Summer is a-comin in, so loudly let off a few explosions as the first of this season’s superhero movies hits the cinemas with main force. Up to the end of 2011, there was a certain mechanical efficiency about the more recent adaptations of comic book characters or toys to the big screen. We would go through an introductory set-up and then would come the set-piece inserts. There are almost always car chases, guns are produced and manage to fire prodigious amounts of ammunition without having to pause for reloading, and there are increasingly loud explosions. This is great for those who have hearing difficulty because the fillings in their teeth vibrate to indicate just how loud some of these explosions are when replayed through the new generation of sound systems that pack decibels into the darkness of the auditorium. So, for example, conventional technology excitement comes with the Fast & Furious series, and science fiction gets its thrills from Transformers. This is not to deny these films deliver what we might call spectacle. Some of the special effects generated using CGI are remarkable to behold on a large screen. But as a generalisation, these are soulless vehicles. There are actors standing in front of green screens and in real locations, but their function is to explain the plot and justify the action. The scripts come with very little sparkle or individuality. Thanks to the focus group mentality of the larger studios, everything is aimed at the common denominator core of components that can be built into this season’s blockbuster success. For a while, this brought a steady stream of highly successful films in terms of box office takings. They were less successful in the eyes of those who prefer something slightly more idiosyncratic.
In the first outing, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) saw the light and decided his company should not be the largest arms manufacturer in the world. Technology should be used for more positive purposes. He therefore has to battle for his soul by fighting the older man running the company alongside him. As films go, it’s a little on the worthy side with our heroic actor allowed one or two moments of egocentric wit to show us he’s cut from a different cloth. Interestingly, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is also played relatively straight as the “love interest”. When we come to the second film, we’ve cleaned house and now face a business competitor who thinks he can get an edge by recruiting foreign talent. I found the relationship between Stark and Potts to be annoying and the fight at the end was overly long and repetitive, but it was still reasonably watchable.
In part thanks to the return of Shane Black to directing and joint scriptwriting, Iron Man 3 proves to be something of a revelation. This picks up after The Avengers where the alien invaders met their Waterloo. Now we’re back to more parochial affairs with the arrival of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fiendish terrorist who’s out to bring down the US with an escalating sequence of attacks. Also lurking in the undergrowth is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who’s been anonymously promoting his ideas through a think tank of increasing importance to the US government. Finally, we have the return of James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) who is Stark’s suit buddy.
I think the most important observation I can make about this film is how little time Stark spends in one of his suits. Indeed, in part, his latest technological developments have made him somewhat redundant. This frees the actor from having a fixed expression on his visor and lets the man behind the suit carry the action. The result is a more normal relationship with Pepper Pott and a rather pleasing relationship with Harley (Ty Simpkins), a young boy who may have some of Stark’s skills given only a monkey wrench and some high-sugar sweets to keep him hyper. Whatever it is he’s got, the broken suit seems to get repaired while in his possession. When it comes to the fight at the end, we also avoid the suit-on-suit battering contest which always grows tedious quickly and has a fight against humans with added firepower. Noticing the plant in the early scenes doesn’t quite prepare you for the extract applied to people. It’s a delightful fantasy touch.
I’m not sure everyone will understand all the humour. As a Brit, I found Ben Kingsley’s performance one of the best pieces of self-mockery I’ve seen in years. The accent and attitude when off-camera are wonderfully revealing if you understand British accents. Taken overall, this is one of the most amusing superhero films of recent years and, despite the presence of a callow youth in a key role, it manages to avoid all hints of sentimentality. This is a story about people and the suits are just tools. Indeed, they prove to be disposable tools when a choice has to be made between making the relationship with Pepper Pott work and making the machines work. Throughout, it’s Robert Downey Jr. who keeps the film moving. He remains one of the most charismatic and watchable people on screen. Separating him from the suit was one of the most intelligent decisions taken by the Marvel studio. I remember it happening in the animated series The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, episode 125 when the Avengers team are transported to the nine Realms of Asgard and Stark loses his suit. Surviving until he can find the resources to build another using uru-armour was much more interesting. A human struggling without the aid of technology is something that can give us all a greater vicarious thrill. So it is that I crown Iron Man 3 as clearly the best of the three in this series so far, and a difficult film for all the other blockbusters to beat later in the 2013 season.
