Monday, March 31, 2014

'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' is a breath of fresh air for a genre that's getting stale [REVIEW]

REVIEW: ****

While the Marvel Studios movies have rarely been truly bad, I have felt that the post-Avengers films have been lacking a greater sense of ambition - both 'Iron Man 3' and 'Thor 2' seemed content to coast along with elaborate action scenes and generous doses of comedy gags. None of the 'Studios films ever aimed for the kind of intelligent, transcendant storytelling seen in 'The Dark Knight' or even the earlier X-Men films - they seemed content in providing breezy popcorn entertainment that doesn't require a lot of brainpower.This all changes in 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'.

The sequel to the 2011 film, Cap 2 is almost unrecognisable when compared to the earlier film - gone is the WWII backdrop (as Cap has awoken in the modern day) and gone are the gimmicky laser-cannon Hydra henchmen, which made much of the previous film's third act feel like a videogame. What's left is an intelligent, elaborate political thriller that puts heavy emphasis on slower, more thoughtful scenes of characterisation and dialogue, with action scenes that while exciting, are more reserved, more realistic and less reliant on computer wizardry. Veteran 'Community' directors Anthony and Joe Russo have crafted a vibrant, thrilling new chapter in the Marvel Cinemaverse and it's no surprise that their talents have been called on for the third 'Cap' film.

Robert Redford joins the cast as Alexander Pierce, one of the senior members of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury's boss. Redford is mainly present to provide 'real dramatic actor cred' to the film, as is always the case in superhero films now - but unlike other examples of this trope, Redford is given a really meaty, complex role and he always invests heavily in the scenes in which he appears; he never seems embarrassed by his presence in the film, which hasn't always been the case. The other obvious reason for his inclusion is that it recalls 1970s political thrillers like 'Three Days of the Condor' - in one scene, the Watergate Hotel is conspicuously placed in the background, again strengthening this atmosphere.

Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johannson return as Nick Fury and Black Widow respectively; both have more to do in this film than they have in many of the other Marvel movies (even 'The Avengers') and the films leaves you yearning for Black Widow to get her own film. One thing I liked about Johannson's role this time around was that there was a lot less overt sexualisation of her than there was in Iron Man 2 or the Avengers. Anthony Mackie makes his much-anticipated debut as Captain America's bessie mate 'The Falcon' and every time he's on the screen, he's a joy to watch. I sincerely hope he makes many repeat appearances across all the films - he even deserves his own film. Sebastian Stan plays the Winter Soldier, a character whose appearances are surprisingly scant throughout a film where his name appears in the title - every appearance is effective, however and Stan's presence is always successful. I've seen the film twice now, and on both occasions, I heard an audible gasp from people in the audience when they learnt the truth of the Winter Soldier in the second act.

The best thing about the film however, is of course Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. So many people were against the casting of Evans to the character given that he'd already played the Human Torch and there was a wealth of more immediately interesting choices rumoured for the role (John Krasinski would have been a really exciting choice).  What's so surprising then is that Evans injects so much personality and humanity into a character that could easily be very dry. Captain America is part of the 'old guard' of smiling, dashing heroes that many people find difficult to relate to or telling interesting stories with. What 'Winter Soldier' does so well (much like many of the best Cap stories in the comics), is that it juxtaposes Cap's earnest, black & white way of looking at the world with the realities of modern cynicism and fragile politics, where there are far more shades of grey. Throughout the film, Cap is found wondering if S.H.I.E.L.D. represents the freedom he was fighting for in WWII, or if it's just another oppressive bully - Evans relishes the role, injecting a commanding presence, a childlike wonder of modern innovation and a reassuring confidence in his ability to do the right thing. You literally would follow this guy into war.

Like the first film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves how it's still possible to take an older, more traditional superhero and make them interesting by framing their adventure within a modern context. This is something that 'Man of Steel' sensationally failed to do, because it didn't try - unlike that film, Cap 2 is a film that truly believes in its lead character and his innocent idealism, rather than trying to dirty him up. It stands proud as one of the very best of the Marvel Studios movies and a promising look at how superhero movies may continue to grow and become more intelligent and less reliant on the repetitive tropes of the genre.

Monday, March 24, 2014

5 Tips for Having the Craic and Saving Money in Dublin City Centre

While it’s a fair city to live in, enjoying yourself in Dublin has become an increasingly pricey enterprise - for a fairly small European city, it is guilty of being a bit of a tourist trap, with many of it’s key attractions diddle-ee-eyeing it up for the sake of tourists (especially Americans) looking to part with 50 euro notes. Far too many stories are being heard of pints costing 6 and 7 euro, and far too bloody often the selection is the same supermarket slush you can get anywhere. Negotiating your way through the pricey labyrinth of The Big Smoke without injuring your wallet is difficult, but doable. Let's take a look at five easy ways to soften the blow.

5. Stay away from Copperface Jack’s

The international notoriety of Copperface Jack's and its Harcourt Street brethren is known to all, far and wide and it's unlikely to lose its seedy lure for rural, hormonal twentysomethings anytime soon. If you want a paint-by-numbers Night Out, with a standard crowd (there's always a crowd there), basic drinks and an increased chance of nocturnal romance (he said, an eyebrow raised), there's not much of an argument to be had against Coppers.

Except that it's sweaty, expensive and crap.
Something that will come as a surprise to no one is that Copperface Jack's is a meat market, full of shady characters looking to Make a Sale and Bail. Far as the eye can see, it's as jam-packed as a tin of spam, with people pressing each other up against walls, glowing with condensation and remorse, awkwardly licking each others faces because they're so drunk off Carlsberg, Budweiser and other boring beers. Just like the ambience, the music is meticulously 'Does what it says on the tin', with chart hits spat out by a soulless DJ, followed by a smattering of sure-fire 1990s Nostalgia Choons. Look, everyone will guiltily confess to having had at least one epic night there, but it's the McDonalds of Dublin nightclubs - it's as condensed, processed and unhealthy as you can get. Unlike McDonalds though, it's expensive - last time I checked it's a tenner in, and the pisswater they serve is the same boring supermarket tipple you can get anywhere.

Instead of immediately leaping into the queue for Jack’s, think further toward the Liffey. Doyle’s of College Green is a perfectly fine establishment that doesn’t charge a cover, and offers a very similar experience to Coppers - minus the exorbitant drink prices for shit beer, and the sinister meaty ambience. Downstairs is a friendly, welcoming pub (although I did overhear a man there say that he thought ‘The Big Bang Theory’ was the best American sitcom he’d ever seen) while upstairs is a fun, vibrant night-club with the same “Play the hits” mentality that works for Coppers - but it’s less depressing because of the drinks promos, and the ability to sit down. For the best compromise between affordability, and ease of location (especially if you’re relying on public transport), Doyle’s is the happiest medium.

Style and affordability meet in The Workman’s Club and its accompanying pub, The Bison Bar however. It’s just a really cool place, with a reliably eccentric crowd and drinks promos that range from the sublime to the amazing. Where you’re stuck paying €5.50 for a Budweiser in Coppers, in Workman’s it’s a fiver for a Whiskey Sour. Even less still, is the ‘Gail Platt’, named after the eternally annoying Coronation Street character. On Sunday night’s Karaoke Night (where patrons were recently taken by storm by soulful reimaginings of Common People and Danger Zone) I managed to enjoy the company of Ms. Platt four times, for less than €20. The Rovers can’t compete - I say can’t compete with that, Ashley.

4. Cinemas: Choose Irish

Cineworld on Parnell Street (The Artist Formerly Known as The UGC) has some fine facilities, fairly friendly staff, is well-laid out and because of its exclusive IMAX screen is largely unavoidable when a big Summer blockbuster comes out. Unfortunately, it’s ferociously expensive, with tickets on the wrong side of €11, and for reasons that remain a mystery to me, it is basically the Hellmouth of cinemas; a hive of scum, villainy, and people who have loud, ignorant conversations throughout a film while waving their iPhone around like a floodlight, as though it were somehow the key to their release from this dark prison. I have actually been known to stand up and tell people to be quiet during films there. I can’t explain why, but it attracts utter dickheads and I always try to avoid the place for the sake of my sanity.

The Savoy on O’Connell Street is a classier gem, too often forgotten by modern Dubliners. While it has fewer screens (many of them smaller than its Parnell St. rival) and thus less choice of cinema times, it boasts undeniably better ambience (I love the way the staff still wear bow ties and some of the ushers look like they’ve worked there for decades) and is crucially a lot cheaper than Cineworld. It’s just a nicer place to be and I have fond memories of my recent trips there.

