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The "X-Men" movie franchise, now up to its seventh film if you count the two "Wolverine" solo adventures, has had a lot of ups and downs over the past fourteen years. Nobody likes "The Last Stand" or "Origins." The continuity has become a snarled mess. The newest installment, "X-men: Days of Future Past," is best enjoyed if the viewer is familiar with the rest of the series, and yet it blithely ignores major developments from those films. Last summer's "The Wolverine," included a mid-credits teaser sequence that set up "Days of Future Past," for instance, but it doesn't actually connect to anything that goes on in this movie.

And yet, "Days of Future Past" makes all that history and all that interconnectivity work for it in ways that the competing Marvel Cinematic Universe films have never managed. I enjoyed "Days of Future Past" more than any superhero sequel in ages, and I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that it's been quite a few years since we've last properly seen many of the characters as they were originally depicted - "Last Stand" in 2006 was the last to feature most of the cast of the original "X-men" films - and in both of the eras that are depicted in "Days of Future Past," a lot of time has passed and a lot has happened to our heroes.

In 2023, we have a dystopian future where nightmarish automatons called Sentinels have nearly exterminated mutants and a good chunk of humanity. Among the survivors are Magneto (Ian McKellan), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), and Shadowcat (Ellen Page). In a last ditch attempt to beat the Sentinels, Shadowcat sends Wolverine's consciousness back in time fifty years to his body in 1973, to stop the Sentinels from ever being created. To do this, he needs the help of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who we met in "First Class," to stop the assassination and martyrdom of the Sentinels' creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), by the conflicted shapeshifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).

Despite hardly any of these characters looking like they've aged, the "First Class" gang is now a decade older and more cynical, grappling with the tail-end of the Vietnam War era and the fallout of a lot of historical and personal tragedies. The original trilogy's present-day characters have been flung even farther into the future, eking out their survival in a hellish nightmare world. It doesn't matter if the little details between all the different films don't match up because the "Terminator" -esque story is strong enough, and all the important characters and their circumstances are well established enough that "Days of Future Past" largely works on its own apart from everything that came before.

It's good to have director Bryan Singer back, who is a deft hand with both the action sequences and the melodrama. While "Days of Future Past" does have the large-scale set piece we see at the end of all big-budget superhero films these days, the outcome actually hinges on some very intimate character interactions. James McAvoy and Hugh Jackman in particular shoulder a lot of the weight. I was also happy to see Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique getting a big boost in screen time and narrative importance. The movie is a little lacking in female characters, but Lawrence steals every scene she's in, and at this point she's the definitive Mystique.

The vastly overpowered cast, full of Oscar winners and RSC vets, keep the movie humming along a very human scale, and from becoming too much of a slug-fest. Not that the slugging isn't a lot of fun. There are a couple of stand-out effects sequences, including a jailbreak lead by a speedster mutant named Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and some brawling between the Sentinels and a group of future X-men that shows off multiple kinds of powers being used together. However, it's really the storytelling that makes the film, and I got much more out of the smaller moments of humor and the period touches when Wolverine finds himself back in the '70s.

I've always liked the way that the "X-men" franchise has such a strong sense of history to it, and "Days of Future Past" is perhaps the ultimate expression of this. Unlike other superhero serials that tend to drag their feet when it comes to showing any character progression or disrupting the status quo, these last few "X-men" films have embraced the passage of time. Actions have consequences that echo through the decades. People grow and change and die. The superheroes are not infallible and villains are not always wrong. This version of "Days of Future Past" depends on it.

I've seen some describe this latest "X-men" film as a reboot to some extent, because it negates some of the events that happened in earlier films, but I think that's a mistake. "Days of Future Past" is watchable if you haven't seen any of the past movies, but those who know the series and love these characters already are the ones who will get the most out of it. And they're the ones who will be the most appreciative of the complicated, but compelling time travel fable that Singer and Kinberg and Vaughn and Goldman and the rest are telling here.
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Spoilers ahead for everything that's aired so far, and the recent "Captain America" movie.

I still don't like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." as much as I want to like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," but there's no denying that it has improved drastically over its first season, to the point where I am happy to keep giving it more chances to prove itself. The most problematic characters, Ward and Skye, have both been upgraded considerably. We finally got a compelling - or at least credibly threatening - villain in Bill Paxton's John Garrett. After weeks of awkward references and name-dropping, the show's storylines were properly integrated into the larger continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, namely the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. at the end of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Oh, and Patton Oswalt and Samuel L. Jackson dropped by too.

When you look back over the whole season, everything that the creators spent all those early, tedious weeks setting up paid off wonderfully in the end. The Clairvoyant, the Centipede project, Deathlok, Quinn, Raina and the mystery of Coulson's resurrection all came into play. The trouble was that "Agents" had a lot of trouble getting the ensemble to mesh right, and its biggest weakness is still the main characters. There was the episode that was supposed to be devoted to Agent May's backstory that mostly consisted of other characters discussing her backstory. There was Agent Ward's traumatic past, conveyed through some of the most unclear, poorly shot flashback sequences I've ever seen. And while it's fine to have romantic pairings in the mix, they need to be well-delineated, or you end up with a mess. Did Fitz have a crush on Simmons or Skye or both in the early part of the season? A lot of the plotting here was downright clumsy.

As a result, there was way too much story to churn through and not enough of the fun, interpersonal team interactions that were necessary to support it. Though there were some stronger early episodes like "The Hub," which paired up Fitz and Ward, I don't think "Agents" really started improving until well into the midseason, with "T.R.A.C.K.S.," and only hit its stride when the big reveals started coming in the wake of the "Captain America" sequel. The show remains plot driven instead of character driven, which I don't think is going to be sustainable in the long run, but they've bought some time to work on their team dynamics. As much as I like Clark Gregg, Agent Coulson hasn't made the transition from secondary character to main character as well as I'd like. Chloe Bennett's Skye is at her best in snarky badass mode (as opposed to wide-eyed newbie mode), and finally getting more chances to prove it. Fitz and Simmons could be better, but have been the most consistently entertaining out of the whole bunch. Agent May and Agent Triplett have potential, but have been stuck in fairly limited, functional roles so far.

And then there's Agent Ward, who was the kind of bland, generic, utterly typical action hero type who we see in way too many of these shows. And thank all the Whedons under the sun that it turned out that he was a double-agent for Hydra all along. Sure, he's got an angsty past and a bleeding heart that means he's going to be redeemed and returned to the fold at some point down the line, but that doesn't take away from the fact that for the final run of episodes he was an evil, murderous nogoodnik, and far, far more entertaining for it. I think that the MVP of the season remains Bill Paxton, though, for pulling off a slimeball who was even more fun to hate. Pity he had to go splat.

The big budget, snazzy special effects, Marvel Universe tie-ins, and a slew of notable guest stars were all meant to help the show distinguish itself from the crowd. I think that all of these elements helped to some degree, but only to a certain extent. The effects work and expensive fight scenes couldn't impress if the writing wasn't there to give them proper context. Tie-ins were only effective once the show really started to commit to them. The guest spots ranged from middling to exceptional. The show got a real boost from the appearance of Jamie Alexander as Sif, for instance, but others like Adrian Pasdar were little more than fun Easter Eggs for Marvel fanboys.

"Agents" does successfully stand alone as a separate entity apart from the rest of the Marvel Universe, but I think it has only just found its footing and there's still a significant danger of backsliding into bad habits next season. And it's important to remember that we're getting a big influx of comics-based shows in the fall with "Gotham" and "Constantine," not to mention Marvel's "Agent Carter," which will be sharing the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." time slot during their hiatus. The novelty factor isn't going to work twice, and "Agents" is going to have to step up to the challenge.
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The Marvel folks have been dominating the discussion of superheroes lately, but I'll always be a DC Comics kind of gal, thanks largely to watching "Batman: The Animated Series" at just the right time when I was a kid. It remains my favorite incarnation of "Batman" and it's high time it got its own Top Ten List. This was one of the harder lists to pare down, and I've got a long list of honorable mentions as a result. As always, entries are unranked and ordered by airdate. And I reserve the right to totally cheat and count two-parters as single episodes.

"On Leather Wings" - The show's pilot episode is also one of its greatest, that sets the tone and style for the entire series. The mad scientist story is straight out of the earliest incarnations of Batman, but the modern sophistication of the writing and the more adult handling of the characters quickly establishes that "Batman: The Animated Series," (Henceforth "BTAS") had far bigger ambitions than most syndicated weekday cartoons.

