Captain America Movie Review

Captain America: The First Avenger, is perhaps the best of the films featuring characters from the Marvel Universe.  This film is a great war film, an accurate-feeling period piece, a caring romance flick, and a superb superhero epic.   It is also turning out to be a blockbuster at the box office.  Unless you have been living under a Cosmic Cube lately, you probably know that this movie is the latest in Marvel’s lead-up to the 2012 release of The Avengers movie, which will feature an assemblage of the most powerful figures in the Marvel Universe (and in Marvel Studios productions). 

In many ways, no Avengers movie can happen without a full understanding by the movie public as to who and what Captain America is, and is not.  The Captain America we meet in this movie is a normal guy named Steve Roger. This guy is not some powerful god, he is not a tech-savvy billionaire playboy, or some cosmic-powered alien from another planet.  He was not born with any mutant powers, and he is not gifted with an alien artifact and told to go save the universe.  What he is, though, is a man with heart and with guts, a good, decent, patriotic man who prefers to see the good in the world, but is more than willing to stand up to the bad in the world, whether it be in the form of standing up to a street-wise bully, or standing up to Hitler and his evil cronies.  The Captain America portrayed by actor Chris Evans starts out as a scrawny, skinny, runt declared “4F“by the Army.  Steve Rogers wants to serve his country and stand up to the Nazis, but the Army declared him physically unfit to serve.  Chosen by a wise immigrant scientist to take part in an experiment to create a Super Soldier, Rogers undergoes an amazing transformation.  Without giving away too much here, let’s just say that the origin story presented in the film pretty closely matches the “real” origin story of Captain America as originally presented in Captain America Comics in 1941.  The skinny runt turns into an athlete with the physique of an Apollo, uses his new-found physical prowess to take down a murderous Nazi spy, and then goes on to become Captain America.

The true believers out there who are steeped in comic lore (like myself) will love the movie for its attention to the overall spirit (and quite a few of the details) found in the original Captain America source code (the comics themselves). But, this IS a Hollywood (specifically, a Disney) release, and some alterations in the Marvel Universe canon took place.  But even to a life-long Cap fan, these alterations appeared seamless and fit within the overall rubric of the story that Marvel is trying to tell with these pre-Avengers films.

The movie differs from Marvel continuity and canon in a few ways.  (Note:  Spoilers down below. Watch your step)

1. In Marvel canon, Captain America’s sidekick is a kid named Bucky Barnes, who discovers that Steve Rogers is secretly Captain America, and basically blackmails Cap into letting him serve as his sidekick.  In the film, Bucky is an adult about the same age as Steve Rogers, and they are old pals who grew up together in Brooklyn.  In the film, Bucky is one of the Howling Commandos, and does not wear a costume as in the comics, but a regular army uniform.  Actually, this is a more realistic depiction of what Bucky should have been than the original in the comics.  And actor Sebastian Stan does a pretty good job of playing Bucky Barnes.

 

2. Staying on the Bucky theme, all true Cap fans know what happened to Bucky in the end.  It was not pretty in the comics, and what happened to Bucky changed Cap in terms of his feelings of guilt and remorse and a sense that he could have done more.  The nature of Bucky’s end in the film is different, with Bucky not dying in the final rocket ship/doomsday weapon scene, but by falling off of a train somewhere in the mountains.  Still, this sets up a possible future film story where Bucky comes back as the Winter Soldier (one of the best Cap comic book story lines of the recent past by the way).  The film could have shown more of Captain America’s emotional grief at the death of his best friend, but perhaps we will see more of that referenced in the Avengers movie.

 

3. Perhaps the biggest deviation from the comic canon is who the bad guy is who launches the weapon that ends Cap’s (and Bucky’s, in the books) World War Two career.  In the 1964 retcon (retroactive continuity) as written by Stan Lee (who has a brief cameo in the movie), Captain America and Bucky were believed killed in action while disarming a super-weapon launched by Nazi scientist and all-around bad guy Baron Zemo.  In the movie, there is no Zemo, but we do have Cap’s other main nemesis, the evil and nefarious Red Skull.  Again, this change fits into the movie well, and realistically, having both the Skull and Zemo in the film (plus the evil genius Arnim Zola), would be too much.