For less mainstream cinema, The IFI is the secret weapon of the city, with regular and affordable screenings of independent films, documentaries and classics (my girlfriend and I saw Casablanca on Valentine’s Day there two years ago and it was delightful). A similar venue is The Screen, a quiet little resource around the corner from d’Olier Street. Like the IFI, bigger Hollywood films generally aren’t shown there, but it’s a good place to see subversive character dramas, and usually the big Oscar nominees will be shown there. It also warrants a mention for its showings of all of the Batman movies in the Summer of 2012.

3. Antidotes for the Starbucks Infection

Like most European cities, Dublin is suffering from an outbreak of Starbucks coffee houses that have poisoned the city overnight, with new ones sprouting up like warts on every side of the Liffey, as Irish-owned businesses are ritually sacrificed to the American behemoth. Everybody in the world knows that Starbucks is overpriced, pretentious and rubbish - their coffee is so drab and tasteless that unless you order an expensive, syrupy, foamy cup of swill, you’re not going to enjoy your drink at all. The vacuum-packed food is so expensive that the fact that it looks stale and repulsive isn't even the reason you avoid it. The Wifi has rarely worked very well in any of the many outlets I've visited and while the staff are undoubtedly friendly, it’s that creepy, overenthusiastic, manufactured Stepford Wife-brand of friendliness that is more off-putting and repellant than it is welcoming. These places are magnets for ageing hipsters, loud and annoying tourists and complete assholes.

There are plenty of beautiful, gourmet coffee houses around Dublin, but the problem is that Starbucks isn’t trying to cater to these people. It understandably provides a service to people in a hurry, on-the-go, in a rush, etc. For a more affordable facsimile, with more down-to-Earth staff, dramatically more affordable coffee and reasonable food options, I've really fallen in love with Centra Foodhall on Abbey Street.

Don’t let its newsagenty title fool you - while it is fundamentally a shop, it works well as a café as well, with a cosy seating area and plenty of hot food options as well as self-service coffee machines, negating the need to deal with an Americanised automaton awkwardly asking what your name is so they can scrawl a hasty misspelling of it onto a paper cup. Get a loyalty card and you’ll quickly find yourself with a free cup of coffee, even though you’ve barely spent a tenner there over a two-week period.

If you’re not in a hurry, another cheap option is, strangely enough, The Decent Cigar Emporium on Grafton Street, which also offers coffee at insanely competitive prices (last time I went there it was 1.90 for an Americano). Also, it goes without saying that if your a motorist, Topaz is a caffeine-godsend.

2. Dealz is the greatest thing ever

Pound shops (a term so well-known that it has retained its iconic power long after the introduction of the euro) have always been an essential secret weapon to getting by in any major Irish town. Dublin is awash with these wonders, many of them loaded with budget-friendly eccentricities that presumably found their way over here in some kind of bulk trawler.

Dealz goes above and beyond, not just providing the bare essentials, but the nitty-gritty requirements that you find yourself needing, but not wanting to spend money on. Little things like white-boards (or chalk-boards) for the kitchen, thermoses, various bodycare products (don’t buy underarm deodorant anywhere else) and fiddly little entertainment requirements (HDMi cables, coaxial audio cables, USB chargers, blank CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes!) are all available there for pennies (149 to be exact). Also, if you’re stocking up for a movie marathon and you need some junk food, don’t bother throwing money down the toilet in Tesco - Dealz have got you sorted on that front as well, with lots of interesting confectionary that’s pricey or difficult to find elsewhere as well as the usual stuff for as little as half the price you’d pay in the supermarket.

An honourable mention must go to Tiger as well - they’re not quite a pound shop, as many of their products cost as much as €5, but they’re well-deserving of a mosey as they have a wealth of weird little oddities you didn’t know you needed (everything from herbs and spices to wind-up robots and fake moustaches).

1. Temple Bar by day, not by night.

This is common knowledge for anyone who has spent more than ten minutes in Dublin, but for those on the tear, the Temple Bar area is a ridiculous, stereotype-promoting, cliché-ridden tourist trap with legendarily expensive pubs. Don’t get me wrong, there are some truly wonderful, completely-free cultural events and unmissably quirky shops and stalls there that make it an essential spot to be during the day, but when night falls, the place rapidly deteriorates into an almighty dive.

If you want to actually experience Irish culture and not the tawdry ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’ version of it, go to Club Chonradh na Gaeilge on Harcourt Street - a bastion of truth, drinking and an tslí Gaelach. Conceptually it’s an Irish-speaking pub and at any given time, at least 80% of its patrons will usually be speaking the language - but don’t let this put you off. It’s got one of the friendliest atmospheres in Dublin and the barmen are only too happy to teach you the cúpla focal so that you can order a pionta leánn dubh. If you really want to go full-Irish, there’s traditional Irish music there quite often and even a bit of the auld damhsa. Worth mentioning that their pints are reasonably-priced as well and you’ll get a great Guinness there.