"Heart of Ice" - Perhaps the best example of how "BTAS" reinvented, added to, and permanently enriched the "Batman" universe. Mr. Freeze was a gimmick villain until Paul Dini and Bruce Timm got their hands on him, giving Victor Fries a tragic, crushing backstory that humanized him utterly. Add the score, the winter imagery, and that amazing Michael Ansara performance - Freeze's cold heart was never a gimmick again after this.

"Feat of Clay" - A two-parter with some of the strongest animation in the entire series. The tour-de-force finale sequence is pure, glorious nightmare fuel. However, it's the villain origin story, which could easily be mistake for an old fashioned '40s or '50s noir mixed with sci-fi horror, that really packs a punch. The shapechanging Clayface was one of several of the Batman villains who I found legitimately frightening in these early episodes.

"Almost Got 'Im" - A collection of our favorite villains gather to play cards, banter, and swap "Almost got 'im" stories about the Caped Crusader. It's a light, funny episode with a lot of great punchlines. The individual stories aren't all that memorable, but the framing device and the character interaction is priceless. I especially love how Two-Face's giant penny story provides an origin for the beloved Batcave fixture. And that he's still got the hots for Ivy.

"Heart of Steel" - I love Barbara Gordon in this, far more than I enjoy her subsequent appearances as Batgirl. Maybe it's the wonderful creepiness of the Rossum Robots (gotta love that reference), patterned off Miyazaki creations of all things, or the paranoid "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" story. Or maybe it's the heightened intensity of the action and suspense. Because the enemies were robots, they got away with much more violence here than usual.

"The Laughing Fish" - My favorite Joker episode, because it's so wonderfully absurd and twisted. The poison gas that leaves its victims with disturbing perma-grins, the copyright scheme, the wacky commercial with Harley singing the Joker Fish jingle, and Batman going up against a shark - it's just one outrageous moment after another. This was also the episode where Harley Quinn really became Harley Quinn, and I love the character to bits.

"If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?" - I always had a thing for The Riddler, having cultivated a similar know-it-all personality as a kid. Riddler's origin story is not one of the better ones the show came up with, but I was always a sucker for the puzzles, and the writers came up with some fun ones for this episode. This was also the first time I remember seeing Robin in the series, who could usually be counted on to lighten things up a bit.

"Harley and Ivy" - Was there ever a pairing of female villains as perfect as Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy? Bad girls were never so much fun to watch, and I couldn't help rooting for Ivy's twisted feminist schemes, even though I knew she was in the wrong. I mean, what woman hasn't secretly dreamed of having a bazooka on hand when harassed by a pack of hooligans? Their comeuppance, or course, is poetic justice at its finest - Gotham's Finest, that is.

"House and Garden" - I don't know why, but Poison Ivy episodes always seemed to involve the most horrific monsters and concepts. "House and Garden" has some of the most jaw-dropping. The story starts out innocuously enough, one of several second season episodes dealing with familiar villains' apparent attempts at reforming themselves. Ivy appears to have given up crime and become a suburban mom, but of course all is not what it seems.

"Harley's Holiday" - And finally, we end with a comic romp with my favorite "BTAS" character, Harley Quinn. Unlike Poison Ivy, Harley really does try to reform when she's released from Arkham. Unfortunately she's picked up some bad habits after all that time with Mr. J. I had a touch time choosing between this and the previous Harley episode, "Harlequinade," but this one gives Harley a chance to show what she's like working solo, and I appreciate the hopeful ending.

Honorable Mentions: "Christmas With the Joker," "Robin's Reckoning," "Two-Face," "Joker's Favor," "The Clock King," "I Am the Night, "Read My Lips," "Appointment in Crime Alley," "Eternal Youth," "Trial," "Mad as a Hatter," "Harlequinade," "Second Chance," "Catwalk," and "Over the Edge."
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I got overhyped for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which some fans are calling the best Marvel universe movie yet, and on par with the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. I'd place "Winter Soldier" about on par with the first "Captain America," which I liked an awful lot, maybe a little higher, but still firmly behind "The Avengers" and the first "Iron Man" movie. I prefer my Marvel movies lighter and quippier, and "Winter Soldier" is all business. But for some the more down-to-earth political thriller trappings will be a big plus, and I understand why the movie has been embraced so wholeheartedly.

We find Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) working for the intelligence operation S.H.I.E.L.D., headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). After a mission with Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) where Cap is displeased to discover that the two of them have been given different sets of orders, Fury reveals that he and Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), are working on the secret Project Insight, where a trio of new helicarriers will give them the capability to target and eliminate anyone on earth. Sinister forces are at work, however, which soon pit Cap against a "ghost" assassin called The Winter Soldier, and Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), leader of a S.H.I.E.L.D. counter-terrorism unit gone rogue. Fortunately Cap still has Black Widow on his side, and a new ally in former pararescue soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), also known as the Falcon.

While "The Winter Soldier" clearly takes place in the Marvel Universe, where cryogenics can preserve a supersoldier for seventy years and nifty gadgets let ordinary people accomplish all sorts of outlandish, impossible feats, the story takes its cues from recent Bourne and Bond spy thrillers more than any of the familiar superhero templates. Sure, you get your giant scale battles full of carnage and destruction, but the bulk of the story is all about the cloak and dagger operations of a group of baddies who have the most frightening tools of the surveillance state at their disposal. There's quite a bit of not-so-subtle commentary on the current state of the military industrial complex, the intelligence community, drone warfare, and privacy concerns I didn't ever expect to see in a Marvel blockbuster.

Of course, this only goes so far. This is still a comic book movie and so all of these problems can be solved by simply identifying the bad guys and the bad organization that they work for, and taking them down with all manner of fancy stunt work and CGI explosions. And boy is the action a lot of fun in "Winter Soldier." We're treated to car chases, aerial chases, gun battles, cat-and-mouse games, a couple of different hand-to-hand showdowns, and a fight sequence in a crowded elevator that is just delightful. Better yet, "The Winter Soldier" has a wonderful momentum and energy throughout that has been missing from far too many similar movies. It's could stand a little trimming here and there, but otherwise it's an excellent flick as far as action is concerned.

Where I think the movie has been oversold is the maturity of its storyline. Yes, it's great to see Cap and friends dealing with some real-world issues and tackling a situation with some very big stakes in play. However, the twists and turns remain very PG-13, easily digestible, and pretty typical action movie fodder. While there are permanent consequences that seriously affect some of the characters and the Marvel universe as a whole, we're still taking about fantasy baddies and soap opera twists. These are executed about as well as they possibly could be, but despite the presence of Robert Redford in a prominent role, this could never be mistaken for a serious 70s political thriller, and it lacks the operatic grandeur of Nolan's Bat films.

"The Winter Soldier" is a solid, entertaining film, but I think the most recent couple of Marvel sequels have been so lackluster that the bar has been lowered to the point where this one seems better than it actually is. The Russo brothers were handed the directing reins, and acquit themselves nicely, though they get a little carried away with the shakeycam, and they're not in the same ballpark as Paul Greengrass. Chris Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers, but he's not in the same league as Robert Downey Jr., and the movie leans heavily on its sterling supporting players - several of them in dire need of their own spinoff films. Nick Fury and Black Widow in particular get plenty to do, and end up outshining our hero.

There's no doubt that this is one of the best Marvel universe films, but that doesn't mean as much as it would have a year or two ago. It does a good job of being its own self-contained film and still pushing larger events in the Marvel movie franchise forward, but I can't help thinking that it could have been better if it didn't have to worry about setting up more sequels.
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Now that I've gotten through the backlog of prestige pics, it's time to catch up with some of last year's superhero films. 2013 wasn't a very good year for superheroes, though they were among the top box office moneymakers, as usual. I found both "The Wolverine" and "Thor: The Dark World" pretty underwhelming, so I'm covering both in a single post.

First there's James Mangold's "The Wolverine," a perfectly noble second attempt at building a feature film around Hugh Jackman's "X-men" character. This time Logan is summoned to Japan, where an old acquaintance, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who Logan met during WWII is dying of old age. He wants Logan's help in extending his life, and out hero quickly gets himself entangled in the messy affairs of the Yashida family. He falls in love with Yashida's granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), becomes allies with her mutant foster sister Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a precognitive, and gets on the bad side of Mariko's father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and a new femme fatale, the Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).

