Fast and Fury-ous: C!TB rewatches MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS

[After the “noted” “success” of our LOST rewatch two years ago, James and Scott are back to prepare for the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron the only way they know how: by going through the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, movie by movie.  We are not very imaginative.  Check in every week as we go into way too much detail about pop entertainment and frequently say people are wrong about things.]

Scott: The time has come.

James: I have honestly been dreading it. The past few weeks I’ve been behind with my watching and catching up while we recap, but due to poor scheduling. This week, I’ve actively been putting it off.

Scott: Yeah, let’s just talk about WrestleMania instead. Maybe Brock Lesnar will retain now that he’s re-signed!

James: I am genuinely tempted. Because, really, the movie we’re about to discuss is one I’ve come completely around on since I loved it in the theatre.

Scott: My feelings aren’t quite that extreme, but as far as the Marvel movies go, I agree it’s the dud. It might not be as much of a drag as INCREDIBLE HULK, but considering its reputation far exceeds IH, there’s a bigger disparity between perception and reality. That said, if you asked me to list something I liked about this movie, I’d say that I really like Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner.

James: We are, of course, talking about THE AVENGERS!

Fast and Fury-ous: C!TB rewatches CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

[After the “noted” “success” of our LOST rewatch two years ago, James and Scott are back to prepare for the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron the only way they know how: by going through the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, movie by movie.  We are not very imaginative.  Check in every week as we go into way too much detail about pop entertainment and frequently say people are wrong about things.]

Scott: Welcome back readers to our always-insightful and totally important Marvel Cinematic Universe Rewatch! Last week we covered THOR, possibly my favourite outing in the first spate of films, and this week we’re looking at CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGERs movie to have a subtitle.

show us them buns, hun

Fast and Fury-ous: C!TB rewatches THOR

[After the “noted” “success” of our LOST rewatch two years ago, James and Scott are back to prepare for the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron the only way they know how: by going through the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, movie by movie.  We are not very imaginative.  Check in every week as we go into way too much detail about pop entertainment and frequently say people are wrong about things.]

James: So right down to business, then! Last week, we talked about the often maligned IRON MAN 2, and found a lot of stuff to like about it! This week, we take on another movie in the MCU that’s often maligned: THOR!

so confused... so wet

This Column Has Seven Days #048 // They Alive, Dammit

Despite losing an hour I somehow managed to get a fair chunk of reading done this week. And my accomplishments weren’t just limited to reading; I decluttered the apartment, tackled a knitting project, and all manner of other things besides. Oh, and I watched an entire season of a sitcom as well — no, it wasn’t Parks and Recreation. (Though I am almost finished season four of that.) Let’s get to it.

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Television: The pedigree of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt practically guaranteed that I was going to watch the entire thing. Produced and created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who made one of my favourite sitcoms, 30 Rock? Check. Starring the charismatic and talented Ellie Kemper? Check. Supporting cast includes Jane Krakowski and Tituss Burgess (both also from 30 Rock) and legendary actress Carol Kane? Check. And though it had a bit of a rocky start, and some questionable artistic and story choices (Krakowski’s Jacqueline Voorhees has an unfortunately tone-deaf backstory, for starters), it’s a very clever show that lives up to its potential. Sometimes it feels like it’s haunted by the ghost of 30 Rock, as the shows unsurprisingly share a comedic sensibility and are both scored by Jeff Richmond, but though the shows share some DNA Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is very much its own creature. The cast is a particularly strong point. Kemper is the perfect choice to embody the indefatigable main character, Burgess has all the best lines, and Kane steals practically every scene she’s in. Some of my friends and co-workers were turned off by the show’s premise — Kimmy was kidnapped by a cult leader and trapped in an underground bunker with three other women for 15 years before finally escaping — but the darkness of the show is the biggest selling point, as the way Kimmy and the rest of the characters cope with the tragedies in their lives and their secret pasts is ultimately inspiring. (It’s also laugh-out-loud funny, in case I’m making it sound more like a Lifetime Original Movie than a sitcom.) After a promising but shaky start Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt grew into a smart and funny show with a strong message, and a lot of potential for the upcoming second season.