By now you’ll have realised that I hate shelling out money on crap, supermarket beer like Budweiser or Carlsberg. If you’re in town having a pint, you can enjoy far better and at cheaper cost. Places like the Portherhouse Central on Nassau Street, the Bull and Castle in Christchurch and my favourite J.W. Sweetman’s (The Artist Formerly known as Messrs Maguire) are awash with freshly brewed craft beers, on tap and often for less than a fiver (while the tasteless Budweisers are often at least a euro or two more expensive). I recommend Porterhouse’s Red Ale and Kölsch Pale Ale is a great choice if you’re in J.W. Sweetman’s (or Cologne - where it’s from, for that matter). 

Unfortunately, our national tastes are drab and uninspired even in the best environments - despite certain pubs having an abundance of these tasty treat-beers, people always favour the drab foamy rubbish they know, but you can be the change you expect in other drinkers. Hopefully I've highlighted a few money-saving spots. Even if you don't actually save any money per se, you may at least find that you've enjoyed spending it that bit more. Vive le Capitalisme!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Prequel Paralysis: Why I can't get excited for FOX's 'Gotham'

'Variety' have just released the first official image for 'Gotham', the new prequel series, set in the early days of James Gordon's career with the Gotham City Police Department. While the showrunners have promised that the origins of some of The Dark Knight's villains will be explored, given the timeline of the series, Batman himself won't be appearing - Bruce Wayne will be just 13-years old at the start of the series, having just witnessed the murder of his parents. By the close of the story, Bruce will have donned the cape and cowl. 

Like many fans, I've been clamouring for years for a police procedural set in Gotham City, where Batman isn't a main character and only occasionally appears in the background of the series, instead putting the focus squarely on the normal men and women of the GCPD who have to deal with the hardships of regular law enforcement in a city occupied by freaks. This was the premise for 'Gotham Central', a series of comics that ran throughout the 00s to critical acclaim, developing characters like Crispus Allen and Renée Montoya.

My biggest problem with 'Gotham' is that there's no reason why it couldn't have just been 'Gotham Central'. You could still have Jim Gordon and all the supporting cops, and Batman could be a periphery character whose presence is felt rather than seen. Instead the producers are going down the Smallville route, and in doing so, are already setting themselves up for the same kind of story difficulties that series regularly ran into. Prequels by their very nature are a flawed enterprise - they're always built around the premise that we know what's going to happen and therefore have built-in expectations about how those events should come to pass. Prequel stories use this expectation to tease the viewers with tantalising promises that we're nearing ever close to some kind of rebirth of the status quo - but viewers forget that once the status quo arrives, the story has to end. Certainly this is true of "Smallville", but it's also kind of the case with the Star Wars prequels, and similarly with J.J. Abrams "Star Trek" films, which promised a grand new destination for the Original crew, only to have them jump through the same "Not quite there yet" hoops in two consecutive films. It feels like the only reason it's being placed in the past is so that it conveniently doesn't have to tie in with Zach Snyder's upcoming 'Batman vs Superman' film or subsequent films. 

The other problem is the promise of villainy - the tradition of the Batman formula has always been that Gotham was always a city under siege by crime and corruption and then Batman came along and then everything changed, including crime itself, which transformed into something capable battling Batman. That's what makes 'The Dark Knight' such a perfect Batman film; we've already seen Batman bring down  more ordinary types of criminals to the point where at the start of the film, a pair of gangbangers don't even want to go out at night because they're afraid of running into him. But then the Joker comes along as a symbol of crime fighting back. It's perfect and beautiful and part of why Batman and the Joker are such brilliant characters. 

The problem is though that if you have Jim Gordon battling Two-Face and the Riddler and all these costumed crazies long before Batman actually shows up, the whole formula has been diluted to something a lot more bland and less complex. 'Gotham' is in a tricky situation of being damned if it does and damned if it doesn't: they could do an ordinary cop show with the GCPD going up against normal mobsters but that wouldn't be visually exciting or all that different from the nine kajillion police procedurals already on the air. So naturally they'll pile in the supervillains and if 'Smallville' is anything to go by, Bruce Wayne will probably find himself acquainted with most of his enemies before he ever even puts on a Batsuit. 


