Cooked: An Anthropological Look at Food

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Source: Netflix.com

Created and narrated by the famous food writer, Michael Pollan, the new Netflix original show Cooked seeks to provide an in-depth look at the anthropological and nutritious importance of cooking in human history. On the surface, it is a fascinating topic, as Pollan touches on a wide array of topics like cooking meat, fermentation, stews, and, inevitably, the commercialization of the food industry. Pollan seeks to blend science with cultural case studies as well as imbuing a clear streak of social activism into the show, which is very reminiscent of his famous writing and documentary styles. The whole series is rather short and incorporates four hour-long episodes, each of which attempts to follow the theme of one of the classic elements: fire, water, air, and earth.

The show got off to an interesting start in the “Fire” episode, cataloguing biological and anthropological evidence that homo sapiens had evolved to digest cooked food rather than raw food. Even our closely related ape relatives spend a significant portion of their day chewing and have far more extensive jaw muscles, molars, and skull infrastructure to compensate. The interesting observation Pollan made was that cooking allows humans to reduce chewing time, which really liberates us to spend our time doing other things like nurturing young, building tools, and communicating. This makes the use of fire for cooking a crucial step in our social and cultural development, as it is a catalyst for the early development of civilization. Cooked also gives details about the science behind cooking meat, like how the enzymes and fats are changed and what the flavors are caused by. There were also some case study sorts of exposés on the cultural significance of fire in Aboriginal tribes in Australia and in the American barbecue. The parallels were interesting, but Pollan sometimes condescends too much when he talks about people’s cooking choices, making these cultures seem like the last brave bastions to fight against the evil West. But that disregards his own status as a wealthy, intellectual white male from the US, making him about as Western as they come.

Even so, this show did have some serious strong points that would be very interesting for anyone interested in food culture, history, or the science of flavor. The third and fourth episodes were the best, focusing on the science behind fermentation and the crucial importance of bread in the history of humanity. Those two episodes were fascinating and enlightening, as Pollan and co. illustrated the difference between commercial and natural yeasts in bread-making, discussed the importance of air bubbles and how the glutens stretch to contain the bread bubbles, and did an in-depth analysis of various foods that require fermentation including chocolate, beer, and even some other surprising foods. The inclusion of insightful experts that explained the importance of covering chocolate for fermentation or how the baking of wheat into bread increases the caloric value of the wheat exponentially, all helped to frame the importance of each topic.

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Richard Bourdon from the Berkshire Mountain Bakery during Ep. 3: “Air” Source: thedailybeast.com via netflix.com

Unfortunately, it did also have some weaknesses. First and foremost, the theme of the “four elements” seemed a bit forced, and only Fire and Air proved to truly be about those concepts. “Earth” was a great episode and all about fermentation, but that wasn’t really about the earth at all. Also, the second episode, “Water,” was by far the weakest, as the whole discussion basically devolved into a lament of the industrialization and commercialization of food. Pollan laments the home-cooked meal and over-simplifies economic forces such as globalization and the tech boom, all while downplaying the political and social importance of women entering the workplace. At times, as I mentioned above, Pollan seems so ingrained in his elite American sense of liberal idealism that he sits on his pedestal and judges the poorer masses who are most often the victims of the ills of commercialized food. Increased fats, sugars, and obesity, coupled with decreases in time spent cooking do paint a pretty clear picture, but simply urging people to take the time to cook seems pretty hopelessly naive, and overestimates the amount of control many people have over their time. While an important issue in society, it is not reasonable to expect that food issues like sustainability and nutrition will take priority in households across the country and the world.

Nevertheless, the show is worthwhile to those interested in food history, sustainability, or any kind of documentarian look at such an important aspect of our daily lives. If you know Michael Pollan or watch these kinds of shows, you may know a lot of it already, but it’s all presented in a fun and engaging style that you’ll enjoy at least most of it. Rating: 7 of 10

 

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The Incredibles – An Under-rated Superhero Film

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Source: Wikimedia.org

By now, the merits of The Incredibles as an animated movie are old news. Pixar’s 2004 film won two Academy Awards (Best Animated Feature Film and Sound Editing) and was nominated for a third (Original Screenplay); it earned a 97% on RottenTomatoes, who also named it the highest-rated movie of 2004. Brad Bird’s film was met with universal praise among top film critics like Roger Ebert and Peter Travers. The Incredibles even has a sequel in the works, showing that the appetite for its characters has not diminished in the 12 years since it was released. It ranks among the three Toy Story movies, Up, and Finding Nemo as the best Pixar movies ever, making it among the best of the best in the whole genre.

However, it is often overlooked in the other genre it falls into: the superhero film. The Incredibles has everything any other classic superhero film does: superpowers, secret identities, an origin story, a bad guy, and some emotional development arcs to give the characters some depth. Released a year before the first Fantastic Four film or Christopher Nolan had released a Batman movie, and a decade before Big Hero Six, The Incredibles appeared pretty early in the new wave of superhero films. The film featured genuine family dynamics, emphasizing the interpersonal relationships at the heart of a super-team in a way that had not been seen on the Silver Screen.