 

4. HYDRA is, in the comics, a terrorist organization seeking world domination led by Nazi Baron Strucker.  In the movie, it is the Red Skull.  Again, it makes sense for this movie.

 

5. The Howling Commandos in the comics were led by Sergeant Nick Fury, and would occasionally team up with Captain America.  The movie version has the Howling Commandos as Cap’s idea and Cap’s team.  No Nick Fury showing up in World War Two in this version.  Just as well, as he is a prominent figure in the current pre-Avengers movie line.

 

 

Other nice touches to the film include the connection to the recent Thor film with the use of the Cosmic Cube and the interesting things it shows when handled carelessly.  The surprisingly major role of Howard Stark (father of Tony Stark/Iron Man), makes the connection to the Iron Man movies, and, I suspect, the blood drawn from the post-experiment Steve Rogers is connected to the super-soldier serum given to Emil Blonsky/Abomination in the second Hulk movie.  And, of course, we once again see Colonel Nick Fury at the end of the movie, who serves as the tie-in to the formation of the Avengers (in May of 2012).  As usual with recent Marvel films, fans will want to wait for the end of the credits to see the last scene related to the next movie.

Pickiness aside, the changes in the movie from the comic lore all seem to fit.  Again, this is a great movie.  The romance (such as it is) between Rogers and Peggy Carter is almost an innocent (and definitely chaste) affair, and given Rogers’ background, it makes sense.  And it fits the overall sense that this movie is truly set in the 1940s.  Many of the movies of that era never even hinted at actual sex between unmarried adults, and in that regard, this movie feels like a true period piece.  The patriotic fervor of the times is captured quite well, as is the clothing, dialogue, and the music of the times. 

Captain America: The First Avenger is a fun, absorbing movie that neatly sets the table for next year’s Avengers movie.  I will likely see Captain America again, and when I do, I plan on adding an addendum to this review with any other points I may pick up.  Go see it. 

X-Men: First Class Review

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class, the new film in the X-Franchise, opened on June 3, 2011, and pretty much delivered itself as a good prequel to the X-Men storylines we saw in the first four X-movies.

This movie is a prequel to the other films, in that it introduces significant characters, such as Professor X, Magneto, Mystique, and Beast as younger versions of the characters we see in the first movies.  The film is set in the 1960s, with an “evil Mutant” conspiracy background to a real event, the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Continuity is assumed, in part due to the opening scene, which is the Nazi death camp scene from the first X-Men film, in which we see a young Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) as a child first using his powers.

The new film then plays off of that opening scene, with the villainous Sebastian Shaw (as wickedly portrayed by Kevin Bacon), torturing the young Magneto into gaining the ability to actually control his magnetic abilities.  We then see a young Charles Xavier (Professor X), in his first encounter with another mutant, a young Mystique.  X-Men: First Class then progresses through a series of encounters as Xavier pursues his passion for finding more examples of mutant-kind, while the now-adult Magneto seeks out the torturer from his past with bloody revenge on his mind. 

Along the way, other characters from the X-Men comic world appear, including Hank McCoy (The Beast), Alex Summers (Havoc), Moira MacTaggert, Sean Cassidy, (Banshee), and Darwin, as original members of Xavier’s mutant team.  On the villainous side, we see Sebastian Shaw, Emma Frost (The White Queen), Riptide, and Azazel.  Magneto, in this film, is allied with, and a close friend of, Charles Xavier.

Without giving too much of the plot away, some of the more amusing parts hint at storylines yet to come, as Xavier and Magneto search the world for other mutants to recruit into their team.  Look for cameos of mutants we know from other films.

As a fan and scholar of the original X-Men source-code (i.e. the comic books themselves), a few continuity and accuracy issues arise with this film:

–First, Moira MacTaggert in the film is an American CIA agent who seems very comfortable slipping out of her clothes in order to infiltrate the Hellfire Club.  In the original X-Men reality, she is a Scottish geneticist.  Major plot shift, and totally unnecessary!

–Second, Hank McCoy in the film is a mutant with “beast-like” feet, but that, and his genius-level intellect, is the extent of his mutant-hood.  In reality, he had disproportionately large feet AND hands, and a muscular physique that made him look like an ape with human features.  In the film, he is a skinny, nerdy, and somewhat shy, normal-looking geek.  In the comics, McCoy is self-confident, and has a beast-like physique.  This film portrayal of McCoy is a disappointment.