It’s sometimes appropriate to explain my choice of films from the back catalogue. In this case, I’m motivated to look back for two reasons. The first is that I almost paid to see this when it did the circuit. Wherever possible, I go to see the films with my wife and am therefore constrained to avoid films that are, by her standards, gratuitously violent. The second reason is the news that a sequel is on its way. The trailer is already out and I was curious to see what I missed and thereby gain some insight into how well the sequel may fare. Kick-Ass (2010) is a beautifully subversive film about “superheroes”. I mean, if you think about it, there are all these millions of people around the world who read the comic books. They are dyed-in-the-wool fans of Superthis or Incrediblethat or Fantasticwho, yet no-one ever tries it in the real world. Ah well, that’s not actually true, is it? For a while, children used to jump off furniture pretending they could fly like Superman. Boy did they ever have a surprise coming to them when they woke up in hospital with broken limbs and concussion. Indeed, so serious did this problem become that television shows used to start off with a warning that no-one at home should attempt anything even vaguely heroic. It says a great deal about the gullibility of the young that such warnings should be deemed necessary. But back to this film (which does not have any warnings up front).
It’s making the point that most people are too afraid to intervene when they see criminals at work. Ask yourself honestly. If you were walking down a street and came across a mugging, would you remonstrate with the knife-wielding thief taking the cellphone from the wimp, or would you immediately turn around and walk the other way? Yes, self-preservation is one of these basic human instincts and no-one should think any differently unless they put on the uniform of a police officer or are authorised by the government to carry concealed weaponry of great power that can terminate anyone with extreme prejudice just by twitching a finger. Ah, wait, there’s the uniform thing. All superheroes have uniforms and not all of them have superpowers. Batman has gadgets, Green Arrow has a bow, Black Widow fights rather well with her bare hands, and so on. Police officers have their batons, tasers and guns. Even high school kids with no brains could put on a uniform and become a hero.
Yeh, like that’s ever going to happen!
So this kid, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) buys a uniform and practises not climbing tall buildings or jumping across the gap between those buildings. He knows the line between fantasy and the real world cannot easily be crossed. In his first outing to prevent the theft of a car, he also discovers a knife can deliver a painful wound to the stomach and that standing in the middle of the road can get you hospitalised when a car hits you. Some lessons have to be learned, but the aftermath of the injuries is quite a lot of metal reinforcing his bones and fairly extensive damage to his nerve endings so he doesn’t feel the pain (as much). When he comes out of hospital, one of the girls in school Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca) befriends him (and not for the obvious reason). This partially restores his self-confidence so, when he next takes on three experienced gang members, he’s like one of these punching bags with a round bottom. Every time he gets hit, he bounces back and whacks them with his batons. This being the cellphone camera era, ten or so innocent bystanders video this heroic losing performance. He’s still fundamentally incompetent as a fighter, but he’s become a star of the internet. He calls himself Kick-Ass.
