Category Archives: Comic books & superheroes

Captain America: the Winter Soldier review

On Saturday, 12 April 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., Beruk A., and Ken N. at the Apple Cinemas in Cambridge, Mass., for Captain America [2]: the Winter Soldier. We all enjoyed Disney/Marvel's latest superhero sequel, as well as dinner with Matt J. at Summer Shack afterward.

The Winter Soldier wallpaper

Captain America 2

Plot: The Winter Soldier mostly takes place after the events of the 2011 Captain America film and The Avengers, both of which should be seen to understand this movie. Super soldier Steve Rogers is still a man out of time but has adapted enough to work for covert ops agency SHIELD thwarting terrorists. His patriotic idealism is tested, however, when he learns of a scheme to pre-empt crime that is hijacked by an old enemy….

Marvel Comics readers will recognize much of the story from Ed Brubaker's strong run, while more casual viewers will notice the change in tone from the World War II heroics of the first movie and the superhero team-up of The Avengers to an action/thriller in The Winter Soldier. I'm pleased to see Marvel showing its range, from straightforward costumed crime fighters to cosmic comedy (Thor 2, the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy).

There are some minor plot holes, such as why would Washington, D.C., rely on just one agency for security or why more of the other Avengers aren't mentioned during crisis situations, but the direction and pacing move quickly enough to ignore most of them. ABC's Agents of SHIELD, which has suffered in comparison with Arrow and other shows for much of the current television season, is affected by continuity changes from The Winter Soldier.

Acting: Comic book movie veteran Chris Evans continues to do solid work as Rogers/Capt. America, who is both weary of still fighting after decades (some of which were spent on ice) and resolute in his defense of truth, justice, and the American way (even if that's another hero's catchphrase).

He is joined by Scarlett Johansson, who gets a decent amount to do as fellow Avenger Natalia Romanova/Black Widow. As the Lucy preview showed, it's about time a superheroine leads a feature film — don't get me started on WB/DC's foot dragging with Wonder Woman.

Samuel L. Jackson shows some vulnerability as superspy Nick Fury, supported by Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill. It was nice to glimpse Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Stan Lee as a Smithsonian guard, and Jenny Agutter as World Security Council member Hawley.

Robert Redford, who starred in some of the best political thrillers of the '70s, brings smarmy gravitas as council leader Alexander Pierce. Like the character Rhodey in the Iron Man movies, Anthony Mackie represents African-American heroes and is (we hope) more than a sidekick as Sam Wilson/Falcon.

I have many fond memories of Captain America fighting villains alongside the winged Falcon. The cameos by Batroc the Leaper and other villains are also amusing for those in the know. I won't "spoil" the identity of the so-called Winter Soldier, but note that this movie serves more to introduce the cybernetic assassin as an antagonist than to resolve that plot thread.

Direction: Shane Black, whose Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang helped revive Robert Downey Jr.'s career, does a good job juggling comic book, espionage, and action elements in The Winter Soldier. The dialogue is rarely stilted, and he successfully introduces or reintroduces an ever-increasing number of characters.

The stealthy infiltrations and fight choreography with Capt. America or Black Widow are nicely done, although I do wish that some of the scenes on the helicarriers (no "spoiler" there; they're in the trailers) were clearer. The visual effects were pretty good, and it was refreshing to see a major cinematic battle in which an entire city wasn't trashed for a change.

The opening and closing credits were decent, and the soundtrack was also good, if not as memorable as for other superhero movies. Overall, I'd give Captain America: the Winter Soldier, which is rated PG-13 for violence and occasional language, four out of five stars, an 8 out of 10, or a B+/A-. I still like Captain America: the First Avenger and The Avengers more, but this is another solid Disney/Marvel superhero flick.

The Lego Movie review

On Saturday, 2 February 2014, Janice and I met Sara F. & Josh C. and Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. at the AMC Burlington 10 for an early matinee of The Lego Movie. We all enjoyed the computer-animated comedic adventure.

