Justice League: Good Heroes in Need of a Good Movie

The timeline of the DCEU (or DC Extended Universe, as Warner Bros. Pictures refers to its cinematic universe based on the works of DC Comics) has been a spotty one. First starting with Man of Steel back in 2013, this movie universe started with a film that was alright, if slightly misguided in applying a darker tone to Superman, a character more noted for his hope and optimism. Later, a major misstep arose in the form of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which misunderstood the core of its heroes alongside plenty of other errors and weird questions. Suicide Squad similarly had issues, such as a clean split in tone between an overstylized first 45 minutes that then deflates into generic action. It was not until this past summer that the DCEU had its first major success with Wonder Woman, capturing the core spirit of its legendary heroine in period piece action. Now, at last, one of the most iconic teams in comics has hit the big screen with Justice League. Is this another hit, or yet another stumbling block in the DCEU? It certainly is not as bad as some may say, but it sadly does fall shorter than one would like.

It has been six months since the death of Superman. With the loss of such a figure for good, crime and terror have been on the rise around the world. Among all of this, however, a stranger threat as begun to emerge. Parademons, bug-like alien soldiers that target those who feel fear, have been turning up around the planet. After Batman has a battle with one such Parademon on the rooftops of Gotham City, he realizes that it is time to prepare. Reaching out to Diana Prince, in truth the legendary warrior Wonder Woman, the two realize the source of these scouts. An alien warlord known as Steppenwolf is coming to Earth, in search of three devices known as Mother Boxes that could potentially destroy all life on the planet. To stop him, they seek out others who can aid them in their fight. These include Barry Allen, a quip-making young man capable of moving at super speed; Arthur Curry, a protector of the seas who possesses great strength, incredible swimming prowess, and the ability to communicate with sea life; and Victor Stone, a former high school football star who has become a cybernetic being ever since a tragic car accident. Can these disparate characters come together to save the world, or shall the Earth fall to the forces of Steppenwolf?

Now, there are some good points to this film. For instance, Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot still show their prowess as Batman and Wonder Woman respectively. As for the newcomers, J. K. Simmons is a great match with an all-too-brief appearance as Commissioner Gordon while Ray Fisher works fine as Cyborg, even as he is chained down with a brooding attitude and poor special effects. However, the film has plenty of flaws that do burden it. For instance, the first half of this film is something of a pain through which to wade. The film is almost precisely two hours long, meaning that the movie with tasked with introducing its three new heroes and establishing its conflict while still delivering action within that run time. The result is that the movie, for a long time, rushes itself through blunt exposition and sudden bits of action at a breakneck speed with little time for real character development. Once the team comes together, it settles into a better pace that allows for room to offer character insights and show the team working together. Still, one must sit through agonized storytelling to get there. Along with that, it is surprising that such a big budget film would have middling-to-poor CG for its effects. It is particularly apparent with Cyborg, whose over-designed CG body sticks out when a practical body with CG enhancements could have looked better.  Still, despite my complaints, Justice League is not the total wreck that some fear and it is an alright film. That is the problem, however, and why so many people are dismissive of it. A movie about the Justice League should not simply be okay.

Throughout the process of these films, Warner Bros. Pictures has been using a rather broad strokes approach to its management of the DCEU. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice had been given a “no jokes” guiding approach, specifically to be a contrast against Marvel’s lighter tone. When they found that audiences had responded well to Suicide Squad‘s more light-hearted trailer, the studio had the film go through reshoots to put in more humor and then recut it by the team that did the trailer. Even Justice League has had its share of brute management, such as first starting as two separate films and being condensed to one and then being given a mandate to be no longer than two hours. This sort of heavy-handed management has been plaguing the DCEU ever since the start. Now, I am not saying that Warner Bros. has to copy Marvel Studios’s exact methods. However, Marvel has put in careful planning and tailored each film to best fit their particular heroes. As a result, they took heroes that most of the general public were not familiar with and made them stars. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has taken some of the most iconic superheroes in the history of comics and has gotten a response not much greater than “meh”. It is truly a shame that such great characters should be weighed down by such poor management. The Justice League deserve a movie that is better than “meh”, and Warner Bros. needs to open up to more careful management instead of continuing this reactionary broad strokes approach.