In another part of town, a loving father, Damon Macready aka Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), teaches his daughter Mindy Macready aka Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), basic survival skills and a real life criminal, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), worries that someone is interfering with his business. His only problem is where to find good help because his henchpersons are not overendowed in the brain department. So here comes the crunch. This film is a very clever juxtaposition between real menace and innocent make-believe. Next to our hero, even local petty criminals are lethal. Step up the level and the drug syndicate kingpin and his henchpeople are serious criminals who let nothing stand in their way. They have bought police protection and, some years ago, they framed a young police officer, Damon Macready, as a drug dealer and had him locked up. He’s emerged as a Batmanlike vigilante and his sole purpose in life is to bring down the D’Amico gang. He and his daughter are coldblooded killers and are slowly working their way through the lower reaches of the criminal empire, eliminating dealers and taking their product and money. By accident, Kick-Ass finds himself caught between the two opposing forces (not counting the corrupt and not corrupt police officers). This is not the right place for a young boy to find himself. But the kingpin sends a message when he kills a Kick-Ass wannabe. Whether it’s the original idiot or a fannish impersonator, every Kick-Ass found on the streets is fair game. When Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the kingpin’s son, calls himself Red Mist and pretends to be a crime fighter to lure out Kick-Ass, life gets complicated.
This film very cleverly plays the superhero game with one important variation. The babygirl Mindy can kill almost everyone she meets. This breaks the usual convention because children are not supposed to be vicious killers (or to swear quite so fluently). Our wimpy hero must balance two competing fantasies: to bed the most desirable girl in the school and to live to enjoy the girl, something he’s likely to find challenging if he continues to act the part of Kick-Ass. So he tries to retire, but discovers that with no power comes the responsibility to make up for past mistakes. Matthew Vaughn who shares the scriptwriting with Jane Goldman has struck a very delicate balance between a comic book superhero film and straight satire. The result takes itself very seriously and is all the more enjoyable for not mocking or overtly sending up the genre conventions. Aaron Taylor-Johnson walks a fine line between incredible naïveté and a stubborn determination not to embarrass himself (too much). His performance holds the film together. Surprisingly, Nicholas Cage manages to be a sympathetic character, leaving it to Mark Strong to do the villain with considerable style. Kick-Ass is great fun which may suggest the sequel may be worth seeing even though Chloë Grace Moretz is all grown up now and the shock value of her role as Hit Girl is lost.
Some believe the world should never change. They are comfortable with the now as it is, doubting that innovation can ever really be an improvement. The alternative possibilities are never directly considered. Indeed, the possibility of change is disconcerting to such people and to be avoided wherever possible. In political terms, conservatism is inherently popular, preserving the traditional, maintaining stability, and promoting continuity. Yet, in some areas of human activity, the pace of change is embraced. So technology marketing convinces us that yesterday’s 3.6 was nothing more than a stepping stone to the terrifying power of 4.0 which can all be ours for only a few pounds/dollars more. We’re encouraged to throw away the old, and queue like androids to acquire the next i-prefixed gismo.
Ignoring the local folklore creatures, the modern notion of the vampire stems from The Vampyre by John Polidori. Since 1819, therefore, we’ve essentially been recycling the same trope of beings that feed on blood drawn from living creatures. In most cases, they return from the dead and exhibit other supernatural abilities including transformation into a bat or a mist form. The best exponents can also psychologically dominate their potential victims. So, whenever you see the magic word “vampires” or suitable images on jacket artwork, you know what you’re getting. The only variables are in the language and the way in which the vampirism is described, changing the market focus from forms suitable for children, addressing the teen market, and then delivering different adult plots depending on whether the vampires are straight or gay, self-reflective parasites or predatory killers.
We now come to Bite Me: Big Easy Nights by Marion G Harmon. Because he likes to keep his audience on their toes, this is the third book in the Wearing the Cape series, except it’s really 1.5, fitting between events described in Wearing the Cape and Villains Inc. More importantly, it focuses on Jacky Bouchard aka Artemis, a relatively minor character in the first two books, and gives her a leading role in this intermediate book. Obviously, we’re still in The Post-Event World, i.e. individuals can react to life-threatening events by spontaneously developing breakthrough superpowers. This is relatively rare but, when it occurs, the individual’s new abilities or powers reflect something psychologically important to them. For our immediate purposes, it skews the usual vampire “parenting” trope. In most traditional stories, the existing bloodsucker will descend on the flock, gorge until sated, and then throw the dry husk away. This is the rational predator at work. If a biter uplifts a bitee every time it feeds, that’s a lot of competition emerging onto the meat market. Suddenly, the sheep grow alarmed by their losses and take defensive measures. Worse, the original vampire may have to fight newbies to establish and maintain territorial rights over the flock. Only in rare cases does a vampire intentionally create another. Well, courtesy of Marion G Harmon, we have a different route. If you’re a passionate vampirephile, you can breakthrough into superpowers except, instead of being faster than a speeding bullet, you’re sprouting fangs and suddenly terrified of eating a garlic sauce with your fettuccine.