Lego Movie

Fun animated film

Plot: The Lego Movie follows Emmet Brickowski, a cheerful but unimaginative construction worker who learns that he is "the Special," prophesied by the wizard Vitruvius to save their world. After meeting a woman named Wyldstyle, Emmet is thrust into various adventures and must defeat Lord Business. He also learns the truth about creativity, individuality, and the nature of his world.

Script: The overall storyline will be familiar to viewers of other family films, such as Toy Story or Wreck-It Ralph, but I was impressed at the amount of adult humor and satire. The Lego Movie makes sly comments about mass media, consumerism, freedom vs. conformity, and adulthood vs. childhood but still entertains.

Cast: Like many animated features, The Lego Movie has an all-star cast. Chris Pratt is lighthearted as Emmet, and Will Ferrell is the domineering Lord Business. Elizabeth Banks is spunky but vulnerable as Wyldstyle, and Will Arnett is hilarious as her boyfriend Batman.

Other DC Comics superheroes make appearances, including Channing Tatum as Superman, Jonah Hill as a goofy Green Lantern, and Cobie Smulders as Wonder Woman. (Two out of the three would do well in live-action versions.)

Other comedians lending their voice talents include Alison Brie as the cutesy but temperamental Uni-Kitty, Nick Offerman as cyborg pirate Metal Beard, and Charlie Day as a 1980s space guy. Morgan Freeman riffs on earlier roles as wise Vitruvius, as does Liam Neeson as Good Cop/Bad Cop, Lord Business' dour henchman.

There were several other Lego cameos, including Shaquille O'Neal as himself, Billy Dee Williams as smooth Lando Calrissian, and Anthony Daniels as C-3P0. The numerous crossovers should come as no surprise, since licensed properties have helped the toy maker's financial success.

Direction: Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who previously worked on Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, do a good job of keeping The Lego Movie's story progressing within the 100-minute runtime. They also manage to balance Lego's many licenses with original characters and imagination. While there have been many CG movies lately, relatively few have retained a sense of wonder and cleverness.

Cinematography: As a longtime Lego fan, I was pleased to see several classic themes represented, including medieval, city, the Old West, and space. The kinetic action and multicolored bricks were difficult to discern at first, but the Lego-style settings, characters, and vehicles were all cleverly rendered, as were the opening and closing titles.

Soundtrack: The main theme, "Everything Is Awesome!" is very catchy even as it teases us with its seeming banality, and there are allusions to the live-action Batman movies, as well as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and more.

Rating: I'd give The Lego Movie, which is rated PG for cartoon violence, an 8 to 8.5 out of 10, four out of five stars, or an A-. I recommend it not only to adult fans or those with children who play with Lego, but also to anyone who is young at heart. A sequel is already in the works.

While I had already seen previews for Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Muppets Most Wanted, and Amazing Spider-Man 2, we were intrigued by the first trailer for The Boxtrolls. They all look like fun. We then went to Slowbones, a new barbecue joint, for lunch.

Other movies we caught up on around the holidays included Red 2, Elysium, and Turbo. If you like seeing spoofy reunions of aging action stars, like in The Expendables, you'll like Red 2. While Elysium wasn't as insightful social science fiction as District 9 was, it was decent, and Turbo was surprisingly sentimental, despite its similarity to Cars.

We've also recently screened 47 Ronin, which wasn't particularly faithful to Japanese history but still a good "fantasy gamer flick." It was the sort of film that would be fine for a video night, which my local groups have been discussing. Janice instead went to Disney's animated Frozen, which she liked.

