To its credit, The Marvels felt like director Nia DaCosta was trying to do something different with the MCU formula. Much of that’s due to the inclusion of young Kamala Khan, aka, Ms. Marvel, who was a delight in her own series back in 2022. Khan brought some much-needed levity to the movie, which had me laughing out loud on several occasions. But at the end of the day, The Marvels is still an MCU title, which means that it’s still plagued by the franchise’s apparent lack of direction. As with most recent MCU titles, I can’t shake the feeling that the movie’s events don’t actually mean anything or are leading up to anything meaningful. And the obligatory mid-credits scene only adds to the sense that at this point, Kevin Feige et al. are just throwing random ideas at the wall to see what, if anything, sticks.
The American Civil War raged on for nearly fifty years, leading to a divided nation that lives under the shadow of a terrible prophecy. Meanwhile, three of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse have returned and now wander the wartorn land, searching for Death in order to kill him and raise his son as the Beast of the Apocalypse, which is set to happen any day now. With that as a premise, it’s safe to say that East of West is far from upbeat. Jonathan Hickman (Secret Wars, House of X, Fantastic Four) spins an elaborate apocalyptic tale filled with corrupt leaders and politicans jockeying for power, no matter the cost, and Nick Dragotta’s (Fantastic Four, X-Men, The Amazing Spider-Man) detailed artwork is suitably vivid and bloody. As a work of world building, East of West is impressive, but like The Fellspyre Chronicles, the unrelenting grim-ness is just that: unrelenting. So much so that the ending feels a bit perfunctory and hollow.
Noboru Ishiguro’s Megazone 23 is one of those anime titles that I’ve always heard about but had never actually seen, a long-time classic that was used to create aspects of the American Robotech franchise. A massive hit upon its release in 1985, Megazone 23 is certainly dated. Nevertheless, I found its storyline pretty ambitious. After young Shogo Yahagi chances upon an advanced motorcycle, he lands squarely in the military’s crosshairs and inadvertently makes an earth-shattering discovery that completely changes his understanding of the world around him. Megazone 23 suffers from some wild tonal shifts, shifting between goofy fan service and shocking violence with nary a pause, and it occasionally glosses over the ramifications of Yahagi’s discovery for goofy shenanigans. But it also possesses an anti-authoritarian, cyberpunk-influenced spirit that feels rather refreshing compared to a lot of modern anime, as does the hand-drawn animation, flaws and inconsistencies notwithstanding.
Along with Chuck Norris’ The Octagon, Enter the Ninja kicked off the “ninja craze” that swept through American pop culture in the early-to-mid ’80s. Franco Nero (of Django fame, and dubbed here because of his thick Italian accent) plays a former mercenary-turned-ninja who travels to the Philippines to visit an old war buddy — and soon finds himself squaring off against thugs, greedy tycoons, and even a former fellow ninjutsu trainee. Make no mistake, Enter the Ninja is not a good film if evaluated objectively. (For starters, I’m pretty sure I could be way more stealthy just sitting on my couch than the assassins depicted here.) But when watched through the goggles of nostalgia — and specifically, the nostalgia of what it was like to be a ninja-obsessed grade schooler — it’s still not a good film. But it is fun to watch, if only because it offers you the opportunity to visit the exotic and strange alternate reality that exists only in ’80s ninja flicks.
It was still satisfying to watch Reacher dispatch a bunch of really slimy bad guys — in this case, some corrupt cops hoping to make millions by selling advanced weapons to terrorists — in all kinds of inventive and violent ways, but I didn’t enjoy this as much as Reacher’s first season. I missed that season’s dark sense of humor (e.g., Reacher beating some morals into a dog’s negligent owner, Reacher dropping one-liners while dispatching bad guys). Without that to add some levity and self-awareness, season two often felt rather sullen and morose as it dove more into Reacher’s military past and the fates of some of his comrades. Also, the result was a less likable Reacher. Granted, he’s a big, beefy dude who prefers to ignore the law and let his fists and guns do the talking, but in season one, such lone wolf activities came with a wink at the audience. Not so much with season two, to its detriment.
