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DC still going in the right direction with Shazam! by Ryan Hill

 
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Every time a Marvel movie comes out, it’s met with excitement. It’s an event. When a DC movie comes out, it’s still an event. Just one where most people who buy a ticket want to see what this latest train wreck looks like. Wonder Woman helped stop the flooding of garbage DC movies, and Aquaman made a bajillion dollars, helping remove some of the tarnish from DC. The latest entry, Shazam!, about a 14-year-old foster kid named Billy Batson who becomes a superhero, could’ve easily been the biggest train wreck of them all. Instead, it’s the most thoroughly enjoyable movie in the DC Universe.

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But Shazam! doesn’t start out that way. The opening scene, a flashback explaining the origins of the film’s villain, Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), is as clunky and awkward as anything in Suicide Squad or Justice League. The writing and editing are a mish-mash of bad ideas and stunted dialogue, making it almost fitting the whole sequence ends with a car wreck. There are scenes like this throughout Shazam! – especially the ones with Dr. Sivana – that struggle to mine true melodrama, but once Zachary Levi shows up as the title character, the fun gets kicked up to 11.

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At its core, Shazam! is about wish fulfillment. What would a 14-year-old do if he instantly become an adult imbued with superpowers? Have fun? Play pranks? Shoot lightning out of their hands to the tune of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger? Yes, yes and yes. For Shazam!, with great power comes great irresponsibility.

The infectious fun in Shazam! glosses over a lot of the film’s flaws, but not all. The special effects aren’t that great, the villain is bland and plot holes abound – the original Shazam! (Djimon Hounsou), who ends up giving Billy his powers, has the seven deadly sins imprisoned in stone in his lair. But why? It’s never explained beyond the fact that the sins are bad. There’s also a fair amount of product placement for the other DC film properties, mainly Batman, Superman and Aquaman. It was a surprise that none of the Blu-ray versions of their movies popped up.

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Compared to Marvel films, Shazam! would fall somewhere in the middle. It’s wholly entertaining but suffers from a lot of the same things that hold some Marvel movies back, like a poor villain. But hold Shazam! up against every DC movie since Man of Steel and it’s arguably the best of the bunch. DC is clearly moving in the right direction, but there’s still work to do before they can match Marvel’s level of quality.

Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman... Everyone is Wasted in Justice League by Ryan Hill

 
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When director George Miller, he of the Mad Max films, was gearing up to make a Justice League Mortal film years ago featuring a younger cast (including Armie Hammer as Bruce Wayne/Batman) there was outcry among the fan community. It was developed during the height of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and that plus aging down the DC Comics characters to their early twenties made the movie a bad idea from the beginning.

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Ten years later, the Justice League has finally made their way to theaters, courtesy of the minds behind Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Honestly? I wish the studio had moved ahead with Justice League Mortal.

The “plot,” as it is, centers around the big bad Steppenwolf, trying to get a hold of these three mother boxes – or whatever they’re called; it doesn’t matter – so he can remake Earth in his Hellish image. It should also be noted that Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciaran Hinds, is made up of the finest computer graphics that 1997 has to offer. Standing in his way are the Justice League: Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Superman (Henry Cavill), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). After the league spends the first hour trying to figure out if they want to team up, they decide to stop Steppenwolf.

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Where to begin with Justice League and its buffet of issues. Zack Snyder’s direction? His muted, bland color scheme? The unnecessary slow-motion, which even features a crate of fruit flying? The special effects, which look worse than they did in the trailers? The fact that its painfully obvious which parts Joss Whedon reshot, especially the scenes where the filmmakers used CGI to get rid of Henry Cavill's mustache? The obnoxious use of green screen thrown into bits of every scene, including an exterior corn field conversation between Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent/Superman and Amy Adams’ Lois Lane? Giving well-known characters like Commissioner Gordon nothing to do except show up on screen? Ben Affleck’s paunch? His obvious boredom? The film’s three beginnings, none of which connect to the other? The plot, which doesn’t even kick in until halfway through the film? The overreaction – again – to BvS’s criticism that it unnecessarily killed thousands of people by having some random family get caught in the crossfire between the heroes and the villain?