Here's a list of recent and upcoming movies (with U.S. release dates):

2014 movies — to see in theaters:

  • Mr. Peabody & Emerson (animated comedy, March 7)
  • Veronica Mars (neo-noir, March 14)
  • Muppets Most Wanted (comedy, March 21)
  • Captain America: the Winter Soldier (superhero sequel, April 4)
  • Amazing Spider-Man 2 (superhero sequel, May 2)
  • Godzilla (kaiju reboot, May 16)
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (superhero sequel, May 23)
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2 (animated fantasy, June 13)
  • The Boxtrolls (animated fantasy, Sept. 24)
  • The Hobbit [Pt. 3 of 3]: There and Back Again (fantasy, Dec. 17)

Maybe eventually on cable or DVD:

  • Hercules: the Legend Begins (sword and sandals, Jan. 10)
  • Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (espionage/action, Jan. 17)
  • The Monuments Men (war/caper, Feb. 7)
  • RoboCop (cyberpunk remake, Feb. 12)
  • Pompeii (sword and sandals, Feb. 21)
  • 300: Rise of an Empire (sword and sandals, March 7)
  • Only Lovers Left Alive (vampires, April 11)
  • Transcendence (cyberpunk, April 18)
  • Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return (animated fantasy, May 9)
  • Maleficent (fantasy, May 30)
  • Edge of Tomorrow (time travel/SF action, June 6)
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (apocalyptic, July 11)
  • Jupiter Ascending (space opera, July 18)
  • Hercules (sword and sandals; with the Rock, July 25)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (space opera superheroes, Aug. 1)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (comic book reboot, Aug. 8)
  • The Expendables 3 (action, Aug. 15)
  • Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (noir action, Aug. 22)
  • Dracula Untold (vampire, Oct. 17)
  • Big Hero 6 (animated superhero, Nov. 7)
  • Interstellar (science fiction, Nov. 7)
  • Paddington (animated fantasy, Dec. 12)
  • Into the Woods (fantasy musical, Dec. 25)

What are you looking forward to?

"Glassworks: the Devil's Den" Session 1 — Breakout!

Fellow role-players, here are Jason’s and my notes for Session 3.1 of the “Glassworks: the Devil’s Den” superhero scenario, which Rich hosted in Waltham, Mass., on Monday, 27 January 2014:

Hamilton remembers when its streets were rough and newly trod. When its people slept in peace and dreamed of tomorrow. It wakes at night, a jagged ghost dulled to the sounds of gunfire, the smell of smoke, the touch of razor wire. It weeps, and the sky opens with a roar. It’s raining in the city, and the gods are going to war.

Glassworks is set in the city of Hamilton, an urban sprawl on the eastern seaboard of North America. Glassworks is inspired by occult noir, hardboiled crime fiction, pulp adventure and gritty, street-level cop dramas. Its themes explore the allure of immortality, the shadows of the past, the fear of death and the corruption of power.

“The Eighth Legion,” Player Characters for Jason E.R.’s Glassworks: the Devil’s Den” superhero scenario, using Icons (previously DarkPages and the CortexMarvel Heroic Roleplaying game), as of spring 2014:

  • “Tim Gray/DarkStorm” [Bruce K.]-male metahuman, experimented upon by the government, amnesiac weapons designer for Oryx Industries, armored vigilante, and team leader at subway base
  • “Rain Tomotowa/Thunderbird” [Sara F.]-female Native American, exiled demigod able to change into a giant eagle, onetime park ranger now working in a pet shop
  • Matthew Shanks/Merlin [Josh C.]-male incubus sorcerer and occultist with an ancient family legacy; member of Hamilton’s mystical Conclave
  • “Samuel Adams Jackson/The Stranger [Beruk A.]-male human Buffalo Soldier released from Purgatory, time-displaced bounty hunter with dark force manipulation and shadowy steed Gabriel (from Gene’s Mutants & Masterminds: “Drake’s Port” and Josh’s Dresden Files: “Dallas” scenarios)
  • “Erwin Schrodinger/ Erwin72 [Brian W.]-male replicant, law enforcer from an alternate timeline with the ability to tap alternate dimensions
  • Empty Spoon [Rich C.G.]-male metahuman, Tibetan refugee with mystical air control (apologies to Avatar: the Last Airbender/Legend of Korra) and speed, seeking revenge for the destruction of his monastery
  • “Adriana Novak/Phantasm [Brian S.]-female metahuman, former magician’s assistant turned permanently invisible; used the power of illusions to commit crimes but trying to turn over a new leaf

“Hamliton, Delaware, 20 to 27 January 2014:” About a year has passed since the city’s latest superhero group pursued an arson investigation that uncovered kidnappings, corporate intrigues, mob wars, and supernatural conspiracies.