"The Wolverine" mostly avoids the pitfalls of the 2009 "Wolverine" feature, delivering some decent action scenes and delving into Logan's past. It also does an admirable job of addressing the fallout from the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who appears in several dream sequences. It's refreshing to see a superhero film that isn't afraid to slow down a little and really delve into some character drama. However, I'm sorry to say that as with most American action films set in Japan, the Orientalism is laid on pretty thick, and the Yashidas aren't a particularly compelling bunch. Tao Okamoto as Logan's new love interest is a bland presence, and the movie doesn't do enough to sell the romance. I liked Rila Fukushima's Yukio, though, and hope she carries over to future "X-men" movies.

It's hard to escape the film feeling very perfunctory, a story that was necessary to get Logan from point A to Point B, in light of the mid-credits sequence and the new "X-men" movie coming this summer. As a stand-alone adventure it works, but there's not much in it that is particularly memorable or stands out. It's hard to see where a third "Wolverine" movie could go from here, since so little of consequence seems to have happened in his solo films so far. Still, compared to some of the other superhero films this year, at least "The Wolverine" managed to make good use of its central character and tell a coherent, fully-formed story.

I wish the same could be said of "Thor: The Dark World." I found the first "Thor" film to be a terribly flawed piece of work, and among the worst of the Marvel superhero movies. The sequel is better in some ways, but overall about on par. It builds on the existing characters and character dynamics to good effect, but at the same time it wastes an awful lot of potential and the plotting is about as slapdash and messy as the first.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still keeping the peace in the Nine Realms while his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been locked up by their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) for his shenanigans on Earth in "The Avengers." Soon enough a new threat, the Dark Elves lead by a baddie named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) are invading Asgard and threatening Earth too. Thor's human lady love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) gets caught up in the mess when she accidentally becomes a vessel for a destructive power called the Aether that Malekith wants. Thor and Loki have to team up, as you might expect, to defeat the new foe.

"The Dark World" relies on a lot of energetic chaos to make it feel like important things are constantly happening, but it's all very shallow and unsatisfying. The villains are utterly one-dimensional, and Malekith has no discernible personality whatsoever. I felt bad for Eccleston, buried under all the make-up with little to do except posture in an intimidating manner. Natalie Portman gets a little more autonomy this time out, but Jane's relationship with Thor remains largely unexamined, which would be all right if it had been properly established in the previous film, but it wasn't of course. A possible love triangle with Jamie Alexander's Sif is alluded to, but nothing comes of it aside from people exchanging meaningful looks at opportune moments.

So the heart of this Thor movie is once again Thor's relationship with his wayward brother Loki, and thank goodness because Loki remains the only interesting villainous character in the entire run of Marvel movies so far. Tom Hiddleston is not onscreen for nearly long enough, but when he does show up he plays a big part in keeping the film's momentum going and making it feel like there are actual stakes to the story. Also, his performance is a lot of fun, as usual, and Hemsworth's Thor tends to work better in his vicinity too. At this point I'm convinced that Loki is more vital to the "Thor" movies than Thor is.

Alan Taylor takes over directing duties from Kenneth Branagh, and he's fine. There's not much to say about the action or the effects, except that they are very competently executed. There are some nice visuals, like a floating truck and some spiffy monsters, but nothing particularly noteworthy. The comic relief, in the form of Kat Dennings' Darcy and Stellan Skarsgaard's Erik Selvig are more emphatically comic this time out, which won't be to everyone's tastes, but I thought they were fine. And at least they are properly identified this time as Jane's intern and mentor respectively.

I'm sure there will be a third "Thor" movie, but I'm not especially excited for it. These movies have gotten so episodic that it feels like I'm tuning in to a television series. And "Thor: The Dark World" was mostly filler.
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Oh, the wails and lamentations going around the internet today! The cast of the new reboot of "The Fantastic Four" was just announced, and reactions have been less than stellar. Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic. Jamie Bell as Ben Grimes, The Thing. Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, The Human Torch. Kate Mara as Sue Storm, The Invisible Woman. Why is the Human Torch black while his sister is white? Why are all the male member of the cast under the age of thirty? They're all supposed to be these super competent scientists, right? Why on earth is skinny Jamie Bell playing the team's hulking bruiser, Ben Grimes? What are FOX and director Josh Trank thinking?!

Well, the film isn't due in theaters until 2015, and Miller and Bell are still in negotiations, but I think that if the casting reports are correct, this movie is looking much more promising now, and potentially could be a huge improvement over the terrible 2005 and 2007 "Fantastic Four" movies. This is a great collection of up-and-comers. Teller is coming off of "The Spectacular Now" and "Whiplash," which picked up the major awards at Sundance this year. Michael B. Jordan carried "Fruitvale Station," and already worked with Trank in "Chronicle." Jamie Bell is still best known for "Billy Elliott," but has been doing solid work in smaller parts for well over a decade now. And Kate Mara? She's done mostly TV work but that includes two seasons as a major player on Netflix's "House of Cards." It's a lineup that more than matches up to what we had in the previous films, which featured Jessica Alba, Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, and a pre- "Captain America" Chris Evans as The Human Torch.

Best of all, this looks to be a major departure from the established conception of the "Fantastic Four," which was always a little goofy and retro with a very 1960s vibe. The movie versions handled by Tim Story didn't help much, offering silly, forgettable B-movie action and sub-par visuals. Comic book fans bemoaned the fact that they wasted some of the Marvel Universe's most beloved villains like Dr. Doom and Galactus, never mind that we were somehow expected to be taking villains with names like Dr. Doom and Galactus seriously. This time around, we've been getting rumors that the new movie will be based on the "Ultimate Fantastic Four" a comic-book series that significantly modernized and reworked the characters, and introduced an entirely different origin story. So why not a more progressive movie version with a black Human Torch and a trimmer Thing? And adoption or remarriage easily accounts for the Storms having different skin tones.

The stakes have been raised for superhero movies in recent years, as comic book characters have become valuable commodities. FOX may have started the trend of modern superhero movies with "Blade" and "X-men," but they've fallen behind Marvel, are less visible than Sony or Warners, and have been struggling to catch up for a while now. "Fantastic Four" is one of their most promising properties, but if they don't make it into a hit, they may have to let the rights revert back to Marvel, whose films show no sign of slowing down. FOX has announced some big plans, potentially connecting "Fantastic Four" to their "X-men" movie universe, so there's a lot riding on this movie. The choice of Trank as a director is a good one, since he helmed one of the best superhero movies in recent years, the found-footage action film "Chronicle."

Is there the risk of alienating existing "Fantastic Four" fans? Sure, but it's not exactly a healthy franchise at the moment. Unlike the Batman and Spider-man movies, the most recent "Fantastic Four" films were critical busts and audiences didn't like them much either, which is why only two were made. Many older fans have fond memories of the comics and cartoons, and the characters enjoy a lot of name recognition and pop culture clout, but it's mostly of the nostalgic variety. The new film will be targeting younger audiences, and there aren't many under the age of twenty-five who are particularly familiar with the source material anymore. Nobody was fantasy casting The Thing. In short, it's one of the comic book properties that could probably most benefit the most from some vigorous reinvention.

The "Fantastic Four" reboot had barely been on my radar before this, but I'm much more interested in where it's going now. It's got a good group of people attached who deserve a shot at making this work. I can understand the trepidation from viewers who have only seen Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan in "The Awkward Moment," or got attached to Michael Chiklis, but this could turn out to be something really interesting. Stay tuned.
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Okay, no waiting until March this year. Sundance and the Superbowl are behind us, and I've got a pretty good bead on the titles I'm looking forward to. Like last year, I'm splitting this topic up between the bigger, mainstream releases, and the smaller, artsier prestige titles. And if previous lists have been any indication, several of the latter are probably going to be delayed until 2015. Since I've already covered them in previous posts, I will not be talking about foreign options that are only getting their U.S. releases this year like "Mood Indigo" and "Snowpiercer." Also, I think I've said enough about "X-Men," "Interstellar," and "Transcendence" in past entries. Here we go. Big titles up first:

"Godzilla" - I can't help it. I love big destructive action movies and kaiju-big-battle movies in particular. My biggest criticism of last year's "Pacific Rim" is that there weren't enough monsters. The newest attempt to revive the "Godzilla" franchise in the west is being directed by Gareth Edwards of "Monsters," and if I had any worries about his relatively thin filmography, they were quashed by the excellent teaser trailer that we got last year. It doesn't hurt that Frank Darabont contributed to the screenplay, and the cast is stacked with names like Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, and Ken Watanabe.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" - Let's be honest. The Marvel universe films feel like they've been on autopilot lately with three sequels in a row. Fortunately they've got more interesting titles coming up, including "Guardians," which is going to be a major departure for the franchise in terms of style and subject matter. Call this a superhero film if you must, but from where I'm sitting this is a space adventure movie, about a rag-tag team of aliens doing battle with the forces of evil. Observers have warned that the premise may be too out there for general audience to take - one of our heoes is a talking raccoon - but it looks to me like exactly the kind of creative shot of adrenaline that the Marvel films need to keep going through Phase 2 and into Phase 3.

