Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

bvsp

DC Comics and Warner Brothers’ second step in setting up a universe of superhero movies to rival Marvel’s hit theaters this weekend to big buck and vitriolic reviews. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a messy, bloated epic that occasionally struggles with coherence. It is a movie that seems simultaneously designed to appeal to and piss off fanboys. It somehow feels cut to the bone and a half hour too long. It is both contemplative and thoughtful and a big dumb action movie. Batman v Superman is at least two different movies jammed together. I don’t really understand why I like it so much. Despite its numerous and glaring flaws, Batman v Superman remains highly entertaining.

BvS stars Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman. During the climactic showdown in Man of Steel, Wayne Tower in Metropolis was destroyed. Bruce blames this on Superman. Meanwhile, an attempt by Lois Lane to get an interview with an African warlord becomes an international incident, with again Superman taking the blame. While Batman searches for a weapon to use against Superman and Superman deals with an increasingly fraught political situation, Lex Luthor plots behind the scenes to make use of his newly discovered Kryptonite and to get control of General Zod’s remains. These threads, and a few more, move at a breakneck pace until it comes to the inevitable confrontation between the title characters and from there expands into another city stomping fight scene.

Whether you find them good or bad, there is no question that the performances in the film are memorable. Jesse Eisenburg play’s Lex as a coked out hipster CEO, with odd verbal ticks and barely contained smugness and disdain for all around him. It is the first instance of a live action Luthor that genuinely feels like a threat. Affleck’s Batman is bulky and driven, with his Bruce persona and Batman persona more similar that previous versions. The one drawing the bulk of the criticism is Henry Cavill’s Superman, who doesn’t get enough to do in the movie and who many viewers seem to be deliberately misinterpreting. He is stoic, but with even the slightest amount of charity it the closest any film has come to the Superman I grew up with. All of the primary roles are distinctive takes on very well know characters. They don’t work all the time, but they aren’t easy to forget either.

To its detriment, BvS trusts its audience and expects a lot from them. Yes, they use the opening credits to once again show Batman’s origin, but for the most part this movie expects the viewers to know who its characters are. The movie doesn’t quite work if the viewer is not already at least somewhat familiar with them. Considering how strongly ingrained Superman, Batman and Lex Luthor are in the pop culture consciousness, that is not an unreasonable expectation. But people aren’t familiar with these versions of those characters, and it makes it hard to read some scenes. Knowing how Batman should act is essential to understanding that he is not acting normally. Which he isn’t for most of the movie. But the movie has never shown that normal, it just expects the viewer to know it. Just like it expects the viewer to know who Superman is and what he does, because it certainly can’t spare more than a few minutes to show it. The fact that the movie never gives Lex Luthor a reason for hating Superman. To me that is a ridiculous complaint; he is Lex Luthor, hating Superman is what he does. The movie is not interested in explaining any of this, but it expects it to be understood. While some of it should be, BvS takes it too far. Some establishment of normal is necessary to contrast when thing change. A few lines from Alfred and talking heads on TVs don’t cut it. That is the most substantial problem with the movie.

The actual plot as it unfolds it fine. It tries to pose some substantial questions about right and wrong, about the effects of a Godlike being appearing in our midst, both those effects on us and the effects on that being, but it never really finishes making its case, instead getting sidetracked by CG spectacle and awkward attempts to set up future DC comics movies.

There is no getting around that, much like its title, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an awkward mess. But the more I think about it, the more I like it. Also, while it may be just the contrarian in me, I find the more vitriol I see spewed at this movie the more I like it. It is flawed. It skips by important plot points to save time for Wonder Woman essentially watching youtube videos. The first half seems to be completely devoid of establishing shots. It all but assumes a movie between it and Man of Steel where Superman actually does Superman stuff. But for all those problems, and more, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. It attempts to wrestle with weighty themes. It wants to be something more than Marvel’s slick popcorn fair. BvS never quite gets there, but the ambition is refreshing.

***

Advertisements

25 Years 25 Games #7: R-Type III

I’m not going to lie to you and say that I legit beat R-Type III. I am pretty crappy at shmups and R-Type III is dang tough. Still, I persevered and exploited the crap out of saves states to see all that the game has to offer. Even that way it wasn’t easy. Difficulty aside, there is a lot to like about this game.

One thing that stands out about this game is that it is designed for the SNES. R-Type III is not, like many shmups, based on an arcade game. The SNES tended to struggle with those, chugging along with massive slowdown. That was usually caused by all the moving sprites on the screen. The SNES just wasn’t fast enough. R-Type III, though, was designed around the limitations of the system. It has larger but relatively few obstacles and moves along a something of a slow pace anyway. The end result is a game that both looks good and plays good. Those large obstacles tend to be big, lush sprites. And the slower pace lets the player always feel in control.

