Batman: White Knight by Sean Murphy – A Graphic Novel Review

I’ve read a lot of Batman stories in my day, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like Batman: White Knight.

Published under the DC: Black Label imprint aimed at more mature audiences, Batman: White Knight is a stand-alone collection that exists outside of regular Batman continuity.  Because of this, anything can happen.  Even so, for a book that is disconnected to the monthly Batman stories, it is oddly beholden to them as well as to the cartoons, video games, and movies.  More on that in a moment …

White Knight embraces a simple premise — What if Joker became good and Batman turned evil?  Now, the story is not quite that simple, but that’s the central concept.  Sean Murphy dives deeply into that idea while also exploring familial bonds, corrupt politics, abusive relationships, and mental health.  Like I said, this book distinctively examines content in a way that is unrivaled.

However, even though the story kept me guessing, certain aspects struck me as obviously recognizable.  For example, White Knight pays homage to the classic animated series, all of the Batman movies, the old live-action TV show, the comic books, and even the various Batman video games.  It’s as though parts of all of that happened in this Batman’s past, but in a way that we can’t fully understand.

Make no mistake, however, Murphy’s depiction of Batman and Joker, as well as their supporting cast, is what makes this book so enticing.  This is a Batman even more unhinged than in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.  This is a Joker unusually sane.  This is a Harley Quinn gloriously empowered.  This is a Commissioner Gordon realistically compromised.  This is a Gotham City genuinely broken by its atypical combination of criminals and vigilantes.  And though the book is gritty, it’s also not afraid to be bombastic.  Murphy offers an ending that seems like something out of The Fast and the Furious — and I mean that as a compliment.

Finally, Murphy is the writer and artist on this title, so I wanted to address his line work.  His Batman is feral, intimidating, and a force of nature.  Murphy tweaked the costume just a bit, but it’s his use of shadows and shading that really makes his panels pop.  Speaking of costumes, I love the slight alterations Murphy made to everyone’s look in this book.  You’ll know who’s who, don’t worry about that.  The changes he made were simultaneously appropriate and dynamic.

If you’re a Batman fan but feel like you’ve seen it all, give White Knight a chance.  It will strike you as extraordinary.

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Toy Story 4 – A Movie Review

Yesterday, I think you would have been justified to feel that Toy Story 4 is largely unnecessary.  After all, Toy Story 3 ended just about perfectly.

However, if you happened to watch the Toy Story Toons shorts, you know that Woody and the gang embarked upon a whole new set of adventures with young Bonnie.  These were five minute shorts, though, not a complete movie.  Could Disney and Pixar recreate the magic of the first three Toy Story movies after a nearly twenty-five year run?  Could they continue to hold our interest for two whole hours?

The answer is “yes.”  Most definitely.

Toy Story 4 is a fun, lighthearted adventure that wisely breaks convention with the first three films.

For example, there is no true villain in Toy Story 4, which I thought was really smart.  There are characters in opposition trying to achieve personal goals, but no one is truly “evil.”

Also, Toy Story 4 backed off of the emotional gut punches.  They tease a few of them, but then choose to play them for laughs.  Again, I found this decision very refreshing.

Adults will pick up on a story about finding purpose once you’ve raised your kids as well as the turmoil of finally living for yourself, but young children are unlikely to decipher all of that.  Kids will relate to the comforting power of toys, the way they help confront challenges, and how they ultimately serve as a coping mechanism when difficulty arrives.

Young and old will love new characters, especially Forky (perfectly voiced by Tony Hale).  Other new additions include Gabby Gabby played by Christina Hendricks, Ducky and Bunny given life by the hilarious Key and Peele, and an understated but lovable character called Duke Caboom, performed by Keanu Reeves.  (It’s taking every ounce of willpower not to go out and buy  a Duke Caboom toy right now.)  Annie Potts plays Bo Peep, who makes her triumphant return and is given a really cool, captivating story to explain her absence.

