“Batman vs. Superman” is Criminally Underrated

It’s one of the classic debates in comic book circles: if Batman and Superman got into a fight, who would walk away?

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Copyright belongs to DC Comics and Warner Bros.

A lot is being said about this new movie, and I won’t spoil the outcome, but the critics and “comic book authorities” are certainly losing. That’s because for reasons I cannot understand, they are hating on one of the greatest, most thrilling, best-balanced comic book movies in recent memory.
It’s a long movie, and requires an investment of time and attention. Come to think of it, maybe that’s enough reason for it to not “click” with the Twitter generation. (I doubt even the Lord of the Rings movies would be allowed to run for three hours to tell their own stories, if they were being made today) But the payoff and literally Earth-shattering developments are well worth it. The consequences of the almost-as-underrated Man of Steel are intelligently dealt with, and feed into this one’s storyline naturally. It plays its numerous elements like a rip-roaring symphony, to an effect that reminds us all what the word “epic” actually means.
Both Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) get the space they need to tell their stories, plus the villains and secondary characters get plenty of time to shine, so I don’t get why people are saying the movie and plot are underdeveloped. Frankly, it’s an absolute miracle this movie gets so much right, considering the fact that it crams in enough plot for three films. In addition to the two title characters, there is Wonder Woman (an undeniably awesome Gal Gadot), Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, providing the scariest and most deliciously unhinged take on Luthor since Kevin Spacey), Doomsday, and several others beside. If there was anything that didn’t quite work, it was the extra attention given to all the setup for the Justice League to come together. But that setup is still tantalizing and just plain cool, and I say that as someone who’s never read a Justice League comic.
There was always something fishy about the overreaction against Ben Affleck. Sure enough, he makes an entirely believable and human Bruce Wayne, a bitter man with all the trust burned out of him by two decades of fighting “freaks dressed like clowns,” who would be exactly the sort of man to assume the worst in Kal-El/Superman and take a stand against him. He is arguably one of the best incarnations of Batman ever put on screen.
For those who have groused about Superman not being the perfect Boy Scout of the Christopher Reeves movies: remember in Superman II when he gives up his responsibility of saving lives and defending Earth so he can sleep with Lois Lane? Not exactly the spotless paragon everyone talks about. Cavill makes perfect sense as a Superman who struggles with doubt, but is still trying to be an authentic hero in a world that has all but given up on morality, and often looks with suspicion on the exact people who have the courage and conviction to do what we all know to be morally right.
I have been given plenty of reason to distrust the critic community already, but quite honestly, this is also a reason to distrust the comic book crowd as a whole when it comes to appreciating a great story. They’ll love a comic book film just because it’s an exercise in snark and mean-spirited flippancy (exhibit A: Deadpool) and make fun of Ben Affleck for being disappointed at the negative response. It seems nothing else will be good enough for them.
Remember, this is three movies in one. But it works. Do yourself a favor and go see it, and don’t let all the parroted hatred toward this incredible film stand in your way.

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Double Review: The Never Prayer, and The Whitefire Crossing

On the Colorado writing scene, there are many fine talents and local stars. I have had the great privilege to read two of the books on that scene in recent months: The Never Prayer by Aaron Michael Ritchey, and The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer. Today, I finally get to review them for you.

In short, both novels are excellent, and I highly recommend them if they sound like your kind of books.

The Never Prayer by Aaron Michael Ritchey is a YA urban fantasy novel that hits harder than most in that genre. Teenager Lena’s parents died in the aftermath of a car crash, and she is trying to support her little brother in a small Colorado town that is facing hard times of its own. Lena is desperate to bring in money, even if it means being courier for some drugs at her high school. Things go from bad to worse when she winds up in a tug-of-war between a demon and a “fallen” angel as they try to influence humans, pushing them toward good or evil.

I liked how Ritchey keeps Lena’s head above water in terms of social status. She’s unique, and a lot of people feel sorry for her or don’t like her, but she’s not a complete outcast, and can adapt well enough to move through the various cliques of her school. He also does a terrific job at giving us reason after reason to care for Lena’s plight without turning her into a pitiful mess. She is simply trying as hard as possible to provide for what’s left of her family, and that makes her a character worth cheering on.

