Stan Lee – So Long, True Believer!

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It isn’t too often the death of a celebrity affects me emotionally, but today is very different. Stan ‘The Man’ Lee has passed away.

It’s difficult to talk about Stan without discussing my own life, so ingrained is he in the very core of the person I am today. Comic books were always around me, from my very earliest memories in the mid-1960s, those beautiful and crazy, four-colour treasures were always to hand, courtesy of a family that believed in the power of reading and in the stimulation of the imagination.

At first the comics were probably quite random, though I recall some Superman titles and an adaptation of King Kong that I literally read to pieces. These, along with the seminal American monster magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland, were the guides that quickly took me past Jack & Jill books.

Then in 1972, Marvel, whose characters until then had been spottily reprinted in comics from other UK publishers, such as Odhams, launched their very first issue of The Mighty World of Marvel.  A weekly title, featuring Fantastic Four, Hulk and Spider-Man, it continued in the house style set by the original US Marvel comics, crediting the creators of the strips and led by the breathless purple prose of the personable and garrulous front-man for the company, the one and only Stan Lee.

Like Lee’s teenage hero Peter Parker being transformed by the radioactive bite of a spider, I was bitten and entranced with not only these larger than life super-hero characters, but by the very idea of Marvel and its editorial Bullpen, where creators such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Marie & John Severin, Don Heck, John Buscema, Gene Colan and many more dreamed up a never-ending series of stories to further stimulate my senses and, even better, encourage my own budding talents as an artist!

In October 1975, Lee and Hulk artist Herb Trimpe came to the UK to appear at the music venue, The Roundhouse, in London’s Camden. The show they put on was like a music gig, with Lee & Trimpe striding the stage like Plant and Page, rock gods of the comic pages to these youthful eyes. I had a front row ticket, alongside my lovely, flu-ridden Mum, who didn’t want eleven year-old me travelling across London on my own at night. Getting to meet my hero was beyond exciting, and that night is still firmly fixed in my head, as I can still feel the heat of the spotlights and hear my Mum coughing beside me.

I’d meet Stan again the following year, and buried somewhere in my loft (I hope) is a glossy, black & white still of me handing him my copy of Captain Britain, issue one, to sign (I still have that too).

I grew up alongside Peter Parker (some years older than me, of course, so he was a fictional, aspirational character), watching him graduate high school and head to college, then find himself in the hectic world of the freelance photographer – I could never have imagined my own life path would be so similar. This explains a large part of why Parker and Spider-Man remain my most-loved of Lee’s co-creations.

Only in my wildest dreams did I ever see myself actually working for Marvel, and yet, many years later there I was. Frankly, my career could have stopped at that moment and I’d have died with a grin on my face. Seeing my first Marvel pay cheque (ah, the days of printed pay cheques) emblazoned with images of the Hulk and Spider-Man was a genuinely surreal moment, to the point I almost (almost, mind…) didn’t cash it!

As I got older, I became more aware of the realities behind the comic stories: of the horrible practices of the comic book industry that saw creators robbed of their artwork and their intellectual ownership of characters that would go on to be financially exploited in all kinds of media. Slowly, and often posthumously, these creators or their families are seeing deals made to bring some equity to this shameful situation, and my hero turned out to have feet of clay as it’s pretty obvious that Lee helped perpetuate these problems.

That’s alway a useful learning curve for fans, of course, to be able to see those we admire as imperfect people instead of lofty icons.

And there was further sadness involving Stan, as in recent years he became embroiled in health and money issues, in seemingly endless attempts to recapture the creative heights of years long gone. This day has seemed ever more inevitable as he became more fragile with each appearance. And so it is.

But what a legacy this man left. A modern-day mythology that carries on the ages-old traditions of heroic storytelling, fables of characters we can and must aspire to be, whose ultimate goodness is set not in the wheel of victory, but in the attempt of victory, to be the better part of ourselves. Isn’t that something to get excited about?

For me personally, Stan and his amazing co-creations literally changed my life. Does that sound grandiose? Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Stan appearing in my narrative directly led to me working in comic books for many years, and I wouldn’t now be working in animation had his vast imagination (and those of the people he worked with) not stirred my own imagination, my own creativity.

Thank you, Stan, for everything. You were The Man.

Excelsior.

Yours truly, with my original copy of the comic book that changed my life.
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My copies of the Origins of Marvel Comics (and its sequels), signed by Stan in 1975 and ’76.
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Captain Marvel Is Here

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Courtesy of Entertainment Weekly, the first official images of Captain Marvel have landed.

Brie Larson will star in Marvel’s first female-fronted franchise movie, Captain Marvel, as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (that’s a whole lotta Marvels, even before we discuss Jude Law).

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Set in the 1990s, making this a full-on prequel to everything we’ve seen before, the story will feature Larson going head to head with some fan favourite intergalatic bad guys from the comic books, the shape-shifting Skrulls. And here they are…

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The film also sees the return (or is it a preturn? Since this is technically speaking, his first appearance) of Lee Pace as Ronan The Accuser, last seen in a dance-off against the gang in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 1.

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Jude Law also features as Mar-Vell (in the comics, the first Captain Marvel, before Larson’s Carol Danvers inherits the title):

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Plus of course, the movie sees Samuel L Jackson as a pre-eyepatch wearing, two-eyed Nick Fury (last seen in the future, at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, dying along with half the universe just after sending out a call for help from Captain Marvel – oh, come on, that can’t be a spoiler by now).

Marvel Studios' CAPTAIN MARVEL Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)

Captain Marvel  is written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck,  with Meg LeFauve, Nicole Perlman, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Liz Flahive, and Carly Mensch also chipping in to the screenplay, and the film takes flight on March 8, 2019. Skrulls permitting.

This Is The End – Avengers: Infinity War * spoiler free review

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The Marvel films have always struggled with villains, it’s a frequently heard complaint that few villains beyond Loki and, arguably, Erik Killmonger, have left too much of an impression. So let’s get this right out there – not only was Thanos worth waiting for, but he instantly ranks at the top of the hall of infamy.

There was concern that the Mad Titan would be a let down, that he couldn’t possibly live up to the almost ten-year build which has led us to this point. But the combination of a wonderfully layered performance from Josh Brolin and superlative animation effects work brings Jim Starlin’s deranged creation to full, terrifying life in Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.

This feat is even more impressive in a film which (as I’m sure you know from the hype) brings together all the expected characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and perhaps even some unexpected ones).

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) do a splendid job of pulling together an increasingly active number of franchises, giving most characters a neat arc and/or several great moments, though there are exceptions, inevitable even with a two-hour forty minute running time, and a certain amount of shorthand is definitely at play. That they manage this without spending an hour on exposition is a minor miracle, and a testament to deft storytelling (and the good will engendered by eighteen previous films).

There’s an undeniable frisson of excitement (especially for a Marvel geek like me) to see new combinations of characters, having Spider-Man and Doctor Strange interact left me with the biggest grin on my face, but the filmmakers know they need more than just a Marvel Team-Up to make a satisfying film.

There are real stakes here, literally the fate of the universe (or half of it… you’ll see…) hangs in the balance, with a number of different strands occurring in different locations on different worlds, and the action feels all the more vital because Marvel have taken the time to build these worlds and make us care for the characters. And it’s no spoiler to say your emotions will really be put through the wringer – I wept a solitary, manly tear on more than one occasion.

But don’t think the threat of the universe coming to an end or talk of tears means it’s all doom and gloom: this is a thrill-a-minute adventure that hits the ground running and barely lets up on the action, but as usual it’s mixed in with some fabulous and funny character interplay – Thor with Peter Quill and Doctor Strange with Tony Stark bring unexpected delights.

There’s also a distinct feel here of the beginning of a changing of the guard – the first ten years of Marvel movies has seen a very definite roster of characters and Infinity War shows us that the company’s willingness to shake things up is part of what makes them so successful, and which lends even more weight to the story, of course. Even the obligatory post-credit scene nods in that direction (it’s a nod that literally made me whoop in the cinema).

Is there a downside to all this? I suspect that a casual filmgoer would be rather lost but y’know in that case, get with the Marvel game like the rest of the population, I guess.

Avengers: Infinity War is a huge, and hugely exciting, comic book, sci-fi epic that really sees the gutsy long-game approach taken by Marvel pay off, giving us the Empire Strikes Back of their bold, long form narrative, and finally giving the Marvel Cinematic Universe its own Darth Vader, a cosmic villain with a welcome emotional core.

And really, so as not to wander into the spoiler zone, that’s about all I can say, except that this is the huge Marvel adventure we’ve been waiting for.

This is the end*… but bring on May 3, 2019 and Avengers 4 as soon as possible please, I only have so many fingernails left to chew through.

*Speaking of the end, you KNOW to stay right through to the very end of the credits, right…!?

Guardians vs The Hoff in Disco Inferno!

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Not much to say about this one except here’s the music video released to promote the digital release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which will probably be the greatest thing you’ll see today.

Starring the entire Guardians Vol 2 crew (and director James Gunn himself) in 70s kitchen foil disco suits along with The Hoff, there’s even room for the obligatory Stan Lee cameo.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 lands on digital on August 8th and Blu-ray & 4K on August 22nd.

