All We Have to Fear are Dire Crossovers

You want Armageddon? I'll give you Armageddon!

Fear Itself

Issue 5 (of 7)

Story by Matt Fraction
Art by Stuart Immonen & Wade Von Grawbadger
Cover by Stuart Immonen & Billy Tan

Price: $3.99

For those wanting to read a balanced review that isn’t essentially a bile-filled tirade, please look elsewhere. There are also spoilers aplenty.

You have been warned.

Fear Itself is a mega-epic, mind-blowing story that shakes the foundations of comics for all time and…sorry, I was auditioning for a role in marketing at Marvel.

Fear Itself is a sprawling crossover with a simple enough premise. A hitherto unknown brother of Odin, king and All-father to the gods of Asgard, has been freed from imprisonment and has bestowed Mjolnir-like hammers upon various super-powered characters in order to make them incredibly powerful servants.

This collection of twisted heroes and villains (known as “The Worthy”) are sent on a trail of destruction in order to raise fear among all humanity to feed Odin’s brother (known as The Serpent) to return him to his former nigh-omnipotent glory. His plan, once he has destroyed Earth, is to assault Asgard.

Heroes unite, some die, some fight and some go off on missions that will obviously later turn the tsunami-sized tide.

So is the basic premise that leads us to issue 5 of Fear Itself. Sadly, other than the death of Bucky Barnes, that is all one needs to know from the entirety of the first four issues.

After the previous issue I complained about this series being a bullet point list of “epic cool moments” with no character response and interaction to link them together in a satisfying way. In this issue Fraction tries to include some pauses between the wanton disaster in order to bring the reader along for the ride, to make it all matter finally.

Thor. I think.

It is such a shame that he seems so utterly tone deaf to the voices of the characters he uses. By voices I can of course include Thor’s manner of speech which I know is supposed to be toned down from his previous Shakespearean cadence, but “always a giant pain in the ass” just isn’t something Thor would say.

Thor names the Breaker of Souls as Benjamin, the name of his friend, then fells him with a fatal blow. Again I just don’t recognize this Thor who drops one of the people he respects most in a heartbeat, particularly when he knows Ben is not in control of his actions.

Thor of course does this as we are having a message bludgeoned over our heads. “This is epic, this is a true apocalypse, the heroes are facing something greater than anything else they’ve ever faced!”

So we have Cap’s shield shattered by the Serpent’s bare hands (done before by the Beyonder of course) and most egregiously we have Spider-Man give up. Spider-Man asks for leave to go see his family as they can’t win so he might as well spend his time with his loved ones.

Yes, that Spider-Man.

And Captain America agrees as he knows they have lost.

Yes, that Captain America.

Both of these characters have faced certain death many times and never responded in this way. Both of them have been absolutely sure they were going to lose and sacrifice their lives in the process and never wavered. Now apparently they’re really absolutely convinced they can’t win (before they were  just mostly certain they would lose) so they give up.

Utter bollocks.

Showing new aspects of characters in the face of new danger leads to an interesting story. Having characters do things that are completely against their nature in order to make a story interesting is cheap trickery.

Cap knows Tony is still out there and up to something. Thor is down, he isn’t out and he is destined to defeat the all-powerful Serpent, something that Cap knows and has already stated would give the evil Asgardian reason to be afraid. Most of the heroes in New York are still able to fight and there are still heroes (the X-men spring to mind) who could join the fray. There are still blatantly obvious options still to be pursued. But if Cap were to consider those things Fraction might lose yet another opportunity to have the neon flashing sign plastered over everything screaming “Danger!”

The strange behaviour could be all a ploy of course, Cap is trying to buy time, Spider-Man is playing along, off to try and find Tony (or Mephisto, “This time I’ll let you have my coin collection”). Even if that is the case, it still wouldn’t be a big enough twist to have the characters behave so, well, uncharacteristically.

This is the worst thing I have read by Fraction by a country mile. It feels like a story done by committee, written on post-it notes and then phoned in.

It’s a shame that the phenomenal art is having to service such an infuriating story.

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Miles Morales and Michel Faber

I don't see the resemblance to Barack Obama

The following is a response to Michel Faber’s article “Spider-Man’s lost lustre” in the Guardian.

1) The Ultimate series of books have been going for 11 years, so this isn’t something just created in order to shoehorn in a multiracial character.

