The Old Guard Review

The latest sci-fi offering from the film division of streaming behemoth Netflix is equal parts engrossing and expertly assembled.

If your expectations for The Old Guard do not extend beyond yet another middling Friday night B-movie offering from Netflix then think twice – director Gina Prince-Bythewood hasn’t just broken the mould, she has smashed through it with aplomb. Based on the much-loved Image Comics series penned by Greg Rucka, The Old Guard is about a group of immortal mercenaries who have done their best to make the world a better place throughout history. Now in the present day, the first new immortal warrior in two centuries has unlocked her abilities and the CEO of a pharmaceutical company is hell-bent on obtaining their DNA in order to give modern medicine the kickstart it needs to become future medicine. With so many spinning plates in this film there is certainly a lot to unpack and not a lot of time to do it.

Yet somehow during the span of a two-hour blockbuster enough nuance and character development is packed-in to make this the most emotional sci-fi action thriller to grace our screens in a long time.

The crew as they originally appeared in print

This is thanks to Prince-Bythewood’s expert handling of the impressive cast that has been assembled in front of her, as well as the heroic efforts of fight coordinator Daniel Hernandez and the tight screenplay provided by original writer Greg Rucka. All of these elements come together beautifully to give us a film which dedicates appropriate time to each character, allows them to gel onscreen as a unit, and contains some of the best fight choreography in recent years which does not need to rely on quick cuts to hide its shortcomings.

The particular strain of immortality which flows through the veins of our protagonists is akin to that of Wolverine’s abilities from the Marvel universe. Damage can be done to their bodies and kill them temporarily, however moments or minutes later they will recover and heal their wounds in suitably grotesque fashion. Putting a twist on the concept which prevents the stakes from being removed altogether is the drawback of this immortality eventually expiring. This is shown to have happened to other immortals within the history of this fictional world, and it is now happening to Andromache ‘Andy’ of Scythia, perfectly portrayed by Charlize Theron.

Andy sure does love that handheld weapon of mass destruction

At the beginning of the film Andy is cold and distant, having grown weary over the centuries of helping mankind and seeing the world still be a hive of villainy. She is then drawn back into the fold by the lure of a humanitarian crisis offered up to her by CIA agent Copley, the impressive Chiwetel Ejiofar. This is revealed to be a trap set to capture the group, which then goes awry as we get a violent glimpse of what they are capable of.

From the very beginning the film is at full throttle, and within ten minutes the concept has been explained, the premise is clear, a taste of the action has been provided, and the audience is ready to enjoy the next two hours of their evening. But make no mistake, seeing the damage that these characters can sustain and inflict is not the only allure of this film – the characters themselves are equally enticing. Andy herself is the cautionary tale, showing what happens when years have gone by and eventually humanity means little to you after closing yourself off from it. Booker shows that watching your children grow old and sick while you are still eternally youthful takes its toll, and sometimes you wish that it would all just end. Joe and Nicky embody the benefits of immortality after finding each other, and an impassioned speech by Joe in the face of danger conveys their love beautifully. Finally, Nile is the eyes through which we see the film as adjusting to this new life is both scary and exciting, before realising that you will outlive your family and friends.

Joe, Booker, Andy, Nicky, and Nile. Not quite The Famous Five, but close enough

That being said, there are some drawbacks to this film. While the fight choreography is stunning and a sight to behold, it has a habit of sometimes being accompanied by a jarring soundtrack which tends to ruin the moment. These odd musical choices also make their way into other scenes, which unfortunately distract the audience rather than set the mood. Additionally, the villain who is hounding our gang of warriors is rather unconvincingly played by Harry Melling, who does not quite suit the role he has been given although he does put in a good performance like everyone else in the cast. There are also a couple of head-scratching moments throughout the film, such as the gang’s aversion to wearing any sort of body armour or protection. Yes, they can heal from their wounds, but it has been shown that they are still easily incapacitated by live ammunition. Wearing protective gear would surely help rather than hinder them, and its absence seems like an excuse to show off yet again just how badass they are.

Nevertheless, these gripes are minor in comparison to the triumphs celebrated by the rest of the cast and crew and can be overlooked in the moment. It is only really upon reflection that they stick out and prevent this film from being a flawless blockbuster.

Merrick isn’t quite as intimidating as a gang of immortal mercenaries

The Old Guard manages to make its audience feel both compassion and exhilaration as its narrative balances both gory violence and heart-wrenching trauma. Although headlined by Charlize Theron and Chiwetel Ejiofar, the rest of the cast all rise to the challenge and come together effortlessly, making this an impressive ensemble action thriller which is certainly not expendable. With a satisfying conclusion and sequel-tease before the credits, The Old Guard will hopefully become The New Franchise to rave about.

Final Score: 9/10

Doom Patrol: Weight of the Worlds Mini-Series Review

Seven months since its penultimate issue and a cancellation courtesy of DC, the latest Doom Patrol offering from the Young Animal imprint finally delivers a satisfying conclusion.

