Monday, January 26, 2015

The End of The Marvel Universe

This week Blair gives us his opinion on the recent news that the end of the end of the Marvel Universe has been made official: Note - there may be one than one post on this topic this week as this has been a widely discussed event among many of the contributors to his blog. - Jim

I am not happy. 

In fact, I’m pretty pissed off about this week’s news that the Marvel Universe as we know it coming to an end. The 616 Marvel U is being smashed into the 1610 Ultimate Marvel Universe to form the basis of a new Marvel Universe once Secret Wars is over. And it looks like this may be the dreaded Marvel reboot that the longtime fans have feared for years.

It doesn’t help when Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso uses this analogy to describe the results “Imagine two pizzas: They're going to combine toppings, some toppings are going to drop off. And that is the Marvel Universe moving forward.”

Yeah... I don’t want that. At all.  

I understand the ridicule that comes with being a grown man who loves superhero comics. But I am so far past caring about that at this point. I’ve loved superhero comics my entire life, but I’m more of a Marvel guy than a DC guy. DC has a lot of amazing and iconic superheroes, but I’ve always identified more strongly with the Marvel characters. 

Marvel also had the advantage of never having a reboot. At least, not a complete reboot. Every few years, Marvel creators tend to retcon out some aspect of its backstory that no longer makes sense in a modern context. That’s why Tony Stark now became Iron Man in Afghanistan instead of Vietnam. That’s why Mr. Fantastic and The Thing weren’t actually World War II buddies with Nick Fury once the ‘70s and ‘80s happened.  

It’s a rolling timeline, and fans came to accept that because it meant that most of Marvel’s history was intact. We could overlook the fact that decades of stories were being condensed into an unrealistic ten to fifteen year time frame because it meant that our Marvel Universe never went away. For better or worse, everything in Marvel counted... unless it was unnecessarily retconned by later writers. 

Having come to DC Comics largely after Zero Hour, I didn’t feel the same way about Crisis on Infinite Earths and the big changes that it made to DC’s comics. But for the old school DC fans, it must have been like the gut punch that I felt when The New 52 jettisoned most of the non-Batman or non-Green Lantern stories. That’s the problem with dumping so much history for  a reboot. I loved the DC characters just the way they were. However, I don’t feel the same connection to their new incarnations. They may look the same (with some newer costumes that are uglier than their old costumes), but they are most definitely not the same. 

That was one of the reasons I never really got into the Ultimate Universe beyond The Ultimates and Ultimate Spider-Man’s early years. The first 25 issues of those Ultimate titles felt like something fresh and special, which I largely attribute to Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar bringing something new to the table. However, at no point did I ever want the Ultimate Universe to supplant the Marvel Universe. If you were a comic fan 14 years ago, you may recall that as a constant rumor that never came to pass. Unless it’s happening right now.

The thing that really bothers me about this is how unnecessary it is. It’s not like Marvel needs an excuse to slap a new # 1 on every one of their books. They do it almost every two to three years, and it’s rare for any title to hit # 50 in this era. As for accessibility for the fabled new readers, that was the initial goal for the Ultimate comics line. And it actually worked for a few years before it was bogged down by the weight of its own continuity. If they try that again now, history will only repeat itself.

When Millar left the Ultimate books, the line never recovered. Bendis has kept Ultimate Spider-Man going, but the only thing still worthwhile in the Ultimate Universe is Miles Morales. That’s it. Do we really have to go through Secret Wars just to transfer Miles to the regular Marvel Universe? Because you know that’s gonna happen. Most of the Ultimate Universe’s greatest heroes have already been killed off (mostly by Jeph Loeb), and I was okay with that because it wasn’t in the “real” Marvel Universe and a lot of those characters never resonated with me in the way that their 616 counterparts did. 

It possible that Marvel is playing us all and the changes to the Marvel Universe will only be cosmetic. Maybe most of what we love about Marvel will be more or less the same after Secret Wars is over. All we know for sure is that this will lead to another round of multiple relaunches and numerous tie-in one-shots and miniseries. 

