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Gotham: the Good, the Bad and the Downright Mad

Gotham is the weirdo of the DC TV shows. It isn’t part of the Arrowverse or the films. It shows us a Gotham before Batman and Joker. It’s half a gritty, gruesome and violent detective show and half a zany, insane, comic-book-esque thriller. It’s had some real highs and some big missteps. But not only does it work, it was arguably the best DC show last year.

While Supergirl and Arrow dragged on too long, while Legends of Tomorrow got too silly for words at points, while Flash dragged itself further and further down towards creative oblivion, Gotham soared with a season that was macabre, mad and goofy as hell – sometimes all in the same episode! Sure, not everything worked in Gotham’s 4th season, but what do you expect from a show that perpetually throws everything including the kitchen sink at the wall and has an ensemble cast almost as large as game of thrones?

I haven’t done Gotham reviews since Series 1, mainly because the seasons are so long and spread out over the year its hard to summarise them in one article (and not enough people watch it for episodic reviews to be worth my time). So instead, for long-term fans and newbies wondering if the show is worth a shot while its on Netflix, here’s my breakdown of what’s good, what’s bad and what’s just downright mad in Gotham-land.

Will contain fairly substantial Spoilers for Season 1-4. But they’re pretty much impossible to avoid with an article like this.

The Good:

Penguin and Riddler (Seasons 1-4): While Gotham has included many, many established Batman villains and a few they’ve invented themselves, few people would argue that the shows signature villains are Penguin and Riddler, perfectly played by Robin Lord Taylor and Michael Corey Smith. Their story arcs have been spread over many seasons, rather than a few episodes, and have arguably proved as crucial to the shows success as Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne. They’ve even teamed up, fallen in love (well, Penguin did anyway) and become embroiled in a vicious civil war with each other. While both have had the occasional run in with Bruce, they’ve been far more of a thorn in Gordon’s side, and Jim always seems at his most pressed when facing off with these two.

The Prototype Jokers (Seasons 1-4): Joker casts a long shadow in the Batman mythos, but wisely, the writers didn’t shoehorn him in too early (looking at you DCEU and Suicide Squad). Instead they gave us Jerome (and later Jeremiah) Valeska, who served as the shows early versions of/inspiration for Joker. They have made only limited appearances throughout, but thanks to strong writing and a brilliant performance from Cameron Monaghan, have had a huge impact. Highlights have included Jerome reeking havoc with Theo Galavan’s gang of Maniax, facing off with Bruce in a Circus full of deranged cultists, and Jeremiah teaming up with Ra’s al Ghul. Simply marvellous.

The Ogre, The Mad Hatter and Professor Pyg (Season 1, 3, 4): While Gotham has dealt with most of the more famous Bat villains, it has also taken big risks by including or inventing less-known foes. The Ogre made for a very sinister villain for the final episodes of S1, while the Mad Hatter was an inspired choice of villain for the first half of S3. Best of all was the monstrous Professor Pyg, who tore through both the GCPD and Penguin’s goons during his reign of terror in S4. Given its incredibly unlikely we’d have ever seen villains like this in film or animation, you have to give credit to Gotham for taking risks.

Dirty Cops, Corrupt officials and Gang Wars (Seasons 1-4): Jim’s Gordon’s faced a lot of villains over the course of the show, but his worst enemies have all to often been himself and Gotham’s inherent corruption. Not only has the GCPD endured numerous madmen, massacres and a multitude of corrupt cops but the city’s often been in the grip of corrupt officials, rival mobsters, and disgraced mayors (seriously, all four have been corrupt as hell, and the fact that Penguin wasn’t even the worst of them speaks volumes). Gordon and the other heroes have all too often compromised and corrupted themselves trying to deal with this mess. Apart from Lucius Fox and Alfred, pretty much all of them have crossed lines somewhere, and Gordon, Harvey Bullock and Bruce’s struggles to stay in the light have provided some of the most compelling character arcs.

Bruce and Selina grow into their roles (Seasons 1-4): Getting the casting right is always important, but casting young versions of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle was even more fraught with danger than normal. Fortunately, David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova have nailed their roles and have always been believable versions of their future hero and anti-heroine. Both have arguably grown the most of all the characters on the show, and their burgeoning friendship and on-off romantic interest in each other has been very entertaining to watch. Ultimately, the highest compliment I can give them is that they’ve done just as well as any adults who have played the characters in film. That’s no mean feat.

The Bad:

Fish Mooney (Season 1-3): Jada Pinkett Smith is almost as bad an actor as her son Jaden. Fish was an horrendously OTT villain in Season 1, so the cheers were near universal when Penguin sent her plummeting to a watery grave. However, the showrunners couldn’t leave well enough alone, and had Hugo Strange resurrect her in Season 2. They seem to have realised their mistake pretty quickly, as she barely featured in Season 3, and was put down again in the finale, hopefully for good.