The Cloaked Quarrel welcomes newcomers to the “Eighth Legion’s” headquarters, an abandoned subway station. The Stranger, Erwin72, and Empty Spoon look around as the Cloaked Quarrel explains how the Jade Bow Affair brought his team to Inneman Station in Fairmont.

During the hunt for the cintomanni, or dragon pearl, the young crossbowman and company found dragon hunter King Naga and the indomitable Harrier, deceased members of a previous generation of mystery men and women. They eventually learned that murderous vigilante Red Planet was in love with shaman Kittaguka.

The subway station contains a few trophies, including a machine dispensing Indian Head candies. The dangerous sweets have been replaced by a Devil Doll dagger. The Hamilton Candy Co. was later bought by D.J. Sharif, whose widow Fatima seeks to redevelop the Annex.

Meanwhile, DarkStorm works on improving the base of operations, and Merlin and Thunderbird meet with the Conclave, Hamilton’s mystical organization. Phantasm seeks to go straight after encountering Silverfish.

The Cloaked Quarrel struggles to explain how the police scanner, walkie-talkies, and smartphones work to the time-displaced Stranger, Erwin, and Empty Spoon. They recommend searching for alternate exits rather than having to walk back to the Penn Station intersection.

Gunslinger Stranger tries to comprehend modern lifestyles and prejudices, as replicant Erwin72 sends multiples of himself to search nearby tunnels. Martial artist Empty Spoon bends the winds to lift himself to a hatch. The Cloaked Quarrel recommends waiting to open it until they can verify what’s above.

Erwin and the Quarrel check online and find that the Stevens Inneman Refractory Co. (SIRC), a manufacturer of specialty lenses and mirrors, owns the building above the hatch. The company is best known for the cobalt SIRC Tower downtown, which is the unofficial symbol of the city and after which the Hamilton Blue Sox baseball team is named.

The Inneman building above the subway is supposedly home to a financial operations center, but only one employee is based there. Harvey Thorne is a 30-year veteran, and the Cloaked Quarrel poses as a real estate investor to get an appointment with him next week through secretary Abigail Williams.

The Cloaked Quarrel gets a text message from Conchita Melendez, a blogger who tracks costumed heroes and villains. She had worked with the noirish Black Hat [see DarkPages one-shot] and the brutal and secretive Red Right Hand.

Melendez tells the Cloaked Quarrel of rumors of a new player in town recruiting for three intricate schemes. Although the unknown mastermind is allegedly insane, the schemes are so flawlessly planned that villains are buying into the ideas, she says.

The Cloaked Quarrel asks the Stranger to saddle up for a hunt, since the InterWebs can provide only so much information. Erwin looks forward to taking down criminals for interrogation. Empty Spoon offers to visit Kunzang Tenzin, his shifu (teacher) at the “Wheel of Joy” herbal shop in Germantown, since Chinese New Year is coming.

After some discussion, the Cloaked Quarrel takes the rookies to Krasnaya Strela, a Russian restaurant in the style of a railroad car. Kyle Martins dons his civilian garb as a college student but still manages to talk his way past burly bouncers.

Sam A. Jackson’s cowboy hat is a big hit with the Russian mobsters, and Empty Spoon wears a nice Nehru jacket. Agent Shrodinger wears a dark suit and keeps quiet. Kyle greets crime lord Viktor Ozerov, one of the survivors of the recent mob wars.

Ozerov complains that enforcer Ilya Petrovich, code-named Tarakan, has disappeared. Kyle notes that Petrovich is probably catching up with his dysfunctional but powerful family and was among the super soldiers experimented upon with DarkStorm.

In addition, Ozerov’s replacement for Tarakan, Dmitri Cheznokov (aka the Colonel), has also left. Ozerov extends an offer to DarkStorm or the Stranger to serve in his organization. Although the Italian Mafia is decimated and under new leadership [see “Santanica Pandemonium”], Ozerov says that Latino gang La Basura (Monday Garbage Pickup Zone 1) is on the rise.