One thing I will say about 'Gotham' is that so far, the casting choices have been quite good. I've liked Ben McKenzie since his days on 'The O.C.' where he always pulled off a quiet intensity in a show that was dominated by a lot of motormouth characters. Similarly, Donal Logue is a solid choice for Harvey Bullock, a character who has been annoyingly absent from all of the Batman films (even though there have been numerous characters who fit the mold). I'm not crazy about some of the other choices - they all seem a bit too pretty for the parts they're playing, but anything is possible. 

Ultimately, I'm not writing the show, I don't know how it's going to turn out and I certainly think there's every reason why it could be an entertaining crime drama in its own right. After all, it's not really fair to compare this to 'Smallville', a show that ran on a completely different network, presumably aimed at a different target demographic. But right now I question the validity of their use of the source material - it all feels a bit forced. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The 5 Most Ridiculous Vampire Weaknesses

Vampires continue to be a go-to classic for fiction, with a wealth of films and novels that mine the collective folklore to create everything from easily-expendable villainous henchmen to all-powerful agents of Satan, from brooding anti-heroes to shining champions of good.

One thing that always remains the same about vampires is that they usually can’t be killed by the kind of conventional machine-gun, sword-slinging violence that has seen so many action movie villains bite the dust over the years. Vamps typically have more creative achilles heels, possibly one of the reasons people are so fascinated by them. We all know the classics - the stake through the heart, burned to death by sunlight, soaked in holy water, etc. Some of these actually exist in the real-life folklore surrounding vampires, others are just a result of excited storytellers (or cynical movie producers) just trying to dream up a creative deathtrap.

Unfortunately, centuries of folklore and popular culture has lead to the point where if ever there existed a vampire with every ridiculous weakness documented over the years - they’d pretty much be allergic to everything and would die instantly.

Here's a list of the the five most pathetic ways vampires have been warded off or killed over the years.

5. Running water

Typically, Holy Water has worked as a kind of Vamp-acid, capable of burning their flesh or sometimes even killing them. Unfortunately, actual vampire lore extends that to normal, non-sanctified H2O, as long as it's in motion. Some lore states that they can pass freely through the slack end of a stream, but at high tide, they're screwed.

The best example of this is in 'Dracula: Prince of Darkness', where the man in black is taken out at the end of the film when he falls into a river and drowns. You could at least make the argument that falling into a stream is a fairly strange, easily avoidable thing to happen to a person and that trying to trick Dracula into doing it would involve enough creativity that it wouldn't be easy to just push him in. The problem is that they go even farther with it in 'Dracula 1972 A.D.' (a film as ridiculous and amazing as it sounds), where Van Helsing manages to subdue a vampire by turning on the shower and pointing it at his face. Seriously, that happened in a film.

4. Fire

The concept of vampires not being able to move around in direct sunlight has been heavily employed through many different films and stories, with the consequence often being that they'll burst into flames if they do (interestingly this was not the case in Bram Stoker's original 'Dracula' novel, where moving around during the day was no problem). Many would argue that this is an interesting, creative addition to the lore and has been employed well in various films and television series (Buffy gets a lot of mileage out of it).
Many series though, (Buffy especially) go beyond merely having sunlight be the debilitating force and extend it to normal, everyday flame as well - essentially meaning you can kill a vampire with a shot of tequila, as long as it's on fire. Perhaps many won't agree with this, but the fact that vampires are bothered by such an ordinary, human weakness has always irritated me. In many stories, vampires are supposed to be spectral beings anyway (sometimes this is given as the reason they don't cast a reflection). It just feels a bit easy and it's boring - we see people get burned in films all the time.

3. Garlic

Nobody is less of a fan of garlic than I am, but it's ludicrous that a vicious, immortal creature of the night could be subdued by a particularly pungent pasta sauce. Surely if someone ate enough cloves of garlic, their bad breath alone would be enough to cause a vampire to lose their appetite?  Vampires basically wouldn't be able to kill anyone who'd just been to an Italian restaurant.

2. Crossroads 

Ancient lore says that if vampires come to a crossroads, they will become confused and won't be able to decide which way they need to go. This makes vampires about as threatening as foreign tourists. If this was still an issue for modern vampires, surely it would be alleviated by Google Maps?

1. Arithmomania

Now we're really into the weird stuff. Some folklore suggests that if you drop a large collection of beans or coins or oats or any smattering of small objects in front of a vampire, they will be compelled to count them all, thus giving you an opportunity to skedaddle. Mercifully, the only vampire who's ever shown this disorder has been The Count on Sesame Street, but the TV show 'Supernatural' did use it as a way of defeating a leprechaun in one episode.

