Movie Talk: The Sam Raimi Spider-Man Films Re-Visited [Part 2]

spiderman2posterRelease Year: 2004
Directed By: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy

When I re-visited the first of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, I was somewhat apprehensive, expecting the movie to have aged poorly. I didn’t have such doubts about the first of the two sequels though. Spider-Man 2 was always regarded as the best of the three movies for multiple reasons, and I certainly remember agreeing with this sentiment back in the day following the release of the divisive Spider-Man 3. I do have a small confession to make before I get into Spider-Man 2 though: I’m writing this review having also already re-watched Spider-Man 3. I’m not going to talk about the final Sam Raimi Spider-Man film in this review, but I will say that – having watched the whole trilogy – Spider-Man 2 is still by far the strongest of the three.

For starters, only two years separate this movie from its direct predecessor, yet the CG felt vastly improved with far fewer of those small, unconvincing moments from the original that served as reminders of the film’s age.

Secondly, the origin story was out of the way, leaving Spider-Man 2 to do its own thing.

The best thing about this film though, in my opinion, is that it nails the character of Peter Parker and depicts the consequences of his double life authentically in a way that fans of the comic will be immediately familiar with. He may have crazy super-powers but the man behind the mask is still just a normal dude with normal problems. In fact, Peter is besieged by personal problems, all of them caused by his need to be Spider-Man and spend so much time swinging around New York, pulling people from burning buildings, stopping thieves or saving kids from being hit by cars.

He lives in a slum of an apartment and is always behind on rent. He can’t hold down his pizza delivery job. His college grades are slipping. He can’t tell Mary Jane how he feels about her because of his need to keep her safe from his enemies. He can’t help letting people down all the time because his activities as Spider-Man cause him to consistently run late or not be where he says he will be.

Peter is torn between staying true to the memory of Uncle Ben – and the iconic power-and-responsibility philosophy – and having a life of his own. The first portion of the movie sees Peter getting beaten down by all of this heavy life shit until he decides that enough really is enough. Taking direct inspiration from the classic Stan Lee/John Romita “Spider-Man No More” arc, he bins the costume (literally) and turns his back on Spider-Man.

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Unfortunately, a new villain is on the scene: Doctor Octopus, played by Alfred Molina. “Doc Ock” is one of Spidey’s oldest and most popular adverseries but I’ve never really been a big fan, purely because of his look in the comics where he was always drawn as a tubby bloke with a bad basin haircut and terrible costume. Not so here in Spider-Man 2. Doctor Octopus was drastically reinvented and looks utterly badass, more in line with the version from the ‘Ultimate’ universe. His extra appendages in particular look much more threatening than in the comics and are animated believably, thanks to the primary use of physical tentacles and practical effects which were then “topped up” with CGI.

While I loved Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin in the first Spider-Man, there can be no doubt that Doctor Octopus is the better villain overall, largely because there is so much you can do with him and his tentacles. This is shown in the fight sequences which are much more dynamic in Spider-Man 2 and an absolute blast to watch, especially when Spider-Man and Doc Ock are fighting in freefall.

Doctor Octopus is also a tragedy of sorts. While he is the villain who will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals, he is also the victim of the science-experiment-gone-wrong. His wife is killed in the disaster and the inhibitor chip on his harness destroyed, allowing the tentacles to fuse with his nervous system and “speak” to him, poisoning his mind. After a titanic battle with Spider-Man at the movie’s climax, Ock does manage to regain control and redeem himself by sacrificing his life to destroy another dangerous fusion experiment that could have consumed New York. Some might bemoan this conclusion – considering Ock’s ruthless nature in the comics – but I think it was a fitting way to conclude the villain’s story given the fact that he was a good man and husband at the beginning of the movie.

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There’s also welcome closure to the will-they-won’t-they story of Peter and Mary-Jane as she finally discovers the truth about Peter. He still attempts to push her away but MJ decides that enough is enough and ditches her wedding to J. Jonah Jameson’s son, John, to be with Peter. So, Peter gets the girl at last but a vengeful Harry Osborn – armed with Peter’s secret and Daddy’s sanity-stealing serum – is waiting in the wings…

It sets the stage perfectly for Spider-Man 3 which is why it’s such a shame that the third film turned out the way it did.