This is no more disconcerting to society than developing the power to manipulate one of the elements or fly. Any power in the wrong hands can be a danger to those in the immediate area. So, in principle, you can have good and bad superpowered individuals, plus the opportunistic swingers. Our heroine is a good vampire who’s sent to New Orleans to help police the local vampires. State laws prevent them from feeding on humans under the age of eighteen, so age verification at the doors of pubs and clubs used by vampires has to be reliable. Fairly quickly, she realises there’s a more serious problem developing as a vampire may have broken through with the power to create other vampires. Alternatively, a new drug is enabling a small percentage of the users who die to be reborn as vampires. No matter which cause proves correct, the idea there may soon be a plague of vampires is something up with which society will not put. So Jacky, a local police officer with only a semi-controllable hairstyle, a member of the Catholic Inquisition, and a granny with a powerful mojo, take the side of righteousness and set out to save New Orleans, if not the world, from being overrun by an army of powerful predators.
The most pleasing aspect of this book is the rigorous way in which the author explores the new world. For example, who would have thought there could be such significant advantages to a vampire like Jacky when she goes breaking and entering. His analysis of the relative strengths of security systems including motion and heat sensors is great fun. Home security would need a whole new upgrade if vampires were real. The only minor problem is a slight straining of credibility in our heroine’s apparent lack of understanding of the relative strength and weakness of vampires. Speaking hypothetically, if I was suddenly to become a vampire, I would immediately begin a series of tests to discover exactly what my limits were. I would also seek expert advice from as many people as possible. After a few weeks, it would be very difficult to take me by surprise. While working with the Capes, Artemis has had many opportunities to talk with the leading experts in the field. Yet this book shows Jacky still relatively unprepared for taking on her own kind in New Orleans (although she does learn fast).
Bite Me: Big Easy Nights shows Marion G Harmon maturing as an author. This is an assured performance, nicely balancing interesting ideas against the need to propel the plot forward. More importantly, he’s also pushing the vampire trope into slightly less familiar territory. The blend of superhero and supernatural conventions is far more successful here than in the mass of urban fantasy novels which mix different types of being together and let them fight it out. You could read this as a standalone but, as is always the case in a series, it would be a richer experience if you’d read Wearing the Cape. So no more conservatism. Forget 1819. Rapidly accelerate past 1.0 and 2.0 and embrace the terrifying power of 1.5!
A copy of this ebook was sent to me for review and you can buy it on Amazon by clicking here.
The question on the lips of every major studio executive with decision-making power over the projects that may be slated for release as a “summer blockbuster” is: what makes a good summer blockbuster? I guess, if you could put the magic formula in a bottle, those executives would batter down your door with wads of money to buy the bottle. It’s one of the great unexplained mysteries of modern society. Some films fit the bill, drawing crowds like bees to a honeypot. Others lie like rotting corpses and even the flies stay away. At one level, you could view the phenomenon as simple bean counting. The films that race to a billion dollars are the blockbusters regardless of their genre. They may be as exciting as toys coming to life or schoolboy wizards fighting to the death. This is a not unfair measure because, if the film really does a massive gross take, it must have mass market appeal. Yet there have been films launched as the next blockbuster only to be major commercial flops. They may have appeared to have all the right fast-paced action to qualify, but lack the magic ingredient to give them the appeal across the widest possible market. What makes this all the more fascinating is that, more often than not, the US market now delivers significantly less to the gross than the rest of the world. Take Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides as an example. At the time of writing, this has earned $1,032.8 million worldwide, but only 23.1% was box office in the US. That’s right: 76.9% of the revenue came from us folk living overseas! This has profound implications for the nature of a blockbuster. The script, casting and anything intended to catch the market must now reflect world taste (including the product placements). Hollywood on its own can no longer cut the mustard.
