I meant to blog about TV in 2017 for the last month or so. There were two shows in 2017 that stuck with me more than anything, and trying to get my thoughts on the challenging weirdness of Twin Peaks: The Return into shape proved to be a tricky task. There was also Legion, which I adored, but blogging about it didn’t happen for various reasons, and seemed destined to be one of those ‘blog posts I never get around to’.
And then, this weekend, I spotted that there’s a quote from my SFX review of Legion on the back cover of the UK release of the Blu-Ray:
This boggled the heck out of me – getting cover quotes is always great, getting a cover quote on something I loved as much as Legion is a rare treat – so I had to write something.
There’s a hell of a lot to write about – the Wes Anderson-influenced production design, the trippy cinematography, the retro Sixties styles, the way it joyfully ignores any continuity with other X-Men related media and is all the better for it, the strong performances, the jaw-dropping use of music, the fact that episode seven contains an extended sequence that’s one of the most astonishing things I’ve seen on television in years, the kooky joy of Flight of the Concords’ Jemaine Clement as the 1960s-obsessed psychonaut Oliver Bird…
But the thing I love most about Legion is what it reminds me of.
We have a lot of superhero shows right now, and some of them are definitely ‘for adults’ – but up until now, that’s principally meant the Marvel Netflix shows, which are a very particular (and uneven) kind of mature that’s worn out its sense of novelty and welcome surprisingly quickly. None of them have really managed to capture what grabbed me about American comics when I first started reading them – they’re all going for relatively formulaic structures but with more monologues, more intensity and more ultraviolence. There’s no sense of them trying to do anything different, except in how adult they can be – a habit that, outside of S1 of Jessica Jones, hasn’t come across very well.
Legion, however, feels different in almost every conceivable way. There’s an infectious sense of invention and creativity to the show, an adventurous desire to push the envelope – and what it reminds me of are the truly weird, artistic and adventurous comics that came along in the wake of graphic novel landmarks like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, you had lots of dark and gritty tales of vigilante justice, superhero stories but with added intensity and violence and upset – but you also had genuinely weird and adventurous stories that you simply couldn’t find anywhere else. Comics like Doom Patrol, Animal Man, The Sandman, Enigma, Hellblazer – boundary-pushing, unpredictable comics that were giving a sandbox to interesting writers who really wanted to see what comics could do, and wanted to do expand the limits of the everyday mainstream comic.
Legion captures that feel better than anything I’ve seen in our current deluge of superhero media. It’s the closest I’ve seen to the mind-expanding thrill of opening an early issue of The Invisibles, or Alan Moore’s epic run on Swamp Thing, or Neil Gaiman’s ambitious work on The Sandman. I can forgive Legion its flaws – like the weird pacing, the way certain characters get forgotten about, the way it peaks too early in episode 7, or the relative lack of conclusion in the eighth and final episode – for the way it uses superpowers as a way to look at mental illness, alongside the way we interact with the world, other people, and our memories. There’s a scene in episode 3, where two characters simply sit down and talk about their abilities in a calm and open way, that’s one of the most engaging things I’ve ever seen in a superhero show, and Legion delivers unexpected moments and stylistic curve-balls like that throughout its run. Season 2 is apparently due to arrive sometime in April – I have no idea where it’s going to go next, but I can’t wait to find out…
SCHIZOPOLITANS ASSEMBLE! You’ve already had part one of the ultimate Marvel podcast double-bill, with our detailed look at the Daredevil Netflix show – and now, part two arrives! Thrill, as Saxon and Jehan engage in their most daring and dangerous mission yet – an in-depth and mega-spoilerific look at the whys, the wheres, and the what-the-hell-was-going-on-in-that-Cave-scene of the latest Marvel blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron! Overstuffed plots! Strange visions, and a strange Vision! Hydra being surprisingly terrible! Andy Serkis! A robot James Spader! Has writer-director Joss Whedon outdone himself, or are the rougher edges of the Marvel formula starting to show? And can Saxon and Jehan ever reach a point where they won’t be talking about Marvel? ONLY TIME WILL TELL!