While unfortunate that fans of the characters had to wait so long for the final issue of this forcefully limited run, it could not have been more timely. Debuting its premiere issue a mere two months after the end of the critically-successful Season One of Doom Patrol on the DC Universe streaming service, this final issue now arrives just a couple of weeks after Season Two splashed onto our screens. Now more than ever, Doom Patrol and the mythos surrounding it is on the tip of everybody’s collective tongue and thankfully the brainchild of Gerard Way and Jeremy Lambert managed to stick the landing.

What makes Doom Patrol so popular amongst its fans is the different approach that the writers take when it comes to crafting superhero characters. They are neither all-powerful like Superman or paragons of virtue like Wonder Woman – in fact, they are more or less a bunch of screw-ups. No one would take ownership of that title as much as Cliff Steele does, played by Brendan Fraser in the television series, who at the beginning of this miniseries finds himself back in a flesh-and-blood body thanks to the events of the preceding run.

Doom Patrol: Weight of the Worlds #1 cover

Unable to reconcile his newly-found humanity with the lack of human connections he has left due to his association with the Doom Patrol, by the end of the first issue Cliff has hurled himself off a cliff in a speeding vehicle in what would be a suicide attempt for anyone else. For the hero known as Robotman, however, it is instead a tragic one-way ticket back into a cold, metal body which is now more familiar to him than the one he was born into. Now inhabiting a much more sophisticated form than he is used to, Cliff is able to receive automatic upgrades depending on how many civilians he helps, resulting in him going off on an obsessive quest to help anyone and everyone that he possibly can like a gamer who just has one more skill tree to complete before maxing out their RPG character.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Doom Patrol such as Rita, Jane, Larry, Flex Mentallo, Casey, et al. are caught up in a series of increasingly unfortunate events as plot threads from previous storylines rear their ugly heads. From a world of spherical creatures ruled by an orb-shaped overlord to a flex-off on a dilapidated beach resort to the confines of Mento’s mind, each and every scenario is wondrously brought to life by the the team of artists who made this miniseries a reality, including but not limited to the much-loved Doc Shaner and Becky Cloonan.

Just one example of Doc Shaner’s work from issue #3

In the end both storylines combine, with a piece of character development for everyone piled on along the way (such as Larry requiring the needs of a service dog), when it is revealed that Cliff is about to turn into DC’s equivalent of Galactus from the Marvel universe by upgrading himself to a planet-sized version of himself. This gargantuan Robotman, corrupted by his own obsession, is hell-bent on cleansing the universe of worlds in need of help and repair rather than undergoing the lengthy and tedious task of helping them.

If this series sounds like your cup of tea, then by all means race down to your nearest comic book store or bookshop and place an order for the trade paperback that is due out in September. Fair warning, however – this miniseries is not catered towards newcomers, and having a knowledge of the previous Doom Patrol series from the Young Animal imprint is a requirement rather than an option. From the very first issue the writers hit the ground running and assume that everyone is already up to date with where all of the characters are both physically and emotionally. Although a handful of footnotes are scattered across the first issue by the editor, these are more of a brief reminder rather than an actual provider of context. With that in mind, this wonderful odyssey through the warped imagination of Gerard Way and Co. is a worthy successor to what came before it provided that you can scramble over that massive hurdle.

Without spoiling the grand finale which has been so long-anticipated, it is safe to say that issue #7 manages to wrap up the sometimes-confusing and often-crazy series of adventures and mishaps in a satisfying way. Without speculating too much, the final page leaves the impression that any future miniseries or extended runs, be they from the current creators or a new team, will serve as a fresh start and a jumping-on point for new fans. Hopefully that comes much sooner than Season Three of the television series.

The brilliant Becky Cloonan made issue #5 sparkle with both scripts and pencils

Doom Patrol: Weight of the Worlds is a delightful reminder of just how much fun comic books can be when you remove any preconceived notions of what a superhero looks like or how they should behave. It stays true to form and pays tribute to what came before while also setting the stage for future stories, however it does this to the detriment of anyone who might have picked up issue #1 off the shelf because they liked watching Brendan Fraser swear through a voice modulator.

Final Score: 8/10

Devolution Review

Most known for his global sensation World War Z, author Max Brooks now turns his attention from the undead to the Sasquatch with disturbingly-brilliant results.

Regardless of the feature film’s reception, the original source material for World War Z took the world by storm when Max Brooks created a realistic take on what would happen if zombies existed in our world. Well, as realistic as something like that can actually be. Now over a decade later Brooks returns to the world of cryptozoology and tackles the North American myth which has fascinated believers and skeptics in equal measure. In Devolution he asks one very simple question – how prepared are we for a discovery as monumental as finding out that Bigfoot is real, and that he is not alone?