But the powers that be at Marvel sure seem to enjoy making the fans feel angst about the fate of their comic book universe. Perhaps they’re right to do so if it means bigger sales and it finally brings in new readers. However, I am extremely apprehensive about the whole thing. 

Alonso is fond of saying that Marvel’s history isn’t broken and the company doesn’t need to reboot even while he hints that this might actually be a reboot. To that I say, “you break it, you bought it.” I’ve come to realize that the characters’ histories are part of the reason that I care so deeply about them. Without their backstories, a lot of the same creations felt like empty ciphers in the Ultimate Universe.

If the same thing happened to the Marvel Universe, it might mean that I finally have to divorce myself from this side of the hobby that I love so much. I really and truly do not want to do that. Avengers and Secret Wars writer Jonathan Hickman has signaled his desire to take some time off from Marvel after this event to focus on his creator owned comics. I think Hickman is a very talented writer, and I just hope he doesn’t burn down the castle on his way out the door.

That’s how I feel about it. Unleash your opinion below!

- Blair

Monday, January 19, 2015

How would you fix the DC universe?

Assisting me today with a speculative post on how to fix the DC universe is my good friend Scott Simmons. In thinking on the topic, I reached out to Scott because not only is he wise and well-spoken, but he also has extensive experience in comic book sales. (He worked at a local comics shop, Heroes and Dragons, on and off during the late '90s and early 2000s, during which he saw the end of the boom and the beginnings of the shift to digital.)

I notice a trend among commenters on the blog to lament what they see as the sorry state of the DC New 52 universe. While I'm not as down on the current line of DC comics as some people, I will admit that there is a real lack of innovation and differentiation among the titles. They tend to have the same look and feel. As a result, while sales seem okay (bolstered as they are by the weekly series and gimmick covers), there is no denying that, line-wide, DC is in a creative slump that is affecting sales. As proof of this, I offer up the recent mega-cancellation of 13 DC titles coming in a few months.

This saddens me, because as much as I like the Marvel universe, I consider myself a DC fan. So, in typical armchair quarterback fashion, I asked myself how would I fix DC and this is what I came up with:

As I see as the problem - regardless of how many titles DC puts out, they tend to fall into the same category, Superhero Fight Comics. And that's all they are.

What if instead, they actually treated their comics line like a book publisher, with different genres:
  • Humor
  • Horror
  • Mystery
  • Science Fiction
  • Drama
  • Romance (that sounds like a weird one, but at one time Romance comics were huge AND they still hold the record for fastest growing genre/trend in the industry.)
For instance, for humor, they could put out these titles:

Jimmy Olsen
Blue Beetle and Booster Gold
Thunderworld (C. C. Beck-styled Marvel Family adventures)

Then, clearly brand the various titles by genre to make it easy for readers to find what they like. In a way, Vertigo used to work like this (sort of, but I think it got confused as time went on) and I recall many podcasters who said they would always try a new Vertigo title because that was brand they trusted.

With that as my proposed solution, I reached out to Scott to see what he thought of the idea. Here's what Scott said:

Your idea's a good one, and I may surprise you by stealing most of it and claiming it as my own!  If you were hoping for a wildly different answer, I hate to disappoint — though maybe I can redeem myself by explaining that I arrive at a similar conclusion by traveling a slightly different path.

However you feel about DC Comics now, you can't deny the company owned the 1990s.  Or that it had the greatest variety of output any comics publisher has ever enjoyed during that period.  (Yes, even including the late Golden Age, before the super-hero ascended as the one genre to rule all of comics.)

DC's success wasn't just because of Sandman or The Death of Superman.  It was because, as you point out, DC published a wide variety of titles in the '90s and leveraged their corporate parentage to penetrate every existing niche market within comics.

There were super-hero titles, sure — competitive ones, fighting variant-cover-for-variant-cover with Marvel and Image.  Superman #75, the climax of the aforementioned Death of Superman, nearly matched numbers with X-Men #1 and X-Force #1 — heck, it outsold McFarlane's Spider-Man #1 — and it did it on the basis of a story, albeit a gimmicky one, rather than first-issue-fueled speculation.

But there were also horror titles (Hellblazer), science fiction (the Helix line), fantasy (Books of Magic), crime (Road to Perdition), magical-realist autobiography (Brooklyn Dreams), and even a bit of dabbling in war and western genres.  Romance even managed to come up for a breath of air via the hybrid super-hero romance Young Heroes in Love

Back to super-heroes for a moment, though.  DC's titles within the genre were far from homogeneous.  The Flash served up then-unfashionable Silver Age nostalgia, Lobo offered humor, Animal Man brought metatextuality to the fore, and Doom Patrol and Justice League Europe carved out a niche for thought-provoking mainstream comics with a philosophical grounding we might best describe as "art school comics."

The variety didn't stop with the comics!  DC put movies in theaters (though perhaps not ones you'd want to bring up to modern audiences) and beloved cartoons on the TV.  They turned those Dini/Timm cartoons into a beloved line of all-ages Adventures books, at just the moment mainstream distribution was drying up and comics stores were strange, intimidating places for women, children, and civilians to venture into.

The best part about all that diversity, though, the part no one ever mentions, is that (before Vertigo veered off into its own land at the end of the decade), it all happened in the same shared universe.

In the 1990s, when it ruled the world, DC Comics reached the apex of a publishing strategy it had had for a half century:  Letting everything "count."

Notice I didn't say "making everything count," but "letting" — because it doesn't take as much effort as one might think.  DC pioneered the strategy of building a diverse publishing line back in the Golden Age — first by expanding into original material in comic books instead of just publishing reprints of newspaper strips, then by introducing a hybrid genre influenced by the pulps and adventure stories, the super-hero.  Throughout the era, the company expanded its genre offerings to serve every audience it could find: super-heroes, funny animals, horror, crime, Westerns, science fiction, literary adaptations.  Many of those genres eventually faded, but when DC reinvigorated the super-hero during the Silver Age, one of its first moves (via Gardner Fox and Julius Schwartz) was to reference and bring back the heroes of the Golden Age.  All these different comics, conceived for different audiences, existed side by side in DC's stable.

And the company's leadership didn't have to work at it, as such.  They just had to stand aside, remembering wise old Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once cautioned, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

The world we live in is one of diversity.  It's a world that comprises both ISIS beheadings and the city of San Francisco's outpouring of kindness for Batkid.  Neil deGrasse Tyson exists alongside Charles Manson and Pee-wee Herman.  Adherents of Richard Dawkins and those of Joel Osteen leer suspiciously at one another beneath the same sky.

A DC Universe that allows Jamie Delano's vision of John Constantine, Phil Foglio's of Angel and the Ape, and Denny O'Neil's of Batman to breathe the same air is more than fun, more than a novelty.  It's realistic, in a way we rarely use that word.

The 21st century has brought a lot of lip service to diversity, and DC has, accidentally or by design, branded themselves as the anti-diversity publisher.  While many critics focus on the narrow range of ethnic, social, national, and sexual traits among the publisher's super-heroes, we should also consider the monotony and homogeneity of their titles.  Modern DC publishes, relentlessly, for a niche.  What's killing the company (and saddening its fans) isn't that the niche they publish for is the lowest common denominator; it's that it's only a niche, when DC has for decades reached out to publish not just pandering fantasies for a small segment of fans but a four-color representation of the breadth of the world, as seen through the lens of comics' best and brightest creators.

So what does DC need?  I think you've nailed it:  variety.

- Scott

Sunday, January 11, 2015

James Bond in Public Domain?

io9 had an interesting article about the fact that the early works of Ian Fleming are now public domain in Canada.

 As the article explains...

Broadly, this means that Fleming's Bond books can be published and sold by anyone in Canada, there could be Canadian film adaptations of the novels, and people could write their own Bond stories. So long as they did these things in Canada or one of the other countries where Bond is now in the public domain. It gets trickier if you try to leave the borders of those countries.