You also have to admire his willingness to admit that doing the right thing is often the most painful. There are consequences you may not want when you make the right choice, and he pulls no punches in having his characters glean that lesson. The book is kept intriguing along its journey, even when you realize the trajectory it’s taking, and it hit me with a strong ending I did not expect, but played fair with the rules Ritchey had established.

If there was a complaint I had, it’s a minor one. Lena seems very quick to accept that she’s part of a supernatural conflict. Even though the angel is revealed in a dramatic fashion right beforehand, most likely she would still have a harder time taking in the change of circumstances.  But that’s hardly anything but a nitpick, so don’t let it stop you from picking up a copy of Ritchey’s remarkable debut novel. This book is dark, thrilling, and thought-provoking, and I am more than happy to recommend it to you. I can’t wait to see what else Aaron has in store.

It can be a tricky situation if your freshman novel is an epic fantasy. Most of the time in that situation, an author succeeds by coasting on a few great strengths, but the book’s quality is dragged down through equally strong weaknesses (for example, you might get a book with great dialogue and worldbuilding, but its characters are flat and the storyline is confusing). And it’s easy to make the work derivative, giving regular readers of the genre very little reason to pay you any attention.

Thankfully, none of that is an issue with Courtney Schafer’s debut The Whitefire Crossing. This is a book I cannot recommend enough. Seriously, if you read fantasy books, please read this one. Pretty much every aspect of it sings with quality and dedication. The story is one that hooks you right from page one and keeps you invested through the next three hundred, the worldbuilding is excellent when it comes into play, and the characters are absolutely satisfying in their depth and choices.

The story has two viewpoint characters, equally captivating and relatable. First there’s Dev, a smuggler who takes magical charms from the city of Ninavel, across the Whitefire Mountains and into the country of Alathia. Mages rule Ninavel like sin rules Las Vegas, but in Alathia almost all magic is outlawed, so Dev finds steady work in “clandestine imports” of magical items. Only problem is, he’s been cheated out of his money, and he’s taking anything he can get to fulfill a friend’s dying wish. The second viewpoint character is Kiran, a mage who is desperate to hire Dev to smuggle him across the mountains and into Alathia, the one place in the world where Kiran can escape and hide from a vicious authority figure.

To call this an “adventure novel” might be downplaying the tough journey Dev and Kiran take together. They suffer through this story, and no decision is an easy one. Normally I don’t care for novels that are quite so ruthless toward their characters, but Whitefire was such an enrapturing, detailed, and fast-paced book I had to keep turning the pages.

One of the best strengths in this book is the magic system Schafer has set up. Based around simple or familiar things in fantasy magic, like blood, charms, runes, and metals, she constructs one of the most intelligently built magic systems you’re likely to find. For a worldbuilding nut like me, it’s a delight to see her lay out the rules of magic, usually in bite-sized chunks that don’t slow down or halt the story. She keeps things moving, and gives you a chance to learn a lot of her world along the way.

If I told you anymore, I’d probably risk contaminating the enjoyment and level of surprise that this book delivers. Schafer’s debut is a strong one, and she is certainly an author to watch in the coming years. Plus her sequel The Tainted City has just been released, and I can’t wait to get my copy to continue Dev and Kiran’s story.

“John Carter” Review, Part 1

Many people love to gripe, bemoan, scoff, whine, and otherwise complain about the state of Hollywood. And they have good reason. Superfluous reboots and unneeded sequels give the movie industry the vibe of a broken record, special effects and marketing campaigns repeatedly supplant great storytelling, and audiences are increasingly jaded and cynical.

Then there is the rare film that obliterates your pessimism. A diamond among the veins of common rock. A film that effortlessly draws you in and shows that all is not lost, a film that “gets it right” — you feel that the movie lived up to its full potential and deserves to be treasured. You sense that it will be a part of you until the day you die.

As far as I’m concerned, John Carter has accomplished that. I cannot remember the last time a movie captured my imagination so completely, or tugged so hard on my emotions, or left me with such an overpowering sense of triumph and optimism. True, it wasn’t very successful when it came out earlier this year. But neither were Firefly and Serenity. That Disney bungled the marketing and critics sneered at “another silly adventure film” shouldn’t matter. This film deserves to be given a chance.