This has been a year of alleged plenty with major studios lining up films, drumming out the loud message that each one was going to be the next “big one”. For me, this list has included some reasonably enjoyable efforts, but until Captain America: The First Avenger came along, I’d not felt I’d seen a blockbuster. Yes, I was thinking as I walked into the cinema, yet another Marvel Comics superhero brought to the screen. All this effort just so we can get to the first of what the studio intends to be the next big franchise: The Avengers — a group of superheroes hunting as a pack. And this is another grey-haired effort with our patriotic hero kicking off into action way back in 1941. What on Earth can a modern film make of a superhero fighting the Nazis in WWII?
Well, unlike Inglorious Basterds which went sideways into an alternative history so that Brad Pitt could win the war for the Allies, Captain America: The First Avenger makes it clear we are fighting Hydra which, for these purposes, is an organisation born out of the Nazi obsession with occultism, even prepared to bomb Berlin if it becomes necessary to achieve world domination. The leader of this Norse-inspired cult is the Red Skull or Johann Schmidt (poor Hugo Weaving, continuing his performances through layers of prosthetic make-up, from behind a mask or as a transforming truck) who was enhanced in an early experiment by Dr Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). This all leaves us with a series of actions fought alongside the conventional war against the Nazis. So we telescope geography to move us effortless around Europe and have major scientific advances courtesy of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) on our side and Dr Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) for the other team.
At this point, I could say the entire project collapsed under its own weight as ponderous backstory and over-the-top CGI hit the screen. Except it doesn’t. It’s saved by three major elements. The script, the performances and the humour. For once, this avoids feeling like an artificial origin story. It has the same, more naturalistic feel that the first Nolan Batman had. It grows reasonably organically. Now we come to the script from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. This could have been “Captain America” as the worst of US chauvinism, yet the writers have elected to show him as a diffident man, rather gentle and certainly not in the rather triumphal spirit of US imperialism that would have killed its box-office appeal abroad. Indeed, as if to prove the point, the US government first elects to use him to pimp War Bonds. There’s no greater indignity to heap upon a superhero than to dress him in tights, have him prance in front of dancing girls, and shill for money. Even when he does start fighting for real, he remains a rather modest gentleman, content to take on a school bully and do no more harm than is strictly necessary to set the world to rights.
Secondly, the cast. Chris Evans as the titular Captain Steve Rogers is wonderfully reduced in size. Indeed, at one point sitting in the back seat of a car beside Hayley Atwell as the perky Brit agent Peggy Carter, I think the special effects team rather overdid the shrinking man bit. At other times, he really did look as if he would benefit from eating your last sandwich to bulk him out a little. Once enhanced, he’s taller. Fortunately Evans is able to put the awfulness of Johnny Storm behind him and deliver a performance of real sincerity. Tommy Lee Jones is intentionally hilarious as Colonel Chester Phillips which leads me to the third point. The entire cast looked as if they were enjoying themselves on the set. The chemistry between Chris Evans, Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones sets the trend of laugh-out-loud moments throughout. It significantly enhanced the packed cinema’s enjoyment of the film, avoiding the problems afflicting Thor which took itself far too seriously. All credit to Joe Johnston who directs with a sure, light touch emphasising the absurd with a series of knowing winks. The quality of the cast is also in its depth with seasoned pros turning up in the supporting roles — like Neal McDonough hiding behind an enormous moustache as Dum Dum Dougan. To complete your enjoyment, all you have to do is ignore the incompetence of the Hydra minions who couldn’t fight their way out of a soggy paper bag. Their inept reliance on superweaponry gets a little monotonous towards the end.
