Essays, Film

Marvel, Gatekeeping and the ‘Problem’ with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

There has been an interesting response to the dominant Avengers: Infinity War this weekend as it romped home to a record-beating opening weekend in the States, and a remarkable $600 million plus global take home.

Aside from the legion of critics, professional and amateur, who have all lined up on either side of whether the film is good or bad (and most reactions seem positive), the issue again seems to concern fandom. In this instance, whether Infinity War is for anyone who isn’t already a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A piece in The New Yorker has been widely circulated, with people criticising and defending an article which suggests Infinity War suffers for the fact it does nothing to ‘introduce’ the myriad amount of Marvel players to new audiences. Some are suggesting that it doesn’t have to, given its place as the first part of a finale to an ongoing saga—which I discuss more in my review—but some have on the other side of the fence suggested this kind of storytelling by Marvel Studios, and how the fandom have responded to it, is yet another form of ‘gatekeeping’.

That fandom are, once again, erecting a big ‘KEEP OUT’ sign and planting it firmly in the entrance of every cinema from Middlesbrough to Manhattan.

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Film, Reviews

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR is an ambitiously solemn superhero epic

Say what you like about Avengers: Infinity War but nobody can deny one thing: it is breaking new cinematic ground. For decades there have been sequels. For decades there have been franchises. For decades we have seen continuing universes on both the big and small screens, sometimes overlapping, develop characters and storylines. Marvel Studios differ in their approach.

This is the first time anyone has, over a ten-year period, created and structured a cinematic franchise in the narrative style of a ‘season’ of television.

This is something I have discussed when talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe before because it has cast a shadow over the mainstream cinematic landscape which is likely to stay for years, perhaps even decades, to come. Kevin Feige, producer supremo, has been the constant here; ever since 2008’s Iron Man turned Robert Downey. Jr from disgraced character actor into the biggest movie star in the world, Infinity War has been the goal.

While undoubtedly tides have changed, production realities have emerged, and details have altered, Marvel have been working to a decade-long plan to unite the Avengers against Thanos, the Mad Titan, and his plan to wipe out half the universe with the combined Infinity Stones.

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Comics, The X-Files

THE X-FILES: Case Files #1 – ‘Florida Man pt 1’ (Comic Review)

For 25 years, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully have been shining their flashlights into the shadows, searching for the truth. To celebrate this anniversary, IDW Publishing is launching a new series of The X-Files: Case Files! Under this banner, faithful fans will see the release of numerous micro-series, featuring stories that explore X-Files of the past and present by top talent from comics and prose!

In “Florida Man…” Scully and Mulder are sent to a small Florida town to investigate a rash of bizarre crimes only to find themselves in the clutches of an alligator-worshipping cult…

The recent history of The X-Files in comic form has been an interesting one, informed in many respects by the revival of the show on FOX over the last three years. The first part of Florida Man begins a new phase for IDW’s license of Chris Carter’s series called Case Files – an anthological approach to the adventures of Agents Mulder & Scully investigating the paranormal across America.

Joe Harris until last year had been carrying the torch for The X-Files under IDW, firstly with his originally-canonical ‘Seasons 10 and 11’, which picked up roughly from where second movie I Want to Believe left off, and later his own tie-in ongoing issue set within the continuity of the revival. His approach to The X-Files was frequently arcane, mythic and certainly in the ongoing issues set roughly during Season 10, highly political – indeed this caused his run on the series to draw criticism in certain quarters given how unashamedly anti-President Trump and the alt-right he was in his writing. While politics and The X-Files have always been key bedfellows, many wanted more of a streamlined take on Carter’s show. Case Files may well end up being what they wished for.

Delilah S. Dawson takes over for Florida Man, and as I understand it each Case Files story will be two-parts over two consecutive months and feature different guest writers and artists. Dawson immediately imbues The X-Files with a much different tone to Harris, or indeed the neo-mythological secret history of Denton J. Tipton’s tie-in JFK Disclosure last winter (Tipton, the stalwart behind IDW’s license, remains as editor), my reviews of which you can find here. Florida Man intentionally seems to take a lighter touch to the material. 

Set, again, around the time of Season 10 (if we take Season 11 to be around 2018 – the dates of these seasons are admittedly a bit uncertain), it features a recognisably middle-aged Mulder & Scully on what would be a fairly routine ‘monster of the week’ episode of the show, but Dawson doesn’t present a typical monster in this first part, and angles the piece as much on Mulder’s quirks about suffering in the Florida heat than she does unloading a great deal of supernatural paranormality.

For a first part, this is fairly standard comic-book set up. Dawson establishes a sense of place in the small town of Halpadalgi, deep in the Florida jungles, which has an unerring sense of community and population about it, at odds with the environment; the mystery of a local legend, the titular Florida Man linked to a number of disappearances, and a local sheriff who is quite recalcitrant at the FBI’s presence and seems ready to blame the mystery Scully, for once, has pushed for them to solve, on economic deprivation. 