–The original X-Men included Warren Worthington as the Angel (who appears in one of the original X-Movies), but the Angel in the new film is a woman with insect-like wings, and some sort of natural fire-spit type offensive power.  At first glance, one would assume that she is the movie version of the Wasp, who is a member of the Avengers, and, at least in the Ultimate Universe line of Marvel Comics, is a mutant.  However, the producers of THIS movie franchise cannot call her that due to copyright issues (see below for more on that), so they call her “Angel,” which is another disappointment to those who know the original Angel from the original X-books.

–The movie origin of Magneto’s helmet is actually quite interesting, but again, somewhat implausible.  See the movie for details on that.

–And, in the most obvious deviation from the original X-Men first class of Xavier’s students, is the substitution of the above mutants for the original members, Cyclops, Marvel Girl (Jean Grey), Iceman, and the “real” Angel (plus the Beast).  Since many of those characters show up in the earlier movies, I can’t complain too much about that point.

Now, as many Marvel fans know, Marvel Enterprises was bought up by the Disney Corporation last year.  But, because of existing contractual obligations, several of Marvel’s most well-known, (and profitable) franchises are in the hands of other studios, such as Twentieth Century Fox, who produces the X-Men films.  That means that unlike recent movies produced by Marvel Studios, there are no connections between this film and the other recent and upcoming Marvel movies, such as Iron Man, Thor or Captain America.  And, unlike those movies, don’t bother waiting for an “easter egg” scene after the closing credits.  X-Men: First Class contains no such fun nuggets.  And, due to the fact that the upcoming Avengers movie is a Marvel/Disney production, and the Wasp is an Avenger, the Wasp-like character has to be called something else, hence the film’s Angel.

One more thing:  X-Men: First Class is NOT a good film to take little kids to.  The scenes in the Hellfire Club scene feature women (presumed to be prostitutes) in skimpy clothing employed to make the male customers of the club feel “comfortable,” and the aforementioned Angel character is found by Xavier and Magneto to be working in a strip club.  There is no actual nudity, but not much is left to the imagination.  And, in one of the cameos by a future X-Man, a rather shocking, but amusing and very much in character, F-Bomb is thrown about.  In the old days, these scenes would have earned an “R” rating, but this movie gets by with a PG-13 rating.

Overall, despite my comic-book geek criticisms, this film is definitely worth seeing if you like the X-Men.  Character development is good, backstory is created, and the acting is quite good.  The mutant combat scenes are effective, and the special effects are fun.  The relationship between Xavier and Magneto, and also the relationship they each develop with Mystique, are both very well done and helps give the movie its depth.

X-Men: First Class is a classy new edition to the X-Men franchise.  Well-worth seeing in the theater this summer.

Review of Karen Traviss’s Imperial Commando 501st Star Wars Novel

Review of Karen Traviss’s Imperial Commando 501st Star Wars Novel:

The recent Star Wars novel by Karen Traviss, Imperial Commando: 501st , is the first of a planned series  of five books, but is preceded by four Republic Commando books, which contain the same basic characters.  None of this I knew when I visited my local Borders Bookstore and picked up a paperback copy of Imperial Commando: 501st.  You see, this was my first Star Wars novel, and I just did not know any better! I probably should have started with the first Republic Commando book, but then I would have missed all the fun figuring out which character was which, (a real trick, since at least half the major characters are clones), and what the back story was all about.  And what a back story that is!

Without giving away too much of the plotline, let’s just say that anyone who enjoys the Star Wars milieu will get a kick out of this book, though if you are a fan of the Jedi (or the Sith), you may come away a bit angry.  You see, the heroes of this book (and the whole Commando series) are not the fancy light-saber waving, Force-using, robe-wearing Jedi, but the identical, Jangoistic (if you get that pun, you are a true SW fan!) clone troopers and commandos who fight the Republic’s, and later, the Empire’s, wars. 