Max Brooks

Unfortunately for the cast of this book, the answer is not very well at all. Told through the lens of an investigator researching the aftermath of the narrative’s tragic events, from the very beginning we are told that everyone is either confirmed dead (or more appropriately, slaughtered) or missing for over a year. Rather than spoiling the experience and making it feel like a waste of time, this keeps a cloud of dread hanging over the reader as every minor incident heightens the tension as we think “is this how it happens?” Tasked with the investigation by journalist Frank McCray, the sister of missing protagonist Kate Holland, our intrepid investigator goes over this particular mystery with a fine tooth comb in order to get to the truth.

It is a literary device which could not have been executed better for this subject matter. Using her journal as a guide, the investigator recounts what Kate experiences over the days and weeks following the eruption of Mount Rainier. This has cut-off herself and her fellow residents of the Greenloop off-the-grid ecologically-sound commune from the rest of society, leaving them with no cell phone coverage and blocked roads. Isolated from civilisation, the group hunkers down and makes the best of a bad situation by adapting to their environment and utilising the resources at their disposal. Initially unbeknownst to them, a troop of giant, ground-faring primates recognisable as ‘Bigfeet’ have been displaced by the disaster and have come across them after they fled their own natural, hidden habitat.

Beginning each chapter with a relevant quote from other ape or Bigfoot-related materials and breaking up the narrative with a fictional interview with Senior Ranger Josephine Schell, who was part of the team who first discovered the site of the disaster and found Kate’s journal, Brooks manages to amplify the tension and sensation of dread with each passing page. What begins as a hopeful, mostly lighthearted story of people trying to reconnect with nature in state-of-the-art self-sustaining homes soon turns into a fully-fledged horror story as a nightmare unfolds around the cast of characters.

When the disaster first hits panic sets in but soon gives way to clearer heads and everyone calms down, adjusting to the new routine. Then a few days later a rustle in the trees catches someone off guard. The paranoid sensation of being watched feels a little bit too real. A dark figure in the tree line which is there one moment and gone the next is just a little bit too suspicious. The first person to go missing is more than a little bit worrying. The screams coming from the forest are terrifying. The hairy behemoths spotted skulking around the commune in the dead of night are enough to turn nightmare into reality.

Maybe the truth is out there after all…(Paterson-Gimlin, 1967)

The pacing of this book is perfect. The first act is spent setting up the characters themselves and their quirks, while also familiarising the reader with the environment and their available resources. The second act is when the doubt and suspicion creeps in, and by the time the third act comes around we are racing at full speed through a fully-fledged horror story.

What makes the book all the more terrifying is the prior knowledge that despite all of their plans, all of their grand ideas and survival instincts – the humans lose. It is right in front of us in black and white in the introduction before we even turn the page to Chapter 1. Despite all of the character growth which goes on throughout the book, despite the skills and intuition which the people we begin to grow fond of develop in the face of danger, it is not enough. They are not equipped to face the horrors that await behind that rustling bush out of the corner of your eye.

Making a triumphant return to the horror genre, Max Brooks has crafted what will be seen as the current definitive take on the Bigfoot subgenre of literature. Mixing his signature blend of human endeavour against incomprehensible terror and unique account-based narrative, Devolution is an exhilarating read which deserves its place on any horror fan’s summer wish list.

Final Score: 10/10

Hawkeye: Freefall Mini-Series Review

Eternally popular in both print and live-action media, Clint Barton is once again on a one-man crusade to fight crime the only way he knows how – with increasingly perilous difficulty.

There is a lot of goodwill from fans when it comes to a new Hawkeye miniseries. With a history including stellar runs from Matt Fraction and David Aja in 2012 and then again in 2015 under Jeff Lemire and Ramon Perez, when this series was first announced last year fans hoped that Matthew Rosenberg and Otto Schmidt would be adding their names to that hallowed pantheon. And in many ways they do. In some others, however, not so much.

The premise of this new miniseries is straightforward enough to begin with – Parker Robbins, a.k.a. The Hood, is expanding his criminal drug empire and the corrupt authorities under mayor Wilson Fisk cannot be bothered to stop him. Enter Clint Barton, one of the few Avengers (West Coast or otherwise) who can still count himself as a street-level hero, the man on a mission who wants to see the streets of New York City cleaned up. Excellent, this sounds exactly like a classic ‘good guy versus bad guy turf war.’

Hawkeye: Freefall #1, courtesy of Marvel.com

The only problem with this is that The Hood is not just well-connected and an idiot, as Clint likes to remind us every now and again. He is downright formidable even to the strongest heroes on the block, and all Hawkeye has to his name are a bow and some arrows. Oh, and someone is impersonating his former Ronin persona and going after The Hood’s assets with a more violent plan of attack, so whoever this is probably needs to be taken down too. So a three-way turf war and six issues to tell it – this is going to be exciting.

