Archive for the ‘Comics’ Category

Bert & Janelle Monae

I started out 2013 with lofty proclamations about all the writing and drawing I was going to do all year. I did more of the former than the latter, with highlights being taking a more central role on Daily Grindhouse and getting a piece published in Paracinema — but still, I feel like I underachieved.

My resolution for 2014 was simply this: Follow through. Do all the things I said I was going to do last year. Finish up some ongoing ideas I’m excited about and continue with all the things that are already working for me. Be realistically ambitious — and then surprise myself.

Meanwhile, I want to post here more often, and one way I resolved to do that is to more frequently mention the things I enjoy. There’s plenty enough negativity and bad vibes elsewhere on the internet. When people come to my page, I want them to encounter positivity, enthusiasm, or at the very least, trustworthy, educated opinions when those first two elements are less possible.  If you see a post with the heading ALL GOOD THINGS periodically, that will be my eager recommendation of art, music, movies, Blu-Rays, books, comics, podcasts, or whatever. Things I enjoy. Things you might enjoy too. If you do, please let me know!



Heat (1995)


One of my favorite movies of all time, I got to see HEAT on the big screen in 35mm again for only the second occasion in my life. The first time was when I saw it during its initial theatrical release in the mid-1990s. Back then, it was such a memorable moviegoing experience that I wondered if I’d ever need to see it again. Could it ever be as complete an experience as it was at first? A couple dozen viewings later, I’m still entranced. To me, this is one of the truest movies.

Her (2013)

Everyone else has long since released their Best Of 2013 lists, but I didn’t feel I could honestly put one out until I saw this movie. Now I can. Stay tuned!



Loved the original; had a healthy fear of going back to the well. But I love what McKay and Ferrell do, Trojan-horsing some pretty emphatic politics into their broadly absurd epic comedies. ANCHORMAN 2 has a reason for being, a very definitive target that I think it hits. Plus, there’s great white shark humor and minotaur humor. That’s irresistible to me.



I put this unusually-structured autobiography on my list of twelve great books from 2013 at Daily Grindhouse, but quite honestly I hadn’t finished it at the time. It’s great. Surprising, reverent, funny, and irreverent, it’s the record of the outspoken Ava Gardner, then in her mid-sixties, dictating her memoirs to the very British Peter Evans. She works hard to shock him and sometimes it works. Sometimes she only shocks the reader (and any of the family of her ex-husbands, most likely). When it was done, Ava didn’t want it published. She died in 1990. Peter Evans wrapped up the book, right before his own death, in 2012. Then, finally, this book appeared.



I’m reading TAMPA for my book club. It was my turn to choose, so I picked this pretty shocking (and topical) novel about a hot young teacher in Florida who pursues an adolescent boy. The writing is pretty unassailably terrific, I think; it’s the subject matter I expect to be a point of controversy. We’re recording our talk about it this weekend. Hopefully I can collect myself by then.


Maximum Minimum Wage


Last week I picked up Maximum MINIMUM WAGE, the collection of the 1990s underground comic by Bob Fingerman. I haven’t dug into it yet but I can’t wait. Surely I’ll be mentioning it again here.



The great WTF podcast doesn’t need any press from me, but the recent interview with Artie Lange was terrific. I’m a longtime fan of Artie and got to see him perform at the Comedy Cellar with Dave Attell in 2013. He’s promoting his latest book here, so a lot of this episode is painful personal stuff. That’s intense and brave, but I also like Artie when he’s speaking universal truths. One of my favorite insights he makes here, and I’m paraphrasing, is how you can’t count anyone out entirely. Everyone you meet in life, even if they’re an asshole, you can learn from. If they’re an asshole, discount their asshole side and look at what they do that’s successful. You can learn from everyone. He’s right about that, in my opinion. He just says it funnier.


Ice-T Final Level Podcast

Ice-T has a new podcast and it’s everything you’d want it to be. He talks about his love for Brad Pitt and the differences between men and women, and gives some behind-the-scenes description of Law & Order: SVU. I think his co-host Mick Benzo does a good job: He bounces off Ice-T well, giving him ammunition for rants, then steps out of the way when they come. Since I just started taking part in podcasts, I appreciate ones that are well done. I need to learn! So far there’s only been one episode of FINAL LEVEL but I’ll be subscribing.