Another thing that makes R-Type III stand out is its level design. Most shmups I’ve played (and let me be clear that I am far from an expert) would feature some background hazards and mostly a lot of enemies the same size as the player’s ship to deal with. R-Type III is all about the levels. It gives the whole game something of a puzzle feel. Using the SNES’s special mode 7 rotating effects, among other tricks, the game’s environments become the highlights. They rotate around player and change dynamically as the player progress. Foreknowledge isn’t exactly required, but big portions are reliant on know where to be. The first level starts with a highlight, the player fighting a big mech that crashes into the background. It gives the game a distinct feel, much like Super Castlevania 4 and its use of similar effects. It isn’t perfect, though. While they look great, the moving backgrounds can really make the game feel cramped.

It does have plenty of replay value. The big upgrade tool on the R-Type series is the force pod, a pod that sits at the front or back of the player’s ship and fires for them. R-Type III has three different types of Force Pods, chosen at the beginning of the game. They have different uses for the three kinds of weapon upgrades the player can get. None are strictly better than the others (or at least I am not skilled enough to tell which are better) but some are better in certain situations. You can also move the pod from the front of the ship to the back, changing the direction your powerful shots go. It again make for a slightly more strategic take than the usual pure twitchiness of a shmup.

There is just no getting around that difficulty. Without abusing save states I doubt I could have cleared the second stage. The game is quite short, so the difficulty helps to keep interest in a game the otherwise be just a blip. The SNES isn’t exactly known for its shmups, that once important genre was better served on the Genesis and TG16, but R-Type III is an excellent, exclusive title for the system. It is just the kind of game I am doing this project to experience.

Summer Movie Preview

I know it is still the middle of spring, but the first summer popcorn movie opens this week and that means it is time for my yearly Summer Movie Preview. As usual, I spent the better part of an hour trolling movie sites (imdb.com and boxofficemojo.com) to find the movies that I am excited to see this summer. To keep things interesting, I’ve also included some that are just the opposite; they are the movie that I have no intention of seeing and am appalled or disgusted by. I’ve got them on here in release order, with a few thoughts about each film and the likelihood of my seeing it (Certainly, Likely, Unlikely or Fat Chance). So what is on the docket for 2016? Let’s find out.

  • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Some rumblings about WB’s nervousness and that first tone deaf trailer aside, I am pretty pumped to see this tonight. I am an easy sell for Superman and while I wasn’t enthralled with Snyder’s first take on the character I have (probably delusional) hopes for this one. March 25 Certainly.
  • The Jungle Book It has an all-star cast and doesn’t look too shabby, but I wonder if this live action version will have anything to add to Disney’s animated classic. That worry really only comes to mind since this is clearly a live action take on that specific version of the story. Favreau is directing and he’s got some good films under his belt. I’ll give it a look. April 15 Likely.
  • The Huntsman: Winter’s War – The first movie, Snow White and the Huntsman, was surprisingly good. It had the feeling of an 80’s fantasy movie more than one of LotR’s progeny. I have no idea what to make of this sequel, but I am intrigued. Especially by the cast. Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain and Emily Blunt. April 22 Likely.
  • Keanu – Key and Peele doing a movie about two guys trying to save their kitten from gangsters? Yeah, I’m in. April 22 Likely.
  • Ratchet & Clank – This is a video game adaptation, so precedence suggests it will crap, but the games tend to be really fun and funny, with a set up that translates pretty easily to the big screen. I’m holding out hope for this. April 29 Likely.
  • Captain America: Civil War – This looks good. Avengers Age of Ultron was initially pleasing, but it felt bloated and unfocused, so hopefully this one is more cohesive and satisfying. It should be, the last Captain America movie was the best Marvel film yet. May 6 Certainly.
  • The Nice Guys – I was sold on this one, starring Ryan Gosling and Russel Crowe as PIs, with the trailer I saw before Hail, Caesar! It looks to be really fun and I hope it doesn’t get lost in the summer shuffle. May 20 Certainly.
  • Alice Through the Looking Glass – I know the first live action Alice in Wonderland made a ton of money, but did anyone really want a sequel? A sequel not directed by Tim Burton? I don’t know, this does not sound particularly promising. But it is worth at least paying a little attention to given the massive success of the first one. May 27 Unlikely
  • X-Men: Apocalypse – The last X-Men movie was the best yet, hopefully this one can continue the trend. It does return a lot of the most famous X-Men to the team and is looking pretty good. Maybe this take on the core X-Men team will be more faithful and interesting than the first pass, even without Wolverine. May 27 Certainly.
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows – Holy shit does this look terrible. The previous movie was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in a theater. This one brings in a lot of fan favorite stuff from the cartoon, but it looks to be as much as a miserable piece of shit as the first one. June 3 Fat Chance.
  • Warcraft – I haven’t been a fan of this series since Warcaft 2 way back in the day, but I am a fan of cheesy fantasy movies I am somewhat intrigued. The trailer doesn’t look that good; it looks like a bad cartoon. John Carter did giant green men better a few years ago. Still, this could be a lot of fun. Normally I’d be on the fence with something like this, but the rest of June is a wasteland, so I’ll probably end up there. June 10 Likely.
  • Finding Dory – A sequel to the Pixar movie that I seem to like less than anyone else, starring the character that is the biggest reason I didn’t really like it. It sounds like we’ve got another Cars 2 on our hands. Still, I trust Pixar despite their one miss so far. I’ll be there. June 17 Likely.
  • Independence Day – Another sequel, this time to a movie that was never good in the first place and missing the one thing people would actually want to see come back. I really don’t know what the point of this sequel is. Does anyone actually want it? I can’t say that I do, but the trailer seemed to excite some people. June 24 Fat Chance.
  • The BFG – Steven Spielberg directing a Roald Dahl adaptation? Sounds good to me. The worst we could expect is what, Hook? I’d take that. I don’t know enough to be excited, but I like Spielberg. July 1 Likely.
  • The Legend of Tarzan – I am a sucker for Edgar Rice Burroughs and this is looking pretty solid. I like that it doesn’t appear to just be doing the original Tarzan story, which is the only one that anyone ever does. This should be interesting. July 1 Certainly.
  • Ghostbusters – This has a great cast and Ghostbusters has always been an excellent concept. Hopefully it brings something new to the table rather than just a remake of the first. As long as it has some of the charm it should have I am in. July 15 Likely.
  • Star Trek Beyond – The last Star Trek movie was dumb and an awkward retake on Wrath of Khan. I don’t know what to make of this one, other than it seems to keep not really being much like Star Trek. For all of its flaws, I kind of enjoyed Into Darkness. Of course, I don’t have much attachment to original Trek. July 22 Likely.
  • Jason Bourne – I’ve got to be perfectly honest, while they are exactly the sort of thing I should like, none of the Bourne movies have done anything for me. I want to like them, but they just sort of wash over me. Still, I am at least somewhat intrigued to see this, if only because it has an excellent cast. July 29 Likely.
  • Suicide Squad – This movie has a great concept and a great trailer. It is straight up a supervillain Dirty Dozen. While it might disappoint, it might also turn out something like Guardians of the Galaxy. I am really eager to see which way it goes. August 5 Certainly.
  • Pete’s Dragon – Why is there a remake of a 40 year old kids movie that wasn’t all that good to begin with? Maybe it could be good. August 12 Unlikely.
  • Kubo & the Two Strings – The previous highly intricate stop motion movies from these people have been good, but they have also all had a ghoulish bent that really doesn’t do anything for me. This one looks to be more of straightforward adventure, I really looking forward to a Laika movie that I can really enjoy. August 19 Likely