Clint manages to get the better of Robbins at first, but not for long

And for the most part it is. There are a lot of action sequences, as well as a plethora of cool and interesting fight scenes involving The Hood’s supernatural abilities that are beautifully brought to life by penciller Otto Schmidt. However, a major drawback of this miniseries is that for something that only clocks in at around 120 pages in length it becomes needlessly convoluted around the halfway point. This unfortunately hampers the narrative a great deal as time needs to be spent explaining plot twists that weren’t necessary in the first place – time which is in short supply.

As it transpires, it is Clint himself who is donning the Ronin costume while pretending to be a mysterious newcomer who is capable of fending off the likes of Bucky, Falcon, and even Spider-Man. He is doing this so that he can secretly pick-off a number of The Hood’s assets in secret (with some uncharacteristically violent fallout) while still publicly striving to bring him to justice the legitimate way. Of course, Clint is Suspect Number One amongst the superhero community when his old alter-ego reappears on the scene, so the way he gives himself an alibi by being in two places at once is…a portable, one-hour-boomerang time machine.

On paper it is exactly the sort of comic book-y plot device you would expect to make an appearance, but in an otherwise grounded miniseries which shows the fallout of Clint’s many mistakes and the toll each and every encounter with The Hood is taking on his body it just feels out of place. When the device breaks and is impossible to repair by his new seventeen-year-old former-criminal tech expert you would assume that the narrative would return to its original premise, but instead even more time is spent finding ways to continue the by now eye-rolling ruse.

Not the sort of behaviour that you would expect from a (sometimes) well-respected Avenger

Still, this miniseries deserves a lot more than just complaints. By the time Bullseye comes onto the scene in the third act the stakes have well and truly been raised, and there are a number of casualties which weigh heavily on Clint’s conscience. This serves as a much-needed wake-up call for the purple archer and narrows his focus to the original goal – put a stop to The Hood’s criminal activity. The final issue concludes on a sombre note in contrast to the rest of the miniseries, and teases a premise which could very well be the basis of a fascinating follow-up series. As far as this one goes, however, it doesn’t quite reach the heights that one of Clint’s arrows could.

Presenting an interesting premise and hosting an all-star supporting cast, Hawkeye: Freefall offers gorgeous artwork, thrills and laughs throughout, and also a solid ending. However, its unnecessarily convoluted plot and slump around the middle take points off it and makes it miss the mark which Clint would normally nail even with his eyes closed.

Final Score: 7/10

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Season One Review

Riding high on the brand-recognition coattails of its predecessing original series, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels had a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, thanks to a sprawling plot which rarely satisfies, it fails in admittedly stunning fashion.

One thing is plain for all to see even just a couple of minutes into the series premiere – this show is beautifully made. From its direction, to its production design, to its creepy atmosphere bubbling just beneath the surface, on paper it should be a giant feather in Showtime’s cap to be applauded. For all its flash, however, the substance leaves a lot to be desired.

What connects a Chicano gang, racial tensions, a German war veteran, a would-be Los Angeles demagogue, and rocket science? Not a whole lot apart from Natalie Dormer and a proposed freeway, despite what this show would have you believe.

If three’s a crowd then four’s a celebration of Natalie Dormer’s acting

Playing each of her parts expertly well, Dormer is the common thread in this web of narratives. Primarily portraying Magda, the fictional sister of Mexican deity Santa Muerte who is an original creation of this series, she takes on several mortal guises as she stokes the fire of fury and discontent in a variety of different groups. But to what end?

The first handful of episodes are spent setting the scene, building all of the different pieces of this series into a house of cards so that they can be later knocked down in spectacular fashion. In hindsight this is a logical tactic, but in practice it made for boring television as a handful of irrelevant-to-each-other dramas play out in front of the audience with Dormer being the ever-present manipulator. Were it not for her impressively diverse acting these episodes would have been enough to turn away any viewer who was expecting a true spin-off to the Eva Green-led original series.

The poor unfortunates who become locked in Magda’s crosshairs

It is only around the halfway point of the season that any sort of traction is made, and by the time any significant action gets underway it is the season finale. What, then, was the point?

The fictionalised world that has been created in 1938 Los Angeles seems to have been done so to provide a social commentary rather than a pre-WWII gothic horror. Replace any of Natalie Dormer’s characters with a regular, ill-meaning human being instead of a malevolent entity and the results would be the same. Mateo Vega would still be enticed by the gang lifestyle after the assault of his sister. Councilman Townsend would still become increasingly power-hungry. And otherwise-caring father Peter Craft would still be nudged towards the ideals of the Führer. Granted the scheming Elsa and her hellspawn, the source of the only real horror in the show, do not so much nudge as they do recklessly shove, the message is the same nonetheless. People, no matter how noble their intentions, will go to the extreme when they and their loved ones come under threat.

The audience is treated to terrific performances from Daniel Zovatto and Nathan Lane as our buddy cop duo, as well as from Kerry Bishé, Jessica Garza and Adriana Barraza who portray televangelist Sister Molly, the young girl who runs away to join her temple and the Santa Muerte-worshipping mother who disapproves of such things. Were it not for these fine actors, along with Dormer herself, and the high production value of the series then the whole thing would be a write-off.