Traviss puts the emphasis on the clones, their interesting psychology, and the diverse cultures that they inherited based on where their training sergeants came from.  One particular aspect of the book I enjoyed was the emphasis on the home life, and the “family” feeling that the clones had for one another.  I had to look up a few Star Wars terms and races online (Mandalorians?) to get the drift on a few items, but I also discovered that Traviss is in the center of some controversy surrounding the attitudes many of the clones and others in the book feel toward the Jedi.  As everyone who knows anything about Star Wars knows, the Jedi are not only central to the Star Wars movies, but are the heroes (and at least one major villain), of the whole movie series.  Not so in Imperial Commando: 501st. The clones and their allies see the Jedi as a power-hungry, child-stealing cult who raise the young Jedi children to live a life of monkish asceticism while training them to be killers and to use the Force to secretly control the Republic from behind the scenes.  From what I can gather from the internet insults directed at Karen Traviss, many of the pro-Jedi fans see her as messing around with Star Wars canon, which of course, is a big no-no. 

I don’t see it that way at all.  I believe that Traviss is presenting these books with the clones as the central characters.  Thus, the first-person narratives of the clones and their allies of course come with a pro-clone and, logically, an anti-Jedi point of view.  It makes sense that the clone troopers see themselves as genetically-engineered slaves sold by the Kaminoans who created them, and bought by the Jedi who used them in the Republic’s wars; wars, it should be mentioned, that resulted in many clone trooper deaths.  If the Jedi bought you and your brothers, and sent you off to war because you had been programmed to fight and they had PAID cold, hard cash for the right to own you, wouldn’t you be a tad miffed at the whole Jedi mystique?

Overall, I truly enjoyed Imperial Commando: 501st.  Karen Traviss has a good, character-driven writing style which helps give the main characters, Niner, Darman, Skirata, Fi, Ordo, and the others, bring a sense of humanity to the white-armored stormtroopers of Star Wars mythology.  I am going back to start the first book in the Republic Commando series to meet these very human characters from the beginning, and to gain a greater appreciation for the Mandalorian and Clone viewpoint of those pesky Jedi.

May the Force Clone Troopers be with you!

 

Imperial Commando 501st Cover

Imperial Commando 501st Cover

Review of S.M. Stirling’s The Scourge of God, A Novel of the Change

Scourge of God Review

The Scourge of God, sequel to S.M. Stirling’s The Sunrise Lands, and a part of the larger Change series, picks up where Sunrise Lands left off.  Our protagonist, Rudi Artos MacKenzie, is on his hero’s quest to the fabled island of Nantucket to retrieve the Sword of the Lady (which happens to be the title of the next book in the series), with his companions from the previous book.  As with any true heroic journey, this Fellowship of the Sword encounters dark mages, tyrannical despots, rescued heroines, and suffers deep wounds and tragedy as they make their way from the battlegrounds of Idaho  through the Sioux Country to lush Iowa, which is ruled by a mad hereditary governor. 

Meanwhile, as our heroic fellowship journeys east, their parents and other kin are engaged in a war with the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) and the Republic of Boise.  The bloodthirsty and murderous CUT is led by Sethaz, who inherited the rule of this cultish, Luddite theocracy upon the death of The Prophet (the equally bloody and Luddite Ted Kaczynski).  It is in this character, Sethaz that we begin to see where Stirling is taking the book series.  Sethaz uses mystical powers to bend others to his will.  He also has the apparent ability to direct the priests of his cult from far distances.  This introduction of obvious mystical powers into the non-technological world of the Change moves the series from a straight-up alternate history/Sci-Fi story to more of a fantasy realm.  Sethaz reminds me of the Thulsa Doom/Thoth-Amon character from the Conan the Barbarian stories; an evil sorcerer with a cultish following who is able to influence people with his mind.  To that point, our hero, Rudi, is taking on Conan-like properties as he journeys across the old United States.  Also, we see the appearance of the deities protecting/leading/encouraging our heroes.  The passages where Odin All-Father and the Virgin Mary (not together), appearing to Rudi and Father Ignatius, respectively, sent chills down my spine, as it became obvious that we were entering into a fantasy realm where the men and women of the world were becoming the playthings of the Gods.

