Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Kid From Brooklyn: A Review of Captain America: The First Avenger

Director: Joe Johnston

Starring: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci

Few comic book heroes are as recognizable as Captain America. He is the Superman of the Marvel Universe and the embodiment of the ‘average Joe turned superhero’ idea. Even as a proud Canadian with a deep understanding of the historic love/dislike neuroses Canada has with the United States, WGTB could only ever look upon Captain America as the great hero he is. Indeed, the idea of Captain America and the ‘flag draped defender’ is so universal that we need only look at his followers: Captain Britain, Captain Canuck, Guardian/Vindicator, Liberty Belle, etc. to see the mass appeal.

(From Marvel's The Avengers Vol. 1 #25, 1966)

Which probably explains why the latest instalment of Marvel Studio’s continuum, Captain America: The First Avenger has been so widely anticipated. Not only does it put one of comic book's true stars on the silver screen, it also commences the great tie-together that started with The Incredible Hulk in 2008 and will culminate with the Avengers in 2012. The movie, directed by Joe Johnston and starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving is a well adapted take on the comic and is a fun, World War II focused comic fantasy story. Think Indiana Jones meets Saving Private Ryan meets X-Men and you got the idea.

(From Marvel's The Avengers Vol. 1 #25, 1966)

The plot is both action-packed and true to the original Joe Simon/Jack Kirby classic. Steve Rogers, a scrawny Brooklyn kid wants to join the war effort but doesn’t have the physical capacity to do so. After yet another try, he has a serendipitous encounter with the German-born inventor and US government official, Dr. Abraham Erskine, which allows him to join a top secret program headed up by crusty Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones). Phillips is unimpressed with Rogers, but Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Dr. Erskine eventually secede in getting him to be the first ‘Super-Soldier’. Of course, Scrawny Steve becomes that super-man, but not before the program is destroyed by an agent of ‘Hydra’, Hitler’s special research division, led by Johann Schmidt a.k.a. Red Skull, who like his leader, has an affinity for the occult and mysterious. Schmidt has been busy building Hydra into an extra-national terrorist organization and has used a mysterious Norse tesseract to power Hydra’s high-tech weapons.

It’s a good movie – energetic and exciting and it does the great job at giving us a World War II story in a comic book package. The CGI graphics are reasonably good (and not too distracting) and the futuristic-looking period props are really cool. Chris Evan’s makes a good showing as Captain America -- which was a worry after the uninspired Fantastic Four pictures -- and scattered one-liners (especially by Tommy Lee Jones) got the crowd laughing throughout. Briton Hayley Atwell is slightly distracting with her English accent and US Army uniform (this was even jested about in the film) but she gives a strong performance and is successful where both Natalie Portman (Thor) and Blake Lively (Green Lantern) were not: at providing an equal and strong female lead to match her superhero opposite. Stanley Tucci was both witty and smart and a very good reminder that not all Germans stood with Hitler in the dark days of the 1930s and 1940s. Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull makeup and costuming were good, but WGTB is getting tired of seeing him in the same villain/mean-spirited roles and some creative casting would have been better.

(From Marvel's Captain Amerca Vol.1 #409, 1992)

That said, Captain America: The First Avenger is the best of the comic book movies we have seen this summer and will probably be the highest grossing. It’s a fun action flick for comic fans and non-fans alike, and while it so obviously sets up next year’s Avengers, it does so in energetic fashion. WGTB would like to strenuously remind you to stay in your seats until the end credits finish and is already looking forward to reviewing the Avengers film next year when we get to see...

(From Marvel's The Avengers Vol. 1 #45, 1967)

4/5 Stars

Monday, July 18, 2011

Alpha Flight and Canada: The Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Recently, WGTB picked up Alpha Flight #0.1, Alpha Flight: Fear Itself #1 and Alpha Flight: Fear Itself #2. Number 0.1 mostly consisted of an intense battle and a re-introduction to the AF characters while #1 and #2 begin to craft, what is already looking like a great story. So, while this blog entry was originally intended to be a review of the Alpha Flight: Fear Itself comics, while reading #1, we can across a very interesting panel that took it into an entirely different direction. As such, this is not a review of the comic: but WGTB would like to recommend it because it's very good so far.

In AF-FI, the Canadian people have elected a new ‘Unity Party’ government. This political party, we are told, is neither Left nor Right, but seeks a ‘new way’ to govern Canada. We soon learn -- from both #1 and in a follow-up interview with Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak -- that Canada is about to be taken into an ‘interesting and dangerous’ direction. Number 1 begins with Vancouver under siege -- this time not by crazy hockey fans -- but by Nerkkod, an aquatic monster. Alpha Flight eventually wins but after the successful battle, the new prime minister makes a startling announcement:

(Above images from Marvel's Alpha Flight: Fear Itself #1, 2011)

WGTB was struck by these panels and immediately asked ourselves if this was even legal. Clearly, the creators intent is to make the prime minister ultra powerful by imposing martial law and suspending the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But in the real world could the Prime Minister of Canada do this? To answer this question we must examine the history of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as how it functions in the current day.

(The Centre Block and the Prime Minister's office in Marvel's Alpha Flight Vol.1 #13, 1984. The actual office is much less grand)

Unlike the Bill of Rights of the United States, of which many WGTB readers are familiar, the Canadian Charter of Rights in Freedoms is a relatively new document – having only been enacted in 1982. Prior to this, Canada did not have entrenched rights like our American neighbours, but like the United Kingdom, had a parliament that was supreme which made statutes that were only interpreted by judges and not struck down. This system was not without safeguards, but these were mostly vigilant judges and opposition parliamentarians working with either common law decisions or constitutional conventions (most of which were also inherited from the United Kingdom). For instance, the ancient rights of Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights of 1689 or legislation concerning British North America such as the Quebec Act, 1774 or the provisions for Responsible Government in Nova Scotia (1848), while not entrenched, had substantial importance. In 1867, the year associated with Canada’s formation, the British North America Act was passed in Westminster which united the three colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into four provincial and one Dominion governments. Responsibilities of state were divided between two levels of government – both which were sovereign in their areas of jurisdiction. London freely gave up rights to legislate without Canada’s consent with the Statute of Westminster in 1931 and shortly afterwards it has held that Canada, while not legally independent, was in Lord Sankey’s words “in enjoyment of the full scope of self-government.”

After the horrors of World War II, a wave of human and civil rights agreements and legislation swept across the western world. In 1960, Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s government passed the Canadian Bill of Rights. This, however, was only a federal statute and could be repealed by the Canadian parliament. It also did not apply to Canada’s provinces.

Things changed drastically in the 70s and 80s when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sought to patriate the Canadian constitution and completely severe all legal ties with the United Kingdom. (Queen Elizabeth II would remain as Sovereign, but as the 'Queen of Canada'.) When the Supreme Court held that convention required a substantial degree of provincial consent, Trudeau used the negotiations with his provincial colleagues to give Canada entrenched rights that could not be taken by the federal parliament or provincial legislatures. This was a long and vexing process, but ultimately the Constitution Act, 1982 was passed with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as its first 34 sections. This Charter included six broad categories of rights:

Fundamental Freedoms which include: rights of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, expression, assembly and association.

Democratic Rights which include: rights to vote in regular elections and annual parliaments

Mobility Rights including: the right to enter and leave Canada and reside in any province or territory.

Legal Rights relating to criminal procedure which include the right to retain and instruct counsel, Habeas Corpus, a trail within reasonable time, presumption of innocence until proven guilty, Life, Liberty and Security of the person and a freedom from denial of this unless fundamental justice is at stake.