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My mother always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, so here’s the nice things about Justice League. Composter Danny Elfman resurrects his old Batman theme from 1989, and even John Williams’ original Superman theme for the score. Aquaman has a couple of cool scenes, mostly because Momoa himself is cool and will always be cool, because he’s Khal Drogo and that’s just the way the world works sometimes. Ezra Miller’s Flash has a moment or two, but all the speed scenes are wasted. Quicksilver, the Marvel universe’s resident speedster, was utilized so much better in two X-Men films and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. In response, Justice League offers up Miller obviously running on a treadmill as CGI lightning bolts fly around him.

Oh. Wait. I got back into saying not nice things. Sorry Mom!

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Justice League s garbage. In their rush to replicate Marvel’s success, Warner Bros. and DC have skipped the years of legwork their adversary put in to get to The Avengers, which works so well because most of the characters were established in standalone films. On the other end of the spectrum, Justice League is overburdened with the task of establishing so many characters, spending the first hour going in six or seven directions trying to let the audience get to know everyone, including newcomers Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg. At 119 minutes, Justice League was edited down to the bone, leaving more breathing room in outer space than the film. There isn’t close to enough time to do anyone justice – GET IT??? – leaving everyone with maybe one okay scene to strut their stuff.

Considering the $300 million budget, Justice League shouldn’t feel like a workprint that still needs effects work and editing.

Audiences deserve better.

The DC films deserve better.

The world deserves better.

 

 

Dunkirk is a modern war classic by Ryan Hill

 

The evacuation of 400,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers in Dunkirk during World War II is an amazing story, and one that has flown under the radar in the U.S., since it didn’t involve any Americans. With the German army surrounding the coastal town of Dunkirk, France, the armies only had one route of escape; via the sea. If the armies surrendered, Germany would have invaded Britain, and from there the United States. It’s one of the defining moments of World War II, and Christopher Nolan has made quite possibly his defining picture in Dunkirk, the director’s take on the evacuation.

Taking a page from Mad Mad: Fury Road, Dunkirk is more about the event than any one character. It tackles the evacuation from the land, the sea and the air. Each storyline lasts a different amount of time (a week, a day and an hour), but in typical Nolan fashion, the storylines interweave and time jumps back and forth.

There isn’t exactly a true “star” in Dunkirk, which features Mark Rylance as a civilian boater, Kenneth Branagh and Fionn Whitehead as the de facto lead, as his character is all over the place trying to get off the beach with One Direction’s Harry Styles in tow. But not to worry, Styles is fine. His presence as a soldier who only cares about survival isn’t a distraction. And yes, Nolan has once again cast Tom Hardy in a role where he wears a mask, a la The Dark Knight Rises, playing a courageous RAF pilot.

It’s hard to get true, genuine scares in a movie, at least for me. Having seen so many films, most standard horrors feel like a 90-minute prank show, with the director hiding out of frame, fingers tapping together like Mr. Burns and muttering “excellent” under their breath as they unleash scare after scare, but Dunkirk delivers 107 minutes of tense, suspenseful film making.

The best CGI for a film is the kind nobody notices, and Nolan knows that. Using practical effects when at all possible, whatever CGI made it into Dunkirk is impossible to spot. Combined with the director’s insistence on using film – mainly the large format IMAX – and the magnificent sound editing, Nolan has crafted a technical masterpiece. At no point does Dunkirk let up, and without CGI robots running around to remind the audience this isn’t real, the film has an authenticity that just doesn’t happen that often. In short, the deep, gorgeous imagery is immersive, the bullets are loud, the engines are louder, and there’s nowhere for the characters, or the audience, to run in Dunkirk.

And it’s scary as Hell.

Drew Hayes talks villains, FORGING HEPHAESTUS in the Authordome by Ryan Hill

 

Drew Hayes is pretty awesome. His novels are fun as hell, he's wearing a beer can helmet in his author photo, and he's a really nice guy.