WHO DARES? THEY DARE! Schizopolitan is back with a jumbo-sized edition of nerdy goodness that’s only the first of this week’s staggering podcast bounty! Part one of Schizopolitan’s epic double bill kicks off with Saxon and Jehan debating the oddity that is the recently released first image of Jared Leto as the Joker, revealing that the Clown Prince of Crime is now (a) fond of tattoos as a fashion statement, and (b) EXTREMELY KEEN TO LET US KNOW THAT HE’S VERY CRAZY INDEED….
After that brief interlude, they’re onto the main topic – the epic saga of S1 of Marvel’s Daredevil! How has the street-based vigilante done in his TV debut? How does it sit against other Marvel Cinematic Universe shows? Is it too violent? How scary is Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk? And is dressing up in black and fighting ninjas really a sensible career path for a lawyer? All these questions, AND MORE! Plus! A look at Agent Carter! And Agents of SHIELD! So many shows! SO MUCH MARVEL, THE BRAIN CAN BARELY STAND IT!
IT RETURNS! The podcast that EVERYBODY is talking about (well, everybody worth knowing) returns with another sense-defying episode to expand your horizons, transform your life and make you a better, sexier person. This episode, Saxon and Jehan take on a wide variety of subjects as they look at the recently concluded Season 8 of Doctor Who and also tackle the upcoming Phase 3 of Marvel films, sorting out who’s who, what’s what, and the kind of blockbuster madness that we can look forward to – while also finding time for a look at the more worrying movie developments with Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four…
It’s back! The Schizopolitan podcast returns, and this time Jehan and Saxon tackle the thorny subject of the newly released DC movie slate! A slew of release dates have been revealed for movies in the DC shared universe (which will be properly kicking off in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice) stretching through till 2020. But what does this mean? What properties have been chosen, and why? Will DC stand any chance of matching Marvel’s success? And will any of what Jehan and Saxon say result in Aquaman actor Jason Momoa wanting to punch them? Listen to the podcast to find out the answer to these questions, and many more!
Also, Lego movies! Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them! Rumblings in the world of Marvel! And does Sony really not have the faintest idea what they’re doing with Spider-man?
Enjoy the podcast (please let us know in the comments if you do), and stay tuned for more episodes soon! And remember – you can now subscribe to the podcast on iTunes! Follow this link to subscribe – the first three episodes are already available, and this latest one should be up there in the next 48 hours…
(The opening and closing music on the podcast is ‘Ouroboros’ by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)
And we’re back! Our first podcast went better than we expected, we got some nice feedback from a few people, so here, for your delectation and bewilderment, is episode 2 of the Schizopolitan podcast, featuring 75 minutes of Saxon Bullock and Jehan Ranasinghe talking about stuff! This time we tried to be a little more structured, and spent most of the podcast discussing Marvel’s latest hit Guardians of the Galaxy, looking at the many aspects of the movie that worked surprisingly well, while also examining the parts that didn’t come off quite so effectively. (There are a few spoilers in what we talk about – nothing huge, mainly about story structure (especially as relating to big Marvel bad guy Thanos), but it probably helps if you have seen the film already, and it isn’t spoil-free.) After that, there’s also time for a short update on the first podcast’s discussion on Female Superheroes, as we examine Sony’s plans for a female-fronted superhero in the Spider-man universe and try to work out whether any of them have any chance of working…
Hope you enjoy the podcast (feel free to let us know in the comments if you do), and stay tuned for another episode in the not-too-distant future!
Also – you can now subscribe to the podcast on iTunes! Follow this link to subscribe, and episode 2 should be available there relatively soon after this post goes live…
(The opening and closing music on the podcast is ‘Ouroboros’ by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)
The Lowdown: A likeable dose of old-school pulp adventure, Captain America – The First Avenger takes us back to the 1940s for an introduction to one of Marvel Comics’ biggest characters. The End Result? Action, fights, romance, and a blockbuster that’s simultaneously great fun and a little too lightweight for its own good.