The DCEU has been a spotty affair, though there was a glimmer of hope with the success of Wonder Woman. Unfortunately, Justice League falls on the lesser end of the spectrum, not quite as bad as other DCEU misses though still disappointing in its mediocrity.

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Damon Runyon: More than Somewhat a Fascinating Author

It is a fascinating thing to watch as a piece of fiction grows in popularity and ingrains itself into the public consciousness. It is more interesting, in a way, when it grows such that the source behind the story might be lost to the public eye. Take, for instance, the classic musical Guys and Dolls. First premiering on Broadway back in 1950, the show has remained a classic thanks to its infectious score and delightful tale of love and gambling. Its popularity has endured and cemented the show among the musical classics, from a film adaptation back in 1955 to numerous stage revivals on Broadway and the West End that have cropped up to this day.  What most people these days might not remember, however, are the stories which inspired the musical. Specifically, the show is based on two short stories known as “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure”. Both stories are the creation of Damon Runyon, a journalist who would gain fame with his short story writing. So, just who is this man and how did his writing light the spark for such a hit musical? Let us begin with a peek into the life of Mr. Runyon.

Born on October 4, 1880 with the name “Alfred Damon Runyan”, Runyon’s family was one involved in the newspaper business. After moving from Kansas to Colorado as a result of his father selling their paper, he spent his days in school until the fourth grade. After that, he began working under his father and learning the ways of the business. There was a break in this work when he joined the military in his late teens, but he became a full journalist of his own after the military service. He worked across a variety of papers, before eventually moving out to New York City in 1910. His byline at the time presented his name as “Damon Runyon”, which would stick for the rest of his life.  From there, he found himself a life covering baseball and boxing for the papers. His writing quickly earned him notice, thanks to his keen eye for the weird and eccentric. In fact, he is the man who nicknamed the famous heavyweight boxer James Braddock as the “Cinderella Man”. Of course, his memorable writing is not only limited to the world of the newspaper column. He would also go on to write numerous short stories.

Within the world of Runyon’s stories, he paints a picture of a wicked yet playful underside to New York City. His tales found themselves centered around criminals, gamblers, and actors, all hustling and bustling amid crazy adventures. Oftentimes, they possess colorful names like Nathan Detroit, Good Time Charley, and Dave the Dude. Their escapades are frequently presented through the lens of an unnamed narrator, a character who seems to not be a criminal yet knows the company of shady characters well. He orchestrates his yarns with a carefully constructed sense of heart and humor, but one of the most unique parts of Runyon’s stories is how he writes them. Firstly, he almost totally avoids using the past or future tense, preferring to unfold his writing in the present tense. Secondly, he writes with an interesting mixture of street slang and a mocking sense of pomposity. In his stories, a lady is just as likely to be called a “doll” as she would a “character of a feminine nature”. That odd mixture is further enhanced by a lack of contractions, giving a precise rhythm to his pacing. The overall result is a writing style that brings pompous airs to street-level energy. This style, in conjunction with the colorful characters and criminal atmosphere he wrote about, is what helped make him such a big name.

Though his name might not be as well-known these days, Runyon had earned himself quite a popular following in his time and the years after. In addition to the stage musical adaptation of his stories in Guys and Dolls and its film adaptation, there have been nineteen other movies based on his work. A few of these other films include Lady for a Day (released in 1933 and directed by Frank Capra), Little Miss Marker (released in 1934 and launching the career of Shirley Temple), and The Lemon Drop Kid (first adapted in 1934, then remade in 1951 with Bob Hope). His short stories even had a home in anthology programming with Damon Runyon Theater, first as a radio program and then a television series. Clearly, his colorful tales about criminals and their schemes have earned him a solid spot in American literary history, yet his name has unfortunately fallen into obscurity these days. Personally, I feel his work is worth revisiting, his sharp writing style bringing an energy and feel that is still as effective as when his work was first printed. If one is interested in getting a taste of his stories, I would recommend Guys and Dolls and Other Writings. Published by Penguin Classics in 2008, the collection serves as a good starting point with Runyon’s writing. In addition to the two stories that would serve as the basis for Guys and Dolls, the book features plenty of his other short stories, along with poems, newspaper articles, and other pieces of his writing. It is just the right collection to introduce someone to Damon Runyon and the colorful underworld he brought to life with his words.