What movies did I miss? Disagree with me about any of these? Well, write me a comment. I know I skipped by a lot of comedies, but finding comedies that I expect to enjoy enough to see in theaters has been increasingly hard as I get old and humorless. It looks to be shaping up to be a lopsided summer, with a lot of good stuff in April and May, but almost nothing in June or August with an okay July wedged in there.

25 Years 25 Games #6: Lufia and the Fortress of Doom

My goal was, and still is, to beat 25 SNES games to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the SNES. But Lufia and the Fortress of Doom is proving to be quite the stumbling block. The SNES is known for its JRPGS and while I am intimately familiar with the cream of the system’s crop, I have never managed to spend much time with some of the genre’s second tier games. That is where, by most accounts, Lufia fits on the SNES hierarchy. RPGs tend to take a lot more time to complete than brawlers or platformers, but I thought I could space them out and keep the write-ups coming at a steady clip. Lufia is smashing that plan to pieces.

All pictures stolen from Hardcore Gaming 101

All pictures stolen from Hardcore Gaming 101

I have been playing Lufia off and on since the start of February. So far I have found it stultifying and dull. Part of that is because I have played the first few hours before, when I borrowed it for a week from a friend in grade school. The other is that other than the intro, there just isn’t anything interesting about the first five hours or so of Lufia. It plays like a checklist of all the usual JRPG tropes. Burned villages, mystery orphans, suddenly resurgent monsters, all the classics. When done right, those things can work. What it usually takes is strong writing. The Lunar games don’t stray far from cliché, but everything is done with enough charm that it works. The localization of Lufia is bland. There is little personality or reason to get invested in these characters or this world.

fortressofdoom-42

That is not to say there aren’t some good ideas. The callous disregard for one destroyed kingdom kind of works, with people being more annoyed that legitimately concerned. Working with the princess because the King doesn’t care gives it something to work with. Too bad that results in the first hour and half consisting of running back and forth between two places, with almost no sense of progress.

The one outstanding part of the game so far is the opening. Lufia starts the player at the end of another story, setting the backstory by allowing the player to take control of the legendary heroes. That part works perfectly well. It is great to start with characters that are already supremely powerful; wiping the floor with what is essentially a final boss. It is also the only early story moment that manages much emotion. Even not knowing the four characters, seeing them have to make the sacrifice they do is powerful. Unfortunately, none of that is carried over into the rest of the game.

fortressofdoom-10

So am giving up on Lufia halfway through. For now, anyway. I am simply moving it to the bottom of the list. If I get back to it great, if not too bad. When I do get back to it, I will do another write up, assuming I have anything new to say about it. I might not. If I want to finish this project, I need to keep moving. My list of games to play did include 26 or 27 just in case I proved incapable of beating one. For now, I am moving on from Lufia to Super Mario RPG and some kind of shooter, I haven’t decided yet.

Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest

As soon as I finished up Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright I downloaded and started playing Conquest. After about three or four missions, I hit my limit on that unique to Fire Emblem blend of anguish, frustration and triumph and switched over to something else. I love Fire Emblem, but at a certain point I need to take some time to recharge. Coming back after that, I gained a greater appreciation for Conquest.

Honestly, the differences on the gameplay side between Conquest and Birthright were overblown. The lack of extra missions is a small loss; it is not like I took much advantage of that in Birthright. There are some differences, but the experiences are closer than they are different. The two biggest gameplay differences are what made Conquest the superior experience for me.

fefc1

The first is that it uses more traditional Fire Emblem character classes. Birthright threw me off with its changed up weapons and classes. Those changes were largely superficial, like calling axes clubs and the like, but it was enough to throw me off occasionally. Conquest sticking with Cavaliers and Knights instead of Samurai made everything just that much more comfortable for me. I do enjoy seeing Intelligent Systems change things up with the classes, but for a long time series veteran it was a barrier. The mixing of those different classes is what gives Fates its unique feel in the series, that the world is larger and more varied than the world of the previous games. Still, when it comes down to personal preference, I like the older stuff.

The other, more important difference is the variety of mission objectives. Birthright only has one type of mission, Rout the Enemy. You kill all the enemies on the map before they kill you. Conquest gets back to a more traditional Fire Emblem array of mission objectives. There are Kill the Boss missions, Survival missions, Escape, among others. That is where Conquest gains its complexity and maybe a slight decrease in difficulty. I might actually argue it makes things easier, having maps where a suicide run against a boss can end the whole mission rather than having to wipe out the army. Still, the variety makes for more interesting tactical decisions. Some units might be strictly better at killing enemies than others, but a survival mission adds greater importance to units that can tank, like Knights. When your only goal is to kill all the enemies, then a unit’s ability to kill becomes by far its most important skill. Having those other objectives really lets other units have a chance to shine. Of course, by the end of the game the difference is academic. Everything at that point can kill.

fefc2

Where the game falters, though, is with its characters. While their classes might be the usual, the characters that join up in Conquest are a strange lot. To me they are a not exactly appealing lot. That veneer of seediness that Nintendo’s localization team has done their paint over shines through here. These characters often seem deliberately created to appeal to certain subsections of the pervy otaku audience. From the overly suggestive, and frankly stupidly attired, Camilla, to the crassness of Nyx’s “I only look young” routine to whatever the fuck is going on with Charlotte. Even when they aren’t unsettling, the characters are just too weird for their own good. Maybe this was also true of Birthright’s cast, but since I didn’t have other ninjas or samurai to judge them against it was less noticeable, but I don’t think I’m coming out of Conquest with many additions to my list of favorite Fire Emblem characters, other than maybe the imports from Awakening.

fefc3

I still maintain that there really isn’t any sensible story related reason to side with Nohr at the choosing point, and playing Conquest hasn’t really changed that. The game jumps through some elaborate hoops to keep the player on the side of good while not disrupting his work for a murderous maniac. Neither game has an especially strong story, that is hopefully reserved for Revelations, but the one in Conquest has some truly absurd leaps of logic. Every character seems willing to acknowledge the problem of King Garon being a crazy murderer, but no one seems willing to even consider taking the steps needed to solve that problem. Or at least not the most direct one.

Still, the improvements to playability in Conquest give it a slight edge over Birthright in my book. I still think Nintendo and IS are crazy for essentially dumping three Fire Emblem games on the world at the same time, but with the video game industry slowly killing everything I love about video games, I’ll take a gift like this any way Nintendo wants to package it. Now it is time for another break before I tackle Revelations.

The Definitive Superhero Movie Rankings

Batman v Superman hits at the end of the month and Captain America Civil War about a month later, kicking off another summer filled with comic book and superhero movies. Big differences of opinion of the merits of some superhero movies, especially Man of Steel, gave me the desire to rank all of the superhero movies that have come out since X-Men changed the game some 16 years ago. After much time and thought, as well as some rewatching, I have crafted a definitive ranking of live action superhero movies. Rankings were chosen by an expert panel of one person and they are objectively correct.

(Note, despite calling it definitive, there are a handful of movies I have never seen. Movies like the Blade sequels, a Punisher movie and the Ghost Rider movies. They are really not worth considering.)

47: Fantastic 4 (2015) – Just a complete and utter misfire. It has a great cast and some scenes that are actually pretty good on their own, but that just makes how bad the rest of it is all the more disappointing.

46: Catwoman – This one misses the point of the character in just about every way possible. The only reason I put it above F4 is that at least this one hilariously bad instead of infuriatingly bad.

45: Amazing Spider-Man 2 – I wasn’t a fan of the first Amazing Spider-Man, and this one doubled down on all of that movies problems and added some new ones. It couldn’t wait to do the famous Gwen Stacy scene and then didn’t in such a clownishly terrible way that sapped it of all effect.

