Monday, May 15, 2017

Arc Reactor: Ms. Marvel - Damage Per Second

I feel like as time goes on, I'm less interested in the "big" superhero storylines where the world is in danger or timelines are irrevocably changed and find more excitement from smaller, more intimate stories that are focused like a laser beam. Don't get me wrong, a well done spectacle is a well done spectacle, but I think with the episodic nature of comics, I prefer my storytelling more like TV episodes than blockbuster films.

Ms. Marvel is a perfect example of that concept done right. She's got her own little corner of the Marvel universe, and while she does interact with other big players, writer G. Willow Wilson always finds a way to make it matter to the character in a way that feels organic and unforced. Damage Per Second is a shining example of what can happen when publishers don't mandate a comic be integrated thoroughly into the greater picture and just let the book do its own thing.

For those who don't know, Ms. Marvel is kind of a modern day Spider-Man-like story for the modern age. Kamala Khan is high school student who gets super powers and tries to balance her social, family and superhero lives. Not only does it capture that good old fashion fun feeling of Spider-Man, but it tackles modern issues without feeling forced. Kamala is Muslim, and while it's an important part of her character, it never comes across in a way where it just feels like they are doing it to make a point. She's an authentically Muslim character that brings a different perspective to the table, making these old superhero concepts feel fresh and new.

Damage Per Second takes on another modern issue: online bullying. The arc starts out with a scene that could have felt corny in the hands of a less skilled writer: Kamala is playing a World of Warcraft type game with her friends when a sentient virus infects her computer. The arc deserves credit for being able to make this sequence actually feel like a group of teens playing video games rather than an approximation of the dialog written by an out of touch old person.

The virus, known as Doc.X, takes the form of one of the in game avatars and starts to taunt Kamala, even threatening to reveal her secret identity. The virus ends up spreading and eventually outs one of Kamala's high school friends as a lesbian by releasing unsent love letters to everyone in school. In a heartwarming scene, her friends come together to support her after this act, showing that Kamala is a real hero both in and out of the costume.

Eventually, Ms. Marvel figures that the virus is getting more and more viscous because it was programmed to learn from the internet, and the internet is full of hate. She enlists her friends on the most impossible mission she's ever undertaken: trying to make the internet nice. It's a cute concept that really gets to the heart of what it means to be a hero.

While the arc doesn't exactly wrap up perfectly from there (I'm still a little confused as to how the final battle actually went down), this story arc was a brisk and brilliant story that put characters first and built the excitement from there. Even if you've never read any Ms. Marvel before, this is a wonderful self-contained arc that you could definitely pick up. It's a perfect example of everything that make this book successful, and a model for how superhero comics should be handled.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Horizon: Zero Dawn - Review

This year has certainly started off with a bang in the video game world, as many have been quick to point out. I've already written about Resident Evil VII, and it's such a surprise that the very next game I play can approach such a masterpiece in terms of quality.

I remember when Horizon: Zero Dawn was revealed. The teaser trailer immediately grabbed me with its unique world and amazing design aesthetic. I had an interesting hype cycle with this game after that. The more I saw of concept art, the more I was hooked. Robot dinosaurs seemed to be a perfect cross section of my interests, and the post-post apocalyptic world portrayed was mysterious and engrossing. When the game got closer to release, I began to get worried, as many game journalists talked about the open world nature of the game. I'm not a huge open world person, as I tend to get lost in the weeds very quickly and start to feel like everything you can do is equally meaningless. Once launch day rolled around, I was impressed enough with the scores and the reports of an excellent story that I decided to take the plunge.

Horizon starts off with a really masterful beginning that immediately sets up the world as something very believable and lived in, with plenty of area to expand to and mystery to explore. You're immediately dropped in to their fascinating society which has many unique religious beliefs and a matriarchal structure. It's very had to balance this level of giving you a lot about the world while still finding a way to let you know that there's more to the story, but Horizon does it in a way that draws you in like no other. In the game, much of the human race has been wiped out, and what remains lives in more primitive conditions among beautiful nature inhabited by strange robot animals. Right off the bat, they set up the two main mysteries: what happened to the world and who is Aloy's mother.