I feel like the title alone — The Fellspyre Chronicles — tells you everything you can expect here. That is, epic high fantasy replete with wizards, elves, and barbarians. (It should come as no surprise that the back of this volume contains a bunch of 5E-compatible resources inspired by the comic’s massive world, including monsters, races, maps, and character classes.) Phillip K. Johnson’s world-building is truly impressive, and Riccardo Federici’s artwork is consistently rich and stunning. So why not a higher score? The story itself — a group of adventurers trying save their world from an otherworldly evil while also atoning for the sins of their past — is often unremittingly grim and unpleasant, and with few exceptions, the characters are hardly a likable or sympathetic bunch. As impressed as I was by Johnson’s sense of scope, I often found it hard to actually care about the “heroes” venturing forth into his elaborate fantasy world.
An astronaut stranded on an apparently deserted planet with her robot companion makes a fascinating discovery even as she must battle alien marauders and the planet’s bizarre phenomena in this first graphic novel from Dan McDaid (Doctor Who, Firefly, Judge Dredd). At the risk of damning it with faint praise, I liked Dega more than I didn’t, but it’s very short and slight. If you enjoy survival tales and want something to help pass the afternoon, then Dega will be right up your alley.
I checked this one out from the library on a whim simply because the premise was intriguing: a group of kids at a summer weight-loss camp become amateur sleuths after witnessing the gruesome murder of a beloved camp counselor. And as they try to determine the killer’s identity, they uncover shocking secrets lurking just beneath Camp Bloom’s seemingly idyllic surface. It plays out a bit like a Scooby-Doo episode, albeit with some queer themes and discussions of body image. In the end, Dead Weight is just OK. Of the four main characters, I only found one really interesting (the tech-obsessed Black nerd who struggles with his family’s health history), and when the killer’s identity and motivations are finally revealed, they’re rather mundane and underwhelming. I bumped up my score a bit because Dead Weight’s heart is clearly in the right place, but I was also left wanting more.
I feel like Monarch wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, it wants to be an intriguing Lost-esque mystery about the origins of a super-secret agency tasked with protecting humanity from giant monsters. And on the other hand, it wants to be a thrilling series where the threat/promise of those same giant monsters attacking humanity constantly looms in the background. As a result, it ends up being neither. But not for lack of trying. As with Foundation, Apple has clearly spared no expanse for Monarch; the effects are easily on par with any Hollywood blockbuster. And the series boasts some strong performances, particularly from Wyatt and Kurt Russell (who play the same character in different time periods) as well as Mari Yamamoto as a brilliant scientist dedicated to better understanding creatures like Godzilla. (It was also neat seeing The Expanse’s Dominique Tipper in a quasi-villainous role.) Given my fondness for Godzilla, though, I confess I don’t fully understand the point of Monarch. Sure, it looks great, but does it really add anything to Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse? I’m not sure.
Given that Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat is one of my wife’s favorite books, it was inevitable that we’d see the movie adaptation in theaters. Directed by George Clooney, it’s a handsome and serviceable sports movie that hits many of the requisite tropes with its story about a team of underdogs who must rise above their differences and win the big championship — in this case, the 1936 Summer Olympics — for the sake of their country… and themselves. And insofar as that goes, The Boys in the Boat is decent enough. But it’s a surprisingly thin film, character-wise. A good sports movie gives all of the teammates moments to shine. The Boys in the Boat, however, focuses on just one of the titular boys (Joe Rantz, played by Callum Turner) to his teammates’ detriment. We learn little-to-nothing about any of them nor do we get any deep sense of their camaraderie, so there’s really no emotional investment in their struggles — or payoff for their triumphs.