The Incredibles drew a lot of themes and concepts from the original Fantastic Four comics, with even many of the characters’ powers seeming eerily similar to those out of the World’s Greatest Magazine. Even more impressive is that it drew on these themes better than any of the subsequent three direct Fantastic Four films managed, and absolutely blew all three out of the water with regards to RottenTomatoes ratings. The three FF films have earned a 27%, a 37%, and a 9%, making some serious splats where even the sum of the three isn’t close to The Incredibles’ 97%. Character-wise, Elastigirl is a proximate for Mr. Fantastic, Mr. Incredible has super-strength like the Thing (though no orange rock skin), Violet had invisibility and force fields like Invisible Woman, and super speed vs. Human Torch isn’t really crazy different. But what’s impressive about these characters isn’t their superpowers, but how these powers fit their personalities. All under the alias of the Parr family (a delightful pun, btw), these supers are trying to blend into normal life, with some doing better than others. A good portion of the movie is spent seeing them do normal household tasks with superpowers, like the vacuuming and lifting of furniture, cutting through a dinner plate, running at super speed around the house, etc. These little things give a lot of depth to the characters and show how hard it can be to have untapped potential. Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible) is super strong, but he feels powerless to control his life. Helen (Elastigirl) is flexible and can juggle the needs of the three kids and seems to be the most well-adjusted. Violet just wants to be seen – her shyness and teenage awkwardness push her toward hiding, but she proves that she can be just as much of a force(-field) as everyone else. Dash is impatient, anxious, and generally hot-headed. These sorts of characterizations are very reminiscent of the FF and feel true to form with the superhero genre writ large. Oh, let’s also not forget that there’s a big time Mole Man reference at the end of the movie…

Even beyond all of that, however, the film’s signature accomplishment is actually in its ability to build a comprehensive world in such a short time, creating a believable backdrop of superhero skepticism that would serve to frame the story. The superheroes in The Incredibles received negative backlash for their heroics and ultimately were restricted by public opinion, a theme that has only just made it into Marvel films a whole 12 years after The Incredibles‘ release. The idea of a government program to reassign superheroes who had blown their aliases was really innovative and added a layer of credibility to the hero/public dynamic. But most importantly, the iconic Edna Mode, whose role as the costume designer for supers was hilarious and helpful in fleshing out a support industry for the superhero community. Even the classic “No capes” line showed the film’s ability to self-reflect and take superpowers seriously.

The Incredibles may be some good family fun, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is a genuine superhero story that fits neatly into the broader genre – complete with questions of duty, morality, and how to balance great power and great responsibility. Soon we will have the clearest indication of all that The Incredibles is indeed a superhero film: a sequel. If you don’t believe me, go watch it. Rating: 10 of 10

Yes, Please! – The Amy Poehler Memoir

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Source: Amazon.com

Amy Poehler’s entry into the world of comedic memoirs came out in 2014 during the peak of her critical and popular appeal. Six months before the finale of her iconic role as Lesley Knope on the incomparable Parks and Recreation and a couple of years into hosting the Golden Globes, Poehler was riding high, making a comedic memoir a good business decision for one of the biggest powerhouses in comedy. Following in the footsteps of her often costar and friend, Tina Fey, whose own memoir, Bossypants, was met with critical acclaim, Poehler offered up a fun and heartfelt reflection on her life and career. This could have easily become a carbon copy of Fey’s earlier work, as their paths to fame so often intersected in Chicago improv troupes, Saturday Night Live, and even co-hosting the Golden Globes. But instead, readers were treated to a truly honest insight into Amy Poehler’s life, written in a clear voice that really felt like she was reading it aloud in your head. Poehler fearlessly showed her heart on her sleeve, sharing as many mistakes, shortcomings, and insecurities as she did strengths and triumphs. She seems to take seriously her role as a voice for aspiring women in comedy and writing, reflecting often upon the difficulties of breaking into a male-dominated industry. The chapter written by Seth Myers, another wonderfully talented SNL alum, was a great addition to the book. It gave another insider perspective to the world behind the cameras and gave an honest look at who Amy Poehler really is. Poehler also frequently highlights that her life is more than her career, a revelation that is often expected in memoirs, but not always delivered. Her two young sons are regular features throughout the book, showing that she takes her role as a mother just as seriously as her career aspirations. This book is a wonderful adventure for her fans, those of us that have laughed as she made her name on SNL then delivered one of the best characters on one of the best TV shows of all time (Parks and Rec, duh).

Though I thoroughly enjoyed the book and certainly recommend it highly, there were a few small criticisms I had of the style choices and approach at times. First, it got kind of name-droppy at times. Poehler seemed pretty cognizant of this and did poke fun at herself for it, but it still could be a bit much, especially when a who’s who didn’t really add to the plot of the story. The chapter on Haiti was also a little uncomfortable. Poehler clearly meant well and is intelligent and self-aware enough to know this was a difficult message to convey, but it still came close to some Rudyard Kipling-esque “White Savior” themes at times. In her defense though, Poehler was embarrassed that this trip was her first time going to a developing country and admitted to some of the selfish thoughts and motives that often plague even those of us with the best intentions. Lastly, and probably most importantly, her insistence upon labeling her upbringing as “lower middle class” was bit tired. It seemed almost like pandering to relate to her readers and to counteract some of the inherent elitism of being a wealthy famous TV star now. “Middle class” would have been sufficient, especially when considering some of the finer details like the “large wooden bar in the finished basement” and the “lower middle class family with all the latest gadgets,” which seem to disqualify her from some of the struggles to make ends meet which trouble those family who actually come from lower economic classes. I believe that Poehler wasn’t born with a silver spoon and that was really the intent, but let’s also be honest that living in a Boston suburb with two cars and white collar parents isn’t exactly disadvantaged.