Cheznokov was a colonel in the Spetsnaz (Russian special forces) and was recruited by the mysterious new mastermind to lead a team. The would-be heroes are surprised to learn that a massive prison break is planned, apparently for the James T. Vaughn Sr. Correctional Center in Smyrna, Del., a suburb near the Annex neighborhood.

Kyle thanks Ozerov for the information and hastily leaves the restaurant. Melendez says that chat discussions have revealed that the mastermind is also looking for people with naval experience.

Hamilton’s Sharp Harbor has three old ships in its naval museum: the U.S.S. Superior, a frigate from the War of 1812; the U.S.S. Icefish (SS-367) a World War II Balao-class submarine; and the U.S.S. Bullock (AK-165), a WWII Alanosa-class cargo vessel. The last ship also served in the Turkish merchant marine, was renamed the S.S. Edime, and was refurbished by D.J. Sharif.

The Cloaked Quarrel considers staking out the harbor with Erwin, but the sniper decides instead to take all available heroes to the prison. As night falls on Smyrna, the Stranger creates a dark portal to teleport into a guard tower, releasing shadowy creatures on the way.

Erwin72 gives one of his duplicates his firearm and prepares to talk his way into the prison. At super speed, Empty Spoon reconnoiters the perimeter and finds nothing suspicious. The Cloaked Quarrel’s initial research finds that warden Richard Gladstone has a good record.

A helicopter bearing the state seal arrives. From their perch on a nearby hill, the members of the Eighth Legion see a heavily armed team get out. An electromagnetic pulse grenade douses all lights and electronics in the area.

Marvel's Siege

Prison escape attempted

Erwin reveals that he can jump to anywhere he can see. The Stranger summons his steed Gabriel and rides over the 30-foot tall wall. Empty Spoon levitates on a cushion of air, and the Cloaked Quarrel shoots a grapnel line to get to the prison yard.

Empty Spoon creates a vacuum in the helicopter, incapacitating the pilots. The Cloaked Quarrel uses his mystical crossbows to fire a flare bolt, briefly blinding the raiders with night-vision goggles. The Stranger and Erwin help subdue the armed attackers, and the Cloaked Quarrel explains to the guards surrounding them and Gladstone that he’s one of the good guys.

Empty Spoon hears on the helicopter radio that “the Beta Team is a go,” and the warden tells the Quarrel that there is a secret detention facility beneath Hamilton’s Korean War Memorial. The Eighth Legion races south, across town.

One of stone slabs at the base of the memorial has been moved, and the fearless foursome finds guards being tossed around like rag dolls. They descend a staircase under flickering fluorescent lights, and the Cloaked Quarrel momentarily considers sealing themselves in rather than allowing supervillains to escape.

They descend, and the Cloaked Quarrel recognizes sometime nemesis Palmetto, whose cockroach-like costume has been improved. Whiptail, a woman in a lizard-style outfit complete with a tail, knocks out the remaining guards.

Empty Spoon faces off with Whiptail, as the Stranger shoots with old-fashioned firearms. Erwin72, who has retrieved his pistol, shoots at Whiptail. The Cloaked Quarrel fires a blast bolt, knocking Palmetto down several steps.

Enemy reinforcements arrive. Col. Cheznokov fires at the Empty Spoon with a triple-barreled shotgun. Inferna, a woman wreathed in flames, burns Erwin72, and Palmetto sprays a foul-smelling liquid on the Cloaked Quarrel and the Stranger, knocking them down.

Empty Spoon deafens the villains by manipulating the air around them, and Erwin tries to punch Inferna while sending a parallel to look downstairs. The Stranger shoots at Palmetto and the Spetsnaz colonel.

The Cloaked Quarrel shoots sticky bolts, but they miss. Whiptail evades the Empty Spoon’s fists, as Cheznokov blasts Erwin, whose duplicates disappear when he’s unconscious. The Stranger creates a shadowy chain, as Erwin and the Cloaked Quarrel recover.