While Toy Story 4 didn’t have to be made, some very important developments occur that could open the door to future movies.  I’m not going to spoil anything, but I see great potential for some of these characters to spin off into their own adventures.  Perhaps not into the movies, but maybe through a certain streaming service arriving soon?

Toy Story 4 is a funny, enjoyable, appropriate movie for the entire family.  It’s not scary at all, there will be no tears, and you can look forward to some hearty laughs and charismatic new characters.

Like I said, Toy Story 4 didn’t have to be made, but I’m glad they made it.  I’ve enjoyed these characters for twenty-five years, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy them for twenty-five more.

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-FilesKindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1

Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray – A Book Review

Star Wars: Master & Apprentice is a new book written by Claudia Gray.  It features Qui-Gon Jinn and his relatively recently appointed Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  As you’ve probably guessed, it takes place before Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

I looked forward to reading this book for two reasons.  The first is that Qui-Gon Jinn is a fairly enigmatic figure in the Star Wars mythology.  I haven’t seen much of him in other books, graphic novels, cartoons, or movies.  I felt excited not only to learn more about him as a person, but to also examine his dynamic with Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The second reason is that I enjoy Cladia Gray’s Star Wars voice.  Her novel, Star Wars: Lost Stars, remains one of my all-time favorite Star Wars stories due not only to its unique characters but also because it connects seamlessly to major Star Wars events.  True, I didn’t find her two Princess Leia books as engaging, but I hoped Master & Apprentice would recapture the magic of Lost Stars.

Unfortunately, Master & Apprentice suffered the same fate as those other two Star Wars books featuring Princess Leia in that it gets far too bogged down in political complexities without any actual character growth or revelations occurring.

It started off on a good note.  Several references were made to Count Dooku which led us to believe he could make an appearance in this novel, especially because Dooku trained both Qui-Gon and a newly revealed Jedi named Rael Averross.  Rael is older than Qui-Gon, so it’s initially interesting to see that new side of Master Jinn.  There are also ample teases that Darth Maul could be working from the shadows.  This would make perfect sense as he’s later revealed to be the Phantom Menace.

Furthermore, early on in the book, Qui-Gon is invited to join the Jedi Council, which would mean he would have to relinquish his role as teacher to Obi-Wan.  Obi-Wan feels betrayed by this possibility, which further damages their already-strained relationship.  In this book, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon rarely see eye-to-eye on much of anything and are typically not on the same page.  I found this refreshing, though, to be honest, it is not especially innovative compared to other Master/Padawan duos that we’ve encountered.

So, as you can see, there is a great deal of rich character conflict available for exploration in Master & Apprentice.  Sadly, most of it falls by the wayside in favor of a political story pertaining to a child about to be named Queen and her connection to an intergalactic corporation hoping to gain control of a hyperspace corridor.

Frankly, I found the first two hundred pages of the novel a little uneventful.  Things started heating up for the last one hundred and thirty pages, but, in the end, nothing substantial happens to our favorite characters.  They are primed and ready for The Phantom Menace, but, other than improved communication skills, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are basically unchanged.

More often than not, this seems to be a theme in the Star Wars novels that I’ve read.  They delve far too much into political intrigue without any serious ramifications to the characters we care about.  Lost Stars proved special in that it created two brand new characters, made them important to us, mixed them in with major beats from the Star Wars movies, and then sent them through some serious character development.

Master & Apprentice had wonderful potential.  Acknowledging Dooku was really cool, but it went nowhere.  We really didn’t get that much of a better feel for Qui-Gon than we do in The Phantom Menace.  Obi-Wan is also virtually the same as he’s depicted in The Phantom Menace.  Rael seemed like an important addition, but even he remained unchanged by story’s end.  And those hints at Darth Maul?  Nothing came of them.  I hope that’s not a spoiler, but I don’t want you to be disappointed.