Murder on the Orient Express: A Rocky Railway for the Familiar Mystery

During the 1920s and 1930s, the literary world was going through a phrase now regarded as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. During that era, plenty of authors gained attention with their takes on the mystery genre, along with creating interesting detectives to sort through these clues. Among the bigger names of this period was writer Agatha Christie, who brought one of fiction’s greatest detectives to the page: Hercule Poirot. A Belgian detective fastidious in his appearance, he is also decidedly arrogant about his own genius. In fact, Poirot’s main method in solving a mystery is to talk to witnesses and suspects, using his “little grey cells” (as he refers to his brain) to figure out the truth from their testimonies instead of relying on just physical clues. Poirot has been the subject of numerous books, with one of his most famous tales being Murder on the Orient Express. Plenty of adaptations have been done of the Poirot stories, but this time filmmaker Kenneth Branagh has taken a crack at adapting that famous novel for the big screen. While the core of the story still works, the path in displaying this memorable yarn is unfortunately a rocky one.

After solving a case in Jerusalem, Hercule Poirot finds himself in need of a vacation. Unfortunately, his chance at a break from detective work is broken when a telegram urges him to London in regards to a new case. With some help from an associate named Bouc, Poirot manages to get himself a last-minute cabin on the famous Orient Express train. Among the packed train and its many riders, Poirot finds himself approached by one such passenger named Samuel Ratchett. A rather shady character, Ratchett tries to convince Poirot that someone is out to get him and that he wants to hire Poirot to protect him. Disgusted by the man, Poirot simply declines. The next day, however, Poirot and the other passengers discover a nasty shock: someone has murdered Ratchett. Even worse, an avalanche has left the train trapped, and them trapped with the murderer. With nowhere to go as they wait for officials to clear the path, Bouc implores Poirot to take the case and figure out who killed Ratchett. Using not much more than the clues on this train and the testimonies of the other passengers, Poirot must work through the twisted tangle of lies and red herrings, in search of the shocking truth behind it all.

As the latest attempt to adapt this classic story, Kenneth Branagh’s film is slightly uneven in the execution. Before getting into those points, it is worth noting that there are parts that do work in this retelling. For instance, Branagh has assembled a top-notch cast for this film, who all offer some fine work. In particular, some of the fresher faces like Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, and Leslie Odom Jr. shine through with captivating performances. Likewise, Kenneth Branagh does a fine job as Hercule Poirot, delivering a mixture of keen determination along with a warm gentility. As for how the film is shot, Branagh’s approach for lavish shots works to a degree. In addition to scenes located outside of the train, he offers a variety of shooting styles to bring variety to the singular location of a train. For instance, an early tracking shot through the hallway of the train serves to showcase some of the other passengers in one steady path, while an overhead shot of the murder scene is presented in a way that evokes design schematics. These are fine points, but unfortunately the film does suffer in certain aspects that keep it from getting its full potential.

Throughout the film, there are touches and changes that either do not add much to the story or simply are flawed in their execution. For instance, there are a few moments when Poirot pines over a picture of a lost love, despite these moments not really being followed up in the narrative. There are also a few points in the film when it decides to bring out a more action-oriented approach, which occasionally feels out of place within this sort of old-fashioned murder mystery. Most of all, there is a flawed execution in this version’s take on Poirot. His fastidiousness and desire for order are extrapolated and expanded, turned into a black and white view on morality. This movie’s version of the iconic detective sees crime as simply disorder, a fracture of the soul. Thus, the film attempts to conflict it against the bizarre nature of the crime. It is an interesting angle and one which possesses shades in the original story, but it feels like it sacrifices some of the charm of Poirot by hammering the point so hard for a grander narrative. Perhaps it could have been more interesting to explore Poirot’s own egotism and his belief in his skill of understanding order and method, bringing it to conflict against the nature of this very case. That could have perhaps allowed this film to offer something more of its own in adapting the classic story, while retaining the classic mystery feel in its core. In truth, the film’s best moments are when it commits to the sort of murder mystery that is seldom seen in media these days, capturing a glimmer of what helps this story remain such a classic.

In the world of detective fiction, Hercule Poirot is one of the most iconic detectives, with the most famous tale of his intellectual prowess being Murder on the Orient Express. This particular adaptation shows glimmers of that great tale, if only it had been more focused on capturing the strength of the original murder mystery style instead of overdoing grander ideas.

Universal Horror in the Modern Era: How to Unearth Past Nightmares

When looking at the history of the horror movie, it is clear that certain companies can dominate at different times. For instance, throughout the 1960s and early ’70s, Hammer Studios was bringing nightmares thanks to its reinventions of classic horror stories mixed with evocative violence. These days, Blumhouse Productions is the big name in horror, with its low-budget approach allowing for room to gamble on plenty of movies like InsidiousThe Purge, and Get Out. However, the original name when it came to horror was Universal Studios. Its classic horror movies and roster of monsters came to lay down an iconic view on popular horror characters. That said, the studio seems lost these days as to what to do with its iconic pool of monsters. Recently, the studio attempted to relaunch them with a shared universe of action movies labeled as “Dark Universe”, the first entry of this plan being an action movie remake of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. However, the hamfisted attempt to create this universe in a single film and propping it up with generic action movie antics has already put the plan on a shaky foundation. What can be done to bring back the thrill of these classic horror movies for a modern audience? First, let us look a little into their history.

Universal Studios was first formed back in 1912, brought together from a group of nickelodeon (an early version of the movie theater) owners led by Carl Laemmle. In the silent era, the studio had a few horror movies, but not many. Most prominent of their silent era horror films was The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney. It was not until the “talkies” that Universal would cement its name in horror, thanks to the year 1931. That was the year that Universal released two movies that would carve their niche: Dracula and Frankenstein. These two movies, starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff respectively, feature a Gothic atmosphere and memorable performances that put Universal on the map. From there, the studio committed to bringing terror to the big screen throughout the ’30s and ’40s, making such films as The MummyThe Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man. They even made sequels to their hits, the most notable of them being Bride of Frankenstein. As the 1950s rolled in, the tide of horror shifted away from the Gothic towards science fiction nightmares, pulling away Universal’s stronghold with it. However, the studio still managed to make one more hit from that time which would come to be associated with the idea of “Universal Horror”: Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Now, these particular horror films might not quite have the same punch for today’s audiences as they did when they first came out. The scares might not land the same chill for a modern audience, considering the advancement in cinematic techniques and technical effects. Still, there is something that is memorable with these movies: the monsters. Not only are most of them based around classic literary characters or familiar monster archetypes, but the performances help to captivate audiences. For instance, Bela Lugosi’s performance as Dracula shines with a charming charisma mixed with a stilted nature that lends him a disconnect from humanity. Likewise, Boris Karloff’s turn as Frankenstein’s Monster offers a creature whose lumbering movements are tempered by a soulfulness in the eyes, communicating sadness and rage at his state. These movies work because their central monsters are so fascinating to watch. Whether sympathetic like Lawrence Talbot from The Wolf Man or more overtly villainous like the Invisible Man, there is still power to these classic movie monsters. What can be done with such classic figures? Well, the idea of a shared universe is not a bad idea. However, the execution of this idea should remain in these horror roots.

Believe it or not, those original films actually shared the same universe together. The sequels presented a loose continuity that existed involving these various monsters, along with crossover films both serious or comedic. This shared universe of monster movies can still happen, but not as some generic action movie collage. Instead, they should remain as horror movies. They may take place in different places and times, best fitting the subject and characters. They may unfold in the darkness of light, or bring terror to the light of day. In any case, what is most fruitful is the core idea of it: that our world is filled with nightmares. Most horror movies tend to have a single tale to tell, bringing one monstrosity into regular existence. They are isolated incidents. This shared “Universal Horror” universe could instead paint a world where the nightmares lurk all over. They may be steeped in legend, like Dracula or the Wolf Man. They might be the product of science gone wrong, like Frankenstein’s Monster or the Invisible Man. They may even be things we never knew existed, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Together, they offer a world in which terror can come from any corner of the globe, and there can be something chilling about the idea if executed right.

Though their original films might not be so terrifying to modern audiences, the monsters that make up “Universal Horror” are still iconic horror figures for a reason. Their power can still be tapped for modern audiences in a shared cinematic universe, if used to bring together horror films into a united tapestry of terrors.

Over the Garden Wall: The Thrill of the Unknown

An interesting format of tale to tell in the medium of television is that of the miniseries. Though often referred to as “limited series” these days, the miniseries offers the chance to tell a large story without being chained down to the constraints of a full season’s expectations. Interestingly, there is something to notice: very rarely are there any animated miniseries. Most often, the miniseries tends to be a live-action production, usually based on a major topic and often with a sweeping scope. One would think that animation could be a strong method for presenting a miniseries, but unfortunately it has gone neglected. At least, until Patrick McHale finally made such a work. First serving as a writer and storyboard artist on The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack and then a creative director in the smash hit series Adventure Time, McHale went on to make an animated short film called Tome of the Unknown. It is from this short film that he would develop a ten-episode miniseries known as Over the Garden Wall. First airing on Cartoon Network, this miniseries take advantage of the format to unpack a tale of mystery and heart, while offering a wonderful visual style thanks to its animation.

On a dark and foreboding night, a pair of brothers named Wirt and Greg find themselves lost in a realm known as the Unknown. Though Greg is as cheery and kind as ever, Wirt is concerned about their state and wants to find their way out of the Unknown as soon as possible. However, that is a task easier said than done. The Unknown is a mysterious realm, full of mystery and magic and populated with a variety of odd characters. Though they find themselves an ally in the form of Beatrice, a young girl cursed to become a bluebird, most of the citizens they encounter seem perplexing and sometimes threatening. Most prominent of these figures they encounter is an ominous woodsman, who is obsessed with keeping his lantern lit. He warns them about a creature lurking in the Unknown, a shadowy figure known simply as the Beast. He seeks out those who are lost and have lost hope, turning them into trees that populate the Unknown and provide him with fuel. It is this creature that hunts down Wirt and Greg, adding a greater danger as they seek out a way to escape the Unknown.

Over the Garden Wall is a wonderful animated miniseries. Part of that appeal comes in the mood that pervades throughout the ten-episode run. Over the course of the ten episodes, there is a sense of wonder and playfulness that is also tempered by a sense of the Gothic and morbid. It recalls the feeling of old fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm, offering enchantment and chills with each turn. Of course, classical fairy tales are not the only influence at play in the series. There is also influence from works like Fleischer Brothers cartoons and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. These disparate influences come together also with the show’s design aesthetic, which pulls from a variety of time periods. From tavern guests who would fit within the Colonial Era to riverboat-riding frogs dressed from the Edwardian Era, the variety of designs mix together in a way that gives a timeless feel to the Unknown. That atmosphere and design, in conjunction with the miniseries’s good writing, really capture the sort of fairy tale sensation which had influenced the project. More than that, all of these pieces work well in tandem with the choice to make this project a miniseries instead of a movie or full series.

Over the course of the ten episodes, the miniseries unpacks its mystery and themes with care. Though the events that Wirt and Greg go through might seem firmly episodic in form, they are united by a recurring theme. Namely, the danger of living in fear and going for an easy solution instead of directly confronting a problem. It is this theme that actually helps it to stand out somewhat in terms of the miniseries format. Oftentimes, a television miniseries will have a big topic as its subject. For instance, Roots had explored the horrors of slavery, V offered an allegory on the rise of Nazism through the lens of an alien invasion, and The Men Who Built America examined how powerful businessmen like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie made their impact on American history. Essentially, these miniseries take these sweeping subjects and carve a specific narrative to explore them. Over the Garden Wall takes a different approach. Instead of going for a massive topic, it instead turns inward for a personal core. The concerns about living in fear, of facing the choice between an easy solution and the right one, are concerns that are familiar to us all. That intimate heart, as presented through the careful structure and unfolding mystery in ten episodes, allows this animated miniseries to shine bright as a charming gem.

The image conjured by the term “miniseries” is often that of a live-action production, tackling a huge topic or story over the course of its episode. Over the Garden Wall stands out thanks to its divergence from that, presenting its story not just in a lovely animated form but also by focusing on a more personal theme.

Flex Mentallo – Man of Muscle Mystery: Dynamic Tension in the Comics Medium

During the British Invasion of Comics back in the 1980s, one such writer who would gain prominence in the movement was Grant Morrison. His skilled writing has helped to keep him in the spotlight, but there are many parts of him that help him shine. For instance, there is his knack for writing bizarre, fascinating concepts. For example, his revamp of Doom Patrol as part of DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint reinvigorated the obscure title with a fascinating and bizarre range of characters, such as foes including the Brotherhood of Dada (a collection of super-villains waging war against rationality) and the Scissormen (beings with scissor hands capable of cutting people out of reality). In addition to his out-there ideas, however, is his knowledge of the comic book medium’s history. It is something not just demonstrated by the variety of lesser-known figures he has plucked out from obscurity. He has also demonstrated this knowledge in works like Supergods, a non-fiction book that serves as both memoir of his life and an analysis about the history of superheroes and their impact. Both aspects of Morrison came together when he teamed with artist Frank Quitely for a comic book miniseries known as Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery. Centered around a character he had introduced in Doom Patrol, Grant Morrison takes this mind-bending miniseries and uses it to explore the development and change in superhero stories.

In the world of fiction, a strongman superhero named Flex Mentallo witnesses a potential bombing at the airport. He manages to intervene, but the bomb turns out to be the latest fake in a series of attacks designed to shatter people’s sense of safety. Orchestrated by a shadowy group known as Faculty X, the police seem to have no leads into why they are launching this bizarre crusade. The only clue that grabs Flex Mentallo’s attention is a single card, one that had belonged to a fellow superhero known as the Fact. Perhaps if he can find the Fact, then Flex can find the answer to this weird crime wave. In the world of reality, rock musician Wallace Sage has taken a bunch of pills in a bid to kill himself. Feeling his life slipping into the abyss, he gets a phone and calls up a good Samaritan. He spends what may be his final moments talking to this good Samaritan, discussing his life and his own interest in comic books. Though both threads seem separate, they will eventually wind together in a mesmerizing finale that brings a hopeful hero against a grim reality.

Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is a good example of the sort of bizarre craftsmanship that Grant Morrison can deliver. In this case, he uses the multi-layered story to explore the history and then-current state of superhero comics. For instance, Flex Mentallo is a character very much rooted in the Golden Age of Comics (generally regarded as being the late ’30s through early ’50s). His Charles Atlas-inspired aesthetic and idealistic attitude work well to mark him as a figure of that time, especially in the fictional world he lives. It is a darker world than the one he knew, both figuratively and literally. Among the shadowy corridors and the cynical or corrupted figures he encounters along the way, he can’t help but think about how much simpler his life used to be. Likewise, Wallace Sage’s chat with the good Samaritan winds through his experience with comics and moments in his own life. He rambles and winds through the call, from writing and drawing childhood comics to letting his life fall apart as he wrapped himself in his work. Really, both threads are used as part of one united point: a strike against the Dark Age of Comics.

At the time of this comic miniseries’s original release, American comic books were going through the Dark Age of Comics. This was an age brought on by the success of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel Watchmen, which is a well-crafted deconstruction of superheroes with mature themes. Unfortunately, that success led to a flood of poorly conceived comics that sold themselves on anti-heroes, brutal violence, and greater sexuality. It was an attempt to swing away from the silliness of older superhero tales, but it pushed the contents to absurd extremes of cynicism and grit. Essentially, those trying to make superheroes into more than so-called “kid’s stuff” merely wound up making immature brutes. It is that attitude which Grant Morrison challenges with this series, coming to the defense of the sillier side of superheroes. Sure, the adventures could get silly and there is something inherently absurd in a character like Flex Mentallo. However, what is important is what a character like Flex Mentallo represents: the light against the darkness, the idea that goodness and justice can prevail. They offer figures that can help to inspire us, to show a way towards a better world. In fact, it is even brought up that perhaps that is the reason why people write superhero comics: that the world does not have to be like it is, and that we can be like them.

