Choosing My Favorite Heroes for 2016 and Beyond

Copyright © 2016 by 20th Century Fox

Who are my heroes?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. And if you’ve followed me in the past, you might know that I’ve blogged about my favorite characters and my favorite character archetypes. But this year, when audiences are tuning in for movies like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and TV shows like Supergirl and The Flash, I’m going to focus more on the context of superheroes.

First, a confession: I didn’t grow up reading comic books like other geeks. My love and general knowledge of heroes like Batman, Superman, the X-Men, and Spider-Man all came from their respective cartoons back in the Nineties—and once the Nineties were over, I stopped following them as my interests went roaming elsewhere. So I don’t have that big of an appreciation for “classics” like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which Batman v. Superman pays homage to in its visuals and its plot.

For me, it’s telling that my favorite superhero stories from this year don’t feel like they belong in the genre at all. Guardians of the Galaxy is nothing more than a comedic space opera, with none of the usual trappings of costumed heroes and villains. Marvel’s Jessica Jones is the story of a survivor and how she fights her abuser, with one or two mocking jabs over fighting in a costume or using a codename. And then, of course, you have a fourth-wall-breaking joyride like Deadpool that plays the genre half-straight, but then calls out every stereotype and cliché with a bloodstained, R-rated grin.

Part of me will always love Batman and Superman, but only because of their incarnations in the DCAU that I grew up with. These days, I’d rather watch a superhero story that doesn’t look or feel like a superhero story. I think there’s something great about a story that doesn’t fall back on traditional genre markers. I can watch Ryan Reynolds build up a relationship with Morena Baccarin, only to become a complete lunatic who’s aware he’s in a superhero movie rather than a stock heroic character like, say, Colossus. And I can watch Krysten Ritter relive her trauma while fighting and pursuing David Tennant’s Kilgrave without any need for a costume or a codename.

So, I guess what I’d be looking for in future superhero stories are characters who can have fun with their genre or who can blend into the real world without costumes or pseudonyms. That’s why I’m looking forward to the sequels for Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, as well as new titles like the announced Black Widow movie. And while I may not belong to the larger fanbase that will spend money on larger projects like Batman v. Superman or Captain America: Civil War, I’m content to watch and enjoy superheroes that meet a niche market like mine.

First Look: The Flash (2014)

Over the last few months, I’ve had friends tell me how awesome the CW has gotten with shows like Arrow. And despite all the hype, I never did get around to watching Arrow, even though I’ve been assured that its quality is top-rate from storytelling and acting to special effects.

So, I figured I had two options this year. I could either binge watch the last 2 seasons of Arrow and see if I became a fan overnight… or I could just watch the pilot to its spinoff, The Flash.

Guess which one I went with?

Though I’m not a diehard comic book fan, I do love stuff that comes out of comic book universes, which includes heroes like the Flash. Compared to Arrow, this new show is a lot less gritty, putting more of a positive spin on the origin story and journey of Barry Allen.

Haunted by the bizarre death of his mother, Barry works as a CSI tech in Star City. One stormy night, a particle accelerator experiment at STAR Labs goes wrong and Barry ends up struck by an unusual bolt of lightning. When he finds that the lightning gave him a supercharged metabolism and the ability to run faster than humanly possible, Barry has to reevaluate his whole life—as well as his past. With the help of STAR Labs, Barry takes a shot at being a hero, rescuing citizens from danger and putting a stop to another metahuman who was hit by the same freak storm. With a little encouragement from another superhero—the Arrow himself—Barry becomes The Flash and devotes himself to keeping his own city safe.

Grant Gustin does a fine job at Barry Allen. It’s easy to see him as a bit of Peter Parker knockoff (a geek who lost his parents at a young age and can’t get anwhere with girls), but it’s nice to see his skill as a forensic scientist in action. I’m guessing the showrunners have watched Sherlock because the first thing they have Barry do is drop to the ground of a crime scene and see virtual clues pop up everywhere. Still, Gustin’s performance does come off as earnest without being annoying.