44: X-Men Origins: Wolverine – To be fair to this film, the comics have never really presented a coherent origin for Wolverine either. Of course, none of those had wolverines howling at the moon or the single worst interpretation of Deadpool possible.

43: Elektra – This movie has its heart in the right place, but it just wasn’t any good.

42: The Punisher – I watched this recently. It is bad and dumb, with a really unappealing combination of slapstick violence and ineffective attempts at real darkness.

41: X-Men: The Last Stand – I had to fight with myself to not put this movie much higher. It’s bad, really bad, but I still kind of love it anyway. Kelsey Grammar as Beast is a great casting choice. Too bad just about everything else is nonsense.

40: Hulk – This feels like a movie that tries desperately to distance itself from its comic origins in many ways, but doesn’t manage to get anywhere else interesting. Also, it’s got some dreadful special effects.

39: Amazing Spider-Man – Unnecessary. There is little this movie does that is better than Spider-Man did a decade before. It does have a wisecracking Spidey, but otherwise it is wholly inferior.

38: Daredevil – I really didn’t know how to rank this one, since there is a sizable gap between the theatrical and director’s cuts, but neither of them are particularly good.

37: Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer – If it weren’t for the super disappointing Galactus cloud and the still somewhat disappointing Dr. Doom, this would have ranked higher. Of course, I do have a soft spot for superhero movies that are actually fun and for kids.

36: X-Men Apocalypse – a complete mess, but largely entertaining.

35: Green Lantern – I, and nobody else, consider this a near miss. It reeks of too many cooks in the kitchen, but there are moments when it is everything I actually want from a GL movie. Too bad it features not one but two bad villains.

34: Fantastic 4 – It is cheesy and dumb, but it is enjoyable anyway. Not good by any stretch of the imagination, but largely inoffensive.

33: Deadpool – Many went gaga over this, but it is merely okay. The plot is the most basic of any superhero movie; all it has going for it are hit or miss jokes and an on point Ryan Reynolds, which actually counts for much.

32: The Incredible Hulk – It is just kind of scattered and dull. It improves on the first Hulk movie, but it is still the worst movie from Marvel Studios.

31: Iron Man 2 – This was the first big step in building the Marvel cinematic universe and it almost didn’t work. The central plot is undercooked while the film spends too much time trying to set up Avengers. Still, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony is never not entertaining.

30: X-Men – The one that started it all, or at least started this current string of superhero movies after they were all but buried. Despite a great cast, it hasn’t aged all that well.

29: Superman Returns – There are some parts of this movie that are just great, like when Superman saves the space plane, but it ties itself too closely to the original Superman and takes some odd turns aside from that.

28: Suicide Squad – A grimy, messy movie that does hold some glimmers of what could have been really good.  Some really entertaining performances buoy it just enough.

27: The Wolverine – Much better than the first pass, but it gets really silly in the last act. Still, I mostly liked it.

26: Watchmen – Ponderous and self-important, but not a bad adaptation of this much loved comic. I feel no need to ever see it again, but it wasn’t bad.

25: Hellboy – It spends a lot of time on an origin and introducing an every man character, but once things are up and going it shines.

24: Avengers Age of Ultron – Both bloated and completely empty. It is fun to see these characters together, but the second time lack the punch and the coherence of the first.

23: Spider-Man 3 – It gets goofy and seems to almost purposefully do Venom badly, but for all that it is a mess it is still rather enjoyable.

22: X-Men First Class – It falls apart completely in the last act, but before that First Class takes center stage, the stars and setting really make this movie go. It just can’t stick the landing.

21: Thor 2 – It feels a little like Marvel just going through the motions, but it is still a very entertaining film. It does completely was Eccelston as the villain.

20: Dr. Strange – Another Marvel origin movie.  Well made, but I found it somewhat unengaging; other than some kaleidoscopic scenery there wasn’t much here I hadn’t seen before.

19: Ant-Man – Shockingly good for how troubled its production was. It still feels the loss of Edgar Wright, but it is hard not to like Paul Rudd.

18: Man of Steel – This movie falters pretty dramatically at times, but the rest of it is rock solid. It may have the worst Pa Kent ever and a dreadful ending, but the rest is really damn good.

17: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Note that this ranking if for the extended cut, the original cut would rank significantly lower.  It isn’t the best superhero movie I’ve seen, but it is the one I have thought about the most.

16: Batman Begins – Nolan’s first take on Batman is close to great, but it doesn’t quite get there. There is nothing really wrong with it, but it pales to what came after it.

15: Spider-Man – Sam Raimi’s initial effort is still the gold standard for origin stories. Some of the effects haven’t aged well and it still had to try to cover up its comics origins, but it remains a good film.

14: Iron Man 3 – This is just about the best movie that feels like it is largely just going through the motions. RDJ is endlessly charming, which is enough to buoy and otherwise pedestrian movie.

13: Avengers – I’ve got this ranked high, but probably not as high as some would expect. It does spectacle as well as any film, but there is little behind that spectacle.

12: Captain America: Civil War – It has one truly transcendent scene and just enough of nearly a dozen interesting characters to make up for how forced parts of its plot seem.