What’s it About?: It’s 1942, and while Nazi-sponsored supervillain Johann Schmidt – aka the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) – has uncovered an ancient artefact that could grant him unlimited power, wannabe US soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still unable to go and fight for his country thanks to his puny frame and weak constitution. But Rogers’ determination leads to him becoming an experimental subject for a Super Soldier serum, and soon the transformed Rogers is becoming the patriotic hero Captain America…
The Story:(Spoiler Alert – it’s extremely difficult to talk about Captain America – The First Avenger without discussing its ending, and how it fits into the wider Marvel Studios shared universe. As a result, if you don’t want to learn details of the ending, consider yourselves warned…)
It’s weirdly refreshing to see a blockbuster that’s so old-school in its approach as Captain America – The First Avenger. Favouring a gentler visual style and a sense of heart and sincerity, this is a long way from the brash swagger of the original Iron Man – but then, Captain America is a long-lived comic character created in a simpler, more optimistic age. In this case, he first appeared as a contemporary wartime comic-book hero written by Joe Simon and drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby back in 1941, and was then revived in the Sixties (thanks to the classic ‘frozen-in-a-block-of-ice’ plot device). The ‘man out of time’ aspect has gone on to become a key part of the character, especially in the acclaimed run written by Ed Brubaker, as well as the character’s appearences in Mark Millar’s The Ultimates (which has ended up as the blueprint for much of Marvel’s celluloid ambitions), but Marvel have surprisingly only given this subplot the minimum amount of screentime here.
Instead, what we get is a full-scale origin story for Steve Rogers that harks back to the original Captain America 40s comics (with a certain amount of the Brubaker run), a broad wartime adventure romp of heroic, handsome men battling dastardly villains that also acts as a direct prologue to The Avengers. It’s given a reliably workmanlike and professional handling from director Joe Johnston, a journeyman filmmaker who graduated from special effects work on movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Star Wars Trilogy. Johnston isn’t the most exciting director in the world, but he has trodden the pulp road before in the well-remembered adventure romp The Rocketeer (even if he also perpetuated the pretty damn bad Jurassic Park III), and it serves him in good stead here.
At its best, Captain America captures the fun of good old-fashioned boy’s own adventures, and Johnson’s fun Xeroxed-Spielberg approach is lively and enjoyable (especially in the hugely entertaining montage showing Steve Rogers’ life as a daftly-dressed fund-raising figurehead for the USO), while he handles the demands of a superhero blockbuster far more confidently than Martin Campbell did on Green Lantern. Most important of all, Johnston knows when to give the cast room to act, and coaxes fine performances out of everyone involved, most notably Chris Evans as the all-important title character.
More than most superhero films, Captain America was going to live or die on its casting. It’d be incredibly easy to play such an old-school example of clean-cut, wholesome heroism with a post-modern wink, and some fans were probably expecting exactly that when Evans was cast, considering he’d been previously been best known for his great turn as the wisecracking Johnny Storm in the otherwise lacklustre Fantastic Four movies. It’s to Evans’ credit, then, that he avoids that temptation completely, instead playing the role admirably straight. Where Robert Downey Jr. got a comparitively easy ride as the brash Tony Stark, Evans goes for determined and wholesome beefcake heroism and pulls it off without a hint of mockery or camp (even in the pre-transformation sequences where some not-always-exceptional CGI renders him as a short, spindly weakling).
It’s this mix of earnestness and heart that makes Steve Rogers’s journey from heroic weakling to good-hearted superhuman into a genuinely effective one, aided by efficient action storytelling and strong casting. From Tommy Lee Jones’ streotypically gruff General to Stanley Tucci as the mild-mannered scientist who gives Rogers his chance at heroism, there’s barely a weak link – and there’s also finally a Marvel heroine who’s a strong character in her own right, with Hayley Atwell kicking impressive amounts of arse as Peggy Carter as well as proving to be a thoroughly engaging romantic interest (something which Thor was seriously lacking).