Empty Spoon continues deafening their foes, and the Cloaked Quarrel’s fire-extinguishing foam arrow has no effect on Inferna. The flame fatale escapes, even as the Stranger subdues the colonel. The Cloaked Quarrel and Empty Spoon knock out Palmetto and Whiptail, and Erwin secures the colonel.

The Eighth Legionnaires leave Palmetto, Whiptail, and Col. Cheznokov for the authorities and check the cells of the secret superhuman prison. Five cells are intact, with labels indicating their residents: Entropy, Kerbala, Kraken, Lady Snow, and Ouroboros.

However, the sixth one, which held “Maxwell’s Demon,” is empty. The Cloaked Quarrel, the Stranger, Erwin72, and Empty Spoon head back to base for backup, since two other incidents are planned beyond the prison breakout….

Supernatural TV successes

I know I've fallen behind with nongaming blog posts, but I do hope to catch up on genre entertainment reviews, food observations, and more in 2014.

I just caught up on the half-season finales of the supernatural trifecta of Sleepy Hollow, Grimm, and Dracula. I'm pleased that all three have been firing on all cylinders lately!

Supernatural TV

NBC's fantasy/horror

High melodrama, plot twists, actual character development, and sprinkles of violence have made all three must-watch shows in a crowded genre TV season.

 I've also been enjoying Almost Human, Person of Interest, and Arrow, and I was happy with the return of Sherlock as a counterpoint to Elementary.

I'll be catching the premiere of Black Sails this weekend. I also look forward to the eventual return of Orphan Black, Continuum, Vikings, and Doctor Who.

I'm still hanging in there — just barely — with Agents of SHIELD, Revolution, and Atlantis in the hopes they'll improve. Psych and Warehouse 13 should wrap up OK, but Castle and White Collar may have jumped the shark with forced conflicts.

In animation, Dragons: Defenders of Berk is entertaining while I wait for How to Train Your Dragon 2 and the return of Avatar: Legend of Korra, but superhero representation has dropped with the untimely cancellation of Beware the Batman and the weak representation of Avengers Assemble.

We'll see if there's room for Defiance, Da Vinci's Demons, or other newer shows in my busy schedule. So much to watch, so little time!

Happy 2014!

Friends and fellow role-players, I wish all of you and your families a healthy, prosperous, and Happy New Year! May 2014 bring us new and fun adventures together! -Gene

Boston-area role-playing games, spring 2014:

Vistel's Circus

Face-to-face "Vanished Lands" team

Other Boston-area RPGs, 2013:

  • "Vortex: Terra's Pride," Gene D.'s telecom space opera, using FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer, Bulldogs, Skype, and Rolz
  • "Barsoomian Adventures: the Tenth Ray of Mars," Jason E.R.'s planetary romance, using Savage Worlds
  • "Star Wars: Dark Times," Jason E.R.'s space opera miniseries, using Savage Worlds
  • Red Dwarf, Beruk A.'s science fiction+ scenario
  • Dread, Brian W.'s Jenga-based social science fiction one-shot
  • "A New Beginning: Mystic Adventures in the 'Big D,'" Josh C.'s modern supernatural miniseries, using FATE 3e Dresden Files
  • "The Lizardmen of Xur'Kliz," Josh C.'s fantasy one-shot, using Dungeon World
  • "Steam Wars," Josh C.'s steampunk samurai/space opera miniseries, using FATE Accelerated Edition (FAE), Google+, and Roll20
  • Telecom fantasy scenario by Josh C., using Microscope, Wushu, and Google+, and Roll20
  • Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, Rich C.G.'s space opera one-shot
  • School Daze, Rich C.G.'s rules-light high-school scenarios
  • "Strange Tales From Chicago," Geoff C.'s superhero miniseries, using FAE, Skype, and Rolz
  • "Redeemer or Destroyer," Rob H.'s fantasy campaign, using Storyteller: Exalted, Wushu/Budo, Google+, and Roll20
Savage Worlds team

Star Wars: Dark Times group