Which is to say, you COULD produce a comic book using James Bond (but none of the stuff from the movies which did not appear in the books) as long as you only sold the book within Canada (and the other countries Bond is in public domain.)

What the article doesn't say is how do you market such a book? One might think that the name James Bond is a protected trademark, but apparently, that's not entirely true as Danjaq LLC, the company behind the Bond franchise hasn't been able to successful secure it's brand against third parties using it.

Currently, kindle (Amazon eReader) versions of the old books are selling for $7.99 but I have to wonder how long that will last. Currently, you can pick up kindle complete compendiums of of HP Lovecraft books for much cheaper than that.

- Jim

Friday, January 2, 2015

StevieB's Top 5 Comic Events for 2014

Editor's Note: Consider todays post part 2 of the Flashback Universe 2014 review. Today,  StevieB presents his view of the Top 5 Newsworthy comic events for 2014. - Jim

In case I haven’t plugged myself enough, I Co-Host a podcast called Nerds of the Apocalypse which can be found on iTunes and YouTube. Our end of year topic was the most influential thing this year for each of us. When Jim asked me for an end of year post I decided to follow suite but lean more in the comics category. Here is my top 5 most influential things for comics this year.

Number 5: The Bat Girl Change
I honestly only read a 10ish page preview of the new Batgirl book and this turned me off completely. I get that we are trying to hit a different demographic but this just seemed like too drastic of a change. I just can’t see Barbara Gordon this way. She doesn’t seem like the type that would bring a random guy home from the club and not remember it because she was drunk. Batman should have taught her better.

Number 4: Marvel Cancelling Fantastic Four

So Marvel is going to cancel the Fantastic Four in 2015.  All over movie rights? Really? I confess that the Fantastic 4 is not a book I pull but I do enjoy having the characters in the other books I read. It just seems petty to me that Marvel would go to these lengths to thwart a movie release. This mainly affects the Comic fans and we are the ones who know how bad this movie is actually going to be. It’s not like most fans who have been keeping up with the leaked news about the movie are going to see it anyway. AM I RIGHT?!

Number 3: The Flash TV Series

I was debating if I should keep it all strictly comics or add in some T.V. or movie stuff. I decided to add at least one, the most influential, The Flash T.V. Series. Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Season 2) are very good but nothing brings the Comic book world to life more than The Flash. I literally have loved every minute of this show. The lore they introduce and characters that show up on the show are incredible. It opens itself up to almost endless possibilities. It does have its hiccups here and there (Barry and Iris) but the good completely outweighs the bad. Not to mention, it’s a show my wife really enjoys as well.

Number 2: Geoff Johns taking over Superman
Since the New 52 began Superman was “just ok” to me. This was mostly because I was reading these books through Fanboy eyes. When Geoff Johns took this book over it finally made it an exciting read for me again. I’m really enjoying the story with Ulysses. The John Romita Jr. art does not hurt this new story direction either.

Number 1: My introduction to Valiant Comics 

You may or may not have listened to Jim and I on our “Monkey Talk” Podcast but one of the things discussed a couple of months ago was Valiant’s Armor Hunters crossover story. Up until that point, I had never read anything Valiant. That entire crossover hit on all cylinders and I’ve now been reading this.

These stories are new and refreshing. The writing and art are superb. If you haven’t read anything from the re-launched Valiant line, I implore you to at least pick up and read the first few issues or the first trade of X-O Manowar. I can almost guarantee you’ll be enthralled by the story of Aric of Dacia and his battle armor. There is so much more but this is a great place to start.

It’s been a great year for comics. I know I’m going against the popular opinion when I say I’m really looking forward to the new Secret Wars. What most influenced you this year in comics? What are you looking forward to the most out of Comics in 2015?