 None of this would mean anything if the game weren't fun to play, and fortunately it is. You explore this lush world that's peppered with herds of robotic monstrosities. The best part about traversing is that the creatures generally mind their own business and graze. This gives you an opportunity to plan your attack and prepare the battlefield with traps to give you the advantage. There's such a variety of ammo types for your bow and other weapons that allows you to customize your strategy in whatever way works for you. Much like Bioshock, one of my favorites, a good battle requires just as much wit as reflexes. Each monster also has different weaknesses, and knowing those is the key to taking them out. There's something really satisfying about taking on an intimidating monster and blowing off it's huge weapons with your first sneak shot, then blasting off its armor, anchoring it to the ground and hitting its weak spot with arrows.

My normal issues with open world games didn't pop up in this game, mainly due to the strength of the story. There were a couple times where I stalled in my progress to go on fetch quests for characters, but the mystery ended up giving the game enough forward momentum. There are a couple different plot lines that go on in the main story, but the game balances them deftly. I absolutely loved the conclusion to the mystery, which had a smart answer to how the world ended up in such a unique place.

Overall, this may be the second best Sony exclusive (behind Bloodborne) and the start of a new franchise. Aloy is such an engaging character, and hopefully there's lots more to explore in their world. I don't know what exactly I would want from a sequel, as everything is wrapped up nicely in this one, but this world is too awesome to leave behind.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Colossal - Review

After seeing Timecrimes at a film festival years ago, I knew that Nacho Vigalondo was going to be a director to watch. Unfortunately, his follow ups were not well reviewed and didn't really hit theaters or festivals near me, so he fell off my radar for a while. Fortunately, Colossal got a lot of press coming out of various film festivals and grabbed me with its amazing premise and great style.

Colossal uses one of my favorite techniques in storytelling: taking a real emotional problem and blowing it up to bigger proportions with a smart, science fiction twist. The World's End did this wonderfully, using the emotional parts to enhance the sci-fi and the sci-fi to enhance the emotional parts. In this film, Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a woman who heads back to her small town after her boyfriend breaks up with her and kicks her out of their apartment because he can't put up with her drinking and partying all the time. She returns to her childhood home, meets up with one of her grade school friends and finds out that she is inadvertently controlling a giant kaiju that is destroying Seoul, Korea. It's such a perfectly elegant metaphor: if I were to get drunk and act a fool, it could be devastating to me, but if she does it, she could literally kill hundreds of people and cause millions in property damage.

For such a silly premise, Colossal really digs into some pretty intense themes. Most of what I've said is revealed in the trailer, but there are some really wonderful twists throughout that were not in the marketing and completely caught me off guard. The movie becomes a very empowering tale of control, both about how you control yourself and what you do when others try to control you. The script manages to convey these themes in a way that doesn't feel forced, but rather emerges organically from the story presented. The ending of the film is also amazingly satisfying, providing both a clever solution to the main conflict and one hell of an emotional moment.

It's not easy to carry a surreal premise that is built on real emotions, but the cast of this film does so with ease. Anne Hathaway is wonderful in this film. Her character could easily become one that we dislike, an alcoholic that just can't learn from her mistakes, but her charm makes the character easy to sympathize with from the get go. A huge surprise in this was Jason Sudeikis. His character ends up taking on an important role in the film, and he perfectly portrays all the layers, including some very dark moments. Having only seen him in straight up comedy, it was nice to see range from him.

For a giant monster movie that was made for only $15 million, Colossal looks great. The monster has a fairly unique design that recalls classic monsters, but seen through a slightly goofy lens. The film often uses frequent cuts to Hathaway moving around her small town as the monster and leaves us to imagine the damage it's doing to Seoul. It's a smart way to save budget while still giving us the same effect. Vigalondo deserves a lot of credit for taking a subgenre that's been done for decade and turning it into something completely different, both in production and story.

I was fortunate enough to she this film with a Q&A with Vigalondo. It's clear that this film was something he was passionate about, and it's impossible not to see that passion on the screen. He took such a strange concept and turned it into an empowering film that tackles some very forward thinking, feminist issues. I hope that Vigalondo keeps making movies of this level, where he has the budget to pull off some neat effects and get a solid cast, but still has a low enough budget where he doesn't have to compromise the story.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Arc Reactor: Batman - I Am Bane

One of my favorite ways for comic storylines to play out is to have discreet arcs that are about five to six issues long that all stack to build one big mega arc. Rick Remender's Uncanny X-Force did this to amazing effect with its first 18 issues that culminated in the Dark Angel Saga, and Tom King's Batman uses this tactic very well.