The rest of the cast ranges from decent to fair. We’ve got the Cool Science Team who explain what happened to Barry and give him his costume, the Gruff But Lovable Police Officer (played by Law & Order veteran Jesse L. Martin), and the Love Interest (played by Candice Patton), whom I honestly didn’t care for one bit, but that’s not much of a gripe.

My other issue about the cast is the villain (played by Chad Rook). We get a lot from him except special effects, but in all honesty, that might be a good thing. It’s better that the pilot episode focuses more on our main character than on a villain’s origin story.

As far as the plot and pacing go, I felt that the first 10 to 15 minutes are a bit rushed. We get some clunky exposition delivered by Barry, his friend Iris, and others—not to mention blatant foreshadowing (see how often you can hear “fast” in the first 10 minutes). However, after the lightning strike, the episode definitely improves as we see Barry try to control his new powers and make sense of the world 9 months later. And while some might call it out of nowhere, I think the showrunners did a good job of establishing a connection between The Flash and Arrow, using a scene between Grant Gustin’s Flash and Stephen Arnell’s Green Arrow to demonstrate a quiet but effective moment of friendship.

I think the key selling point for this show are the special effects. Yes, there’s some good dialogue and decent acting, but the marvel that’s sure to keep audiences coming back are the shots of Barry Allen turning into a brilliant red streak that thwarts criminals and leaves a trail of mayhem in its wake. The show also deserves some credit for trying to come up with a plausible explanation for the Flash’s iconic red suit, reminding me of the way we got to see the Batsuit and other gadgets introduced in Batman Begins.

Even with some of the emotional drama and romance angles that we’ve come to expect from shows on the CW, I think The Flash is going to be a lot more fun as a superhero-based series. We don’t need to see a brooding vigilante leaping through a noir cityscape. Instead, we get a bright-eyed hero in a bright red costume running in to save the day—during the actual daytime, no less.

The Flash will soon be available for viewing on The CW.

Bibliography: The Flash (TV series). Developed by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Geoff Johns. Produced by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, Geoff Johns, David Nutter, and Sarah Schechter. Perf. Grant Gustin, Candice Patton, Rick Cosnett, Danielle Panabaker, Carlos Valdes, Tom Cavanagh, and Jesse L. Martin. Bonanza Productions, Berlanti Productions, Warner Bros. Television, and DC Entertainment. The CW (channel). Original broadcast date: October 7, 2014.

Feel The Hot White Fire Leaping Off Each Page: The “Snowflame” Fan Comic by Julie Sydor

If you have ever read the original New Guardians series by DC Comics (or at least watched Linkara’s reviews of the comics), then you might know about this one-shot villain who goes by the name of Snowflame.

Who is Snowflame?  He’s a Colombian supervillain powered by–and devoted to–the magical essence of cocaine.

Two things to note:

  1. It was the Eighties and the War on Drugs was a big deal.
  2. Such an insane and bombastic character could only end up becoming a cult favorite among comic book fans.

Now, Snowflame has only appeared in one comic to date: New Guardians issue No. 2, Blow In The Wind.  However, he has since drawn a sufficiently large fanbase on the Internet that there is now a fan-made webcomic about him.

Julie Sydor is the creative mind behind the webcomic Snowflame, which dares to take such an insane character concept and add a more human dimension.  While Snowflame remains the same bombastic blow-snorting bad guy, there is a realism about his fanatical beliefs and how he got his start in Colombia as a drug lord named Fabian Orosco.  It’s reminiscent of how the character Bane started out as a young man in Santa Prisca before injecting himself with Venom to become the superhuman genius we know and love today.

The comic is also well-illustrated, with Sydor choosing a classy black-and-white approach with gray shading.  Much like how Christopher Nolan reapplied a gritty lens to the Batman franchise, Julie Sydor adds a darker, real-world filter to the audacity of Snowflame’s character.  At the same time, the webcomic manages to capture the dialogue and ethos of a classic DC comic book, featuring such superheroes as Batman, Green Arrow, and Raven.