Comics: I used Daylight Saving Weekend to making my way through my stack of unread single issues and I have to say that winnowing that pile down to under two inches has given me a surprising amount of energy and motivation to tackle other things. It’s strange, but true. Here are a few updates on some of the best of my current books:

  • Sex Criminals – Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s critical darling about time-freezing sex maniacs gets better with every issue. The story has been making a slow, subtle transition from “wacky sex comedy with hijinks” to “thoughtful sex comedy with hijinks,” which I thoroughly appreciate. My favourite thing about the book is the letter column, though; as much as I like the story itself, the feedback and the sharing from the community of readers always makes me laugh the hardest.
  • Swamp Thing – I didn’t think much of Charles Soule’s Swamp Thing run when he took over from Scott Snyder, but the last few issues have turned the book around very sharply. I found his first issues limp and in search of direction, but with one issue left before this series comes to an end, Soule has pulled together the weaker plot threads and characters and given the book a real sense of urgency. The rise of the new Metal Kingdom, or the Calculus, as a rival to the Green, the Red, the Rot, and the Grey, could be seen as muddying the DC mythology a little bit, but it’s a good idea and executed well. The book also looks gorgeous; Jesus Saiz’s art is given some fantastic depth by Matt Hollingsworth’s colours, and letterer Travis Lanham gives the denizens of each realm distinct voices thanks to font and word balloon choices. It’s a foregone conclusion that our hero will come out victorious in the final issue, I’m sure, but Soule and company have at least given Swamp Thing a challenging adversary and clever story to finish the series with.
  • The Wicked + The Divine – This is still my favourite book currently being published. The first story arc ended with a hell of a bang, and the second story has not only picked up the pace but is further exploring and developing the world and the characters’ places in it. The beautiful thing about a book like this (and also Sex Criminals) is that I have no idea where it’s going. Don’t get me wrong — I like some corporate superhero comics but I am well aware of their storytelling limitations (namely, having to make due with the illusion of change instead of actual change), and not only does The Wicked + The Divine allow for change, but it provides danger and actual stakes for the characters, so the reader comes to care about them. Plus, for my money it’s the best-looking book on the stands. It’s the comic I never knew I wanted, and now that it exists I never want it to end.

Books: This weekend I finished reading a book of comics criticism — Voyage In Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization. It’s definitely a niche volume, but for fans of Ellis it’s an interesting read; there are chapters that dissect how his work is influenced by his views on superheroes, science fiction, violence, anger, and authority. The book also features excerpts of Ellis’ interviews for the film Captured Ghosts, giving the man himself the opportunity to expound on these and other topics. My biggest problem with the book is that it would benefit from a final pass from an editor; there are a handful of typos, missing words, and confusing clauses that interrupted the flow of reading. That’s the kind of risk one runs when getting a self-published book, though, and the analysis in the book is thought-provoking and made me want to re-read some of Ellis’ work with this new perspective.

Comics: Speaking of Warren Ellis, this week I also read the first volume of Trees from Image Comics, written by Ellis with art from Jason Howard. Trees tells the story of humanity post-alien-invasion, with a twist — the aliens are giant cylinders that tower over cities, and not only do they not have any interest in communicating with the human inhabitants of planet Earth, they don’t seem to recognize us as life forms at all. Ellis and Howard show the reader a world where humanity lives in the shadow of powerful and unknowable alien beings and how that has become the new normal. A diverse cast of characters additionally shows us the impact of these Trees all over the world, from an artist’s community in China to street gangs in Italy to a mayoral candidate in New York City to a research station in Norway. I’m halfway through my second reading of the book; I’m an unapologetic Ellis fan but I feel there’s something really special and yet elusive about Trees that I really think needs more exploration. I wholeheartedly endorse everyone read the book and discover it for themselves.

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That’s all for this week, cats and kittens. Until next time, I encourage you to catch up on some of the things that have fallen to the wayside and get yourself energized. Spring forward, so to speak. I’ll see you in seven days.

Fast and Fury-ous: C!TB rewatches IRON MAN 2

[After the “noted” “success” of our LOST rewatch two years ago, James and Scott are back to prepare for the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron the only way they know how: by going through the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, movie by movie.  We are not very imaginative.  Check in every week as we go into way too much detail about pop entertainment and frequently say people are wrong about things.]

This Column Has Seven Days #047 // The Story of This Column Is That It’s About Parks and Recreation

Lately I’ve been marvelling at my nearly unfettered access to pop culture goodness. Thanks to the advances in technology of the past 15 years, and to my own slow accumulation and development of my personal collections at the same time, I have access to an embarassment of riches. Some weeks I go through the media menu like it’s a smorgasbord, sampling a little of everything, while other times I pick one thing and gorge on it. This week has been more like a binge than a buffet, as the series finale of Parks and Recreation led me to crack open my DVDs and rewatch the show from the beginning.