Even these negative points have their silver lining though, as they highlight the fact that our favorite stars are real people with real flaws just like the rest of us. And the beauty of this book is that I think Poehler would have expected that and been ok with it, she seems like the kind of person who would rather be honest than right, a trait which I really admire. Even more than her peers, Amy Poehler feels like a genuine and honest person who just happens to be famous, after some serious hard work of course (don’t worry I read that part too). Overall, if you (1) know who Amy Poehler is; (2) like funny people/books; (3) have ever seen Parks and Recreation, which should really be everyone; or (4) are looking for an amusing and entertaining book to read, then go read the book. Even if you said no to all of those questions, why not give this a try? You’ll like it. Rating: 9 of 10

Zootopia

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Source: wikimedia.org

Disney’s done it again. And I know we really shouldn’t be surprised by now. Especially since I’m now pretty late to the game on this review. Just this past week the animated mega-hit crossed the Billion dollar threshold in worldwide box office earnings, moving into the 26th highest-grossing film of all time. Sure,these “highest-grossing” lists don’t quite mean what they used to, what with 3-D ticket pricing and much higher rates of movie going worldwide, but still cracking the 7-figure threshold is no small achievement. Zootopia has also been raking in critical acclaim, sitting at a stellar 98% on RottenTomatoes, and already jockeying for the Best Animated Film Oscar for next February. But does it live up to the hype?

Yup. Zootopia is really a clever movie. Not that talking animals are anything new, and the fictional megacity is pretty commonplace in the Hunger Games era. But what this movie achieves is authenticity. The creators managed to give this world come cultural history, highlighting prejudices within the population and hinting at larger themes of equity and identity in a seemingly utopic society. The impressive thing about Zootopia is that it manages to mingle these serious themes into a genuinely interesting story without it feeling too preachy. The metaphors were never heavy-handed and the allegories weren’t so over-the-top that it distracted from the fun plot. Throw in some great voice acting from the likes of Jason Bateman, and some funny (if bizarre) jokes for the adults watching, like a nudist colony and Godfather references, and you have the perfect formula for success. I do wish that the trailers didn’t give away the whole sloth scene, because that really would have stolen the show had it still been a surprise. Special shout-out to Nate Torrence as Clawhauser, the hilariously doofy leopard who ran the front desk at the police station, who was definitely my favorite character.

By now, Disney has perfected the art and will likely continue the pattern of releasing a Disney Animation film in the early spring to avoid competing with their frenemies (Pixar) who own the big summer release. I hear there’s even a chance of a Zootopia 2 on the way. I’m not sure how I feel about that, given how nicely this wrapped up, but the world they created in Zootopia was big and vibrant, so I suppose there’s room for more stories. Overall, Zootopia is a good movie that’s sufficiently fun for the whole family. Like Frozen and its numerous Pixar predecessors, this will quickly join the pantheon of elite animated films. Go watch it. Rating: 9 of 10

X-Men: Apocalypse

It’s 2016, year of the superhero movie! We’re not even half way through the year and four major superhero movies have already been released, and there are still more on the way. Following the roaring success of Fox’s Deadpool and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, and even the high-profile bummer-fest that surrounded WB’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (see: Sad Affleck), it has felt like X-Men: Apocalypse got a little lost in the shuffle. Some of that could be that, even before it’s official release, the movie started accumulating middling reviews. So even the modest excitement it had garnered a few months prior started to peter out. It’s gotten such unflattering reviews that the architect behind the vast majority of Fox’s X-franchise, Bryan Singer, has decided to step away from the series for a while. That news is likely making Fox executives nervous, as the franchise hasn’t done as well with non-Singer-directed X-titles, with only Tim Miller’s brilliant Deadpool and Matthew Vaughn’s under-rated X-Men: First Class earning a “Certified Fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes.

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Source: Wikimedia.org

On that note, RottenTomatoes gave Apocalypse a harsh 48%, making it the second-lowest rated splat in the franchise. Its box office success has been modest, but not stellar, especially when compared with February’s Deadpool phenomenon. Apocalypse is currently on pace to be right in the middle of the pack in box office earnings (6th of 9) within the X-franchise. What started as some shrugs and lackluster endorsements has gradually descended into more definitively negative remarks, notably calling out its cliches and recycling of past plot lines. The reviews appear to be a contributing factor to the movie’s limited success, but the release timing has overlapped with the tail end of Civil War and the release of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel, which seems to be doing surprisingly well.

So it was with all of this in mind that I sauntered into the theater for a Sunday afternoon showing, my expectations low and hoping only to glean some fun character moments from what I expected to be a slow-moving train wreck. Fortunately for all X-fans out there, the movie isn’t as bad as all that, and was really a pleasant surprise. There were a lot of things I liked, I laughed, and I was genuinely excited to see some of my favorite X-Men re-imagined in the X-Men Cinematic universe, take 2. That right there is probably enough of a reason for people to go see Apocalypse, and I’m not here to try and stop you. If you have enjoyed the past X-Men movies like me, it’s worth a trip to the theaters because it has enough positives to cover the price of admission, just don’t get your hopes up too much.