Of course, the down-side of Captain America’s relatively simple, subtext-free origin is that there’s not an awful lot going on here beyond the well-mounted, energetic action sequences. As seems to always happen with wartime-set pulp adventures, there are major echoes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (especially in the mirroring of Steve Rogers and the Red Skull, as different sides of the same superhero coin) but the Raiders comparisons aren’t always deserved, even in terms of the stuntwork, and there are a few too many times when the film’s happy to be a lightweight diversion and absolutely nothing else. Plus, we once again have a Marvel Studios film that’s oddly tentative about its genre – it happened with Thor, which went a bit too far out of its way to tone down the more mythic elements and present Asgard as ‘advanced technology’, and it happens here in a particularly bizarre way.
In short, just over halfway through a film about a World War 2 hero who’s best known for beating up Nazis, Captain America – The First Avenger essentially stops being a WW2 film. The Red Skull’s organisation Hydra is quickly distanced from the Nazi threat (with Schmidt intending on wiping out Hitler along with everyone else) and played more like generic Bond villains (complete with faceless henchmen) than the genuine evil of the Nazis; while, thanks to the Red Skull’s access to advanced Asgardian technology, the 1940s-set story is soon awash with laser cannons, disintegrations, and the kind of modern brushed-steel interior sets you’d normally get in recent blockbusters like G.I. Joe. It all climaxes with a expansive battle Bond-style final battle that owes a serious visual debt to The Spy Who Loved Me (and a brief one to Goldeneye), and the end result is a a film that spends half its time adoring 1940s style and storytelling, and the rest of it shrieking “We’re not making a period film! Honest!”
This is especially weird considering the end of the story, where Steve sacrifices himself to save America from destruction – an act that should represent the whole generation who were willing to sacrifice themselves to fight the Nazi threat, but doesn’t carry the power it should simply because the film’s been distancing itself from World War 2 with such determination. There’s also the simple problem that, stripped of the man-out-of-time aspect (which is being saved for The Avengers, and the planned Captain America sequels), we once again get a superhero origin story where the character’s emotional journey is essentially finished 2/3rds of the way through the movie. Thor wasn’t as consistent in terms of pacing, scale and execution, but it was far more engaging in terms of its central character’s emotional journey throughout the film, as well as in its fascinating multi-layered villain. Here, Hugo Weaving does everything he can to make the ludicrously evil Red Skull a charismatic (if two-dimensional) villain, but the conflict between the two characters isn’t strong enough to drive the remainder of the film, and eventually resolves with a head-spinningly bizarre sequence that’s as blatant a piece of “Well, we’ll be seeing him again” storytelling that Marvel have yet pulled off.