You might know the story by now, but just in case: the movie is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars novels, works of pulp science fiction that have ignited the imaginations of just about everyone from Steven Spielberg and Frank Frazetta to Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. The film revolves around a Civil War veteran who avoids human contact and prospects for gold, to try and forget a heartbreaking tragedy in his past. When he encounters an otherworldly being inside a cave, he is accidentally transported to the planet Mars, finding other humans, tall aliens, and all manner of high-stakes adventures.

This is not only the Mars of Burroughs, but of Percival Lowell and H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury, the romanticized Mars everyone wishes we discovered in the space age, with elegant civilizations that cling to life on a dying planet. John Carter arrives as a fish out of water who becomes a hero to these people, in the process regaining his humanity and a cause to fight for.

When I finally got a chance to watch this film, I knew that it was something special. This isn’t just two hours of entertainment; it’s a blessing. Unpretentious, charming, full of genuine thrills and sympathetic characters, and timeless in the best way possible. Only Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings have had a similar effect on me. Having only read partway through Burroughs’s first novel (A Princess of Mars), I can’t yet say how it stacks up against the source material, but this is one movie I know will stick with me for the rest of my life.

“Alcatraz” – A Letter of Recommendation

I am about to go on an anti-rant, so forgive me if I sound like a hyper fanboy. That’s because I am one.

Once in a while, you find one of those television shows that is blessed with just the right casting, concept, and a whole lot of intrigue that glues you to the seat. More than that, the storytelling is so engaging that you reliably (and willingly) tune in every week.

What is it with J.J. Abrams and enigmatic islands? The show's still awesome, though.

For me, that show has been Alcatraz on Fox. After the decline of the (in my opinion) vastly underappreciated Terra Nova, this new show from J.J. Abrams might be just the thing for me to get my Fox sci-fi kicks. I hope and pray that it sticks around at least for another couple of seasons.

So, most of you have either watched the show at least once, or have seen its considerable hype. But just in case you didn’t, it involves the inmates and guards mysteriously vanishing from Alcatraz Island in 1963. The US government covers it up and fabricates stories of how everyone was transferred away from the prison due to unsafe living conditions. In the present day, the inmates are returning without having aged a day. As if this wasn’t odd enough, the time-traveling jailbirds seem quite comfortable in 2012, and go right back to committing the same crimes they were arrested for. The show follows government agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), tough-as-nails cop Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), and Dr. Diego Soto, an Alcatraz historian/comics store owner with two PhDs (Jorge Garcia – seriously, whoever created that character was a genius). The three of them simultaneously track down the inmates and piece together the growing mystery surrounding Alcatraz.

Where has this show been all my life? It has Dr. Alan Grant and Hurley from Lost, hunting down time-traveling killers from America’s most infamous prison. What’s not to love about that idea? They really did have me at “hello.”

And for the most part, the show totally works and lives up to the potential of that concept. What we have seen in the first season is part cop procedural, part science fiction, part mystery. We get a breakneck introduction to the major characters, blended with a hunt for the criminals as they trickle into the present day one by one, and substantial flashbacks to the prison’s heyday in the early ’60s. I won’t give too many details, to ruin the joy of experiencing Alcatraz. If you haven’t bothered seeing the show yet, please. Get off my blog. Go find it on Hulu or somewhere. Forget about me, and watch it. Now.

Of course, like any show still finding its sea legs, there are a few kinks. Rebecca is pretty much a one-dimensional cop, even though Jones plays the part very convincingly. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I just hope in the second season she will get more chances to grow and develop more of a personality. And sometimes the flashbacks to Alcatraz when it was still in use can be a little long, even if the situations and characters they show are utterly fascinating.

Overall, though, this is one show that has not even finished its first season, and already it has earned my loyalty. The storytelling is unique and generally fast-paced, Jorge Garcia and Sam Neill are always a delight to watch, and bit by bit the mystery is getting revealed. Unlike Lost. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that show too, but there were too many shocking “surprise!” moments that never got answered. As poignant as the finale was, I still wanted to know what was up with that freaking island.

In any case, Abrams has given us a strong series with tons of life, soul, and potential. Fox, please don’t cancel this one for a couple of years. The show is too good for that treatment. Besides, the opening music gives me chills every single time I hear it.