Don’t get me wrong, Apocalypse is seriously flawed. As the first entry in Singer’s “new timeline” following the events of Days of Future Past (DoFP), X-Men: Apocalypse has the important job of establishing a new normal for the mutant/human relationship. The film is acutely aware of this job and devotes a significant portion of its nearly 2.5 hours in length to set-up, but still manages to rush through how Apocalypse fits into the X-franchise’s relativistic timeline. I like sci-fi and time travel is really cool, but how old are these people? If Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique was around 20 in 1962 when the First Class took place, is she 40 now? This is especially confusing when you factor in Alex and Scott Summers as brothers (Havok and Cyclops for the uninitiated). If Alex was a teen in 1962, he’s at least got to be 35 now, so if Scott’s in high school he’s max 18. Even that age gap makes no sense, and that’s on the generous side… The “decade-themed” movie entries was a fun idea, but it does all sorts of problems to the concept of characters aging.

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This is the timeline that X-Men: Apocalypse had to work with. No wonder people get confused. A little retcon magic and we have a franchise as unkillable as Wolverine. Image Source: xmenmovies.wikia.com

But even that sort of confusion is forgivable. As an audience, you’re still excited to see such iconic and lovable characters get a second chance at a first impression. I love the X-Men and really like four of the X-Men movies that have been released (5 if you count Deadpool, which shouldn’t really count), and the first 1.5 hours of The Wolverine was pretty good, so there was plenty of familiarity and past success in this franchise that could have led to a much bigger success for Apocalypse. This film also had an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and correct some poor characterizations in previous iterations. The sad, and honestly surprising, thing about X-Men: Apocalypse is that it often did not learn from those mistakes, which is probably one of the more damning critiques of the film. But without further ado, I’d likely to quickly enumerate some of my highlights and low lights of the film, and fair warning, there will be some *Spoilers* ahead.

Thumbs Up:

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Source: imdb.com
  • Nightcrawler: played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, was great. A good blend of thoughtful, funny, and inquisitive, Nightcrawler’s role at the core of a new crop of X-Men brings me hope for the future of the franchise.
  • Cyclops: though not perfect, Tye Sheridan finally gave one of the greatest X-Men of all time some characterization. This film finally patched over some of the damage done to Cyclops by the first round of films, which was probably my largest complaint about Singer’s first two installments.
  • Laughs: some much-needed humor seemed to finally make its way into the story, and not just from Quicksilver this time, Xavier and Havok have some good laughs early on during an awkward visit to Moira MagTaggert’s CIA(?!?) office.
  • Jubliee: Though only a bit part and never called by that name, Jubliee is the catalyst for one of the most genuinely “X-Men” scenes in the film, when she, Scott, Jean, and Kurt go to the movies and see Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. She even has a great line about the third movie in a trilogy always being the worst (a great meta joke by Singer)
  • Cameos and Easter Eggs: a couple of fun cameos did some fan service to us comic nerds that appreciate them. Throwing Caliban, the Blob, and a nice Nathaniel Essex post-credits scene into the movie help to flesh out the expansiveness of the X-Universe.
  • Storm’s modified origin: though never a horseman in the comics, this adaptation seemed to really honor some key elements of the character: starting as a thief in Cairo, giving her white hair, calling her “goddess.” Her relationship to Apocalypse was certainly better than any of the other horsemen, so her character development early on in the film was just enough to offset the completely flat second half.
  • Team Dynamics: the developing relationship between Cyclops, Jean, and Nightcrawler worked very well and should serve as the emotional core to the future movies. It gives me hope for the future, especially once Storm is fully integrated. I also really like the idea of having Beast less as a team member and in a more supporting role as professor, scientist, and training instructor alongside Xavier.

Thumbs Down:

  • Repetition: Let’s make a movie where an evil mutant wants mutants to rule the world, we’ll have a funny scene where Quicksilver saves the day running around at super speed, and Magneto will waffle around between good and evil, making it really only up to him to face his inner demons and save the fate of the world. Maybe we can blow up the mansion. Sound familiar?
  • Havok: a great X-man, and one of only a handful of legacy characters remaining from previous movies is unceremoniously dispatched in a moment of unnecessary stupidity, then instantly over-shadowed by Mystique’s return to blue skin. What?!? Even Hank (Beast), who is supposed to be Alex’s friend, basically forgets that Alex died until Scott comes running up for a short-lived and awkward grief sesh.

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    Here we go again… Source: imdb.com
  • Angel: Two swings and two misses. Why is Warren Worthington III the toughest nut to crack in the X-Men film franchise? Choosing him as a horseman made sense, there’s a lot of history there, but who was this Angel? The film never mentioned his real name, and aside from being a punk he didn’t seem evil. But nevertheless, he seemed pretty loyal to Apocalypse, and how did Apocalypse give him the metal wings? In the comics, he gets the metal wings and becomes Archangel after being injected with the blood of Apocalypse, a source of power as well as inner strife that made the character very compelling over the past three decades. But the movie skipped all of that, opting instead for a character-less zealot who dies without purpose or consequence. Like Havok’s, his death is immediately forgotten.
  • Wolverine: Okay, so I understand why Singer did this. It was an opportunity to remind audiences of the aforementioned timestream hullabaloo and provide some an “Aha” moment in Wolverine’s complicated continuity. The problem is that it didn’t work. A nice idea, but come on! We don’t need Wolverine in every. single. X-men. movie. ever. Also, it provided a cheap way for the young X-Men (Cyclops, Jean, and Nightcrawler) to overcome the swarm of baddies that had captured Beast, Quicksilver, and Mystique (and Moira?). The grisly violence didn’t faze the kids one bit, which seemed implausible and disturbing, and a Jean/Logan dynamic with Jean supposedly still in High School is beyond creepy. Boo.
  • The Horsemen: This is such a cool concept, why did the assembled horsemen end up just being super-powered props for Apocalypse? All they did was stand around and act menacing then kind of fight off the X-Men for a second during the final battle. There were high hopes here and almost zero execution. Psylocke was probably the most boring character in the history of X-films.
  • Magneto: Okay, okay. Obviously, Michael Fassbender is a great actor. And I will give some props to the development of Magneto’s attempt at living Xavier’s way. After all of the criticisms of Magneto’s role, I found his opening arc to be surprisingly compelling. However, why is it always down to Magneto? Not every film can be about him waffling between good and evil. It’s just lazy.
  • Sadly, Apocalypse: Oscar Isaac is also a great actor, just look at Star Wars and Ex Machina. But Isaac just didn’t have much to work with. The origins were a little messy and underdeveloped. We mostly saw the plot of his take down and witnessed the destruction of a pyramid, but it didn’t really show much character development. It also left a lot of questions about the technology he used and where his horsemen’s power came from (especially if he was the “first mutant”). In the present day, his motive seemed bland, just cookie-cutter “World Domination,” but any nuance about a Darwinist approach to survival of the fittest seemed left to those with some comic background. Apocalypse’s powers were unclear: he could heal, teleport, transmute matter, amplify other mutants’ abilities, transport his own consciousness to a new body, and defeat Xavier in psychological warfare? And how did he adapt to Quicksilver’s attack? He seemed to speed himself up. It was all pretty unclear. Then, his demise was pretty unglamorous, as the Magneto/Storm/Phoenix (I mean Jean Grey) team just obliterated him no problem…
  • Scale: how did Magneto tear the world apart? Why did he have to? Can’t a movie be meaningful without destroying all of the world’s landmarks? It seemed like a gratuitous over-complication of the conflict’s scale. Let’s just have mutants fighting off some sentinels at a mall. That’s good, old-school fun.
  • Dark Phoenix: Really? Already? Because that worked so well last time…. ahem X-Men: Last Stand… ahem…
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Look, the world’s exploding. And there’s no consequence once we beat the weird mutant with blue lips! Yay scale! Source: imdb.com

The real truth of X-Men: Apocalypse is that it’s inconsistent. When people ask what I thought, I’ll sort of shrug and say, “ehhhh, yeah it was good. Not great, but good.” But I went in expecting the worse. Those poor saps who went on opening weekend were hot on the heels of Civil War and hadn’t had time to adjust their expectations. Sure, there are a whole bunch of problems, logical pitfalls, cheap story points, and some poor character development in places, but is the movie still fun to watch? Yeah, I’d say so. If you’re a life-long X-Men fan, you’ll find plenty of things to like and plenty to scoff at, but there are just enough light moments to keep you amused between dramatic scenes. The real thing to remember is that this movie is largely a setup for future films. It’s the forming of a new X-team that should inspire hope in audiences, because it sure did for me.  Rating: 6 of 10

Marvel Knights: Spider-Man

By 2004, the Marvel Knights imprint had already been well-established. Initially a risk back in 1998, the semi-independent label was basically sub-contracted out from Marvel to Joe Quesada’s now defunct Event Comics company. A more complete history of the Marvel Knights imprint, as well as some of its early titles, can be found under reviews for the Black Panther and Daredevil series. This run is concurrent with the middle of John Michael Straczynski (JMS)’s run on Spider-Man in the primary Amazing Spider-Man title, which had embraced some of the more mystical elements of the Marvel Universe. Though JMS’s  run has a lot of strengths, Millar (and subsequently Hudlin) provided a nice contrast to that high-minded mysticism with some more classic Spidey vs. villain stories in this Marvel Knights title. Though admittedly darker in tone and consequences than the original Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, this Marvel Knights run was a good reminder of the kind of adventures we were used to seeing Peter Parker have.

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Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #1; Cover Artist: Terry Dodson; Source: Marvel.com

Mark Millar Run #1-12: Great story arc that is a kind of blend of Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again and Kevin Smith’s Daredevil: Guardian Devil, in that there is a mysterious character who is pulling strings behind the scenes to destroy Spidey’s life. Oh, and he knows his secret identity as Peter Parker. The mysterious villain has captured Aunt May and is holding her captive to get to Peter, making him increasingly desperate and strung out. The following 12-issue arc is a good blend of psychological thriller and good, old-fashioned superhero battles. Spidey has to fight off the Vulture, Electro, Doc Ock, a new Venom, and even more baddies all in his attempt to rescue May. The series has a very compelling plot progression and feels very much like classic Spider-Man. The inclusion of so many of his classic villains, as well as key supporting cast members like MJ and the Black Cat only make the characterization stronger. The majority of the art was penciled by Terry Dodson, with a couple of issues by Frank Cho, both of whom deliver some high-quality art. It’s not innovative or overly stylized, but it’s all clear, faces are expressive, colors are bright and details are precise. Dodson even did some costume upgrades for Electro and the Vulture to make them look a little more modern and a little more menacing. The plot is a very compelling read and, though it does take some logical shortcuts, especially in the last couple of issues, it is well worth the read. Rating: 8 of 10

Reginald Hudlin Run #13-18: An interesting arc with some strong positives and some mixed execution. Absorbing Man, Ethan as new Skrull hero/baddie/crazy. To me, the whole Ethan character is basically a riff on two other stories that had already been published by this time: first, Paul Jenkins’ The Sentry, which explores a forgotten, all-powerful, Superman-like hero who struggles to find his way in the modern world (not to mention some significant mental health problems); and second, the second arc from Allan Heinberg’s run on the Young Avengers, in which Hulkling discovers his Skrull heritage and struggles to find his identity. It seemed a little too much of a Superman parody to be considered a genuinely good Spider-Man arc. Though it was certainly amusing, SM’s character development was certainly secondary. I will say, though, that the further elaboration of the Absorbing Man’s powers was a good idea. It makes a lot of sense to have someone like him be pretty close to all-powerful, but his biggest weakness is that, as one of duller tools in the shed, he lacks the imagination to truly make the most of his awesome power. Putting someone like Spidey up against that is actually a pretty cool matchup, so props to Hudlin for going that direction. Overall, it’s certainly not a bad arc, but I wouldn’t call it necessary reading. Rating: 6 of 10

#19-22 — the last four issues of this Marvel Knights run was part of a crossover title called, “The Other: Evolve or Die” which will be reviewed soon!

Hawkeye in the Heroic Age

Hawkeye is one of the most iconic members of the Avengers, and has appeared in more issues than probably anyone but the big three. Nevertheless, he can’t seem to avoid getting the short end of the stick. Whether it’s his brainwashing in the first Avengers film, an inferiority complex driving him to become Goliath, or his string of middling solo series making it hard to sell the idea of Hawkeye having a life outside of the Avengers. He is undoubtedly a fan favorite, but his role in the Marvel Universe is sometimes in flux.

Before reading any of this Heroic Age material, it helps to know what Hawkeye has been up to for the past decade, so here’s a brief recap. Warning, there are definitely some *spoilers* for the 2002-2010 timeframe, beware! Clint Barton had a rough beginning to the 21st Century, he was killed in the Scarlet Witch’s cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs bonanza in Avengers Disassembled, only to be reborn in the House of M alternate reality excursion and find his alias had been taken up by a Young Avenger (Kate Bishop, who’s great btw), forcing him to take up a different identity as Ronin (shmeh). Then, in case that’s not enough, Clint finds Mockingbird in the Secret Invasion storyline, who had been long dead in the Marvel canon, only to find out she was a Skrull impersonator, making the loss fresh all over again. He and Bobbi do eventually reunite at the end of Secret Invasion, but even that reunion isn’t all sunshine and happiness. Bobbi’s traumatized by years of imprisonment and torture by her Skrull captors and she can’t bring herself to trust Clint. They had a weird kind of resolution in the four-issue New Avengers: The Reunion mini-series, which led directly into this time-frame, but the flawed nature of their relationship really comes to a head during this time period.

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Cover Artist: Paul Renaud; Source: Marvel.com

Hawkeye and Mockingbird: Average arc overall. The writing has some decent humor and the relationship between Hawkeye and Mockingbird, which is the central focus of the title, is done fairly well. The author (Jim McCann) references their past pretty well, bringing back baddies that have haunted the two in earlier arcs. The art, primarily penciled by David Lopez, was solid, but not spectacular. The supporting cast was pretty underdeveloped and the rationale justifying their involvement in these arcs was thin. Just inventing a tiny quasi-governmental agency with five people in it just seems kind of lazy in order to enable hi-tech gear and bad guy chasing, but I guess that’s not really the point. I think the plot was average at best, but it’s slightly better than that because of the character interactions which sow the seeds for future stories involving the two. The complicated relationship is basically made into a mutually-detrimental spiral that made both of them into worse versions of themselves. The resolution to end their highly flawed romance is a reasonable conclusion that McCann builds to pretty well. It makes the six-issue arc an important read for fans of either title character, though it’s still probably not good enough to buy the book. Rating: 6 of 10

Widowmaker: A weird, four-issue follow-up to the Hawkeye and Mockingbird series. This arc can’t make up it’s mind whether Hawkeye or Black Widow is the main character. The first-person narrative jumps between the two of them. It’s really abrupt and felt like a rushed, half-developed story. I’m not entirely sure what the writer, Duane Swierczynski, was thinking here, and the artist team of David Lopez and Manuel Garcia did an okay job, but the result is just average fare. I didn’t like the bags drawn under Black Widow’s eyes. It made her look like she was always half asleep, it’s an odd look for a superhero. I think that the whole purpose was to set up a situation for Hawkeye to get hit in the back of the head, which sets up for the following arc, which is far superior to this one. Black Widow is a great character, but her team up with Mockingbird and Hawkeye here seemed like a stretch. And her character had no personality. She just seemed really flat. The new team up of Hawkeye and Mockingbird so soon after their “conscious uncoupling” was just kind of awkward. It undid some of the character development of the previous arc, which was its whole selling point. I’d say Widowmaker is worth skipping, as there aren’t really any other plot lines that ripple through later beyond Hawkeye’s one bonk to the head. Rating: 4 of 10

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Issue #4; Cover Artist: Mike Perkins; Source: Marvel.com