By the climax, everything’s in place and Steve Rogers is awake in the 21st Century, but it’s pulled off in a strangely paced sequence that feels more like the opening of the next Captain America story than the climax to this one. It leaves Captain America: The First Avenger feeling a little too much like a prologue, and not enough of a film in its own right, while it’s another Marvel film that once again has the whiff of corporate product about it – it’d certainly be interesting to see Marvel Studios take a couple of steps back and maybe allow a couple of their films more creative freedom rather than micro-managing projects to death. It’s a pity that the flaws in Captain America – The First Avenger mean it doesn’t quite stick in the memory, as it’s got a sense of fun and a lightness of touch that puts it well ahead of the grimmer recent superhero output, and trashes the hell out of misfires like Green Lantern. One thing, however, is for sure – after this nonsensical amount of build-up, Marvel had better have something really special with The Avengers, or there’s going to be trouble…
(A quick note about the much-vaunted post-credit teaser for The Avengers – it’s short. Really, really short. And so quickly edited that it’s mostly impossible to make out. I understand the importance of the slow reveal, but making people wait through the credits for a micro-tease like this isn’t the best intro to actual Avengers footage they could have done…)
The Verdict: Undemanding, lively and fun, Captain America – The First Avenger is a little too lightweight for a WW2-set superhero film, but charming performances and a fun visual style hold it together despite some weird storytelling choices and an uninteresting bad guy. Evans makes an excellent Marvel hero, though, and once The Avengers ride is over, a proper self-contained Captain America movie could be an enticing proposition…
The trailer deluge just keeps on coming, and here we have the first decent look at The Amazing Spider-Man, an upcoming superhero reboot that certainly qualifies as risky. In certain respects, I’m glad they’re rebooting the Spider-Man films – while I enjoyed them, the Raimi films never completely gelled with me, while the third film was an overcrowded and near-incoherent mess, and losing Tobey Maguire and (particularly) Kirsten Dunst didn’t strike me as problems. So, when the original plan for Spider-Man 4 collapsed (and considering that Raimi allegedly wanted John Malkovich as the Vulture, possibly this is a good thing) and Sony went for a full reboot, I was intrigued – especially when they suggested it was going to be much closer to the Ultimate Spider-Man incarnation of the mythos, keeping Peter Parker as a teenage highschooler. (For those not in the know, the ‘Ultimate’ Marvel universe was invented as a way to retell classic Marvel stories in a more contemporary way, although it’s evolved and now stands more as an ‘anything can happen’ alternate to the normal Marvel universe.)
When the director was announced – Marc Webb, a music video director who’s best known for helming offbeat romantic comedy drama 500 Days of Summer – I remained intrigued, especially since he wasn’t a natural choice for a big film, and his hiring definitely suggested they wanted a more modern, relationship-based take on the material. When the casting was announced I was intrigued (and also slightly perplexed when Emma Stone, who would have been absolutely perfect as redheaded Spider-Man girlfriend Mary Jane Watson, instead got cast as a different Spider-Man girlfriend, Gwen Stacey), and I knew the selection of Andrew Garfield in the lead role was definitely a good move even before I saw him in The Social Network. The one thing I was hoping, however, was that we wouldn’t get a full origin again – my fingers were crossed that maybe saner heads would prevail, and we’d get something along the lines of Marvel’s recent take on The Incredible Hulk – giving us the character’s origin in the opening credits, and then straight on with the story.
However, that’s exactly what we’re getting in The Amazing Spider-Man, as this trailer confirms, and while this is a nicely shot (and mostly relationship-heavy) teaser, which certainly looks much more modern and without the slight level of retro-cheese that Raimi added (which was, admittedly, trying to capture some of the tone of the original Stan Lee comics, if not always succesfully), it’s the origin. Again. Only a decade after we first got the origin. There’s a different villain (the less attention-grabbing Lizard aka Curt Conners, played here by Rhys Ifans), but a lot of this is going to play the same to the extent that it’s in danger of feeling more like a remake than a reboot. After all, Spider-Man doesn’t have the same wild variations in tone throughout his history that Batman did, meaning it isn’t as easy to do a stylistic shift like what happened between Batman and Robin and Batman Begins. That was a reboot that justified its existence thoroughly (whatever you thought of the resulting film), whereas this reboot is happening simply because (a) it’s Spidey!! In 3-D!!! and (b) Maguire and Raimi became too pricey (especially considering the mess of the third movie), and Sony need