But that should take nothing away from Spider-Man 2. The movie is perfectly-paced, authentic to the source material and packed with action. There are also some really fun supporting roles that help break up the bleakness of Peter’s life, such as the ever-brilliant J.K. Simmons as the Daily Bugle’s J. Jonah Jameson. I love the scenes at the Bugle as they are just so entertaining, thanks to Jameson’s ranting, Robbie Robertson’s (Bill Nunn) despair and the sharp Betty Brant (Elizabeth Banks). Comedy relief also comes from Peter’s landlord, Mr Ditkovitch (Elya Baskin) and his awkward-but-cute daughter, Ursula (Mageina Tovah). There are also the usual Stan Lee and Bruce Campbell cameos too.

Oh and there’s another wet t-shirt contest tribute for Kirsten Dunst’s character, making me wonder if these were being intentionally written in at this point. No complaints here, mind!

Spider-Man 2 is what I class as a perfect sequel. It picks up the dangling plot points of the original while upping the ante with the action and effects. More importantly, I feel like I am sharing the journey of the main characters and it’s the near-seamless transition between the two movies that I really appreciate. It really is the kind of movie that is best enjoyed as a double-bill with its predecessor.

Movie Talk: The Sam Raimi Spider-Man Films Re-Visited [Part 1]

spiderman-1Release Year: 2002
Directed By: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons

I’ll be honest: I was expecting the first of the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man movies to have aged terribly before I re-watched it yesterday. After all, this film is eighteen years-old at this point. EIGHTEEN. Where has all of THAT time gone? Since then, we have had many Spider-Man films, with the webhead played by different actors to much critical acclaim. So what was I expecting? Ropey CG? Dodgy acting? I don’t think it was unreasonable to have gone back into Spider-Man with low expectations. It had been a long time since I last watched it, for starters. Also, the movie has since gone on to inspire countless memes and inevitable criticism from a younger generation along the lines of, “Oh my God! Look how bad this looks compared to the new ones!”

Well, guess what? The film is still awesome. The end credits rolled and I was just as satisfied as when I first watched it back in 2002, as a twelve year-old. You can keep your newer Spider-Mans. I never fully bought into the whole crossover or ‘event’ thing, even in the comic books. I preferred Spider-Man to have his own self-contained adventures with his own supporting cast, as it used to be in the pre-millennium comics (guest appearances from other characters aside). That’s probably one reason why I still enjoy first Spider-Man.

Another is the casting, which was spot-on. I’ll admit that Tobey Maguire’s version of Peter Parker isn’t 100% satisfying (he occasionally comes off as just weird/creepy as opposed to nerdy and shy) but for the most part, I have no issues. Willem Dafoe is great as the billionaire industrialist, Norman Osborn, who becomes the iconic Green Goblin. I have to say that I really enjoy the look of the Goblin in this movie, especially that grinning, gargoyle-like helmet with the slide-up eye covers. Back in ’02, I was dubious but now? I’d say that I like it more than the Goblin’s classic costume from the comics. The glider is bad-ass too.

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Admit it: this was better than the rubber mask and messenger boy satchel from the comics.

Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson are perfect as Aunt May and Uncle Ben while J.K. Simmons couldn’t have done a better job portraying the Daily Bugle’s J. Jonah Jameson. Seriously, it’s a pleasure whenever he’s on-screen, shouting and puffing away on a cigar. I couldn’t help but smile.

Kirsten Dunst does a pretty solid job as Mary-Jane Watson, Peter’s high-school love interest, though I wish her character had been a little more fiery and bubbly as in the comics where she was first introduced as a party girl. Here, she is softer and an unlikely sympathiser towards Peter given their respective places in the high school social hierarchy. That aside, I’ve never been able to forget that alley scene in the pouring rain where MJ’s sodden top leaves nothing to the imagination. As I said earlier, I first watched this film as a twelve year-old and I can’t count the number of times I reversed and replayed those few seconds of the DVD. If it had been the VHS version then the tape would surely have worn out! It was gold for a sheltered adolescent, and – while I didn’t indulge in any reverse/replay shenanigans this time – I still appreciated the scene as an adult. I couldn’t see it getting through the censors in today’s uber-critical, Woke world without some photoshop-like post-production magic though. Nor would I be so confident about her super low-cut top from the movie’s start making the cut.

It’s another reminder that more time has passed than I realised since Spider-Man hit cinemas, and that the world has changed a lot in those eighteen years. This DVD I have is a further reminder. It’s my original copy – the same one that I stressed so much with all that reversing/replaying – from 2002 and it was the first DVD that I ever owned. It’s a ‘Special’ 2-Disc Widescreen Edition (remember those?) that I seem to recall costing about £20! The double-discs, thick booklet and solid plastic for the casing are a stark contrast to today’s DVD’s which usually have no special features and the flimsiest of cases.