I still think that there are some strange tonal shifts throughout the first 20 issues. Scott Snyder put his stamp on the main Batman title for so long, giving us big, bombastic blockbusters, so it's a bit jarring for us to have something that feels so much more lyrical and meditative. I'm not saying there aren't a lot of big actiony moments, this arc especially has that, but the tone and pace is definitely a change of pace for the title.

Tone issues aside, I Am Bane is the best arc yet on this title. After Batman broke into Santa Prisca and stole Psycho Pirate from a Bane who was trying to kick his Venom habit, Bane declares war on Batman and means to break him once again. It's a pretty classic set up for a Batman story, but the previous arcs set up the emotional stakes for both parties involved in a way that felt unique. Batman needs Psycho Pirate to try to emotionally heal Gotham Girl while Bane needs Pirate to help him quit Venom.

The first issue of this arc features Bruce meeting with all his former Robins at a Batman themed McDonalds-esque restaurant, giving us a rare funny scene for Bruce. This gives us a moment of respite before the true war begins. Bruce gives out his standard "This is my fight, and I'll do it alone" warning to the sidekicks, who ignore his advice and end up on the shelf by the end of the issue.

One thing this book does is really remind the reader why Bane is special. There's a really wonderful sequence that parallels the lives of Bruce Wayne and Bane, and it's interesting to see how each of them respond differently to the trauma they experienced. In many ways, it makes you feel more sympathy for Bane than for Bruce, as Bruce still had money and privilege while Bane was just trying to survive in Santa Prisca. There's also a really wonderful monologue delivered by Bane where he illustrates the difference between him and the rest of the rogues, and it goes a long way towards making him, and my extension this fight, feel important.

The real highlight of this story is the climax that happens in the final two issues. In part four, we see an extremely clever reverse of the very first Bane story. In Knightfall, we saw Bane releasing all of the villains locked up in Arkham in an attempt to wear down Batman before their confrontation. In this story, Batman holes up in Arkham Asylum and lets out all the inmates, leaving Bane to fight his way through them.

The final issue takes a very conceptual approach to the big showdown at the end. After Bane fights his way through Arkham's worst, an injured Batman tries his best to stop him. Cut into the fight is essentially a clip show of the past 19 issues, showing how close Batman has come to death. The whole issue is narrated by his mother, who is greeting him in the afterlife as he is at death's door in the hands of Bane. It's a surprisingly emotional way to present a fight scene like this, and does a lot to make Batman less cold than he can be.

Having read Tom King's Vision, I knew his run on Batman wasn't going to be a standard one. I've been pleasantly surprised by the lyrical and thoughtful tone he's brought to the book, even if it hasn't always meshed 100% with the story he's telling. I Am Bane was a fantastic wrap up for his first mega arc, and I can see myself sitting down with it in the near future and rereading it from start to finish to see how it holds up.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Thank You Undertaker

Even when the match lineup doesn't look all that impressive, Wrestlemania always manages to deliver some memorable moments. This year had John Cena's sincere proposal to Nikki Bella, Bray Wyatt debuting new maggot and worm based powers and the surprising return of the Hardy Boyz that had me marking out like a 12-year-old. While those were exciting, none were as historically significant as what appears to be the end of the Undertaker's long and storied career.

I was actually in San Antonio for the Royal Rumble when Undertaker's feud with Roman Reigns started during the titular match. Undertaker was positioned as one of the favorites in the match, but Reigns, who was the 'surprise' #30 entrant, threw him out to a chorus of boos. It wasn't the strongest basis for a Undertaker's annual huge match at Wrestlemania, but it did the trick. I kinda thought this was just going to be a filler match in his legacy, but the pieces started falling into place near the end of the show.

When Goldberg and Lesnar came out, it became clear that the biggest match left was Undertaker vs Roman Reigns. It was dark enough to do Undertaker's entrance, so the only real reason to have this match go on last is if it meant something special. Even the match where Lesnar broke the streak didn't go on last, so this was a big deal. Before the match started, good ol' Jim Ross came down the ring, an announcer who called some of the most important moments of the Undertaker's career. It was that moment that I knew it was the end.