The god-awful Gordon Prison Episode (Season 2): Not only was the episode a virtually direct copy of Roy’s imprisonment in Arrow’s third season, but it was done so poorly that I don’t know why they bothered. Having been framed for Murder, Gordon tries to survive prison as a cop on the inside, with all the usual clichés present (cop inside gets targeted, corrupt guards in league with inmates, fake-death used to escape etc.). It’s dull and predictable, and the only episode of Gotham to get lower than 3/5 from me.

No One Knows What to Do with Poison Ivy (Seasons 1-4): On paper, Ivy should have been a much better used character. She starts off as an ordinary girl who is Selina’s best friend, whose father is killed by Gordon after being framed for the Wayne murders. There’s a lot of character potential there without rushing her into the Poison Ivy from the comics. Unfortunately the writers lost patience in Season 3, and realising that Ivy’s powers of seduction and manipulation aren’t useable without having an adult actress in the role, had her rapidly aged up by one of Hugo Strange’s monsters. While this made sense from a plot perspective, the recast version never felt quite right, as the chemistry with Selina vanished and pairing her up with Penguin’s gang went nowhere. After yet another transformation (and another recasting) in Season 4, Ivy finally went into full villainess mode and remembered her history with Gordon, but vanished when Selina ran her out of town. Such a waste of what was a promising character.

Bruce the Brat (Season 3/4): Bruce being brainwashed by the League of Assassin’s was bad enough but the show took his downward spiral in Season 4 too far by having him fire Alfred during a particularly dark spell of drinking and debauchery. Fortunately this only lasted a couple of episodes, but things definitely went too far here.

Overlong Seasons (Seasons 1-4): Like the Arrowverse and many US shows, Gotham has a lot of episodes (22) per season. Unlike the Arrowverse shows, Gotham tried to circumvent this problem by having multiple main villains in each season (Falcone, Maroni, Penguin and Fish in S1, Galavan and Hugo Strange in S2, Mad Hatter and The Court of Owls in S3 and Professor Pyg, Sofia Falcone and Ra’s al Ghul in S4), which worked to some extent. Unfortunately, this often leads to filler plotlines or a drop in quality after the mid-season break, as things are strung along until the final 5 or so episodes. Season 1 felt disjointed, S2’s Hugo Strange fiasco and S3 and S4’s less successful plotlines were all arguably a result of this. You do feel that if Gotham was only 16-18 episodes long each season, the show would work a lot better.

The Mad:

Fish Mooney Gouges Out Her Own Eye (Season 1): This was just batsh*t crazy. Having been shipped off to an island run as an organ bank by the sinister dollmaker, Fish gouges out her own eye with a spoon before he can take them from her. Like all Fish scenes, this was just plain mental, and did not serve any obvious plot purpose (she gets a replacement eye a mere one episode late). Talk about doing things just for shock value.

Azrael vs. Bazooka (Season 2): Hugo Strange resurrecting Theo Galavan was crazy enough, but brainwashing him into becoming Azrael, a legendary crusader-esque warrior, was completely out of whack. Azrael proceeded to hunt down both Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon due to his messed-up memories, but his exit was the most memorable part. Having been mown down by Bruce in a car and shot by Gordon multiple times, Azrael gets back to his feet only to be blown up by Butch, who was wielding a Bazooka on Penguin’s orders. I wouldn’t blame you for saying this was the point that Gotham ‘jumped the Shark’ and went into full comic book insanity, cause it only gets weirder from here.

Jerome gets a facelift (Season 3): Another villain destined not to stay dead for long, Jerome’s antics with the Maniax Gang inspired a cult following, who tried to resurrect him in season 3. This wasn’t the mad part. Having seeming failed to resuscitate Jerome, the Cult’s leader cut’s off Jerome’s face to wear as a mask, hoping to maintain control over the cult by convincing them that ‘they are all Jerome’. This lunacy went predictably badly, as Jerome was less than impressed about his missing face after he eventually woke up, and blew the cult leader up in short order. But even this wasn’t crazy enough for Gotham, as Jerome not only retrieved his face but proceeded to staple it back onto his head. Without painkillers. Not wonder he only got more insane after that.

Professor Pyg makes people into Pies (Season 4): After the Mad Hatter, Ed’s Riddler Persona, Scarecrow and Jerome, you’d have thought Gotham had scraped the bottom of the barrel for crazy Bat-villains. You. Were. Wrong. Pyg is arguably the most insane, gruesomely macabre villain in the whole of DC comics, and the show’s version was equal to the task. Not content with murdering policemen and covering their heads with masks made from dead pigs, the Professor proceeding to murder a group of homeless people and serve them up to Gotham’s 1%  (including Penguin and Sofia Falcone) in pies. The irony was probably not lost on Penguin, who had done something similar to his evil step-family in Season 2, but this went to a whole other level. No wonder Pyg exited the show a mere two episodes later – where else could you go after that? 