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Would this make it into a 12-Rated superhero movie today? Somehow, I doubt it.

Back to the movie, I was able to appreciate the origin story and scripting far more this time around. When I first watched Spider-Man (and the few times after that), I questioned why they had skipped over Gwen Stacy and gone straight to Mary-Jane; why the Goblin and not one of the other villains that Spider-Man faced off against in the comics before Osborn? Obviously, I was just being a pedantic nerd but this stuff seemed to matter to me back then. Now, well…I’m still a nerd, but a more informed nerd at least. Everything about Spider-Man seems to be more closely aligned with the ‘Ultimate’ universe which hadn’t long kicked off back then and was a modern re-telling of the Spider-Man origin story with Peter a teenager in the new Millennium. It’s a great alternate universe to the ‘normal’ Marvel one because it brought Peter Parker bang up-to-date without getting too dark or edgy. That’s what the Spider-Man movie feels like and, while some may consider the tone to now be outdated, I think it remains a perfect halfway house between the 60’s original and the more current stuff.

I really enjoyed the final showdown with the Green Goblin too. The finale apes the comics when Norman discovered Spider-Man’s identity and made things personal by killing Gwen Stacey. Here, in the movie, Osborn attacks Aunt May before kidnapping MJ and making Spider-Man/Peter choose between saving the girl he loves or a cable car full of kids. It remains an exciting climax and the final, final battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin is fucking awesome. The two really go at it, punching one another through walls and all that cool stuff.

While I don’t think Spider-Man has aged as badly as some may have you believe, there are a few things that aren’t quite so hot. The CG for instance, is largely still convincing but there are those odd moments when Spidey’s web-swinging sequences look a bit rigid and unnatural. Then there are the few scenes with the Green Goblin on his glider that don’t look quite right, especially when there is other shit going on in the background. There are also a couple of really corny “imagination” sequences where Peter is thinking about something (buying a car to impress MJ, for example) and various images are floating about, overlapping and fading out. These bits look like they belong in a TV comedy from the 90’s – at least in my mind.

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Shit gets real at the very end.

These are pretty minor criticisms however and, honestly, I’d expect any CG to look dated almost twenty years later. Movies use so much of it now that the age of the tech is going to be a lot harder to disguise further down the line.

One final shout-out has to go to Danny Elfman’s superb score. There are several rousing pieces of music in Spider-Man that unmistakably belong to this movie and give it its own sound – a sound that I would recognise anywhere and immediately link it back to Spider-Man.

Overall, I still got a good kick out of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man effort. Natural aging aside, the movie still does a damn good job of capturing the source material’s magic and telling an origin story. I also can’t help but like Spider-Man that little bit more for the fact that it is a film from a more innocent time and is entirely self-contained without all the MCU bullshit and associated expectation. As an added bonus, it features the best Green Goblin and the best Jonah Jameson (in my opinion of course).

Comic Book Review: JLA/Avengers (Marvel/DC, 2003)

JLAAvengers-1Year: 2003
Format: 4 Issue Limited Series
Writer(s): Kurt Busiek
Artist(s): George Perez (pencils), Tom Smith (colours), Comicraft (letters)

This year, I finally got around to reading this crossover series. I say “finally” because I’d only previously read the final part and, when it comes to comics, I can’t muster up much enthusiasm for digital editions so I’d been trying to track down the physical issues. Unfortunately, the collated graphic novel is ridiculously expensive and the individual issues took time to appear on ebay at non-silly price-points. Overall, I spent about £30-£40 acquiring the full set but it was money well-spent.

JLA/Avengers isn’t a crossover that I see mentioned very often which seems strange to me, because Marvel and DC collaborating and bringing their two premier super-teams together was a big event (a will they/won’t they deal going back to the 1980’s, in fact). I suppose in the modern age, however, the tone of JLA/Avengers might come across as antiquated. This was 2003, after all; a time when comics were still bright and not focused on dark, gritty “realism”, frequent seismic ‘events’ or shock deaths.

The plot is essentially just a vehicle to get this crossover moving and the likes of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman sharing the same panels as Captain America, Thor and Iron Man. Krona is continuing his relentless quest for knowledge relating to the secrets of creation. He enters the Marvel universe and simply destroys entire worlds when they fail to yield the answers he seeks. The Grandmaster attempts to prevent Krona’s insatiable lust for knowledge by engaging him in a game with the biggest possible stakes: if Krona wins, the Grandmaster must lead him to what he seeks, even if it destroys the universe. If the Grandmaster wins, Krona must leave the universe alone. The game involves two sets of champions – the Avengers and the Justice League – competing to see who can retrieve the greater number of powerful artifacts.