- StevieB

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Comics - The Good, The Not So Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Depending on how things go, this week may see a flurry of 2014 in Review type posts here on the FBU, so I thought I would start the ball rolling with quick review of some of the good and bad books/series I bought in 2014. - Jim

The GOOD (in no particular order)

Superior Spider-man - Dan Slott (various artists)

Yeah, I know a A LOT of you dissed this book through its entire existence, but I suspect 95% of the people dissing this book A) Weren't reading it and B) Aren't reading Amazing Spider-man now that Peter Parker has returned as Spider-man. The bottom line is Dan Slott managed to wring surprises and fun out of this premise at every turn because he could do things with the Doc Ock Spider-man that you just can't with Peter Parker Spider-man. (And I'm not talking about lame grim and gritty antics, but actual, interesting character reveals.)

Multiversity - Grant Morrison (and various guests artists)

This one is a bit of a mixed bag, but I find myself enjoying it more than not. The latest issue featuring the Fawcett Universe is a love letter to the era. (Though it does have a few eyebrow raising moments at times...) Reading praise on various message boards about this issue, the overwhelming refrain was that the DC 52 needs more books like this.

Southern Bastards - Jason Aaron and Jason Latour

What we have here is what is intended to be an homage to the type of 70's one man against a corrupt patriarchal system as you might find in Walking Tall or Billy Jack. And if that was all it was, it would be pretty slight (even with the nice art by Jason Latour.) The thing that gives series more oomph is the focus on how the American Cult of Football obviates the sins of its heroes. In this Ray Rice/Steubenville era, the Southern Bastards is more topical than I suspect Aaron intended, but that just serves to give the story more gravitas.

The Woods - James Tynion IV and Michael Dialynas

The premise of this series sounds like a SyFy young adult movie: A highschool of kids find themselves suddenly transported to a strange distant planet where they must forge new alliances to survive. I'm sort of a sucker for hooky premises and this one intrigued me enough to get the first issue. What's kept me coming back has been how Tynion reveals the backgrounds of the various characters while quickly revealing surprises and plot twists. This is definite not a one-idea young adult knock off, but a well thought out concept with some good world-building.

The Invaders and The Fantastic Four - James Robinson and Steve Pugh and Leonard Kirk

It might seem strange to group these two as one item, but Robinson is interweaving storylines between the two titles via Jim Hammond, The Original Human Torch, so I'm counting them as one entity. Amidst the endless desert of Avengers crossover titles that is the current Marvel Universe, these two titles are like an oasis.  If you forgive the unfortunate detour into the Original Sins event which lasted two issues, both books have been great.

Star Trek Comics - Various

If you are a Star Trek fan, then IDW has something for you. Whether it's John Byrne's well made photo-comics using images from the original television show or the nicely illustrated version of Harlan Ellison's script for The City on the Edge of Forever. My latest buy is the no-brainer Planet of the Apes Star Trek crossover which I'm looking forward to reading as soon as I finish today's post!

The Not So Good

Batman Eternal - a bunch of people but supposedly helmed Jay Synder

This series started off strong, but man has it lost steam. It almost made it into the BAD list, but what saves it is that because it comes out weekly, you're usually apt to get one or two good issues a month out of the series. Unfortunately, you do find yourself getting obvious padding from time to time. And let's not even discuss the abomination that is the Joker's Daughter. On the flipside, I like how they reintroduced The Spoiler.

The Fade Out - Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

This tale of murder during 1948 Hollywood has all the trappings of something I would love, but my biggest disappointment is I've seen a lot of this done better in the books of James Elroy. Still, putting that idiosyncratic criticism aside, Brubaker and Phillips are presenting a well crafted mystery in a era that's fun to visit, so I'll keep reading for now.

Annihilator - Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving

I enjoyed the first issue of this series, and read the second issue but somehow I've not been compelled to buy either of the latest two issues. I don't know. I think it was the killer Teddy Bear or something that probably caused me to loose interest.


Winter Soldier - Rick Remender and Roland Boschi

I bought the first two issues of this series when I did my State of Captain America comics article last April, but don't recall ever getting around to talking them. Here's the deal. This is supposed to be a period piece set in the groovy 60's or something, but instead, we get a confused story where people use mac computers and talk like they just stepped out of Starbucks. All I can think is that this story was retro-fitted for this series (or something) and the retrofit was half-assed.
Or it was just half-assed from the get go.