The overarching story may be interesting in the abstract and well-executed in some places, but a spinoff from Penny Dreadful carries with it certain expectations. Take out the supernatural element and replace it with ordinary people and there would be the makings of a fine television series. Instead we have a Frankensteined show which fails to thrill fans of horror and disappoints fans of character-driven drama.

The kids are not alright

Visually stunning and thought-provoking in places, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels makes big promises and then sadly fails to deliver. The applause-worthy performances of its main cast and headline star counteract some of the damage done by its conflicted identity and make it more than just passable – but not by much.

Final Score: 5/10

Harley Quinn Season Two Review

After a critically-acclaimed freshman season and the lovable villain now back to the forefront of pop culture thanks to the recent Birds of Prey movie starring Margot Robbie, Harley Quinn unfortunately fails to recapture the magic that made Season One so special.

After the first season of the successful animated series came to a shocking conclusion in February of this year, fans were delighted to discover that they would not have long to wait for more hilariously rude and violent escapades from Dr. Harleen Quinzel – a mere six weeks, in fact. With the Justice League incapacitated, Batman presumed dead and Gotham now in ruins, the scene was set for Season Two to take the metaphorical ball and run with it now that there were no more expectations as to what a ‘Harley Quinn show’ should be about. What unfortunately happened instead is a drawn-out narrative which takes twice the amount of episodes to tell its story than it should have to remain fresh and interesting, while also discarding most of the elements that made Season One so unique and popular in the first place.

The season goes on to spend its front half dealing with the villains who have now divided Gotham up into factions in the absence of any superheroes, while its back half revolves around the burgeoning romance between Harley and Poison Ivy and the unholy alliance which has been struck between Dr. Psycho and Darkseid.

While this all sounds suitably wacky and zany in nature, the show manages to resolve all of these issues with very few long-lasting impressions left on the viewer. Barring a satirical cold open in the Harley-free fifth episode which pokes fun at haters of Star Wars’ The Last Jedi and lovers of Zack Snyder, the second season is for the most part devoid of the key ingredients which made the first so delightful to sit down and watch every Friday.

Part of the charm of Season One was the gang haphazardly working together and gelling as a unit, but now their antics are a rarity rather than a regular feature of each episode. Dr. Psycho takes center stage this season as he returns to his truly supervillainous roots, but of Harley’s five male lackeys he is perhaps the most hated.

By the time this season starts to return to former glory in the last three episodes it is unfortunately too little too late, however, making the majority of the season wholly forgettable. With Season One remaining a hit and Season Two resembling a miss, hopefully a potential Season Three can carry on the momentum of the course-correction we were treated to in recent weeks.

Final Score: 6/10

Ant-Man (2020) Mini-Series Review

With Scott Lang now a household name thanks to not one, not two, but three different franchises within the record-breaking Marvel Cinematic Universe, this iteration of Ant-Man can still tell a compelling story in print as well as on the big screen.

When mainstream audiences last saw Scott Lang don the red and black Ant-Man suit it was to save all of creation from the would-be multiverse conqueror Thanos in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of an eleven-year narrative woven throughout twenty-two different cinematic outings. With the much-anticipated ‘Ant-Man 3’  still a considerable amount of time away, fans of the character will have to look elsewhere for their Scott Lang fix. Provided, of course, that they do not mind doing without the Paul Rudd likeness for the time being.

Is this miniseries, the final issue of which landed on the shelves of comic book stores across the world this morning, the cure for ant fever? In its small five-issue dosage, yes, it absolutely is. Picking up right in the thick of action we find Scott and his daughter Cassie foiling the plot of a band of drug mules, super-sizing themselves using patented Pym Particles to become Ant-Man and his current sidekick/partner Stinger.

Ant-Man (2020) #1 variant cover

We learn that at this current point in time in the Marvel comics universe Scott has found himself a little down on his luck, now being forced to live out of an ant hill in a garden in Florida because he cannot afford a place of this own. This is played as a joke with lovable consequences as we see him deal with annoyed ant roommates who would rather he take his problems elsewhere, but it also sets up the rest of our story nicely.

Interior art from Issue #1 courtesy of Marvel.com

Desperate for work, the superhero kind or otherwise, Scott begrudgingly accepts a mundane job investigating the disappearance of local bees. After all, he is the ‘bug guy,’ right? Although Cassie is not impressed by his seemingly-low aspirations due to her being offered a place on the Kate Bishop-led West Coast Avengers, the job turns out to be more than Scott bargained for when Nazi scientist-turned-supervillain Swarm is revealed to be responsible.