2) The Ultimate version of Spider-Man, written by Brian Michael Bendis has been the most consistent comic in regards to quality of any of the books featuring the character. To state that the death of Peter Parker (he has died precisely once in this series) is meaningless after over 160 issues and 11 years is frankly ridiculous.
The sales of the Ultimate Spider-Man book have been, on average, favourable in comparison to the regular universe book. Therefore your statement that “his white counterpart continues to reign supreme” is also inaccurate, but let’s not allow reality to get in the way of your diatribe.

3) Storylines have been repeated, this is true, yet hardly surprising for a character that has had at least one monthly title released consistently for 49 years. The point of the Ultimate line is that the writers can do things that can’t be done in the regular title, hence Peter Parker can actually die. A new kid can take up the mantle, one with a different cultural background that might not only be appealing to a wider audience but also give fresh impetus to story ideas and characterisation. This is not a re-imagining of the character as being afro-hispanic, it is a new character following on in the legacy of the original. Peter Parker didn’t wake up suddenly as an Afro-Hispanic child.

4) You attribute the character of Miles Morales and the films you mention as evidence that these characters have no soul or worth. Apparently the characters have some inherent value due to their longevity (I’m sure you would be pleased to see your works as popular in 70 years). Are all of the stories interesting? No. Are all of the films successful. Absolutely not. But is that due to the character or due to bad writers, producers, directors and actors?
The Green Lantern film was bloody awful, does that mean that all Green Lantern stories are bad? If not then your generalisation seems ridiculously dismissive and inherently flawed.

5) The majority of the films produced by Marvel (Iron-Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America) have been successful critically and at the box-office. Nolan’s take on Batman is seen as the standard that superhero films are set by and there is rampant anticipation for the third film next year. I would submit that using these examples as “dead horses shambling towards you” indicates that you need to find better evidence for your obviously biased and ill-thought out tirade.

6) What is the actual point of this article “New character isn’t white and so proves there are no ideas left in superheroes”? I’m sure that can’t be the case as that would mean any medium would be unable to introduce anyone of a minority background for surely it would be indicative of tokenism and creative impotence rather than a change in editorial outlook or a greater understanding of multiculturalism?
Perhaps you believe that the mask is the sum component of the character? Therefore any change underneath it is simply a cheap trick. Perhaps the Miles Morales example is just that, but as you haven’t read any of the stories that include the new Ultimate Spider-Man it’s doubtful you have the first clue of what you write outside 10 minutes of Wikipedia research.

But I am, of course, being disingenuous. You obviously aren’t interested in these characters at all. You are simply advocating that a genre of writing is without merit, that the storyline and character changes being discussed are only done by a distasteful adherence to a new cultural outlook. If the book is “all very Barack Obama” then I would understand that to be a bad thing in your eyes as it can only be a cynical ploy. Again, you know this without having read a single story involving the character.

Perhaps you could look at this in an alternative manner and still make your Obama link?
A non-white person achieving power (great power with quite a bit of commensurate responsibility) makes others with a similar background more acceptable to a modern society.

Well, to some members of it anyway.

The First Avenger or Final Piece of a Jigsaw?

Captain America and the Rule of Thirds

Review: Captain America: The First Avenger. Directed by Joe Johnston. Screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.

Very light, general spoilers included.

Captain America is an iconic character in many ways. Not only is he Marvel’s patriot extraordinaire, bearer of the flag and embodiment of his country’s best intentions, but when handled badly he becomes simply an icon, more of a flagpole than a character.

Cap is Marvel’s Superman. Not in power but in nature and difficulty to write. Both characters are the ultimate expression of virtue in their respective universes and both can become cyphers when not written with a full understanding of what makes them enduring.

Superman is a template for how to handle an unambiguous “good guy” effectively for cinema. Richard Donner contrasted the “Big Boy Scout” with flawed, morally ambiguous characters and made that interaction interesting (Miss Tessmacher using Superman’s inability to break a promise to force him to choose which missile to chase for example).

The mistake when approaching such an archetypal hero is to attempt to add complexity through contrivance. Bryan Singer tried to add depth to Superman’s character by emphasising his inner turmoil of wanting to be human but always feeling alien. Instead of crystallizing that conflict, he merely complicated the character, adding a son to anchor him to his adopted home but also indelibly adding deceit to his nature (Lois was oddly untroubled by the unexplained yet obvious connection between her son and the man she never, to her knowledge, slept with). The character arc became just another soap-opera conceit in a situation more suited to daytime scandal detritus.