ParksI watched the Parks finale late Saturday night, two days after it aired, because I was feeling a little maudlin about the whole thing and I wanted to give it a little space for my mind to settle into it. I loved the finale — it wasn’t flawless, and sometimes I found it saccharine, but that’s basically an apt description of the show itself. It’s sometimes a little too sweet and there are episodes that are real clunkers, but overall it’s amazing. The finale wrapped everything up wonderfully — I laughed a lot, I cried, and I even got goosebumps. It gave every actor and every character at least one perfect moment, and it gave Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope about a dozen of them.

I liked the finale so much I decided to watch the series all over again. I wanted to see how the show had changed, to revisit my favourite episodes and possibly discover something new in one or two episodes I had overlooked. I started with the first season, which seems like a completely reasonable decision if you have never seen the first season of Parks and Recreation. The problem with that decision, however, is that the first season is really awful. I know a handful of people who still really like those first six episodes, but I find them clumsy, awkward, and charmless. The bare skeleton of what the show would grow into is there: Leslie Knope is an energetic go-getter with a tenuous grasp on reality who sees her meaningless position as the most important thing in the world, and she is surrounded by a group of eccentric friends and co-workers.

However, those first six episodes get so much else wrong, particularly the fact that Leslie’s co-workers treat her like garbage. Ron Swanson is nowhere near the endearing caricature he would eventually become, and Andy Dwyer is a terrible selfish person who exists solely to showcase how low he is dragging Ann Perkins down. But the worst thing is that Leslie is passionate and yet also terrible at her job, and her co-workers (especially Tom) abuse and mock her at every turn. I know it’s because the show was inspired by The Office, but that style of humour is a really terrible fit for this show. I disliked it the first time I watched it and disliked it even more on this week’s re-watch. I disliked it so much I put that season’s DVDs in my “get rid of” box. Having seasons two through seven of a show on my shelf will feel a little weird to a completist like myself, but it will prevent me from watching that awful season again, so it’s something I’m willing to accept.

When the show came back for a second season, the show’s producers must have thought the same thing, because there was a noticeable change across the board. The characters are a little more likeable, and the main thrust of the show has changed from “Leslie Knope, incompetent fool whom everyone pities” to “Leslie Knope, overenthusiastic dope whom everyone likes.” It’s a much better tone and allows for more interesting character dynamics to develop, especially the two most important relationships for the next three seasons: Leslie and Ron, and Leslie and Ann. What surprised me most on this recent viewing is how much I missed the Leslie/Ann dynamic since Rashida Jones left halfway through season six. Jones and Poehler have great chemistry, and without Ann as Leslie’s best friend and anchor (and vice versa), the show sometimes felt a little lopsided. Without giving too much away, the scene in the finale where I burst into tears — big, manly tears, mind you — involved Leslie and Ann together.

The third season, though, is where Parks and Recreation really figures itself out. The last two episodes of season two added Adam Scott as the nerdy and practical Ben Wyatt and Rob Lowe as the greatest character in the history of television, Chris Traeger. The two of them gave the show a huge shot in the arm; not only are they two talented actors who entirely commit to their roles, but they get to do some heavy lifting plot-wise, allowing for some of the other performers to have fun secondary or tertiary plots where they explore their characters. The third season is sweet and romantic and super-fun, and I always recommend starting there to anyone who hasn’t seen Parks and Recreation and was thinking about starting.

Getting through seasons four through six may take me longer than a week, and I will try to branch out into non-Parks and Recreation territory for next week, if only for my own sanity. It has been fun to revisit the origins of the show, though, and if I’ve learned anything from going over the first three seasons, it’s that I never, ever want to watch those first six episodes again. (And that Paul Schneider’s Mark Brendanawicz is not as awful as I’d remembered.)

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That’s about it for me this week. Until next time, watch Parks and Recreation if you haven’t. But please, skip the first season. I’ll see you in seven days.

Fast and Fury-ous: C!TB rewatches THE INCREDIBLE HULK

[After the “noted” “success” of our LOST rewatch two years ago, James and Scott are back to prepare for the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron the only way they know how: by going through the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, movie by movie.  We are not very imaginative.  Check in every week as we go into way too much detail about pop entertainment and frequently say people are wrong about things.]

Fast and Fury-ous: C!TB rewatches IRON MAN

[After the “noted” “success” of our LOST rewatch two years ago, James and Scott are back to prepare for the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron the only way they know how: by going through the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, movie by movie.  We are not very imaginative.  Check in every week as we go into way too much detail about pop entertainment and frequently say people are wrong about things.]