That said, Captain America: The First Avenger is quite simply the best of the summer blockbusters so far. For those who want uncomplicated fun while watching a story told well, you can’t improve on this.
This film has been shortlisted for the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation 2011 and for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation — Long.
I’ve previously encountered Carrie Vaughn in shorter form, the example most relevant to this review being “Rooftops” which appeared in Songs of Love and Death. I’d enjoyed the writing style so was interested to see how she would stand up at novel length.
After the Golden Age is a book written about the perils of parenting. Even parents of “ordinary” ability can have such high hopes and expectations for their children that they wreck the childhood experience. We’ve all seen parents pressuring their children to excel. It doesn’t matter whether it’s grooming for academic achievement, sporting invincibility or, even, success as the next “idol” singer, dancer or other performer. The reality is grinding additional tuition or training with a stick and carrot system of encouragement. For those children who do show talent, the support they receive can maximise their inherent abilities. But no matter how much parents drive their children, nothing can make a genius out of a sow’s ear (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor). If the children “don’t got it”, all the parents do is make a Hell for the children to go through.
This is likely to be worse if the parents have demonstrated excellence in their own fields. Suppose two great tennis stars marry, but their child proves incapable of hitting any size of ball with any type of sporting weapon. The sporting community and fans will shake their collective heads and wonder what went wrong. After all, selective breeding based on pedigree works for racehorses. So they mutter among themselves. Here comes the child of X and Y. How come (s)he can’t play tennis? When the child sees the disappointment in the majority’s eyes, this makes the failure all the worse. How can any child develop self-respect when none around her actually respect her? Children are cruel enough to each other without the adults joining in as well. Within the family, she may want to love her parents but, if she cannot remember a time when her father actually appreciated anything she did. . . if her best was only second place in a local swimming competition. . . why should she even bother to try?
So meet Celia West who has the misfortune to be the only daughter of two superheroes, and born without any super abilities. As would any teen, she rebels. She joins the team of the supervillain but, ironically, because she has no useful talents, he only keeps her around to annoy her parents. Thus she’s saved from true criminality by her own incompetence. Recovering from this terrible humiliation, she leaves home and, after one major brush with superpowers, eventually qualifies as a forensic accountant. Fortunately, she’s developed an interest in detail. Just as in real life, she can tend to see through masks, so she can see through the surface reality of figures and facts on a page to the greater reality beneath. Although the DA’s motives are less than pure when he asks her to work on a case, she’s soon involved in a major prosecution. The plan is to treat the supervillain as Capone and jail him for tax evasion. Notice the obvious conflict of interest. Having been this villain’s henchwoman, there will be questions asked as to her motives. Perhaps she wants revenge. Perhaps she will pull her punches because she still loves the villain — yes, there will be those who believe she and the villain slept together.
So off we go on a caper where masked superheroes of various hues fight for truth, justice and whatever way works best when someone’s shooting at you. When Celia West’s name is blackened following her appearance as a witness in the trial, she has no choice. She becomes the unmasked vigilante crime-fighting ex-accountant — well, she gets to keep her qualification, but you get the idea. This is a marvellous romp, taking the basic premise and expanding it with an affectionate eye for credible detail. So often an author starts off with a good idea and then goes a little wild, allowing imagination to stray too far from the world we all know. Carrie Vaughn carefully avoids the trap and, although we’re dealing with people, some of whom have superhuman abilities, the real focus of interest is on the performance of those who are merely humans doing their best.
I read After the Golden Age in a single sitting. The writing style is simple and elegant, irresistibly drawing you through to the end of what is, by any standards, a particularly pleasing plot. More generally, and insofar as I am competent to make the recommendation, this is the book every parent should read before starting on Doctor Spock’s Baby and Child Care. Too often, parents are disheartened by their children’s performance and fail to give them the affection and encouragement they need to make the best of what abilities they have. All individuals should be valued for who they are, not judged according to what others think they should be. This is not to say After the Golden Age is a message book, full of worthy tips. Far from it. Because it involves superpowers, it’s enjoyable science fiction if not fantasy. But there are life lessons to be drawn from every source, no matter how unlikely.