This is where Dawson’s story adds a layer of modern commentary in a different manner to the pro-liberal rhetoric inside Harris’ run; by displaying the disparity between townsfolk in this Floridian microcosm, with a idyllic middle-class environment on the one side and an American trailer park slum on the other, Dawson manages to tap into the kind of underlying sociological ideas that many episodes of The X-Files were really about. That’s not to say this is entirely about class and culture – she layers in plenty of symbolic mysticism with the strange Egyptian painting Mulder buys, which clearly ties into what is really happening in this town, but the brew is all mixed together here.

That leads to a slight tonal uncertainty with Florida Man. At times you wonder if it’s edging towards a Darin Morgan-esque proof and then others it feels more in the vein of El Mundo Gira’s blend of economic social commentary and strange townsfolk. Dawson’s writing is strong in terms of nailing Mulder & Scully, both sounding like the characters we know and love (Mulder would totally suffer the quirks he does here, particularly middle-aged Mulder), and she constructs an intriguing mystery, but it lacks a little in terms of pace and incident. Elena Casagrande’s panels and Arianna Florean’s colours do manage to bring out the bright, hot Floridian atmosphere nicely along the way, plus there’s a great, retro variant cover by J.J. Lendl in the mix.

Case Files is an experiment for The X-Files and IDW Publishing, edging the franchise back more toward the Topps-style from the 1990’s, and while time will tell if the new approach is truly successful in the wake of a divisive (perhaps final) season of the show, Florida Man’s first part is a promising start.

★ ★ ★

WRITER: Delilah S. Dawson

ARTWORK: Elena Casagrande, Arianna Florean

PUBLISHER: IDW

Alias, Books

ALIAS: ‘Recruited’ (Book Review)

Though written after Alias aired, ABC launched a 12-book series of tie-in novels set before the pilot episode, Truth Be Told, which explore Sydney Bristow’s life before the series. I’ll be looking at them one by one as we move through exploring the series itself…

There are several reasons why developing a tie-in book series for Alias aimed at the young adult market makes a lot of sense. For a start, with Sydney Bristow, you have a defined heroine for, specifically, a female market who will find the struggles of a nineteen year old girl on the one hand being a dork around boys, and on the other obsessing whether she is capable enough to become a CIA super-spy, fairly relatable – which is precisely what author Lynn Mason puts her through in Recruited. Secondly, there is a very clear narrative black spot in the Alias backstory open for further exploration.

When we first meet Syd, in the Alias pilot episode Truth Be Told, she is a fully-fledged super-spy. She is still young, around her early-mid twenties, but we get the impression of a woman who has been working for SD-6 for quite some time. She’s travelled the world, fought bad guys. She has friends, a fiancee and is thinking of marriage. She has grown into a persona where she can become someone else at the drop of a hat. We will see the origin story of that on screen with the Rachel Gibson character in Season 5 much much later on, but Alias’ tale begins with Syd already there.

The conflict that drives her in the series, which the pilot establishes, is in learning SD-6 is, in reality, a sinister crime syndicate pretending to be the CIA. The show, therefore, skips Syd’s origin story.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×01 – ‘Truth Be Told’ (TV Review)

It is easy to forget, for all the subsequent success with the Mission Impossible, Star Trek and now Star Wars mega-franchises, that the pilot episode of ABC’s Alias remains one of the best things producing and show-running supremo J.J. Abrams has ever done. Truth Be Told is a blistering sixty five minute opening to a rare TV show – one which comes on the face of it fully packaged, fully formed, and with a confidence and spring in its step that belies its quiet, low-fi origins. There is more to this package, and how it was created however, than meets the eye.

Think back to 2001. Had anyone heard of Abrams at that point? He was established – a proven Hollywood screenwriter with credits such as Michael Bay’s Armageddon or Harrison Ford vehicle Regarding Henry, not to mention four seasons of teen drama Felicity as a show runner. Those movies were nonetheless famous for their stars and directors, not the glasses-wearing megamind of Abrams bashing away at the words, and Felicity was never particularly that big of a hit – I’m not sure it ever even aired in my native UK, and if it did it went largely unnoticed. Alias was the series which put Abrams, and most of his writing staff, on the map.

The first season of his spy drama races out the gate with fast-paced, stylish storytelling, which crucially never forgets to place character at the heart of every beat, every scene and every plot-twist. Truth Be Told is B-movie, pulp action with significant heart and soul.

That description could characterise Alias in general, in many ways. Abrams starts his story in media res, to quote the Latin; the narrative flashing-forward, introducing us to our protagonist Sydney Bristow, and our star Jennifer Garner, in a deadly situation – captured, speaking in Mandarin, already beaten up, and awaiting some kind of awful horror behind the door of the dingy room she is being held in.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×10: ‘Fire and Blood’ (TV Review)

The first season finale of Game of Thrones starts with the sight of blood, and ends in a vision of fire. Living up to its title, Fire and Blood sees the culmination of the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire on screen. The scene is set. The players have been introduced, at least the initial core who will carry through until the very final season – Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, Cersei Lannister, Jaime Lannister and Tyrion Lannister – and Game of Thrones has fully established itself as a TV phenomenon in the making.