This weakness would basically make it impossible for vampires to be able to kill anyone in the 21st Century - you could incapicitate a bloodthirsty menace by emptying a packet of peanuts on the ground.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

5 Things We Want to See in 'Batman: Arkham Knight'

Rocksteady Games have released their announcement trailer for their upcoming Batman game ‘Batman: Arkham Knight’ and as is often the case with high profile game trailers, it is a thing of divine beauty. The script saunters into cheesy territories on occasion (Thomas Wayne’s will has a lot of personal life advice for his son given that it’s probably going to be read out by a lawyer in front of dozens of people), but as is often the case with the Arkham games, style wins out over substance, with the allure of a beautiful new batsuit, environments more urban and crowded than ever and the triumphant arrival of a drivable Batmobile, at long, long last.

While this is technically the fourth game in the Arkham series, it’s only the third to be made by Rocksteady as they had nothing to do with its immediate predecessor 'Arkham Origins'.

To say 'Arkham Origins' was a bad game is doing it a grand injustice. To be fair, if that exact game had come around in 2009, I would have danced a merry dance around my living room as I soared through the streets of Gotham fighting thugs and GCPD officers. Unfortunately, it’s not the first in the series, it’s not revolutionary in any great sense, a lot of the immersive quality of the first two feels rushed and uninspired and the few new ideas that are brought to the table are far-fetched and a bit silly. For example, the “Shock Gloves” that you unlock towards the end of the game make the combat entirely too easy, removing all of the complexity from it and essentially giving you unstoppable super-punches.

For most of its story mode however, ‘Arkham Origins’ was generally fun, engaging and worth the purchase. It was only when I delved into the side-missions and extra content (usually a highlight and the extra-mile that ensured the perfect scores of the previous games) that my heart was truly broken. Entire side-missions just didn’t work (they didn’t activate when you reached the required area), the classic ‘Riddler Trophies’ weren’t always recorded when you found them, many of the achievements could only be unlocked through the story mode (which made the hallowed 100% virtually impossible unless you were the most dedicated gamer in the world). Add to this, the game was regularly prone to freezing, which led to lost progress and the tendency to just get so frustrated that you’d give up. I’ve since been on the support forums for the game, only to find them flooded with identical complaints, with no sign of support from WB Montreal, the controversial makers of the game.

Suffice to say, I’m glad to see the return of Rocksteady Studios and hopefully their involvement will ensure a return to form for the series. After all, Batman: Arkham City is arguably my favourite game ever made. So in the spirit of anticipation, I’m going to list the five things I most want to see from the new game.

1) Batmobile Race Challenge Maps

The big selling point of ‘Arkham Knight’ seems to be its inclusion of a drivable Batmobile, the most conspicuously absent element of Batman’s world in the previous games (after all, almost every other Batman game I’ve ever played have at least included some kind of mission where you get to drive the Batmobile).

The design of the Batmobile in this new game is as intriguing as it is spectacular - it seems to have borrowed design aesthetics from the tank-like Tumbler of the Christopher Nolan movies, with some of the sleek roadster sensibilities of the old 1989 Tim Burton version (the windscreen of the cockpit is quite similar to the curved one of those films), as well as some Tron-like futuristic elements that recall the current ‘mobile in the Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo comics.

Given its obvious similarities to the Tumbler, it might be safe to assume that some of the features we saw in the films might be available to Batman in this game, such as its ability to perform turbo-boost ‘jumps’ and remotely intimidate enemies with various weapons. What I’d most like to see are Challenge Maps that allow you to use the Batmobile in races, or even combat situations. As great as the story mode is in an Arkham game, the replayability of the Challenge Maps allows the player to really sink their teeth into the vast array of features that you don’t always discover during your first foray through the game. The Combat Challenges of the previous two games are a treat and even if you’re not in the mood to play through the story again, you can always jump into the ring and take on some thugs, to make you feel like The Dark Knight.

I’d be very surprised and disappointed if the Batmobile didn’t get its own Challenge missions in some way, given how likely it is to play an integral part of the gameplay.