Does that sound like a man crush? Nah...

Does it, though?

Just kidding. Drew is a great guy/author/friend, though.

Drew does have a new novel out, Forging Hephaestus, which is all about villains. It's also rated 4.8 out of 5 on Amazon after 68 reviews, which is stupid impressive. For contrast, my novel, The Book of Bart, is rated 4 out of 5 after 77 reviews.

* = Yes, this is a shameless plug

 

That said, Drew has strapped on the armor, chosen his weapon of choice (a bachelorette party straw), and is ready to step into the Authordome for a record FOURTH TIME. 

Will he survive? Absolutely. This is all virtual/not in the real world.

Two authors enter.

Two authors leave.

Welcome back to the Authordome, Drew! This is your fourth time entering the infamous arena. Do you think this time will be more Fury Road or Batman & Robin?

I'd say more Kung Fury than anything else.

You have plenty of experience writing superheroes with your Super Powered series, but Forging Hephaestus is a bit of a new direction for you, focusing on the villains instead of heroes. What made you want to look at the "darker" side of superheroes?

I’d say it was less about wanting out and out darkness, though the nature of the tale does lead to a more violent tone than some of my other works, than it was just wanting to try something really different. Villains get to have more fun, take the pragmatic path over the moral one, and generally get away with things no superhero ever could, which made the idea of writing about them really interesting. Plus, there was no way I’d get away with a superhero named Johnny Three Dicks, that’s solely villain territory.

Ryan note: Johnny Three Dicks is one of the best superhero names EVER

First thing that comes to mind. Favorite superhero movie/TV show. GO!

For movies, it’s either Deadpool or Batman Begins, both were great films overall. TV shows… if we’re being really loose with the term “superhero” then I’d go with the short-lived show Limitless, which was way more charming and fun than it had any right to be. If we’re sticking with classic superhero properties though, then I’d say Justice League Unlimited.

Villains always have the most fun, but they can be difficult main characters because you need something to anchor the story. How did you approach that in Hephaestus? Just make the main character boring? How do you go about writing a story about a villain with other villains there?

I think the book, and the series as a whole, are anchored on the basic idea of survival. That’s why the villains even have a code (the series is titled Villains’ Code after all) and why they enforce it. Because none of them want to die or be sent to jail, they have to do their villainy with intelligence and care, hence why they’re able to function around other villains and not launch stupid schemes every week. Those villains do exist in the world, mind you, and they are another source of potential antagonists for the main character villains. Lots of potential enemies!

Who is your favorite villain? If you say the Joker, you must use 150 words or more to explain why. I'll also laugh and point at your answer as I'm posting it on my site.

Right rogue’s gallery, wrong villain. I think Mr. Freeze (the version from the '90s Batman Animated Series) is one of the best villains ever written for one simple fact: he isn’t even really a villain. Victor Fries is a brilliant scientist trying to save his wife, only to be betrayed and mutated by the head of the company he worked for. Rather than go on a straight-up murder spree, he focuses on robbing people to get enough money to continue research on curing his wife. And what stops him? A billionaire with ultra-tech protecting his wealthy corporate buddies.

Dumb question of the interview: Is Forging Hephaestus set in the same world as Super Powereds?

No, it is not. This story was about playing with the worlds and tropes of classic comic books, which are more reality-removed than the Super Powereds world. Rather than messing with my existing property to fit a new mold, it made more sense to build this world from the ground up and make it exactly the way it needed to be.

What's next for you? Another entry in your awesome Fred the Vampire Accountant series?

If all goes as expected, that should indeed be next on the docket. Fred No. 4 is written and in REUTS hands, so ideally it should be out in summer as usual.

Last but not least, sell us Forging Hephaestus in haiku format.

A guild of villains
Capes, mechs, mutants, and lies
What more do you need?

Thanks again to Drew for being a good sport in the Authordome. You can read more about him and his works at his site, which is chock full o' goodness.