So this is a new development: I am currently the co-host, along with the much more eloquent Joe and Freeman, of the Daily Grindhouse podcast, for the time being at least. In our first episode as a team we talked about STREET WARS, which is hilarious and strange. Check out that conversation. They had me choose the next movie we discuss, so our next episode, which comes out tomorrow night, will be about VIGILANTE FORCE, which stars Kris Kristofferson, Bernadette Peters, and a bunch of explosions.


I’m planning to have a lot of fun in 2014, so please follow me here and on Twitter for updates!




The Gauntlet 1977

Let’s start off by agreeing that the poster above is probably the single best one of all time. That is a Frank Frazetta. This isn’t the kind of thing Frazetta usually painted, but as he described in the documentary PAINTING WITH FIRE, Clint came over to ask him personally to do it, so he did. It’s a fun part of the documentary because Frazetta was often told he resembled Clint.

Frazetta Self-Portrait

Frazetta Self-Portrait





I’m starting off my thoughts on THE GAUNTLET with its poster and poster artist because rarely has there ever been such a perfect match of promotional artwork to finished film. Frazetta’s paintings were bombastic, ferocious, horned-up, and hyper-masculine. He painted incredibly beautiful women, but at the same time I’m not sure how impressed the feminists would be.

Likewise, THE GAUNTLET features this kind of dialogue:

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d have to give her a 2, and that’s only because I’ve never seen a 1 before.” — Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood).

I mean, that’s a fun line to me, but I recognize it ain’t exactly courtly.

A large part of my writing about movies to date has featured a long-running battle between the brain and the crotchular vicinity, with the heart reffing the match. Intellectually I tend toward the feminism-friendly but instinctively I rage and I ogle as much as any man on the planet. Being thoughtful and being masculine often results in internal hormonal warfare. I love Clint’s movies for their violence and their brutishness as much as for their progressive thinking and genre-spanning restlessness. THE GAUNTLET is the Icarus of Clint’s movies, darting dangerously close to the burning sun that is the mass of critics who eternally underrate and undermine his work. I don’t think the wax exactly melts, but it’s a photo-finish. What helps is context.

THE GAUNTLET comes in a pivotal place in Clint’s career. It’s the first film he directed after his first masterpiece, 1976’s THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. In 1976 he also starred in THE ENFORCER, which is the Dirty Harry movie which straight-on tackles the issue of feminism by assigning Callahan a female partner. His next film as director after THE GAUNTLET was 1980’s BRONCO BILLY, hands-down one of his most personal films. It’s interesting to note that THE GAUNTLET was not originally derived as a vehicle for Clint — both Walter Hill and Sam Peckinpah had wanted to make it with Kris Kristofferson, and according to Wikipedia, Steve McQueen had considered it at one point before dropping out over arguments with his female co-star, Barbra Streisand (!!!). The writers, Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack, later wrote 1985’s PALE RIDER, in which Clint starred, and also 1977’s supreme horror oddity THE CAR, apropos of nothing.

So THE GAUNTLET, while incredibly entertaining, is not particularly endemic of Clint’s work — it features very few of his thematic preoccupations, outside of systemic corruption and outsized masculinity. Clint plays an alcoholic detective — unlike Harry Callahan, not remotely an ace — who is charged with safeguarding a federal witness who turns out to have damning evidence about a major authority figure. It’s a set-up. He’s meant to be killed alongside her, and the movie becomes one long dash to the endzone, the titular gauntlet wherein Shockley commandeers a city bus to drive to the federal courthouse in Phoenix despite the fact that the entire police force is bearing down on him with a literal blizzard of bullets. That painting Frazetta did? Not much of an exaggeration.

The most obvious Clint-ism about THE GAUNTLET is that this movie happened during the Sondra Locke era, so she’s the actress who plays the witness. With respect, I’m not the biggest Sondra Locke fan. She seems kind of brittle to me. The combative banter between their two characters is usually entertaining as written, but comes off a little harsh, with the visual disparity between them. With any other female lead, the constant hectoring may have been more charming. There are other Eastwood stock players in the mix, including Pat Hingle (HANG ‘EM HIGH, SUDDEN IMPACT), William Prince (BRONCO BILLY), and the great Bill McKinney (THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES), but the co-stars who leave the biggest impression remain Sondra Locke and that bus.

Really, the final gauntlet scene is what makes this essential viewing. The constant barrage of gunfire is so outlandish that it goes beyond comical to harrowing and then back again. It’s a predictor of the next three decades of American action movies, right up to the present. At the time, it could have been Clint’s way of sending up his own gun-happy image — it certainly works as satire, but so too does it work as a viscerally-pleasing massacre of public property. (The human body count is not particularly high in this film, compared to other Clint actioners.)

Whether there’s much going on beyond the surface of this particular film or not, there are few things as ingratiating and as enjoyably American as Clint in his 1970s primacy, and if THE GAUNTLET isn’t one of his most essential films by a long shot, it’s still pretty damn fun.


The Gauntlet (1977)

Red Tails (2012)



RED TAILS is a big-budget rendition of the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen, the 332nd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American pilot squad in our country’s history, a fact that means everything. Remember that the seeds of the Civil Rights movement were still en years away, and desegregation was not even officially a word. The Tuskegee Airmen weren’t just a noble concept; they were all-the-way heroic. So named because they were trained in Tuskegee, AL, these pilots were the result of twenty years of advocacy by, among others, African-Americans who were barred from service in the first World War. Before they could fly combat missions (a sore spot the movie details), the 332nd flew bomber escort missions, acting as midair bodyguards for the white pilots on actual combat missions. When they were finally sent to fly on their own, they excelled. They shot down German jets and destroyed German trains, trucks, boats, barges, destroyers, and military factories. A couple hundred of the almost one-thousand of them didn’t survive the war. The unit was awarded a long list of Flying Crosses, Bronze Stars, and Purple Hearts. They were called “Red Tails” due to the distinctive crimson paint on the tail section of their planes.




Despite an interest in the great true story behind RED TAILS, I failed to see it when it was released theatrically in January of last year. 2012 was a crowded time for movies, but beyond that, this particular movie arrived to positively toxic word of mouth. I still wanted to see the movie, but I didn’t rush. Now, if you watch RED TAILS and poke around online for reviews, you will see something very clearly: The movie is not jump-out-of-your-seat-and-tell-everybody great, but nor is it remotely as bad as its reviews, which are generally venomous and nasty.


The reason is that most reviewers didn’t review the movie RED TAILS. They reviewed its producer, George Lucas. I’m sure I have been guilty in the past of looking beyond a movie to write about other things besides the actual movie in front of me, so I can’t condemn the practice, but it was a widespread and noticeable mania in this case. RED TAILS is the passion project of George Lucas, who talked for years in interviews of getting it made. His reasons are his reasons. Maybe his reasons are only that it’s a great story. That didn’t matter to most critics. They wanted to write about STAR WARS.


Older critics blame George Lucas’ STAR WARS and Steven Spielberg’s JAWS for the glut of offal that followed, the thirty years of summertime blockbuster bombast made by less-talented fans and craven capitalists. Younger critics, particularly those hailing from my generation, feel burned by George Lucas. He made some movies when we were young that we loved (three STAR WARS and three INDIANA JONES‘s), and then he made some follow-ups (three STAR WARS and one INDIANA JONES) that we did not love. That we kind of hated. “The new STAR WARS movies suck,” most of us have said. “George Lucas ruined my childhood,” the drama queens among us have said. Now, as for me, I haven’t gone back to revisit the newer STAR WARS movies since I first saw them, but nor have I gone back to the originals in over a decade. George Lucas didn’t ruin my childhood. He made some super-imaginative movies that I loved as a kid, but as a result of my changing tastes, haven’t felt a need to obsessively revisit, the way many of my peer group do. Apparently I’m coming at this from a slightly different place than many people my age. Ain’t no grudge being born on these shoulders. I’m not going to hold STAR WARS against RED TAILS.


Also, George Lucas didn’t direct RED TAILS. But here’s what he did do:


  • Hired African-American writers to sculpt the story. John Ridley, original writer of THREE KINGS, did the first drafts, and Aaron McGruder (THE BOONDOCKS) worked on it afterwards.


  • Hired a young African-American director, Anthony Hemingway, to helm the project.


  • Hired a huge, talented, predominantly black cast, anchored by the more famous Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. but primarily spotlighting terrific up-and-comers such as Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Leslie Odom Jr., and Michael B. Jordan.


  • Hired an African-American composer, Terence Blanchard, the best in the business regardless of race, over the more obvious Lucasfilm choice, John Williams.


  • Hired the now-departed Lee A. Archer Jr., original Tuskegee flying ace, as technical consultant.


  • Supported the project with all of the filmmaking resources he has amassed over the years, including having the legendary editor Ben Burtt contribute to the film and having Industrial Light & Magic do the effects.


  • Hired the legendary Joe Kubert to draw that killer poster up at the head of this post.


  • Covered the $58 million budget out of his own money. That’s not including $35 million he paid for distribution.


  • Made the press rounds to promote the film on the basis of his own celebrity, despite the fact that he was bound to take a metric ton of shit from all the legions of angry STAR WARS nerds along the way.


  • He didn’t have to do any of these things, by the way. He could have waited for the rest of Hollywood to put this story up on a big screen. (That would have been a long wait.)


Now, those are only the facts, son. I’m hardly a George Lucas apologist. I like good movies as much as you do. And so I’m not able to argue that the finished product can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the very best World War II filmmaking, not even those made by Lucas’s pal Spielberg. RED TAILS isn’t as viscerally involving as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and it isn’t as layered or affecting as BAND OF BROTHERS. It’s somewhat superficial, leaning back on firmly-established cliches when you’d like to see some real fire, some rage. I mean, these guys are fighting the Nazis. I’m the guy who thinks INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS didn’t go far enough. Judge me however you see fit, but: It’s as satisfying for me to watch black guys shooting down Nazis as it is to watch Jews doing the same. I love watching Nazis get killed onscreen. It’s one of the best things about movies. The violence in this movie is somewhat sanitized, certainly removed, not impassioned. Maybe that’s more healthy, but it’s also the less bloody, less emotionally-invested approach — with all the work I did to back away from STAR WARS earlier, it’s still a fair comparison to liken the best moments of RED TAILS to the part of RETURN OF THE JEDI where Lando Calrissian blows up the Death Star.


Still, is that the worst thing? RED TAILS is all broad strokes. It’s corny. It has some very likable actors saying some very purple dialogue that isn’t eminently quotable on its own. It’s got some cheesy romance. It’s got real production value in the sets and the costuming. It has state-of-the-art effects, its dogfight scenes being its most tangible and thrilling moments by a wide margin. Its score is all pomp and circumstance and yet stirring all the same.


Holy shit, I feel like I’m describing the original STAR WARS.


Here’s a question: Don’t little black kids have the same right to have a STAR WARS as little white kids do? Isn’t it a decent thing that George Lucas at least tried?


RED TAILS isn’t a great movie. You can find a more detailed accounting of why that is in the reviews by Wesley Morris and the late Roger Ebert. They give you the honest take-away. RED TAILS is most enjoyable when it’s about the planes, not the people. And that’s a let-down. This story deserves to be made into a great movie. Still, it’s hardly awful or a waste of your time. It isn’t an embarassment. It’s way, way better than all three prequels. It’s a diverting rendition of an important story that deserves telling, on the widest screen possible. Lee Archer should be way more famous than Yoda or Boba Fett. If watching RED TAILS makes little kids — black or white — look up his name, it’s a success for that alone.





Red Tails (2012)

Red Tails (2012)

Red Tails (2012)

Short and blunt:

My DREDD review. On Daily Grindhouse.

Get there.  ‘Like’ it.

Thank you for your cooperation.


Judge Dredd by John McCrea

Judge Dredd by Steve Dillon

Judge Dredd by Brian Bolland

Another by Brian Bolland

Judge Dredd by Carlos Ezquerra



It’s gone way beyond commonplace to dismiss Jerry Lewis and make easy jokes about the French for appreciating him more than we do, but you know what?  Painful as it may be to admit, the French are occasionally right about a few things:  Fries, dressing, Sophie Marceau, The Statue Of Liberty, and Jerry Lewis being funny.  In fact, I’m willing to bet you twenty bucks that no more than one out of every five people who talk shit about Jerry Lewis have never actually seen a Jerry Lewis movie.  I invite you to correct that oversight.  Granted, I’m not the biggest Jerry Lewis booster myself, if only because I haven’t seen too many of his films, but the ones I have seen are a little bit tremendous.  Best entry point?  Well, you can’t beat THE NUTTY PROFESSOR.  But personally, my favorite so far is ARTISTS & MODELS.

ARTISTS & MODELS is a Dean and Jerry picture, one of seventeen they made together.  It came towards the tail-end of the Dean Martin/ Jerry Lewis partnership, and as a result it couldn’t be more polished.  In this one, they play roommates.  Dean is a struggling painter and Jerry has a child-like fascination with comic books, which Dean doesn’t get at first — until he sees dollar signs.  Think of it a little bit like Kavalier & Clay with 1950s-era dick jokes.  So those guys are the artists.  Then there are the models…

Shirley MacLaine plays a secretary at a comic book company, the model for Jerry’s favorite character “The Bat Lady” — Shirley develops a crush on Jerry, who doesn’t yet know that she moonlights in a bat costume.  Other romantic interests (Dean’s) include Dorothy Malone (actually a cartoonist herself in the story), Eva Gabor, and Anita Ekberg, whose proportions (so studiously examined in Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA) made her a particularly good fit for a movie about superhero comics.

Frank Tashlin was the director of ARTISTS AND MODELS, which is why it is such an especially enjoyable film.  Before Tashlin got into features, he was a cartoonist and animator — while he doesn’t quite have the name recognition of Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and Bob Clampett among aficionados of vintage cartoons, he was their contemporary and colleague.  Tashlin brought his outsized perspective to features.  His movies are splashed with color and teeming with gags.  Busty women were a Tashlin trademark, as was rock ‘n roll (THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, with Jayne Mansfield, combined them.)  There’s an innocent, prankish, irresistable zeal to Frank Tashlin’s movies.  ARTISTS & MODELS was his first with Martin and Lewis.  He went on to direct them in HOLLYWOOD OR BUST, and after Dean and Jerry broke up, Tashlin made six movies with Jerry on the solo.  Tashlin directed Jerry Lewis the way he directed Bugs Bunny — there was no difference.  Note the scene in ARTISTS & MODELS where Jerry gets stretched out to the point where his feet meet the back of his head.  These movies are truly like live-action cartoons.  But with romance and musical numbers.  They have everything.

The best thing about the Martin/Lewis partnership is the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of it all — you get the zany slapstick from Jerry and the velvety crooning from Dean, both in the same movie.  It’s a crazy comedy and a big studio musical all in one.  I also just plain love that old-Hollywood VistaVision look, embodied by films such as THE SEARCHERS, FUNNY FACE, GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, TO CATCH A THIEF, VERTIGO, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, and THE FOX & THE HOUND.  There’s something about the way those movies feel, a warm and attractive classicism, and this one’s no different.  This movie is a comfort.

Why watch old movies?  This is ‘why watch old movies.’  Trust me — you’ll love it.  If you don’t, you get your money back.  (I won plenty from all those folks who bet me up in the first paragraph.)

ARTISTS & MODELS is playing tonight at BAM as part of their profoundly-recommended “American Gagsters” film series.

The great Dave Kehr on ARTISTS & MODELS:

and on Frank Tashlin:

And me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

Hey, what did the beat-up boxer say when his trainer asked him how he was feeling?


Le Thor.

Le Thor.

So Thor‘s out on DVD and Blu-Ray today.  My review was pretty funny, if I do say so myself.  And I do. “So myself.”  Anyway.  Thor.  Let’s go back there together, shall we?’


Here’s what I liked about Thor:


They had to change up Thor’s costume.  They couldn’t have gone with the winged helmet and the yellow hooker boots.  But that giant robot thing?  That’s the Destroyer.  And if you look at the above pictures, you’ll see that it looks a whole lot like the way Jack Kirby first drew it, almost fifty years ago.  That’s pretty cool.  The reason that most of us who grew up on superhero comics love them so much has almost everything to do with the drawings of Jack Kirby, the guy who created the looks of most of the most famous superhero comic characters.  Kirby’s drawings STILL leap off the page.  They have a sense of weight and a kineticism, a strange energy, that remains just as effective today.

And somebody at Marvel (and Paramount) had the good sense to not mess with Kirby’s vision too much.  How cool is it that, nearly fifty years later, we’re seeing a Jack Kirby character on the big screen, looking much the way that Kirby first designed it?  I’ll answer that.  It’s extremely cool.

To me, it’s so extremely weird that a major summer movie was made from one of the most esoteric of 1960s Marvel Comics that I can’t help but embrace it.  Thor was always one of my least favorite Marvel characters, but in my opinion this is as good a Thor movie as we could reasonably expect.

Here’s the Thor story really quick:

The world of Thor supposes that the characters of Norse mythology exist in our dimension as super-powered extraterrestrial beings.  Thor, the arrogant god of thunder, grows up alongside his half-brother Loki, the god of mischief, under their father, the all-powerful Odin.  Thor’s impetuousness sees him exiled by Odin, powerless, to Earth, where he has to prove his worthiness before he can lift his mighty hammer and wield the power of Thor.

Basically, that’s all here.  Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, and what I like about the character here is that Thor starts out as a total dick.  I like when he yells at an army of approaching Frost Giants (as much a Robert E. Howard notion as an ancient Norse one), I like when he does the whirling-hammer trick that you see on that Kirby cover up above, and I like that he gets Tasered by a flighty college student when he’s stuck powerless on Earth.  Hemsworth is good, even if he’s  hardly the most interesting character in the movie.

More interesting is Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who gets several more notes to play as a character who starts out as a friend to Thor and becomes his main antagonist – although the way it plays out, there are some real and almost understandable reasons why.

I also liked Anthony Hopkins as Odin, maybe because in his early scenes he looks like Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn.

At this point it’s a pretty generic idea to cast Hopkins in this kind of a role, but again the weirdness of the setting makes it more interesting than it could have been.  I like the scene where he goes into a strange hibernation that all the characters call “the Odinsleep.”  I’d love to start referring to my own need for napping as “the Jonnysleep.”

I liked Thor’s buddies, Lady Sif and the Warriors Three.  I liked Sif (Jaimie Alexander) because she’s pretty, I liked Fandral (Josh Dallas) because it was fun trying to figure out whether or not he was played by Matthew Modine, and I liked Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) because I honestly couldn’t tell that he was Ray Stevenson until his second or third scene.  And yes, I liked the big cameo, as a Marvel Comics zombie in recovery.  It was a blatant plug for the upcoming Avengers movie, but it almost makes sense.

I also liked Natalie Portman in this movie, and I really liked Stellan Skarsgard, as her very skeptical coworker who eventually becomes a believer.  It’s nice to have solid supporting players who can help a skeptical audience member like me start to take more seriously a truly ridiculous premise.

And Idris Elba, forever The Wire’s Stringer Bell, grounds some of the most ridiculous moments of all, as the guardian over the bridge between Earth and the world of the gods.  My man literally stands in front of a rainbow bridge (sounds like something Prince would sing about), in a helmet that’s taller than I am, and somehow manages to remain a convincing badass.  Let us remember him at years’ end for Great Achievements In Badassness.


Is this a great movie?  No.  No, it is not.  For one thing, it has more distracting product placement than just about any movie in recent memory.  (I understand that this movie was a tough sell and they needed all the ad revenue they could get, but still:  I got contact-high brain-freeze from all the 7-11 logos on hand.)  More damningly, Kenneth Branagh’s direction inexplicably has more Dutch angles than any movie ever should.  Thor has more Dutch angles than Citizen Kane, though, to be fair, less than Battlefield Earth.  Why so many Dutch angles?  Was it some misunderstanding, considering all the Norse references at hand?  It’s really distracting, and pretty corny.  And the same issues that plagued Iron Man 2, where Marvel Studios is working too hard to shoehorn subplots for the upcoming Avengers movie into all of its movies, are present here, though not quite as distractingly as in Iron Man 2.

Overall, I enjoyed Thor, and way more than I ever thought I would.  As is very clear by now, I grew up as a big fan of Marvel Comics.  I don’t remotely have the same passion nowadays, but I can still enjoy a decent comic-book flick when they come around.  Thor to me is like when I was living in my most voracious comic-book reading phase –  it’s not a character I care much about, and it isn’t the best comic story ever told, but it’s a solid enough detour from my regular reading habits.  I may rather be reading about Spider-Man and Batman, but since I’ve already read their best stories over and over, this is an okay change of pace.

Seriously guys, follow me on Twitter already. This all happens there too.

Me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb





In the modern superhero-movie gold rush, Captain America was always going to be one of the hardest comic book characters to adapt to screen.

For one thing, his name is Captain America.

That’s so unsubtle it sounds like a parody, and not a particularly timely one either.  We’re already forty years past that name being ironically referenced in Easy Rider, and nearly ten years past the jingoistic marionette spectacle of Team America: World Police.  It’s also a problem because what happens when Major America and General America show up?  The Captain’s got to stand down.  He might be king shit to guys like Private America and Chief Warrant Officer America, but let’s just say Captain America doesn’t have Batman or Spider-Man’s autonomy.

There’s also the matter of Captain America walking around quite literally dressed in the American flag, which is something even the Team America puppetswere too modest and demure to do.

Those are the superficial issues.  At the core of the character are some even trickier prospects.  Captain America never had the split-personality secret-identity of Clark Kent and Superman — the story of Captain America is the story of Steve Rogers, a 98-pound weakling from New York City who wanted to fight the Nazis so badly that he signed up for a Super-Soldier program which made him bigger, stronger, and tougher than the average GI.

Arguably the two most popular superheroes are inarguably the two most financially successful ones, particularly in movies:  Batman and Spider-Man.  Along with Captain A, these two were always my favorites, but even I have to admit that Batman and Spider-Man are fueled by vengeance fantasies:  Batman is a bipolar, obsessive aristocrat who uses his parents’ murder as a reason to scare the shit out of every criminal he meets, while Spider-Man is a neurotic nerd whose beloved uncle’s murder sets off his compulsion to go after the same target population.  As the two most popular, these two are the most emblematic of the majority of superhero stories:  Most superheroes are aggressors.  Captain America is a little different.  Captain America is primarily a reactor.   Think of it this way:  The Mighty Thor swings a hammer.  Captain America carries a shield.

That’s a bit of a reduction, since the most basic appeal of Captain America has always been that comic cover where he busts Hitler square in his stupid little mustache…

…So it’s not exactly as if Captain America doesn’t have vengeance on the agenda too.  He is an avenger, sure.  It even says so in the title of the new movie.  But unlike Batman or Spider-Man or Wolverine or even Superman, Captain America doesn’t start fights.  He only finishes them.

More than any other character in comics, the core of Captain America is decency.  Patriotism and propaganda were part of his creation, but the reason why Captain A has endured is that he’s the character who always does the right thing, the most noble and the most pure-hearted, the most good of all the good guys.  The storytelling problem that poses is how to keep such a character interesting.

The symbolic approach is a mistake.  After 9/11 in particular, there were some comic images that leaned heavily on Captain America, saluting or standing mournfully or even digging through debris, which, like the Native American with the tear in his eye, is crude and overwrought.  Using a costumed-crimefighter character in such a context is simplistic, inadequate, and in retrospect, laughable.  So you can’t do the Chris Nolan approach, and try to engage with modern issues.  The best way to do it, as I suggested in an earlier piece, is to embrace the escapism.

The first Captain America comics I ever read weren’t the earliest ones by writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby, nor were they the later comics by Kirby with Stan Lee, or the very influential comics by Jim Steranko.   It was a later storyline by writer Mark Gruenwald and artist Kieron Dwyer, where Captain America gets drawn into a globe-trotting race to track down a long-lost artifact.  Captain A and a pretty female sidekick travel by air and by sea and through jungles, facing obstacles including several different booby-traps, a swarm of angry cannibals, and also snakes.  Any of this sounding a lot like something else to you yet?



He also fights a shark…

But that’s just about the only thing that didn’t happen in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to the point that Marvel Studios made this Captain America exactly the way I always imagined it could be, and exactly the way it really should be:  Indiana Jones in a silly costume.

You’re never going to get Spielberg to direct a superhero movie, but what you can do is to get one of his protegees (Joe Johnston) to bring that swashbuckling 1940s serial aesthetic that Spielberg conquered the world with in the Indiana Jones movies, and graft that onto the squarest of the square-jawed Marvel heroes.  It’s the best possible approach.  Even though the World War 2 era had unimaginable but very real horrors, it’s somehow still possible to use that setting for cartoony adventures.  It doesn’t work to shoehorn fantastical elements into a modern wartime setting, but for some reason it’s allowable with World War 2, I would guess because comics, cartoons, and superheroes were such a part of the war effort at the time.  World War 2 was the last war that was a clear case of good versus evil.  By Vietnam and continuing towards Iraq, American motives are more complicated, arguably even more sinister.  You can’t have Captain America become the kind of bullies he chooses to fight.

The exaggerated period setting of Captain America: The First Avenger is part of what makes it so appealing.  I liked Johnston’s previous movie, The Wolfman, and part of that, again, was the atmosphere, the smoky inkiness of the locations and soundstages.  Cinematographer Shelly Johnson returns for his next Joe Johnston movie, using a hazy, washed-out palette, out of which more colorful characters like Captain America and the Red Skull almost literally jump.  The look of the movie is halfway between Saving Private Ryan and Spider-Man 2.  It’s weird but fun.

This movie also happens to be perfectly cast.  Chris Evans has made a steady career out of playing callow, arrogant, bull-headed characters (to very entertaining effect), but here he projects a stolid decency that is absolutely right.  Many writers and critics argue that it’s more fun to root for the bad guy, that it’s nearly impossible to make goodness appealing, but just because it’s hard to do doesn’t mean it can’t be done: Evans makes decency utterly compelling.  Even when he’s eerily de-buffed for the early CGI-abetted scenes as the scrawny Steve Rogers, Evans gets you on his side.  Those early scenes are just a tiny bit comical:  There is definitely a side of me that would have liked to see Steve Rogers receive all his super-powers while still retaining that original tiny size, just to watch a little monkey Captain America jumping around for the latter half of the movie, but I think the filmmakers went the right way.

Hugo Weaving, who plays the Red Skull, is something of a genre-film mainstay, between The Matrix and The Lord Of The Rings and The Wolfman, but he’s enough different here that it’s worth it.  And frankly speaking, not many actors can do this kind of work, bringing weight to subject matter which is perilously close to weightless.  Weaving plays the Red Skull with a quasi-Germanic accent reminiscent of, and in fact patterned upon, the voice of director Werner Herzog.  Again, this kind of thing makes me fantasize about a world where Werner Herzog himself gets to play the Red Skull (battling a little monkey Captain America), but again I suggest the filmmakers did the more reasonable thing.

The Red Skull has a toady little assistant named Doctor Zola, who is played by the character actor Toby Jones, who played Karl Rove in Oliver Stone’s W. and so is playing pretty much the same character here.  I remember this character from the comics, where he became a funky cyborg whose head was in his chest.  In a movie already stocked with geeky in-jokes (the Human Torch costume in the World’s Fair scene; the off-hand Raiders reference to Nazis digging in the desert), my favorite was the shot introducing Dr. Zola, where he’s peering into a microscope and the visual effect makes it look like his face is on his chest.  I’m not a fan of in-jokes if they slow the movie down, but these in-jokes didn’t.

Another in-joke is the character of Howard Stark, played byDominic Cooper, who we quickly figure out is meant to be the dashing scientist dad of Robert Downey Jr.’s character from the Iron Man movies.  Stark and Professor Erskine, played by Stanley Tucci, head up the team who turn Steve Rogers into the strapping super-soldier he becomes, and who also perfect his famous shield.  These two are just a part of the wide-ranging and hugely likable supporting cast, which also includes Derek Luke and Band Of Brothers‘ Neal McDonough as two of the Howling Commandos (lesser-known but awesome Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creations.)

Best of all are Tommy Lee Jones, cracking jokes and stealing all the best lines as Steve Rogers’ hardassed superior officer — I guess Tommy Lee would technically be “Colenol America” in this movie — and Hayley Atwell as the love interest, British officer Peggy Carter, who gets to be a much more active participant than we’ve seen in any superhero movie so far let “the girl” be.   Let’s not get carried away; we’re still a long ways off from a superhero movie where female characters get to drive the plot in any kind of interesting, developed way, but this actress projects a real wit and intelligence, an assertive femininity, that the movie really does need.  It doesn’t help that she’s more voluptuous than the standard Hollywood actress.  Sorry!  I don’t mind admitting that I like a woman with brains and feistiness, but also one who’s demonstrably woman.  See here:

In fact, instead of ending this piece with the classic review structure (“In conclusion…”), I’m just going to end it with a Hayley Atwell photobomb, because when I do this kind of thing I get more visits to my website, which my website deserves, and honestly speaking, it’s not exactly unpleasant for me either.







Any complaints?

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