This Column Has Seven Days #046 // Marvel’s Not Ready For Prime-Time Players

This weekend I took advantage of a couple of the sales on ComiXology, including picking up about a half-dozen Marvel comics collections. I thought a few of those series were worth talking about, because while they aren’t perfect they are at least interesting examples of what comes from corporate comics that try to look like boutique books.

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Going Solo, or “What I Got At The Marvel Digital Sale”

When Marvel announced their “All-New Marvel Now” branding across a slew of titles in early 2014, it seemed to me like they were trying a little too hard. There were a few books I was interested in, but seeing the “All-New” descriptor tagged to the initiative made it smell of desperation and hucksterism. I tried out a few of the new series, including Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, and Silver Surfer, and enjoyed each of them a great deal, but my choices were based far more on my interest in the creative teams than on the characters themselves. I took advantage of this weekend’s digital sale to pick up some other books, which promised some new takes on solo, “street level” characters: The Punisher, Black Widow, and Iron Fist: The Living Weapon.

The Punisher, Issue 5.

Let’s start with The Punisher. I have some very specific criteria when it comes to enjoying a Punisher comic book. Basically, if it’s written by Garth Ennis then I’m gonna like it; if it’s someone else, then it’s a crap shoot. In the first two volumes of the new Punisher series (Black and White and Border Crossing), writer Nathan Edmondson and artist Mitch Gerads move Frank Castle from his home in New York City and send him to Los Angeles on the trail of the Dos Sols gang. This being a Punisher comic book, though, things get a little more complicated than that. The Punisher encounters the Dos Sols’ secret weapon, and is secretly hunted by the American military in the form of the black ops version of the Howling Commandos. In the second volume Frank finds himself in a South American prison, then later runs into Black Widow (more on her later) and ends up doing some dirty work for her in exchange for her not turning him in.

I enjoyed the team’s take on The Punisher as a tactician and soldier while still firmly entrenched in the Marvel Universe. Frank’s not going out guns a-blazing and heading at super-villains head on; he’s mindful of collateral damage and is actually taking steps to be brutally efficient without making a spectacle of himself. Moving him to Los Angeles also provides Edmondson and Gerads with some interesting story potential, as well as the ability to establish a few new supporting cast members. Gerads’ art is clean and uncluttered, and he gives a flow to fast-paced scenes so I was never confused about how the action in one panel led to another, an important thing in a Punisher book. However, there were times where I had to actively stop comparing certain stories or situations to the Garth Ennis run; it’s not fair to Edmondson and Gerads to compare their work to some of my favourite Marvel comics of all time. I definitely would have an easier time reviewing this series if I could have stopped negatively comparing it to Ennis’ run, but at times I just couldn’t help it. Despite my own personal attachment to and opinion of the character, overall this new series is a smart, violent, and engaging book, like The Punisher is supposed to be, even if I couldn’t get out of my own way and just accept it.

Black WidowThe next comic, also written by Edmondson, is Black Widow, with art by Phil Noto. Out of the three series, this is the closest spiritual cousin to the critically acclaimed Hawkeye; though it doesn’t quite hit the same artistic highs as that series, Black Widow is a look at what an Avenger gets up to when she’s off the clock. From the first issue, Edmondson lays out his take on Black Widow: a woman who’s not running from the mistakes of her past, but rather using it as motivation for her current actions. I think the first volume, The Finely Woven Thread, is a good introduction to the character (speaking as someone who has never felt a particularly strong attachment to her). It starts with a few self-contained chapters establishing Natasha Romanoff’s globe-trotting espionage adventures and then closes with a multi-part story that establishes a conspiracy inside the Marvel Universe’s greatest spy agency. The dialogue gets a little rough at times, and towards the end of the collection the plot feels as though it is being stretched a little thin. On the strength of the writing alone, Black Widow would simply be an acceptable book. However, Noto’s art turns it into a much more interesting read; surprisingly, given his thin lines, his action scenes have real energy and the way he lays out the talking heads scenes help the pacing and actually elevate the dialogue. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Black Widow, and will definitely get the next volume to see how the seeds Edmondson and Noto plant in these early issues take root.

