Category Archives: Comic books & superheroes

Big Hero 6 review

After the Boston Christmas Craft Festival this past Saturday, 8 November 2014, Janice and I went to the Showcase Cinema de Lux in Dedham, Mass., for lunch at B. Good Burgers and Big Hero 6. We liked the animated superhero movie, which is one of the best since Incredibles.

Big Hero 6

Disney's latest animated success

Plot

Loosely based on a title published by Marvel Comics, Big Hero 6 follows Hiro Hamada, a teenage underachiever who spends his time in underground robot fights in the city of San Fransokyo. A visit to his older brother Tadashi's university impresses Hiro, who applies his genius to designing "microbots" to gain admission.

Tadashi has been designing Baymax, a cuddly android intended to help with medical emergencies. Hiro gets help from his brother and new friends at the university, but his successful demonstration is marred by the rivalry between Prof. Robert Callaghan and entrepreneur Alistair Krei and a devastating fire….

As you may have seen from the previews, Hiro and friends soon work with Baymax to defend San Fransokyo from a supervillain….

Cast

The voice cast includes a few celebrities, but they weren't readily identifiable or distracting, and the characters are well-developed in both voice and visual design. Ryan Potter is a typical adolescent as Hiro, with moments of stubbornness and sentiment. Scott Adsit is cheerful and surprisingly insightful as Baymax.

Other actors include Jamie Chung as daredevil student GoGo Tomago, Daon Wayans Jr. as big control freak Wasabi, and Maya Rudolph as Hiro and Tadashi's loving but distracted Aunt Cass. Star Trek: First Contact's James Cromwell lends gravitas as Prof. Callaghan, and Firefly/Serenity's Alan Tudyk is Alistair Krei.

Direction

Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams wisely decided to set Big Hero 6's San Fransokyo in a pocket universe rather than the live-action Marvel cinematic universe. While there are many nods to conventional comic books and anime, Big Hero 6 stands on its own.

Like Pixar's Incredibles, Big Hero 6 presents superhero and science fiction tropes in an energetic way, with tragedy outweighed by the responsibility and fun of doing good. I was also pleased to see young scientists portrayed in a positive way. The story feels fresh, even if it the final act is predictable.

Cinematography

The character faces will be familiar to anyone who has seen recent Disney/Pixar films such as Ratatouille or Brave, but that's no different than the house styles used by Aardman, DreamWorks, or Sony.

As each animated movie tries to top its predecessors for "eye candy," Big Hero 6 stands out in the design of Baymax, who exhibits a surprisingly wide range of emotions despite looking like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, not unlike Wall-E.

The other area in which Big Hero 6 is noteworthy is its design of San Fransokyo and the nascent superhero team. Animators have been wisely avoiding the "uncanny valley" with cartoonish characters, but the hyper-realistic settings and frenetic action surpass most recent live-action movies. Big Hero 6 resembles a video game, but in this case, I don't necessarily mean that as a putdown.

Soundtrack

Composer Henry Jackman combines traditional movie music with pop styles, aided by the track Immortals by Fall Out Boy. The score also keeps up with the action and raises the emotional stakes when needed. Even though Big Hero 6 isn't exactly a Disney/Marvel flick, there is a cameo after the final credits.

Rating

I'd give Big Hero 6, which is rated PG for action, 7.5 out of 10, three and a half out of five stars, or a B+. While The Lego Movie, The Boxtrolls, and The Book of Life were arguably more original, I found that this Disney movie did a better job of capturing the fun of superhero comics than, say, Man of Steel or X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Big Hero 6 beat Christopher Nolan's Interstellar at the box office, but I hope to see the latter film with Thomas K.Y. and friends next weekend. Speaking of the uncanny valley, I'll probably skip Paddington and Penguins of Madagascar, but Minions does look amusing.

Rhode Island Comic Con 2014 report, Part 2 — farewell to Warehouse 13

On Sunday, 2 November 2014, Janice and I returned to the overcrowded Rhode Island Comic Con (RICC). The lines moved more smoothly, and we took in more of the sights at this latest genre entertainment convention.