Obviously, neither team understands the full situation and the misunderstanding brings them into direct conflict with each other. Behind the scenes, the Grandmaster is secretly playing a deeper game while Krona has (surprise!) no intention of abiding by the rules should he lose. There are all manner of misunderstandings and dimension-hopping with cliched warped reality dogging our heroes at every turn.

Basically, it’s an elaborate excuse to get the Avengers trading blows with the JLA before they ultimately uncover the truth and unite to take down Krona. In other words, it’s some fucking serious fanservice.

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Aside from the overall spectacle of the crossover, the prime motivator for reading JLA/Avengers is for George Perez’s magnificent artwork. Every action panel is an absolute joy to behold, especially when the two teams of heroes are fighting one another. There’s an immense clash of the titans when Superman takes on Thor, for example, and a tense, wordless exchange of testing blows between Batman and Captain America on a rooftop, in the pouring rain.

Then there are the large spreads involving multiple characters – a George Perez trademark. These are fantastic to look at and I spent a long time just absorbing all of the details and admiring the dynamicism at work; the arrangement of all of this action. Special mention must go to the endgame in the fourth part where the main teams are backed up by a constant stream of heroes from both universes. Naturally, Krona’s forces are bolstered by Marvel and DC’s villains and what you get are pages absolutely crammed with characters, fighting, explosions…you name it. You wouldn’t believe that so much could fit into a single page of a comic book.

The wrap-around covers are some of the best you will ever lay eyes on too, especially part 3’s mind-boggling assemblage of characters and the final issue’s image of a very battered and pissed-off Superman wielding Cap’s cracked shield and Thor’s lightning-spewing hammer. I’m so glad that I own these comics in physical form because they are honestly worth it for the covers alone.

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This is George Perez in full-flow, providing everything that you know and admire him for – masterful anatomy, imposing male characters, beautiful, powerful females and insane spreads – then turning it up to eleven. In fact, I seem to remember reading that the final installment of JLA/Avengers was slightly delayed due to Perez injuring his wrist but I can’t find anything online to back that up. I could very well have mis-remembered but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was true!

In conclusion, the plot of JLA/Avengers is so-so but you won’t mind when the art is this good. Also – at the time of writing – this crossover holds the honour of being the most recent collaboration between Marvel and DC. Will it prove to be the last? Nobody can say for sure, but if it is, then it’s still one heck of a way to conclude a relationship between the two giants of comic books.

Comic Book Review: Ultimate Spiderman Vol.2 – Learning Curve (Marvel, 2002)

Ultimate-1Year: 2002
Format: Trade Paperback, collecting Ultimate Spiderman #8-13 (2001)
Writer(s): Brian Michael Bendis
Artist(s): Mark Bagley (pencils), Art Thibert (inks), Transparency Digital (colours)
ISBN: 9780785108207

“High school, puberty, first dates – there are many pitfalls to being young. Compound these with intense personal tragedy and super powers, and you can start to visualise the world of Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man.

Following the murder of his uncle, the assault on his high school and the confusing signals from the beautiful Mary Jane Watson, Peter finds himself on the brink of manhood: getting a job at the New York City newspaper, the Daily Bugle, to help support his family and taking on extracurricular activities…like bringing down organised-crime head honcho Wilson Fisk, otherwise known as the Kingpin!

Award-winning writer Brian Michael Bendis, with the one-two punch of artists Mark Bagley and Art Thibert, have put Spider-Man back at the forefront of the cutting-edge storytelling…where he belongs!”

[Note: for a review of Ultimate Spiderman Vol.1 and an overall impression of the Ultimate universe’s version of the character, click HERE]

“Learning Curve” turns out to be a highly-fitting cover title for this next set of Ultimate Spider-Man issues. Ultimate Spider-Man #8-13 continues the approach of the previous issues by presenting Peter’s early adventures in a slower-paced, more realistic fashion, striking a spot-on balance between his personal life as a teenager and his fledgling activities as Spider-Man.

Appropriately, these issues are restrained when it comes to introducing new villains for Peter to deal with. The main antagonist this time is the Kingpin and the Enforcers. Peter’s sense of justice pushes him to seek out Wilson Fisk in order to end his criminal reign over New York but, he soon finds that he is in over his head and still just a green superhero with a lot to learn.

