouncement of heroes, alas. Nonetheless, that's the way it goes today, in reality as well as fiction, but this one will likely make a profound statement on the situation.

I'm not in favor of these two favorites being pitted against each other over any significant stretch, but the conflict should iron itself out, I believe, once the story gets rolling. Anyway, this one sure looks like it has the makings of something epic...something thought-provoking......something classic. We'll see...

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I saw the Caped Crusaders--at Odds...

In general, I've never been keen on the superhero-vs-superhero concept. This includes Marvel's epic Civil War saga, which is ever-so-popular at this point, and even when such conflict is at best only touched upon (as will probably be the case in Zach Snyder's upcoming "Batman v Superman"), I'm left feeling dissatisfied, if not betrayed. Why have good fight good? There is such a vast assortment of villains available in the DC/Marvel spectrum, with potential ones yet to be born, that it seems unnecessary to play upon the novelty good-vs-good. 

Above all, I find the sidekick rebellion most unsettling. (All right, I'll admit I'm okay with the Captain America/Bucky Barnes opposition as it evolved into the Winter Soldier saga, and even the whole Red Hood deal of a few years back I can swallow, but those scenarios are of a whole different relegation and not dealing directly with gee-whiz, youngsters-in-training.) Anyway, I really get my feathers ruffled when the likes of Kato and Tonto turn against the Green Hornet and Lone Ranger...and the same damn thing certainly applies to Batman and Robin.

With that being said, the latest DC animated feature, "Batman vs Robin" revolves around such an unpleasant circumstance. At least it's not youthful Dick Grayson turning smart-ass against his mentor, but that it's Wayne's son, Damian, doesn't make it a whole lot better. 

Now, granted, Wayne's offspring came across as a mean, little punk in "Son of Batman", but in that instance, he at least appeared to get on track by story's end. Alas, by the time "Batman vs Robin" gets underway, we find him under the spell of the contemptuous Court of Owls and possibly set to kill his dad, no less. 

Actually it's one member in particular who lures the new Boy Wonder into such an disrespectful position. His name is Talon: a Batman wannabe with a strong, Bane streak. However, I can't help but think that one as astute as Damian would immediately see through the villain's tactics. Perhaps he allows himself to be manipulated because, on subconscious level, he doesn't respect his dad, let alone the cause for which Batman stands: particularly, the avoidance of killing the bad guys (unless, of course, such is absolutely necessary). 

In any event, the Owls stem from a long-time underground syndicate with a tradition of brainwashing kids to become the assassins of evil: a Gotham-grown counterpart to the League/Society of Shadows. Image-wise, the fiends conceal their identities behind owl masks, which makes them fit comfortably into the Batman landscape, and to better their odds, Talon isn't the Council's only armored henchman. There's a whole damn, mystical battalion of 'em.

As scripted by J.M. DeMatteis and directed by Jay Oliva, the conflict (spoiler alert!) does work itself out by the time the credits roll. However, as engaging as events are (and I'd be a lair if I said they didn't hold my attention over the long haul), they can't erase the underlying unpleasantness of their premise. That element of betrayal remains a nagging, ceaseless thorn in what's otherwise a rousing piece of entertainment. 

On the positive side, "Batman vs Robin" offers top-notch animation, on a par with "Son of...". (Such should make watching the films back-to-back smooth and seamless.) Dick Grayson/Nightwing figures significantly in the story, too, which is perhaps an even greater plus. The plot also offers superb twists and turns, but I won't reveal them here. You'll just have to experience them for yourself.

Still, traditionalist fuddy-dud that I am, I want my Caped Crusaders on the same side, regardless of the selected Robin. This film pushes the divide a tad too hard for me at times, so much so that I'm not so sure I'll watch the movie often. Nevertheless, as a Batman/Robin fan, I've given it a place in my collection, and for those compelled to cover all bases, it will always be available to buy and rent: for better or worse, a new, official chapter in Batman's enduring legend. Make use of it, and decide for yourself where in the grand scheme it stands.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Collectible Time #22: Titan Hero Tech Hulk/Hulk Buster and Gary Shipman Hulk Print

As a further warm-up to "Age of Ultron", I decided to go for several new Hulk items.

First up (to go along with my Titan Hero Tech Captain America, referenced in Collectible Time "21) is the Mark Ruffalo 12" Hulk. When you press Hulk's tummy, he grunts such cool things as "Hulk crush tin man", "Hulk's the strongest" and "Hulk smash puny robot", along with a series of calamitous sound effects. The facial structure is certainly Ruffalo, and in keeping with comic-book tradition, the sculpt is both imposing and enraged. 

To interact with the Hulk, I also purchased the 13" Titan Hero Tech Hulk Buster. In essence, Hulk Buster is a pumped-up version of Iron Man, right down to an expansion of Tony Stark's trademark coloring. 