We were pleased to join a full room for the Warehouse 13 panel. Saul Rubinek and Eddie McClintock shared the same chemistry as their characters — seasoned agent Artie Nielsen and wisecracking Pete Latimer — did in the treasure-hunting TV show. Rubinek explained that SyFy canceled Warehouse 13 because of its expensive production, dwindling audience numbers (not counting DVRs), and a shift back to "harder" speculative fiction.

Warehouse 13 cast

A fun SyFy show

McClintock took several questions from the audience and was just as charming as goofball Pete was on the show. Both actors also described how they bonded with the precise but philosophical Joanne Kelly as agent Myka Bering and youthful and professional Allison Scagliotti as wunderkind Claudia Donovan over five seasons.

While I appreciate NBC/Universal choosing to return to the channel's roots, I also think there's room for quality comedies and family shows that still fit under SyFy's umbrella. I'd prefer reruns of the Twilight Zone or The IT Crowd to wrestling or dumb "reality" competitions. At least fans got a decent sendoff for the underrated Warehouse 13, and there has been no shortage of supernatural procedurals lately.

Janice and I walked through the celebrity and cosplay areas, vendor aisles, and artists' alley one more time before heading back to Massachusetts. Among other things, I picked up the complete Young Justice on DVD. We had planned to get a group photo with Rubinek and McClintock, but because of scheduling snafus, it was not to be.

We had a good time overall, and I'm glad that Janice was a good sport in dealing with the lines and crowds. The annual Boston Christmas Craft Festival this past weekend was easy in comparison.

Coming soon: A look back at this past summer's Creation Star Trek Convention in Boston, a review of Big Hero 6, and my take on the current television season!

Rhode Island Comic Con report, Part 1 — Trekking in the rain

This past weekend, Janice and I drove down to Providence for the Rhode Island Comic Con (RICC). Despite the ever-growing crowds, we enjoyed the latest genre entertainment convention.

In addition to seasonal arts and crafts festivals, I usually try to get to some of the local events featuring TV and movies, comic books, and games each year. Because of family-related travel, I ended up skipping this year's Boston Comic Con, the huge New York Comic Con, and the upcoming Super MegaFest, as well as various Renaissance festivals.

Popularity brings problems

I'll write more about other recent cons soon, but back to Providence. Janice and I tried to get to the convention center early, and we had to wait outside for two hours in various lines before we finally got on the right one for our wristbands and admission. As with last year's Boston Comic Con, it might have been easier to get in without advance tickets.

At least it was raining only lightly rather than snowing as in Massachusetts, and the cold I've been fighting was manageable. I felt particularly bad for the underdressed cosplayers shivering farther back in line. Extra layers or overcoats never hurt, at least until we get inside (Janice and I ran ours back to my car once we got in).

All of the events I've attended in the past few years have struggled with growing attendance. While I'm glad to see a new, more diverse generation of fans sharing some of my interests, organizers and venues have yet to catch up. Vendors can't sell things if people can't get to their tables or booths, and fans excited to meet artists or actors come away with negative feelings about communal experiences.

According to people I talked with, the Rhode Island Convention Center can hold up to about 10,000 people at a time, and the RICC had to turn people away by Saturday afternoon after 20,000 showed up. If a total of 17,000 people attended last year, it was a mistake to plan for 50,000 over the course of this weekend. Understandably, many people were very unhappy, but I hope that everyone can learn better logistics for the sake of safety and fun.

What should organizers do? I recommend planning for more frequent events, finding larger venues if possible, and making the events more specific — just pop-culture celebrities or graphic artists, for example. If nearly every state in the U.S. has a Renaissance festival or two, some of the pressure could be relieved with more numerous, local shows.

On the show floor

Once we got into the RICC, it was crowded but worthwhile. There were many celebrity guests, including the original Star Trek's William Shatner, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig. I had seen these actors before, but it was Janice's first time to see them in person.

We also got to chat with John Rhys-Davies and Karen Allen from the Indiana Jones movies, former Doctor Who Colin Baker, and The Flash's John Wesley Shipp. All were very gracious and took the time to speak with each autograph seeker.

At last year's RICC, I got to hang out with both Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon — Gil Gerard and Sam Jones! This year, Farscape's Gigi Edgley complimented Janice's and my "positive energy," and "Whedonverse" (and Agents of SHIELD) alumnus J. August Richards was much more pleasant than his tortured characters. I'm friends with Jacqui B., who runs his and others' Web sites.