Sirens - George Perez

Because I have fond memories of Teen Titans and George Perez I picked up this first issue. Boy, was that a mistake. It was a ponderous mess of storytelling with way too many introduced with each one compelled to give you their entire life story or whatever. When modern comic fans talk about how they can't read old comics because they are too talky, this is what they mean. And it's a valid point. (btw - I blame Chris Clairemont for that shit, but that's a topic for another day.)

The Ugly

Marvel's Infinity Event - Jonathan Hickman and Jim Cheung

Y'know, there was a time when I was proud to defend Jonathan Hickman against naysayers who said his stories were too convoluted, confusing or slow moving. This series broke me of that. Between the over-saturation of the Avenger's franchise at Marvel and the constant themes of secret-histories and toyetic iconography that seems to infest Hickman stories, I think I'm done with his work for now.

And that's my wrap up. What did you read in 2014 that you liked or disliked? Feel free to let me know!

- Jim

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Arrow Season 3 Midseason Report

Editor's Note: Today Blair Marnell continues his CW Superhero midseason reports with a look back at the first half of "Arrow" Season 3. - Jim

I wasn’t always a fan of “Arrow,” especially in the first season. 

Although “Arrow” has been pretty good in terms of action since the beginning, the dialogue was beyond atrocious during the early days as the show reveled in its CWness. There was Stephen Amell’s apparent allergy to shirts, Oliver’s doomed love with Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), and the most CW characters of them all: Oliver’s sister, Thea (Willa Holland) and their mother, Moira (Susanna Thompson).

That’s not to say that there weren’t episodes I enjoyed during “Arrow” Season 1. It just wasn’t fully clicking for me. It didn’t help that “Arrow” killed off Tommy Merlyn when Colin Donnell was easily one of the best actors on the series. It took most of the first season for “Arrow” to find itself, but I didn’t really get invested in it until early in the second season when the following line was said: 

“Ra's al Ghul has ordered your return.”

Now, it’s just a name, right? A little Easter egg for the DC fans and viewers of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films who remember that Ra's al Ghul just happens to be one of the greatest Batman villains of all time. It didn’t necessarily mean that we’d ever get to see Ra's al Ghul on “Arrow,” but the idea that he was out there really expanded the world of the show.

Green Arrow doesn’t have the greatest rogues gallery in the comics, which is why “Arrow” has so liberally borrowed other villains from the DC Universe. John Barrowman was a terrific choice as Malcolm Merlyn, but Slade Wilson aka Deathstroke (Manu Bennett) was the only other adversary who really registered on the show... and he’s more of a Teen Titans villain than an enemy of Green Arrow. At least that was the case before Identity Crisis came along and tried to spark that rivalry between them. 

The point is that there was no clear choice for “the big bad” of “Arrow” Season 3 except Ra's al Ghul. It really had to be him, because the show had foreshadowed his appearance for almost a full season. If Fox’s “Gotham” had cockblocked that, it would have killed that momentum. 

That said, I’m not entirely sold on Matt Noble as Ra's al Ghul. The midseeason finale of “Arrow” Season 3 gave us our best look to date at Noble’s incarnation of the character. He’s not bad in the role, but I’m not blown away by this casting choice. 

From this point on, there are full spoilers ahead for the “Arrow” Season 3 midseason finale! If you’re still reading after this paragraph, I’m assuming that you’re up to date with the show.

One thing that I loved about the midseason finale was that Oliver Queen was completely outclassed in the unnecessarily shirtless in the snow duel with Ra’s. The Demon’s Head easily disarmed Oliver and stabbed him with his own sword before kicking Oliver off of the mountain to his apparent death. But if anyone thinks that Oliver is really dead then they haven’t been reading enough comic books. 

The downside of Noble’s performance is that he didn’t demonstrate the force of personality behind Ra's al Ghul. This is a world class adversary who could teach James Bond villains a masterclass on truly epic villainy. Ra's al Ghul is the hero of his own story. He wants to save the Earth... but he’s willing to kill nearly everyone on the planet to achieve that goal. In “Arrow,” that same sense of purpose isn’t coming across. Ra’s is just the leader of the League of Assassins, and it’s not clear if he has any larger agenda beyond that. 