Blind Spot: This four-issue arc is a little hit and miss (pun very much intended). With writing duties back with Jim McCann, and art by a team of David Lopez and Paco Diaz, the series regains some of McCann’s earlier tone in the Hawkeye and Mockingbird series. Conceptually, Blind Spot is pretty interesting: what if Hawkeye went blind? How does the world’s best marksman deal with not being able to see his targets? It’s a pretty cool examination of Clint Barton’s character as he struggles to do without his greatest asset and deals with some long-repressed family issues at the same time. The problem is that while this arc is intriguing, it’s not really all that innovative. It basically riffs on Ed Brubaker’s inventive run on Captain America almost a decade earlier, except it swaps out Bucky for Barney. The whole brainwashed vengeance using a childhood best friend/brother to become the evil version of the hero themselves isn’t particularly original, but in McCann’s defense, it does allow for an interesting look into Clint Barton’s past and his strength of character. Barney acts as a Baron Zemo and Barney’s interactions were all pretty well done. The only problem I had was that with Tony Stark’s tech, Clint never really went blind. It would have been much better to see him fight unassisted than to have the hi-tech bailout. It seemed like a cheap way to deal with the culmination of the blindness problem. Otherwise, this arc did accomplish a lot in a relatively short period of time. Rating: 7 of 10

During this gap, there’s a wonderful, incredible series by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Annie Wu that covers both Clint Barton and Kate Bishop in a 22-issue instant classic. Go read it now! Or check out the review here.

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Cover Artist: Ramon Perez; Source: Marvel.com

All-New Hawkeye (2015): After making his name with Marvel’s Distinguished Competition writing for another swashbuckling archer, Jeff Lemire came to Marvel to try a turn on Clint Barton. Partnering with Eisner Award winning artist, Ramon Perez, this series seemed like a good choice to follow up on Fraction’s run. A quick five-issue series here tried to tell two different stories simultaneously. One was a retelling of Clint’s origin story through some beautiful, purple-hued flashbacks, and the other was an odd arc involving Clint and Kate breaking into a Hydra base for a secret weapon. The flashback sequences were clever and helped to showcase more of Hawkeye’s origin story. Perez’s artist style in these memory sequences was absolutely beautiful, all washed purples and sketched in a really wonderful way. The cover art, especially in Issue #1 (to the left) was also stunning. The interior art outside of the flashbacks was also good, but Perez’s flashbacks scenes were definitely the highlight. The banter between the two Hawkeyes was also pretty good (though nothing like Fraction’s in the preceding Hawkeye run). Unfortunately, the primary arc (at least the present day one) was nothing special. I never really understood what Barton or Bishop’s relationship to SHIELD was and what the whole point of those weird kids was. The resolution seemed even more bizarre, as they were about to allow Hydra to just take them back, until the kids went all Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Hydra agents. This arc is a decent read, but I was not really impressed with the plot development in Lemire’s primary story line. There is hope for future runs, but this is worth flipping through for Perez’s art, though I’m not sure if I would buy it. Rating: 6 of 10

Nightcrawler Goes Solo

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Issue #4; Cover Artist: Greg Land; Source: Marvel.com

Kurt Wagner, also known as Nightcrawler, has been one of the most iconic members of the X-Men since their rebranding as the Uncanny X-Men back in 1975. He has long been a fan favorite (and personal favorite of mine) because of his optimism and wit. He also blends his demonic outward appearance with the serene inner persona whose morality and generosity in unmatched among the X-Men. He has long been a crucial member of various teams of benevolent mutants, and his dynamics with other leading cast members of X-teams, such as Storm, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, Colossus, and Cyclops have all been well-established for a long time.

Despite his popularity and the depth of his character, Nightcrawler did not get a chance at his own solo title until 2004, when Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Darick Robertson partnered up to do a 12-issue run. From the outset, the ambitious effort seemed difficult. What was there to truly differentiate him from the rest of his team? The missions he was sent on were mysteries of ghouls, ghosts, demons, and possession, leading him to Limbo and encounters with other odd demonic forces. I know he looks like a blue devil, but I never really like the weird demon plot-lines in the X-Men. The creative team did try to tie these events back to Kurt’s past, where his odd relationship with his step-sister/lover, Amanda Sefton began. Amanda had become the new Magik in Limbo by the time of this comic in 2004, making hers and Kurt’s relationship even weirder. Kurt had never really shown an aptitude for detective work, so Storm’s choice to send him on a solo mission to a hospital in the first issue seemed odd. The following series struggled to develop Nightcrawler independently of the X-Men, as Storm, Kitty, and Wolverine all made prominent appearances in almost every issue. The unfortunate result was a series of mystical-ish arcs that seemed like other X-Men team titles, only Nightcrawler did focus slightly more on Kurt’s past. The revisiting of  Kurt’s circus past was interesting, but just never wowed me. Aguirre-Sacasa’s writing seemed fine, but I never really got into the story. Same thing goes for Robertson’s art. The real highlight of the series for me was Greg Land’s cover art, and especially Issue #4 (above). Overall, I would say that this is a perfectly adequate comic for those who like these sort of stories, but it’s probably not for everyone. Rating: 5 of 10.

 

The Pulse: The Return of Jessica Jones

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This is a beautiful cover. Wonderful use of negative space. Issue #8; Cover Artist: Mike Mayhew; Source: Marvel.com

Following the success of Marvel Max’s Alias run, Jessica Jones creator, Brian Michael Bendis brought the character back in a non-Max title. This time, with more accessible topics and language choices (read: fewer F-bombs), Jessica Jones would navigate her way into the larger Marvel continuity monster. This was achieved by her getting pregnant at the end of Alias, and winding up with Luke Cage, who was, by now, a rising star in the New Avengers title, also penned by Bendis. Her new series, The Pulse, is so named for her new column at the Daily Bugle, where she will work with Ben Urich to tell superhero-themed stories to increase paper sales. This gives Jessica a good excuse to become involved in some of the central plot lines of the early 21st Century Marvel event calendar, which was also largely orchestrated and often written by her own Brian Michael Bendis. Being a pet project of the leading creative force at Marvel certainly helped Jessica Jones to quickly rise from a no-name side project into a real member of superhero community and an important supporting character to the New Avengers.