Barbara takes over the League of Shadows (Season 4): This could of easily fallen in the ‘bad’ section of this article, but it was such a crazy, stupid move on the part of the showrunners that it just comes across as completely insane. The whole Ra’s and Barbara partnership was actually quite compelling early season, but after Bruce put an end to Ra’s scheming the show made arguably the craziest mis-step in its history by having Barbara succeed Ra’s as the Demon’s Head late season. Not only did she do such a poor job that she started an entire gender-based civil war within the League of Assassins, but the League got so fed up with her that they resurrected Ra’s in short order to put her in her place. This smacks of giving the character something to do rather than following a logical character arc, and also leaves several major issues in Ra’s plan unsolved (unless he wanted to destroy the league, which later episodes show is not the case, or hideously misjudged Barbara’s ability, which seems unlikely for someone as old and wise as Ra’s, Barbara makes no sense as a choice of successor – especially when Bruce was who Ra’s was so obsessed with!).

So there you go. Gotham, the best, worst (not really – Flash and Agents of SHIELD are still out there) and maddest superhero show TV will probably ever see. If you like your TV dark and crazy, by all means, give it a go.

 

 

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Ant-Man and the Wasp Review

Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena, Hannah Jon-Kamen, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Douglas.

Minor Spoilers Only. But this is Ant-Man – you’re here to be entertained, not to be surprised by the plot!

The first Ant-Man was a surprise highlight of Marvel’s Phase Two. It was the least known and one of the least financially successful Marvel films, but its unique blend of humour, zany powers and Paul Rudd’s sublime turn as likeable lead Scott Lang meant it was very well received by critics (noticeably better than Age of Ultron, which came out the same year). It’s also my favourite Marvel film for a variety of reasons, as it succeeds on virtually every level (its funny, the story’s good, the characters are likeable and the fight scenes are actually memorable). So I had high hopes for the sequel.

The good news: not only is it great fun, but it surpasses Black Panther and Infinity War.

Ant-Man and the Wasp has perhaps the lowest stakes of any Marvel film – there’s no world or universe ending threat here. The main villain is simply trying to survive at any cost, and the secondary villain is a glorified thief/gangster who’s merely after Pym’s technology for its value. While this does mean neither villain is particularly memorable, it’s a very smart direction for the film to take, as any antagonists and their plan were going to be anticlimactic after Thanos’ Infinity Snap, so telling a small scale, more personal story is a wise choice. Oh, and in case you were wondering, this is set before Infinity War, not after, so don’t expect any fallout from that film here.

That’s not to say the film lacks ambition. The set pieces are very high quality (an extended car chase is arguably the highlight) and the sequences in the quantum realm are memorably rendered. Ghost’s phase-shifting abilities coupled with Ant-Man and Wasps size-changing antics make for some very inventive fight scenes. There’s none of the shaky CGI that blighted Black Panther’s third act either. The simple plot allows for a much-more character-driven entry in the franchise, and Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly are easily the best pair of leads in the MCU (maybe only matched by Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana), so you won’t complain. The acting in general is of a high standard, and its nice to see Michelle Pfeiffer back in a superhero film after her winning turn as Catwoman in the Tim Burton Batman films.

There aren’t really any massive drawbacks here. The soundtrack isn’t memorable, but it serves its purpose well enough (like every bloody Marvel film score except Guardians). Hannah Jon-Kamen’s Ghost is well acted and somewhat sympathetic, even if her impact is lessened by a lack of real menace or screentime. Her fights with Ant-Man and Wasp are engaging though, and her powers are something we haven’t really seen before, so I’ll give Ghost some points for that and being one of the few female villains in Superhero films. Some of the dialogue feels a bit by the numbers and could be funnier, but the visual gags and the big jokes all land, so I’ll not criticise. Like the first Ant-Man, it takes 40 minutes to really get going, but once it hits its stride, its consistently great fun.

As to whether it beats the first movie… I’m unsure – the effects are better, but the villain is a bit weaker. The script and the acting are pretty much equal, and both films have great (and hilarious) action scenes. Overall, I think the jokes worked slightly better in the first one, so I wouldn’t put this above the original, but its still easily in the MCU’s top 3 or 4 films.

Overall Ant-Man and the Wasp is a funny, charming, touching film that brings a refreshing levity after the bombastic, shocking epicness of Infinity War. Not every punchline lands, but its still easily the best Marvel film since Civil War.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Oh, and without going into spoilers, stay for the mid-credits scene. Its gonna have an impact on Avengers 4. Equally, the 2nd is not really worth staying for – just catch it on youtube in a couple of months.

If you’d told me in 2012 that the four best Marvel movies would be 2 Captain America sequels and 2 Ant-Man films I would have laughed. What a thing hindsight is eh? Marvel’s sheer variety of offerings is what makes success stories like this possible. I hope audiences turn out for this one. It really deserves more recognition that its predecessor got.