Swarms of bees have never been scarier

What starts off as a classic good-guy-beats-bad-guy conclusion to the first issue, the startling revelation is made that other villains comprised of an insect hivemind have been hunting Swarm, namely newcomers Vespa, Thread, and Tusk. From here the story snowballs as this trio of monsters are revealed to be merely henchman of the deadly Macrothrax, who in turn is the pawn of a trio of insect gods who live in the Savage Land by the names of Phthira, Crematrix, and Ve’trock.

By the end of the fourth issue Macrothrax has bested both Scott and Cassie, stolen the latter’s helmet and used it to brainwash Phthira and Crematrix to do his bidding, starting with murdering the hateful and cruel Ve’trock. Oh, and also lead the stolen-Pym-Particle-enhanced duo on a rampage across the world in order to assimilate mankind into his twisted insectoid vision for the future of Earth.

On paper, the concept of this miniseries sounds ridiculous. In practice, however, it is a story that you cannot possibly divert your attention from. Zeb Wells has crafted a hilariously thrilling story that effortlessly shifts from Scott arguing with an ant to Hope facing a crossroads in her life, and then back to Scott again as he fights for his life against brand-new villains who will captivate your imagination.

Maybe Scott bit off more than he can chew…

This is made easy by the stunning character designs by Dylan Burnett who makes each of the villains grotesquely unique in their own way, as well as putting his own spin on the Ant-Man and Stinger costumes – Scott’s ‘bee suit’ in the first issue is a particular highlight. Throw in a well-timed series of cameos from the Avengers, Spider-Man and Black Cat during the half-way point of the miniseries and suddenly it all contains just enough low and high stakes action to make it required reading not just for fans of Scott Lang, but for fans of superheroes in general.

This might be a little bit above Scott’s pay grade

While we won’t give out any spoilers for today’s final issue, what we will say is that Wells and Burnett have crafted an excellent addition to the Ant-Man mythos for a variety of reasons. They have captured the trademarked Scott Lang brand of humour and comic relief effortlessly, as well as laid the foundations for future stories involving both himself and Cassie, who by now has well and truly become a superhero in her own right. Although the concept of this miniseries quickly gets out-of-hand and is by no means as small in scale as Ant-Man himself, they manage to keep it grounded by always paying dues to the human problems which plague the men and women behind the masks. While the miniseries could have probably used one extra issue to let itself breathe for a moment and flesh out some of the new characters a little bit more, today’s final issue has still left us chomping at the bit for Ant-Man and Stinger’s next four-colour outing.

Final Score: 8.5/10

Artemis Fowl Review

Unfortunately for fans of the original series of books, no, it wasn’t.

On paper a film adaptation of Artemis Fowl by Irish author Eoin Colfer sounds like a no-brainer for a studio like Disney to premiere on their streaming service. A young protagonist for children to connect with, a slew of well-developed adult characters for parents to appreciate, and a multi-award winning narrative which has spanned numerous sequels and holds great franchise potential at the cinema. Why, then, has this adaptation missed the mark by such a massive margin?

The film follows the titular character Artemis Fowl, who is a twelve-year-old genius from Ireland and the latest in a long line of criminal masterminds in his family.

James Bond Junior or Miniature Bond Villain?

Right off the bat the film adaptation veers in a completely different direction to the source material by making him a ‘good guy’ who is doing what he must in order to save his father rather than an outright villain who goes on to learn the error of his ways and become a good guy. This might have been an acceptable detour from the source material if the events of the movie justified the change by offering a great cinematic experience full of heart, laughs, and enjoyable action…unfortunately, however, it does not.

Clocking in at just over an hour and a half in length, the film zips past the audience at the speed of sound and does not stop for a moment to let any of it sink in while rarely ever leaving Fowl Manor. Jumping from one scene to the next and from one conflict to another, a number of different plotlines and character arcs are smushed together and justice is done to none of them. To make matters worse, the old adage of “show, don’t tell” is flipped on its head so severely that we are told a great many things about our protagonist with little evidence to back it up, while other characters are literally reduced to stating their emotions out-loud for all to hear rather than showing them through their actions.

Senior and Junior Artemis together again

Another victim of the film’s criminally low runtime and fast pace is the sacrificing of virtually every relationship except for the one between Artemis and his father.

Supporting characters are introduced and then rarely heard from again, others are put in mortal peril for dramatic effect despite the audience knowing little to nothing about them, and members of the main cast go from arch enemies to best friends so quickly that you become tempted to rewind the film in case you missed a crucial scene, but no such scene existed in the first place. As for the villain of the film and the McGuffin they so desperately seek the less that is said the better, as fans of the books will be disappointed by their depiction and newcomers will just be left baffled as to what their motivations actually are.