In addition to the figure's "jackhammer" punch activation, lights and sound effects, it spouts such phrases as "Avengers assemble", "Hulk Buster powering up" and "Oh, yeah, this is power". When set to interact with the Hulk figure, it says things like "Whoa, big guy," "Hulk, stop tearing up my armor" and (my personal favorite) "Bruce, it's time to calm down". 

Hulk Buster is quite a fine looking hunk of plastic, and for the $40 price range, well worth the purchase. (I'm also certain that many a kid--and adult--will have fun staging these two figures against each other.)

Next up is a rippling 11" x 17" Gary Shipman Hulk print (a nice addition to the Cap and Winter Soldier prints, also referenced in Collectible Time #21). Due to Gary's immense talent, this representation aptly captures the Hulk's imposing muscularity and rage-wrought expression: a fine salute if ever there was one to the big, green fighting machine. 

The above gives one some insight of Shipman's impressive design, but in no way captures the full fury that the piece invokes when one sees it in person. The same can also be said of the Cap/Bucky prints. (If you have a chance, do yourself a favor and check out the Esty site for more awe-inspiring Shipman prints.) 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Collectible Time #21: Gary Shipman Captain America/Winter Soldier Prints and Titan Hero Tech Cap

To further my cheer for "Age of Ultron'"s advent, I've obtained two excellent Gary Shipman Avengers prints: Captain American and Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier!!!

These prints, like the Hulk, are 11" x 17", and as you can see, full of dynamic tension even in their stationary poses. I really like the way Cap's shield is featured in each.  (You can obtain the prints through Etsy, where other superb Shipman creations are available.)

Also, got a cool 12" Titan Hero Tech figure...a Chris Evans Cap, no less! The interactive Cap utters such gutsy statements as "I am Captain America", "Avengers, assemble", "Hulk smash" and "We're winning this one, Avengers."

It's a spiffy, sturdy, patriotic looking figure, and for that, I like it...a lot!!!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Daredevil Rises...Again!!!

Commenced with "Marvel's Daredevil", courtesy of Netflix, and man, it's pretty good: dark and somber, that is, as it well should be. Charlie Cox is impressive as the menacing, blind attorney/avenger Matt Murdock, and though the devilish costume doesn't figure into the start (beyond the opening credits, anyway), it looks like it'll satisfy once it becomes the norm. Evidently, Vincent D'Onofrio is entering the story line as Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, which is another plus.

Anyway, it's about time another live-action Daredevil came our way, and I'm happy as a lark this one appears to be making more than the grade!!!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Flask of Eyes Characterization #3: Bernard Underling Meets Dracula

Another of my "Flask of Eyes" characters is also based on a famous fiend, and in my story, he stands as an adopted brother to Benjamin, the Frankenstein Monster variant. His name is Bernard Underling, and he's a homage to vampires in general, but mainly, Count Dracula.

I can't deny that Bela Lugosi left quite an impression on me as a kid, and his iconic Count (along with his portrayals in "Mark of the Vampire" and "Return of the Vampire") prevails whenever I think of vampires. Bernard is definitely part of the Lugosi's lineage. 

Christopher Lee figures in there, too, and there's a point in "Flask" where the latter is referenced. Of course, there are many others who also influenced Bernard's Drac persona, including John Carradine, Francis Lederer, Jack Palance, Louis Jordan, Frank Langella...

Like Benjamin, Bernard enters the tale in disguise, equipped with fake flesh, invoking a tall, regal figure, but beneath the surface, he's essentially a man-bat. In fact, appearance-wise, he rather resembles the famous Batman foe, Man-bat, equipped with imposing wings, at least once he dares let them spring: for all intents and purposes, a winged demon or quasi-gargoyle type. 

In essence, Benjamin very much plays upon the the shape-shifting image that Bram Stoker popularized and which has continued in the many books and movies over the decades.  

On this basis, a number of Drac/man-bat actors (and their unnerving designs) have determined Bernard's actual structure, including Bradford Dillman in "Bat People"; Gary Oldman in "Bram Stoker's Dracula '92"; Greg Wise in "House of Frankenstein '97". 

To stir things up, I also made Bernard guilt-ridden. In this regard, he holds a puritanical strand, and for him, drinking blood is sinful, especially when it leads him to kill. Gosh, now that I think of it, I may have injected an element of Michael Nouri's Count into him: remember "Curse of Dracula" from the "Cliffhangers" series? 

Anyway, in the deepest recesses of his dark heart, Bernard isn't really vile, but like dear Drac, is still very much inhuman, and like most monsters we have come to know and love, flawed and misunderstood. Give "Flask" a read and see if you don't agree.