Though not as innovative as Bendis’ earlier Alias series, The Pulse does still give some valuable insight into Jessica Jones as a character and serves the primary focus of further elaborating her relationship with Luke Cage, Ben Urich, and a few other key Marvel characters. *Warning* since The Pulse is a direct sequel to Alias, a key event at the end of Alias The 14-issue run encompassed only a couple of different arcs, but the plot developments of each were really secondary to Jessica’s emotional evolution and the further development of hers and Luke Cage’s relationship, along with the birth of their child. The story arcs are far less cutting edge than they were in the Alias run, some of which is inherent in the shift from an R-rated (Max) title to a PG-13-ish normal Marvel title. Regarding the art, it was above average, but not cutting edge. It was exactly the quality you would expect when penciling duties were handed between superstars Mark Bagley, Michael Lark, and Michael Gaydos.

Plot-wise, the first arc was solid, but not amazing. It set up the reason for Jessica’s integration into the mainstream universe: a job at the Daily Bugle. The Green Goblin arc the followed wasn’t particularly engaging, but it did serve its purpose as an intro to the idea of Jessica as an investigative journalist. The next arc, a tie-in to The Secret War, actually did work pretty well, especially since Luke Cage was such an important character in these main events. Her quest to find Luke and uncover the covert operation behind The Secret War made The Pulse the most significant tie-in to that event. Though the story progression seemed somewhat limited by the progression of the main event, it did provide some well-articulated supporting plot-lines for Jessica Jones and Ben Urich. The single issue House of M tie-in was odd and out of place with the rest of the series. Then the final arc *mini-spoiler* followed the birth of Jessica and Luke’s baby and the next steps in their relationship, which would lead into the New Avengers title by the end of issue #14, the final issue of The Pulse.

Overall, Bendis’ work on the Pulse served its primary purpose, which was to bring Jessica into the mainstream universe. Transitioning such a brash and complicated character from the Max line was no easy task, and definitely did feel somewhat abrupt at times — especially with her harsh language being absent in The Pulse. Though it is a testament to Bendis that he managed to transition Jessica without diluting her beyond recognition. The character is still there, even if her story arcs lost some of their edge. The Pulse is still a good solid read for fans of the character and makes a nice bridge between two of Bendis’ finer works: Alias and New Avengers. It’s still an above average comic, even if it falls short of the inventiveness and iconic storytelling of its predecessor. Rating: 7 of 10

Origin of Spider-Woman

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Spider-Woman: Origin #1; Cover Artist: Jonathan Luna; Source: Marvel.com

The original Spider-Woman has a somewhat odd history at Marvel Comics. Her origins are much maligned as a result of copyright laws, as her first appearance and early stories spun more out of a need to lock down the copyright control over the name than an actual creative desire to tell the story. This meant that a lot of the early material was thrown together unevenly and took longer to develop. This left Spider-Woman, alias Jessica Drew, without a truly definitive origin tale. Her periodic guest appearances in high profile titles like Amazing Spider-Man and Avengers as well as her relatively short-lived solo series in 1978 never really served to develop the character all that fully. Jessica Drew’s lackluster popularity is even more evident by the fact that she subsequently lost even the mantle of Spider-Woman to, not one, but two unique characters during the ’80s and ’90s (Julia Carpenter and Mattie Franklin). Drew wasn’t even popular enough to keep her own hero name.

The result is a dearth of good source material on Spider-Woman, and no definitive origin story to speak of. Therefore, when Marvel powerhouse, Brian Michael Bendis, decided to bring Jessica Drew into the fledgling New Avengers title, there was a renewed interest in her backstory. This five-issue miniseries attempts to fill the void on this character, whose role in Avengers titles and major crossover events has proven the potential for a great story. The tidbits of her origin that had been alluded to showed a complicated past of brainwashing, mixed allegiances, and at least some time as a double-agent between Hydra and SHIELD. The shifting allegiances and subtle espionage elements seemed to bode well for a more expansive origin tale, and the groundwork certainly existed for a great story.

When it came down to it, the story didn’t seem to take as much advantage of its potential as it could have. Written by Brian Michael Bendis, himself, the story seemed to focus more on the family connections to Hydra and Jessica’s inability to decipher the truth when caught between Hydra and SHIELD. The tone and event the art, penciled and inked by the Luna brothers, seems to highlight Jessica’s innocence and a stolen childhood, rather than drawing on her survivalist nature. The result is that Spider-Woman is predominantly a victim, and though she does rise above it as a hero later, she is less empowered or self-sufficient than I think would have done her credit. Rather than emphasizing her childhood in Wundagore, I would have rather seen the creators spend more time in the double-agent period, highlighting Jessica’s cunning and her resolve to stay alive and try to do good, even in a morally ambiguous situation.

Though I don’t think it achieved its full potential, the miniseries is certainly not bad. It does serve the purpose of providing the first consolidated origin story for Spider-Woman. The Luna brothers’ washed color palate and dream-like softer edges, though not my favorite style, was a good fit for the nostalgic childhood memories and the haze of brainwashing. All in all, it’s a solid read for those interested in learning more about Spider-Woman, though it’s hardly essential, as her best material is part of Bendis’ broader New Avengers run.

Rating: 6 of 10