And so we return to my ongoing attempt to write about every game I play this year, a project which has quickly led to six half-written blog posts in a Word doc as I flit between games. It’s time to clear the pipes a bit, starting with a game I actually started playing back in February. Lego Marvel Super Heroes does a remarkable job of capturing the spirit of its source material. Or at least, the Marvel half of it. As with all the rest of Traveller’s Tales’ Lego [Insert Popular Franchise Here] games, it’s not really very Lego-y at all. There’s only a token amount of building and customisation involved, and that’s fine. There’s one thing it does have in common with Lego the toy, at least in its modern incarnation. Lego Marvel is a great big toybox, filled with all your favourite characters. Or, to use a comics term, Lego Marvel is a great big crossover, an event drawing together a whole universe of superheroes against a single vaguely-defined threat. The game offers a playable dramatis personæ over 150 strong, ranging from A-List mainstays to, well, Squirrel Girl. As in a crossover, many of those characters are just roughly sketched in – the game has a limited selection of power sets, which get mixed and matched repeatedly – but the scale of it is thrilling. There’s a real geeky pleasure in watching Wolverine, Captain America and the Human Torch hanging out in Asgard, and in seeing your personal favourites depicted as adorable Lego minifigs. Lego Marvel has a bit habit of leaning on that affection, though, and hoping you’ll forgive the parts of the game that are messy or even outright broken. The controls are inconsistent, the four face buttons standing in for such a wide variety of actions that they’re not guaranteed to do what you want. Steering characters around is awkward, especially thanks to a semi-fixed camera that often places scenery in the way of the action. Playing it co-operatively with Imogen ‘Underrated in the Game’ Dale has been equal parts wonderful and frustrating. Wonderful because we’ve never really played a running, jumping and punching game together before and that stuff is great, simple fun. Because its missions are delivered in perfect three-quarter-of-an-hour chunks. Because the game lets players die as many times as they need to progress with minimal penalty, making it a level playing field for someone who has dedicated a considerable fraction of his life to games not too dissimilar to this, and someone who has never handled movement in a virtual 3D space before. Frustrating because every time a button press doesn’t do what she’s expecting it to, or the game fails to explain a key concept, or obfuscates the solution to a puzzle so badly that I have to find a walkthrough on my phone, I imagine a situation where Imi, or someone like her, is playing this alone. And frankly, I struggle to imagine her not putting the controller down for good. That’s one half of Lego Marvel. The connective tissue between the game’s dozen or so core missions is a New York hub level, which plays like a chunky kid-friendly GTA. It’s a charming condensation of the city as it exists in the Marvel Universe, which makes it possible to fly between the Baxter Building in Manhattan and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, apparently relocated from Westchester, in a matter of minutes. This open world is stuffed with small side missions – chase down these goons before they escape, steer Iron Man through a skyscraper obstacle course, rescue Stan Lee from a pile of giant chess pieces – which reward you with new characters, vehicles or glowing gold bricks. Here, you can switch freely between any characters you’ve unlocked, meaning you can hurtle through Central Park as the Hulk, chase down a sweet ride which you jack as the Punisher and drive it into the Hudson, before taking to the skies in Mk VII Iron Man armour. In Marvel’s comics, there’s a long tradition of depicting heroes’ downtime, whether it’s the X-Men playing a super-powered game of baseball or the Thing’s poker nights. The New York sections capture that feeling perfectly, letting you decide what superheroes use their powers for when they’re not saving the world or battling the big bad. Lego Marvel has a Tony Stark-like habit of coasting by on its charm. A lot of the game’s pleasure rely upon a preexisting affection for these familiar characters, and an appreciation of the way their various screen and page incarnations are combined. As much good work as the game does to invite in new players, it makes too many stupid mistakes that render it as inaccessible as the competition. But when that charm works – a side quest that has you jumping characters, psychic to fire to hulking tank, to solve a single puzzle, or a visual gag that has Mr Fantastic stretching himself into a gigantic pair of bolt cutters to break a tiny padlock – all of this is suddenly forgotten in a whirl of fanboyish enthusiasm. Like I said, the ‘Marvel’ half of Lego Marvel is just pitch perfect. Other games what I’ve been playing: NIDHOGG HEARTHSTONE
Here we are at last, the final piece of the puzzle. If you’ve made it through parts one and two of this overly in-depth look at Marvel’s record-breaking, block-busting summer team-up behemoth The Avengers, then I am genuinely grateful. If you haven’t … well, don’t you think you’d better catch up? III. The Why “I don’t like to create something that doesn’t say anything.” –Joss Whedon The Avengers is, more or less, an almost-seamless machine for producing childlike joy. Given how fully it succeeds in this respect, it seems churlish to ask of it what I’m about to ask. But I’m a man who owns a 500-page book of essays on Whedon’s work and… well, see the above quote. Is it meant to make you feel anything, being awesome? Is it about anything except the maths of Iron Man + Hulk = AWESOME? Does it have anything to say? Yes. Maybe. No. Kind of. Emotionally speaking, all you’ve got is the trad. Whedon death. But here, it’s explicitly worked to fuel the plot. As well-worked into the public’s affections as Coulson is, his passing isn’t really worked for emotion the way any number of Whedon characters are (e.g. [REDACTED], [REDACTED], and, of course, [REDACTED]. Boy, that one was really something, wasn’t it?) The story, intermittently, is about a lot of the usual modern-superhero-film things – America as a superpower; the military-industrial complex; image and perception; all adding up to the question of how superheroes function in a realistic, modern world. It’s about a lot of the usual Joss Whedon things, too – outsiders vs. authority; the cost of victory; and, perhaps most of all, building a family out of what was previously just a disparate handful of people. It’s not especially about those things, though. So maybe it’s a character study? After my first viewing, I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t more attention given over to each character. You know, just time chilling with the heroes, maybe a little peek at how Whedon reckons each of their minds work. It seems likely a lot of that may have ended up on the cutting room floor, but there is still plenty there – it’s just under the surface. It’s in Ruffalo’s fidgety faux-calm performance, and little throwaway lines, and how we meet each character. I was left craving their characters’ company (Which I reckon goes some way to explain the millions of people who apparently have come out of the theatre, bought a ticket and maybe some overpriced salty snacks, and just gone right back in. They’re not, I think, going back in to see the same dozen explosions.) Really – and this should come as no surprise – the characters are what The Avengers is all about. And what the character stuff wants to talk about, mostly, seems to be control. Look at Loki. Like all the best baddies, the threat he poses isn’t solely violent, though obviously with all the explosions and the alien invasion, there is that. It’s a philosophical threat. Loki doesn’t want to destroy the earth, he just wants to impose his worldview on it – that, as a god, he is superior, and as such they should relinquish their free will. Which is precisely what he does to Hawkeye and Dr Selvig at the start of the film. (Interestingly, though, they’re not quite empty-eyed drones. Rather than being fully stripped of their sense of self, they’re just reduced to their roles as scientist and soldier – and Selvig especially seems to be really enjoying himself.) But Loki, it turns out, is part of a larger chain of command – he’s bossed over by the slightly naff-looking alien, who himself turns out to be a lackey of Thanos. And that echoes the one on the Avengers’ side, of the World Security Council – who are trying to exert power over people because They Know What’s Best (rarely a good sign in Whedon’s work) – and Nick Fury – whose most heroic moment in the film is simply resisting the control of his shadowy superiors and letting the Avengers go free. It’s a chain of people trying to exercise control over one another – and mostly failing. Control over oneself, though? That’s quite different. It’s pretty much Black Widow’s superpower. Twice in the film she shows her ability to remove herself from her emotions, and weaponise them. That that self-control is only broken by her fear of the Hulk sets up a fascinating dynamic between the two and, in breaking her outer shell a little, provides a way in for any future filmmakers dealing with her. Tony Stark sits at a balanced midpoint, having had time in two solo feature films to run through most of his self-control issues. That’s great, because it stops Downey Jr from stealing the whole damn show like he threatened to in the trailers, and because it allows him to bond with the character around which the film naturally finds its fascinating centre. The Hulk. If ever there was a character about the questions of self-control, it’s the Hulk. It’s built into his verdant DNA. Whedon finds a fresh spin on it, something more nuanced and subtle than most interpretations of the Hulk, and Ruffalo sticks the landing effortlessly. He’s treated like a poorly-stored nuclear weapon by most of his teammates but, for the most part, Banner’s pretty damn chill about everything. It doesn’t fit with our basic perception of the Hulk, but then you start to notice Ruffalo’s ever-busy hands, and then he casually drops the littlest of big reveals: “I’m always angry”. The first time, it knit my brows. It’s such a throwaway line, but in its implications – embracing that life isn’t a clean break between calm and anger, that anger perhaps isn’t such a bad emotion – those three words manage to make the job of the next Hulk director a whole lot harder. All that control stuff is built into the structure, too. It’s a byproduct of the way The […]