We browsed the vendor area and walked through Artist's Alley, which included luminaries such as Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, and Bob Eggleton. I bought sketchbooks from Michael Dooney and Chrissie Zullo. As collectible card games and video games have displaced tabletop role-playing games, anime seems to be more popular among many younger consumers and cosplayers than traditional superhero comics.

After a quick lunch at Charley's Grilled Subs, Janice and I attended Vic Mignogna's panel on "Star Trek Continues," fan-made movies set right after the original TV series with professional-grade production values and actors. Janice and I then watched his latest episode, "Fairest of Them All," which returned to the popular alternate universe of "Mirror, Mirror."

The acting was solid, with Mignogna as Capt. James T. Kirk, Mythbusters' Grant Imahara as Lt. Hikaru Sulu, and Chris Doohan a dead ringer for his late father James as chief engineer Scotty. Asia De Marcos is also a strong reflection (sorry, couldn't help it) of BarBara Luna as Marlena Moreau, the "captain's woman." Michael Dorn provided the computer voice for the alternate universe's Enterprise.

For any fan of classic Trek, this is more true to Gene Roddenberry's idealistic space opera than many of its subsequent spin-offs and certainly more so than J.J. Abrams' reboot. We missed Shatner's panel, but we did catch a brief one with Nichols and Koenig in which they reminisced as the franchise approaches its 50th anniversary.

Janice and I sat through part of the costume contest — my favorites included characters from Invader Zim and Marvel's Modok — but we eventually left to eat. Not surprisingly, most of the restaurants in the adjacent Providence Place Mall were full, so we ended up grabbing dinner at Panera before checking into the comfortable Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown. We had better luck than actress Eliza Dushku, who was robbed, but all's well that ends well….

I'll post soon about our second day at the con!

Animation nation, fall 2014 edition

While a number of news outlets have observed the demise of Saturday morning cartoons, a television tradition for generations of Americans, there is still a range of animation available in primetime, on cable, and online. Still, it will be hard for a younger generation accustomed to a wealth of streaming video to have a common pop cultural language.

Nicklelodeon, which has aired the surprisingly well-written Kung-Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness and How to Train Your Dragon: the Series, among other shows, recently moved Avatar: the Legend of Korra to online-only broadcast of its fourth and final season.

While Legend of Korra may not have the consistency or popularity of its parent, Avatar: the Last Airbender, the Asian-flavored fantasy series has still featured excellent characterization and world-building. Its story arcs and setting have inspired much of my current "Vanished Lands: A New Dawn" campaign.

I think Legend of Korra has bounced back from the rushed storytelling of its third season, which looked like it might be the end of that franchise (and the less said about the 2010 live-action movie misfire, the better). The new video game probably won't be enough to keep the franchise going.

Legend of Korra

The Avatar gang

Similarly, the Cartoon Network, which had ended Star Wars: Clone Wars after the Disney-Lucasfilm merger, continued its track record of canceling good shows such as Young Justice and Green Lantern: the Animated Series. At least Clone Wars managed to end well, filling in the gaps between the prequel movies and the classic trilogy.

Cartoon Network threw the final episodes of Clone Wars online and burned off episodes of Beware the Batman in one weekend. The sitcom Looney Tunes Show has also dropped of the schedule, but I'm sure Bugs Bunny and company won't be gone for long.

To be fair, DisneyXD had also canceled Spectacular Spider-Man in favor of shows for a younger audience. At least it has begun showing Star Wars: Rebels, which is a bit more kid-friendly than Clone Wars had become and features the familiar setting of George Lucas' galaxy shortly before the events of Star Wars [Episode IV]: A New Hope.

I'm enjoying Rebels so far, and its crew of adventurers is very similar to the characters in Jason E.R.'s recent "Star Wars: Dark Times" space opera scenario. With Disney/Lucasfilm working on more live-action movies, I expect Rebels to get a decent amount of promotion.

In addition to Avatar: Legend of Korra and Star Wars: Rebels, I've been enjoying the latest incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, although I don't know how long Nickelodeon will carry it. TMNT has all the wackiness of its predecessors and is still faithful to the core characters that Eastman and Laird created (again, don't get me started on the latest live-action flick).

