Downton Abbey

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Source: wikimedia.org

Six full seasons of tea, crumpets, and snappy dialogue on the BBC/PBS television phenomenon Downton Abbey came to a close earlier this year. I was a bit late to the party, and I only started watching it this year, but Downton is a very binge-worthy show and its immersive recreations of early 20th century Britain make for some very enjoyable period drama. Downton is the most-watched PBS show ever, with its popularity surpassing even the wildest hopes of their show-runners. Anchored by strong casting, witty writing, and absolutely gorgeous sets and immersive cinematography and costume-design teams, Downton Abbey delivered on its promise of grandeur and fun, stodgy British quips.

I must say, I did not expect to be so taken by Downton Abbey. Despite my love of dialogue and enjoyment of Jane Austen novels, I expected the show to be stiff and unapproachable. I could not have been further from the truth. Though episode summaries would lead audiences to believe that very little happens over the course of these 50+ minute episodes, somehow an hour spent at a garden party and debating local gossip over tea became an engrossing and rewarding experience. The clever dialogue, written by creator Julian Fellowes, and brilliant delivery by the large and broadly talented cast makes this show surprisingly gripping despite a relative dearth of action. Maggie Smith is a scene-stealer, harrumphing and hooting her way into my heart as yet another iconic character.

The setting of Downton Abbey is spatially beautiful and chronologically interesting. Beginning in 1912, the show dealt with numerous significant world events at the beginning of the 20th Century: the Titanic, World War I, the advent of electricity, the popularization of the automobile, and even 1920s Women’s liberation. The breadth of issues covered by the show makes it an earnest attempt to highlight the important cultural changes that occurred in 20th Century British society, often expressing the social and cultural changes as much as the geopolitical ones. The tenuous position of the landholding aristocracy was a focal point of the show, and the emphasis on the servant characters also offered a careful dichotomy between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Though somehow, it felt odd, especially as an American, to become so attached to the British aristocracy. Their plight to hold onto power and position was seen as a tragedy and I felt for them, even as it represents a net gain to middle classes and improved equality throughout the Western World. It is a testament to the strength of the show’s writing that I can find myself rooting against my own self-interest and feeling nostalgic for an antiquated aristocratic society.

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Tell me the beautiful Highclere Castle (used as Downton Abbey in the show) doesn’t give you castle envy. Source: wikimedia.org

Though my endorsement of the show is strong and I recommend it highly, that does not come without caveats. I will avoid major spoilers in discussing my few (though substantive) misgivings throughout Downton Abbey‘s six season run. First, I can think of a handful of times that the show deviated from its strengths of slowly building dramatic tension and went instead for crazy, unpredictable shock value. Some plot decisions were too abrupt and felt as though they created a jarring and undesirable tonal shift in the show. This is most notable in the end of Season 3, whose reveal I can think is nothing more than a desperate grab for ratings to leave a cliffhanger for the subsequent season. Second, there were a couple of plot elements that seemed to never go away (most notably the Bates’ subplot). Those who have already seen the show will likely agree. It can come off as lazy writing to continually revisit the same plot element rather than invent new challenges for the show’s characters. It arrests their development and makes a sub-plot become more of a nagging issue. Finally, I often found Mary’s character difficult to root for. Despite the fact that Downton makes her out to be the show’s primary heroine, her snarky and selfish tendencies did, at times, seem unnecessary and the amount that other characters coddled her could be annoying.

Nevertheless, my few complaints aside, Downton Abbey is just about as captivating a period drama as you will find on television. The almost 60 hours of story fly by surprisingly fast and the clever wits and snappy writing provide a thoughtful and entertaining portrayal of a fascinating time period in British history. Any remaining history buffs, fans of period dramas, or even just well-written dialogue that have somehow yet to watch Downton should clear their schedules and dig in for a wonderful viewing experience. Rating: 8 of 10 (would be a 9 of 10 if not for that Season 3 finale that still has me hurting).

Firefly

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In an attempt to further solidify my status as a science fiction nerd, I have spent a good portion of this summer working my way through some of the books and TV shows I missed while I focused on the more fantasy-driven Harry Potter and LOTR fests of my youth. Somehow, despite all of its hype and cult-fandom (including representation in shows like Community), I had never seen Firefly before. Now, I’m a fan of Joss Whedon (especially his run on Astonishing X-Men, the Avengers film, and the criminally under-appreciated Dr. Horrible special), so I was sure I’d love the show. And I certainly liked it, don’t get me wrong, but the show is a bit more flawed than I expected.

Pros:

  • Stylistic choices of making space travel and interplanetary colonies seem dirty, impoverished, and backwater. It makes for a more interesting
  • A strong cast of characters, with diverse interests and backgrounds made for a dynamic universe with lots and lots of story potential, the biggest travesty is how little of it was tapped into when the show was canceled so early.
  • Just how many story plot lines Whedon and co. developed in a short 14-episode season. Some examples of plot lines and concepts that had a lot of potential for great episodes: revealing more about Mal and Zoe in the war, the Shephard’s background and how religion worked in the universe, the Alliance’s inner workings and those evil mysterious men after River, and the political and wealth disparity between inner planets and outer colonies, just to name a few.
  • A smart commentary on injustice, income inequality, and balance of power that was only just getting going when the show was canceled.
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The CGI work was not too bad for 2002, though definitely not the primary draw of the series. Source: wikimedia.org

