2015 • 108 minutes • A24
Ex Machina concerns Caleb, a programmer at the Google/Apple stand-in Bluebook, winning a lottery to spend a week with the founder of the complany, Nathan. Upon arrival at Nathan’s compound, Caleb is taken aggressively under Nathan’s wing and asked to participate in a Turing test to determine if Ava, Nathan’s latest project, is sentient.
It’s not a spoiler to say that this does not end well.
X-Men ’92: Warzones!
by Chris Sims, Chad Bowers, and Scott Koblish
2016 (originally published 2015) • 128 pages • Marvel Comics
The greatest cartoon theme song of all time—and I will fight you on this point—is undoubtedly the theme tune to X-Men: The Animated Series. Composed by Ron Wasserman (who also composed the theme song for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which kind of blew my mind), it’s sixty seconds of iconic synthesizers, illustrated by an opening sequence straight out of a comic book. (My favorite segment: the team crossing the screen from left to right while the word “X-Men” darts by in several directions for no reason.) It’s so good that Michael Kamen snuck in a sly musical reference to it in the score for X-Men. To me, it is the X-Men, although I never watched the show as a kid. (Although I did watch the entirety of season one at a friend’s apartment in college, and shrieked when Mister Sinister smiled for the first time.) When I went to go see X-Men: Days of Future Past at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, you can bet that they played the theme song and that I totally flipped.
There is simply nothing more X-Men. Nothing more radical. Nothing more, dare I say, nineties.
Bitch Planet: Extraordinary Machine
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, and Robert Wilson IV
2015 • 156 pages • Image Comics
While I’m familiar with the long history of feminist dystopian fiction (have I mentioned how much I loved Only Ever Yours?), I’m far less familiar with exploitation films, especially the women-in-prison variant. Nonetheless, the idea of reclaiming women-in-prison films for the purposes of feminist discourse naturally appeals to me. I also very much trust Kelly Sue DeConnick due not to anything like Captain Marvel (as I haven’t read her run yet), but to her adaptation of Barbarella (which I also haven’t read, but I’ve read DeConnick’s interviews regarding the art of adaptation). Reframing and adapting supposedly empowering female narratives from the past to actually be empowering? Nice.
Bitch Planet takes place in a future where women who are deemed noncompliant—i.e., too loud, too butch, too queer, too brown, too assertive, too “insufficiently feminine”—by the ruling Fathers. Women who are terminally noncompliant are arrested and shipped off to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, nicknamed “Bitch Planet.” The latest crop of ladies struggle, suffer, and resist against their guards. But inmate Kamau Kogo is approached with an offer: put together an all-female team for the bloody Duemila sports competition. While kowtowing to the powers that put them in prison doesn’t appeal to Kamau, the opportunities it might provide, for both her fellow inmates and herself, do…
based on X-Menby Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
2016 • 144 minutes • 20th Century Fox
I’ve mentioned that seeing Batman V. Superman: Grimdark Grimdark Grimdark kind of broke my cinematic criticism—nowadays, if a movie doesn’t actively make me weep in exhaustion for humanity, it’s already streets ahead. A curse, true, but it’s also a blessing. I’m starting to think of it like being deathly afraid of something and then finally experiencing it. No film will ever be that bad again. I can take anything that cinema can throw at me, because I actively sought out and paid for the worst. Cinematically speaking, I am now invincible.
I already had a similar attitude to X-Men: Apocalypse even before Batman V. Superman: Grimdark Grimdark Grimdark broke me like Bane breaking Batman’s spine. After X-Men: Days of Future Past, it became obvious that the reason to go see an X-Men movie was to follow the continuing saga of Charles Xavier and the X-Men, see some great character moments, and have a giggle over some of the sillier aspects of the proceeding that are, nonetheless, endearing, like a deeply loose grasp of the concept of the passage of time.
You know, sort of reading X-Men comics.
2015 • 95 minutes • Epic Pictures Group
Let’s talk about period pastiche.
Period pastiche, or determinedly making a throwback of a film, can be an interesting challenge for filmmakers and a delightful treat for film viewers. The Good German, Far From Heaven, and Hail Caesar! all leap to mind, but there’s also more blockbuster fare like Captain America: The First Avenger. From a distance, it’s easier to map the aesthetic contours of a cinematic era and hit the high notes while conspicuously eliminating any of the low ones. It’s also a great way to express narratives you’ve had in your head since childhood, as they will inevitably bear some markers of the era they coalesced into being during.
Case in point: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell’s Turbo Kid, a willful eighties throwback set in the far-off dystopian year of… 1997. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland where water is controlled by the warlord Zeus, teen scavenger the Kid scrapes together a living, comforted by his love for Turbo Rider comics. When he is aggressively “found” by a strange girl named Apple, he finds himself drawn into a conflict against Zeus that lets him realize his dream of being Turbo Rider. But, as Apple points out, he’s not much of a Turbo Rider. He’s more of a… Turbo Kid.
