Cartoons Worth A Damn: Astonishing X-Men – Gifted

Badass with a capital “X”

Up until the recent releases of the atrocious “Iron Man: Armored Adventures” and sub-par “Ultimate Spider-Man” cartoons, I’d always had a great deal of faith in Marvel animated series. (Ooh, also I forgot that dreadful Canadian Fantastic Four show. But that’s beside the point…) I always get excited when news of a new Marvel cartoon comes out and, shopping earlier this year with my cousins, i spotted an unknown DVD with a handful of my favorite X-Men on the cover. I don’t think there’s ever been a bad X-Men cartoon (not produced in America anyway), so my heart leapt understandably, especially when I picked it up and read that the story had been written by the ever-infallible Joss Whedon. However, what I read next was as effective a turn off as Madeline Albright doing calisthenics in a thong and tassels: it wasn’t a new cartoon; it was a “motion comic”. I’d had limited experience with that phrase and none of it translated into what I wanted out of this DVD, so I hastily put it down…(dun dun dun)…until today.

My local library (and probably yours, too, kids!) has a big collection of animation that includes a whole lot of anime, so as I perused my viewing options, I spotted “Astonishing X-Men: Gifted: and picked it up along with a couple more titles. I was relatively sure this was the same motion comic I’d turned down before, but now that I could watch it for free, I figured “why not” and took it home just in case it turned out more interesting than I’d expected. The whole motion comic idea seems to be built on the concept that proper animation is too expensive and time-consuming, so it looks as though images from graphic novels were scanned and then digitally altered to make it seem that the characters were moving and speaking. It was definitely kind of trippy at first – oddly giving me the impression that I was watching a much cheaper, lazier version of “Frisky Dingo” or something; the inked characters walk either too stiffly or in an odd ragdoll fashion and the mouth movements are akin to the “just-tape-an-extra-mouth-on-an-action-figure” weirdness of “Robot Chicken”‘s earlier episodes, but to be honest, all of those uncanny quirks faded below my notice rather quickly and I’ll tell you why – the writing’s phenomenal. I suppose it speaks more for the original comic than the motion comic DVD, but the story is particularly engaging and I got pulled into the plot the whole way through.

Shortly after the re-establishment of the Xavier Institute following the events involving the Legacy Virus, Kitty Pride returns as part of a new staff under the jurisdiction of Scott Summers and his new flame Emma Frost. However, it seems that Scott didn’t just bring her there to teach the next generation of X.I. mutant youngsters; faced with continuing anti-mutant sentiment, Cyclops has decided to put together a team – a team which also consists of Dr. Hank “Beast” McCoy and Wolverine – to act as a superhuman rescue team a la Avengers or Fantastic Four in order to raise mutant popularity. Hence, this new fivesome is branded the “Astonishing X-Men. Unfortunately, as their first superhero mission goes off against a mysterious alien being named Ord, geneticist Dr. Kavita Rao declares to the world that she has found a “cure” to the “disease” of mutantism. Investigating this cure amid sudden mutant panic, anti-mutant protests and even an internal urge to purge themselves of their super-human differences, the X-Men find themselves drawn into a massive conspiracy with the fates of multiple worlds hanging in the balance.

Wonder if that Danger Room’s got Hula Girls, too. Then again, with malfunctions like this…

Typical X-Men stuff, really – quite good story, terrific characterization and a whole bunch of long-beloved names. The motion makes the already fantastic comic-style art seem even more dynamic, but where it really shines is in the lines – crafted with both jovial casualness and spot-on dramatic tension – and especially the acting. In the same way great writing and acting can save an abysmally animated cartoon, X-Men: Gifted is lifted by Joss Whedon’s expectedly brilliant dialogue and monologues and each character is voiced by a relatively unknown actor who manages to bring out all the famous charm and literary depth that the Marvel universe is known for. Until I scanned the end credits, I was absolutely convinced that Beast and Wolverine were being voiced by some big names from out of FUNimation and Bang Zoom! Entertainment; Beast’s intellectual and existential uncertainty over the proposed mutant cure is almost palpable in his VA’s performance – reintroducing an aspect of the character I haven’t heard mention of since the 1990s “Spider-Man: The Animated Series” – and Wolverine’s visceral sense of honor and vicious tongue come off just as well as I’d ever heard them. I’ve always been a member of that invisible, silent minority called “Cyclops fans” and this project finally gave me a Cyke I don’t have to defend to anyone else, with a vocal richness that properly represents all his character history with every inflection. Additionally, a surprise appearance from Colossus really pours on the pathos in a way that twists a knife right in the feels without feeling hokey. If you love comics and cartoons, definitely give it a watch and be on the lookout (as I, too, shall) for more of these motion comics from the people at Marvel Knights Studio.

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The S.H.I.E.L.D. Track Jacket I Wish I’d Gotten For Christmas


This. I want this. I hadn’t been a Marvel fan for long before discovering how much I liked the idea of S.H.I.E.L.D. As a kid who very much enjoyed aspects of verisimilitude in even the most fantastical fiction, I thought it only right that a government institution exist to keep an eye over the various meta-humans (yes, I’m aware “meta-humans” is a DC term) running willy-nilly around the country. Sure, S.H.I.E.L.D. has more on its plate than mutants and superheroes, but it was Spider-Man: The Animated Series that introduced me to the organization, so that was my first impression.

But I digress. With the added cool factor of the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe films and the Marvel Civil War, S.H.I.E.L.D. has become even cooler in my eyes and I know I’m not alone. So when I saw this S.H.I.E.L.D. Track Jacket on ThinkGeek.com, I was smitten. I’m not usually very fashion-conscious, but just the thought of wearing this around makes me feel awesome and I look forward to getting it in the near future. I thought about getting it in my size (I’m a fluffy mofo) but I figure it would look much cooler if I slimmed down before getting it. (Funny, working out so I can fit into a workout suit.) I had hoped that the Agent number on the back would change between individual jackets, but the site’s little blurb on it suggests that, if I manage to make this item popular, there’ll be a lot of AGENT 062677s running around.

I usually buy $7 T-shirts and jeans for under $20, but even the $49.99 price tag on this number doesn’t seem like so much. Definitely worth it. If you like it, too, check it out here: http://www.thinkgeek.com/tshirts-apparel/hoodies/eacf/#tabs

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Cartoons Worth A Damn: Green Lantern (?)

It's Not Easy Being...Badass.

If you asked me to choose whether Marvel or DC has more interesting characters, I’d personally have to give the honor to the former, but that isn’t to say, of course, that DC is a washout. Batman (and by extension, the “Bat-Family”) really takes the cake of comics godhood in my mind, but Detective Comics has a damn close second in the Green Lantern.

While I can’t really boast that I’m entirely up on the mythos behind the Green Lantern franchise, having never read very many of the comics (forgiveness please), I do have an itchy Wikipedia finger and a number of talkative GL fans as close friends, so I know the rough story and the concept behind it has intrigued me since I started opening my world to American comics. The idea behind the Green Lantern and the GL Corps at large doesn’t give off such obvious reality-grounded aspects as Batman’s years of training and convenient tools or an obvious sci-fi vision as Superman’s trans-galactic alien origin story, so it’s easy to mistake the superhero for just another nonsensical or inexplicable-magic-based characters that litter DCs universe like so many neglected dog turds. I have always hated heroes who can “just do things” instead of working off of a set method, technology or phenomenon, but the Green Lantern strikes me as interesting because – whether you believe the Oan rings are magic or just an alien technology advanced enough to be mistaken for magic – the Green Lantern isn’t merely some guy who stumbled randomly across a secret power in some freak lab accident; he’s just one part of a huge and organized intergalactic police force. Green Lantern is a title and a position of authority that he shares with 3599 other people in the universe. Despite the uncertain origins of the power he wields, I can’t help but respect the credence lent to an ordered system. Members of the Corps are chosen and drafted for their good qualities and then  subject to the jurisdiction of the Oan Guardians and all of that adds up to me being a big new fan of the Green Lantern.