The two saving graces of this adaptation are the performances themselves and the CGI. Ferdia Shaw gives a good performance as Artemis for his onscreen acting debut, and Lara McDonnell performs well as Holly despite her condensed character arc. Colin Farrell and Judi Dench are great additions to the cast as they usually are more often than not, and Josh Gad’s comic relief saves many scenes from being utterly forgettable. Criminally, we do not see enough of Tamara Smart or Nonso Anozie as Juliet and Domovoi Butler, respectively, to judge fairly. The special effects teams should be applauded for their work, making every fight scene, underworld fairy kingdom, and rampaging troll look stunning. One highlight of the film is a rarely-extended sequence involving a rogue troll terrorising an Italian wedding before a taskforce of fairies takes him down and wipes the guests’ memories, however we are soon returned to the disappointment that is the rest of the film.

The not-quite Fantastic Four of this film

All in all, it would be fair to say that this is far from director Kenneth Branagh’s finest work. How much of the blame lies on his shoulders, or on those of the screenwriters, or even on the studio itself, is difficult to discern. What is clear to see, however, is that the best advice for anyone intrigued by the film’s premise is to instead pick up the first book in the series and go from there. The slew of awards and legions of fans which the series of books can claim ownership of speaks for itself, and this ill-fated adaptation should not detract from that. With any luck an adaptation on the small screen will be commissioned to give the source material the love it deserves á la Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan, although ideally without a near-decade-long wait in-between.

Final Score: 2/10

Firewalkers Review

Sci-fi thriller or novella-sized cautionary tale – why not both?

Adrian Tchaikovsky is no stranger to the sci-fi genre; his Arthur C. Clarke award for Children of Time in 2016 is proof enough of that. His latest outing, Firewalkers, depicts a world in which young men and women of the titular profession must venture out into the sometimes-deadly, often-times fatal scorched Earth that is now their home to fix vital systems and equipment in the hope of receiving fresh food and water from those in charge. And those people in charge? Mere puppet leaders, left in place by the rich and the elite who have long since evacuated to a spaceship in the upper atmosphere, connected only by an elevator which must be kept operational so that they can be joined by the last few straggling rich and elite.

It is here that we meet Mao, a Vietnamese nineteen-year-old who is far from his ancestral home, living at the base of this almost reverent elevator shaft out of necessity so that he can provide for his family as a Firewalker. Oh, and because everywhere else on the planet is either burning at sixty degrees Celsius or flooding under Noah’s Ark-levels of water, presumably due to the polar icecaps being no more than an urban legend at this point in the future.

Adrian Tchaikovsky

On the face of it, Firewalkers sounds and even reads like the sort of cautionary tale that you might expect to find in a future-set bottle episode of Doctor Who, a comparison that is made as a compliment rather than a criticism. Due in part to both its genre as adult sci-fi and Tchaikovsky’s ruthlessness as an author, however, the tale itself is much darker than one you might find on pre-watershed BBC. In the space of the first chapter, Tchaikovsky sets the scene, the status quo, our main character’s motivations, and also the fictional history of the dystopian world we find ourselves delving into within this novella.

From very early on we feel as if we know all of the ins-and-outs of where some of the last survivors of the human race are huddled together in Ankara Achouka, a multicultural melting pot in the equatorial desert which has last seen better days a very long time ago. Tchaikovsky introduces us to our cast of characters consisting of Mao himself, as well as Lupé, an engineering prodigy, and Hotep, an albino former-elite from high above in the Grand Celeste spaceship who was cast down to Earth due to undiagnosed special needs labelling her as ‘less than’ when it comes to those who are worthy of escaping the burning rock we call home. The latter picking up her nickname due to an uncanny resemblance to a certain monster from Bubba Ho-Tep when wearing her life-saving bandages to hide from the scorching rays of the Sun (instantly earning a +1 in our assessment of the novella) is a constant reminder of the future which might lie ahead of us should climate change continue in its current downward spiral.

Tchaikovsky wastes no time with this novella; clocking in at just ten chapters spread over roughly two hundred pages, he really doesn’t have the time to do so. In a concise and often thrilling fashion, the reader is brought on an odyssey through the equatorial desert which will soon encompass the entire world, meeting the occasional straggling pocket of society along the way as a reminder that not everyone suckles at the teat of the elevator shaft for scraps from those up high – except those that don’t are the ones who are the closest to extinction. The irony of meeting a man named Bastien who is the last survivor of a protein factory which produced genetically-modified insects that now roam the skies at the grand size of three feet in length is not lost on us.

When our trio finally reach their destination, an old scientific research facility that has been leeching precious electricity from their homestead, the task of fixing it is made considerably difficult by the presence of a rogue artificial intelligence with a grudge against the elite who abandoned both it and the Earth; but mostly for the former. An ethical debate here and a daring escape from a swarm of metre-long locusts there and the team return home, a thumb drive containing a veritable kill switch for the holier-than-thou spaceship in tow, to find their town in chaos as the metaphorical ladder has been pulled up behind the last person to ascend to the Grand Celeste.