There needs to be more animosity between the Arrow and the Demon’s Head. Their conflict just isn’t personal enough to resonate. Malcolm Merlyn is still coming off as a bigger villain because he represents a very real threat to Oliver’s family by his corrupting influence on Thea. It may go against all sense of logic and reason, but Thea’s murder of Sara Lance (Caity Lotz) is actually a great way to continue Oliver’s feud with Malcolm. 

Unfortunately, Thea doesn’t really have any agency in this storyline. Thea doesn’t know that she killed Sara because Malcolm drugged her with some previously unmentioned wonder plant that made her susceptible to suggestion. The “Arrow” writers really dropped the ball by not hinting at that plant’s existence until the episode that they sprung that explanation on us. That is the definition of cheap writing from the seat of your pants and making it up as the story goes along. 

In theory, an Evil Thea is something that could have been a lot of fun. But the show wants to have it both ways, by not fully committing to making her a villain and by keeping the old Thea around... and giving her the most annoying character ever as her new love interest in the form of Chase (Austin Butler). Seriously, I’d pay good money to see Chase get brutally killed by an arrow.

 It’s the same story with Laurel. The “Arrow” producers have been trying so hard to make Laurel happen for three seasons that they can’t step back and realize that it just isn’t working. The only tacit admission of their failure is the way that the writers have reoriented Oliver’s romantic feelings from Laurel to Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards). Personally, I hate the “Olicity” shipping, but it is the pairing that the majority of the show’s fans seem to gravitate towards.

If the “Arrow” creative team had really been listening to the fans, they wouldn’t have written out Caity Lotz’s Sara Lance. She was the Black Canary that we didn’t have to wait three seasons for. Lotz was more convincing as a heroine and she had more charisma than Holland or Cassidy combined. Instead of signing Lotz as a series regular, they killed off the wrong Lance sister because the creative team is still trying to make the audience love Laurel and accept her as a heroine.

But I think it’s too late for that. The next couple of episodes are supposed to put Laurel in costume as Black Canary, but Cassidy is working against three seasons of bad writing to try to change the audience's perception of Laurel. And let’s be honest, Cassidy’s performance hasn’t exactly been great. 

Compared to “The Flash,” “Arrow” has seemed strangely unsure of itself this season. Brandon Routh has been a fun addition to the cast as Ray Palmer, but The Atom feels even more out of place on “Arrow” than The Flash does. More than anything, I think that “Arrow” has lost its sense of direction. The only plots that have been driving this season forward have been Sara’s murder and Laurel’s supposed evolution into a heroine. Oliver Queen is being poorly served by his own show and even John Diggle (David Ramsey) has been reduced to the guy who’s trying to get Oliver and Felicity back together as a couple... just because he cares for them.

That my friends, is about as CW as The CW gets. 

Regardless, a strong cliffhanger can make up for a lot of shortcomings. “Arrow” definitely had one of those in the midseason finale. The challenge for the show will be to deliver a resolution for that cliffhanger that doesn’t take a cheap way out. I’ll accept the existence of a Lazarus Pit, but even that’s a little too easy. 

I think the “Arrow” creative team can make adjustments after some of their misfires, but first they need to realize where they’ve gone wrong. Sometimes, that’s the hardest thing to figure out.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Flash: A Midseason Report

Editor's Note: Today Blair returns with some interesting thoughts on the Flash and the midseason finale: The Man In The Yellow Suit. - Jim

There's so much that can go wrong with a comic book inspired TV show that it's refreshing when a series is good out of the gate.

The Flash is a very good series. Someday, it may even be a great one.

I give a lot of the credit to Geoff Johns, the long time comic book writer who has ascended to the post of DC Entertainment's Chief Creative Officer. That means he actually has a say in how these DC characters come to life in live action.

It was Johns who added the tragic element to Barry Allan's back story with the murder of his mother, Nora Allen at the hands of a time traveling Reverse-Flash.

At the time, I was not happy with that change. The Flash is not Spider-Man! It gets really annoying when Spider-Man's tropes are given to other heroes who previously had their own identity.

But the inherent problem of Barry Allen is that he is the most boring man alive. At least that's how he comes off in the comics, even in The New 52 reboot. But on The Flash TV show, Grant Gustin's Barry Allen actually feels like a living, breathing person. And this time, the Spider-Man vibe really plays well. Even the Flash theme reminds me of Danny Elfman's Spider-Man music.

Although this is Flashback Universe's midseason report for The Flash, the primary focus is going to be on episode nine: The Man In The Yellow Suit. From this point on, there are spoilers ahead from the midseason finale. I am assuming that everyone is current with The Flash if you keep on reading.

 The Flash TV series has kept Johns' back story about the murder of Nora Allen. But more impressively, it's built up Reverse-Flash into a truly effective villain. And I have to give the show bonus points for giving that role to one of the best actors on the show: Tom Cavanagh.

From the end of the episode, we are meant to infer that Cavanagh's Dr. Harrison Wells is the Reverse-Flash. It's not a perfect fit, as Wells' actions have shown his desire to protect Barry, even if he only wants to ensure his own future. It also requires Reverse-Flash to be in two places at once. Or possibly two different people.

Wells killed Simon Stagg to protect Barry and he encouraged Plastique to kill General Elling before he could threaten Barry and others like him. On the other hand, only Wells knew that Detective Joe West had reopened the Nor Allen case. Shortly thereafter, Reverse-Flash paid Joe a visit and stole all of his evidence at super-speed before threatening the life of Joe's daughter, Iris.

The creative team of this series have done a terrific job of conveying how frightening that Reverse-Flash can be to people who don't have superpowers. Even Barry is completely outclassed and overpowered by Reverse-Flash. Any good hero needs a villain who can truly challenge them. And we've got that here.

In the midseason finale, both Gustin and Martin delivered their best performances to date. Martin is just an amazing actor. The words given to Joe West aren't always well written, but Martin sells it with such convincing emotions and gravitas that it resonates. Gustin has also been very good as Barry. This episode gave Barry a chance to pour out his heart to both of his dads and to Iris (Candice Patton) and all three scenes worked.

I am less sure about Patton's abilities as an actress. But the show hasn't done any favors for her by making Iris into Laurel 2.0 (for all of you Arrow fans). Making Iris into The Flash's cheerleader feels like tired material barely halfway through the season. And I'm already bored with Barry pinning for her heart.

Another problem with the show is that two key members of Team Flash are severely underdeveloped. Barry, Joe and Wells get all of the really juicy material while Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) and Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) are barely characters at all. They exist only to give Barry exposition, scientific explanations (well, comic book science) and give him someone to play off of. The show has halfheartedly given Caitlin a tragic backstory in the form of her lost fiance, Ronnie Raymond (Robbie Amell). Comic fans know him better as Firestorm.

Despite claiming to have no idea who Caitlin is or even his own name, Robbie stalks her in this episode until she finally sees him. However, the first two Firestorm scenes have such sloppy editing that it feels like important moments were skipped over. That is not the way to make us care about Ronnie or Caitlin.

Out of nowhere, Ronnie shows up just in time to save Barry from the Reverse-Flash. In terms of the plot it makes no sense... even if Robbie only came to save Caitlin. But then how would he have even known to come? Basically, this only happened to keep Reverse-Flash as an unstoppable threat without killing Barry or his friends.

I haven't really dealt with Rick Cosnett's Eddie Thawne because he annoys me. But the midseason finale may have given him something interesting to play. Eddie realizes that the Reverse-Flash could have killed him... but didn't. If the show follows the comic here, it could mean that Eddie is Wells' ancestor... or Eddie may become a Reverse-Flash as well.

The midseason finale had some shortcomings, but this was a satisfying way to closeout the opening episodes. I am excited to see where The Flash goes from here.

- Blair


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