Cons:

  • The western twang was intermittent and not very consistent or believable; sure the wild west themes made a lot of sense, but there were a few too many cowboy scenes for my taste. Not to mention…
  • That song. Not good, sorry Joss. I’m sure you loved it, but it was too heavy on the cheese for me.
  • Some of the romantic subplots were clunky and forced. Mostly those involving the captain, as the Wash/Zoe and Kaylee/Simon dynamics were pretty solid.
  • There were occasionally misogynistic plot lines and commentaries that seemed to go against Joss Whedon’s history on Buffy, as well as the generally strong characterization of all the show’s women: Zoe, Kaylee, River, and Enara (i.e. the bounty hunter in Ep. 14 was super creepy with Kaylee; the whole prostitution ring in the Western stakeout episode)
  • Not quite enough multi-episode arc plot points. This may be more a sign of the times in 2002 than anything else, but it too often felt like the consequences of an episode’s arc were too self-contained, often making the Alliance’s memory seem a bit short.
  • I’m not sold on the Mandarin slang interspersing the dialogue. I don’t think I get it.

Really, I think it just came down to bad timing. This show had a lot of potential, but people weren’t really ready for an oddball, morally-flexible, adventure in space in 2002. Even though Star Trek: The Next Generation had found plenty of success beforehand, 2002 was the era of police procedurals and Americana, like CSI and 24, as well as reality shows like Survivor, and The Amazing Race. If Firefly were to come out now, there would be much more of an appetite for the sort of worn-around-the-edges space adventure tale that Whedon spun. The show is a lot of fun and explores some good ideas. Of course, it was also famously canceled after only 14 episodes, when it was really seeming to get up some steam. Though the show was definitely not perfect, I will gladly join the bandwagon lamenting its early demise. Rating: 7 of 10 based solely on what was actually released, but I honestly think it had 9-10 potential and I wish there were a chance to show it!

World War Z: More than a Zombie Novel

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If you’re like me, by now you are probably pretty sick of vampires and zombies. The early 21st century has been overstuffed with books, movies, and video games about ghoulish monsters and post-apocalyptic hellscapes. Sure, the occasional gem (e.g The Walking Dead) has emerged, but most of the zombie craze has just been drivel. The over-saturation got so bad that Marvel even released a few comic runs under the Marvel Zombies banner. I guess the zombies weren’t the only ones with mush for brains.

Now, I spent most of this craze steering clear. I treated anything zombie-ish like it was, well, the plague. You wouldn’t find me any closer to zombies than Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. But I now see that I made one crucial mistake. Hidden in the middle of that zombie craze, in 2006, Max Brooks (son of the great Mel Brooks) wrote a little bestseller called World War Z. So here I am, 10 years late to the party, realizing that this book is so much more than a zombie novel. In fact, I still really don’t like the title. But its subtitle is really what it’s all about: “An Oral History of the Zombie War.”

It was only after my dad, who’s also not into this zombie stuff, strongly recommended the book that I decided to give it a shot. World War Z was not at all what I expected. The entire story is told through at least 40 different interviews and is set entirely after the war. There is no action in the entire 400+ pages. Even without any active danger, there is still plenty of suspense in the heartfelt retelling of these characters’ traumatic struggle to survive. Brooks achieved a great deal of character development for each of his interviewees in a remarkably short period of time. The authenticity of each character’s voice, expertise, life experiences, and cultural upbringing was somehow clearly demonstrated and never overly expository. Brooks also showed a remarkably intricate knowledge of geopolitical forces, cultural histories across the world, and military vernacular and tactics. It is clear to readers that Brooks did a tremendous amount of research to support his novel. All of these factors, as well as the clarity of voice he brought to each of his numerous interviewees, made World War Z a human story, not a zombie story.

Even though the book was kind of thin on the “how” of the zombie outbreak, it barely mattered. What caused the outbreak, how zombies were able to actually exist was not a focus of the story, it was treated more as a given. Instead, Brooks focused on how people survived. Despite, the grim and catastrophic details of the war, along with the vast amounts of destruction and loss of life, the book managed to come off as cautiously optimistic. After all, humanity did win and did survive. There were plenty of errors and mishaps, but a key message was that, even in its darkest hour, humanity could stand together and stave off extinction.

World War Z is the kind of book that is not really about the plot. It is about ideas and human emotions. The zombies are merely the vessel to tell a string of human stories about loss, fear, hardship, resiliency, and, eventually, triumph. In the end, Brooks spun a very human tale about humanity, and in a clever mockumentary style that kept the story moving and engaging throughout. Though it border on repetitive about 2/3 of the way through, the story format picked back up and resolved itself consistently with its strong opening. I recommend giving the book a try, even if you think you don’t like zombie stories. Rating: 8 of 10.

Star Trek: Beyond

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Happy 50th anniversary, Star Trek! Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the Original Show’s 1966 pilot premiere. In honor of Gene Roddenberry, a visionary, creative genius, and all around awesome person (check out this Oatmeal comic if you don’t believe me), I’ve started binge-watching the original Star Trek series on the ‘flix. While I dig myself out of some blorgin’ backlog, I wanted to publish my review of the latest film installment to the Trekkie universe. I will leave this post in note form (at least for now). I’ll just leave it as a list of strengths and weaknesses, along with a solid recommendation to go view it.