"The Boxtrolls" - Laika's last two stop-motion animated films, "Coraline" and "Paranorman" have been excellent, so of course I'm looking forward to their next one, "Boxtrolls," about an orphan boy who has been raised by a tribe of friendly trolls who live in cardboard boxes. The villain will be an evil exterminator voiced by Ben Kingsley. Really, how can I say no to this? There have already been two delightful teasers released for the film, the most recent one focusing on the laborious process of stop-motion animation. It looks like it could be a very good year for cartoon features, with the "How to Train Your Dragon" sequel, the Lego movie, and the next title on this list.

"Big Hero 6" - Disney Feature Animation has been on a roll these past few years, and it looks like they've worked out a good long-term strategy for themselves. Instead of trying to transition away from the girl-centric fairy-tale films that have been their biggest hits, toward more boy-friendly action features, which got the studio in trouble in the past, instead they're taking turns between both kinds of stories. So after the princesses of "Frozen," next holiday season we're getting a wacky superhero movie set in an anime-inspired universe full of giant robots and Japanese food puns. This will also mark PIXAR's first collaboration with Marvel, which is providing the film's source material.

"Annie" - The 1982 version of "Annie" directed by John Huston (yes, really) was one of my favorites when I was a kid, so I'm looking forward to the updated version starring Quvenzhané Wallis as the new Little Orphan Annie and Jamie Foxx as Benjamin Stacks, this version's Daddy Warbucks. Director Will Gluck hasn't handled a musical before, but I have liked some of his previous films, especially "Easy A." Jay-Z is handling the music, and after the fantastic job he did with "The Great Gatsby," I have a lot of confidence he'll be able to pull this off too. "Annie" will be Columbia's big Christmas release this year, but it's going to have to compete with a certain Disney musical that's also on its way.

"Into the Woods" - Now this could turn out to be terrible. All the movies on this list easily might be. However, I just love the idea that somebody is finally bringing Steven Sondheim's musical about fairy-tale characters facing the consequences of their fanciful adventures to the big screen. And because it's Disney, we're getting an all-star cast including Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, along with a few others who can actually sing. Rob Marshall's directing career has been very hit or miss, but he's a good fit for this material and I'm looking forward to the end result.
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I'm in no hurry to rush out and see "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," even though I had it on my list of films I was most anticipating this season. The skyrocketing cost of tickets in my area, the long list of awards contenders I want to see, and the middling reviews have convinced me that this one can wait for disc or streaming. Besides, I already more or less know how it ends. I also didn't rush out to see "Thor: the Dark World" last month. The first "Thor" film was one of the least interesting Marvel films, and nothing about this new installment indicated it would be any better. I expect I'm also going to sit out "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" unless the critical notices are really fantastic.

It's not that I haven't been seeing genre films. I went to "Ender's Game" and "Frozen" in the last few weeks, and rented "The Wolverine." I'm highly anticipating the next "X-men" film and about a half dozen original science-fiction projects coming in 2014. However, the franchises have slowly but surely started losing their grip, and the studios have only themselves to blame. I actually saw all the Phase One Marvel films in theaters, and enjoyed most of them. The "Iron Man" sequels, however, did almost nothing to progress the story of Tony Stark in any way, and they ultimately felt like disposable filler episodes of a television serial. Now if the Marvel films were made for television I would still be tuning in, because television is designed to play out over multiple installments, and the costs of watching it are tiny. But movies require much more commitment - going to the theater, plunking down ticket money that could be going towards a month of Netflix, and hoping the audience behaves themselves.

For me, it's just not worth it anymore. These big franchises puff themselves up as event movies, but the individual installments have stopped feeling like events and more like obligations. Well, you're a "Lord of the Rings" fan so you really ought to see "The Hobbit." The trouble is that I didn't like the first "Hobbit" movie and all the press suggests that the second one suffers the same problems. I want to see the Smaug sequences and Peter Jackson's take on the famous barrel escape, but I'm dreading having to sit through all the original, invented material that was added to the movie to stretch it out to epic length. "Iron Man" was a great movie, my favorite superhero story of the past decade, but between weak villains and a total halt to his character development, the sequels just felt like retreads. "Avengers" at least did something new and different, putting all these different Marvel heroes together and seeing what happened. That's why I'm also still curious about the Batman and Superman movie Warners is putting out. That's why "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Ant-man" still look interesting. I don't know what to expect from them yet.

I mean, in spite of the increased tolerance for higher and higher numbered sequels, we still have the same problems with sequelitis that we always did. If a film is part of a series with a predetermined ending like "Harry Potter" or "Hunger Games," quality tends to be fairly constant because they're adapting already successful source material. If a franchise is open-ended, however, like most of the superhero series, there's usually a big drop-off in quality after one or two movies. It's only the very rare beast like 007 or "X-men" that can reverse course, and in that case it usually requires a reboot, changing creatives, or making drastic alterations to the franchise formula. "X-Men: First Class" essentially had to do all three, and its upcoming sequels are going to involve a lot of genre-switching. Time travel and post-apocalypse narratives are being added to the pile.

As other industry observers have pointed out, predictability is a dangerous thing for these big movies, and the fact that they're all starting to look alike is a very bad sign. Over the summer we were getting warnings of disaster fatigue and chatter about superhero overload. The fact that Sony wants to build a "Spider-man" universe and FOX is trying to expand the "X-men" universe, and practically every other studio in town is looking for other ways to mimic the Marvel model means the problem is only going to get worse. We've long been aware that the longer these series go on, the more difficult it is for newcomers to jump into these movies. But for the existing fans, the more the studios treat the franchises like television shows, the more likely it is that audiences will start treating them like television shows and watching them like television shows. For some of us, that means skipping the filler. For some of us that means waiting until the whole thing's done and binge watching.
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Good grief, I don't think I've ever seen a casting announcement stir up this much controversy. Last week it was announced that Gal Gadot, most recently seen in the "Fast and Furious" franchise had been tapped to play Wonder Woman in the yet untitled Batman and Superman team-up movie. There were all the usual fanboy complaints about Gadot being wrong for the role - too skinny, too slight, and so on. However, the real debate was about the inclusion of Wonder Woman in the team-up movie at all. Shouldn't the biggest female superheroine be introduced in her own movie?

I have no opinion on Gadot one way or another. She wasn't my first choice, but that doesn't mean she shouldn't have the opportunity to prove what she can do. The other potential candidates who we heard rumors about hardly seemed any better. And as others have pointed out, she could bulk up and the right costume makes a lot of difference. Gadot didn't leave much of an impression from what I saw of her in the "Fast and Furious" movies, not that she really had much of an opportunity to do much in the first place. Frankly, I don't know if her acting chops are really going to make all that much difference since Zack Snyder is most likely going to be directing the team-up movie, and he has a abysmal track record with young actresses. See his complete inability to do anything with the cast of "Sucker Punch," for starters, and his bungling of Silk Spectre in "Watchmen." It took the involvement of multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams to bring some spark to Lois Lane in "Man of Steel." To be honest, Zack Snyder is about the worst choice I can think of to be handling the introduction of Wonder Woman.

Should she be getting her own movie? Of course. Wonder Woman has always been counted way past due to return to the spotlight. I understand she's a tough character to modernize and the studios are terribly squeamish about female-led superhero movies, but to keep shutting out heroines as the Marvel and DC film universes keep expanding is becoming less and less excusable every year. I don't object to introducing her in a big ensemble movie, if that's what it takes to allay some fears in the financiers. However, my biggest worry is that Wonder Woman will be consigned to supporting status permanently, the way that Black Widow of "The Avengers" has been. Despite all the talk of potential spin-off films for her and Nick Fury, there's no sign that Marvel is going to be putting either of them in the spotlight any time soon, or any other female or minority heroes for that matter. Instead, they've been relegated to sidekicks and love interests, as usual.