What these final two episodes of the first season, both directed by Alan Taylor, establish is that Game of Thrones also will not cleve to a traditional TV narrative structure. Besides only running for ten episodes a season, a trend show runners David Benioff & D.B. Weiss would set off across the burgeoning range of cable networks and streaming services over the next decades, Game of Thrones’ final episodes of a season are always structured much like epilogues. Traditionally, the finale has been where the biggest shocks take place in television, where character’s fates are decided, and often cliffhanger endings (hence the colloquial TV term which slipped into popular-culture) which will be resolved in the premiere of the following season. 

This structure feels like a hold-over from continuing drama or soap opera, whereas Game of Thrones always, appropriately, structured its seasons like a novel. Fire and Blood ends where George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones ends, with the world established and the characters all heading down roads that will define them next season and beyond. Baelor contained the biggest jaw dropping moments – Ned Stark’s execution, the Battle of the Green Fork (even if we never saw it), the death of Khal Drogo – whereas Fire and Blood is about consolidating these points of no return and placing the chess pieces in this broad game in place for Season 2, and the show’s adaptation of Martin’s A Clash of Kings.

It is very much a prelude for the war to come.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×09: ‘Baelor’ (TV Review)

Numerous precedents are set by Game of Thrones with Baelor. It is the first episode to be directed by Alan Taylor, who would make his name as one of the key, signature directors of the first two seasons. It is the first penultimate episode of the series to establish the show’s unique narrative style of delivering a blockbuster climactic tale just before the season finale. And it is the episode which killed off not only the biggest name actor in the series, but the character everyone began watching Game of Thrones convinced was the protagonist. By now we knew Game of Thrones had its own set of rules. Baelor confirms it.

As I’ve discussed in my breakdowns of the previous episodes this season, Ned Stark has been heading for the chopping block since the moment he arrived in Kings Landing, and there has always been a sense in Sean Bean’s weight-of-the-world performance that Ned knew it. This was a noble character in a world without nobility, a feudal system which may ostensibly be ridden with stories of dashing, daring, brave heroes, but is shot through with a realistic, cynical modern day sensibility in George R.R. Martin’s world-building which often heaps scorn on the kind of characters who would try and live by rules of courtly, honourable behaviour.

Cersei Lannister told Ned just a few episodes that you either win at “the game” or you die, but Ned never really knew how to play that game at all. He was a character straight out of a different world, which was precisely the point; the moment he concedes he may have to start playing, not to win but rather to survive, his life is quite ceremoniously cut short. It’s just one of the stark (pun intended) ironies of Game of Thrones.

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Essays, The X-Files, TV

The X-Men Files: Disney, the future, and William

If you’re a fan of The X-Files, there’s a very good chance you’ve now seen how it ends. The eleventh season, at any rate. To suggest The X-Files has truly ended with any kind of assurance is to suggest maybe Santa won’t be back next Christmas. By now, and as I’ve discussed previously, The X-Files doesn’t end. It’s always going to be with us, somehow.

What is now interesting is the fallout from the Season 11 finale, My Struggle IV, and what people are starting to look at as being the continuation of The X-Files. As I stated in a previous piece, we are at a crossroads in terms of where Chris Carter takes his beloved half a century old property.

The season finale—which we’ll call it until Carter or anyone else confirms this iteration of the series is over—left Agents Mulder & Scully in the position where they can either pick up their work in some fashion and continue on, or walk away and begin a new life as the family unit millions of ‘shippers’ have always wanted them to be.

However, what is interesting in fan circles is not Mulder & Scully’s future, but that of their son William.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×08: ‘The Pointy End’ (TV Review)

One of the interesting aspects of You Win or You Die, which I failed to mention in my analysis of that episode, was how the children were completely eliminated from view, at least the younger children who will prove so crucial to the central narrative of Game of Thrones.

The Pointy End redresses this balance by re-framing the episode from the perspective of a future generation who will shape the future of Westeros, so it is perhaps quite appropriate this is the first script to be written by George R. R. Martin.

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Essays, Film

Ready Player God: Technology, Spirituality & Nostalgia in Modern Fiction

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s pop-culture busting novel Ready Player One has a more than overt reference to ‘God in the Machine’, a conceptual fusion of spirituality with near-future advancements in technology which suggests our models of worship are changing and evolving alongside how we interact with entertainment, media and the wider online world.

That phrase sounds a little similar to ‘God From the Machine’, better known as deus ex machina in fiction in the original Latin, which has emerged as a symbolic description over the years in narrative terms whereby the resolution of a plot comes at the hand of a character or object, equivalent in relative terms to a God, which quickly and unexpectedly solves the insoluble problem faced by the protagonists.

This doesn’t equate directly to Ready Player One, because the deus ex machina is coded into the very DNA of the entire concept behind that fictional world; James Halliday, the programmer and creator of the OASIS, developed a world he wanted to give back to the people once they found him, his soul essentially, deep inside the hidden corners of the machine.

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