So, of course, I really wanted an animated series to go with my newfound adoration for the Corps. Green Lanterns have appeared pretty much just as guest/second-billing characters in the DC cartoons of the past – with Kyle Rayner (for whom I have inherited an ever-present dislike from the GL fans in my social circle) showing up for a one-shot in Superman The Animated Series, the under-appreciated John Stewart as one of the principal seven in Justice League and Justice League: Unlimited and even having Hal Jordan (The Greatest Lantern) stuck in that The Batman abortion – but never at front and center stage despite all the great stories that can be told with GL as the star. Of course, when I’d heard that a Green Lantern movie was coming out, I got all excited. Not really because of the movie (Ryan Reynolds? Really?) but because I knew the score as far as big budget movies and tie-in cartoons go. A Green Lantern film, no matter how atrocious, would likely be followed by a cartoon hoping to cash in on the train before it wrecks. That’s how Batman did it, that’s how America does it and it’s worked out “pretty well so far”. Even if it were only as well-animated as Superman was, it’d still look pretty great and, with DC’s animation track record batting a thousand since JL/JLU, I figured the art could possibly surpass even my optimistically myopic expectations.

So you can imagine how many fathoms my heart fell when a teaser rolled out for the new Green Lantern The Animated Series and I saw the brilliant emerald logo followed by full CG footage reminiscent of the hated Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I’d gotten my wish, but like the Devil in Bedazzled (the brilliant Peter Cook version or the smokin’ hot Liz Hurley version, take your pick), somebody seems to have intentionally and maliciously kicked it around during delivery. It finally stars Hal Jordan in the lead role, but the character design looks far too blocky (especially in his civvies (which, if what I’ve seen is to be any indication, consists of one gray flight suit; I think this version of Hal only owns two sets of duds) and the action lacks fluidity, as if each character and object moves along an invisible rail rather than according to the laws of physics. The whole thing smacks of animation that’s been dumbed down to save money; I’m not a big fan of CG cartoons, but I’ve seen a handful of them done very well and the new GL series is definitely not one of them. Makes me dread Beware the Batman (which was rather apparently done in the same style by the same crew) even more. To top it off, the Green Lantern’s jurisdiction encompasses Earthly criminals as well as any number of extraterrestrial malcontents; he could have a rogues gallery as wide and diverse as Superman’s, but instead the creators of this series appear to have opted to put the Red Lanterns – a relatively new group of villains in the grand scheme of things – at the forefront as Hal and his comrades’ principal foes. I know the Emotional Spectrum has come into great prominence lately, but I really want to see more out of this franchise than just Lanterns vs Lanterns; there is so much more potential there. Besides, even if we were going to go all flat with it, wouldn’t the Yellow Lanterns of the Sinestro Corps make a more appropriate foe? Or did they just assume “kids won’t get it unless the badguys wear red”? Admittedly, only one episode of footage has aired and the full premiere next Spring may prove itself worthy, but I’ve had my heart broken before so I’m not going to hold my breath.

So it seems I won’t be getting my dream of a great running series starring the Green Lantern. Fortunately, however, GLTAS was preceded by a phenomenal pair of DCU animated films, Green Lantern: First Flight and Green Lantern: Emerald Knights. The former, I was lucky enough to receive for Christmas after months of pining for it and fruitlessly searching for independent uploads of it online (I guess DC’s got a reasonably tight rein on the pirates. I ain’t even mad). I’ve watched it three times in the past twenty-four hours and I love it still.

First Flight is a traditional origin story starring the iconic Hal Jordan, but instead of spending the first act focusing on his life as a pilot, the film goes right into the action, depicting his sudden acquisition of Abin Sur’s ring even before the title with a literally brilliant suit-up sequence that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with scenes from shows like Sailor Moon, Yoroiden Samurai Troopers and Powerpuff Girls Z (no, I’m not being sarcastic; all those series have amazing suit-up sequences). Long story short, Hal is summoned to Oa, where he learns what the ring is, learns what the Corps is but has his worth questioned by several members of both the Corps and the Guardians. Famed GL hero Sinestro takes Hal under his wing, but the rookie soon learns that he not only disagrees with his new mentor’s brutal methods, but also that our old pal Sinestro is plotting something eponymously sinister beneath the surface. Unlike the scrotum-suited, pseudo-wiseass antics of the live-action Green Lantern origin story, First Flight picks the obvious choice of Sinestro as the principal villain and it works out in everyone’s favor. The animation is just fantastic in this movie. I could tell that certain scenes were done with a heaping helping of CG, but unlike the animated series, it looks amazing; the only way I could tell it was CG through the seamless cel-shading was that some of the effects were slightly too fluid. Hal looks great in or out of the suit and each GL’s uniform seems interestingly personalized, not only in shape and function but also in design; always green and black with the emblem, but each one having individual stylistic frills, not to mention slightly beefed up to resemble body armor rather than a spandex onesie. The action sequences are very well-done, with no pulled punches in the way of combat severity, and Sinestro’s cruelty comes through in really compelling ways, such as his interrogation methods including forcing a woman into sensory overload and coldly reconnecting a criminal’s synapses after personally shooting him just to get tales from a dead man. I found myself shouting advice at the screen every time Hal got into a jam, only to have the character proceed exactly as I’d hoped, as if to say “I know what I’m doing, kid” and the final battle is appropriately climactic, involving devastating loss of life, planet billiards and a power battery-infused Hal Jordan looking like an Emerald Super Saiyan. Taa-eeeet! If the animated series could only have been like this, it would definitely have stood shoulder to shoulder with Batman: The Animated Series in my good graces.

Now, I haven’t seen anything of Emerald Knights beyond a couple clips online, but while it doesn’t look quite as interesting as First Flight, it does seem pretty cool. Aside from being comprised of a series of unconnected vignettes from the perspective of multiple Lanterns, the second GL animated movie swaps out Hal Jordan’s voice actor, replacing the pretty great Christopher Meloni for the legendary Nathan Fillion. Certainly, everyone remembers the fan-trailer from a few years back, practically begging for a decent Green Lantern movie with several spliced and altered scenes plucked from Fillon’s projects. It made us hope for the future of the Green Lantern franchise and definitely landed Captain Reynolds the role in Emerald Knights once the producers saw how perfect for Hal he really was.

Additionally, Fillion will be reprising his role as Hal Jordan in the upcoming DCU animated feature Justice League: Doom, pretty much officially inheriting the position as he plays along such longstanding greats as Tim Daly (Superman), Kevin Conroy (Batman), Susan Eisenberg (Wonder Woman), Michael Rosenbaum (The Flash) and Carl Lumbly (Martian Manhunter). John Stewart is my second favorite Green Lantern since JL/U showed just how badass he is, but I can’t help preferring Hal Jordan and hearing him fall into step with the roster of the epic Cartoon Network series makes me quite happy despite the fact that the Justice League’s racial diversity has been effaced.

Justice League: The New Frontieralso does a great job of depicting Hal Jordan, pretty much centering most of the emotional content of the film around the character himself and tying his acquisition of the ring into the great plot at hand. Hopefully the Green Lantern will get more chances to shine on screen in the future, but until then I guess we can all just thank our verdant stars that no one’s trying to make a series about Guy Gardner.

This is how you say "Mediocrity" in Haircut.

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Armitage III: Is Feminism the Enemy?

Boop-a-doop-a-doop-doop-SEX!

This past May I bought three DVDs of Armitage III (having mistakenly purchased both the OVA and poly-matrix along with dual-matrix), but whatever, I finally got to see this old anime classic that gets lauded alongside Ghost in the Shell for its portrayal of the man-machine interface. It wasn’t quite what I’d expected, but it was still pretty cool (maybe I should have watched the OVA instead of the compilation movie or watched it subbed instead of dubbed for a better sense of the nuances), but what really struck me was the big answer to why the sudden murders and apparent conspiracy are taking place.

(SPOILERS)

The answer is that the killing spree that has been claiming the lives of top-secret Third-type androids is a government conspiracy to eliminate the idea of gynoids (in this particular instance referring to female androids with advanced enough physiology and intelligence to become pregnant and give birth) from Martian culture since the current sentiment on Earth is a feminist one that will not approve of women being replaced by machines; with a unification treaty imminent between the weakened Mars and the powerful, wealthy Earth, the red planet’s bigwigs have decided that Thirds have to be swept under the rug. Now, I’m not sure how that struck other people who’ve seen Armitage III, but to me this last puzzle piece, in addition to all the little hints throughout the rest of the title, suggests that the real enemy to be defeated (according to the producers) is feminism. Feminism is the reason Naomi Armitage and her fellows have all been marked for death.

The reasoning  behind the elimination of the Thirds – to pander to the ruling Earth’s stance on feminism –  coupled with Naomi’s decidedly sexualized style of dress and almost infantilized appearance and demeanor – strikes an odd chord with me. She takes comfort in the arms of a big, strong man, as do so many anime heroines of this feature’s era and even setting aside the fact that the Thirds’ purpose is to act as machine receptacles for male genetic material, a good number of the Seconds (more standard service androids) seemed relegated to working as cute waitresses in cafés and hostess bars. The sensitive, artistic, all-female Thirds are being murdered by men who are, essentially, working for feminists. The murdered Third-type Jessica Mannish even struck me as a bit of a lesbian at first glance, not only because she first appears while drawing a nude female model, but that her surname sort of gives away her most defining feature (please forgive). The juxtaposition between a pretty, pseudo-peaceful new regime and the atrocities being committed under the surface to ensure its rise isn’t anything new, but the images of the female President (chairman, whatever) waving her middle-aged hand as her motorcade passes through the cities beaming its new slogan of “One World, One Nation” (and don’t even get me started on the apocalyptic connotations of that little spiel) presents a slightly different significance than usual when set against the simultaneously-occurring scenes depicting the absolute annhilation  of the laboratory where the peaceful, plant-based “Alives” type robots are being developed. The point of it (aside from the more obvious “everyone has the right to life”) seems, under the surface to be: this massacre is happening because those Womyn on Earth just HAD to have their way; as if saying, “yeah, the system is unequal, but we were all pretty happy with it before. Why do all these manly bitches gotta stir up trouble?” An odd message, certainly, but not so odd when you consider the source. Japan hasn’t really been a paragon of sexual equality and, though I love it, anime is frequently guilty of the same sin in that regard.

Maybe the sequel, Dual-Matrix, will shed some new light on my interpretation of its predecessor, but until that happens, I think I’m going to look askance at it on DVD store shelves.

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Crimson Vengeance: “Red” & “Monte-Cristo” in Chicago

The Blood is the Life

I was an amateur actor for a good many years in my youth (wouldn’t mind getting back into it, really), so I’ve developed a great affection for the stage and the great thing about a good play is that it’s nearly as fun to watch one as it is to act in one. While I haven’t had the time or money to see any shows lately, interesting ones nevertheless catch my interest when I glimpse a flyer or billboard advertisement.

This past Friday evening, as I rode Chicago’s famous ‘L train’ to the even more famous Downtown ‘Loop’, I spied a train ad promoting the play “Red” by writer John Logan and director Robert Falls at the Goodman Theatre. Having not heard of the play before, I was initially captivated by the tagline on the ad, which read: “Full-blooded and visceral, the Tony Award-winning Red takes you into the mind of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, for whom paintings are “pulsating” life forces and art is intended to stop the heart.” It’s a terrifically-crafted little blurb and, aside from making me wonder which talented English major must have penned it, definitely piqued my interest for the play.

Red chronicles the journey of Mark Rothko and his assistant Ken over the course of their two-year mission to paint a number of murals for Manhattan’s famous ‘Four Seasons’ restaurant at the dawn of the 1960s. Despite Rothko’s ideals, he has chosen to create these pieces for commercial gain, much to the chagrin of his idealistic protégé. With money and artistic honor on the line, these two must decide which course their work will take before “the black swallows the red”.

Red is playing at the Goodman Theatre until October 30, 2011.

Cinderblock Man to Renaissance Man

“The Count of Monte-Cristo” is perhaps my favorite book and Alexandre Dumas is undoubtedly my favorite author, so Facebook was actually useful in sending me an ad for the theatre adaptation by Lifeline Theatre running through November 13, 2011. I’m curious to see how such a long novel could be adapted to the stage, but I very much enjoyed Les Miserables when I saw it a few years back and Lifeline Theatres is rather well-versed in literary adaptations. Honestly, I’m damn excited for this play and am already making plans to see it (maybe I can find an interested date to come along?).

Adapted by Christopher M. Walsh and directed by Paul S. Holmquist, The Count of Monte Cristo tells the tragic and Romantic story of Edmond Dantes, a French sailor framed for treason and torn from his fiancee at the altar by the betrayal of three men. Escaping after years in prison, Edmond flees to build his fortune and returns under the pseudonym “the Count of Monte-Cristo” to seek cold-hearted vengeance with the unwitting help of his lost beloved’s young son, Albert.

The Count of Monte Cristo is playing at the Lifeline Theatre and has been extended through November 13, 2011.

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A Tale of Swords and Souls and ‘Sassins

Raphael WISHES he were this inordinately fancy.

So now, as I’m sure the whole world knows, Ezio Auditore da Firenze of Assassin’s Creed fame is an official guest character in the upcoming fight game Soul Calibur V. As a big fan of the SC franchise and the AC franchise, I am feeling molto bene about the news. Previously, my favorite character was the dashing Frenchman-turned-foppish-vampire Raphael Sorel, but now I thirst to pit these Mediterranean marauders against each other in a rumble of the Romance languages. Ezio’s skill with the sword, hidden blade and crossbow combo makes for one lethally intriguing character and I honestly can’t wait until the game comes out; it may actually be the first Soul Calibur I purchase for myself instead of just bumming off of friends and playing in my alma mater‘s game lab. I’ll miss Taki (since she’s the only one of my favorite characters who’s been excluded from the game), but hopefully her protégée Natsu will fill the gaps with heightened ninja skills (she’s still not as sexy, though =(…  ).

Anyway, here’s the video for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. My friend Kat was nearly crying with longing when she saw the Italian Stallion appear on screen with his brilliant skills.

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Knightrise

You are now imagining Uchiha Sasuke in the cape and cowl.

Watching the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Night of the Ninja”, wherein a bit of Bruce’s past studying the martial arts in Japan is revealed through flashbacks, I’m reminded of an idea I had for a series. TV has such a hard-on for Batman (as is only right, really)  and has been pushing Batman cartoons one after another. Sometimes, given the excellent source material, they turn out at least decent (60s Batman, BTAS, Batman Beyond, The Brave and the Bold, Justice League/Unlimited, Young Justice) but other times, they’re awful (like The Batman and the upcoming CG atrocity, Beware the Batman – you heard it here first) but, a while back, when I caught this episode in the past, I wondered if there could be a series not about how complete Batman is as a crimefighter, detective and martial artist, but rather how he came into his power – a series about young Bruce globetrotting to different locales learning each aspect of his craft.

It would be a mix of stand-alone adventures and an overarching story, with multiple episodes or, more likely, whole seasons taking place in a single location like London for criminology, Japan for martial arts and France for manhunting, as well as all the other places he’s schooled like Alaska and Africa.  It’d start somewhere around the time Bruce is eleven and hopefully go as long as possible. Being rich and good-looking, it might give the opportunity for some more relatable personal conflicts, though they wouldn’t be serious or lead anywhere in particular, and he could probably even invent a few aliases during his trip.It has the capacity to be really good, almost like Smallville (but better because it’d be Batman) and could help give further insight into Batman’s psyche, his formation as a man as well as establish some of his more useful personal contacts as a crimefighter. Something to consider, TV Land…

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