As an aside, I watched the film in IMAX at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution, which is an amazing organization and well worth your time. You can sign up for membership or to donate here.

Strengths:

  • Dialogue and character development were spot-on
  • decision to split up the primary cast into pairs/ small groups was brilliant to showcase different facets of each character
  • Spock/Bones dynamic was awesome
  • humor — thank you Simon Pegg
  • Alien races looked cool and special effects were pretty exciting
  • the scale of the plot was reasonable – not about the future of the universe really, so much as saving a base
  • Kirk and Spock’s struggles to find themselves made a nice parallel
  • Tributes to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin were very heartfelt and genuine
  • Personal touch, watching it in IMAX was definitely the way to go. Ridiculously awesome, thank you Smithsonian!

Weaknesses:

  • early combat scenes had way too much shaky camera. it was the new lens flare of the movie, really distracting especially during first contact as the Enterprise crashed
  • Despite protests from friends, I don’t think it made sense that the music magically caused the ships to explode. While the hive mentality shakeup was sufficiently plausible to further the fun plot element, I disagree with the waves of explosions making it so easy to destroy them. These are the same ships that tore through the Enterprise no problem and seemed difficult to harm, so careening into one another shouldn’t set off such massive and complete destruction. I thought it should have served as a means to rally back and give the good guys a way to blow them up (think the shields in Independence Day or any Star Wars movie…)
  • The how of Krall’s transformation was a bit thin and could have used a couple more minutes of exploration. I liked the twist as well as the why of his change, but just a nebulous “alien technology” excuse for his sudden immortality and high-tech vampiric powers seemed kind of lazy

Overall: 8 of 10, because good dialogue and character development is really more important than staging the action in my book.

Secret Life of Pets

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Source: Wikimedia.org

Following hot on the heels of Finding Dory‘s June release, Universal Studios released its summer animated blockbuster in early June. With the help of some catchy marketing, which Universal excelled at with their previous blockbuster hit Despicable MeSecret Life of Pets was on a short list of movies for me to see this summer. I was excited to see all of those cute and funny scenes from the trailers showing various dogs, cats, birds, and other pets indulging in humanoid activities once their owners left for work. The idea of talking animals with the star-studded cast of Louis CK, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, and Jenny Slate was just too fun to miss!

Unfortunately, these fun moments that poked fun at or accentuated real pet behavior all felt recycled by the time you watched them at the theaters. All of the best jokes were cherry-picked from the film and put into trailers, and most of these fun moments felt as though they had been crammed hastily into the opening act. The whole plot of The Secret Life of Pets (let’s call it SLOP for short) was not, in fact, to explore the “secret life” of pets as the title and marketing materials suggested, but to go on a long drawn out story of camaraderie formed through mutual experience. Caution, mild spoilers regarding the story arc below:

Guess the movie: the main character is happy with their owner and the special bond that they share. Suddenly, a new character is added and appears to threaten the “special” bond between the main character and the owner, so the main character tries to get rid of the threat. But our main character is unsuccessful and is accidentally dragged off and lost far from home with their rival. The two must work together to get home and become friends in the process, learning to share the owner and create a different kind of special bond. Meanwhile, all of the dumb humans don’t notice anything, despite the shenanigans left in their wake. Oh, and there’s a subplot with some scary looking critters who seem evil, but really just want to be loved. The non-human characters even drive a car!

Answer: Toy Story! and now, apparently, also Secret Life of Pets. Only this time, it’s pets instead of toys and instead of one minor traffic collision in a quiet suburb (which, let’s face it, is really the Sid’s dog’s fault) in Toy StorySLOP opted for a gigantic Spider-Man-esque Brooklyn Bridge pileup and car-splosion that would cause millions of dollars of damage and become a major news story. Are we really supposed to believe that would go unnoticed? The scale of the destruction was too large and every trope was ripped off from the animated uber-classic, Toy Story. Unfortunately, SLOP just couldn’t deliver enough new ideas to seem like anything but an inferior copy.

Overall, it’s entertaining, the art is fun and captivating, and the cast is spot-on, but the plot seems lazy and the level of care we saw in Despicable Me or just about any Pixar film ever released just was not there. This is definitely more of a movie for kids than it is a film for the whole family. Nonetheless, Secret Life of Pets had some truly funny moments, and it’s fun enough to go see and enjoy. I’d just probably save a few bucks and go to a matinee. Rating: 6 of 10.

Beyond JMS: Concurrent Spidey Titles of the early 2000s

Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man: A hit or miss series of about 24 issues that was book-ended by two lackluster crossover events: The Other and One More Day. Within the constraints of those events, FNSM was written at the same time JMS’ series went into its steepest decline. Peter David, normally a very talented writer who has masterminded some incredible story arcs, including Spider-Man: Death of Jean DeWolff and the newly revitalized X-Factor series that kicked off with the under-rated gem: Madrox: Multiple Choice. Unfortunately, David’s writing on this series is not up to snuff, though the art by Mike Wieringo is solid enough. The influence of the JMS title’s decline is pretty apparent early on in FNSM, as the series struggled to find its place and delivered some weak arcs that seemed to masquerade as “untold stories” of Spider-Man but ended up just being off key. After The Other, they first had the weird, single-issue arc about a delusional web-blogger had potential but fell flat. Then there were stories about a Mexican wrestler and some weird futuristic timeline with a grumpy Hobgoblin, neither of which felt very Spidey-like. It all felt a little underwhelming.