2) DLC Sidekicks that are playable in the free-roaming city

The Arkham games have always offered a wealth of terrific extra content and while some view premium additional Downloadable Content as being an unfair and unjust way of witholding content in a game you’ve already paid for, it’s hard to deny that in almost every case with the past Arkham games, you’ve gotten your money’s worth. The inclusion of extra DLC characters in ‘Arkham City’ was a welcome one. While Catwoman actually played a part in the gameplay, Robin was reduced to a cameo and was only playable in the challenge maps. Nightwing didn’t even get a cameo.

Sidekicks are always a touchy subject in the Batman universe - fans of the comics usually recognise that they’re a necessary part of the lore that help give Batman a family structure that prevents him from going over the edge. Fans of the films and cartoons (which are more limited than comics in how big a story they can tell) often feel that sidekicks just get in the way of Batman’s mystique, unfairly removing focus from the most interesting character. I feel like Arkham City side-stepped this issue very well - not only was Robin given an awesome redesign, his role in the story was limited enough to be respectful, without being excessive.

What was disappointing about him and Nightwing however, was that unlike Batman or Catwoman, you weren’t able to explore the streets of the city with him. Given how much is left to explore and accomplish in the free-roaming City after the story has concluded, it would have been nice to play as Robin while searching for Riddler Trophies and completing other various side-missions. The Modding Community eventually made this a possibility for the PC version of the game, but it’s very much something I’d like to see in the actual build of the game, should the sidekicks return.

On that note, the only confirmed playable character other than Batman in ‘Arkham Knight’ is Harley Quinn. While that sounds like fun (hopefully she’ll have some Joker-esque gadgetry), I really hope we’re not limited to her (Azrael, Batwoman or Damian Wayne’s Robin would all be terrific options).

3) Story threads from Arkham City continued

If you haven’t played Arkham City, you’d do well to skim over this next portion…

While I had my reservations with Arkham City’s bizarre main storyline, I enjoyed some of its subplots. Whether it was the origin of Thomas Elliott’s Hush, or the creepy background appearances of Azrael, I really feel like we deserve some resolution to the story threads introduced in the side-missions of Arkham City. We know at this point that Scarecrow will play a large part of the villainous role (as well as an as-yet unknown original character), but I’m honestly more excited about Azrael’s gloomy prophecy of destruction.

4) RPG Elements

While Arkham Origins thoroughly fudged the potential of giving the player more control over which gadget upgrades they want by making it muddled and confusing, there’s still a lot of potential for a more RPG-like aesthetic, where players have more input as to what kind of Batman they want to be. The number one problem I’ve had with the Arkham games in the past is that the player is given no control over the outcome of the story, or any of Batman’s decisions or his personality. The Mass Effect dialogue-wheel system is a good example of the kind of layout I'd like to see incorporated into this series (although it needn't be anywhere near as complex).

Given that the aim of these games is so often said to be to make you ‘think like Batman’, it seems unfair to present situations where you feel like you’re taking orders from him. The prime example of this was in the finale of Arkham City, where Batman nearly placed the fate of Gotham at risk for the sake of saving Talia Al Ghul’s life. This was a wholly un-Batman-like act, especially given that (as usual) Talia was presented as a thoroughly unlikable individual throughout the whole game.

5) Movie Skins and Alternate Batmobiles

One of my favourite aspects of ‘Arkham City’ was being able to play in alternate Batsuits, particularly Animated Batman and Batman Beyond (who had the wonderful addition of the pop-out wings he had on the cartoon). The one notable exception in the vast collection of past outfits was any of the suits from the Hollywood films. The Adam West suit finally had its day in ‘Arkham Origins’ (even if it had the misfortune of being a PS3 Exclusive - a nasty trick to play on consumers), but there’s still yet to be an Arkham game where we can play as Batman in the suits worn by Michael Keaton or Christian Bale. We’d even settle for Val Kilmer or George Clooney. Obviously the peskiness of likeness rights mean that those actors’ faces will never be used, but come on, you’d only see their chins anyway.

(On second thought...)

What’s exciting about the Batmobile being included in the game is the possibility of alternate Batmobiles also featuring in the game. Obviously the Tumbler and the 1989 roadster should be included, but who in their right mind doesn’t want to tear down the urban dystopia of Gotham City in the iconic, swingin’ 1966 Lincoln Futura?

Atomic batteries to power and turbines to speed, you guys.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Scarlet for yeh: Early thoughts on the new 'The Flash' costume

I spoke recently about ‘Arrow’ and its early efforts to impress its viewers with weekly adventures in the colourful world of comic book vigilantery. Enjoying a swell of success, the eager producers saw fit to expand their own little pocket DC Universe and they introduced Barry Allen, played by the aptly named Grant Gustin.