The novella ends on a sombre note. After raging against the dying of the light, our heroes give in to temptation and enact the plan proposed to them by the AI and put in motion the deaths of everyone aboard the spaceship so that the cursed down below can ascend and take their place. When we last see Mao he is weighed down by guilt over the deaths of so many innocents, but hopeful at the prospect of love with a simulated human interface he became smitten with back on Earth given human form in a cloned body by the now-benevolent AI. The very same AI which now runs the spaceship up there and is in charge of terraforming the world down here over the course of centuries so that some day humanity can once again live on the planet which we pillaged for its resources and burned to a cinder as a result.

In conclusion, Firewalkers is an incredibly-engrossing read which hits the mark in all categories. The worldbuilding is second to none, with every slang term being simultaneously alien and familiar and every futuristic invention remaining believable and feasible. The divide between the rich who receive salvation and the poor who receive damnation is a heart-wrenching status quo that is all-too-familiar to an unfortunate amount of people, as is their pained ‘grass is always greener’ mindset. The people whose lives we catch a glimpse of would and do literally kill for water in this scorched landscape, and yet half a world away another pocket of humanity drowning from another result of climate change would do the same for a patch of dry land. The simulated human who Mao falls in love with is tragically beautiful in its existence, innocent and perfect by design but lacking the self-awareness of its AI creator, perhaps signalling the end of the cycle of creation. God put humans on the Earth, who in turn created AI, which in turn created a simulation that is not capable of creation. Funny, then, that it is the AI who inherits both the Earth and the last home of humanity. Although a sequel exploring these themes even further would be welcome, Firewalkers is more than satisfying as a stand-alone novel. Sometimes it is okay for stories to be finite, just like the resources man so unforgivingly pillages from the ground beneath our feet.

Final Score: 10/10

Space Force Season One Review

As the latest sitcom rockets to our screens courtesy of Netflix, turbo-charged with awkward hilarity and jokes of the meta variety, does Space Force live up to the expectations placed on the shoulders of its stars and creator?

Thankfully, yes. Ordered to series by Netflix only half a year after the real-life US Department of Defense was given the order to begin the process of establishing the sixth branch of the American armed forces, many feared that by the time the show actually arrived for public consumption it would be too little too late, the novelty of such a show having worn off. What actually happened, however, is the reunion team-up of Steve Carrell and The Office (US) creator Greg Daniels birthed yet another hilarious sitcom which does not need to rely on a laugh track, instead getting by on tight scripts and perfect comedic timing.

Starting with the premise itself, the show’s number one goal from its inception was to be a parody of a certain president’s vision for the armed forces. Right off the bat, Space Force could very easily have fallen into the trap of making parody its top priority, banking on meta-humour and satirical jabs at the real-life military to elicit laughs from its audience.

“Houston, we have a problem”

To be clear, it does do that. A lot. But also woven throughout the show is a web of characters who bounce off each other and create compelling drama, to such an extent that Space Force itself becomes a vehicle for these characters to entertain us rather than the only trick in the show’s arsenal. By the end of the first season you start to really care about the hardships some of these characters are forced to endure and also become invested in a fledgling romance or two.

Space Force’s favourite odd couple

The most prominent of these characters are far and away General Mark Naird and Dr. Adrian Mallory, portrayed by Steve Carell and John Malkovich, respectively. The pairing of an out-of-his-depth four-star general and the chief scientist who knows his way around a space shuttle creates a funny dynamic when the latter trumps the former and a slew of touching moments when they both connect as equals.

With Lisa Kudrow as General Naird’s incarcerated wife relegated to essentially a guest-starring role, it is this veritable odd couple who become the star power of Space Force.

That is not to say that the cast of relative newcomers stand in the shadows of Carell and Malkovich; that assessment of the show could not be further from the truth. Jimmy Yang, Tawny Newsome and Diana Silvers round out the cast as a mix of space scientist, pilot, and rebellious teenage daughter who you find yourself rooting for at every opportunity.

Happy families, at least for the first five minutes

Add in other veteran actors such as Ben Schwartz, Don Lake and Noah Emmerich, as well as hilarious cameos courtesy of Jane Lynch and Patrick Warburton and, well, suddenly the main draw of the show isn’t “Michael Scott in space” like many people might have expected.

The one drawback of the show’s fledgling first season is unfortunately its sometimes over-reliance on meta commentary. For every hilarious scene of a monkey attempting to repair a satellite there is perhaps one too many off-the-cuff remark about the president using Twitter.

Anabela Ysidro-Campos, a politician from New York

For every instance of pitch-perfect comedic timing from Carell there is an overt stand-in for a real-life politician during a budget hearing which doesn’t even try to be subtle, right down to two-thirds of their initials.

In the moment these additions to the script are funny, but in the long-run they are the very aspects of the show that will unfortunately tie it down to a very specific period of time and make it feel dated to a later audience, something which was already a big risk due to the parodic nature of the show regarding the real Space Force in the first place. Nevertheless, an otherwise excellent first season and abrupt cliffhanger will leave fans of the show eagerly awaiting a second season, and a third…to infinity and beyond.

Final Score: 8.5/10

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