Captain America: Civil War
Based on Captain America
by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
2016 • 147 minutes • Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Are we ever going to be able to get back to Captain America: The Winter Soldier?
Don’t get me wrong: I heartily enjoyed Captain America: Civil War. It is no less ideologically chewy, as one review delightfully put it, than The Winter Soldier. The difference is that The Winter Soldier is a Captain America movie and Captain America: Civil War is an Avengers movie. I often wonder when the wheels are going to come off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because we’re getting to a point where a Marvel film must do two things: be a good enough film and set up the board for the next film or films, depending on how many players are on this particular board. In my experience as a reader and viewer, serial plot structure is one of the most challenging things to do right. And Marvel, with the exception of Iron Man 2, has mostly been handling it well. But it’s difficult to serve two masters at once, and we know which one takes precedent.
The Russos, to their eternal credit, pull that delicate balancing act off elegantly, but I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get a wholly singular genre riff like Captain America: The Winter Soldier again in the Marvel universe.
Star Wars: Darth Vader: Volume 1
by Kieron Gillen, Salvador Larocca, and Edgar Delgado
2015 • 160 pages • Marvel
It’s embarrassing, but I’ll admit it—I wanted to read Star Wars: Darth Vader because I thought Kieron Gillen wrote “Thank the Maker.” If you’re unfamiliar with “Thank the Maker,” it is actually a 2000 Star Wars comic written by Ryder Windham about Darth Vader encountering C-3PO during The Empire Strikes Back. Vader flashes back to rebuilding C-3PO as a child, defending droid rights to his mother as she tells him that creating a droid is a big responsibility. I was so touched by Vader feeling actual pain over how far they’ve traveled from that point in time that I immediately determined to read… Star Wars: Darth Vader.
In my defense, I knew Gillen was writing a Darth Vader title when I saw a few pages of “Thank the Maker,” so the two naturally conflated in my mind.
In a way, though, Star Wars: Darth Vader answers the same question as “Thank the Maker”: how do you square Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker in light of the prequels in a meaningful way? And I don’t mean that in a joking way at all. I’m watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars while I get ready for work in the morning (this is how I watch any and all half-hour programs), and I’ve been very much enjoying how the show tries to balance Anakin’s character and bridge the gap between Jedi hero and Sith villain. He’s heroic, dashing, and loyal, but he’s also possessive, violent, and impulsive.
Kieron Gillen, naturally, has a very good answer to this question, which is Star Wars: Darth Vader. Continue reading
Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice
based on characters published by DC Comics
2016 • 151 minutes • Warner Bros. Pictures
There is no way to prepare for the horror show that is Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
I thought I was prepared. I had read every negative review, starting with Helen O’Hara’s. I spoiled myself silly, starting with the first episode of Overinvested. I took every measure to gird my loins, in the hopes of yielding the finest bad movie schadenfreude of the year, possibly even the decade.
But there’s no way to be prepared for the nihilistic slog of this film. As I told Captain Cinema upon exiting the theater, I felt like I had gone through childbirth without the reward of having had a child. We had to go home and watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens just to remember the taste of strawberries, as the saying goes. (That and a heaping helping of tiramisu definitely helped.)
Before I get into spoiler territory, because I am going to get into spoiler territory, here is the simplest and easiest way to know if Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is for you. This is a film where the audience is honestly surprised when Batman threatens to throat-punch a villain with a sizzling Batbrand and doesn’t. If that level of violence and character assassination appeals to you, congratulations, please enjoy all of Zack Snyder’s cinematic oeuvre.
2016 • 108 minutes • Walt Disney Studios
As an Aunt to Werewolves, I get excited whenever I see something amazing happen that, to them, will be just a part of their childhood and the way the world works. My nieflings will never know an America without marriage equality or a Star Wars without women and people of color. (Sidebar: if you haven’t seen the Rogue One trailer, what you are doing reading this review go watch it immediately.) And they’ll always have had Zootopia to introduce them to complex concepts like bigotry and internalized bias, something I never expected of this movie when we first began hearing about it.
The Scorpion Rules
2015 • 384 pages • Margaret K. McElderry Books
If you’ve been a reader for long, you may know that I have a soft spot for young royal women with steel in their eyes and the world on their shoulders. This stems from being reared on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, wherein that incarnation of the eponymous princess sacrifices seven years of her life and, perhaps, the player protagonist to save her kingdom. It’s a soft spot that goes often unsatisfied, because grim-eyed shield maidens have strangely not become a popular archetype in fantasy. But when it’s satisfied, it’s often satisfied well, as in the case of both Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue and Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules.