DC Universe: Week One

My very DC weekend led me to trial the DC Universe app for some very DC week nights. Over the week, I’ve read some comics and watched plenty of Titans episodes. I’m just wrapping up Titans, and I’ve greatly enjoyed it. I’ll get to a full review of the season after I’ve, well, watched it in full. But with only an episode left, I can strongly recommend the show. And if you’re in the US, then I’d definitely recommend the one-week free trial of DC Universe to binge the eleven episodes of the first season.

But while I think I’ll continue with a paid subscription, at least for the first full month, I’m not sure that I can recommend the app–yet.

For starters, there are a lot of digitized comics available, but it doesn’t have nearly the back catalog of Marvel Unlimited, which obviously represents the preexisting competition from DC’s biggest comics rival. DC Universe is supposed to offer a “curated” selection, but it seems haphazard. Sure, it was “curated” in that the film and TV properties being marketed right now had plenty of associated comics to read through. But it still seems poorly thought out. Just in example, much, though not all, of the Rebirth arc is available through the app. The omissions are annoying when the digital comics even include a checklist of series in the arc (just a scan of the checklist, not something you can actually interact with in the app). Heck, the flagship DC Universe: Rebirth references comics issues from separate lines that you should read before starting it, but the app doesn’t have them. It begins to feel like DC is charging you a subscription to pay for the privilege of ads and teasers.

The app’s comics reader seems to ape what other digital comics readers do. You can read page to page or in a more dynamic panel-based mode. You can skip around in the comic via a page browser option. I haven’t played with the options very much. I found that reading issues would occasionally be interrupted by some sort of refresh that would kick me out of full-screen and panel-based modes and that would push me back a few panels or pages. It’s not an optimized tool yet, but it works.

The television shows and films are where I found the most appeal. There’s a rich collection of television shows, animated movies, and older live-action films. The original content already promises a lot of excitement, even if still small in scope: Titans is excellent, and I’m eager to resume Young Justice following its continuation exclusively on DC Universe. The app is especially inviting for any animation fans; old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, most of the DCAU series, the old Teen Titans cartoon, and even Super Friends mingle with other series.

Still, it seems a missed opportunity that most of the Arrowverse shows (except Constantine, if that counts) and none of the DCEU films are on the app. But there’s still enough, for now, to make a subscriber’s time worthwhile.

The app itself is not especially user-friendly. I can give content a thumbs-up, but not a thumbs-down. There doesn’t seem to be much built in to make recommendations based on what you’re reading. I can’t even tell if it’s tracking what I’m reading and watching–and if it is, it would seem to be exclusively to the benefit of DC and Warner Bros. You can create public or private lists of things to watch and read. To view your lists, you have to click first on your profile, then on “My DC,” and then choose the “Lists” tab–but that feels like what you should see on a home screen. There are also tabs for Videos and Comics, but it only seems to show me whatever I might currently be watching. Once I’ve completed a comic or show, it disappears into the ether. Curiously, that means that “my” videos and comics might only show things I abandoned for lack of interest; my Comics tab annoyingly announces, “You haven’t read any comics yet.” Search functionality could be improved–and it would be nice if it didn’t always dump me into the middle of the results (especially since they appear to be sorted by relevance). The app isn’t available for any consoles, which are what I’ve historically relied on for home entertainment.

There’s an online encyclopedia of characters, which seems cool, but not worth paying for, especially in the age of ever-more-granular wiki sites. (Actually, I think the encyclopedia might be a free feature.) And there’s a store with tchotchkes for discounted prices, or something–I don’t have much interest in collectible baubles, so that element has no appeal for me.

Most of these things are open to improvement. More comics, shows, and movies can be added–will be added. I’m sure we’ll continue to see more original content (like Titans season two and Doom Patrol). I read a support page that suggested that DC Universe might soon be made available on more devices. I imagine that there will be user interface improvements over time that should address my gripes. Still, for now, DC Universe feels incomplete, a work-in-progress. It’s as though continuing my subscription at the start of next week is really a way of paying to beta test a service. That’s disappointing for a service that launched in Q3 2018, but in the big scheme of things, that’s still very early going. For what I get in return, for now, I still think it’s worth it for me. But I don’t think I’d pitch it to anyone else. Not yet! But hopefully soon.

DC Weekend

I’ve been dealing with a cold since the end of the week, and I definitely hit bottom after running a variety of errands during the snow storm in Indy on Saturday. Since Saturday afternoon, I’ve largely alternated between sleeping, imitating sleep, and watching dumb movies and TV while prone or semi-prone on the couch.

It’s at this point bedrock tradition for me to watch dumb television and movies while sick. I don’t normally like to sit for hours binging a show or movie after movie (though I’ll do the same for a book or game without complaint), especially if of only mediocre quality or worse, but sick days are my big exception to the norm. Brain idling, entertained by pretty moving pictures, waiting out the discomfort: it’s downright pleasurable to me at such a time.

Though not always the case, this sick weekend had a theme: DC movies and TV. I re-watched Suicide SquadBatman v Superman, and a good portion of the first season of Arrow; I also watched the 2017 Justice League film for the first time.

None of these things are great, but that’s the point. They’re dumb, and they’re enjoyable (enough) to watch. My Arrow re-watch might even continue, as I was surprised by how charmed I was yet again by the campy soap-opera take on superheroes. And, confession here, I actually like the DC franchise films. They’re not good, but most of them fall solidly in the B- to B+ range. They’re all overly long, overly dark (in terms of color saturation and narrative tone), and burdened by poorly considered plot contrivances. But they’re largely just a counter-cultural product to the smooth Marvel formula (counter-cultural to the extent that a big corporation can be counter-cultural, a Pepsi to Coca-Cola). DC movies are oddly ragged, ungainly films that all feel desperate to say something, if only there weren’t a dozen different creative and corporate hands meddling with the final product each time. And, well, I just like DC characters more.

I’m not a “comics guy.” I’ve read comics, and I will continue to do so. I’ve always preferred graphic novels to serialized comics, though, and not for particularly pretentious reasons, but simply because I prefer a more contained, tightly honed story. I prefer graphic novels to comics like I prefer films to television and like I prefer standalone novels to book series (not sure I’d go so far as to say I prefer short stories to novels, even though I do think I prefer the crafty efficiency of a good short story–I just tend to read novels more consistently). And I’ve typically preferred non-superhero comics to the superhero kind. I’m also largely bipartisan (or simply agnostic) when it comes to Marvel versus DC. That all said, my childhood rooted me in part to DC: the Tim Burton Batman films, the Teen Titans show, and the DC Animated Universe strongly influenced my tastes regarding caped crusaders and the like (the only Marvel counterpart I particularly recall in my formative years was X-Men Evolution). And in more recent years, Young Justice and the CW collection of shows carried my interest forward (even if the latter eventually became simply too much for me to keep up with).

What I’m trying to say is that, while I do have a familiarity with superhero franchises, I don’t feel like my identity is bound up in these characters. While the cinematic versions of DC characters have typically been darker than what I might prefer, I don’t feel like I have to treat anything in this territory as “canon” or a “defining” vision. It’s all just fun times, and these new films are at least offering something that does feel different.

In that context, I’d avoided Justice League for a while because it looked like a fairly generic superhero team-up film in a genre flooded with that type of apocalypse-punching, alien-invasion scenario. But I found that I greatly enjoyed the film, generic plot and all. Maybe I was just loopy enough to get peak enjoyment out of it. But Ben Affleck was absolutely delightful as Batman; this version of the Dark Knight not only provided a nice redemption arc from the previous title but was also one of the funniest versions of the character I’ve seen in a while. He was lighthearted; he smiled; he said authentic things. Plus, the film provided plenty of fodder for anyone partial to shipping Batman and Wonder Woman. For that matter, Wonder Woman continued to be a badass warrior, and she also had her own opportunity for inner growth that felt like a natural progression from her solo film–she was returning to the world, processing her grief and trauma from the Great War, and taking up the mantle of a leader. The Flash was hilarious and awkward and lovable, Aquaman was about as interesting and cool as Aquaman could ever hope to be, and Cyborg had enough screen time to feel defined if alien (though to the extent that Cyborg works, I’d credit Ray Fisher’s acting rather than the rather mundane dialogue that he delivers). Superman remained a weak point for me, though after some initial Super Dickery on his inevitable resurrection, he actually got to act like the superheroic ideal for the closing minutes of the final act.

Look, it’s not the greatest film out there. But no superhero film is. And sure, Justice League isn’t even the best superhero film, or the best of the new DC films. But it was a fun ride, and I’d watch it again. Especially on another sick day.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

I can start my return to this site off really easily: I got Super Smash Bros. Ultimate over the holiday break, and I like it. It is a good game. I also really suck at it. That is all.

Just kidding; of course I have a lot to say. But I’ll temper my reaction a bit, as there’s no reason for thousands of words on a game that has already been played and reviewed and combed over a great deal already.

I’ll try to limit this to pointing out what I really like. (What little I dislike is mostly trivial.)

I like that the game starts with the original roster of characters from the first game on N64.

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I like that the roster rapidly expands, with new challengers appearing in reaction to your own experimentation with the game modes. Play Smash, play some of the side games, play the Spirit Board, and you’re bound to rapidly unlock new characters.

I like how many new characters there are to unlock.

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I like that many of the new characters are fun to play as, and that the old characters are worth revisiting. I like that I was shaken out of some predictable play patterns–at least some of the time. Pikachu has always been, and will always be, my go-to fighter, no matter how many times I’m steam-rolled in an online match.

I love the wide variety of game modes to play. I like the different in-game currencies that encourage you to play different game modes. The game’s interface seems inspired by mobile games, with a constant drip of content that encourages constant engagement and micro-management. The Spirit Board is a mode where you can unlock new support spirits to power up your fighters; spirits rotate out on the board over time. You’re thus encouraged to attempt to unlock spirits while they’re available and to check back regularly for new spirits. It’s a good way to hop in for a quick challenge. Likewise, there’s a shop where you can spend another type of in-game currency to obtain a rotating assortment of extra items, spirits, Mii costumes, and music.

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I also like the Adventure mode. It offers a broad, overly dramatic story that quickly becomes inconsequential to the actual events of the game. But I like the sprawling map exploration, the JRPG-like roaming of an over-world as you hop from battle to battle, the gradual grind and collection, the varied challenges, the overarching sense of purpose. I haven’t played the Adventure mode all that much yet, but I’m turning more attention to it.

I like playing with friends locally and online, though the online aspect still has a lot of refinement to go. While lagging seems less and less frequent, it’s still infuriating when it happens. And there’s not yet a way to play couch co-op while also playing with your online friends–although I believe that this will be implemented. I have less fun in the quick matches with strangers, but I’ve never had that much fun with multiplayer games. And let me point out, again, that I really suck at this game. There are only so many times you can get your ass served to you before it gets a little old, and I’m past the age and lifestyle moment where I could devote enough time to the game to GIT GUD, even if I wanted to. But online play can still be fun!

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To reemphasize, I like that there’s so much to do, so much to try, so much to collect. There are so many fighters, spirits, costumes, levels, game modes, and songs. There’s a whole virtual jukebox built in to play all the songs that you’ve unlocked. And since I will remain fervently casual with the game, it’ll be a great experience to keep coming back to, to play with friends or to poke around in during special events. I’m not tired of the game yet, but when I inevitably become tired with it, I’ll be okay with putting it down and coming back to it weeks or months later to pick up where I left off. It’s a progressive improvement on the franchise, and it really appeals to nostalgia. There’s a lot of love for Nintendo’s game history here (and for many other classic video game properties, at this point).

This is a good game, and yet another indication that Nintendo is knocking it out of the park with the Switch and its first-party game releases.

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Starting to be a Vampyr

I watched a lot of movies over the holidays, as is my custom, but I also started a new game: Vampyr. I like Dontnod Entertainment’s games, I’d had my eye on this title for a while, a good friend had been strongly recommending it since its release, and it was on sale over the holiday, so it was easy motivation to purchase at that point. (And I wanted to play something other than Little Dragons Cafe for a while.)

I’m still fairly early in the game, but I like it. It’s flawed, but it has a strong sense of purpose, and it’s clear what the developers wanted to do with it. In many ways, it reminds me of Remember Me: it’s a game overflowing with ideas and intentionally crafted themes, a game that promises openness but doesn’t fully deliver, a game with a satisfying but maybe over-developed combat system. The dialogue system in the game is especially interesting; there are often robust dialogue trees, but it always feels investigative rather than interpersonal. Even when you unlock a secret and probe to learn more, the game presents this as using vampiric power to coax the user into speaking; you’re not getting closer to the speaker, but instead you’re stripping more valuable information away from a target. It’s lonely being a vampire, and that dialogue system adds to the loneliness–you’re isolated and poorly understood, even when surrounded by others.

So far, my biggest complaint is that I’m experiencing long loading times and a fair amount of lag when passing through area transitions (and sometimes in combat), despite substantially lowering the graphics settings. To be fair, that’s likely just an issue on my end; my computer’s getting close to a decade old, with only fairly minor upgrades since I originally built it. Still, while I don’t have the technical expertise to assess how this compares to other games, it does seem like even fairly recent games of comparable size and appearance have played more smoothly for me.

Interestingly, the game echoes certain plot elements and themes of Interview with the Vampire. I suppose some of that comes with the nature of a pseudo-historical fiction starring vampires, but a lot of the same motivations and goals drive the protagonists in both works. That’s the sort of thing I might want to write about more later–given sufficient motivation, and after completing at least one ending of the game.

For now, I’m just enjoying my time as an angst-filled vampire.

Review: Birdshot

Birdshot (directed by Mikhail Red, and written by Mikhail and Rae Red) is a fusion of magic realism and film noir. It’s a dark, tragic coming of age story. It’s a tale of innocence lost in the face of violence, corruption, and abusive authority–innocence of not only Maya (Mary Joy Apostol), the farm-girl protagonist, but also Domingo (Arnold Reyes), a young police officer who is a major viewpoint character.

Maya and Domingo are both paired with gruff older men who expect them to learn about and adapt to the harsh realities of the world to survive. Maya’s mentor is her father, Diego (Ku Aquino), caretaker of agrarian land adjoining a national wildlife refuge. Domingo’s mentor is the thoroughly corrupt and violent partner he’s paired with, Mendoza (John Arcilla), who’s more concerned about pleasing their commanding officer than delivering justice.

Maya is trained by her father to use an old rifle to hunt birds. She’s initially reluctant, but she wanders into the sanctuary to follow a strange call. When she sees a Philippine eagle, she shoots and kills it, inadvertently committing a crime. Meanwhile, Domingo is eager to find out what happened to an abandoned bus and its missing passengers, while his mentor is insistent that he drop the case and focus on the seemingly trivial matter of the missing eagle.

Police corruption is demonstrated on two levels. On the intimate scale of the film’s main events, the officers are called off a major missing persons case and both eventually become comfortable with violence, maiming, torture, killing. On a broader level, higher-level law enforcement and operators of sprawling haciendas are implicated in the exploitation of tenant farm workers and the suppression of protest.

The film hints at magic realism, though it doesn’t go all-in. There is a figure that follows Maya when she is alone; one is left to interpret that figure in a variety of ways. Her grandmother tells her stories about the spirits speaking to the living during the full moon, which frames how much of the film’s events are viewed. In contrast, Domingo seems to encounter a ghost who turns out to be the family member of a missing worker.

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The framing of that moment is great. The police station shuts off power after-hours. Domingo sits at his desk, exhausted, out of leads. He lights a cigarette and sees a ghostly apparition down the hall. We see his surprised face, illuminated by the cigarette. Then we cut to a perspective behind him, looking over his shoulder, framing him faintly in the foreground, with the stark, mysterious figure down the hall; with the cigarette blocked by his body, we only see its smoke, wrapping around the hall like tendrils of mist, or like spectral apparitions of their own. Even once we have a human face for the woman, the lamp Domingo uses gives her a ghastly pallor. She is a ghost, of sorts, a ghost of loss and grief, a voice of the dead.

There are so many moments in this film with beautiful, powerful images. Maya is typically clad in white and red, a none-too-subtle reminder of the violence that stains her innocence (and that is echoed by her own bleeding when she starts menstruating in the middle of the film). Red by blood or cloth or firelight, corpses of birds and people, deep darkness especially in scenes with the police, and the digging of graves (or symbolic graves, as when Diego and Maya attempt to hide the gun) are just some of the symbolic visuals incorporated into the film. So many scenes are loaded with powerful imagery and unearthly sounds breaking silence. So many shots would work just as well as still photography (the cinematographer is Mycko David, but in reviewing the film’s credits I’m reminded that so many people play a role in the creation of a scene and a movie that I feel a little guilty not simply listing everyone here).

The plot is also twisty, winding back on itself in subtle and obvious references to earlier events and dialogue. It slowly builds layers over a straightforward police investigation. It’s simple to follow, but it rewards reflection. My wife and I are still drawing connections and having light-bulb moments days after the film.

Like most great noir, the film ends in tragedy and loss, the protagonists futile against institutional power. Perhaps most shocking to me was the moral collapse of one character only midway through the film. But having not expected a noir film when I began, I was not expecting the conventions of the genre, which were in some ways adhered to and in other ways subverted.

This was powerful, thought-provoking cinema, and I’d highly recommend it. And for now, it’s readily available for streaming via Netflix.

Review – Jurassic World: The Evolution of Claire

The Evolution of Claire (Jurassic World)The Evolution of Claire by Random House

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Evolution of Claire is fairly small in scope, intimate even, especially for a title set in the Jurassic Park–excuse me, Jurassic World–franchise. Author Tess Sharpe details a nineteen-year-old Claire Dearing’s summer internship on Isla Nublar for the Masrani Corporation, in the final months before the new park would open. While there are many misadventures and some moments of wonder as the interns interact with dinosaurs in the park, the central focus of the novel is Claire’s budding romance with another intern. A B plot is a series of mysterious happenings around the facilities that seem somehow connected with a fabled class of Phantom Interns from the year before. The central culprit behind those happenings is a spoiled, mysogynist intern who is so obviously villainous and yet so obviously not the true antagonist that he’s basically Red Herring from A Pup Named Scooby Doo.

So it’s a YA novel with dinosaurs. It was a fun read. There were issues with continuity that sometimes annoyed me. I would have enjoyed more about the creation of the dinosaurs (Sharpe seems aware that mosquitoes alone would be insufficient for this resurrection miracle, yet never references potential alternative DNA sources–even Crichton’s original book, and the recent game Jurassic World: Evolution, at least refer to bone fragments and other potential alternative sources). Isla Sorna is mentioned, and it’s suggested that most if not all of the animals were to be moved to Isla Nublar (after several had been thinned out by poaching), but this plot thread still feels nebulous. The interns freely hop between radically different assignments, like security, genetics lab work, and vet work, though most of them are not qualified. The interns themselves seem rather young for such a selective and intensive program, having only completed a semester of undergrad, although maybe that’s commonplace among the hyper-competitive. There were some good dinosaur moments, but I wanted more dinosaurs in general; Brachiosaurus and Triceratops got spotlights, Tyrannosaurus had its moment, and there was a big showdown in the climax with an angry Velociraptor, but other genera had fleeting glimpses or name drops if they appeared at all. With so many dinosaurs to choose from, so many dinosaurs we know were at the park, it’s disappointing that the author settled on the highlights of the original film. And while Claire is no specialist and therefore doesn’t necessarily know how to interpret what is happening, there’s a general lack of detail that is disappointing in contrast to the rather specific world-building found in the Crichton books and Spielberg films (the latter show that depth does not need to bog down the story with exposition). So there are things that I would have preferred to be different, but nothing that ruined the reading experience.

There’s a good deal of melodrama, particularly in the last third of the book, but there’s also a lot of authentic depiction of trauma and grief in those moments as well. I’m not sure that I would have made the decision to have yet more death at this park before it even opened if I were making narrative choices here, yet it does do a lot to provide a clear character arc for Claire that extends through both of the films in which she appears. Over the course of the book, we see her go from an ambitious, bright-eyed optimist who is truly amazed by the creatures she encounters to a hard-edged, jaded young woman who sees protecting people from those same creatures as a driving purpose. It’s more complex than that; I was truly impressed with the character development, which really helped explain who Claire was and made clear why she would make the decisions that she did in Fallen Kingdom. Most surprisingly, the book does a lot to renovate Dr. Wu’s appearance; he’s driven, but his ambitions are motivated at least in part by his coping strategies for the loss of close coworkers at the first park. It’s a more effective portrait than the mad scientist of the Jurassic World films.

All in all, this isn’t a bad book by any means. It’s light and enjoyable. It’s not really what I would want out of a book in this franchise. But it does character development better than Crichton ever did. With expectations accordingly set, the average Jurassic World fan should be able to appreciate the experience.

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Review: The Haunting of Hill House

I’m not really a fan of the horror genre (though several exceptions come to mind). Nonetheless, I was quite entranced by Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, created by Mike Flanagan. That’s largely because it’s just as much a family drama and psychological thriller as it is outright horror, and the hauntings are often just as metaphorical as they are literal, as the central family is haunted by grief, trauma, and mental illness.

Ghosts are everywhere in this show. Sometimes they lurk ominously in the background; sometimes, they’re clearly visible on the screen, looking lively and human, and these ghosts are often only registered as ghosts by audience and protagonists after the fact. (On that note, the final few episodes offer some mind-bending twists that skew perception of earlier episodes.)

In this version of the story, a family consisting of a house-building husband, an architect wife, and their five kids moves into a dilapidated old mansion so that the couple can renovate and flip the house. They hope that this rebuild and sale will be the project that finally allows them to finance their dream forever home. Things fall apart quickly, and the youngest children in particular begin to be harassed by ghosts; in the end, their mother kills herself in disturbing and confusing circumstances. The kids grow up traumatized by the event without ever really knowing what happened, as their father refused to talk about it. In the present, they are brought back together after the youngest daughter returns to the house. The show cuts between past and present throughout.

I never read Shirley Jackson’s novel, but I know enough to recognize that show and book are rather different. I liked the show a lot. If there was a misstep, I’d say it was including The Haunting of Hill House in the show as a memoir by the eldest son. It’s unsettling to me that the show’s creators removed the female author and replaced her with a male–and that they took a work of imaginative fiction and reframed it as a work inspired by reality (that latter element makes the book a little more mundane, at least to me). Bizarrely, they even name one of the children Shirley, although she is vehemently opposed to the writing of the book.

Besides that, the show felt pretty close to perfect. The acting–in both scenes from present and past–was phenomenal. The writing was excellent, and the show explored the nature of ghosts and hauntings in a variety of ways. Ghosts and what they mean in relation to fear, hope, observing and being observed, and even how we think about time were examined in depth. Mental illness and its relationship to the hauntings was a prominent theme, but it never seemed to be for spectacle, or treated in a casual or disdainful manner.

Dread was prominent throughout. But the show had very few jump scares. It was brooding and ominous and sometimes terrifying. But my typical feeling was that of anxiety and foreboding, rather than of fear. Even if you scare easily, you should be able to get through the show reasonably well.

If I can get myself to focus on this more, there’s a lot that this show touches on that I’d like to discuss in more detail. We’ll see if that happens. But The Haunting of Hill House is an excellent show, and I strongly recommend it. Even if horror’s not really your thing.