I recommend this webcomic for comic book fans, Snowflame devotees, and just nerds in general.  It’s a meaningful exploration of a fun character.

Snowflame: the fan-comic series can be read on its own website and on Julie Sydor’s deviantArt page.  For further Snowflame material, I recommend checking out Will Wolfgram’s performance of the character on Atop the Fourth Wall.

First page of “Snowflame.”  Copyright © 2011-2012 by Julie Sydor.

Bibliography: Sydor, Julie.  Snowflame: the fan-comic series.

A Three-Part Review: The “Dark Knight” Trilogy

Copyright © 2012 by Warner Bros. Pictures.

As this point in time, at this period in my life, if I’m asked that character-revealing question, “What’s your favorite movie?” I would have to say, “The Dark Knight trilogy by Chris Nolan.”

Before I fell in love with Star Wars or Power Rangers or any of my other childhood influences, my first pop culture icon was Batman.  The first Halloween costume I ever remember wearing was Batman.  I watched Batman and Batman Returns on VHS endlessly, and doubly so for the animated series by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm.  And ironically, I’ve never once bought a Batman comic book, though I love most of the other media he’s in.

Christoper Nolan’s successful film series has only made me realize why I fell in love with the Dark Knight.  And now, after having seen the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, I feel it only fitting to review the entire saga.

Batman Begins (2005)

Since this is a film giving Batman a solid origin story and first adventure, it’s fitting that Christian Bale is the heart and soul of the movie.  Bruce Wayne’s story arc from tragic orphan to vengeance-seeker to costumed crime-fighter is an epic drama, taking him across the globe and under the tutelage of Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows before returning to Gotham to save it.  Bale has to act for two throughout the film, being both the tortured Bruce Wayne and the legendary Batman.

I love how dark this film is.  Not just thematically, but visually.  This is the Gotham I remember from the comics and from the animated series.  And I love the central theme of fear that pervades it.  Combined with Hans Zimmer’s grand score and the unsettling addition of Scarecrow, there’s a lot to draw the first-time audience into this film and into the whole Batman franchise.  And it grounds the comic book premise with something more real, things like organized crime and re-appropriated military prototypes.  Even with the sequel hook at the end, this film is strong enough to stand up as its own story.

The Dark Knight (2008)

If Christian Bale’s Batman was the core character from the first film, then Heath Ledger’s Joker steals the spotlight in The Dark Knight.  And really, that’s the whole point of the film.  The Joker is a psychopath clown who shows up and sows chaos for both the Gotham City police and the mob.  Batman is just trying to keep up, which makes the climax all the more satisfying because he finally lives up to his earlier statement: “Batman has no limits.”  It’s more telling that Batman seems to have more screen time than Bruce Wayne, and almost as much screen time as the Joker (he just can’t resist getting in front of a camera).

Aaron Eckhart gives a great performance as Harvey Dent, a good foil to Batman  with his own demons in his zeal to save Gotham from corruption.  Gary Oldman shines a lot more as Jim Gordon, being more of Batman’s partner than Alfred (Michael Caine) was in the last film.  Even Morgan Freeman gets to be a little more dramatic toward the end of the film, calling out Batman on some of his more extreme tactics against the Joker.

And as for Maggie Gyllenhaal… I got nothing.  The Rachael Dawes character in both films isn’t that interesting.  She has a lot of spirit when played by either Gyllenhaal or Katie Holmes, but she’s mostly a spectator on the heroic side.  It’s more up to characters like Gordon and Batman to do the major work, which they pull off beautifully by the end.