I could talk about the match, but it's not really worth too much discussion. It was a decent, slow contest that had a good number of botches (Undertaker seemed to have forgotten how to do his signature Hell's Gate submission). It's clear that the days of getting an epic match from the Undertaker are long gone, but his presence still loos tall. The inevitable ending came when Roman Reigns planted Undertaker with a spear and pinned him for the one two three.

A loss was a clear sign that this was the final moment for him. Undertaker is the kind of wrestler who would definitely use his final match to put over a new big name, so it's obvious there's no way he's coming back. This was his 25th Wrestlemania, making it a nice round number for him to end on.

What followed was one of the most elegant goodbyes I've ever seen in wrestling. Reigns leaves the ring, and when we cut back to Undertaker in the ring in full costume. He soaks it in for a moment and starts to leave when he turns around. He gets back into the center of the ring and slowly takes off his gloves and gently sets them on the mat. He takes off his signature duster, folds it carefully and lays it on top of the gloves. Finally, he slowly took of his hat and added it to the pile. For a man who lived his character for decades, this was the perfect image to end on.

Undertaker was always one of my favorite wrestlers. Not only because he put on tons of classic matches throughout his career, but also because of his character. He's a holdover from an older era where characters had over the top gimmicks, and he always sold his persona in a way that made him feel natural right along side the more serious, down to earth wrestlers of the modern era. I'm a sucker for supernatural things, and his dedication to his character was second to none. As much as I will miss what he brings to an event, I hope this is the end for the Undertaker. His body certainly can't perform on the level he wants any more, and this moment was a perfect button on a legendary career.

Thank you Undertaker.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

#SXSW Gaming Quick Takes

I had the pleasure of checking out SXSW Gaming this past weekend in Austin, TX. Tons of developers were on hand to present their game, and I got the chance to try out a couple.

The biggest booth as far as floor space was definitely the one dedicated to trying out the Nintendo Switch. There were two sections, one where you could sample three of six games and the other where you could try out the new Zelda game. I was there on my own, so I didn't have much interest in trying out the mostly multiplayer games, so I stood in the line to play Zelda, and it was worth the wait. This was my first chance trying out the Switch, and it was a nice experience. I made sure to play it both docked and handheld, and both worked great. The game itself was pretty wonderful. You got to play from the beginning, so I didn't really get too far into it, but the open, yet guided feeling that the game gives you really works, and there were some really cool awe inspiring moments. I still don't think it's worth jumping into the Switch right now, but it's good to know that Zelda is worth it should I ever take the plunge.

The first game that I jumped in to try was a little indie game by the name of Sundred. This was a combat focused Metroidvania game that felt like an eldritch version of Guacamelee. The combat was pretty tight, but I felt like I didn't have a clear sense of where I was going and got quickly overwhelmed by a big battle encounter. The style is good enough that I will probably give the game a chance when it gets into beta (I signed up to be on the list), but personally I tend to get lost in these types of games quickly.

Conventions and demos aren't always the best way to show off your game, and I think the setting didn't do this game any favors. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a very literary storytelling game where you wander the world talking to people in order to collect their stories. After that, you stop at campfires to rest and share your stories with those you meet there. It was difficult for me to try to satisfy the strangers requests because I didn't have any context for the stories I had available (she was asking for a funny story, and I had no context of what the stories were like based on a quick glance at their titles). I think the game will play much better when you get to start it from the beginning to fully get the mood of the game. I'll definitely keep my eye on this one.

There's been a revival recently of old school Doom/Quake style shooters, and this is another addition into that movement. Strafe is a pixel graphic FPS that plays fast and loose in corridors and arenas. I got to play this for a little bit, and I thought it was fine. I'm not used to mouse and keyboard, but the game felt tight. The main problem I had with it was that the aesthetic (aside from the pixel graphics) didn't seem very cohesive. Maybe it was just because I was playing a small slice of it, but I couldn't get a sense of what kind of game I was getting into.

On the other side of that criticism was Ruiner, a game that very quickly put it's aesthetic front and center. Again, I'm not very good with a mouse and keyboard, but this top down cyberpunk shooter immediately felt good to play, and the look and feel of the world hooked me immediately. It will be interesting to see if the substance lives up to the style, but I will definitely give this one a look when it's released.