Spider-Man takes a fair beating in these issues and even gets unmasked by the Kingpin before being thrown out of a skyscraper window. He also struggles against the Enforcers and the Kingpin’s other employee – Electro. While Peter eventually triumphs over Fisk and his henchmen, it is, nevertheless, a sobering reminder to the young superhero that he has much to learn. He still has to get to grips with his “Spider Sense” for instance.

The series also continues its more gritty vibe with the villains. The Kingpin, for example, looks pretty much the same as he does in the regular Marvel universe, but he is much more a deadly adversary here with savage strength and (literal) wall-shattering punches. There is even a scene where he murders Fredrick Foswell by crushing his head to a pulp with his bare hands. This IS still a mainline, colourful comic book though, so you don’t get to see the gory details but the expressions of horror on the faces of the Enforcers and Electro, plus Foswell’s death screams, are enough. THIS version of the Kingpin doesn’t fuck around.

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As for Electro, he doesn’t sport a loud costume this time around and the origin of his powers are still a complete mystery to Peter. Hopefully, we see more of him in future issues.

Outside of his second life as the wall-crawler, Peter’s personal life continues to evolve at a rapid pace. With Uncle Ben gone, Peter feels obliged to find a job to help contribute to the house he shares with Aunt May, thus – while trying to sell photographs of Spider-Man to the Bugle – he stumbles into a part-time web designer role. It’s a clever nod to the (far-fetched) way that Peter Parker earned money in Amazing Spider-Man, but THIS version of Peter ultimately (no pun intended) ends up with a far more modern job befitting of a geeky teenager in the new millennium. Peter being at the Bugle also means that Jameson, Robbie Robertson, Betty Brant and Ben Ulrich are all introduced to the Ultimate Spider-Man universe.

The biggest plot development in Learning Curve, however, is Peter’s blossoming relationship with Mary Jane. After all the shy looks and awkward moments in the first volume, MJ asks Peter out on a date. Unfortunately, he has to blow her off to recover from the beating he suffered at the hands of the Kingpin and Electro the night before. Consequently, Peter decides to simply cut to the chase and tell Mary Jane his secret before he messes her about too much and spoils their friendship. If you haven’t read Ultimate Spider-Man before, then this is perhaps a bit of a shock if you’d spent years reading the ‘main’ universe and following Peter’s unlikely, long-term concealment of his secret identity.

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But here, it really works. It’s far more believable, as is the much more immature initial reaction of Mary Jane’s when she tells Peter that he should be famous, like a rock star. Once Peter dispels this idea, by reminding MJ of the potential deadly implications of his identity being common knowledge, the pair come close to sharing their first kiss before Aunt May butts in and embarasses Peter by trying to broach the subject of safe sex!

Overall, Learning Curve is a masterfully-paced second volume of Ultimate Spiderman that leaves you just as intrigued with what will happen to Peter and his supporting cast as with what new developments will occur in the world of Spider-Man. This could have felt rushed and unrealistic had Bendis decided to introduce as many of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery as possible in this next set of issues but, as with Power and Responsibility, this second volume of Ultimate Spider-Man wisely sticks to the same template and allows Peter Parker to grow at a more authentic pace.

It’s also simply an incredibly fun read that I couldn’t put down, partly due to the fantastic writing, partly due to Mark Bagley’s superb artwork. Those things alone make Ultimate Spider-Man worth reading.

Comic Book Review: Ultimate Spiderman Vol.1 – Power and Responsibility (Marvel, 2001)

USM-1Year: 2001
Format: Trade Paperback, collecting Ultimate Spiderman #1-7 (2000)
Writer(s): Brian Michael Bendis, Bill Jemas
Artist(s): Mark Bagley (pencils), Art Thibert, Dan Panosian (inks), Steve Buccellato, Marie Javins, Colorgraphix & JC (colours)
ISBN: 0-7851-0786

“With great power comes great responsibility.” In 1963, these prophetic words launched one of the most successful and recognisable characters of the 20th Century…Spider-Man! The powers granted bookish Peter Parker by a radioactive spider have fueled the imagination of fans worldwide for nearly 40 years. With the dawning of a new age, however, comes a hero for a new millenium…Ultimate Spiderman!

Updating Spider-Man for the 21st Century was no easy task, and it took the brilliant minds of Bill Jemas and Brian Michael Bendis to do just that. With the artistic talents of Mark Bagley and Art Thibert breathing new life into this legendary mythos, Spider-Man has reasserted himself as one of the most popular characters in the world!