When I was in grade school, I was enamored with wilderness adventure stories, particularly ones set in the far north. While I read plenty of Jack London (e.g., The Call of the Wild), my favorites were Jack O’Brien’s Silver Chief stories, which chronicled the adventures of a Canadian Mountie and the titular wolf-dog (with some definite similarities to London’s stories). Reading Silver Chief to the Rescue now, I see why I loved it as a boy; O’Brien’s novel is filled with highly romanticized descriptions of life in the snowy Canadian wilderness that nevertheless ring with authenticity. (O’Brien was a surveyor on Admiral Byrd’s 1928 Antarctic expedition.) What I didn’t see as a kid, however, is the novel’s unvarnished racism. Native and Indigenous characters are often depicted in unflattering ways: as shifty, cruel, uncultured, and above all else, in desperate need of the White Man’s law. (And lest there be any doubt about that, the Mountie says as much in an extended speech.) At best, they’re useful and eager to serve the book’s protagonist. Even if you try and explain the book’s racism as a product of its time, it’s still pretty obvious and ridiculous.
I’ve been on something of a Lloyd Alexander kick lately, and with The Illyrian Adventure, I think I’m finally over it. Set in the late 19th century, this first in a series of six novels follows a headstrong young woman named Vesper Holly who decides to follow in the footsteps of her eccentric archaeologist father who mysteriously disappeared, and complete his expedition to the Balkan region of Illyria — with an appropriately fussy guardian in tow, of course. It’s a fine adventure story for the most part, though in a clear sign that I’m getting old, young Ms. Holly’s non-stop precociousness grew increasingly eyeroll-inducing as the novel went on.
Not to be confused with David Fincher or John Woo’s films, Choi Jae-hoon’s The Killer follows a hitman who’s roped into looking after his wife’s friend’s seventeen-year-old daughter. What should be an easy babysitting job turns dark, however, when the young girl gets lured into a sex trafficking ring, and the hitman must use his deadly skills to save her. Oh, and the film is a comedy… sort of. I watched this on Amazon Prime because I wanted a slick-looking action film, and there are, indeed, some very impressive action sequences. With his wardrobe, impeccable hair, and droll demeanor (which occasionally recalls “Beat” Takeshi Kitano), Jang Hyuk looks cooler than cool mowing down thugs, pimps, and other ne’er-do-wells. I just wish he was in a better film. In one scene, one of The Killer’s characters references Lee Jeong-beom’s The Man from Nowhere, arguably the best “deadly man protecting a young girl” movie ever made. I’m unsure if Choi Jae-hoon intended The Killer to be a parody of The Man from Nowhere or an attempt to create a similarly hard-boiled film, and that ambiguity is frustrating. In the end, The Killer’s tonal shifts and various implausibilities prove to be just a bit too much.
Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy — which takes place in a pseudo-historical alternative to Revolution-era France — comes to a middling close with The Beggar Queen. But perhaps that’s too harsh. Much like the previous book, The Kestrel, The Beggar Queen isn’t bad. But it toes the line between being palatable for kids and delving into the horrors and brutality of war. Alexander can’t make up his mind which way to go, and so it ends up just being a bit meh and all over the place. Towards the end, it feels like Alexander has even become bored with his own story, and so stuff just starts happening and resolving in a fairly perfunctory manner. I do realize that my assessment may be due to being a 47-year-old. If I’d read this as a 12-year-old, then I could easily see how it would’ve felt so “adult,” and thus, so much better than all of that other “kids’ stuff” I’d been reading. Indeed, my biggest regret with the Westmark novels is probably that I didn’t read them as a 5th or 6th grader first.
Although I watched a few episodes of the cartoon series back in the ’90s, I don’t have any real strong attachment to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I mainly watched Mutant Mayhem out of curiosity over its style of animation. There are bound to be comparisons to the Spider-Verse movies, but Mutant Mayhem’s style, though technically impressive in places, feels more unpolished and juvenile, as befitting the characters and subject matter. Between Mutant Mayhem, the Spider-Verse films, and Netflix’s Arcane, we’re entering a really cool new era that bridges the gap between traditional and CG animation, though I prefer those other two titles.