Even though I love staying on top of video game tech, I had never tried VR, so I made it a priority to find a demo on the show floor to try out. When I walked by this one that pitched itself as a "Ghost Story in Virtual Reality," I knew that would be right in my wheelhouse. The demo itself was more of a five minute trailer that you sat in the middle of, but it was a cool experience. You basically sat at a table in a big mansion with spooky stuff going on around you, and it was well paced and creepy. There was a jump scare at the end that really had people screaming, much to the amusement of the line, but it was a bit predictable for my tastes.

To me, this was the coolest non-Zelda title I tried out. Ape Out has the gameplay feel of Hotline Miami (fast, brutal gameplay) but pushes the style to an even crazier extreme. You play as an ape escaping from his cage and trying to navigate a maze while dodging/killing the guards. The game has a top down perspective and is mostly monochromatic, but the really cool part of the style is the music. It has a percussive jazz score that is generated based on your actions. The whole thing comes together in a game that would be perfect for bite-sized play sessions and score attack challenges. The jury is out on how the game will continue to stay interesting for a long runtime, but I loved what I got my hands on.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Logan - Review

While The Dark Knight Rises was not overall a great movie, one thing that it did right was provide us with something we almost never see in the world of superheros: an ending. These types of blockbusters are always categorized by never ending conflict and increasing stakes. Logan is so refreshing because it gives us the opposite of that: a very personal struggle about the end of a journey. Just so you know, I won't be able to talk about this film without getting into some spoilers, so you've been warned. 

I've been a fan of X-Men since the animated series, and like most young kids who picked up on it then, my favorite X-Man has always been Wolverine. He's a complicated character that just oozes cool (he has knives coming out of his hands!) and has been used to tell some interesting stories about the scary world of the military industrial complex. When the X-Men movie franchise started 17 years ago, it introduced us to what would become the definitive version of Wolverine. He's really put a lot of passion into the role, both on and off the screen, and it has come to define him. It's hard to see him retire the character, but it's clear that he's poured all of his soul into this film. 

Logan gives me something I never really thought I'd see: characters that I grew up loving placed in a different, more mature situation and world. This film isn't rated R on a technicality, this film earns its R. The action gets bloody, and it shouldn't end any other way. Wolverine's life has always been defined by violence; whether it's being turned into a weapon or defending his family and friends. It's fitting that his final story is his most violent. The action in the film is both well choreographed and feels impactful. 

While the action is awesome, what's cool about it is the smaller scale of it. We have a fairly small group of characters that we follow on a road trip, which allows the movie to keep focus. Many X-Men movie have he problem of introducing mutants for no reason other than getting them on film, but Logan keeps the cast of good guys to Wolverine, Xavier, Caliban and X-23. It really gives you a chance to take Wolverine on an actual interesting character journey while still giving the other characters moments to shine. There's a scene in the middle of the film where they all just sit down and have a quiet dinner, and it's one of the most wonderful sections of the movie. The X-Men movies are so plot driven usually that we don't get to just sit have have moments with these characters, so it's nice to be able to do it. 

All the actors bring their A-game to this movie as well. Jackman does such a good job bringing this new version of Logan to life, one that's down on his luck and only looking out for him and his small family. Patrick Stewart, who has always brought such gravitas to the series, does an amazing job in some really small scenes, trying to bring back the old, compassionate Logan. One of the biggest surprises was Dafne Keen, who does so much without hardly saying a word. Her character is badass, but also has a tragic humanity to her. 

While it's not really about the villains, the antagonists are chosen well to really help put a bow on Wolverine's story. The Reavers, led by Pierce, represent more people who are enhanced to become weapons in order to hunt down X-23. Also, the character of X-24, who is cloned version of Wolverine in his prime, is the exact right villain for him to have to face in his final adventure. It's so symbolic to have him literally face a version of himself that is just a weapon because that's the thing he's been resisting becoming his entire life. The final fight between them is both viscerally brutal and emotional. 

I can't recommend this movie enough, especially if you are a longtime fan of the series. This film not only brings the action, but it's full of genuine heart that doesn't often come with big budget superhero films. A lot has been made about how this proves the success of R-rated superhero films, especially when put next to Deadpool, but I think it proves that if you make a good film, people will seek it out regardless of the rating.