11: X-Men 2 – This improved on the first movie in just about every way. Better action, stronger story, less of just the Wolverine show. Still the best straightforward X-Men movie.

10: Captain America: The First Avenger – Like Thor and Guardians of Galaxy up the list, this sets the superhero movie in another setting, this time as a war movie. It works, largely thanks to Chris Evans as Cap.

9: X-Men Days of Future Past – This is much like First Class, but without the wasted class and disaster of a final act. Bringing back Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen was brilliant.

8: Thor – I really like this movie’s fantasy take on a superhero. The opening parts in Asgard are some of my favorite parts in any superhero movie and the stuff on Earth almost matches it.

7: Iron Man – Marvel’s first is still one of their best. It is the best rendition to date of an origin story, all of which are basically the same.

6: Spider-Man 2 – The first one was good, but this one had a lot more space to work with the origin dispensed with.

5: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army – It doesn’t need the origin story of the first movie, so it is free to do whatever Del Toro wants, which is crib from Miyazaki movies in a really satisfying way.

4: Guardians of the Galaxy – Superheroes by way of Star Wars that works better than it has any right to. It is just a charming delight.

3: The Dark Knight Rises – I know many would have this ranked lower, but it is just about perfect. It is not as tight as The Dark Knight, but it gets by on being completely, delightfully bonkers.

2: Captain America: The Winter Soldier – This manages to be a sequel to both the first Captain America movie and The Avengers and be better than the both of them.

1: The Dark Knight – This is the cliché answer, but I still think it is the right one. It really is just an excellent movie.

Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations

It is not quite accurate to say that the Ace Attorney series is what made the DS for me, but it is not exactly inaccurate either. There are too many great games on the DS to credit its legacy to any one game or series. From a cartload of Dragon Quest and Pokemon games to quirkier stuff like Professor Layton or Trauma Center, the DS library is stuffed with great games. No game did more to sell me the system than the original Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The series kept me enthralled throughout the life of the system, even if they never quite recaptured the magic after the original trilogy. The final game in that original set of games, Trials and Tribulations is the glorious culmination of the series to that point.

aatt3

I refrained from calling any of these games the best in the series as I’ve played through them, but having finished Trials and Tribulations I am confident calling it the best. It has the strongest set of cases and an excellent finale that brings the whole trilogy full circle. It starts with the strongest intro case, one starring Mia Fey as a rookie defending a hapless college age Phoenix. It not only introduces gameplay concepts, it also introduces all relevant characters and sets the stage for the big finale.

What sets this game apart is how strongly its central theme comes through. It is a game about identity. The first case has Phoenix’s girlfriend, Dahlia, playing an obviously fake role. At least, it is obvious to everyone save Phoenix. The next case has a dual layered secret identity, with two people claiming to be a famous thief and establish their alibi. The third case brings in a fake Phoenix. The prosecutor in this game, Godot, is a complete unknown. When the game finally builds to its epic final case, they whole thing is a mix of secret identities and hidden agendas. None of the other games use an idea repeatedly like hidden identities are used in Trials and Tribulations. It don’t know what, if anything, the game is trying to say with them, other than a general quest for the truth. Phoenix is constantly faced with chameleons in this game, and each time he is able to untwist their lies and false faces to get to the truth.

aatt4

The last case in particular is a triumph. It is the perfect conclusion to this trilogy. It’s completely ridiculous, but in a completely Ace Attorney way, managing to combine Phoenix’s story from this game with the trilogy long story about the Fey family to create a story that ties up nearly everything in a complete bow. That case also somehow has time to put something on a capper of the stories and Edgeworth and Franziska von Karma as well. That is a case is personal for everyone involved, concluding with the series trademark tragedy-tinged optimism.

Coming out of this game I can see why Capcom chose to move on from Phoenix after this game. His story was over; they were not going to top this. The obvious next step, which ended up as something of a side-step, would have been games starring Myles Edgeworth. He was still a character with plenty of stories to tell. The route they took with Apollo Justice was probably the worst possible one. They didn’t go back to Phoenix for inevitably diminished returns, nor did they go for a clean break. Instead they brought back Phoenix in a smaller role that all but ignored these three games. The fact that Maya is not a part of that game is telling as to how far wrong it gets Phoenix.

aatt2

There are no weak cases in this game. As I’ve already written, the first and last cases are excellent, but the middle two and a half are also good. The second case is likely the weakest, if only for that whiff of missed opportunity. Its two connected cases and complex blackmail schemes are fine, but none of its characters leave a strong impression. Mostly because they aren’t given the opportunity to. The game spends a lot of time with the client and the culprit, but other characters are kind of left by the wayside. The next is a complex puzzle that happens to feature this game’s embarrassing stereotype. Still, it is an altogether excellent case. After that is a return to Mia and the origin of the villain from the opening case, it exists solely to set the case for the finale.