When Marvel first established the ‘Ultimate’ line of comics, it was a genius move. Rather than take the controversial move to reboot the entire Marvel universe from scratch and bin decades of existing canon (as DC would later do with their New 52 series), the Ultimate comics had their own separate universe, giving Marvel the opportunity re-introduce all of their popular characters for a younger generation. It meant that the characters fans knew and loved could be drastically revamped to be a bit grittier, more realistic and more “with the times”.

The Ultimate universe still feels fresh and new to me but in reality, it’s now on the verge of being twenty friggin’ years-old. Holy shit – where has that time gone? I haven’t kept up with where its at now but I imagine that it too – like the ‘main’ universe – is drowning in its own baggage and backstory.

It should come as no surprise that Spider-Man was the first character (alongside the X-Men) to be revamped and launch the Ultimate line. Marvel absolutely did the job too, re-telling the character’s origin story in an up-to-date, more believable fashion while remaining faithful to the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko source material from the 60’s. Peter Parker is still a shy, bullied high school student for example. He still gets bitten by a radioactive spider and Uncle Ben is still killed by a burglar but not before reminding his nephew that, with great power comes great responsibility.

The difference with Ultimate Spider-Man, however, is that the pacing of Peter’s transformation into Spider-Man is so much more realistic (well…as realistic as the whole shebang can be) rather than being rushed through in a single issue. It takes Peter the first five issues to even begin to get used to his new powers, for example, with Uncle Ben making it until the end of issue four. Furthermore, Spider-Man doesn’t battle his first supervillain until the sixth and seventh issues.

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[Source]
It allows the human side of Peter and the supporting cast to shine through as much as the fantastical superhero action. We see Peter gradually come out of his shell then turn into a bit of an entitled asshole before being brought back down to earth when Uncle B is offed by a burglar that he could have previously stopped but didn’t because it wasn’t his problem. But we also see how Flash Thompson (and his new jock side-kick, Kong) make Peter’s life a misery at school and we can empathise with Peter fighting back even while he’s burning his relationship with Aunt May and Uncle Ben. We see the tentative, awkward attraction between Peter and Mary-Jane. In short, Marvel really nailed teenage/high-school life of the time and made the character much more relevant to younger readers who wouldn’t have been able to relate so easily to the 1960’s original. The premise is the same but the language and culture in Amazing Spider-Man #1 was so outdated by then.

While Peter struggles to come to terms with his new abilities, survive school and maintain relationships at home, Norman Osborn is working on his ‘Oz’ formula and keeping a beady eye on the results of Peter’s accident which occured when his class toured his facilities. Right from the off, Osborn knows who Peter is and sees through the costume. Frustrated with investors – and seeing how Peter’s physical abilities were enhanced by the spider bite – Norman injects himself with the Oz formula. A major lab disaster follows and the Green Goblin is born out of the flames and death.

This version of GG is a monstrous, Hulk-like creature that can generate and hurl explosive fireballs and leap huge distances. The creative team essentially kept him resembling a Goblin (albeit far more muscular and beastly) but swapped the glider for superhuman abilities and the pumpkin bombs for organically-generated fireballs. A tattered purple robe compliments the villain’s green skin and makes him instantly identifiable as the Green Goblin, despite the physique and characterisation being completely different. It’s a fantastic re-imagining in my opinion.

 

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GG looking hench in the Ultimate universe. [Source]
As I’ve already said, the pacing of the origin story is much slower in Ultimate Spider-Man but at the same time, the character development and action trade places every few pages so the story doesn’t ever feel drawn-out for the sake of it.

Plenty of the familiar Spider-Man supporting cast is also re-introduced and revamped in these first issues. The likes of Jameson, Liz Allen, Doctor Octavius Ben Ulrich and Captain Stacey all make minor appearances – for now.

I also have to mention the fantastic artwork by Mark Bagley. His work is so easy on the eye and his characters are always full of personality and visible emotion. The inks are bold and the colours bright, leading to an overall art style that is energetic and pure comic-book without ever stepping into the cartoon or overly-exaggerated territories.

My only criticism is that I couldn’t put this trade paperback down and so it was over all too quickly, leaving me hungry for more. I’ve read Ultimate Spiderman before though, all the way up to the introduction of Silver Sable, so I’m aware of how the plot unfolds, but it’s been so long that this book feels fresh and exciting again. I’m very much looking forward to tracking down the rest of the trades and continuing to re-visit what I consider to be Marvel masterpiece of story-telling and visual eye-candy.