Being the Second Parte of our examination of The Avengers motion picture (J. Whedon, esq.) The first is available for your perusal here. II. The How “And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth’s mightiest heroes and heroines found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born—to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand!” –Folklore …And there’s your movie, more or less. That silver-age elevator pitch, turned into two and a half hours of cinema. There’s never any more plot than that, really – but why would you need any? That means it’s all about the execution. The whole thing hangs off a familiar skeleton of a story, and so – like everything in life, really – it’s all about the people you spend your time with. We’ve already met Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) in the opening. It’s one of those choices I mentioned finding fascinating. The order, pacing and details of each Avenger’s introduction is masterful. Such a mish-mash of down-to-earth army men, semi-plausible science heroes and alien gods requires no small amount of disbelief-suspension, and Hawkeye’s a great example of that. On one hand, he’s the easiest sell of the movie – no powers, just an extraordinarily talented commando. (File alongside Bourne, Rambo, and the now-thrice-invoked Daniel Craig Bond.) On the other… A man with a bow and arrow in a world of gods and robots? One who the general public have never heard of, except for the briefest of glimpses in Thor? Whose wardrobe oscillates between garish purple and leather fetishwear? Frankly, his inclusion in the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a bit of a headscratcher. So the Great God Whedon (or, technically speaking, the Evil God Loki) takes Hawkeye and turns him. A touch of mind-control magic, et voila, you’ve got yourself Evil Hawkeye. It’s a brilliant way of setting up a character who is essentially Robin-Hood-in-a-wifebeater as a credible threat. Seeing how much he puts the fear up our super-powered heroes makes it clear he’s no joke, so that when he’s finally brought back and turned against the baddies, it feels like a powerful weapon is being drawn. Throw in some incredibly cool gadget moments, and Hawkeye becomes someone you could actually imagine the kids fighting over getting to be the next morning in the playground. The introduction of Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) comes next for similar reasons – she had low-level powers, little brand awareness, no film of her own and, worst of all, is a girl. (Urghhhh!) And so Whedon, rather predictably, luxuriates in her introduction, which subverts a damsel-in-distress cliché into a scene-controlling badass with all the ease of a chair to the face. When we meet her, Natasha is tied to a chair, being interrogated by three Russian men. It’s not hard to spot the sexual power balance there. It’s played for just long enough to be convincing then – bam – it turns out she’s not helpless after all, but was in control all along. Plus, suddenly she can move like the deadliest ballerina not featuring in Black Swan. And we should have known, not just because it’s Whedon but because it’s so clearly coded as a performance – the spotlight falling so perfectly on her, the use of mirrors, the contrast between set (ruins of a Soviet car park) and costume (little black dress). It’s pure theatre, and peppered with enough jokes that it doesn’t seem like it has any agenda to preach. And, once we’ve gotten past the intro of a new Bruce “Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) – possibly the biggest brand in the whole cast, but with his face, behaviour and body having undergone an appropriately mysterious transformation, from a fairly one-note performance by Ed Norton to Ruffalo’s hand-wringing suppressed brilliance – and Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) – straightforward super-punchy leader, bit jingoistic, but brushed away with a quick “maybe we need a bit of the old fashioned” – we’re back on easy street, with the People’s Favourite, Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr). But Whedon still takes care to set up each scene, borrowing just enough visual elements from the characters’ disparate movies to sell them as a cohesive unit – settings, camera work and, most noticeably, colour palettes. Banner in India is all muted oranges and dusty browns, with green lifted subtly out of the mix. Tony lives in a world of his own construction, all translucent screens and glaring chrome, light by neon. Cap, until he steps out into the world, inhabits a worn, slightly sepia-toned piece of film. As the characters are brought together, those palettes are mixed. The four-colour world of the more superheroey superheroes is tempered by the midnight blues of the military elements. It means the film ends up with something that doesn’t have all that much visual style of its own, except the house style. Whedon relinquishes control as director to help sell the idea of these characters co-existing in a way that’s logical. From there, it’s time to start showing how they work together – starting in Stuttgart, which we’ll come back to – but there’s still a piece missing. The film has still got to sell the audience on a Norse God of Thunder in a bright red cape. Thor “Thor” Odinson (Chris Hemsworth). For the duration, Thor is the one character that is kept lowest in the mix. He has his share of wonderful moments – Hemsworth is an incredibly charismatic and funny actor, who brings something to Thor that I’ve never really seen in the comics – but it’s often the case that they are his moments. Segments featuring Thor and Loki rewrite the script into, as Stark puts it, “Shakespeare in the park”. It couldn’t be truer – the complicated relationship, the family ties, the wordplay, the Iago-ness of Loki cast against the Othello-ness of Thor. And that’s great, but it doesn’t quite fit, and so Thor is […]
The first of a three-part analysis of Marvel’s The Avengers or Avengers Assemble or Los Vengadores, or whatever name it was released under where you live. I. The What “These people shouldn’t be in the same room, let alone on the same team. And that is the definition of family.” –Joss Whedon Most people came to The Avengers as fans of Iron Man, and the glut of not-quite-as-good Marvel films that have followed it. A lot came as fans of Avengers comics, whether Stan Lee’s or Brian Bendis’. Me? I came to it as a fan of Joseph ‘Joss’ Whedon. For me, at least, it’s fascinating to observe all the choices made by Mr Whedon (even though it’s impossible to know what part each of the army of people – and it truly is an army, as anyone who has sat all the way through the credits will attest – is responsible for all the choices and elements that make The Avengers work, who really had control. So for the sake of ease, let’s refer to all the invisible people – not the actors, but the producers, cameramen, special effects people, best boys – all the people who exist only behind the camera, as “Joss Whedon”. It’s a handy amalgam). It’s through that lens we’ll be examining the film – starting at its opening which, having dived straight into the sci-fi-fantasy elements, brings them immediately to earth. To a top-secret SHIELD base in the US desert base, being more specific. And so, that spark of supernatural – which, let’s be honest, with its slightly naff alien baddie and questionable physics, is a bit of a hard sell – grounds itself in the familiar reality of this militaristic set-up. All the bases, helicopters, jeeps, tight-fitting leather uniforms and dark muted colours place us in a comfortingly recognisable genre – the post-9/11, post-24 military blockbuster. For the first ten minutes or so, The Avengers is essentially a Craig-era Bond film. The message is clear. This is the world that is going to be hanging in the balance – our own. (Or, at least, the modern cinematic version of it). But then there’s that pesky supernatural spark I mentioned, which earths in plot terms, too, in the form of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s Big Bad and Thor’s little brother. Being a magic-stick-of-deadly-blue-energy-wielding alien god, he’s the one element that’s out of place in this world, and genre. Accordingly, his arrival overturns it, literally and bombastically – as SHIELD’s highest-tech, most-prolifically-satellite-dished base collapses into sand in a matter of minutes. Again, there’s a clear message – not only is Loki a big threat, but his very existence disrupts the natural order of the world he’s in (reminder: our world). Even Daniel Craig couldn’t stop this one. We’re going to need something new. Read part two – The How(or skip to Part Three, if you’re that way inclined)
One of those easy I-prepared-this-earlier link posts while I do important real-life stuff like move house: me and friend-of-the-blog Tom ‘Daylight’ Huxley take on the first issue of Ed Brubaker’s new Captain America: Reborn comic. Follow the link for comparisons to Lost, shocking confessions, and discussion of reactions to celebrity death (which reminds me that I meant to write about the whole Michael Jackson thing, but I’m still not sure what I have to add.)Confession: I reluctantly typed then deleted that title, but the pun is actually quite fitting. Actually, it’s a little bit spoilerish. But fitting.
Just a quick one. Dark Reign: Young Avengers 1 & 2, reviewed like never before. BAMF! “A quick exercise; let’s do a rundown of the number of teams carrying the Avengers name right now: the Mighty Avengers, New Avengers, Dark Avengers, and Young Avengers (ignoring the Avengers Initiative and Ultimate Avengers). Now Paul Cornell is throwing, technically, a team of New Dark Young Avengers into the mix. The cover to issue one proudly announces: “They’re Exactly What You Think!”” But are they exactly what you think (whatever that might be)? Find out after the link, over at the lovely Comicsnexus.(Confession: my stupidity, as usual, has shone through. See the comments section to see how the main hook of my review doesn’t actually work.)