There are many cartoons for younger children, such as Ultimate Spider-Man, as well as some long-lived ones aimed at young adults, such as The Simpsons, Robot Chicken, and Archer. Unfortunately, there are few all-ages shows that aren't formulaic comedies.

We've fared better lately with movies, but serious fans will continue to look at anime or other animation from around the world and wonder why cartoons on U.S. TV aren't more diverse.

Guardians of the Galaxy review

On Saturday, 2 August 2014, Janice and I met Beruk A. and Thomas A.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for an early dinner at Summer Shack and Guardians of the Galaxy at the Apple Cinemas Cambridge. Several other members of the Boston-area social/gaming groups saw the latest Marvel Comics-based movie this past weekend, and we all enjoyed it.

Plot: Guardians of the Galaxy starts out with a young Peter Quill, who is given a mixed tape by his dying mother and is then abducted by aliens. The rest of the movie follows an adult Quill, who has renamed himself "Star Lord" after traveling with space pirates.

A heist gone wrong lands Quill afoul of the Nova Corps (interstellar police) and in jail with a bunch of misfits. They join forces to break out and try to save the galaxy from the evil Thanos' minions. More hijinks ensue.

The overall outline of the story should be familiar to fans of westerns, samurai flicks, and space operas from Star Wars to Firefly/Serenity. At the same time, the characters come from Marvel's cosmic comics, giving the cast and crew more creative freedom because they're not as well-known as, say, Spider-Man, the Avengers, or the X-Men.

Actors: Community's Chris Pratt is newly buff as Star Lord but still the cheerful, bumbling everyman he played in The Lego Movie. Unlike many modern antiheroes, the roguish Quill would rather talk his way out of a fight than kill anyone, and he is the heart of the movie.

The band of interstellar adventurers Quill gathers includes Zoe Saldana's comely assassin Gamora, wrestler Dave Bautista's bruiser Drax, and Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as talking raccoon Rocket and humanoid tree Groot, respectively. Audiences love the banter between the irascible (computer-animated) Rocket and laconic Groot.

Interstellar adventurers

Disney/Marvel's latest success

Noteworthy supporting cast members include Michael Rooker as Quill's piratical mentor Yondu, John C. Reilly as Nova corpsman Dey, and Glenn Close as Nova Prime. While they're recognizable from numerous other movies, they all seem to be enjoying themselves here.

The bad guys include Lee Pace (from Pushing Daisies and The Hobbit) as Ronan the Accuser, Benicio Del Toro as the Collector (also seen at the end of Thor 2), and Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) as Gamora's blue-skinned nemesis Nebula. In addition, Josh Brolin plays Kirby villain Thanos, who'll likely be appearing again in Avengers 3.

Direction and cinematography: James Gunn does a great job of keeping the plot moving, focusing on the appealing characters, and maintaining a fun tone — even with some tragic backstories and the fate of billions at stake — throughout the movie.

Gunn's love of the 1980s is evident in Guardians of the Galaxy's light touch, the many shout-outs to popular culture and science fiction of that era, and the soundtrack (more on that below). He also included numerous "Easter eggs," or allusions to other Marvel characters.

The action scenes are actually exciting, if still somewhat busy and predictable, and Guardians of the Galaxy reminded me favorably of predecessors such as The Fifth Element, which also had exotic aliens, scruffy underdogs, cool space ships, and planet-hopping capers. As a longtime space opera buff, I'm glad to see such space-based adventures again.

Soundtrack: As the trailer already demonstrated, some 1970s and '80s music goes a long way to setting an upbeat mood and suspending disbelief. Quill's mixed audiotape provides the backdrop and impetus for several scenes, and even if I listened to different genres back then, I can appreciate today's visceral reactions.

Rating: I'd give Guardians of the Galaxy, which is rated PG-13 for violence and unnecessary language, a B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or four out of five stars. Just as interest might be flagging in the current superhero boom on television and in the movies, Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrates Disney/Marvel's savvy exploration of other styles.

Its plot may be predictable, but the cast and characters are likable, the pacing is solid, and I wouldn't be surprised if Guardians of the Galaxy ends up being the strongest movie at the box office this summer.