Enjoy, and remember: We Are Groot!

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Amazing, At Last!

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Considering Spider-Man has been with us since 1962, it’s somewhat difficult to understand why he’s never come close to appearing on the cinema screen.

Oh sure, there have been five movies, some more successful in their approach than others, but regardless of how close each of them got to capturing that magic quality which has kept the character in print for fifty-five years something always felt… just slightly off.

Sam Raimi and co. certainly got close, especially with Spider-Man 2, which held the gold standard for superhero movies for some time. But I was never happy with the casting of that trilogy, as good as Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are as actors, I never felt they were right for Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson.

Marc Webb swung closer with his stars, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (as Gwen Stacy) but the approach taken to the two Amazing Spider-Man films was just completely wrong-headed. Making Peter Parker a disaffected skateboard kid who ends up swinging into his graduation ceremony to kiss the prettiest girl in school was so far removed from what makes these characters special it was absurd. Sadly these entries also felt like the worst kind of committee-led filmmaking.

And both sets of movies shared a very particular missing quality. In the comic books Spider-Man has always been a vital cornerstone of the Marvel Universe, but in the movies the character has always swung through a New York bereft of other superheroes.

Spider-Man: Homecoming corrects that from its opening moments, as we are dropped into a New York recovering from alien invasion with criminals using stolen alien technology, a world where Avengers tower looms large over the city and superheroes are commonplace in everyday life.

But here is where the new collaboration between Marvel and Sony has really paid dividends, in the understanding that our Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man is the contrast to the other characters who fly around seeing off aliens from space and demons from dark dimensions. Spider-Man works best as a street level character, interacting with New Yorkers who cheer or jeer as he goes about his daily web-slinging.

Finally we’re given the opportunity to see Peter explore his newfound powers without the tiresome retread of an origin story, instead following a hero learning from his (plentiful) mistakes. Stakes are kept personally high but distinctly low-key (in superhero terms), from Spider-Man realising just how long it takes to climb the Washington Monument (and suddenly seeing how high up he is at its top) through to the climactic battle between hero and villain.

Speaking of the villain, I’d happily watch Michael Keaton reciting the phone directory and while there are one or two moments I’d like to have seen him given more to chew on, he also manages to bring an interesting, almost political motivation to his character and in one sequence set inside a parked car, a palbable sense of threat and menace in a stand-off involving no costumes, with no powers used or punches thrown. It’s a stand out moment in a film full of them.

The casting is excellent overall, as Peter Parker’s high school friends feel natural and unstereotypical, and director Jon Watts gives the film a John Hughes vibe that’s hard to ignore and impossible to dislike, with a fresh feeling that’s quite distinct from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet completely at home in it. Jacob Batalon’s Ned and Zendaya’s Michelle are particular stand-outs.

As seen in Captain America: Civil War, we’re given a fresh take on Peter’s Aunt May, now played with delightful MILF-relish by Marisa Tomei. She’s not given huge amounts to do in this first outing, but she’s such a fine actress she supports here perfectly and hopefully we’ll see more from her in the already-announced sequel.

Finally, every filmed attempt at Spider-Man stands and falls with its Peter Parker, and here we are given a true representation of the character. Tom Holland simply nails the role, his boyish looks giving Peter an average Joe quality, an awkward, earnest, ordinary teenager blessed, or cursed, with extraordinary abilities, who ultimately uses his powers because he knows it’s the right thing to do.

While this iteration plays loosely with the source material it stays true to the good-natured heart that has seen these characters loved by millions for so long to produce a film that’s as full of charm as it is action set-pieces. It’s a feel-good film about a decent, 15 year old boy, his friends and family and the responsibility he feels to protect them and the world in which they live. It seems like such a simple trick, but it’s been frustratingly elusive.

With their flagship hero returning to the Marvel fold as a result of a studio deal between the company and Sony, we’ve finally been given a Spider-Man who deserves the Amazing adjective.

This is the homecoming Spider-Man fans have been waiting for!

“Coffee For Spider-Man…”

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Perhaps to make up for the recent slew of quite dreadful posters for Spider-Man: Homecoming (I won’t link to them, but they’re out there and easily found if you have a taste for really bad Photoshop), Sony have released this amazingly (sorry, not sorry) cute piece of viral marketing to trumpet the imminent release of their first co-production with Marvel Studios.

It weirdly captures the friendly, neighbourhood aspect of the character which seemed largely absent from the last two ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ Sony productions, so let’s hope this approach is something Marvel have managed to filter through into the new movie, released in just a few short weeks, on July 7th.

In the meantime, watch out for stray webs in your cup the next time you order a coffee…