Comic Book Review: Shanna The She-Devil TPB (Marvel, 2006)

shanna-1Year: 2006
Format: Trade Paperback, collecting Shanna The She-Devil #1-7 (2005)
Writer(s): Frank Cho
Artist(s): Frank Cho
ISBN: 0-7851-1038-0

When a covert military team crash-lands on a remote tropical island, the soldiers make a shocking discovery: an abandoned Nazi lab holding the results of a long-term human experiment. The soldiers release the project’s sole survivor: a super-strong warrior woman held since birth in an incubation tube. Known only as Shanna, this voluptuous blonde possesses the strength of twelve men and a tenacious ferocity to match. On an island swarming with bloodthirsty raptors and an unstoppable T-Rex, the soldiers will need to win her trust – and quickly – if they hope to survive their unexpected tour of duty in this savage land!

I could go ahead and waffle on about my interest on Marvel’s B-Tier and below characters being the driving force behind my purchase of this particular graphic novel. Or I could tell you that my motivation behind adding Shanna The She-Devil to my bookshelf was formed from a desire to read something from Marvel that was self-contained and not up it’s own arse, lost in a network of crossovers and events. Both of these reasons would actually be true but I’m just going to be honest here: I bought this because it features a voluptuous vixen of a female lead and dinosaurs – two of the best subjects that can grace a comic book.

Before reading this, I had no idea who Shanna was. I recall seeing her briefly share a panel or two with Kazar in an early issue of New Avengers (when the team visited the Savage Land) but that’s it. All I saw was a sexy Jungle/Cave girl drawn by the awe-inspiring Frank Cho and I was sold. This particular 2005 mini-series is possibly a prequel to Shanna’s story but that’s just an educated guess based on how a stranded military unit find her, suspended in a tank of fluid – a leftover Nazi experiment who initially acts upon instinct alone without the knowledge of society or morals.

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Perving on Shanna: not advisable. Doesn’t he see the strategically-placed spray and foam anyway?

The team take Shanna back to their makeshift stronghold where she gradually develops, learning to speak and understand her surroundings at an incredible rate. Unfortunately, they also unwittingly take a deadly, weaponised virus back with them in amongst some medical supplies and it gets released, infecting several members of the team and giving them less than ten days to live. There is an antidote but it means returning to the lab: a six-day round trip over an island teeming with carnivorous dinosaurs. A suicide mission in other words.

Fortunately, they have Shanna.

Neither the wild nor the dinos scare Shanna. Super-strong and agile, Shanna is a superhuman warrior – the perfect weapon born of twisted Nazi experimentation to create such a being.

The plot is pretty throwaway and so is the attempt at adding some depth through “Doc”‘s journal entries where he narrates the situation and describes Shanna’s progress as she slowly morphs from an instinctive killing machine – driven by pure survival – into a more human-like person, capable of empathy and reasoning. The main draw here is obviously the non-stop action that sees Shanna fighting hordes of raptors and even a T-Rex.

Frank Cho wrote AND illustrated this series and his breathtaking artwork is THE reason to have this Graphic Novel in your collection. When it comes to drawing bodacious babes with dramatic curves, Cho is a god in my opinion. Aside from having an enviable talent for bringing stunning women to life in the pages of a comic book, he is also a master of anatomy and realistic physics which makes for some truly dynamic action scenes and believable movement. I don’t want to keep banging on about Shanna’s figure but just look at how he makes her breasts swing around whenever she’s in motion – a lot of artists don’t bother putting this much energy into a moving character.

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Physics at work. And lots of dead dinosaurs.

Away from the ladies, Cho also knows how to put together a good action sequence using a spread of small panels and sound effects. In this book especially, he is able to turn a fairly straightforward plot into a seven-issue action spectacle that never feels drawn-out for the sake of it.

Shanna The She-Devil isn’t ground-breaking nor would it ever be a critical darling but fuck the critics because this is raw, unrestrained fun – a welcome dosage of action starring a badass, ultra-sexy jungle girl kicking the shit out of dinosaurs and fighting with primal savagery. There’s gallons of blood too and some pretty graphic deaths whenever a soldier is offed by a dinosaur or when Shanna is tearing through a pack of a raptors with two machetes. In short, it’s a bit of a turn-your-brain-off-and-enjoy book and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, especially when Frank Cho is on illustrative duties.

Aside from the wafer thin plot and so-so attempt to try and add some depth to Shanna’s character, the only other gripe I have with Shanna The She-Devil is that it was just a mini-series. By the time I reached the end, I found myself wanting more.

Comic Book Talk: Ghost Rider #1-#27 (1990-)

GR-1The 90’s gets a bad rap when it comes to comic books. The 60’s and 70’s established many of the characters and ongoing books that readers are familiar with while the 80’s featured countless classic story arcs and famous runs on big name comics. Fast forward to the modern day and the likes of Marvel and DC are enjoying more exposure than ever and, as befits the age we live in, the comics themselves enjoy slick presentation and the individual titles are far more integrated into the main ‘universe'(s) with frequent crossovers and major ‘events’.

By contrast, the 90’s is often cited as the decade of forgettable storytelling, uninspiring ideas and a lack of anything “big”. Thing is though, while many of the mainline books suffered a period of stagnation in the 1990’s, it simply isn’t true to claim that the decade as a whole is worth forgetting about because there were some fantastic comics. Case in point, the 1990 Ghost Rider reboot which is one of my favourite runs of any comic to date.

The powers of the Ghost Rider are picked up by new lead character, Dan Ketch, and he struggles to cope with the Rider’s furious need for vengeance as well as his own personal life which begins to spin out of control once he begins moonlighting as GR. This is a different Ghost Rider to the original Johnny Blaze incarnation and so this run had the freedom to go its own way while posing numerous questions and mysteries regarding the Ghost Rider.

I’m only going to talk about the first 27 issues here in this post because from there on, the Sons of Midnight crossover project began and I haven’t read any further since I need to track down some more comics to fill in the gaps in my collection. Those 27 issues however are pure dynamite. This is a dark book that doesn’t shy away from violence, blood and innocent death. A core of recurring, brand-new villains are also established for Ghost Rider to contend with and while they don’t exactly have the most dynamic of personalities between them, the psychotic brutality of their actions and the joy they extract from killing, makes them fascinating adverseries for GR to face off against.

Blackout is a crazed, sharp-toothed killer that enjoys ripping people’s throats out, Deathwatch is an evil businessman that cracks necks and appears to draw energy from the death of his victims and Zodiac is a sick serial killer that continually manages to escape the vengeful wrath of Ghost Rider. This trio of villains are collectively behind a wave of violent murders and disappearances in the Forest Hills area of Queens, New York. Ghost Rider might be a powerhouse of a character with high immunity to damage but he struggles to permanently put these sickos down. Deathwatch for example hides behind the persona of a respectable businessman and pulls the strings from the shadows. Blackout on the other hand deduces GR’s identity and makes things personal, striking out at those close to Dan Ketch. He even attacks the hospital and tears the throat out of Ketch’s comatose sister! You end up really despising these villains and rooting for Ghost Rider as he takes on a sort-of anti-hero role, beating the shit out of bad guys and not being constrained by the morality codes that the likes of Spiderman and the Avengers abide by. As I said before, this is a dark book.

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During these 27 issues, Ghost Rider also encounters Dr. Strange, teams up with The Punisher to take on Flag Smasher and battles the Brood alongside the X-Men. Mephisto makes an appearance, Ghost Rider has his first battle with Scarecrow and Johnny Blaze himself even shows up but the motive for his return isn’t what you might expect.

The thing that really makes this run of Ghost Rider so special is the creative team behind it. After reading some truly woeful Spiderman arcs in the late 90’s from Howard Mackie, I didn’t ever expect to praise the same guy for his writing but here, it is superb. The human side of Dan Ketch and the effect that his actions as Ghost Rider have on the supporting cast is as integral to the ongoing plot as are the villains that refuse to give up and die and Mackie does a great job of striking a balance between them. Better yet is the artwork which is absolutely stunning in that raw, detailed style that only comics from the 80’s and early 90’s could deliver before presentation as a whole moved to another level and computer work sucked some of the soul and purity from the pages.

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Javier Saltares kicks things off before being replaced by regular artist, Mark Texeira (also known as simply ‘TEX’). Both men really bring the book to life with grim, brooding artwork but Texeira in particular is on another level. Ron Wagner steps in from time-to-time too and honestly, I rate him almost as highly as Texeira. There really is no weak link in the art department for these opening 27 issues.

Overall, I cannot recommend this volume of Ghost Rider enough. I don’t disagree that the 90’s served up some real duds in the comic book arena but in my experience, it is the B-Tier characters and books that give the decade some appeal. In particular, I love the dark characters and horror themes that Marvel saw fit to push out in the early 90’s; the 1990 reboot of Ghost Rider being a front-runner (or should that be ‘rider’?). It remains to be seen whether the rest of the run manages to uphold the same quality and thrilling reading but I have high hopes.