It may have won the Hugo Award for best novella, but I was surprisingly underwhelmed by All Systems Red. The concept is very promising: a security robot hacks its programming and becomes self-aware, which poses some thorny questions given its incredibly deadly — and, ahem, murderous — nature. But the actual storyline felt rather pedestrian, as the titular Murderbot struggles to help his latest clients, a group of researchers whose expedition on a distant and hostile planet has been compromised. There are hints at a broader storyline, but I don’t feel a deep need to check out the rest of Murderbot’s diaries.
While I enjoyed Westmark, I struggled with The Kestrel. At less than 250 pages, The Kestrel is not a long book, but Lloyd Alexander aims for an epic scope as the nation of Westmark faces betrayal and invasion by the neighboring nation of Regia. The book’s characters are all caught up in the conflict, particularly protagonist Theo, who joins up with the anti-monarchy freedom fighter Florian and slowly begins to lose his humanity amidst the horrors and brutality of war. The Kestrel felt rather fragmented at times, as Alexander hops all over the place in order to keep track of the growing conflict. That, and I never quite got a handle on the book’s tone; it switches from grim battles and moments of anguish to scenes with a pair of child thieves that, while not exactly light-hearted, still felt like they were from another novel entirely.
This is an interesting curiosity piece from 1988 that was brought to my attention by Instagram’s algorithm. Directed by Makoto Kobayashi — who wrote the original manga and helped create the mechanical designs — Dragon’s Heaven begins with a 5-minute prelude filled with live-action miniatures à la Masato Harada’s Gunhed and a sweeping orchestral score by Yasunori Iwasaki. It then transitions to the animated story, which is set in a post-apocalyptic future several thousand years from now. There, a young woman and an ancient robot must join forces to defend a desert city from invading forces led by the robot’s arch-nemesis. Story-wise, Dragon’s Heaven is pretty silly and threadbare, but it’s worth watching for the unique mecha designs and visual style, which eschews typical anime aesthetics for something more reminiscent of, say, Moebius. Following Dragon’s Heaven, Kobayashi would go on to work on numerous anime titles including Last Exile, Samurai 7, and Steamboy.
Here’s the thing about Netflix’s Lupin: You have to suspend your disbelief. And I mean, really suspend it in order to overlook all of the hand-waving and glossing over the complexities of the protagonist’s various heists and schemes. And for the most part, you won’t really mind doing so because the series is so darn charming thanks to Omar Sy’s lead performance. Unfortunaely, the disbelief is harder to suspend during this third season, which finds debonair thief Assane Diop (Sy) racing to save his family from an old enemy. The season gets increasingly convoluted, including an awkward storyline in which a disguised Diop charms his ex-wife. The threat from Diop’s past never actually feels all that threatening, the constant flashbacks are a bit much, and the season never quite earns the emotional pay-off that it’s so clearly trying to achieve. There are some interesting twists and wrinkles, though, as Diop tests his allies’ loyalty and forges some unlikely alliances. Not surprisingly, season three ends on a cliffhanger that totally sets up Lupin’s fourth (and hopefully final) season.
If you were to ask me why I started watching this Netflix anime about a young woman who suddenly finds herself betrothed to a seemingly ruthless man she’s never met, I’m not sure I could give you an answer. (The algorithm works in mysterious ways, I guess.) Given the premise, there’s loads of melodrama as our young heroine — who arguably possesses one of the breathiest and most forlorn voices in all of anime — moves from an abusive household to one that holds the promise of something more. Naturally, romantic triangles and dramatic misunderstandings ensue. The series’ exploration of abuse and trauma adds an interesting wrinkle as does the incorporation of supernatural elements and alternate Japanese history. In the end, however, My Happy Marriage can’t quite integrate all of these elements; it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. A second season was recently greenlit, which I might check out to see if the storytelling gets any stronger.