While all of the main characters get plenty of development, none grow more in this game than Mia. Due to the unfortunate murder in the first game, Mia was never more than a small presence in the game. She was a character that quite literally didn’t have a life outside of the case. In Trials and Tribulations she truly develops into a character worth caring about.

aatt1

That is the beauty of the Ace Attorney series. A positive development like learning more about Mia is tinged with sadness because she is already dead. It is true in characters like Pearl, whose cheerful innocence belies the tragedy of her upbringing and situation. Trials and Tribulations is only possible because of the games that came before it, but it is a wholly satisfying conclusion to Phoenix Wright’s story.

Streaming some DC Animated Movies

Recently added to Netflix, or at least recently noticed by me, were a trio of animated movies based on DC comics. In the past these animated movies have been very good. They in large part retained the tone of the DC animated shows of the 90’s and early 00’s, but often retold stories based on some great comics. Most of the first dozen or so were very good. Things changed at about the same time that DC realized they could only sell movies with Batman or Justice League in the title. The three that appeared on Netflix, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, Justice League War and Son of Batman, were collectively very disappointing. Some of the problem comes from adapting inferior material, but there is something missing from these movies.

Flashpoint the comic was already a strained read. It seemed to be a story that started as merely a big Flash story that morphed into a line-wide crossover that then became the story wherein DC buried the real DC Universe and gave birth to the Nu52. But the story itself was not responsible for that. It is just a not too unusual alternate reality story. While the movie makes a few improvements, including removing Zoom as the killer of Barry’s Mom, it doesn’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny. The Flashpoint Universe combines some genuinely interesting ideas, like the Superman test subject and Batman as Thomas Wayne, but the central conflict between Wonder Woman and Aquaman fails on every level in both versions of the story. It has to change the Amazons into murderous savages and makes Atlantis much more powerful and warlike than they were before. Also, it requires believing that Wonder Woman wouldn’t wipe the floor with Aquaman in a fight. The big problem is that all of these changes supposedly stem from Flash saving him Mom something like 20 years in the past. That just doesn’t work. Those are all story problems, the animation and character designs are likewise awkward. Things just don’t look good; it looks cheap and off model. On top of those complaints are the just absurd levels of violence. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox takes a bad story and somehow makes it even worse.

Justice League War does the opposite; it takes a terrible story and greatly improves it. Still, that doesn’t actually make it any good. I still have complaints about the look of the movie, though it doesn’t look as cheap as Flashpoint. But it makes some effective changes to the original story, which is easily the worst thing Geoff Johns has ever written, which turns the story into something that is not completely embarrassing. Still, the biggest fault of the original is still there; in attempting to write the Justice League as young they end up coming off as unlikeable assholes. That characterization works for Green Lantern, but it doesn’t for Superman or Wonder Woman. It quickly becomes a showcase for superpowered violence with nothing of the story or characters worth caring about. The few moments of delight that exist are more than drowned out by the garish and the stupid.

If the first two movies were damned by their inferior source material, then the third should have bucked that trend. Son of Batman is based on the first part of Grant Morrison’s epic Batman arc and is easily the best of the three movies, but it still isn’t any more than simply good. The adaptation strays pretty far from the source, in events if not in the emotional context. Some of it would need to be elided from Morrison’s sprawling story, but losing large parts of the Batman family from the story really hurts it. Replacing Tim with Dick makes a certain amount of sense knowing what is coming next, but it mostly just shrinks the world. The bigger problem is how it opens with an action sequence with the League of Assassins that merely gives an extended and uninteresting fight scene and keeps Batman off the screen for an extended time. I don’t know that it looks much better than the others, this time adopting a style that I would call “straight up anime.” It works for the story. Actually, the more I think on it, the less I am disappointed with Son of Batman. It loses a lot in the adaptation, but that feels inevitable with the sort of story it is based one. Similar things happened with All-Star Superman, though that movie did a better job maintaining the heart of the original.

The problems with the first two do mostly lie at the feet of the material. Flashpoint and that Justice League stories are just not very good. No matter how much they work them up, they remain not very good. Son of Batman, though, highlights the greater problem. The Morrison Batman run strongly embraced the more fun or weird parts of Batman’s history, and the adaptation scrubs that out to realign it with the usual grim take on the character. The disappointment with Son of Batman is more mourning a missed opportunity. Together, these three movies sapped a good portion of my goodwill toward DC’s animated movies. It has been a long slow fall from the heights of the DC animated universe to these tepid New 52 adaptations and I’m no longer interested. It looks like they have a Justice League Vs Teen Titans movie coming up, which doesn’t appear to be based on any story I know and then they get to scrape the bottom of the barrel to do The Killing Joke. There was a time I was eager to see what new animated movie they had coming out, but now realize that I no longer care.

