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Spider-Man: Homecoming – A Review

spider_man_posterThe first Spider-Man movie came out in a day and age that has long past, one that you might not be able to recall. Spider-Man was a big deal, a massive event in theaters that got me to buy my tickets in advance for the first time. All the showings of it’s opening night were sold out. It was the post-9/11 movie we needed at the time. It was also fun and exciting and the first time the character had ever been on the big screen. It’s hard to put into words the energy that film created.

Now, that movie almost feels archaic. It’s a single, self-contained character story that takes place during the most important time in the hero’s life. Yes, it has plot-threads for a sequel, but when you look at the mess that is Amazing Spider-Man or it’s sequel, the first Sam Raimi film almost looks shy about presenting a sequel. It was a different world, one where a film had to actually be released and do well at the box office for it to get a sequel.

But we’re in a brave new world now! And while we’ve had many Spider-Man films since that first, landmark entry, we’ve never had a fifteen year old Peter Parker in a world of superheroes. So, now we have a Spider-Man who gets to interact with Iron Man and potentially join the Avengers. If he looks bad doing super heroics, it’s because other, better heroes have set the standard. And while Spider-Man: Homecoming tackles this, it’s not the area where the movie shines. Don’t get me wrong, the scenes with Tom Holland and Robert Downey Jr. are fun and quippy. But it’s where the movie feels less exciting.

spiderman-homecoming-3Peter was in high school for all of ten minutes in the first Tobey Maguire film and the Amazing Spider-Man failed to deliver on that front (as well as many others) even though it was greenlit for that very reason. So while it might seem like a repeat to put the kid in school, it’s not something we’ve actually seen in full effect before. And besides, it’s the story Spider-Man: Homecoming wants to tell anyway. The supporting cast in Peter’s life are memorable and funny and, if the series wanted to go that route, Marvel could set a whole film around just a week of Peter in school, no super heroics, and it would still be entertaining. I mean, I still turn out whenever a kid is bemoaning popularity status or attending parties, but that’s because I hate high school. But, I think that says something to the charm of the movie that I actually cared about Peter’s sophomore life, at least, most of the time.

It helps that Tom Holland is a great Peter Parker. He captures the youth, the enthusiasm, the awkwardness and the strength of the character. He does a great job being over his head and enjoying this new life at the same time. He likes being Spider-Man, which is an important part of the character that can be forgotten when responsibilities abound.

zendaya-in-spider-man-homecomingJacob Batalon’s Ned is hilarious and a great teammate for Peter. Zendaya’s Michelle has a promising future, made brighter by how many laughs she gets in a layered performance. Marisa Tomei doesn’t get the most screen time, nor does her Aunt May really shine, but she’s a pleasant addition. 

Really, the only character who the movie fails is Liz, Peter’s crush. I wish I could tell her more about her, but the movie didn’t so I’m at a loss. I think the shadow of Mary Jane looms over all the films that have come since and Marvel hasn’t entirely solved the issue just yet. Liz is nice, she’s smart, but she’s only there to be crushed upon. While the end of the movie does promise a solution to that, it doesn’t change the fact that we spent two hours with a character that doesn’t seem to matter to the writers.

Michael Keaton’s Vulture is… well, he’s fine. It’s hard to beat the scenery chewing of Willem Defoe’s Green Goblin or the visual splendor of Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock. Keaton’s fairly actuate to the comics, visually frightening at times and physically up to the task of being the villain of the movie. But he’s not very interesting as a character and I was never waiting for his next scene. To be fair, in the comics, the Vulture is the second super villain Spider-Man ever dealt with and since we don’t want to see him go against the Chameleon or try to replicate the previous movies’ villains, he does make a certain amount of sense to include. If we have to stick to villains that haven’t appeared in films, I’d prefer Mysterio or Kraven the Hunter.

spider-man-homecoming-webbing-ferryThe action is never incredible, nothing in this film comes close to the train battle from Spider-Man 2 or even the crane rescue from the Spider-Man 3. But, there’s a kinetic energy to the scenes here and they move well. The idea in Spider-Man: Homecoming is that Peter is still new to all of this and not very good at the job. He’s got heart, but little coordination. What might normally be a car chase becomes a run through the suburbs. What normally would be a battle over a crowded ferry becomes an attempt to just do as little damage as possible. So, no, the action isn’t spectacular, but it works because Peter isn’t spectacular at being Spider-Man just yet.

My only other major gripe might not bother many other people. And it might be a minor spoiler, but I doubt it. The movie replicates a fairly iconic moment from Spider-Man comic history, one that Stan Lee wrote himself. In the comic, Peter triumphs because he thinks of all the people counting on him and everyone he loves. He can’t fail them. He overcomes a great challenge because his responsibility is great. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, the scene is replicated from panel to screen, but the motivation is lost. Peter overcomes because he wants to be a superhero. He needs to prove it to himself. Normally, that would be fine as motivation, but for those of us who read Lee’s early comics, we know the scene has been done better. There’s a power to that moment that was lost in translation.