I don't think the possible diminishment of Wonder Woman going to be doing the new DC film franchise any favors either. If she's going to be a major player, she's going to need all the time and attention she can get. The upcoming Batman and Superman movie is already going to have its hands full introducing us to Ben Affleck's take on Batman, and now we know it's going to be introducing Wonder Woman too, and potentially other superheroes like the Flash. I think the best case scenario is for Wonder Woman to only make a brief cameo as a lead-in to her own story, in which case it would have been better if DC had kept this under wraps and made it a surprise. However, the casting announcement suggests that this isn't the case, and Wonder Woman will be playing a significant role in the new movie. That's going to complicate things considerably, and I worry that she's going to end up being shortchanged.

Frankly, the more I hear about the new team-up movie, the more worried I get. And the more I hear about the plans for the bigger DC live action franchise, or rather the lack of them, the more it seems doomed for failure. None of the chief creatives are the ones I'm happy are driving this bus. David Goyer has been stuck in grim and gritty mode for ages, and I don't know if that approach is going to work for the broader comic book narrative that a real "Justice League" team-up is going to need. Zack Snyder's idea of faithfulness to source material is "Watchmen," which is just depressing. And the promise of Christopher Nolan and Ben Affleck's involvement seems to be limited - both are busy working on their own projects after all.

It sounds cynical, but in spite of all the fan adoration and all the potential the DC universe holds for great movies, it doesn't feel like anyone at Warner Brothers is really invested in making these movies the best that they can be. The Wonder Woman announcement is just the latest in a long string of questionable decision.
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Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time" just isn't losing steam, after three years and five seasons. I've mostly missed the boat on this series, to my regret, but I'm getting in on the ground floor of a brand new show that could be described as something of a spiritual spin-off, "Steven Universe." It premiered on Cartoon Network last week, helmed by Rebecca Sugar, one of the most high profile staff members of "Adventure Time." So here's a review.

"Steven Universe" is getting a lot of press for Sugar, who is the first woman to be billed as sole creator of a Cartoon Network production. Since Cartoon Network has been a little light on programming featuring girls since the Powerpuffs went off the air, I was glad to hear it. And sure enough, "Steven Universe" features three very strong, interesting female characters, Garnet (UK singer Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) and Pearl (Deedee Magno), who are known collectively as the Crystal Gems, and protect Earth from all manner of monsters and mayhem with their special Gem powers. Amethyst can conjure a whip and has shapeshifting abilities, and Pearl conjures a sword and can create holograms, for instance.

However, the story is firmly focused on their youngest and newest recruit, Steven Universe (Zach Callison), an energetic, roly-poly boy around preteen age who inherited a Gem from his departed mother, but doesn't know how to use it yet. In the premiere he briefly manages to activate it, conjuring up a shield. Sadly, attempts to repeat the feat have so far failed. Steven lives with the Crystal Gem warriors in their temple/headquarters/apartment, and does his best to help them with their world-saving while getting into plenty of trouble on his own. He's very much a little brother figure, struggling to prove himself and live up to his elders. Everything is seen from his point of view, and it's a funny, cheerful, and entertaining one.

The Gems have a lot of personality and have a lot of potential as characters, but the show works because Steven works. He's a lot like Finn from "Adventure Time," except a little younger and sillier, and much less competent. Steven works very hard, but has to deal with a lot of failure. Fortunately Steven is a very resilient kid who never stops trying, and he's got great support from Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, who may be busy, but clearly care a lot about him. We briefly meet Steven's dad, Greg Universe (Tom Scharpling), in the second episode, a former rocker who lives out of a van. He's loving and amiable, but clearly "a mess," and Steven is probably better off rooming with the superheroes.

So far it's the show's visuals and its genial sense of humor that have me hooked. I love, love, love how the Crystal Gems have been designed. They're all clearly female, but Garnet is a big, stoic warrior figure, Amethyst is messy and laid back, with some huggable heft to her, and brainy Pearl is icicle thin, but all angles. They're very different from how women and girls are usually caricatured in animation, with little effort to make them look conventionally attractive. The animation is fun, full of crazy action and wacky facial expressions, but what's really impressive is the gorgeous background art and environments. The Gems' temple is a real stunner, featured heavily in most recent episode.

Best of all, I like how the show is goofy and weird and very much committed to doing its own thing. Steven has a habit of randomly singing songs - most of which he made up himself. He gets obsessed with things like ice cream sandwiches and making snappy comebacks. A whole episode is devoted to him showing off the usefulness of a novelty backpack shaped like a cheeseburger. It's only been four episodes, and the potential for memes is already off the charts. And yet underneath it all, the show has a lot of heart. The Gems act like a group of close siblings, and plots are more concerned with relationship dynamics and interpersonal issues than the usual superhero action schtick.

I'm rooting for "Steven Universe" to stick around for a while. It has completely won me over and I'm curious to know about the show's bigger mythology and everybody's backstories. There's a lot that has been hinted at, but we don't know many specifics yet. It hasn't been explained where the Gems come from or if the girls are even Earthlings. There's also not much of a wider cast so far. Aside from Steven's family unit, the only other potential semi-regulars that have appeared are a mailman and the employees of a local donut shop. But as we've been getting introduced to this world little by little, it's been a blast. And I look forward to getting to know "Steven Universe" a lot better.

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I'm glad I went into "Man of Steel" with fairly low expectations. The Richard Donner "Superman" is so deeply embedded into my psyche, I've pretty much accepted that there's never going to be another take on the character that will live up to it for me. The new version certainly didn't, but it didn't try to. Rather, it is exactly what Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder kept threatening it would be, a much darker, moodier, serious version that shows no trace of Superman's origin in comic books for wide-eyed young children. I found the movie mostly well made, very uneven, and overwhelmingly joyless, humorless, and honestly a little depressing.

Still, I understand perfectly why many moviegoers enjoyed "Man of Steel." Not everyone wants the larger than life superhero figure that I always think of Superman as being. This version is far more human, full of doubts about his place in the world and his responsibilities toward Earth and Krypton. Henry Cavill does a great job filling out the suit and giving Kal-El/Clark Kent some psychological depth. Much of the running time is devoted to his growing pains, charting encounters with bullies, struggles to hide his burgeoning powers, and his relationship with his adopted father, played by Kevin Costner in one of his best performances in years.

Less successful are the parts of the movie that deal with the Kryptonians. Superman's father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) gets a much expanded role, setting up the conflict with the film's villains and sending his infant son to Earth in the opening sequence. These scenes are too exposition-heavy, designed to deliver mind-numbing action sequence after action sequence, and take away from the more personal exploration of the Superman character that the rest of the film tries to give us. The villains, banished Kryptonians General Zod (Michael Shannon) and Faora (Antje Traue), are a bust. They're intimidating, sure, but they're not developed well at all, and because "Man of Steel" plays everything so straight, Michael Shannon isn't in a position to really let his inner ham loose the way we all know that Michael Shannon can.

Somewhere in the middle, and often getting a bit lost amid all the other plot threads, is the romance with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). She provides a lot of early momentum to the plot, chasing after an elusive proto-Superman in order to report on his story, but becomes caught up in his plight and the threat from the Kryptonians. Adams gets a lot to do, and I like this more grounded conception of the character, but Lois Lane remains fairly blank, barely making an more of an impression than her disapproving boss, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne). When she falls in love with Superman, it's so matter-of-fact, you wonder if any of the writers had ever been in a romantic relationship before.

"Man of Steel" tries to do too much and be too many different movies. The parts that worked - the character pieces about the young Superman, the examination of two different father-son relationships, and the journey of self-discovery, would have been more than enough on their own to fill out a whole feature film. However, this is a summer superhero spectacular, and Zack Snyder was hired to direct, so of course it also had to be an epic scale action movie too. The trouble is that action movie is an unrelenting smash-fest, completely missing the nuance and the atmosphere of the rest of the movie. The final climactic battle seems to go on forever, an orgy of destruction that completely loses human dimensions in yet another attempt this year to best "The Avengers."