Final thought: can we get the guy who directed this to take over Guardians of the Galaxy 3? He might be the only person who could replace Gunn and still deliver a great film.

Assassin’s Creed Origins Review

No story spoilers except for setting/time period.

Assassin’s Creed has often struggled to find its identity as a series in the last few years. The first few games all felt like natural successors to each other, and generally AC2, Brotherhood and Revelations either matched or improved upon their immediate predecessors. Then the series lost its way somewhat, which was a bit predictable, given that Revelations wrote out Ezio and Altair, the two most popular playable characters in the series, and Desmond Miles and Warren Vidic, the last two links to the first game, both exited in AC3.

That’s not to say the intervening games haven’t had their plus points. AC3 started the trend of having more open-world style areas, Black Flag and Freedom Cry gave us a delightful ship combat system, Rogue’s story is often praised as one of the best in the series and Syndicate’s Jacob and Evie were highlighted in reviews as the first memorable main characters since Ezio. But none of those games were perfect – the combat system often felt dated, games became increasingly buggy on release, the modern day story got increasingly hard to care about post-Desmond, and the settings just weren’t as interesting as the Crusades or renaissance Italy or Constantinople (I mean, was anyone crying out for games set in the American or French revolutions? I’ve never spoken to anyone who particularly wanted an Assassin’s Creed game in those eras).

With Assassin’s Creed: Origins, the series may finally have found its groove again.

Ptolemaic Egypt is a setting that deserves the current gen’s graphics, and boy, is the game world absolutely stunning. This is somewhere you will never get tired of exploring, and whether you’re exploring Alexandria, crossing the desert or sailing up the Nile, you’ll always be aware of how beautifully rendered everything is – and you’ll end up using the game’s photo mode a fair bit, let me tell you. It’s day/night cycle really makes a tangible difference to how the world feels, in a way only games like Horizon: Zero Dawn have done previously. Its a completely open world experience too, and while you’ll have an occasional moment where the game pauses to load the next area, its mostly pretty seamless at having you move around the map. Fast travel is available too, which helps a lot, although you have a lot of different transport options available (including horses, camels, ships and chariots).

The game’s playable characters are also a lot more memorable than in previous entries. You’ll spend most of your time playing as Bayek, the last of the Medjay, who’s a protector of the common folk but has a winning personality as well, and whose responses always seem human and believable – his outrage at atrocities, his snide dislike for corrupt officials, his sympathy for downtrodden peasants, it all seems natural and relatable. Bayek’s status as a Egyptian comes in play a lot, as he sees his country and people suffering a lot on account of their inferior status to Greeks, not to mention their vulnerability to the Romans, who are starting to encroach on Egyptian territory. You also get several levels as Bayek’s wife Aya, who’s equally compelling if not quite as likeable, as the two of them are caught between pursuing a revenge quest and trying to free Egypt from the grip of a civil war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy. The modern day stuff is kept to a minimum, but in Layla, we finally have a modern-day character who seems interesting enough to care about, even though she’s only on screen for 20 or so minutes.

The gameplay has also between heavily revamped to have a more RPG feel to things – there’s still a wide variety of weaponry available (spears, swords, axes, sceptres etc.) as well as four varieties of bows all tailored to different scenarios (hunting, stealth kills, boss fights, rapid fire etc.) which gives you a lot of scope for how you approach combat scenarios. There’s now a levelling system with numerous perks you can use to upgrade Bayek (providing him with poison darts, fire bombs and other tools, increasing his proficiency in combat or improving archery skills) and you can pretty much build his skillset as suits you. You gain XP for kills and completing missions, of which there are a multitude. In additional to the dozen or so main quests, which are fairly long and take you all over the map, there are around a hundred or so side quests, which usually involve you rescuing locals, clearing out bandit camps, dealing with animal attacks, evading Ptolemy’s soldiers or exploring tombs.

There’s a lot to do in this game in general – most tombs and camps have treasure for you to loot or captains to assassinate, and there are loads of them dotted around the map. There’s a fair amount of cities and towns too, most of which have a unique feel and plenty of inhabitants to interact with. You can become a gladiator in the arenas in Cyrene or Krokodilopolis, or a chariot racer in Alexandria. There’s a lot of sunken ships around the Nile for you to scavenge too. In short, you’ll never run out of things to do in this game – there’s almost too much of it to be honest.

Further embracing the RPG side of things, the game has a new game plus mode and an option that will scale lower level enemies to your level, if either of those things interest you. Origins also introduces variable difficulty into the series, with the standard game options of easy, normal, hard and nightmare which seem near universal at this point. Normal still presents a reasonable challenge, though it doesn’t require the precision of God of War on normal and is hardly comparable to RPG’s like Dark Souls. There’s a large variety of enemies: Human enemies are a mix of archers, spearman, standard soldiers, Brutes (heavy weapons), Elites (with shields) and bosses. There are also various animals to contend with, including Crocodiles (who are a much larger threat in water, obviously), Hippos (engage at range), hyenas (troublesome in packs), lions (surprisingly easy) and, rarely, a war elephant (these fuckers are VERY tough). Most annoying are snakes, who tend to lurk in the dark corners of tombs or caves, or worse, inside destroyable pots, and thus you often don’t see them until you run straight into them (which as snakes kill Bayek in 3-4 hits can be very irritating). Ultimately, whether you want a challenge or a stress-free run, there’ll be a difficulty setting that works for you.