Equality Rights which include equality before and under law and equal protection and the benefit of law; and

Language Rights which includes official bilingualism in Canada

The Charter is much longer than its southern cousin, and is a product of both the fiery negotiations and bi-jural perspectives of the politicians who created it. The English-speaking premiers of the provincial governments came from jurisdictions that had a strong Commonwealth tradition of parliamentary supremacy and many (on both the Left and Right) viewed entrenched rights with suspicion. The Quebecois Trudeau, hailing from a jurisdiction that had a Civil Law Code and a different legal history, had seen what a heavy-handed provincial government could do with parliamentary supremacy and sought to prevent episodes such that which led to the famous Supreme Court decision in Roncarelli v Duplessis (1959). The Canadian public was also overwhelmingly supportive of a Charter and because of this the premiers did not risk opposition to the idea.

Ultimately the camps settled on a compromise between entrenched rights and parliamentary supremacy. The Charter would entrench rights but its penultimate Section 33 allowed for a Legislative Override, and reversion to parliamentary supremacy if a legislature attached this Notwithstanding Clause. The Notwithstanding Clause did not apply to the mobility, language or democratic rights (which were counted as inalienable) and as such, a legislature could not use it to lengthen its existence indefinitely or limit language rights. It also had a five year sunset provision which guaranteed that if rights were suspended a legislature would have to eventually face the electorate for it.

Sections of the Charter that are subject to a legislative override include Fundamental Rights, including freedom of expression, religion, association; Legal Rights including rights to liberty and right to be secure against unlawful search and seizure, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment; and Equality Rights, which courts have determined includes same-sex marriage.

Which brings up back to Alpha Flight: Fear Itself #1 and the legality of the Prime Minister’s Emergencies Act, 2011. Strictly speaking, while the Prime Minister CANNOT suspend the Charter -- this is beyond his/her authority and would require co-operation from provincial governments -- the Emergencies Act could contain the Notwithstanding Clause in areas of federal jurisdiction, thereby making many of its draconian measures legal.

(Ottawa from Marvel's Alpha Flight Vol 1. #13, 1984 - The author once lived in one of the distant apartment buildings)

That said, things could get complicated given that policing and the courts are provincial responsibilities and the Prime Minister or the Attorney-General of Canada could very well be opposed by provincial leaders against the use of Police and Crown Prosecutors for such draconian measures. Of course, it could lead to even more trouble given that seven provinces contract their rural policing out to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who are ultimately controlled by the federal Minister of Public Safety. WGTB is not sure who controls Department H but it is likely this minister as well.

(RCMP with the most famous former Depertment H employee. Marvel's Wolverine Vol.2 # 34, 1990)

WGTB is a long-time lover of Alpha Flight and will continue to enjoy this Fear Itself mini-series. We did not intend to be annoying Simpsons-style Fanboy critics while writing this one – Alpha Flight exists in Earth-616 where the Canadian prime minister has as much legal power as Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak want to give him. But we hope you have enjoyed this opportunity to learn about Canadian Constitutional law and hope it has increased (or at least not decreased!) your interest in Canada’s rich yet evolving legal heritage.

(Guardian in Marvel's Alpha Flight Vol. 1 #17, 1984)

NEXT: Alpha Flight: Fear Itself #2 contained a panel where the police arrested the the Leader of the Opposition. Is this legal? Stay tuned for the next Alpha Flight and Canada to find out!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Photos from 'Alphas'

Planning on watching the premier of comic book-style TV show Alphas tonight on SyFy or SPACE? WGTB is -- it looks like X-Men meets the Jason Bourne trilogy and even has a returning cast member.

Below are some photos taken of filming in Toronto in early June 2011. Tonight's show was filmed in 2010.

Your humble blogger is a neighbour and NOT affiliated with its production.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Archie Goodwin and a great Lettercol Exchange

One of the great things about reading pre-2000s comics are the Letter Columns. They had awesome titles, dated vernacular and even their own culture and personalities. And while the internet brought us many great new things (like this blog) unfortunately, it also brought about the decline and eventual elimination of these forums where fans and casual readers alike got to write about their comics.

This past weekend, WGTB picked up a copy of an old sentimental favourite: Marvel’s Star Wars (#22 from April 1979). It was only 25 cents and we needed it for our library. The tale was an unremarkable pre-Empire Strikes Back story but when we arrived at the letter column any buyer’s remorse about departing with that shiny quarter was gone! In it, we were treated with a remarkable letter/response exchange between a thoughtful and polite fan and the great Archie Goodwin.

(Marvel Comics Star Wars #22, April 1979)

Goodwin is often cited as the "best-loved comic book editor" and it’s responses like this that justify the superlative. Goodwin takes the fan’s critical observations of science-fiction seriously and uses them as a ‘teaching moment’ about the creation and development of comic book stories and characters.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

SuperSoundtracks #4: David Bowie and Adam Strange

But first a quick recap: What are SuperSoundtracks?

Combining two awesome things – music and comics – SuperSoundtracks takes a comic book character and pairs them with a song. It was inspired by the brilliant yet obscure music from the John Hughes classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and tries to avoid singles when at all possible.

(Adam Strange in Mystery in Space #78 (1962) reprinted in Strange Adventures, #239, Autumn 1972)

Adam Strange is a name that just screams comic books. Just look at the etymology: 'Adam' from the Hebrew ādhām meaning ‘man’ and 'Strange' from the Latin extrāneus; meaning ‘foreign’.

(Adam Strange in Mystery in Space #78 (1962) reprinted in Strange Adventures, #239, Autumn 1972)

Adam Strange is also one of those great comic book characters from the early Silver Age who has the fingerprints of the Golden Age all over him. This, of course, shouldn’t surprise anyone as he was created by the brilliant Gardner Fox who was as prolific in 40s as he was in the 50s. First appearing in Showcase #17 (November 1958) Dr. Adam Strange was a human archaeologist on an expedition in South America when he discovered a Zeta Beam, which was able to take him from Earth to the distant planet of Rann. While there, Strange became Rann’s ‘Champion’ and would meet and fall in love with Alanna, daughter of Rann’s leader Sardath, a glasses wearing baldy who also happened to be the inventor of the Zeta Beam.

(Sardath, Adam Strange and Alanna in Mystery in Space #78 (1962) reprinted in Strange Adventures, #239, Autumn 1972)

(Adam Strange in Rann-Thanagar War #1, April 2006)

(Adam Strange in the Countdown to Infinite Crisis oneshot, March 2005)

Strange never became a mainstay of the DC stable and unlike Showcase alumni Green Lantern or Flash, never had his own book. He would however, become a strong partnering character, and would often feature in titles such as Batman: Brave and the Bold, Mystery in Space or Strange Adventures.

In the late 80s Alan Moore involved him in an adventure with a dark twist – Rann had become a dying world and needed Adam Strange to help repopulate the planet. and this theme would find its way into a good early 1990 limited series called Adam Strange: A Man of Two Worlds. Adam Strange would also feature prominently in a n Infinite Crisis special called the Rann-Thanagar War and in the successful 52 series months later. In 2007 he was ranked 97 of the top 100 comic heroes, but WGTB believes he deserves a much higher number.

(Adam Strange in Mystery in Space #78 (1962) reprinted in Strange Adventures, #239, Autumn 1972)

The song selected to be Adam Strange’s SuperSoundtrack is ‘Starman’ by David Bowie. Admittedly, this song could go with any number of comic heroes: ROM, Mar-vell, Silver Surfer and even Hal Jordan. But WGTB has selected Adam Strange because both Bowie and Strange are champions of longevity, and both have remained relevant and fresh after a long time. Also, the guitar of Starman is somewhat retro while the lyrics are futuristic, just like Adam Strange. Coming from the great album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Starman remains one of the marque songs on this incredibly important album, called by one source the 3rd most important album in the history of alternative rock. The BBC has also ranked it very high and WGTB considers it David Bowie's best.

WGTB is proud to present Adam Strange's SuperSoundtrack; Starman by that other cool alien among us, David Bowie!!!