I really get the feeling that the authors of these books are being hamstrung by a corporate influence.  While they create complicated conflict, in the end, none of it really matters to the overall Star Wars story that we know and love.  Perhaps it’s just me, but if these books don’t somehow improve upon the characters or events that draw us to them, then what is the point of their existence?

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-FilesKindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1

X-Men: Dark Phoenix – A Movie Review

I just go out of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and I’ve got some good news for you – it’s not that bad!

Sure, that’s not a huge compliment, but, to be honest, I expected it to be terrible.  Why did I have such dire expectations?  First of all, the constant delays in release is never a good sign.  Furthermore, those delays were, in part, due to the Disney acquisition which makes Dark Phoenix something of a lame duck.  We all know Disney plans to reboot, recast, and generally redo the X-Men sometime in the near future, so Dark Phoenix had a little problem with making us care about it.  Finally, judging from the previews and posters, Dark Phoenix looked far too similar to the ironically titled X-Men: The Last Stand.  That was, for all intents and purposes, the Dark Phoenix story line mixed in with a lot of other … stuff.  In other words, we’ve basically seen this movie … sort of.

I’m happy to tell you that, really, there weren’t that many similarities to The Last Stand.  There are some, true, but those familiar beats are better fleshed out in Dark Phoenix than they were in The Last StandDark Phoenix is only concerned with the plight of Jean Grey.

Also, let’s face it: Dark Phoenix has star power.  Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain – these are big names!  Let’s not forget up-and-comers like Nicolaus Hout, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, and Kodi Smit-McPhee.  These are fun people to watch, and in the case of McAvoy and Fassbender, there is some serious acting being executed.

Dark Phoenix has very strong special effects as well.  We get to see Magneto perform some impressive feats, as well as Jean Grey.  Cyclops’ optic blasts have never looked better, nor have Nightcrawler’s “bamfs.”  Beast looks fantastic even if his movement still feels a little awkward.

Of course, Dark Phoenix has some issues.  The biggest issue is that, well, to a fairly large degree, we’ve already experienced the major themes of this movie.  Jean’s struggle with the Dark Phoenix was dealt with in The Last Stand, and while I think this movie did it better, it’s still well-covered territory.

Furthermore, Dark Phoenix didn’t seem all that interested in explaining much.  I know from my misspent youth that the cosmic energy that Jean absorbs is called “The Phoenix Force,” but the movie barely touches upon it at all and never calls it by name.  If I’m a casual movie goer, I have no idea what that’s all about.  Consequently, we’re given no reason for the arrival of the cosmic force at all – it just kind of made its way to Earth.  The movie also skipped a pretty important step in telling us why Jean Grey is the only entity capable of utilizing this cosmic energy.  They constantly talk about how “strong” she is, but that’s a pretty lazy cop out.

Jessica Chastain is a movie star, no doubt, but she was given very little to work with.  Look, I’ll watch Jessica act no matter what movie she’s in, but her character was about as thin as you can get.  There’s ample tropes and cliches regarding her motivation, but it doesn’t amount to much.

Speaking of character, is anyone else tired of sad Jean Grey?  Jean Grey is a wonderful, multi-dimensional character, but the movies can’t seem to get past this whole “Dark Phoenix” thing, which was a seminal moment for her character, to be sure, but not her only moment.  It seems as though no one can do anything on film with her other than depict her as a tortured spirit, crying most of the time, and always on the verge of losing control.  Jean Grey is so much more than that.  I wish Sophie Turner got to show us Jean Grey the teacher, the leader, and the heart of the X-Men.

Another note about character – I love what they did with Professor Xavier.  They really made him interesting in a way I haven’t seen before.  Everyone else, though?  Not so much.  Cyclops is just kind of there, likewise with Storm.  Magneto is still Magneto doing Magneto things.  Quicksilver is barely in this film at all, which is a real tragedy.  And I hate what they did with Nightcrawler.  Hate it.  He’s one of my favorite characters and they really dropped the ball with him.