Stirling’s Scourge of God is a very good continuation of his Change books.  The heroes are heroic, the villains are evil and worthy of killing, and the newly developing societies that Rudi and his fellowship encounter are interesting, spiritual in their own unique ways, and actually quite logical, given the circumstances of the Change.  The book ends with Rudi on an individual mission upon which his friends’ lives are in the balance, and the weight of the world is on his shoulders.  Just the perfect ending for a heroic fantasy.  As I said at the end of the review of the Sunrise Lands:  I cannot wait to start the next book in the series to see what happens.  Stay tuned…

Movie Review of Quintin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds

Theatrical Poster for Quintin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds with Brad Pitt

Theatrical Poster for Quintin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds with Brad Pitt

Quintin Tarantino’s latest violence-fest is an alternate history of World War Two, in which a former Southern moonshiner leads a group of Jewish American soldiers into Nazi-occupied France to wreak havoc among the German forces.  In typical Tarantino fashion, the death and destruction inflicted upon the Nazis by these “Inglourious Basterds” (Tarantino’s misspellings appear to be intentional), is overly bloody, savage, and cruel (which, considering the victim’s of the Basterds work are Nazis, is of course appropriate). The film ends with a joyously bloody fate for many top-ranking Nazis.

The Southern moonshiner is Lt. Aldo Raine (the character’s name is a clear homage to actor Aldo Ray, who starred in many World War Two movies as a tough American soldier), played very well by Brad Pitt.  Raine commands a squad of Jewish American soldiers who understandably enjoy the opportunity Raine gives them to kill Nazis.  Lots and lots of Nazis, in fact. 

At one point in the film, Raine and his Basterds are joined by a British officer Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), and given a mission, code-named Operation Kino (kino means cinema in German).  Operation Kino’s goal is to blow up a cinema in Paris that is set to host the premier of Joseph Goebbels newest propaganda film, “Stolz der Nation” (“A Nation’s Pride”).  The movie theater is expected to be filled with hundreds of top ranking Nazis, including Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, and Bormann.  Unknown to the Basterds or the Allied planners, a second plot to destroy the Nazi-filled theater is hatched by the cinema owner herself, a French woman named Emmanuelle Mimieux (played by Mélanie Laurent).    As shown in the opening sequence, this woman is the sole survivor of a massacre of a Jewish family by an infamous Nazi “Jew Hunter.”  She also seeks vengeance against the Nazis, and plots a very dramatic and cinematic end for Hitler and his ilk. 

For more detail, go see the movie.  It is a typical Tarantino-fest with lots of violence, many pop-culture references (any spaghetti-western fan will enjoy the opening lines on the screen; “Once Upon a Time…In Nazi-Occupied France”), and a fantasy ending that made me want to cheer.  Again, without giving out too much spoiler detail, I would love to see the reaction the climax of the film receives in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  Oh, if World War Two had truly ended this way…

I originally planned to review this film with an eye to setting apart the Hollywood version of the war from reality, as many movies taking place in the past truly mess up historical detail, but it is clear that Tarantino created an obvious alternate universe that intentionally bears little resemblance to the unfortunate true history of World War Two.  So I won’t bother pointing out the differences between the movie and reality. 

Enjoy the film.  If you don’t mind blood and guts, it is well worth the price of admission.

Review of S.M. Stirling’s Sunrise Lands, A Novel of the Change

I just finished reading the paperback version of S.M. Stirling’s novel The Sunrise Lands and, just as with its predecessors in his inventive Novels of the Change series, this book comes off as a masterpiece among the alternate history/alternate universe genre.  The main character, Rudi Artos Mackenzie, undertakes a quest, with the aid of eight companions, with the goal of reaching Nantucket Island, rumored to be the origin place of the mysterious Change that altered the world. 

For those unfamiliar with the earlier books in the Change series, The Change refers to an unexplained phenomenon that occurred in the year 1998 and changed the laws of physics to disallow any type of powered machinery.  No man-made electricity, nuclear power, steam power, or anything that would run an engine or machine.  Oh, and gunpowder and all other types of explosives no longer work.  Formerly explosive substances can burn, and they sort of fizzle when lit, but they do not explode.  All of a sudden, a thug with an ax-handle is better armed than a cop with a handgun whose bullets are filled with non-exploding gunpowder.  Those who know how to handle a sword, or who can effectively use bows and arrows, generally survive and prosper, while those with archaic or otherwise useless skills, such as computer programmers, television news anchors, bloggers, lawyers, and similar ilk, tend to die out.  And, literally, hundreds of millions of Americans did die out, along with billions of other humans around the world.  Out of this chaos, small communities form, with leaders who have weapons skills out of the medieval era, personal charisma and leadership ability, and a plan to ensure their continued survival, and the survival of their followers. 