The truly unfortunate thing about this series is that it did actually have some potential. Even though the writing on the actual title character was sub-par, there were some elements of the characterization of key supporting cast members and villains that made for some entertaining reading. The handling of Flash Thompson, Betty Brant, and a couple of interesting issues surrounding the Vulture and Mysterio were worthwhile on their own. The middle issues between #11-19 were actually ok. Not amazing, but solid enough to make them moderately enjoyable. The problem was that even the series’ strengths were often overshadowed by the gloom of JMS’ core title, as the unresolved story bits from The Other ended up finding their way into this series. FNSM had to deal with the fallout of those weird wrist spikes Spider-Man developed out of nowhere and spent most of the series developing a pretty weak case that the nurse, Miss Arrow, was actually that walking ball of spiders from the end of The Other, which wasn’t even a good lead when it happened the first time.

In the end, the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man series was definitely skippable and only worthwhile for those middle issues if someone is really yearning to see some traditional Spidey characters that JMS has avoided in his own series. Rating: 4 of 10

 

Tangled Web of Spider-Man: (2001) The Tangled Web series is concurrent with some of JMS’ earlier and stronger work on the Amazing Spider-Man title. Though, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, this series was intended to give newer, artsier creators the creative leeway for an anthology series only loosely in continuity. The idea was that the Tangled Web series would draw creators from DC’s Vertigo titles or other indie companies to dabble in a Spidey title without all of the messiness of continuity. The nature of a rotating cast of creators brought some big swings to the tone and quality of the series over time, so each mini arc has to be taken separately, as there is not really a central theme to the series beyond those.

First up, Garth Ennis, the mastermind behind a brutal revival of the famed anti-hero Punisher, took a turn on Spidey. His arc, “The Thousand” is weirdly grisly and involves a bully from Peter’s past becoming a disgusting host of spiders. It’s not a great arc and I didn’t like the concept or the art, as it’s highly cartoony and not nice to look at (art by John McCrea). The second “arc” was only a one-shot by Greg Rucka and Eduardo Risso, that didn’t show Spidey at all, instead focusing on the Kingpin’s code of conduct. The story was a solid entry into the series and showed an inside view of the extent of the Kingpin’s depravity, as well as the perceived honor among thieves from a doomed lieutenant’s perspective.

The third arc, #5-6, is listed on comicherald.com and many other serious comic sites as one of the better recent Spider-Man stories. Titled, “Flowers for Rhino,” the two-issue arc, written by Peter Milligan and penciled by Duncan Fegredo, is a retelling of the story “Flowers for Algernon,” but from the doltish super-villain, Rhino’s perspective. It is a well-written and enjoyable take on the story that is worth the read and should give a new appreciation for the inner thoughts of super villains.

After the Rhino arc, the series continued to change authors and pencillers, but the general tone as a Spider-Man-adjacent line that is barely within continuity remained consistent. The Tangled Web series is a fun but non-essential read for Spider-Man fans who want to see into the daily lives of super-villains, or neutral third-parties who are affected by Spidey’s adventures and shed different lights on many iconic characters involved in primary Spider-Man continuity. I recommend this series to die-hard Spider-Man fans who want to get their hands on everything Web-head-related, and for those who get sick of the inter-connectivity and barrier of entry to many in-continuity titles. Tangled Web is a refreshing change that highlights creator independence and a certain flexible creativity of storytelling. While rarely groundbreaking or iconic, these stories are consistently enjoyable and easily digestible reading. Rating: 7 of 10

Ready Player One

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Source: Wikimedia.org

I just finished a marathon reading session of Ernest Cline’s debut science fiction novel: Ready Player One. The rate with which I tore through this thing (four days) is evidence enough that it is highly enjoyable and totally engrossing. First published in 2011, I would imagine most of the intended audience (super-nerds and ’80s buffs) have already heard about this book and probably already read it. But there are rumors of a Steven Spielberg-directed movie coming out in 2018, which will prompt a new batch of readers to try this best-selling sensation before then (myself included). Ready Player One is an interesting collection of nostalgia-driven pop culture references and hard science fiction. Cline is clearly a big nerd himself, and the densely-packed pop culture references are clearly an homage to his own interests and obsessions, readers need look no further than the photo on the back of the novel, showing him leaning against a Delorean a la Back to the Future. Nevertheless, Cline also developed a comprehensive and immersive world that artfully draws upon the real world just enough to allow readers to fill in gaps and picture the story fully in their heads. I find that these sorts of reality-adjacent science fiction or fantasy novels find great success by drawing upon the familiar and emphasizing those small differences that drive their plots: think Harry Potter or Ender’s Game.

The basic premise of the novel is that, by 2044, the world has run out of fossil fuels, which combined with global warming and economic stagnation, has led to a prolonged global recession. The world is in rough shape. However, at the same time that the real world started to go down the tubes, a brilliant video game designer, James Halliday, developed a vast, free virtual reality that allowed people to escape from the sad doldrums of a society in decline. Dubbed OASIS, this virtual reality video game quickly grew into the dominant source of information, economy, and leisure for a majority of the world’s population. Then, upon Halliday’s death, the multi-billionaire released a video introducing a contest that would grant the winner full inheritance of his fortune and control over the fate of the OASIS. The ensuing competition drove a pathological obsession with Halliday’s formative decade, the 1980s, and makes for a fun future that’s obsessed with our past. Our hero, the poor and miserable Wade Watts, has dedicated his life to the search and the book chronicles his adventures searching for this fame and fortune.