Best moment?  A brief, ever so brief, blink and you’ll miss it moment featuring a certain X-Men favorite.  I’m not sure how many people will know her when they see her, but it was great.  It was true to her character, fun, and – like I said – brief.

If you’ve enjoyed McAvoy and Fassbender’s X-Men movies, go ahead and see this.  It’s not as good as the first two but better than Apocalypse.  I wouldn’t consider this a “must-see” movie, but it’s probably better than you expect.

Oh, and don’t bother sitting through the credits.  There’s nothing there.

One last word of warning.  If you’re taking kids to this thing, there is an F-bomb dropped near the ending.  It’s completely unnecessary, but it’s there.

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-FilesKindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1

Aladdin (2019) – A Movie Review

I’m 42 years old, so I was in high school when the original Aladdin debuted.  I enjoyed it, especially the Robin Williams performance, but I didn’t consider it a masterpiece nor do I to this day.  Fun?  Absolutely?  Great music?  You bet.  A holy artifact that should remain untouched for the rest of time?  No.  Absolutely not.

When I heard they were remaking a “live-action” version of the film, I thought, “Yeah, okay.  That’s pretty consistent with what Disney is doing now.”  When I discovered that they cast Will Smith as the genie … well, I thought that was an odd choice not just for the movie, but for Will Smith himself.

So let’s get the most important thing out of the way right now: my ten-year-old and seven-year-old daughters loved this version.  They’ve seen the original, but they both said that they like this one more.  Will they feel as strongly about it in ten years?  Who knows.  But, this is a kids’ movie made for kids, and both of my kids adored it.  Bam.  Mission successful.

From a more critical view, or maybe I should say from a cynical adult perspective, Aladdin (2019) isn’t perfect.  First of all, it’s about thirty minutes too long.  Two hours and ten minutes is just a bit too much for this genre.  I definitely found myself looking at my watch.  Also, the CGI in the movie is just … weird.  There are times when it doesn’t look good at all, particularly in regards to the genie.  CGI blue Will Smith … never quite looked right.  I know this sound ludicrous, but he always appeared kind of fake … realistically fake.  You know?  They included rippling muscles and pores in the skin, yet he never seemed to be anchored to his surroundings.

However, there is quite a bit to like about this movie.  First of all, no one can deny Will Smith’s movie stardom.  He’s always fun to watch.  Will Smith gets to be regular human Will Smith for quite a bit of the movie, and that’s when he really shined.  Also, Mena Massoud, who plays Aladdin, has undeniable charisma.  His eyes and smile light up the screen every time he appears, and he also has a really interesting speaking voice.  Finally, though she doesn’t have the magnetism of her costar, Naomi Scott (Jasmine) has a fantastic voice.  When she sings–watch out!  This actress has one of those voices that just grabs you.  I actually wish they’d given her several more musical numbers.

I feel totally comfortable recommending this as a family movie.  If you all want to go out together and enjoy a fun time, Aladdin (2019) is a fine choice.  The kids will enjoy it, the parents will find things to like about it, and then everyone will forget about it by the next day, and that’s okay.

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-FilesKindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1

 

Avengers: Endgame – A Spoiler-Free Movie Review

I solemnly vow not to spoil any plot points or revelations for you in this movie review.  I will only say this: it was worth the wait.

Avengers: Endgame exceeded my expectations.  Though it’s very, very long, it moves quickly, and there’s virtually no wasted time.  Every single minute of this movie counts.  It’s a big finale to a very big story, which necessitates quite a bit of time.

Furthermore, it gives you exactly what you want–even if you don’t know what you want.  Every single Marvel movie has led to this moment.  That’s not an exaggeration.  We’ve stuck with Marvel for 10 years now, and they reward our loyalty heartily.