 Over the course of a handful of Season 2 episodes, the sub-plot of a ‘STAR Labs Particle Accelerator’ plot device was (often forcibly) inserted into the background of Arrow’s plots. We’d see a RoboCop-esque news report where the newsreader would begin by talking about the accelerator before seguing into something pertaining to that particular episode’s actual plot. It wasn’t as smooth or as subtle as it was trying to be, but it was cute nonetheless.

Well, the end result of this was an explosion of Unknown Science - a way of explaining away the less credible tradition of Barry Allen getting struck by lightning and this somehow leading to his speediness (thankfully though they did keep the lightning strike in there, for fun).

A few months later and we’ve received our first tantalising look at the Scarlet Speedster himself through the usual avenues: Two official photos released by the CW network which while impressively shot, deceptively conceal a lot of questions fans have about certain aspects of the suit.

Then there’s the usual smattering of more revealing set photos taken by paparazzi. As usual, these are less graceful, but they give us a better idea of how the suit is going to look in a typical episode (they’re currently filming the pilot).

First and foremost, it’s good to see that the producers of the programme are embracing a fully-fledged superhero costume, instead of messing around with Smallville-esque half measures (leather jackets, hooded tops and eye-makeup - much like the Arrow costume). The helmet/mask is unquestionably belonging to The Flash of the comics. Much of the body of the costume is equally impressive, although as many have pointed out, the pleather pants are a bit of an eyesore and make less sense for a character known for speed than normal athletic wear (such as the kind featured on the upper torso of the costume) would.

Some have pointed out that the darker hue of red is too bleak and reminiscent of the Ben Affleck Daredevil costume. I’ve never had much of a problem with muted colours in costume designs - like it or not, loud garish comic book palettes don’t mesh well with contemporary cinematic colour schemes. Even the Marvel Studios movies (which fanboys love to trolley out and use as an example of everything that’s right with the world - even when the films aren’t deserving of the association) recognise this. Also, it’s important to remember that depending on lighting and colour correction in post-production, the suit could potentially appear a lot more vibrant in certain scenes - this was certainly the case in the 1990s ‘The Flash’ series, where the suit’s vibrancy varied. On that subject the 1990s Flash TV series severely under-rated; go and watch it.  

(The original costume, with some PhotoShoppery by Eoin O'Sullivan)

My biggest problem is the logo. It’s odd that the makers decided to move away from the instantly recognisable Flash emblem - a lightning bolt over a white circle. Simple, clean, iconic. The lightning bolt is still there, but the circle is a vibrant red that doesn’t compliment the darker burgundy of the rest of the suit. Irrespective of any desire to see things the way they are in the source material, from a purely aesthetic point of view, the white logo always served the colour palette of the costume well, as it really set off the rest of the costume. This red alternative is off-putting and uncomfortable to look at. As someone pointed out, the root of this change may have something to do with making it easier to change the colours - using a flat white would be more difficult in this sense. I still don’t see why they couldn’t just make it a more metallic silver though, like Captain America’s movie costume.

On the subject of Captain America, some have complained of aesthetic similarities between the two.

Again, this isn’t really fair - the Flash has always had a similar mask to Captain America, even the lightning bolts on the mask have occasionally been drawn as wings in the past. And if you really want to get pedantic about it, the Flash has actually had those wings on the side of his mask longer than Captain America, as he’s a year older (or the Jay Garrick version is, at least). It’s also worth remembering that on a television budget, the design wasn’t going to be as revolutionary and groundbreaking as the kind of thing you’d see in a film. As ‘Arrow’ has repeatedly exhibited, the producers of these programmes like to play it safe and do things the same way as in the films. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that as long as they keep it fresh and enjoyable.

Ultimately, I think I like this Flash costume. It will be interesting to see it in motion from week to week and see what kind of computer wizardry is applied to it (particularly the super speed effects). Mainly I’m just grateful that the producers really decided to embrace the superhero genre with a costume that has all the great elements of the classics: a mask, a logo and a motif, as opposed to the ‘Arrow’ costume which, while effective and interesting to look at, is less immediately striking as being something a superhero would wear. 

It even makes sense that Barry Allen would adopt such a striking costume, as he has already been established in ‘Arrow’ as someone excited by the idea of theatricality and symbolism in heroism. Hopefully ‘The Flash’ will build on the consistently growing quality of ‘Arrow’ and prove itself worthy to its source.