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Author Ernest Cline and his Delorean. Photo Cred: Rolling Stone

I greatly enjoyed the novel, finding myself fully engrossed and drawn to the wonderfully detailed world of the OASIS that Cline developed. The puzzles and references that shaped Halliday’s Easter Egg Hunt were fun, nostalgic, and definitely cleverly constructed. I also found Wade’s characterization to be pretty fitting: a flawed loner with some serious self-esteem issues, but just enough courage and plucky cleverness to get things starting to go his way. Supporting cast like Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto were also pretty well done, though definitely cast over a bit during the novel’s second act. I didn’t want to put the book down, so I can’t say enough about how much fun it was to read, which is a tribute to Cline’s world-building. I don’t want to elaborate too much on the plot, as it is much more fun to be surprised, but I will say that it is wonderful and most definitely worth reading.

However, there were a couple of nit-picky criticisms to clal out as well. First, Cline makes a point early on that Halliday’s obsessions are with all things nerdy, repeatedly listing “movies, comic books, TV shows, music, and most of all, video games.” But then, there are never any comic book references, so why even say it? There were critical mentions of movies, shows, and songs, but none of the quests and almost none of the references were to comic books. I know this is a pretty minor complaint all told, but to call it out then not deliver is like a false promise. It seems like Cline was pandering to hook people early then forgot to deliver (or didn’t know as much about them himself, but wanted to be inclusive to all of “nerd-dom”). I was definitely disappointed, but I still did enjoy my fair share of Star Wars, Monty Python, and other awesome references throughout the book.

Second, I felt like Cline missed out on an opportunity to focus more on the “real world” of RPO outside of the OASIS. Yes, some important action happens there, and he does keep Wade and others at least relatively aware that their lives inside of OASIS are not their “true selves,” but beyond a few platitudes about starving citizens and decaying urban centers, Cline largely neglects any societal warnings or present day allegories that are so common in classic science fiction. It seems somewhat like a missed opportunity, but even so, a book made mostly for amusement rather than allegory and social commentary is still a good book if it succeeds at amusing readers, which Ready Player One certainly does. I just wish Cline had taken the concept a little deeper with those topics, giving the story a little more edge and philosophical oomph.

Lastly, this is not a criticism as much as a statement: Ready Player One is not for everyone. It was definitely written with an audience in mind – an audience that loves video games and nerd culture or grew up in the 1980s and is nostalgic for their youth. I, myself, was born a little later, but under my dad’s cultural stewardship, I grew up loving an appreciating a lot of these classic cultural phenomena. Sure, some of the references to arcades and TRs-80s were a little before my time, but Cline did a great job filling in the gaps to help paint a great picture of each cultural tidbits’ significance. If you can read this review and say, “hey, that sounds good,” then you’ll love it. If you hated the ’80s or were born in 2001, this may be a little much for you. And that’s ok, Cline, like his character James Halliday, just wants to share his interests with other people who appreciate them. Now go on, give it a try, if you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to put it down. Rating: 9 of 10

Amazing Spider-Man by JMS

Starting with Issue #30 of Volume 2, John Michael Straczynski started his definitive and critically acclaimed run on Ol’ Web-head. This run is simultaneously famous and infamous, beloved and reviled. It is definitely one of the more divisive runs on a Marvel character, which is enough of a reason for me to seek it out. Up front, I would say that the vast majority of this review will refer to specific plot points within the run, making it pretty *spoiler* heavy. If you want to avoid spoilers, I’ll say up front that you have two halves: a strong first half that may still leave you shaking your head if you’re a classic Spidey fan, and a weird, not-so-good second half that will definitely leave you shaking your head. This is an absolute must-read for completionists and die-hard Spider-Man fans, though you probably won’t like the end, unless your name is Joe Quesada…

A Strong First Half

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JMS puts Peter Parker back in the classroom. This time as a teacher! Issue #31; Cover Artist: John Romita, Jr.; Source: Marvel.com

The first 6 issues, an arc titled “Homecoming,” also won an Eisner Award in 2002 for the Best Serialized Story. The story features some brand new characters for Spidey lore and take the whole concept of Spider-Man’s origin to a new and mystical direction. The addition of Morlun, the Spider totem, Ezekiel (a Stick-like character) all happened pretty quickly. I’m not sure how I feel about the totem replacing radioactive spider bite —  it’s all a bit too mystical for my liking, but I can’t argue with the execution. The character development, and the trials and tribulations Spidey endures during this adventure are quite good. JMS has a good voice for SM: snarky and smart, but still with some emotional depth. John Romita Jr (JRJR) penciled the first half of JMS’ run and it has that same blocky look as most of his other stuff. I will say that the squarish heads take some getting used to, but there’s no doubt JRJR is a top Marvel artist in the game today. He does a great job of showing emotions and his action sequences are always well drawn, but I think his unique style takes a little getting used to.

The first arc is probably the best in the whole run, but the next 26 issues (rounding out the first half of JMS’ run) was also pretty great. The real strength of JMS’ run is that he can capture Peter’s internal dialogue so well, drawing upon the history of the character, as well as deepening his relationships with Aunt May and MJ (with whom he gradually repairs the semi-estranged separated marriage situation he inherited from previous writers). JMS seemed to pay homage to the emotional notes of Spidey’s past, even as he took the plot and underlying mythos in an entirely new direction. The plot of the run saw Peter reestablish himself in a school setting, this time as a teacher. It is a great fit and also helps to explain some of his more complicated scheduling issues living a double life. Being a mentor for other bullied science nerds and giving him an outlet for his scientific genius was a good fit. It blends the compassionate sense of duty and his need for some intellectual engagement very well and JMS writes the school scenes perfectly. As the run goes on, JMS spends less and less time in the classroom, which I think is a definite mistake. Some of the best moments in this whole run involve Peter looking after his students and using tips he overhears at school to right wrongs in the community. Making Spider-Man a local hero is an important part of the mythos and really helps to differentiate him from the Avengers and FF, who spend much more time on the larger, existential threats.

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The powerful 9/11 remembrance issue featured a somber, black cover. #36; Source: Marvel.com

The pinnacle of JMS’ reverence of Spider-Man as a local hero came in issue #36, the 9/11 special issue. It is an honest reaction to the horror and pain of one of the worst events in the American history and an incredible tribute from the eyes of the best-known NY-based superhero. From the solid black cover to the horrifying splash pages and obvious pain felt by Spider-Man and the other heroes, JMS deftly managed a balance between pain, perseverance, and hope. The importance of seeking justice, staying strong, and not vilifying an entire culture were important tenets of JMS’ heartfelt, well-written, and genuinely good take on the tragedy of 9/11. It is definitely a must read and is the high watermark of the entire run.

The plot points through #502 are pretty good, though they do focus primarily around JMS’ new revelation of the mystical Spider Totem and some enemies that have similar back stories (i.e. Spider-Wasp and more Ezekiel backstory). There are a couple of spoilers (kind of) during the run involving Peter’s home life: he and MJ get back together, and May figures out he is Spider-Man. The former is well done, built up across multiple arcs, including a fun and kind of silly plot in Los Angeles, where MJ is in a film called “Lobster Man” with some cheeky allusions to Spider-Man’s real life. The latter is fairly abrupt, but the issue that deals with it is very well done and involves some great dialogue between the two. The revelation leads to an even deeper connection with May that also involves her coming to terms with such a complicated reveal gradually through issue #502.

The end of the first half started to decline slightly, plot-wise with the weird “Digger” arc and some metaphysical focus in Dormammu’s time-traveling spiritual takeover of New York around issue #500. Despite some iffy plot decisions, this portion of the story is still well-worth reading for Spidey fans since JMS continues to grasp the essential voice of his characters. Such good characterization is pretty rare in comics, and as such, it is easily worth enduring some less than stellar plot lines to get them. All in all, the first half of JMS’ run (with JRJR’s wonderful art, of course) is highly enjoyable with an interesting mix of the very new concepts and the classic Spider-Man feel that earned him praise at the time and endures today as a solidly above-average run on Spider-Man. First Half Rating: 8 of 10

A Second-Half Decline

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My definitive line here between the first (read: good) half and the second (bad) half is somewhat subjective. The last two arcs of the above section weren’t great, but they weren’t bad either. The same is true of these first two arcs of this half. I ended up settling on issue #503 as the start of the decline because it reinforces the trade paperback breakout of this run. This decline opens with the first issue of the Amazing Spider-Man by JMS: Ultimate Collection, Volume 3. The metaphysical and nontraditional Spider-Man stories didn’t slow down as I had hoped they would, but instead sped up starting with #503. A two-issue arc starring Loki was bizarre and did not feel like Spider-man at all. A Loki/Spidey team-up is up there for weirdest comic duo I’ve ever seen. Then, a middling arc titled, “The Book of Ezekiel” sought to wrap up the loose end of JMS’ first arc, where Ezekiel had learned Peter’s secret identity. The arc is decent, but not spectacular, and has weird implications about the Spider Totem’s nature being potentially evil, which I don’t think makes sense for a Spider-Man origin. However, the story is most notable as JRJR’s final arc on the series.

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Actually, don’t listen. The sin isn’t in the past, it’s present in this very story… #511; Cover Artist: Mike Deodato; Source; Marvel.com

Next, JMS starts to go downhill fast. In the “Sins Past” arc, JMS is joined by Mike Deodato on pencils, whose spindly Spider-Man and high-definition muscles makes for an abrupt transition from JRJR’s wonderfully blocky, shaded lines. Deodato does a decent job, I just don’t like his style as much as JRJR or other more classic looks. Plot-wise, JMS committed a huge party foul here, messing with one of the untouchable characters from Peter’s past: Gwen Stacy. This isn’t the same as Conway’s “Clone Saga” where the Jackal tormented Peter with a fake clone of Gwen – no, here, JMS has decided to change Gwen’s entire legacy through some story tweaking or retconning* that makes Gwen look bad. I don’t want to give it away, since the plot is SO RIDICULOUS you just may want to read it, but suffice to say I wasn’t Goblin’ it up…

After that, it goes even more downhill. Once Spidey joined Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers following the Scarlet Witch shenanigans in Avengers Disassembled (New Avengers is pretty great by the way), JMS used a weird flashback arc with even more retconning! The story involves some previously unknown science nerd from Peter’s past to synthesize some drama, blow up his apartment, and force Peter, MJ, and May to move in with the Avengers in Stark Tower. The following arcs all but gave up on every Spider-Man plot-line JMS had started, basically making the Spider-Man title into New Avengers-lite with a couple of arcs that were only barely focused on Spidey. After his integration into the New Avengers, Spider-Man went through the incredibly unnecessary and over-hyped Spidey crossover titled, “The Other: Evolve or Die.” The oddly corny title fit this bizarre mystical explosion that crossed over with the end of the pretty solid Marvel Knights: Spider-Man title and coincided with the launch of two additional lackluster Spidey titles, The Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and Sensational Spider-Man. In “The Other,” Morlun, the mysterious mystical predator of JMS’s opening arc, is somehow back to munch on some Spider Totem soul, which would undoubtedly be fatal to our web-spinning hero. However, the odd sickness Peter had been developing, combined with an epic beat-down from Morlun cause a spidery death-ish scenario with a “once in a lifetime” molting opportunity, allowing Peter to cash in on one extra life. It’s super goofy and not very compelling or well-developed, but the worst part is the weird wrist spikes and the otherworldly “Man vs. Spider” conversation Peter has with a grumpy Shelob-esque monstrosity. It was definitely a letdown after the opening of the Morlun story was so well done.

Then there’s the Civil War set up, where JMS attempts (and kind of fails) to establish Spider-Man’s motivations for abandoning one of his most ardently held beliefs, the importance of anonymity and a guarded secret identity. *Spoiler Warning for Civil War and some Spidey reveals here* (Note: here’s my review of the Civil War event). When reading the Civil War event as a stand-alone comic, the unmasking of Spider-Man works as a powerful symbol and provides some serious shock value, but in the context of the Spider-Man solo title, it’s an absolute butchering of his character. It makes no sense that Peter would give up everything just because his new buddy, Iron Man, wants him to. The father/son relationship JMS sought to cultivate between Tony and Peter was kind of cheap and sold Peter short, making him that emotionally fragile that any kind of positive reinforcement from a male role model should cause him to change so much.

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‘Nuff Said is right, but I don’t think it’s for the same reason, or this wouldn’t have been published… #545; Cover Artist: Joe Quesada; Source: Marvel.com

The sad truth is that the longer this run went, the worse it got. The strongest arcs were in the first 20-ish issues, but each progressive arc after issue #500 seemed worse than the one before. Though I didn’t really love the concept of the Spider Totem JMS established at the beginning, it was hard to argue with the compelling characterization of Morlun and Ezekiel and the exciting feeling of Spidey getting a new direction after 40 years of comics. I was willing to accept the premise, despite my own misgivings, because some strong writing, beautiful John Romita, Jr. art, and the brilliant move of sending Peter back to a school as a teacher, all made for something genuinely intriguing. If only JMS had been willing to keep the mysticism on a leash and not send him down a spiral of retconning and magical mumbo jumbo, I think the series could have had a strong finish. Later issues showed Peter less at the school and more in temples and Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum. I understood the desire to show a new side to Spider-Man, but it appeared that there was some contempt for the old ways, as JMS never had him fight any of his old enemies. Doc Ock was the only classic baddie to appear in the course of JMS’ run, and one of only two, along with Norman Osborn, to be mentioned at all. In a run of over 70 issues, this must have been intentional, in which case it most certainly was a mistake.

The unfortunate result is that the second half of this run is much, much worse than the start, so while I would have given a pretty solid grade to issues #30-58 & 500, I feel compelled to punish JMS for his abysmal choices in the latter parts. I know, I know, most ardent JMS supporters will shift the blame to Joe Quesada, the editor in chief at the time, who was quoted as wanting to return Spidey to his past glory. The misguided assumption was that in order for Spider-Man to be true to his roots, he and MJ had to be “unmarried” and having girl problems was apparently deemed an “essential” aspect of Peter Parker’s life. Well, regardless of who is to blame, the results speak for themselves: and they speak poorly. The end of this run is bad, though essential for continuity buffs because of the far-reaching consequences of this foolish “One More Day” storyline. Second Half Rating: 3 of 10

Overall JMS Arc Rating: 6 of 10


* For those unfamiliar with the term, “retcon” refers to retroactive continuity, or the editing of previously established canon. A practice that is unfortunately common in comic books, but rarely effective (Brubaker’s Bucky as Winter Soldier notwithstanding). Retcons are widely reviled in the comic fan community, as it shows a lack of respect for the same canon we hold dear.

Master of None

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Image Source: Netflix.com via Screencrush.com

Aziz Ansari made his name as the stereotype-smashing Tom Haverford from the incomparable Parks and Recreation, as well as a successful stand-up career. Ansari has gone on good number of tours and has recorded a bunch of comedy specials that are currently available for your perusal on Netflix. All of his previous work indicated Ansari had a special knack for pop culture-laden comedy, and his snappy wit showed his intelligent and insightful observations of modern society. So it was only a matter of time before Ansari got his big break to write and star in his own comedy show, which launched in November of 2015 on Netflix, titled: Master of None.