This film is my favorite of the series, building up the suspense of the Joker as opposed to the mystery of Batman’s previous foes.  Heath Ledger gave us a stellar performance near the tragic end of his life and it makes me wish I had paid more attention to him as an actor before.  The film also dares to tear into its cast after introducing them in Batman Begins, showing their humanity through suffering and some very emotional dialogue.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Set eight years after The Dark Knight, the film centers around the fragile peace of Gotham since Harvey Dent’s death and Batman’s disappearance.  When a mercenary leader named Bane shows up to finish the work that Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows started, Batman has to come out of retirement for one last showdown to save his city, even though he’s on the verge of losing everything in his life as Bruce Wayne.  Gotham becomes a war zone between Bane’s followers and the few precious heroes willing to stand up for justice and order, with people like Batman and Catwoman able to tip the scales of victory.

Christian Bale returns as the heart and soul of the film franchise, taking up more of a central role here than he did in The Dark Knight.  He also gets some nice character development when playing off my other two favorite characters in this film: GCPD Officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway).  Blake is a great new character, showing us an honest man’s view of Gotham and a true hero without a mask; his role in the final scene alone is possibly my favorite moment in the entire film.  And Anne Hathaway really shines as Catwoman, being a wonderfully talented and snarky femme fatale who gives Batman a run for his money.  I thought it was nice that they even included Holly Robinson (Juno Temple) as her friend and as a nice nod to Batman: Year One; it makes Catwoman all the more human and gives her someone to talk to, just as Batman has Alfred.

I have to admit, though, that one of my most serious disappointments in this film was its main villain.  Tom Hardy’s Bane is brutal without apology, willing to crush opponents while still keeping a sophisticated air.  But sadly, his mask makes half his dialogue garbled to the point of being incomprehensible, and his motivation is a little hazy.  I figured that the filmmakers were going for Bane as a revolutionary leader, trying to lead an uprising in Gotham against its corrupt government and social elites, but after seeing this film, he gets so blatantly villainous in view of the public that it’s hard to see how even the cynical people of Gotham–who proved their integrity at the end of The Dark Knight–could take his words so seriously.  And finally, I would have cut out the role of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) altogether.  She doesn’t really contribute much to the film and her role in the big twist at the end just cheapens Bane’s role as the mastermind behind the plot to destroy Gotham.

Ultimately, The Dark Knight Rises is to The Dark Knight what Return of the Jedi was to The Empire Strikes Back.  While the third film raises the stakes and brings a lot of character arcs to a close, it doesn’t have the same emotional intensity and tight focus of the second film, and sometimes drags things out just for the sake of dramatic tension.  But even so, I like this film and think it’s a wonderful conclusion to the Dark Knight trilogy.  It’s a story that explores the suffering of Bruce Wayne’s life and what the people of Gotham can do when inspired by the legend of the Dark Knight.

Final Verdict

The entire Dark Knight trilogy works out for me on both a visual and thematic scale.  Besides bringing comic book characters to life in a fairly realistic way, the films also have a great setup of challenges for Batman to overcome.  In Batman Begins, it’s fear; in The Dark Knight, it’s chaos; and in The Dark Knight Rises, it’s despair.  But in every instance, Batman never gives up, and that is why, now and forever, he’ll always be my true hero and inspiration for good.

Bibliography: Batman Begins.  Directed by Christoper Nolan.  Story by David S. Goyer.  Screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer.  Produced by Larry J. Franco, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, and Benjamin Melniker.  Composed by Hans Zimmer.  Perf. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Cillian Murphy.  Syncopy.  Warner Bros. Pictures.  US release date: June 15, 2005.

The Dark Knight.  Directed by Christoper Nolan.  Story by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan.  Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan.  Produced by Kevin De La Noy, Jordan Goldberg, Benjamin Melniker, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, and Christopher Nolan.  Composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.  Perf. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman.  Legendary Pictures, Syncopy.  Warner Bros. Pictures.  US release date: July 18, 2008.

The Dark Knight Rises.  Directed by Christoper Nolan.  Story by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan.  Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Produced by Kevin De La Noy, Jordan Goldberg, Benjamin Melniker, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, and Christopher Nolan.  Perf. Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman.  DC Entertainment, Legendary Pictures, Syncopy.  Warner Bros. Pictures.  US release date: July 20, 2012.