The crafting system is crucial but easy to get to grips with, as you gather various metals, leathers, wood and animal skins, which can upgrade Bayek’s health, damage and the amount of equipment and arrows he can carry. Fortunately, gathering these materials is rarely a chore, as there’s only six main varieties of them, some of which can be looted from convoys of soldiers, others you can find from hunting animals or from scrapping weaponry, and if worst comes to worst, you can take a perk which allows you to purchase extra materials at shops. The currency system is more of a challenge than previous games – Bayek won’t be drowning in cash the way Ezio was, and will need to loot tombs and camps and sell old equipment a lot to have enough to buy new outfits and upgrade his weapons.

So all in all, pretty positive? Yeah, there’s one or two downsides: the game’s plot meanders a bit too much at times, not all the side quests are that interesting (some areas are definitely more fun than others) and shield combat isn’t done all that well, but overall, its such an improvement over its predecessors that I have to give it a rating of…

4.5 out of 5. Not perfect, but getting there.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey seems to be leaning even further into RPG elements (choice of main character, romance options etc.) and refining combat even further to fit ancient Greece. Fingers crossed it will be as compelling as Egypt. But for the first time in a long time, I’m actually looking forward to what the Assassin’s Creed team is working on, and that’s largely thanks to how well they’ve turned things around with origins.

Orange is the New Black Season 6 Review

Starring Taylor Schilling, Natasha Lyonne, Danielle Brooks, Selenis Leyva, Nick Sandow and Kate Mulgrew.

Warning: Minor Plot Spoilers follow for Season 6. Major Spoilers for Season 5.

Season 5 got mixed reviews. I personally loved it, but I can see why some thought it got too fan-service-y in places. Even it detractors have to admit the riot made for compelling viewing. But there were always going to be consequences. The first half of S6 is all about those consequences, and the two key themes of the season are betrayal and redemption.

The opening episodes see the feds out to pin the blame for both the riot and Humphrey and Piscatella’s deaths on at least 5 of the inmates, which leads to a lot of backstabbing and mud-slinging as the various inmates try to save themselves or settle old scores. Some betrayals you really won’t see coming, others are what season 5 was all building up to. The remaining episodes deal with the consequences, as the inmates in question seek revenge, struggle with guilt or fear retribution.

While most of the regulars are back this season, a lot of familiar faces are missing (because they were put in a different prison, while we follow the ones sent to Litchfield Max). Characters like Big Boo and Helen get mere cameos, while ones like Watson, Norma and Chang are entirely absent. A third of the guards from last season are gone too, though Dixon, Luschek, Donuts and McCullough are all back to some extent.

There are various new characters too, both prisoners and guards, some of whom are more memorable than others. The main plot of the season sees the inmates caught up in the tension between C-block and D-block in Maximum Security, driven by a long-standing feud between sisters Carol and Barbara, who are the two major players in Max. Other newbies include their enforcers, Badison (who might just be the nastiest piece of work OITNB has given us) and Daddy (who strikes up a surprisingly sweet relationship with one of the series regulars). The new guards are similarly hit-and-miss, but chief Hopper, Luschek and McCullough’s arcs make up for the less interesting ones.

Things feel a lot more tense this season – the very nature of Max has you constantly worried that someone is about to get shivved or beaten up (both of which happen) while some of the guards are beyond brutal in how they treat Daya and the riot leaders. Orange is the New Black has always been good at mixing humour and drama with the darker side of prison life, and that balance remains as compelling as ever here. If had to criticise, the central conflict between the blocks peters out a bit too much, and there’s no shocks here up there with Poussey or Piscatella’s deaths, but the season as a whole is still pretty great viewing regardless.

The humour is still on point, with highlights including Flaca and Black Cindy teaming up as the new prison radio hosts and Suzanne and Freida becoming cellmates. While most of the romance focus is on Piper and Alex, there are several other compelling pairings throughout the season (including a somewhat unlikely love triangle involving Luschek and two of the prisoners, as well as the conclusion of the Doggett/Donuts arc). Surprisingly the best pairing of the season is Caputo and Fig, who’s relationship plays a much bigger part in the story than you might expect.

Meanwhile it’s Red, Taystee, Daya and Ruiz who get the lion’s share of the drama side of things. The flashbacks remain mostly interesting – Freida’s is arguably the most important, though its Nicky and Cindy’s snapshots that will probably leave a lasting impression. The majority of flashbacks tend to focus on the new characters rather than existing ones, but this was pretty inevitable given the number of cast changes this season.

Overall, I wouldn’t say this is OITNB’s best season, but its a damn good one, even if the finale lacks the punch of recent seasons. Focusing in on a smaller section of the cast seemed to work well, but the quality of the newcomers varied. The show still remains the best Netflix has to offer though.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

Incredibles 2 Review

Starring Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Brad Bird and Samuel L. Jackson

Spoiler-free review.

The original Incredibles still stands as one of the best animated films of all time – not to mention one of the best superhero films of all time. Aside from Logan and the Dark Knight Trilogy, there isn’t a lot I’d place above The Incredibles in the Superhero pecking order. All of which begs the question: how on earth can the sequel live up to it.

Answer: it doesn’t try to. Incredibles 2 focuses on doing its own thing, and there aren’t too many callbacks to the first film, despite the sequel picking up from where the first left off. It’s probably the right call, as this film will work whether you saw the original or not. That said, most of what made the first film great is still here. The cast is virtually the same (Dash’s voice actor has changed, but you honestly won’t notice), Brad Bird is in control of the production yet again, and Michael Giacchino does another fine job with the soundtrack (I still prefer the first’s score but this one has its moments and is more memorable than any music you’d hear in a Marvel film).

The humour is strong throughout, with very few dud jokes and plenty of moments that both kids and adults will enjoy. See Despicable Me franchise – you don’t have to dumb things down to make kids laugh. This is undoubtedly a smart film – there’s virtually no infantile or toilet humour to be found, and even when it does resort to it, it still works well. The film’s best comedy comes from Jack-Jack’s wide variety of powers and Edna Mode’s yet again hilarious cameos, though some of Violet’s moments are up their too.The script is pretty tight as well – there’s no pacing issues and things never get bogged down in exposition, with the balance between set-pieces and character moments feeling about right.

As for the acting, the film is well served by giving Holly Hunter (Elastigirl) the lead this time round, as it gives her character different material to work with and proves she’s every bit as cool as Mr. Incredible. Bob and the kids still get their fair share of the action though, and Samuel L. Jackson makes the most of his role as Frozone. I’ll be honest, there aren’t many better superhero ensembles out there, and the new characters slot into their roles nicely.

The one way this film betters the original is, unsurprisingly, the animation, which is amazing by comparison, but that’s what you’d expect 15 years later. Hell, the animation is a hell of a lot more convincing than the CGI in Black Panther was! Humans in particular are much more convincing animated, and you can tell the production team had great confidence in the animation by how ambitious the various action scenes are.

The only place the film falls down is its story, which can’t match the original, and its villains, who are good, but aren’t as memorable as Syndrome. It’s not that the plot is dull, its just not as compelling as the original’s, though given how good the humour and action are, I doubt anyone will care much. Screenslaver makes for an interesting villain (indeed, they’re better written than most Marvel or DC villains from the past 5 years, excepting Thanos) but lacks the flamboyance of Syndrome and suffers slightly by comparison. The Underminer leaves a good impression but isn’t on screen for very long – perhaps he’ll return in a possible third film?

Overall, Incredibles 2 is a fun, well-animated romp which will leave you entertained. Just don’t expect it to match the original. But then again, how could it?

Rating: 4 out of 5 – it matches Infinity War!

My next review will be Orange is the New Black season 6, followed by Assassin’s Creed Origins sometime after.

Luke Cage: Season 2 Review

Starring Mike Colter, Rosario Dawson, Mustafa Shakir, Theo Rossi, Alfre Woodard, Reg. E. Cathey, Simone Missick and Finn Jones.

Spoilers for Season 1. Minor Spoilers only for Season 2.

I really wasn’t a fan of Luke Cage after season one. By which I mean the show, not Mike Colter’s character. Colter has always convinced in the role ever since he first appeared on Jessica Jones’ first season. But aside from several good acting performances (by Colter, Mahershala Ali etc.) Season 1 was very, very disappointing, and in my opinion, was one of the most critically overrated TV series (I’d give it a 2.5/5). Sure, it was a landmark event in that it was the first Superhero TV show centred around a Black Superhero and a majority Black Cast. But this doesn’t automatically make it good television, no matter how powerful its message is. It had a unique feel, sure, with a soulful soundtrack that worked wonderfully, but I wouldn’t have recommended it to anyone.

Luke Cage had three major issues in S1: its pacing, its villains and a failure to use its hero in an interesting way. Luke was often too sidelined in favour of the supporting characters throughout the first season, and his whole ‘reluctant hero’ schtick really wasn’t that interesting a character arc – it just made him seem selfish and jaded and didn’t let Colter’s natural charisma show the way it did in Jessica Jones and the Defenders. Worse, the nature of Luke’s powers meant he was completely invulnerable for the first 6 episodes, but then once a weapon that hurt him was introduced in episode 7, he kept going down far too easily (i.e. the familiar Superman/Supergirl problem). The shows pacing was all out of whack, as is usual with Marvel’s Netflix shows, and was definitely 3 episodes too long. The biggest problem, however, was the villains. S1 had 4: Cottonmouth, Diamondback, Shades and Mariah. Although the actors did their best with each of them, we never got any reason to care about Shades or Mariah, who were really bland throughout, Diamondback was very OTT and had a really hackneyed origin story (Luke’s resentful brother, I mean seriously??! talk about cliched) and Cottonmouth (the only decent one) was killed off halfway through.

I gave S2 another chance because, as I said, I like Colter’s performance and figured the show could do a lot better. Has it?

Yes it has. Thank God!

Luke is a much, much more interesting lead this season. He grapples with more compelling themes, struggling with anger issues, his newfound celebrity status, and his desire to do what’s right even when he knows he could solve Harlem’s problems more quickly by just killing Mariah or working outside the law. While he still feels a bit too sidelined at times, the screentime Luke does get is put to much better use. Colter clearly relishes the role he’s playing this time, whether its sparring with Claire and Misty over his methods or trying to reconnect with his estranged father (marvellously played by the terrific late Reg. E. Cathey, who the series is dedicated to).

The writing has also improved a lot, mainly because it focuses a lot more on character work, so that even when the plot slows up we still get some compelling scenes. The racial politics and progressive messages are still there, but are included with far more nuance, and aren’t so jarringly on the nose as they were in season one. As Black Lightning proved, these things work far better when they are simply shown, rather than being patronisingly spelt out for the audience. In other good news, the supporting characters this season (Sugar, D.W. Piranha, Comanche, Tilda, Anansi) are all much more interesting than Misty, Scarfe or Shades were last season. Thankfully, Misty is a much easier character to like this time round, simply because she’s clued in and on Luke’s side from the start. Even more surprisingly, Shades becomes one of the shows most intriguing characters this season, as Theo Rossi gets much better material to work with and gets the chance to really show his talent as an actor. Alfre Woodard gets a better storyline as Mariah as well, as the show does a better job of transforming her into a main villain, though arguably it gets too focused on her in the latter episodes of the season.

The show’s biggest strength, however, has to be new villain Bushmaster. Not only is this villain capable of going hand-to-hand with Cage (something which Mariah, Shades and Cottomouth were handicapped by their inability to do), but he’s also played with great charisma by Mustafa Shakir, who turns Bushmaster into one of the most memorable villains in Marvel TV (he’s virtually Tennant as Kilgrave good, and that’s the highest praise I can give). His fights with Luke are highlights of the season, and the fight choreography in general seems to have taken a massive step up this year – you’ll never get bored of Luke smacking down thugs or going toe-to-toe with Bushmaster, who is the first character to ever pose a genuine physical threat to Luke. It’s just a pity that Bushmaster gets sidelined in favour of Mariah in the last few episodes of the series, as he was definitely the stronger adversary of the two.

The series still isn’t perfect however. While it feels like you could get 13 episodes of story from the plot, each episode weighs in at 50-65 minutes, so the episodes do feel stretched out in places, normally because police incompetence or Luke’s reluctance to kill keeps some villains in play longer than they need to be. If you fancy a drinking game, have one everytime there’s an interlude mid-episode for a musical performance at Harlem’s paradise – it happens like every bloody episode and probably adds at least a good half-hour of runtime over the season. There’s also an Iron Fist crossover episode, which has its moments, but feels more like fan-service than actually adding anything to the plot (though I’m happy to say Finn Jones is much more likeable as Danny Rand now).

Overall, the shows character-driven scripts and cool fight scenes, in addition to a more subtle and nuanced approach to its political message, make this a huge improvement over season 1. However, it still feels stretched out and arguably focuses on the wrong villain in the final few episodes. Despite this, its probably up there with Jessica Jones’ second season in terms of quality, so I’ll give it the same rating.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Final Thought: Make sure you watch S1 of the Defenders before you watch this, because there’s a lot of references to the events of that crossover series here, particularly regarding Misty and Danny Rand’s role in events.

God of War (2018) Review

This one is something special.

Minor Story Spoilers – but only in terms of setting/characters, not plotline.

It’s been a while since a new PS4 game has truly gripped me. While COD: WWII and Batman: Enemy Within have kept me busy, I haven’t been blown away by anything new since Horizon Zero Dawn released last year. Until now.

This has a very different style from previous God of War games. Its more character driven, with more RPG elements and a much more open world than previous instalments. Kratos is a much more nuanced character here – in previous games he’s been defined solely by vengeance and tragedy, here he gets some slow but merited character growth. This is mainly because of his son, Atreus, who serves as Kratos’ companion and protégée throughout the game. Another change is that Kratos’ main weapon is now the Leviathan Axe, which works in a similar way to Thor’s Hammer (Kratos can recall it at will after throwing it) apart from the fact its abilities are Ice based rather than lightning based. Fans of previous games needn’t worry however, as Kratos’ Blades of Chaos do become available as an alternate weapon a third of the way through the game, which adds a bit of variety to combat. The biggest change however, is the move from Greek myth to Norse myth, which, if anything, proves far more interesting than the Greek. Kratos isn’t taking on the whole pantheon of Norse Gods here, but a few of them crash proceedings to make his task more difficult. The Norse idea of ‘Nine Realms’ is faithfully portrayed and engaging brought to life, along with many, many figures and monsters from Norse mythology.

Combat has also been significantly revamped, mainly because the third person camera is now much more tightly focused on Kratos, rendering him more vulnerable to flank attacks but giving you much better control of his own attacks. While combos still play a big part, it feels like a cross between Skyrim-esque hack and slash and the switch it up style of Arkham games – but is arguably far better than either. There are a wide variety of skill upgrades available which unlock more combos and increase damage, paid for by XP (given for defeating enemies and finishing quests). XP is also used to upgrade various Runes which Kratos can apply to his and Atreus’ weapons, which allow very powerful rune attacks and spirit summons that can only be used after lengthy cooldowns. Atreus’ bow and choke attacks are also upgradeable, and can prove very helpful in tough battles. There isn’t a levelling system as such, instead certain areas are locked off until you progress to a certain part of the story or receive a particular upgrade, usually preventing you from running into enemies that are far too strong for you (marked by a purple health bar). You are free to explore most of the map pretty quickly, but its advisable to get very good skills and gear before you even think of taking on Valkyries or other really strong enemies, who usually lurk in hidden, underground chambers.

The map size is significantly large, encompassing a sizeable part of Midgard (Earth) as well as Helheim (Realm of the Dead), Muspelheim (Realm of Fire) and various other realms from Norse mythology, all of which have a unique feel to them – and all of which look absolutely stunning. I don’t normally go for many screenshots or use photo modes while playing games, but God of War is absolutely beautifully rendered – even on my standard model PS4. I can’t think of a better looking game I’ve played. The soundtrack serves its purpose but only stands out in a few places – most of the time spent travelling instead uses background conversations between Kratos and Atreus which underpins their burgeoning  relationship and provides insight to the Mythology and History of the world they inhabit.

Aside from the main story, which I won’t spoil, there are numerous side quests from two dwarves called Brok and Sindri, who serve as the games’ shopkeepers and blacksmiths, who buy, sell and upgrade all of Kratos and Atreus equipment, in addition to the many collectibles which can be found in hidden chests or areas throughout the maps. There’s just so much to do in the 20-40 hours of gameplay, ranging from freeing imprisoned Dragons, to killing Odin’s Ravens, to defeating combat challenges in Muspelheim and solving puzzles to unlock Nornir chests and improve Kratos’ health and rage. To be honest though, exploring the map is such fun it doesn’t matter if its for a quest or just for the sake of exploring – its compelling either way – though I recommend you play through the main quest pretty frequently, as this unlocks more areas and gives you more XP than other activities (don’t worry – you can keep playing post main quest so it doesn’t matter what order you do things in).

Kratos and Atreus never feel overpowered, mainly due to the wide variety of enemies, including reavers, draugr, wolves, dark elves, trolls, werewolves, Valkyries, stone ancients and bosses, which include everything from giants to dragons to Norse Gods. This variety, added to the multitude of combos and rune attacks prevent combat ever getting repetitive or stale (the same tactics don’t work on every enemy – werewolves dodge too often for axe throws to be effective, frozen enemies are sometimes immune to axe attacks etc.). You have to switch things up a fair bit, particularly when completing challenges in Muspelheim or fighting Valkyries, who are a real challenge even on Normal difficulty.

The one thing I will say about the story is that it offers one of the most compelling Father-Son dynamics I’ve seen in gaming. Atreus and Kratos both have their flaws, but make interesting protagonists. The game does very much feels like a ‘part 1’ of their story, which can only be a good thing. Whether the Norse setting lasts 2 games or 3, I have a feeling that Ragnarok isn’t far away…

Overall God of War is the best game I’ve played on PS4. It balances difficulty, fun, story and gameplay exceeding well. I wouldn’t say its my all time favourite, but it probably is the best designed game I own. If you have a PS4, you need to get this. If you don’t have a PS4, buy one – because missing out on games this good is not an option. Who needs Elder Scrolls VI when you have this?

Rating: 5 out of 5!

Seriously people, just look at the exclusives Sony has at the moment. God of War, the Uncharted series, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Last of Us AND upcoming games like Spider-man? There is nothing on Xbox One or Nintendo Switch that even matches one of those games, let alone all of them. I get arguments about brand loyalty, price and controller layout, but the amount of quality games you can’t get without a PS4 isn’t even funny anymore. If you’re a gamer and have the cash, get one!