© Mark J. Stewart, 2011.
All rights reserved.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Review of Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon

Director: Michael Bay

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel and John Turturro

As a long time fan of the Transformers,
WGTB was looking forward to Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon. The first film, Transformers (2007) was reasonably good, and it was great seeing the old toys on the big screen. Then came along the fiasco of Revenge of the Fallen (2009) with its truckloads of plot holes and gratuitous, over-the-top nonsense, including that memorable scene where a group of Americans are allowed to enter Egypt sans passports simply because one is wearing a New York Yankees cap. Thankfully, Michael Bay admitted it was terrible film and left us with the impression that number three would be a genuine effort to salvage the franchise.

It did not.

That said, there are some positives which is where we'll begin. The best part of this film are the visuals. If you’ve ever wanted to see a city take a beating or Special Forces operatives use squirrel suits to fly around Chicago, this is your movie. And while many Decepticons resemble machines from the Matrix or later Terminator films, the Autobots look better than in previous instalments. They are more recognizable and details such as Optimus Prime’s mouth guard finally make an appearance.

If you like cars, you’ll LOVE this film. It appears General Motors no longer has an exclusive deal for equipment and we get to see what a Transformer looks like as a Ferrari, Mercedes Benz or NASCAR racer, which is actually quite impressive.

But other than that the film is weak. The plot is terrible and we honestly can’t write a synopsis because it’s too convoluted. Furthermore, anyone with basic knowledge of U.S. geography will cringe when they see cruise missiles launched from undisclosed locations, yet arriving at precisely the proper time or the notion that Florida, Washington DC and Chicago must all exist within 60 miles of each other given the short time it takes for characters to drive between locations.

Logic went out the window with the back story as well. Apparently nobody has a problem with Autobots working with humans (read: Americans) and involving themselves in Earth affairs. In one scene the Autobots and US Special Forces raid an “Illegal Nuclear Weapons Site” by approaching the barricade disguised as Iranians. Again, this may seem nitpicky, but it erodes the suspension of disbelieve because it’s such a massive and insulting intrusion into the very freedoms Optimus Prime is always espousing. Optimus Prime also partakes in the summary execution of a Transformer POW and this, in our books, makes him a war criminal.

Other character development is downright ugly. Women are portrayed as either condescending witches or coveted sex objects and newly introduced Transformers are weak too. Soundwave finally makes a genuine appearance, but this is a complete disappointment as he isn't the synthesized, third-person using lieutenant we all were hoping for. Shockwave, another memorable character from the animated series has become a monster-touting psycho who shows up on occasions which is another failure to use a good established character.

Indeed, virtually all of the Decepticons are ghoulish monsters, which is the exact opposite of what a good villain should be. WGTB always felt Soundwave and Shockwave were great in the cartoon because they garnered genuine interest. Both worked for Megatron, but were not evil like him and this left the door open to actually liking them. Contrast Bay's one-dimensional ghouls with two of the greatest movie villains of all time and you’ll understand our point. Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter are two of cinema’s best because they invoke genuine conflict. Indeed, Vader turned good at the end of Return of the Jedi, and Lecter would rather cut off his hand than hurt Agent Starling. Great villains make one ask “could this be me?” and this film has nothing of the sort. Characters in Dark of the Moon are mere caricatures and leave little room for any development.

(Shockwave as featured by Marvel Comics)

(Soundwave as featured by Marvel Comics)

To conclude, by giving Peter Cullen such a prominent role in these films, Bay forged a direct link between them and the animated stories. Unfortunately, he didn’t go all the way, and by keeping one foot in the Transformers world of the 1980s and the other in this new one, we were given a disappointing hybrid superimposed over an orgy of violence and technology. Cullen was the voice, but he was not enough to save this trilogy. Some of its actors have tried to disguise its goofiness by remarking that it’s “darker than the previous two”. This is simply Star Wars-style nonsense and means nothing. Michael Bay had an opportunity to salvage his Transformer films and make at least one worthwhile.

He did not.

2/5 Stars