Master of None has received a lot of critical acclaim and significant attention for its commentary on minority representations in Hollywood. Written by Ansari and Alan Yang, the show has a notably more diverse writing team and cast than most cable comedies. The show taps into some issues that are rarely discussed in pop culture, such as the competing factors that come from being first-generation Americans born of immigrant parents. It accomplishes these themes in a very friendly and non-preachy way, making them very accessible to even those without first-hand experiences that relate.

In my opinion, the true brilliance of the show is how genuinely in captured modern, urban, young adult culture. [Editorial disclaimer: it is important to distinguish the “modern, urban young adult” from the broader term “Millenial,” as the latter is a generational divide and should be inclusive of those living in smaller cities or in rural communities. Unfortunately, this distinction is rarely made in media portrayals of our generation, which sells short the diversity of opinion and upbringing among Millenials.] Master of None is spot on from its use of social media apps to drive plot points (the brilliant episode with Yelp! decision paralysis), to Rachel’s (Noel Wells) job as a music promoter, the show really captures a lot of the nuances of a changing social environment. The show is really in touch with the present day and is heavily steeped in the much more diverse and cosmopolitan interests of a new generation of urban young people. Ansari and Yang seem to have a real talent for blending humor with serious topics of identity and a general sense of listlessness that is so often associated with the modern job market. In a world where “career tracks” aren’t as clear and new high-tech or entertainment-focused industries are emerging, Master of None strikes a unique tone that really resonates with the overwhelming indecisiveness of youth.

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Source: Netflix.com

Though nowhere near as wildly popular, it is along the same vein as Friends and How I Met Your Mother, but for a new generation. Friends showed how young people dealt with dating, friendship, and life in NYC during the 1990s, and HIMYM was really the same thing a decade later. Now, ten years (wow) after HIMYM premiered, a Millenial audience has its own version of the classic “life in the big city” comedy in Master of None. In the show, we see a lot of those similar themes, but also highlighted by some deeper more existential and artistic questions than those previous campy sitcoms ever delved into. Dev (Ansari) and the rest of the talented cast spend a lot of the show just talking, which is actually similar in format to Friends and HIMYM, but this is the first show really set in the Information Age. The questions of texting rules and etiquette, the changing dynamics of dating apps, and the moral quandaries of chasing the perfect taco on Yelp! are all new concepts to the TV comedy and really relate to audiences.

I do have a couple of quick criticisms of the show, however, most of which revolve around finances. There is an assumption in all of these types of shows that the main characters have a lot of disposable income. Sure, there are plenty of people living in these big cities that can relate to that, but Dev eats at some fancy restaurants and has a super implausibly nice apartment in New York. Sure, it makes for prettier sets and is probably more in line with how a successful comedic actor and writer like Ansari actually lives, but it cuts into the illusion that this show is about “normal” people. The lack of financial concerns makes for a relatively tone-deaf interpretation of the Millenial experience. It also tended to seem a little too over-scripted at times, as Dev and Rachel’s relationship was so pithy and full of quips that it felt kind of empty at times. Later developments in the characters did show a surprising willingness to veer from comedy and deal with real issues, which is definitely a plus for the show, but the cracks would have been more meaningful if the foundation seemed stronger earlier.

In the end, though, Master of None is well worth your time. It’s got some laughs, some depth, and likable characters that will usher in a new generation of TV comedies. Rating: 8 of 10

Ex Machina

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Source: Wikimedia.org

Ex Machina is an engaging new science fiction film that is highly philosophical and surprisingly low on action for the vast majority of its screen time. As a film, it is an interesting exercise in some key philosophical and ethical questions surrounding artificial intelligence, such as freedom, guilt, and love. The amazing thing about this film is that it is highly suspenseful, even though the action is sparse. This beautiful and well-though-out film accomplishes a lot in a relatively short period of time (108 minutes) and with only four actors of note. The tightly-scripted dialogues between these few characters drive the plot as well as any moral or ethical questions surrounding the film. The performances of the three primary characters, Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander were all phenomenal. It is truly impressive as a piece of genuinely original material. So often now, the film industry is afraid to create original stories and relies solely upon adapting stories that have proven popular first as a book or graphic novel. However, in this case, Ex Machina is a rare story that feels new and exciting. Written and directed by Alex Garland, it was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Original Screenplay and Special Effects, and won the latter. Its minuscule $15M production budget was positively dwarfed by its competition in the Special Effects category, but it beat out powerhouse blockbusters like James Bond: Spectre and Star Wars: Force Awakens.

Delving into too much detail is liable to only ruin the carefully crafted and suspenseful story. I recommend watching the film just as I did, with no preconceived notions or expectations as to what might occur. That viewing experience makes it all that much more enjoyable. One very quick negative note, however, is that I find it odd that there is so much of a sexual element to this film, which, to me, doesn’t necessarily seem crucial. Though Isaac’s character (Nathan) does touch on the very subject, suggesting that love/lust is a critical element of life and gives “motivation” for survival and desire. Perhaps that is the case, or perhaps that entire notion lends to the notion that Nathan, himself, is flawed and that they indicate his arrogance or shortcomings as a creator himself. Some of the resolution at the end of the film did feel a little rushed and may not have been sufficiently explained, but the statement made by the film does come through abundantly clear. Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed the film and recommend it to all mature fans of science fiction, especially harder science fiction that delves into the “hows” and “whys” of progress, humanity, and our place as creators. Rating: 8 of 10