Other than that, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fun time. It’s colorful, it’s zippy and it makes me excited to see this version of Peter Parker again. I know I’ve referenced the original trilogy multiple times in this review, but I do think this new entry is the first film to differentiate itself from what’s come before. It successfully stands on it’s own. It has personality, a vision and it makes for a pretty good Spider-Man movie.

Book Review – Empire of Imagination

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A reference to Unearthed Arcana, for those unaware.

Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons by Michael Witwer is one of those biographies/histories where the author dramatizes it. Meaning there’s dialog and inner monologues that the author is taking a few liberties with, similar to Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation. That may bother some people, including me, but for once I actually found it helpful in relating to the subject matter.

The book is a history of Dungeons & Dragons but it’s a history we see as we follow one man, D&D’s creator, Gary Gygax. There’s very little jumping around and visiting other people involved, this story is firmly about Gygax and his how is life affected and was affected by D&D.

Having read a few books on the subject, my favorite so far being Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt, there wasn’t a whole lot of new information to gain about the game itself. But I didn’t realize how little I knew about Gygax himself. A self-made high school dropout, creative and self-destructive and gamer to a fault. It’s strangely fascinating to read about Gygax’s personality and how it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, including his wife and kids. It’s also shows how much of the company and game relied on friends, family and the gaming community.

And yet, with all of his flaws, the man created one of the greatest games of all time and then kept creating, kept the community of tabletop players alive through a home-town convention and never stopped playing games during his free time. While nothing after D&D ever gained the same popularity, there’s something to be said for the amount of material Gygax created in his life. He reminded me a bit of Stan Lee in that regard, having created an amazing and loved universe at the early stages of his career and then never being able to top after. Life Stan Lee, it wasn’t the material he created after that made him a star, it was him just being who he was. Gygax lived a rock star life for a while and the geek community helped make him feel like one.

Another great read on the subject.

A lot of the book talks about how much Gygax influenced the world and it’s hard to argue. The path of D&D to computers, to MMORPGs, to LARP to Stephen Colbert and Vin Diesel, it’s all easy to see. Near the end of the book, Witwer talks about how Gygax is geek royalty, maybe even King of the Geeks. Considering that D&D has been going since the 70s, he might be right.

As someone who’s life has been heavily affected by Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop games in general, the history of the medium feels strangely personal (there’s a reason this blog is called Natural 20). I wasn’t playing in the 80s, but reading about the groups that formed, I felt like I could have been. There’s always something geek-romantic about friends around a table in a basement roleplaying. Well, maybe it’s only that way for me, but I love reading about that stuff.

If you’re remotely interested about the history of D&D, Gary Gygax or the hobby of roleplaying, this is a great read. Combined with Of Dice and Men, digging through the past has never been easier or more entertaining. I will say both books share a flaw in that neither really dig into the history of TSR after it’s removed from Gygax’s control. Empire of Imagination does a better job, but seems like the company was so destructive that you could get another book out of it’s time in the 90s, before it was bought by Wizards of the Coast.

I guess I’ll have to start reading Designers & Dragons next.

 

The Comics that Made Me a Marvel Fan

Having just talked about the differences I see between Marvel and DC comic books, I started thinking about what comics helped form my fandom. I didn’t just start out as a Marvel fan and go from there. There were certain books and characters that brought me to where I am today. These comics were the ones that won me over!

Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men
31526These were the first comic books I ever read. In 2000, the X-Men movie was coming to theaters. I had only ever seen a few episodes of the old animated series in the 90s, but I remembered enjoying them. My library had a small, but respectable graphic novel section back then and they had the first three volumes of Essential X-Men, each including about two years worth of issues. I devoured these books. Claremont’s run on the X-Men still stands as my favorite era of the X-Men. I know fans like to point to Days of Future Past and The Dark Phoenix Saga as the best parts of his time on title, but I don’t think the other stories get enough credit. Wolverine and Nightcrawler going against the Wendigo, the Brood Saga, the first few fights between the new X-Men and Magneto, Proteus and Alpha Flight, these tales are what got me into comics. Back when I started, I knew nothing about these characters and I was discovering things as I read these early issues. After a few years, when I had searched across the internet and encyclopedias, I had learned all the stories and secrets and the older stories had less appeal, but I never stopped loving this run. With Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Storm, Kitty Pryde and Rogue as the main cast and my favorite team, these brought me into a whole new world.

I could go on forever about the X-Men, but I’ll hold myself back. To get back to my main point, this series and run got me into comic books and that was the first step to becoming a Marvel fan.

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Stan Lee’s Amazing Spider-Man
The same library that had the first three volumes of Essential X-Men also had six volumes of Essential Spider-Man. While I was really only interested in the X-Men, I figured I’d give Spider-Man a try. Where as Chris Claremont’s X-Men was during the late seventies, Stan Lee’s Spider-Man was at the dawn of the Silver Age in the early sixties. It didn’t have the large, ensemble cast of the X-Men, but it had superheroics at it’s early best. Spider-Man was a constant drama that kept me interested in Peter Parker’s social life as much as his hero career. It was fun seeing all his villains come into their identities and seeing the best of superhero cliches form on the page.

The X-Men tend to hang out on the fringe of the Marvel universe, but Stan Lee’s Spider-Man introduced me to it properly. This was the series that not only introduced me to the title character and his supporting cast, but also to the Human Torch and the Avengers. This showed me there was a world beyond the X-Men, and one even beyond Spider-Man.

Frank Miller’s Daredevil
20912I started reading Frank Miller’s legendary run on Daredevil a few weeks after I saw the movie. At the time, I really enjoyed the film. It was only the fourth Marvel film I had seen back in February 2003, so standards were still being formed. But it did get me reading the character and Daredevil became a quick favorite of mine. Miller introduced me to a a darker side of the Marvel universe; one that was grittier and street level. This wasn’t the world of super powered mutants or the skyscraper battles of Spider-Man; this was the life of a blind superhero who’s villains were above the law and hid in the shadows. Daredevil’s problems weren’t social, they were psychological and the women in his life were out to kill him. At times, he felt like Marvel’s answer to Batman, but he was different on many levels that he stood strong on his own. I read every thing Frank Miller wrote with the character and loved the worst of them.

Daredevil was the beginning of my alliance. He was another character that I enjoyed, in the Marvel universe, and the world was getting bigger all the time.

21243Joe Kelly’s Deadpool
I almost decided not to mention Deadpool because, when I started reading him, he was still considered a character that belonged to the X-Men line. He’s since ventured out to have his own place in the Marvel universe and he brought me along with him. I bought the entire run of Joe Kelly’s work on the character in one purchase and I read the whole thing in a week’s time. Spider-Man was funny, but Deadpool was hilarious. This was the first comic that made laugh so hard that I cried. But it was also dark and treated Deadpool like a real character who was trying his best to be a hero, even though he would never reach that rank. The character has since become more of a joke machine than a real person, but Joe Kelly made Deadpool a layered, flawed and laugh out loud character.

Deadpool showed me that the Marvel universe was goofy at times and not afraid to make fun of itself. I still haven’t read a DC comic that can make laugh as much as Joe Kelly’s Deadpool did.

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Dan Slott’s She-Hulk
I started reading this run on the character because of the rave reviews and I kept reading it because they were right. This book had the humor of Deadpool with the Silver Age flavor of Stan Lee’s Spider-Man. Taking place in a superhuman law firm, Dan Slott made me a fan of She-Hulk, who was fun, strong and and smart enough to win her cases in court. With guest stars from every reach of Marvel, I also discovered some Z-list characters I had never heard of before.

This was another series that expanded my view of the Marvel universe, showing me the scope of characters as well as tone, and helping me understand the difference between camp and fun.

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Fabian Nicieza’s Thunderbolts
This was the first time I read a comic book based off of characters I had no connection to; Deadpool was from X-Men, Spider-Man is known by all, and She-Hulk is the cousin of my favorite Jade Giant. But the Thunderbolts were made up of a bunch of villains I hadn’t heard of before! Blizzard? Atlas? Songbird? A non-Simpson’s Radioactive Man? But the first year of Nicieza’s rebooted run on the Thunderbolts was classic in tone, with the heroes finding themselves with their backs against the wall. What I loved back then was that they were villains trying to make good and the concept was new to me (since I had yet to read Suicide Squad).

Thunderbolts proved that I could enjoy a variety of Marvel comic books. Not only about superheroes, but the bad guys that inhabited the universe. Thunderbolts (with the help of She-Hulk) gave me a foothold for the weirder concepts of Marvel, for less than popular characters and for the tone and atmosphere of the modern Marvel landscape.

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Mark Millar’s Civil War
Up until this comic, I was still very selective about which comic books I was reading. But after the Marvel Civil War, I was trying to read everything. This was the first major comic book crossover that I read, outside of the X-Men line. It introduced me to the modern versions of Iron Man and Iron Man, got me reading series like the Punisher and Moon Knight, made me interested in Black Panther and Thor, and got me picking up titles I had dropped like Spider-Man and the New Avengers. The concept of Marvel heroes going against each other over identity rights changed everything and set the universe up for a very focused story arch. When the smoke cleared, I was ready to expand my horizons to characters I had never heard of and try new things. I was in the trenches of Marvel.

Unfortunately, I can’t get into every comic that helped make me a Marvel fan. I didn’t mention The Ultimates, which got me into the Avengers cast, or Ultimate Spider-Man, which grew with me, or any of the Hulk, Exiles, Runaway, Doctor Strange or Young Avengers  comics I was getting into, or the mini-series like Infinite Gauntlet, Annihilation, Age of Apocalypse or Marvel 1602. The point I tried to make is there are certain, landmark titles that helped create the Marvel fan inside of me, and many more that kept me that way.

Make Mine Marvel!