The Sunrise Lands takes place some 22 years after The Change (CY22 or Change Year 22, corresponds to 2020 AD, as useful dates are found in the beginning of each chapter) follows the exploits of several of the now-grown children of some of the leaders of the surviving communities that developed after The Change in the Willamette Valley of Western Oregon.  These adventuresome heirs are led by Rudi Mackenzie, who was told in a vision to go to Nantucket Island.  With him are his twin half-sisters, Mary and Ritva Havel, Ingolf Vogeler, a traveler from the exotic lands of the East (Wisconsin, actually), Mathilda Arminger, is the crown-princess of Portland, Odard Liu, a second-generation hereditary Baron from Mathilda’s kingdom, Edain Aylward, the son of an English soldier who happened to fall in with Rudi’s mother as she established a Wiccan nation in Western Oregon, Father Ignatius, a warrior-monk of the Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon, and Alex, a weapons-toting manservant in thrall to Odard’s family and Barony.

Without going into a general summary of the whole book, I will mention some of the highlights that I found most interesting.  As with any alternate history or alternate universe tale, the really intriguing parts are when the reader gets to see the way in which the author re-makes the world and invents or re-invents societies and cultures. Stirling is a master at creating these alternate nations and societies.  At this point some 22 years after the Change and the great die out it caused, we see the dead lands of the east coast, inhabited by semi-cannibalistic savages, and not much else that can be considered human.  The Midwest contains a few civilized nations, such as the State of Iowa, and the Republic of Richland (Wisconsin), along with a resurgent Sioux nation in the Dakotas and Minnesota.  As mentioned in the other Change books, the rejuvenated Native American nations are largely Native in the cultural sense, as racial groupings tended to form a real melting pot effect.  Further west, the Mormon areas of Utah and Idaho formed the theocracy of New Deseret, and a military dictatorship in Boise, Idaho, led by a very efficient and idealistic man named General Thurston, whose goal is to restore the now-defunct United States of America.  To the east, in Montana, an anti-technological cult led by The Prophet, a real-life figure well-known to those who followed current events in the 1980s and 1990s, (I won’t spoil the surprise for those of you who have yet to read the book).  This cult is expanding its power, and, like Mohammed’s followers in the years after the founding of Islam, conquers all in its path, and converts non-believers at sword-point.

Rudi Mackenzie and his band of adventurers travel through these lands, and a recurring theme throughout the Sunrise Lands is the ways in which the now-grown children of those leaders who founded new societies after the Change, find their way and exhibit cultural traits and ideas very alien from the pre-Change societies that their parents grew up in.  For example, Rudi and all of his companions except for Alex are the children of post-Change societal founders, and on their journey they encounter other sons and daughters of The Change.  In Boise, they meet the sons of General Thurston, Martin and Frederick Thurston, both of whom play very important roles at the end of Sunrise Lands, and, it seems, will play major roles in the next book, The Scourge of God.  The military leader of the Prophet’s army is the adopted son of the Prophet, and this son, Sethaz, will play a major role in the sequel.  A recurring thread in the book is found in conversations between “Changelings” as the post-Change generation is called, in which these adult “kids” constantly express how sick and tired they are of their parents talking about how life was like before the Change occurred.  To these young adults, television, airplanes, computers, electric light bulbs, jobs selling electronics, and all the things we take for granted in the real world are so much nonsense.  To them, the history books of the twentieth century seem like fictional fantasy, while the tales of the middle ages and stories like Ivanhoe and the Lord of the Rings seems like the real world to them.  Talk about a Generation Gap!

All in all, The Sunrise Lands is an exceptional work of alternate history, and I, for one, cannot wait to read the next book in the series.  The Scourge of God is already out in hardback, with the paperback release date set for September 1, 2009.