to keep making Spider-Man movies or the rights will switch back to Marvel Studios. Yes, I’m sure that the CG-heavy Spidey POV shot will look great in 3-D, and that Garfield will make an excellent Spider-Man, even if it’s going to be hard dismissing memories of him in The Social Network while watching. I’m also sure that Emma Stone will be much more engaging and less slappable than Dunst was as the female lead (although can anyone explain why, despite blonde being her natural hair colour, she looks so much better (and sexier) as a redhead?). Leaving aside the context, this is a pretty good teaser (and certainly more immediately exciting than the rather low-key, threadbare Dark Knight Rises trailer), and I’ll certainly be there to watch the film in 2012… but until then, they’re going to need to pull something fairly spectacular in order to convince me The Amazing Spider-Man has a better reason to exist than ‘Money, Money, Money’…
Well, those Team America comparisons certainly aren’t going anywhere. The latest Captain America – The First Avenger trailer has hit, and it still looks like (a) Marvel have done a pretty good job of making a pulpy action blockbuster, and (b) Chris Evans was absolutely the right man for the Captain America role. It’s been a relatively crowded superhero summer so far, and while Thor and X-Men: First Class have done good business, Green Lantern has certainly not been a critical success (for reasons I’ll go into once I do my upcoming review) while not quite performing to the level DC and Warners would have liked. However, I have a sneaky feeling that superhero fatigue hasn’t set in yet, and while this particular Captain America trailer features way too many cock-rock guitar chords for my liking, it’s also got enough engaging banter, action and Hugo Weaving being evil for me to have my fingers crossed. Plus, the fact that the 1940s Brooklyn scenes were filmed on location (with plenty of set dressing) in Manchester about a minute’s walk from my local comic shop is just the icing on the cake…
I have to admit – I’m slightly perplexed by exactly how much love the movie version of Iron Man got. Make no mistake, it’s a fun and frothy blockbuster, but I was surprised by exactly how bowled over people were, when Jon Favreau has never struck me as the most dynamic or exciting director (although I am currently keen to see how his upcoming movie Cowboys and Aliens turns out), and the original Iron Man was very much one of those superhero blockbusters that’s an effective origin story with an extra act of clunky action awkwardly welded on to the end.
I wasn’t entirely surprised when Iron Man 2 turned out to be a damp squib more concerned with trailing the upcoming 2012 Avengers project than actually telling a good story, giving us a rather lazy version of ‘more of the same’ instead of trying to deliver something new. However, there have been various behind-the-scenes rumblings that the Iron Man films have not exactly been smooth productions, with Marvel being rather hands-on and also being in the habit of starting to shoot without a fixed script. As a result, Jon Favreau has headed off to pastures new, and Marvel are looking at new directors to step into the chair for the obviously-going-to-happen Iron Man 3.
Amazingly, according to Deadline, we’re actually getting very close to Shane Black signing to direct the third Iron Man film. Black was one of the biggest screenwriters in Hollywood in the late Eighties, netting massive amounts of money for scripts like Lethal Weapon (and also achieving the rather bizarre notoriety of being the first soldier to be killed by the titular alien in John McTiernan’s macho classic Predator). His whip-smart style fell out of favour in the late Nineties, but he’s been making a slow but steady comeback for the last few years. His directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a flawed but wonderful noir comedy that features some dazzlingly brilliant dialogue, a hilarious turn from Val Kilmer as a gay private eye, and also – in a nice piece of synchronicity – gave Robert Downey Jr one of his best roles prior to embarking on major stardom in iron Man.
The fact that Black may be getting a gig this major is excellent news – the only thing that’s concerning is that, according to the Deadline article, there’s a question mark over whether or not Black is going to write the script. It’s interesting that Marvel are going for someone like Black, but he strikes me as the kind of writer who’s best when he’s let off the leash – it’d be extremely weird to hire him, and then impose the kind of creative control that throttled the life out of Iron Man 2. Marvel are still riding on the success of Iron Man, and the anticipation for The Avengers, but that isn’t going to last forever, and both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger are going to have to be extremely good if the plan’s going to work. I hope Black gets the chance to make Iron Man 3 – but I also hope that Marvel are sensible enough to let him subvert and change the formula, rather than forcing him to make yet another tale of Tony Stark being a bit of an arse, realising the error of his ways, and then fighting another bloke in a big metal suit…