Among the many works of Grant Morrison, his writing can demonstrate oddball ideas and a skilled knowledge of the comic book medium. Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is a fine merger of these aspects, using big ideas and comics history to tell a tale that defends the somewhat goofy nature of superheroes and their optimistic core.

Blade Runner 2049: All Those Moments, Remembered in Time

In 1982, director Ridley Scott released a new science fiction film known as Blade Runner. Telling the tale of Rick Deckard, a futuristic cop who hunts down rogue bioengineered humans known as replicants, the film mixed together a film noir narrative with a bleak vision of a dystopian future. The movie had underperformed when it first came out but has since grown to be regarded as one of the finest science fiction films made. Its striking visuals, along with a story that explored the line between man and machine, have made the movie a landmark in the field of cyberpunk and served as an influence in later works. In fact, the anime series Ghost in the Shell, the video game franchise Deus Ex, and the updated reimagining of Battlestar Galactica all have their roots in Blade Runner. The idea of doing a sequel to such an impactful film, much less a sequel made thirty-five years after the original, would seem a dangerous gamble. Of course, the director this time is Denis Villeneuve, a newer director who has already proven his capable talents with films such as Sicario and Arrival. Now, with the hotly anticipated Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve manages to pull off making a great sequel that expands upon the world of the original film.

Once, replicants (a race of bioengineered humans designed for off-world work, effectively a slave race) were prohibited from Earth when their fight for rebellion and their own freedom hit a breaking point. Now, in the year 2049, replicants have become legal once more and integrated into Earth society, though the newer models have been made to be more subservient than past creations. One such replicant is K, an officer for the LAPD who works as a “blade runner”, hunting down older replicant models that are still on the run. During one such mission, he discovers evidence of a powerful secret that could upset the relationship between human and replicant. His boss sends him out to destroy all evidence of this secret, afraid of what would happen to society if someone found out. Of course, there are those who seek to learn this secret, such as Niander Wallace, a powerful corporate figure whose company is currently responsible for replicant production. As the clues begin to emerge and Wallace’s agents threaten to claim the secret, K finds the evidence pointing him towards a key figure: Rick Deckard, a former blade runner who has gone into hiding.

Blade Runner 2049 is a great follow-up to a classic piece of sci-fi cinema. It helps to have good performances, and the actors here work hard with the great material they are given in the script. In particular, Ryan Gosling works well as K, presenting an understated exterior that fits his manufactured origins but hides a depth of consideration. More than that, the film manages to pick up the look and feel of the original quite naturally and even build upon it. For instance, the original film captured a strong film noir vibe with the use of a limited color palette and plenty of shadows around its dystopian Los Angeles. Though the same dystopian LA shimmers with bright holograms standing out in the city’s deathly green, new locales offer a sharp punch with a similar visual style. From the dark grays across the junkyard-like remains of San Diego to the burning bright orange of a once irradiated Las Vegas, the familiar technique is used in a  way that also helps to expand the film’s world by revealing the states of these once familiar cities. More than just recapturing the visual aesthetic, this movie also finds its own approaches in exploring the issue of what makes humanity.

In Blade Runner, Rick Deckard had made his living by hunting down replicants. They looked human and wanted their freedom instead of being doomed to a life as slaves, yet the fact that they were created by a company is enough for people to see them as “other” and as nothing more than a machine. The film used that to explore the line between man and machine by exploring the morality of hunting down beings that are virtually human. For Blade Runner 2049, they explore this point from the angle of a replicant protagonist. Even if replicants are now integrated into society, K is still treated as lesser and called a “skinjob” by those who see him as a machine. Indeed, he would seem to be like a machine considering how much his replicant model was designed to be subservient to humans. However, there is a humanity lurking in him, displayed through moments like his romance with a holographic AI system named Joi. That sense of humanity grows over the course of his investigation, his knowledge of the grand secret causing him to reexamine the world around him and the state of human and replicant relations. His own empathy beyond the current structure grows. Indeed, his own empathy for the beings he is hired to kill grows more than some humans who see them as just slaves. He just might be more human than human, one might say.

Blade Runner is an influential piece of science fiction, and it would seem bold to attempt a sequel to such a seminal work. However, Blade Runner 2049 manages to pull off being a good sequel that captures the feel of the original while exploring its key themes in its own way.