Iron Fist

My favourite of the three new-to-me series, however, was Iron Fist: The Living Weapon, with Kaare Andrews taking care of both writing and art duties. The first volume, Rage, takes everything that has previously been established about Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, and deconstructs it. I don’t want to get into plot details, as revealing anything about the events of the plot (aside from the whole “Things will never be the same again!” hook) would spoil the read. However, I have to single Andrews out for making a book that looks absolutely gorgeous. His varying colour palette establishes just the right tone for each of the different settings, his faux-distressed and faded art for the flashback scenes strikes a good balance against the present day’s crisper line, and his action scenes are vibrant with Iron Fist moving through panels like a torrent of boiling water. Furthermore, the way he lays out each page is creative and eye-catching; some pages have a number of smaller panels against a larger backdrop, geographical details in one scene become panel borders in another, and his splash pages give the reader a chance to breathe while expanding the scope of the issue. I have no idea where Iron Fist: The Living Weapon is going, and though I am not sure I will like the final result from a plot and character perspective, I will love watching it happen.

Each of these new series scratches a different genre itch — action, espionage, martial arts — while never abandoning their identity as corporate superhero comics. That’s both a blessing and a curse — the use of established characters helps give them an audience but it also means that any significant changes are unlikely to remain in continuity after the current team leaves or the series wraps up. Taken for what they are, warts and all, all three are worth a read if only as attempts to shake up and reintroduce old characters to new readers, and the art on all three makes them worthy of a second look.

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I wasn’t just a Marvel zombie this past week, though. I also managed to dig deep into the origins of one of television’s biggest creative juggernauts — for good or for ill — of the last 40 years.

The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players circa 1975.
The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players circa 1975.

Television: I didn’t watch the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special earlier this month, mostly because like a stereotypical goon I dislike most of what SNL produced after I turned 19. However, I thought that the 40th anniversary was as good a reason as any to take my Season One DVDs off the shelf and give them a watch for the first time. After watching the first nine episodes I am still floored at how different the show was in its early days. It makes sense that a late-night sketch variety show would have a few growing pains when starting out, but the first few episodes feel wildly different than the format that is so familiar to today’s viewer. The first episode has host George Carlin (who only does monologues and never interacts with the Not Ready For Prime-Time Players), comedian Valri Bromfield, musical guests Billy Preston and Janis Ian (each of who does two songs), Andy Kaufman doing his Mighty Mouse routine, some original work from Jim Henson’s Muppets (which were an absolutely terrible fit for the program, as much as it pains me to say), and a film by Albert Brooks. All that plus some truly weird and wonderful sketches. It’s a fascinating watch, even if some of Carlin’s bits are de-fanged due to the combination of nerves and television standards, but watching the show evolve over the next eight episodes is absolutely fascinating. The second episode, hosted by Paul Simon, is basically a musical show with a few sketches, including a bizarrely hilarious film where he plays one-on-one basketball against former Harlem Globetrotter Connie Hawkins. Simon sings a few songs on his own, then gets Art Garfunkel to come back to sing a few of their classics (and also to verbally Garfunkel on television).

The show really starts coming into its own when Candice Bergen hosts the fourth episode. She’s the first host to participate in sketches with the cast, and the show even has her in unscripted conversation with Gilda Radner, which is wonderfully sweet and sad. It is easy to see that everyone involved in the evening is having fun; the cast seems grateful and happy to have someone who’s willing to play along with them, and Bergen is up for trying anything. It’s the first glimpse of what the show would eventually turn into, and as much as I like the Carlin episode with its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, the Bergen episode is the first to border on legitimately great. Lily Tomlin’s and Richard Pryor’s episodes are even better, each tailored to best highlight their personas and skills. Even though the show can appear clumsy, sweaty, and dated at times, it’s also exciting and fresh and vibrant, and I can’t wait to get through even more episodes and then on to Season Two when things apparently get really interesting.

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That’s it for me this week. Until next time, try your luck at one of those Marvel series, or at least track down the Saturday Night Live “Racist Word Association” sketch with Pryor and Chevy Chase and marvel that it was on broadcast television in the ’70s. I’ll see you in seven days.

Doctor Whooch // Episode 046 // Loveable Grumpus

In which we wish you a Happy Who Year!

It’s the first episode of 2015, and we’ve dishing on this year’s Christmas special, “Last Christmas”. There’s a lot to talk about in this episode, from the surprising return of a character we thought was gone, to our feels on The Doctor and Clara’s new dynamic. Also: Santa! Bojack Horseman! Racism! Wait, maybe that last one shouldn’t have an exclaimation point. Oh, and Brandon over-corrects and is not nearly drunk enough.

Outro music is “Dream On” by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds