Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Defense for the Man of Steel

Everybody knows the origin story of the Man of Steel. He was born Kal-El on the alien world of Krypton. His father, a scientist known as Jor-El rocketed his only son to Earth moments before his planet's destruction. He crash-landed in rural Kansas and was discovered and adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who raised the child as Clark and imbued him with a strong moral compass. As he grew into adolescence, he started to develop superhuman abilities such as super-strength and the ability to fly. When he reached maturity, he resolved to use his powers for the benefit of mankind. By donning his signature red cape and blue-and-red custom with a stylized red-and-yellow "S" shield on his chest, he become the one and only Superman!

Apearing for the first time in the pages of Action Comics #1 in the summer of 1938, Superman was created by two high school students from Ohio named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. He is considered by many to be the first superhero (even if that might not be technically true) and is widely considered a national cultural icon. He, along with characters such as Batman and Wonder Woman helped to create the superhero genre and establish its primacy within the American comic book industry.

However, Superman has had a lot of criticism leveled at him the past few decades. Many have called him "bland", "over-powered", and even "unrelatable." In fact, I used to be one of these people. When I was younger, I wasn't too found of Superman. I always saw him as nothing but a "Big Blue Boy Scout" and preferred characters such as Batman and Marvel's Spider-Man.

As I grew older, however, my opinions on Superman started to change. After reading Grant Morrison's series All-Star Superman and Joe Kelly's story "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, & The American Way?", I started to see how cool Superman really was and how interesting a character he could be when paired with the right creative team.

Sadly, there are still a number of people who continue to criticize the character for reasons that when you get down to it, aren't actually true (the majority of the time anyway). So, I thought I'd give my very own rebuttal to some of the major criticisms thrown at the Man of Steel.

The most common argument I hear about why Superman isn't a good character is that he's over-powered. While he might have more or less powers depending on the time period when the story was published, Superman's most famous powers are flight, super-strength, invulnerability to most attacks, super-speed, vision-based powers (including x-ray, heat-emitting, telescopic, infra-red, and microscopic vision), super-hearing, super-intelligence, and super-breath. Now, I know what you're saying, "Cody, that is a lot of powers," and I won't disagree with you. Superman has always had a lot of powers and is one of the most powerful characters in the DC Universe. However, I find the idea that a character can't be good because he has too many powers to be ridiculous. Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen has the ability to virtually do whatever he wants and is still just as interesting as the other, powerless characters in that story.

Also, while he has a large number of powers, he also has a number of weaknesses as well. First, his powers are nullified when he is exposed to green Kryptonite. If he's exposed to this stone for a prolonged period of time, he will eventually die from the radiation. Secondly, he loses all of his powers when exposed to the light of a red sun (For those of you who don't know, Superman derives his powers from the light of our yellow sun). Finally, he is vulnerable to magic-based powers and attacks.

The second major criticism thrown at Superman is that he's too bland and unrelatable. Generally, I've seen this criticism come from people who have very little experience with the actual character and are going off what they've heard from others or have only read stories from writers who didn't know how to properly handle the character.

Superman is a brave and kind-hearted hero with a strong sense of justice, morality, and righteousness. These traits were, as I mentioned before, instilled in him by his adoptive parents. He's a character who believes that since he has been blessed with these great powers, he also has the responsibility for good and the betterment of humanity. In many ways, he represents the philosophy of "With great power must also come great responsibility" a lot better than Spider-Man. That responsibility also extends to the code of honor that he has adopted, hoping to show the people of the world that good still exists and to never give up hope.

However, that sense of responsibility can be a negative thing as well. Since he tries to do whatever he can to save humanity, he has a habit of taking a failure to help someone rather personally. In many ways, he is kind of a perfectionist when it comes to being a hero. He always sees areas where he can do better. He also struggles with his code, knowing that it would be easier to become a super-powered version of Judge Dredd and simply do away with his enemies, but not wanting to resort to that because he has to be better than that because of his status as a symbol of hope and righteousness.

Wanting to do the right thing, struggling with doing the right thing when the wrong thing would be much easier, taking failure rather personally at times and being a perfectionist at what you're good at. I don't know about you, but I believe those seem to be very relatable qualities to me.

Now, I will be honest. Like many comic book character, the quality of Superman greatly depends on the creative team behind him at that moment of time. Sometimes, you will have a Grant Morrison or a Joe Kelly who understands the character and will utilize him properly. Utter times, you will have a character like Frank Miller who misses the point and bring those very things that people hate to light and make him unbearable. I have read a number of stories staring the Man of Steel that just make my head hurt and cast it aside for something better.

However, that fluctuation in quality is true for almost any comic book character. For example, Batman can be awesome when handled by someone like Scott Synder or Dennis O'Neil. However, he can be god awful when he's handled by someone like Doug Moench or Frank Miller after The Dark Knight Returns.  It's all about having the right creative team to use the character properly and understand the fundamental elements of the character.

I know some people will remain firm in their dislike of Superman. That's their opinion and they have a right to that opinion. My view of the character differs from theirs and that's okay as well. My motivation behind this post as to explain why I liked Superman and why I disagree with some of the criticisms. However, if someone does change their mind about Superman and gives him a second chance, I'd be perfectly fine with that as well.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Book Review: Perks of Being a Wallflower

Written by Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an epistolary novel that follows an introspective teenager who calls himself "Charlie" through his freshman year of high school in a Pittsburgh suburb. Having lost his closest friend in his last year of middle school, Charlie falls in with a new crowd of friends who help him navigate uncharted territory of high school and help him grow and learn more about himself.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of those novels that perfectly captures what its like to be a teenager in high school who is trying to discover themselves. While I've never been a big fan of the first person perspective, I honestly believe it was the only way to write this book. Seeing the events of his life and the story through Charlie's eyes allows the reader to empathize with him and in a way, see a lot of themselves in the character. In many ways, I was and still am Charlie. I have had a number of tragedies happen in my life and each one of them has affected me in one way or another. When I was in high school, I was a rather shy kid who most people didn't noticed or ignored for one reason or another. Also, like Charlie, I luckily finally found a small group of friends who helped me come out of my shell and help me become the person I am today.

Speaking of friends, the second characters in The Perks of Being a Wallflower are equally well-written. Each of the characters actually feels like a real person that I could easily see myself meeting in real life or remind me of people that I actually know. I have had a few friends who were very similar to Patrick or Sam or Mary Elizabeth. While the story is focused on Charlie and his experiences, each of the main secondary characters also gets their time in the spotlight.

The only real complain I have with The Perks of Being a Wallflower is that I feel like the ending was a little weak. Maybe it has to do with my own trials with depression and my attempts to overcome it, but Charlie's turn at the end seem to convenient to me. When we learn about a major event that happened in his childhood, Charlie seems to get over it a little too quickly for me to fully buy into it, but again, this might be my own biases from my own dealings with depression and other similar disorders.

However, I would still highly recommend The Perks of Being a Wallflower. If you ever had a rather rough spot during your later adolescence that ended up changing your life, you will find the story of the novel very easy to relate to and rather emotional at times. Even if you didn't have a troubled childhood, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is still and enjoyable read and might change your perceptive on a few things from your adolescence.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Future Schedule of Eclectic Thoughts

When I first created Eclectic Thoughts, I wanted it to be a place for me to express my opinions about a number of different topics and maybe to chronicle some of the more interesting elements of my life. However, the majority of my posts on here have been reviews of books or movies I've seen.

So, starting next week, I'm going to try and fix this by adopting a posting schedule similar to the one I use for my other blog Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old. I will be making a post every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Unlike Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old (which has a more free-form schedule where I post about something I've even been thinking about or toying around with for awhile and want to just think out loud for a moment or two), Eclectic Thoughts schedule will be a lot more structured.

Every Monday I will be posting a review of some sort. Usually it will be either a review of a movie that I saw in theaters the previous weekend or rented from my local movie store, or a Netflix Review of something I've watched on the titular website. Occasionally, however, I might review a book or comic that I've just finished reading or a video game that I've been playing. If I see multiple movies over the weekend, I will do a "Review Round-Up" where I give a short and simple review of both films in one post.

Every Wednesday I will be posting an editorial of some sort. Generally, these will focus on topics that I've been thinking about recently and feel like talking more about. The topic could be related to pop culture, philosophy, politics, social issues, or anything else that I find interesting enough to talk about. However, I will try my hardest not to do same kind of topic two weeks in a role. For example, I've already planned to do a pop culture-based editorial for my first one, so I won't be doing a pop culture-based one the week after that.

Now, Friday posts will be a little weird because these will be more free-form. Usually, I'll probably use these posts to tell interesting anecdotes from my life (like the time a friend and I went on a road trip to the Dallas Comic-Con and ended up getting lost or the vacation to San Antonio where every that could go wrong did). However, I might just use the post to talk about something completely random so I can get it out of my head.  Since Friday is supposed to be the end of the work week, I thought I'd represent that by letting Friday be a "go with the flow" day for the blog.

Now, there will be occasions where I decide to make a post on Tuesday, Thursday, or on the Weekend. However, those will mostly be spur of the moment things where I talk about something that just happened and I want to give my opinion on it right then or there or where I can quickly talk about something that I was just thinking about before I forget it.

So, I hope you enjoy this new schedule and let's hope I can actually stick to it.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Directed by J. J. Abrams, Star Trek Into Darkness is the sequel to 2009's Star Trek reboot. After the destruction of a Starfleet building in London and an attack on its admirals during a meeting, Captain James T. Kirk leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction. When our heroes find themselves at the center of a nefarious plot that threatens millions, Kirk will have to decide if he is willing to make the sacrifices needed to protect the only family he has left: his crew.

Star Trek Into Darkness is an improvement to Abrams' 2009 reboot. Like any good sequel, Into Darkness takes what was good about its predecessor and amplifies it while doing its best to fix the previous film's problems. Gone are the domineering lens flares and the awkwardness inherent to the transition between the original series and this re-imagined universe. However, the film has developed some flaws of its own. Thankfully, those flaws do not stop Into Darkness from being an enjoyable film that feels like a Trek film.

The acting, once again, is great. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have fully embraced their roles as Kirk and Spock, making the characters their own while remaining familiar to die hard Trekkers. Both were perfect choices to play younger, less experienced versions of the famous duo. Benedict Cumberbatch is equally fantastic, giving a performance that is both interesting and chilling. Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, and the rest of the crew also are great and each gets their moment of time.

The directing is just as good. Abrams knows just how position his shots for the greatest effect, making the movie visually great and interesting to look at. The only real weakness is his tendency to shoot space battles very close up, making it hard to make things out at times. While that isn't that big of a problem since there is only a handful of space battle-like scenes in the movie, it can be annoying at times.

The only major problem with the film is its strange need to reference other Star Trek movies. Near the end of the film, it actually lifts an entire scene from one of the other films and simply flips the roles of the characters. While the scene does make scene with the context of the movie's story, it isn't as effective as it should be because those who have seen the original version will most likely groan (like I did). While I don't mind the occasional reference, but its never a good think when the references detract from the story and tone of the movie.

With that being said, Star Trek Into Darkness is a entertaining, Sci-Fi/Action film that I'd highly recommend to both Trekkers and those who just want to have a good time at the theater. I'd also suggest seeing it in 2D. While the 3D conversion is decent, it's not worth the extra money.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Passing of a Legend: A Tribute to Ray Harryhausen

On May 7th, 2013, Raymond Frederick "Ray" Harryhausen died at the age of 92 from causes that remain unknown. Like most, I was deeply saddened by this news, knowing that we have lost another legend of the silver screen.

Like most, I was introduced to Harryhausen's work through the 1981 classic Clash of the Titans. I can easily remember the sense of wonder and amazement that washed over me as I watched Perseus take on the monstrous Medusa and the terrifying Kraken to save Andromeda's life. Even though I'm 21 years old now and have been bombarded by massive CGI effects that are supposed to be more "realistic", I find myself enjoying and believing Harryhausen's stop-motion effects more than ever.

Harryhausen knew that something didn't have to be realistic to be believable. Instead, he would put his heart and soul into every effect, doing whatever he could to bring about the wondrous nature of these fantastical creatures. When you watch Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, you can feel the amount of effort Harryhausen put into each animation and that feeling makes you more willing to suspend your disbelief and accept what is happening on the screen.

It's that heart and soul that caused his work to be so loved and inspiring. It's why his movies continue to be watched today and why people will continue to watch them in the future. While he might be gone, he will never be forgotten. Ray Harryhausen has left a legacy that has turned him into a legend in his own right, and like any legend, Harryhausen's work will stand the test of time.

Rest in peace Ray Harryhausen, you will be missed.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Review: A Princess of Mars

A Princess of Mars, which originated as a series of short stories written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, tells the tale of Confederate veteran John Carter. While he is prospecting in the wilds of Arizona, Carter is mysteriously transported to the dying world of Mars (known as "Barsoom" by its inhabitants). Thanks to the planet's lesser gravity, Carter discovers he has great strength and superhuman agility. As he travels across the deserts of Mars, he comes into contact with a race of giant humanoids with green skin and six limbs known as "Tharks", the beautiful princess of the Martian city of Helium named Dejah Thoris, and finds himself embroiled in a war that threatens to tear two city-states apart.

While John Carter's popularity and notoriety has diminished over the years, A Princess of Mars and its sequels are considered classic examples of 20th century pulp fiction. The "Barsoom" series inspired a number of well-known science fiction writers, such as Jack Vance, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and John Norman. The series also inspired a number of scientists in the fields of space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life, including Carl Sagan, who read A Princess of Mars when he was just a child. While A Princess of Mars is an incredibly influential work that has touched many readers over the decades, there are two questions that need to be asked.

Is A Princess of Mars actually good and does it deserve the praise heaped upon it?

From a writing stand point, A Princess of Mars has a few problems. First, there are a lot of scenes in the book that are simply glossed over and have the action take place "off screen". While this is annoying from a reader's stand point since I firmly believe in the "show, don't tell" school of writing, these scenes are probably a result of how these stories were originally presented and the fact that Burroughs most likely had both a time and word limit.

Secondly, the way the narrative is structure presents some problems as well. A Princess of Mars is presented a collection of memoirs written by Carter. Because Carter is our only narrator, we occasionally receive a large exposition dump that can cause the pace of the story to slow down. However, I will admit the 1st person perspective works here because we, as outsiders, get to see the dying world of Mars through the eyes of an outsider. So, there is at least an excuse for the exposition dumps.

Even with the technical problems, I found myself really enjoying A Princess of Mars for its characters and the world that it presents. While he is not a very deep character, Carter is the type of pulp hero I can't help love. He's brave, a skilled combatant, a quick learner, and willing to do whatever it takes to save the people he cares about. There is just something rather refreshing about a hero that is so simple and straightforward.

However, if you want characters with layers, Burroughs gives you the Tharks named Tars Tarkas and Sola. Both characters were born into a brutal and violent society, but possess tragic histories and personality traits that separate them from the rest of the Tharks and make them some of the most interesting characters in the book.

The setting of Mars also kept me interesting and made me really wish I could explore Barsoom for myself. For reasons that escape me, the idea of Mars being a dying planet inhabited by such desperate societies who have developed airships and other wondrous technology fascinating. I can understand why so many people were inspired by it. Hell, this depiction of Mars makes me want to write my very own Martian stories.

A Princess of Mars is a book that has its fair share of technical problems, but I can see why people consider it a classic pulp fiction story and has inspired so many people. If you can get past the technical problems and just enjoy the setting and characters, you will enjoy A Princess of Mars.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Thoughts on Earth 2 #9-12

As I've mentioned before, Earth 2 is easily one of my favorite comic books DC is publishing at the moment. Robinson knows how to breathe new life into these Golden Age characters while staying true to the history associated with them. Also, Earth 2 shows you can have stories that are both dramatic and fun to read.

After the defeat of Solomon Grundy and the re-introduction of Steppenwolf, the last four issues (#9 - #12) have dealt with the re-introduction of Dr. Fate and seeing the characters come together in the end. Seeing as Dr. Fate is one of my favorite characters in the DC Universe and the Justice Society is one of my favorite teams, you can understand why I was excited for the "Tower of Fate" storyline.

Thankfully, Robinson did not disappoint me. "Tower of Fate" is a well-written story arc that does a fantastic job of introducing the new characters of Fate, revealing the more supernatural and magical side of Earth 2, and telling a fun story that also helped push the meta-plot further along.

Each part of the story did what I want every issue of a comic book to do: further along the story without feeling incomplete. Each issue remains entertaining and feels satisfying while keeping you interested in the overall story. This is just another example of why Robinson is a talented writer.

Of the four issues, my favorite has to be #11. In the issue, we get to see why Jay Garrick is an awesome character. While he is faced with a situation that could possibly end in his demise, Garrick knows he can't give up and will sacrifice his life to protect the world and the ones he cares about. This dedication to what is right and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for that cause is what makes a character heroic. Knowing it's that heroic attitude that inspires Khalid Ben-Hassin to finally put on the Helmet of Nabu and become Dr. Fate, even thought it might cost him his sanity.

The only real weakness present in these four issues is the same weakness that I mentioned back in my review of #8. While Robinson is a talented writer, his tendency to over-explain and not let the illustrations tell the story at times can get a little annoying. However, that weakness is less noticeable in these four issues, which is great.

If you love fun superhero stories with a heavy dose of magic and the supernatural, I would recommend you give Earth 2 #9 - #12 a read. You will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Netflix Reviews: John Dies at the End

Based on the book by Jason Pargin (under the pseudonym David Wong), John Dies at the End tells the story of two down on their luck college drop-outs named John and David. After purposefully and accidentally partaking in a strange, new drug known as "soy sauce" that promises to send the two on a trip that transcends time and space, John and David find themselves dealing with a dimensional invasion that threatens the entire world.

John Dies at the End, for one reason or another, reminds me of John Carpenter's awesomely bizarre Big Trouble in Little China. Both films manage to blend bizarre visuals and story twists, well-written humor, and chaotic awesomeness together into a strange, little mixture that some audiences will love and others will hate or find confusing. Luckily, I happen to fall into the former group.

John Dies at the End is a perfect example of why Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep, Phantasm) has such a cult following. Coscarelli is incredibly deft at taking the bizarre, the horrific, and the comedic and mixing them together into a single entity that is both well-crafted and entertaining. While the genre-bending construct that is John Dies at the End might not appeal everyone, those who just sit back and let the weirdness wash over them and draw them in will most likely find something to love and enjoy.

The acting is equally superb. Both Chase Williamson (David) and Rob Mayes (John) play their parts perfectly, feeling just like normal guys who have been dropped into a situation way over their heads and adapting to it as best as they can. Clancy Brown and Paul Giamatti are as good as always and manage to make both of their characters memorable despite only having a few scenes in the movie.

The only major flaw in my opinion is that some of the CGI effects are rather cheesy and bad, especially in comparison to the well-done practical effects. However, I wonder if the shoddiness of the CGI is due to the film's low budget or a conscious decision on Coscarelli's part to add to the cheesiness of the film.

John Dies at the End is an incredibly enjoyable, bizarre film that will please audiences that found films like Big Trouble in Little China and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension enjoyable. However, the bizarre and chaotic nature of the film could possibly be a deal-breaker with some. If you like a good dose of weirdness and dark comedy with your horror, I suggest giving John Dies at the End a chance. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Movie Review: Iron Man 3

Directed and co-written by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), Iron Man 3 takes place a few months after the events of The Avengers. While dealing with the aftermath of the alien invasion of New York City, Tony Stark's life is torn apart by a formidable terrorist known as the Mandarin.  To deal with this new threat and to fix his broken life, Stark embarks on an odyssey of reconstruction and retribution.

Iron Man 3 is a good, but not great film thanks to a rather problematic third half. The beginning and the middle are incredibly entertaining and well-written, showing off that sense of humor that is usually present in most of Black's scripts. However, that humor doesn't over-shadow the drama of the situation and the tribulations that Stark is trying to overcome.

Sadly, this nice balance falls apart once a major element of the story is revealed and we head towards the film's climax. The humor starts to inappropriately diffuse the drama and some of the twists and turns the film takes ended up weakening the film. Thankfully, the film's positive elements far outweigh the negative and allow the film to at least be an entertain watch and a good addition to Marvel's movie library.

The acting is superb as always. Robert Downey Jr. continues to show why he was the perfect choice for the arrogant  but lovable Tony Stark. He looks like Tony Stark, he sounds like Tony Stark, and for all purposes he is Tony Stark. In fact, his performance is so good that I have a hard time imagining someone else in the role. Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, and Guy Pearce do a fantastic job as well, showing their acting chops and making each of their characters interesting and unique.

The only noticeable flaws in the film are all present in the problematic third act that I've already mentioned. Once that first major twist is revealed, things start to go down hill. I wonder if someone were to go back and re-work that twist and everything that follows it, if the third half would be better or would it be just as problematic as it already is? I guess we'll never know.

However, even with the rather weak third act, I still believe Iron Man 3 is a good film and definitely worth your time. It is easily better than Iron Man 2, but doesn't reach the lofty heights of Iron Man. If you're looking for a fun superhero movie with well-done action scenes, funny moments, and decent character drama, I feel like Iron Man 3 would quench your thirst. Just remember the third half is not as strong as the first and second.