You’ve seen some of the science of this movie in the commercials, and yes, it’s a little hokey and doesn’t hold up to much inspection, but the quantum realm element isn’t what this movie is about.  This movie is all about character.  Every character gets their due.  Every character has a moment.  Every character.

Endgame will send you on a roller-coaster of emotions.  There are many moments you’ll want to cheer out loud.  There are times you’ll laugh your butt off.  But there are some heartbreaking moments as well–moments that will absolutely make you cry.  I imagine that comes as no surprise.

In the end, Endgame satisfied.  No, it more than satisfied.  It drew this 10 year journey to an end while opening up new possibilities.  I honestly could not be happier with the execution of this film.71dXHCpZAXL._SL1051_.jpg

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Shazam! – A Movie Review

If you’re looking for a family-friendly entry to the cinematic DC universe, Shazam! is your ticket!  Lighthearted, funny, and full of positive messages, this film will appeal to kids and adults alike.

That being said, I didn’t think it was all that great.

Let me explain why.

First of all, I would like to say that Zachary Levi absolutely shined in Shazam!  Like Paul Rudd, there is something unarguably likable about this man, so he proved the perfect actor for the role.  Levi’s a big fella which made him more than capable of filling the hero’s boots, but he’s also got a playful side to him that allowed the audience to believe there’s a teenage boy  in there.

Furthermore, the children acting in this film were wonderful, too, especially the two leads, Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer.  These two young men were really fun to watch in action.  They also have a foster family other children, all of whom were distinct and entertaining in their own right.  The script and the actors did a nice job of keeping these young characters both charming and likable.

Lastly, I’ve got to rave about the costume.  When the still first came out, folks were bashing the Shazam costume.  Let me tell you — it looks great on film.  I think it may be my favorite super hero costume yet to grace the big screen.  It’s modern yet classic, streamlined yet flashy, warm yet very, very cool.  Much of the film takes place in the daylight, so you really get to see it in all its glory.  Whatever team created that costume should be proud.

However, I do have some issues with the film.

My biggest complaint is that you’ve already seen the best parts.  The didn’t save anything for the actual film — they gave you all the best stuff in the trailers.  The best lines, the best jokes, the best “wow” moments … you’ve seen them all already.  That really disappointed me.

Also, it took way too long for Zachary Levi to arrive.  The movie starts with a focus on the villain, and it’s a good twenty minutes before we even get to Shazam.  Once Levi appears things liven up quite a bit, but it took awhile to get there.

Finally, the resolution is pretty apparent early in the film.  You probably guessed this from the trailers, but the focus on family is a driving force of the plot.  This isn’t a bad thing–not at all–but it also didn’t offer much else.

In fact, that’s Shazam’s greatest misstep.  There are no goose-bump moments.  When Wonder Woman climbed out of that trench and charged the enemy — goose-bumps.  When Arthur Curry walked out of the waterfall in the Aquaman costume — goose-bumps.  When Superman and Batman stood toe to toe for the first time ever on film — many, many goose-bumps!  Shazam! didn’t have a moment like that.  Shazam’s journey in the film has been done hundreds of times before.

Of course, I don’t think I’m the target audience for this movie.  Shazam has always been aimed at kids.  What fourteen-year-old doesn’t fantasize about being a big, strong, independent adult?  I’m really excited to see what my students think of Shazam!  Will it appeal to their sensibilities more than mine?  We’ll see.  After all, the entire plot really revolves around two teenage boys along with their foster brothers and sisters.

If you’re looking for a fairly innocent family film, though, this could be for you.  There is a little bit of profanity, so be warned, and I’m told there is one violent moment that struck my friends as tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film.  Apparently, this occurred while I was in the bathroom.  I’d have no problem taking my ten-year-old to it, but I would probably keep my six-year-old out due to language and some scary monsters.

So while Zachary Levi is really fun to watch, and while there are some very funny moments, I’m afraid the best parts of Shazam! were already shown during the trailers.

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