This book was sent to me for review.
Words is funny things and to a Brit whose old bones have washed up on a foreign shore, it’s always interesting to find my vocabulary increasing. Since Wearing the Cape is a first-person narrative, I now know teen American girls use words like “woogy” and “nuggying”. OK so that’s an unfair early comment because it might suggest this book is YA and pitched at readers who nuggy each other every other Tuesday when there’s an “r” in the month. But, actually, it points to an interesting truth about the language used. It swings quite violently from thoughts appropriate to a bimbo to highly sophisticated thinking a sufficient number of grades above bimbo to qualify the thinker as a superhero. Indeed, one of the fascinations of reading this book is to watch the usages and grammar switch from simple and elegant, to complex and academic. Put another way, Marion G Harmon has had fun writing this. There’s some sly humour at work as Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials becomes Barlow’s Guide to Superhumans, and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall becomes Charles Gibbons, The New Heroic Age. And, yes, some moments made me smile. Harmon is prepared to bushwhack the reader with a nice turn of phrase every now and then.
So this is a coming-of-age, rite-of-passage frame that’s rather dismantled as our young heroine suddenly “comes out” of her wrecked car as a superhero — staying straight, of course and not suddenly embracing homosexuality. Left at this level, it would have simply shown how she learns to control her powers and does good stuff for the benefit of humanity. But this adopts the strategy of Tim Kring’s TV series Heroes as there are multiple hero “types” including one with the ability to travel in time. Ah, time travel, that bear pit of lost ventures as mere mortals wrestle with paradox and learn all there is to know about predestination. So key events in this book are shaped by surveys of the future suggesting there are “dangers” to be avoided. No surprise there and, not unnaturally, our heroine is at the heart of the struggle to keep the world on the straight and narrow path, avoiding as much destruction to life as possible.
A part of the test of a good science fiction book is the willingness of the author to work through the logic of the situation, picking up the details and fitting them together into the jigsaw of the world he’s created. In this case, we have an unexplained worldwide “event”. Many die but one of the more hopeful consequences is that a few people develop superhuman powers. So some are literally quick off the mark and start using these powers for good, rescuing people from the wreckage, while others go out and rob the nearest bank. This immediately raises the question of what you do about the superpowered with criminal tendencies. The idea of an Elizabeth Arkham Asylum is good enough for human villains in other contexts, but superhuman villains. . . Well, they need to be taught a lesson and if that means a few must die, that’s all part of the deterrent function of policing.
This is the turning point in the novel and marks a change in tone that elevates all this from the routine as the author demonstrates an increasingly unsentimental view of the world he’s created. In so many contemporary novels, we must see everything pass through a period of uncertainty only for us to emerge into sunshine at the end. This seems to reflect a modern entertainment convention that focus groups must approve the work before release to the public. Should these groups disapprove, key scenes in the film or television show will be reshot, passages in the book will be rewritten. This is creativity by committee, everything conforming to whatever these randomly selected groups assert represents the majority’s sensibilities. Supposedly, this consultation process produces work likely to sell in numbers to the target niche rather than common denominator pap — your chance to express an opinion. Although I don’t think Harmon goes far enough towards the edginess that would make this a great novel, there’s some darkness in this tale of superheroes. He has the book going in the right direction.
So is Wearing the Cape great literature? Sadly, no. Does it have the most original plot of all time? Again, no. But it’s got a lot of heart, rearranging some fairly standard superhero tropes into new patterns that make it a genuinely entertaining read. Sure, it’s unpretentious but all the better for it. So, all in all, this is a very good value ebook, available in a Kindle edition for download to a reader like you. For the next books in the series, see Villains Inc and Bite Me: Big Easy Nights.
A copy of this ebook was sent to me for review.
I suppose it was faintly perverse of me to go and see Iron Man 2 since I had not stirred from the house to see the first outing. But everyone was speaking so highly of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. Well, how could I refuse.
The good news is that there are two genuinely outstanding performances. The first belongs to Robert Downey Jr., the other to Mickey Rourke who makes a wonderfully monosyllabic Russian villain (with the parrot to keep him company). If the film had been built around them, it would have been wonderful. Unfortunately, comic-based films come with a weight of expectation from fans who want elements from the original sources included. They line up geekishly and complain if this does or does not happen. This inevitably leads to a dilution of the film in hand. What could have been a tightly focused dance of violent confrontation between two driven men, becomes a fundamentally unbalanced narrative with multiple redundancies built in (presumably to enable a sequel).
So let’s get the bad news out of the way. The banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts drove me nuts. If that’s supposed to represent a comic element, it failed miserably. Stark is hugely enjoyable on his own as he preens so orgiastically, holding the screen and playing beautifully off minor characters like Shandling’s Senator. Don Cheadle is virtually invisible and cannot by any standards command a buddy or sidekick status. It’s a mechanical performance (as befits a film about things prosthetic and robotic) and genuinely dull. But the real dud is Sam Rockwell. What were they thinking? This is supposedly the CEO of one of America’s top armament manufacturers yet, literally, the man is an accident waiting to happen. It’s totally inconceivable that such a man could ever be the leader of a major company. The only explanation is that, while Stark is morbidly drinking himself into the ground in anticipation of his death, the Hammer character is supposed to become the comic relief. Well, is that ever a lead balloon. He has no apparent technical expertise. There’s no sign of any leadership ability. Worse, there’s no real sign of even basic self-defensive foresight. He spirits our Russian villain out of jail and gives him the unsupervised free run of his workshops to build killer drones. I know this has to happen for the plot to work, but this abandonment of intelligence is fundamentally disappointing.
Scarlett Johansson is also a dea ex machina (a goddess who doesn’t get into a metal suit) whose fight is shot in a way designed to conceal the fact she probably couldn’t punch her way out of a wet paper bag. Of all the more recent female supposed martial arts experts, she is the least convincing. Worse, she can break through Vanko’s hack to release Cheadle’s Iron Buddy, but can do nothing online to prevent the rest of Vanko’s drones from continuing to fight. Now is that ever a convenient plot hole!
Which brings me to the big fight at the end. The length of time flying around to thin out the drones is boring. It would have been far more satisfying to have, say, ten opponents and for the one-and-a-half heroes to face the challenge of getting them all lined up for Stark’s one-shot coup de grâce. And what has happened to the laws of physics? Long ago, there was an infomercial on British TV designed to persuade divers and their passengers to use seat belts. It showed someone putting an egg inside a box and then shaking it. Every time, the egg was broken. How can the suits take such punishment and not reduce the men inside to an omelette laced with the occasional feather and beak?
All of which might suggest I was not entertained yet, improbably, I was. The first part of the film is wonderful as we watch Stark fend off the Government’s attempts to nationalise his offensive/defensive capabilities while waiting for Vanko to complete the development of his father’s designs. Everything works really well until Stark gives up. All the central section of the film is treading water as Vanko quietly improves on Hammer’s technology and, following Nick Fury’s prompting, Stark does his superscience thing and invents a new element using what appears to be a hastily thrown together version of the particle accelerator at CERN. I was then re-engaged by the fight once everyone was back on the ground. The mandatory ending with Fury pointing to the possible sequel with the Avengers was adequate. Overall, the performances of Downey and Rourke kept the film going with just enough humour to make me stay in my seat when the going got tough.
This was better than the average comic book film which isn’t saying much, but it represents half a very good film. For my reviews of allied Marvel Comic films, see:
Iron Man 3