Justice League The Flashpoint Paradox **

Justice League War **

Son of Batman ***

Fire Emblem Fates Birthright

When faced with the poorly explained choice between Fire Emblem Fates’ Birthright or Conquest versions, I went with Birthright. Given how the differences were explained, Conquest is that game the more closely fit with how I’ve played the series. I am just about as much of an old fan of Fire Emblem as exists in North America. I started with Sacred Stones, but quickly went back to play the first two GBA games, the fist using a translation patch and emulator, the only time I’ve actually completed a game that way. I’ve stuck with the series since, only failing to really enjoy the DS game. I liked Awakening, but I felt like it changed a little too much of the series core in an effort to expand the series fan base.

fefb3

It makes sense that when Nintendo explained what the differences between the two versions were that I would go with Conquest. Birthright was supposed to be more like Awakening; Conquest was the throwback to the early games in the series. There was one big change that I really wanted to keep, though: the world map. I started with Sacred Stones, the first game to try an Awakening like pivot for the series, but it was too rushed and too easy to have the impact that Awakening did. Still, a lot of the changes to Awakening were tried out for the first time in Sacred Stones. While I would agree that Sacred Stones is far from the best game in the series, its changes to the series’ structure were good. As much as I want an experience like Path of Radiance, I’d rather have some of the niceties of the modern games. Still, the choice for which one to buy (first, since I am going to be playing Conquest as soon as I finish with Birthright) came down to the fact that I prefer Birthright’s White and Red color scheme to Conquest’s Black and Purple.

fefb2

Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by the game. Even Birthright pulls back from the cakewalk that Awakening was. There are some big changes to the pair up mechanic that stop it from completely wrecking the game’s difficulty curve. Now combo attacks always happen unless characters are paired up. Pairing up is now a defensive maneuver. It blocks enemy combo attacks and occasionally blocks main attacks. In Awakening there was no reason not to pair up, in Fates it is a situational tool. Not pairing up allows the player to combo and press the attack, pairing stops the enemy from doing the same. It turns a broken mechanic into an interesting one.

fefb5

The other big change to the formula is that they removed weapon durability. At first I thought this would simplify the game too much; judicious use of powerful weapons was an integral part of the series. The change was worked into the game perfectly. Now even the best weapons can have significant downsides and super powerful weapons are harder to find. It makes for fewer decisions for the player, but more important ones. The new weapon system really won me over by about the midpoint of the game.

It does continue the series strong focus on characters. The plot never moves past generic fantasy fluff, but the real draw is in the support conversations between the characters that make up your army. The start in out in pretty stereotypical roles, but the strong localization work really helps flesh out the collection of stock characters. The furor over this game’s localization is equal parts annoying and amusing to me. It is annoying because people who have done excellent work are getting yelled at by idiots; it is amusing because of how impotent those idiots have proven to be. Fire Emblem Fates looked like Nintendo taking a hard turn into some otaku jerkoff bullshit and the NA version deftly smoothed out the roughest, grossest parts of it, causing a teapot tempest of man-baby outrage. When the dust settled, intelligence won out and FE Fates was the best-selling game in the series in its first month. It is always good to see good work rewarded. Far from being a problem with the game the quality of the Fire Emblem Fates localization, like with nearly every game Nintendo’s Treehouse group translates, is one of its strongest features.

fefb4

I will always miss the incredibly charming sprites from the GBA games, but Birthright is one of the strongest games in the series to date. Now it’s time to find out if its supposedly more difficult counterpart is just as good.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Review

wtf

My expectations may have been too high going into Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Those high hopes came from how much I’ve enjoyed previous Tina Fey/Robert Carlock collaborations. 30 Rock is one of the all-time great TV comedies and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is easily the best Netflix Original show so far. The hopes of a movie of similar quality were enough to get me excited about the movie. In the end, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot disappointed, but only slightly. It is too funny to be really serious and too respectful to be as funny as it could have been. WFT is a mildly funny, somewhat thoughtful film that treads fairly familiar ground.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot stars Tina Fey as Kim Baker, a fictionalized version of Kim Barker upon whose memoir this movie is based, a news journalist who takes a job as a war correspondent in Afghanistan. As she spends a few years reporting on the war she grows more and more acclimatized to the strange reality of living in a foreign war zone, especially one that becomes somewhat forgotten with the Iraq War going on at the same time. She meets and befriends British reported Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and Scottish photographer Ian McKelpie (Martin Freeman) who share her experiences.

The movie doesn’t stay with any of its myriad ideas long enough to explore them fully. Kim deals with an ostentatiously corrupt official, played by Alfred Molina, but the film doesn’t really dig into him any more than that. The same goes for gruff marine General Holanek (Billy Bob Thornton) with whom Kim is embedded. When the film is flitting from focus to focus is captures some of the manic energy of 30 Rock but that doesn’t pair well with the more serious thoughtful scenes, making for an uneven experience. There are glimpses of a great film here, both an uproarious comedy and somber drama, but mostly the movie is just okay.

The strongest thread in the film is how it treats the warzone like an addiction. In order to continue to get her pieces on the air back in America, Kim has to keep getting closer and closer to the danger. They explicitly say she needs another hit. That, with the party atmosphere in the house where all the foreign correspondents stay, doesn’t seem too off base. Eventually, seeing the toll this life takes on a person she is forced to make a decision. That is definitely stronger than the romance between Kim and Ian, which almost works mostly thanks to Martin Freeman’s innate charm.

While it doesn’t quite succeed, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is still an entertaining movie. It is well intentioned, if a bit clumsy; it is competent. That is not the adjective that any film wants, competent, but it is more than many achieve.

***