Thankfully the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, as well as the direction of Joe Johnston, recognises that the story of Captain America should focus on what makes Steve Rogers different to the average person, not his physical prowess but his moral certitude.

"I'll take the salad and a shirt"

The Steve Rogers that the audience is introduced to is a painfully emaciated weakling. The illusion of a 90 pounds-when-wet Chris Evans is incredibly effective (Evans insisted that whenever the character was moving, his own figure was used and altered to ensure he retained ownership of the performance), which makes Steve’s bravery all the more endearing.

Captain America: The First Avenger is most successful when showing the audience the facets of Rogers’ character. He stands up to a loudmouth bully and gets a split lip for his trouble, but refuses to back down. When others around him refuse to make a noise due to fear of reprisal, Steve Rogers’s first instinct is to do the right thing. The audience knows this as he is given the opportunities repeatedly to act in a consistent manner and create a sense of his motivation and will. Other films in recent memory (Green Lantern glaringly comes to mind) tell the audience about the characters, expect leaps of faith by the audience between introduction and denouement based on scenes of brief exposition. Joe Johnston spends time with the main character before his empowerment in order to show not only how he deserves his elevation but to ensure that the audience wants to go on the journey with him.

More than just a girl with a gun

Supporting characters are used to emphasise and consolidate the meanings in each scene, not used to replace the narrative work necessary to make the audience feel involved. Hayley Atwell is superb as Peggy Carter, her fondness for Steve is palpable before his transformation and it always comes from a place that makes sense. As Steve sits with her in a car, recounting the various places he has been beaten up, her admiration for his bravery and understanding of right and wrong has been developed already, in other films this entire scene would have been viewed as enough to ensure she was ready to fling herself at him as soon as he had the physique to compliment his virtue (even Thor is guilty of this to a degree and I had a lot of fun watching that film). Instead Peggy falls for Steve over a period of time and due to his actions in a series of events, Steve falls for her (along with the audience) not just because of her obvious beauty but because she is genuinely intelligent, kind, brave and heroic and is shown acting in such a way.

The entire film stands or falls on the relationship between Steve and Peggy (the final shot only works if you buy their relationship) and thankfully Evans and Atwell are excellent in both roles, bringing both fun and poignancy to their performances. It is a tremendous pleasure watching both characters develop, particularly in seeing Rogers overcome the various difficulties he encounters  to stand alongside fellow soldiers, including Peggy Carter, not as a hero, but as an equal.

This picture doesn't do justice to the richness of colour in this scene

Joe Johnston does a wonderful job to ensure the tone of the film is as charming as the main character arc. Fans of The Rocketeer will no doubt be happy to indulge in the same authentic, but warmly stylised nostalgia of Captain America. It certainly feels like a different time, but this is no Saving Private Ryan, the color palette is full of warm hues alongside the bold colours of the propaganda posters of the time. The lighting gives a softening, romantic tint while stopping short of being dreamlike (which is a strong reason not to see this in 3D, the darkening of the process would harm the enjoyment of the spectacle with little positive trade-off).

The film looks wonderful and has strong character development through thoughtful storytelling but in some ways it is hampered by its place in the Marvel cinematic canon. The action sequences and the film’s crescendo produce some stumbling blocks to the overall success of the film. As in most action films, a confrontation between hero and villain is set up early in the film. Hugo Weaving as Johann Shmidt (aka The Red Skull) is full of menace and arrogance. The villain’s lust for power as both means and end is the perfect antagonist for Rogers’ virtuous despiser of bullies. However the fight with Red Skull is all but pushed aside in order to get Captain America to the place he has to be by the end of the film.

Grrr. Arrrgh.

The clash that is built up between the villain and hero is almost sidestepped completely to allow for both The Avengers film next year and possible sequels for the Captain America franchise. In fact the challenge that Rogers faces and the choice he makes because of it is an apt expression of the character, there just needed a little more time spent on ensuring that his fight against the villain is more satisfying, whereas it falls short in fulfilling expectations.

In summation, Captain America: The First Avenger is a very enjoyable, almost old-fashioned tale of one man making a difference. By not adhering to some of the recent narrative tropes of action films it finds great success in developing a charming story with an endearing main character. Though not always comfortable with the conventions of the genre, while perhaps not as unabashedly fun as Thor, it is much stronger thematically and slightly more successful in creating a memorable hero. Which, essentially, is the film’s purpose.

If you are reading this then I doubt you will need to be given the following advice: stay until after the credits, it really is worth it.