"Man of Steel" did some things right, and established the new Superman well enough that I think he has the potential to carry a full franchise. However, the way the movie was constructed, so that it's all the fights and CGI that are pushed front and center, ironically all the character development got backgrounded. Cavill gets tossed around, but he rarely gets to do much acting. The bulk of the development is really with the kids in the flashbacks. Consequently, I don't think I got nearly as good a sense of what this Superman is all about as I should have. And that's a shame.

Will I give him another shot? Sure, I guess. Pairing him with the new Batman in the next outing is a good idea, and should help to better distinguish his character. "Man of Steel" took a few too many cues from "The Dark Knight," delivering another brooding hero in a grim universe. It'll be good to see him face off with Batman directly so the filmmakers will have to address what really makes Superman, well, Superman. On the other hand, assuming it's the same creative team, there's a strong likelihood that we're in for more brainless carnage overload.

I'm really not happy with where the DC movie universe is going right now.
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The Bechdel Test has been a useful tool for those of us who want to see more positive portrayals of women in media. It is a quick and easy way to get viewers to think about gender representation, by applying one simple criteria: do two female characters at any point in the story talk to each other about something other than a male character? Originally conceived by cartoonist Alison Bechdel back in the '80s, it has been a good way to point out not just the gender imbalance between male and female characters, but the relative weakness of female roles, the lack of agency, and the lack of character development. There have since been several alternate versions that add extra criteria, or use racial minorities or LGBT characters instead.

Of course the Bechdel test was never perfect, and was best applied to groups or types of movies to show systemic issues, rather than to single out individual ones for bad practices. "12 Angry Men" doesn't pass the test because all the characters are male out of necessity. "Gravity" doesn't pass because though Sandra Bullock gets the majority of the screen time, she spends most of it alone, with no one to talk to. But "Sucker Punch" passes in spite of its sexed up and exploitative main characters. Sure, it was fun to argue about technicalities like whether the Uhura and Gaila exchange near the beginning of the "Star Trek" reboot technically counted with Gaila's half of the conversation all about distracting from the fact that she was hiding a half-naked Captain Kirk in the room, but it makes a much stronger point to look at the big blockbuster action genre as a whole, which has been notoriously poor in its treatment of female characters.

The test has been doing its job though, getting more people to talk about gender issues in media and calling out creators. In some cases applying the Bechdel Test can be very helpful. There was a lot of good chatter about "Pacific Rim," for instance, which had a grand total of two named female characters who never exchanged words. Mako was certainly a good female character, but stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of male technicians, scientists, military personnel, criminals, politicians, and all but one other pilot. And if we have to argue about whether the giant robot's AI voiced by Ellen McLain counts as a character, that's pretty damning. So does this mean that Guillermo Del Toro sexist? As the director who made "Pan's Labyrinth," of course not. But he clearly got stuck in the mindset that so many other filmmakers have, that certain types of stories aren't the typical domain of women and girls, and left them on the sidelines.

On the other hand, I'm not sure what to make of the recent news that a small group of Swedish cinemas are going to give out a new category of movie ratings based on the Bechdel test, with the support of the Swedish Film Institute. As far as I can tell this is completely voluntary and aimed at raising more awareness toward gender equality issues in media. Activists and private companies rather than the Swedish government are behind this, and there's been no talk of instituting any kind of real, binding standards on new movies based on the Bechdel test. However, I'm still skeptical how much good this is going to do. The Bechdel test, as I've discussed, is a good conversation starter but not all that accurate or informative. It can be wildly inconsistent as to which movies pass and which don't. Surely there are better ways to grade movies for gender equality than this?

On the other hand, the announcement has already touched off a lot of discussion among film fans around the globe. There's been a lot of outrage, of course, but there's also been a lot of more serious, thoughtful conversation. A lot of people only learned what the Bechdel Test was this week, and are still processing and reacting to it. And so we have more people asking some fundamental questions: why is it that horror movies are so much better at passing the test than action movies? Why is is that superhero movies like "Man of Steel" and "The Avengers" fail so much more often? Why is television so much better at gender equality than the movies these days?

And once you start to ask those questions, then maybe we can talk about improving the landscape. We can talk about why girl-positive movies like "The Hunger Games" are so important and why so many people want a "Wonder Woman" movie. And maybe J.J. Abrams will keep the test in mind while he's writing that next "Star Wars" installment. And maybe Disney and Marvel will greenlight that Black Widow movie someday.

Or at least discuss the possibility.
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I'm inaugurating a new category of feature on this blog, one I think I should have done a while ago: a ranking list of all the features in a particular franchise or category. Generally, these are more informative than Top Ten lists because they're more comprehensive and give a chance to talk about both the good and the bad of movies in a particular category. However, it's not easy to find film series that have enough significant entries to spend a whole post discussing, but not too many. I look forward to tacking the "Harry Potter," "Star Trek," and PIXAR films in the future, but beyond that I'd have to get creative. I could probably get away with doing James Bond in two posts, but I've only seen around half the films.

But for now, the new Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has a good, solid number of entries to work with: seven movies since 2008, with a new one on the way. For the sake of brevity and avoiding continuity issues, I'm ignoring all movies prior to 2008, including the Ang Lee "Hulk" film. So before Thor shows up for another round, let's see what the rankings look like so far.

1. Iron Man (2008) - This is still one of my favorite films of the past decade, and you couldn't have asked for a better start to the series. Thanks to the perfect casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, superhero films entered a new era of more ironic, self-aware scripts and snarkier personalities. Sadly that subversive edge has faded with time, and I don't think the Iron Man character has ever lived up to his full potential. However, the series' ambition for its shared universe carried through right from the very first after-credits sequence with Nick Fury to the present.

2. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) - This one certainly has its problems, with a narrative full of weird dead ends and clunky set-up for the later movies, but it gets the fundamental stuff right. Steve Rogers is established as a hero worth rooting for, from a nostalgia-tinged version of the 1940s straight out of the comic books of the era. I'm glad that there's been talk of giving Peggy Carter her own television spinoff, because she's one of the best female characters in the MCU so far, and I wish she and Cap could have had more screentime together.

3. The Avengers (2012) - The sheer audacity of creating all these different character-centric installments of the franchise in order to build up to a big team-up movie continues to impress. The fact that the film is as entertaining as it is, thanks in great part to the efforts of Joss Whedon, feels like icing on the cake. It makes so much difference to have the right guy in charge. Notably the Hulk and Black Widow, who were introduced in previous installments, come off as much fuller, more interesting characters here. Thanks goodness Whedon is sticking around for the next one.

4. The Incredible Hulk (2008) - I was initially unhappy that Edward Norton had been recast in the later movies, because I did enjoy a lot of his take on "Hulk." I liked the more cerebral and meditative approach to the character and the in media res story that doesn't just try to retell the origin story again. Sure, the super-soldier plot device has been done to death, and poor Tim Roth was pretty much wasted, but when the Hulk properly Hulked out, I was happy. Mark Ruffalo proved to be a fine replacement, but I still wonder what "Avengers" would have been like with Norton.

4. Iron Man 3 (2013) - I've decided not to choose between this and "Hulk" because I honestly like them about the same. Shane Black takes over from Jon Favreau for an installment that frequently feels like it's treading water, but does put Tony Stark in some new and different situations. I thought the Mandarin was presented in a pretty gutsy way, though I do wish that Guy Pearce's character had been handled better as a counterbalance. There would have been many worse ways to close out the "Iron Man" movies than this, though I hope this is the last sequel.

6. Thor (2011) - There's lots to like. Loki's the best villain in the MCU. Chris Hemsworth nails the part of the charismatic, if somewhat prideful thunder god. Asgard looks great. Sadly, the movie never really gets down to business and has holes the size of continents. Thor's arc is severely abridged, so it doesn't appear that he actually has a change of heart at any point. The rules of traveling between worlds is arbitrary as hell. Do I even need to get into the flimsiness of Natalie Portman's astrophysicist character? And what the hell is Kat Dennings' Darcy supposed to be exactly?

7. Iron Man 2 (2010) - Poor Jon Favreau. It feels like everything went downhill after the success of "Iron Man." I don't know how much of it was really his fault, since "Iron Man 2" seems to have been doomed fairly early on by a muddled script that spent too much time ting up for "The Avengers" and introducing new characters who weren't all that important to what was going on. Worst of all were the ineffectual villains. Between characters played by Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke, surely somebody should have been a credible threat to Tony Stark, right? Right?!
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I briefly had some hopes for "The Blacklist." James Spader plays Raymond "Red" Reddington, on the FBI's Most Wanted list for being the "concierge of crime," who facilitates the misdeeds of others. When he surrenders himself at FBI headquarters, offering information on an upcoming crime, FBI Assistant Director Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) and his team are understandably wary of their old foe, but Red is convincing. Spader chews the scenery with everything he's got, and the pilot's biggest problem is that there's not enough of him in it.

You see, Red insists that the only person he'll talk to directly is brand new FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), who turns out to be our real main character. Boone is about to adopt a child with her husband Tom (Ryan Eggold), and displays a personality entirely too open and cuddly to take very seriously. When she describes herself as a "bitch" with a tendency to be remote, I wondered if the role had been recast at the last minute. It was as though someone had hired Jewel Staite to play warrior woman Zoe on "Firefly" instead of sunny sweetheart Kaylee. Boone herself appears to be a pretty competent actress, but the mass of contradictions about her character was too distracting to take.

Otherwise, "The Blacklist" is a fairly typical crime drama. It's big distinguishing characteristic is a of those hammy mastermind characters who would be utterly insufferable if the actor playing him weren't so charismatic. There's slightly more intense violence than the norm. The good guys run around trying to solve the mystery and avert a major crime, relying on a lot of convenient contrivances and well-timed reveals. There's a lot of series mythology set up, and it's all to easy to conclude that Red's interest in Agent Keen points to him being her father. On a better show, I'd assume this is a red herring, but "Blacklist" isn't good enough yet to earn that much benefit of the doubt from me. It's too slapdash, spending way too much time on action set-pieces and sinister hints of a big backstory, and not enough on characters. Poor Diego Klattenhoff plays an agent whose job seems to be to run around playing the gullible patsy to everyone else in the show.

I can certainly see "The Blacklist" improving with time, but there are too many similar shows out there already for me to stick around to see how things pan out.

Now on to Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," one of the most anticipated shows of this season because it shares continuity with the Marvel cinematic universe. And indeed, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) from "The Avengers" stars as the leader of a new global response team set up to deal with incidents involving superhumans, and there are references to Iron Man and the Hulk tossed out left and right. Joss Whedon directed the pilot, and wrote it in collaboration with showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. And as with all Whedon shows, the best parts are in the dialogue - the little quips, the self-aware moments of superhero meta, and the characters' banter. This is in spite of Marvel and Disney clearly spending quite a chunk of change, paying for lots of fancy special effects, fight sequences, crazy vehicles, and a big finale sequence at the crowded Union Station in Los Angeles.

I wasn't expecting much more than the razzle dazzle and some character introductions, but the pilot does set up some interesting themes. Along with Agent Coulson, the ensemble includes black ops hard-case Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), the bruiser with the past, Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), nerdy techies Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) who are regularly lumped together as "Fitzsimmons," and the newest recruit to the team, Skye (Chloe Bennet), an anarchic super-hacker who spends much of the hour actively working against "S.H.I.E.L.D." The secret government agents are the good guys, but viewed with great suspicion by people who often have good reasons to be wary of them. The complications of working for Big Brother could yield some good things, and the best bits of the hour involve Coulson and Ward trying to convince civilian characters why they're worthy of their trust. One could draw parallels to Whedon's employment by the Disney empire.

But that's beside the point. The show is light and fun to watch. It's family friendly and cheesetastic, but the humor is sharp when it needs to be. The characters are not yet fully formed, but they have loads of potential. Whedonverse regular J. August Richards shows up here as a guest star, playing a sympathetic sad-sack whose superpowers lead to a lot of trouble. He makes such a great impression, I think it's a shame that he's not going to be a regular. Still, I'll be sticking with "S.H.I.E.L.D." for at least a few more weeks to see if they can keep the quality up.

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For years Warner Bros. has been trying to capitalize on the success of Batman through a television spinoff, they way they did with the long-running Superman series "Smallville." There was the "Batman: Year One" prequel project that would have explored Bruce Wayne's early days as the Bat, a project that eventually became "Batman Begins." There was the "Graysons," about the pre-Robin youth of the Boy Wonder. And there was the very, very short-lived "Birds of Prey," about a trio DC universe superwomen with ties to Batman. Now here's the latest - FOX has committed to a pilot for "Gotham," that looks at Gotham City before Batman showed up on the scene, focusing on a younger Commissioner Gordon. It's "Batman: Year One" without Batman.

The impetus for this development is obvious. The premiere of Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" won high ratings last night for ABC (review forthcoming). It marks the first major entry of the Marvel universe into live-action television in some time, and there has been talks of other shows in the works, like the rumored Agent Peggy Carter spinoff. DC has had plenty of successful shows over the years, but we could certainly stand to see a few more, especially if they want to explore some of their non-superhero titles. "Gotham" is clearly an attempt at putting some of their lower-profile Batman characters to work the way Marvel is opting to use some of its lesser-known characters in "S.H.I.E.L.D"

And sure, why not? This isn't a new idea. There was a forty-issue "Gotham Central" comic book series that ran from 2003-2006 based around the daily travails of the Gotham City Police Department, and there was some talk of a TV adaptation. "Gotham" sounds very similar since it centers around the Commissioner. The Batman universe also has several other memorable law enforcement characters, including detectives Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya, who have long histories in the comics. Removing Batman from the picture doesn't mean that his rogue's gallery of villains is off limits, and there are some good ones who are never going to be considered heavyweight enough to show up in the films. Plus, we might finally also see some development for minor, but important characters like Thomas and Martha Wayne, the parents of Bruce Wayne.

I might have been more wary of this news a few years ago, but we're been seeing a good number of successful prequel series lately, including "Hannibal," "Bates Motel," and AMC just ordered up the "Breaking Bad" spinoff "Better Call Saul." Prequels don't have to be a narrative dead end, especially when they're working with a universe as colorful and well-populated as Gotham City. My hope is that "Gotham" will take the plunge and really commit to the idea of showing the downfall of a great city. Maybe it could be a period piece, taking advantage of the '30s detective serial and noir origins of Batman. These were always the elements that the movies tended to overlook or downplay, opting instead for the more fancy action sequences and funny costumes.

I also take heart that the series will be headed to FOX and not the CW, which is currently airing the DC series "Arrow." Though there are exceptions, CW's has a younger target audience and they tend to go for slicker, broader material. I gave up on "Arrow" pretty quickly when it became apparent that they were doing everything they could to hide its comic book origins under a mountain of generic teen drama cliches. There's no guarantee that FOX will want to aim "Gotham" at grown-ups, but if they do, at least they have more experience fostering good genre shows like "The X-Files" and "Fringe." I'd rather we got a series that could be paired up with the happily campy "Sleepy Hollow" than one that could be paired up with "Arrow."

There are plenty of reasons to be wary, of course. The later seasons of "Smallville" turned into a showcase for minor DC superheroes and dragged out its origin story past the point of absurdity. "Arrow" looks like it's about to go down the same path, dragging the Flash into this season's storylines. I wouldn't be too keen on watching a version of "Gotham" where we're hammered over the head with allusions to future characters and events week after week. However a solid crime procedural with some flamboyant criminals could be a lot of fun.

What interests me most is which version of Batman "Gotham" is intended as a prequel for. The Nolanverse films? The backstory for the Ben Affleck Bat? Or something entirely different? And for those of you who would rather have a Batman series with Batman, there's already a perfectly good on airing on CBS - "Person of Interest."
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Some excellent television shows just never caught on, and failed to attract enough of an audience to justify a second season. There are legendary ones like "My So-Called Life," "Firefly," and "Freaks and Geeks," which launched the careers of familiar stars. I have my own list of beloved obscurities that I really, really wanted to see continue, but it was not to be. A quick note on eligibility here - shows had to be open-ended, and not designed to end within a single season like "Cowboy Bebop." They also have to have actually gone to air and run more than just a good pilot. Entries below are unranked, and they're mostly genre programs, because those were the ones I always got attached to very quickly. A lot of these are nostalgia picks, which I make no apologies for.

The Middleman - I will never say about a word against the existence of ABC Family, because they ran one of the great girl geek shows. "The Middleman" was a secret-agent spoof about Wendy Williams, trainee crime-fighter against the myriad forces of evil. Loaded with pop-culture references, meta-humor, snark, and high energy, this was a show I fell for immediately. I loved every single minute of the twelve brief episodes, and the Comic-Con table read of the sadly unproduced thirteenth, which provides a little bit of much-needed closure.

Eerie Indiana - After "Twin Peaks" but before "The X-files" came this supernatural sitcom, about a pair of boy detectives investigating the mysteries of Eerie, Indiana, "the center of weirdness for the entire planet." Elvis is a resident of Eerie, of course, along with a mother who keeps her kids in Tupperware, a boy whose dental gear translates dog barks, and the ghost of the worst bank robber in the West. "Eerie" was a childhood favorite that was pulverized in its time slot by "60 Minutes," and briefly resurrected in the late 90s on FOX Kids.

Nowhere Man - The would-be fifth network UPN recedes further and further back in the cultural memory every day. It had a couple of interesting shows, including the paranoid thriller "Nowhere Man," starring Bruce Greenwood as Thomas Vale, an ordinary man who one day finds his life erased and is forced to go on the run to discover who's after him. As mystery shows go, "Nowhere Man" was remarkably good about actually advancing its story week to week, and ended on a great reveal that left lots of unanswered questions. I still want answers.

Wolverine and the X-Men - This was the perfect happy medium between the plotty but chaotic 1992 "X-Men" cartoon created by Saban, and the later "X-men: Evolution" that had far superior technical quality, but was stuck with teenage characters. The "Evolution" crew finally got to tackle grown-up mutants and more substantive stories in this 2009 tie-in for the first "Wolverine" movie. Sadly, Nickelodeon seemed at a loss with what to do with it, and despite a strong set-up for a second season, we only got 26 episodes of the best animated "X-men" series.

Wonderfalls - Poor Bryan Fuller is responsible for so many offbeat cult shows that never make it past two seasons. "Wonderfalls," one of his oddest creations, only made it through four episodes on FOX before being unceremoniously yanked. The show follows the misadventures of a post-grad, Jane Tyler, in transitional hell, who works as a gift shop clerk at Niagra Falls. One day the tchotchkes start talking to her, giving oblique instructions in order to help people in crisis. Caroline Dhavernas was great in the lead, and hasn't had a part as good since.

Space: Above and Beyond - Fox's Friday night 8PM hour, leading into "The X-files" is littered with interesting genre shows that only lasted a single season, including "MANTIS," "VR5," and "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr." My favorite of the bunch was "Space: Above and Beyond," created by two "X-files" veterans, Glen Morgan and James Wong. It was a military space adventure, following a small squadron of space fighter pilots in an ongoing conflict against enemy aliens. Think of it as a smaller, less ambitious "Battlestar Galactica."

At the Movies - I'm reaching here, but I'm counting the final season of the show hosted by A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips. It was not a return to the glory days of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, but it was much better than the train wreck that was the Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz experiment, good enough that I was watching regularly again, and good enough that I was genuinely unhappy at the news of cancellation. I still read Scott regularly and catch Phillips's appearances on Filmspotting, but I think the duo could have gone on to be great.

The Tick - It was pretty much cancelled before it aired, but the live-action version of "The Tick" starring Patrick Warburton was a joy to see realized. I knew it was a severely compromised adaptation that never quite reached the same bizarre comedic heights as the 90s cartoon series, but I didn't care. I loved Warburton in the goofy latex suit. I loved Nestor Carbonell as Batmanuel, an improvement on Die Fledermaus, in my humble opinion. I loved the torrent of puns and visual insanity. Alas! Only nine episodes were ever aired.

Masters of Science Fiction - So short-lived that most people haven't heard of the show. This was a summer anthology program from the same creators of "Masters of Horror," except without any of the marquee talent involved. Its one big gimmick was that Stephen Hawking provided some canned intros. Still it gave us good adaptations of Harlan Ellison's "The Discarded," and Robert Heinlein's "Jerry Was a Man." Many similar anthology series have come and gone over the years, but the potential for better was there, which is what irks me the most.

The Storyteller - Jim Henson's 1980s fantasy anthology is often listed as a miniseries, but it sure looked like a continuing series to me. Each of the nine episodes was scripted by Anthony Minghella, based on European folk stories and fairy tales. Guest stars included many familiar faces like Sean Bean and Miranda Richardson, but the real star was the Storyteller himself, played by John Hurt, and backed by the wizardry of eye-catching special effects and Henson Creature Shop puppet creations. To this day I've never seen anything else quite like it.
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One of the major entertainment news stories today is the debunking of the rumor that Bryan Cranston is being courted to play Lex Luther in the new Batman v. Superman movie, a claim that seems to have originated at the shady Cosmic Book News site, and then was inexplicably picked up by Rolling Stone and snowballed from there. This happened, despite the Cosmic Book News story being full of unlikely details, like Ben Affleck supposedly being signed on for thirteen appearances as Batman, and Matt Damon being in the running to play Aquaman. Oh boy. Meanwhile, Latino Review keeps jawing about casting rumors for the next "Star Wars" movie and insists that some big announcements are coming soon. Whether those announcements have any truth to them, or are completely made up doesn't seem to matter to the fans.

I'm complained at length about the rumormongering surrounding big franchise movies before. However, watching the Bryan Cranston item play out over the last few days, I don't think that there's any meaningful way to fix this problem. To explain why, I'm going to use the news aggregator site Reddit as a stand-in for the larger internet. All the content on Reddit is user-submitted or linked to with the appropriate crediting, each item displayed in an order determined by "upvotes" and "downvotes" from Redditors. The real fun is in the discussions attached to each item, where individual comments are also governed by upvotes and downvotes. I use the site frequently and I'm a fan of how they do things, but there are some significant downsides to democratizing the content. Over and over again I've seen obviously false or erroneous items reach the top of the front page, on the strength of sensationalized titles. I've watched misinformation spread through discussions where hundreds of people upvote a comment that sounds good, but may be completely wrong. Corrections or questions about the source of the information can often be buried way down the page, where few people ever see them.

This is the way the internet works too. Users gravitate toward sensationalized content, toward exciting and familiar names. A website like Cosmic Book News can upload complete nonsense, and the nonsense will get page hits if it's talking about the right subject matter. It's not hard to see why the Bryan Cranston rumor took off. The story about Ben Affleck being cast as Batman last week was huge, and Cranston's "Breaking Bad" has been getting lots of attention for its ongoing final season. Cranston being cast as Lex Luthor doesn't sound too unlikely. "Breaking Bad" has wrapped, so Cranston should be available for big film roles. It's not until you actually read the story that the fakery becomes obvious, and of course many of us never bother to. If one legitimate publication like Rolling Stone fails to fact-check before it prints the rumor, these things can spread like wildfire through the whole mainstream media. The temptation to jump into the speculation before the studio returns your calls can be irresistible. People want to write about it because everyone else is writing about it, and those pagehits sure are shiny.

Reddit has mechanisms in place designed to counter this to some extent. There are moderation teams that are quick to remove posts from self-promoters, slap "Misleading Title" tags on questionable content, and keep a close eye on contentious topics. Commenters are good about self-policing too, calling out people who post stolen content, voicing skepticism for unlikely claims, and often providing vital context. However, there are many, many instances where these counterefforts are to no avail and the bad information spreads. Despite multiple debunking stories being posted around the internet today, I can guarantee that there are a lot of Batman fans out there who still think that Bryan Cranston is playing Lex Luthor, because they'll pay attention to the juicy rumor but overlook the retraction. Remember the rumor about all six James Bond actors appearing onstage together at the last Oscars? That one was debunked weeks before the ceremony, but I still ran across plenty of disappointed viewers on Oscar night wondering why Sean Connery hadn't shown up.

Don't think you're the type to fall for these kinds of rumors? Well, I did. I saw the Cranston rumor posted on Reddit without attribution, and while I hadn't seen anything about Cranston being in talks with Warner Bros. on my usual entertainment news sites (Deadline, Indiewire, Filmschoolrejects) it sounded believable. There are always rumors floating around about the biggest blockbuster movies, and some of them turn out to be true, like Vin Diesel talking to Marvel about being in "Guardians of the Galaxy." I didn't bother checking sources or reading the Reddit discussion (which did point out that it was a rumor), because frankly I'm not all that interested in what's going on with the new Batman and Superman movie at this stage, and too many of these early news items and rumors have obnoxious spoilers attached.

It's important to remember that this far out, when these big movies are still in pre-production, everything is up in the air. Actors get cast, but they can also get recast. Directors get fired. Scripts get rewritten. The studio executives can still cancel the whole thing if they want. Nobody knows what the final product will look like, not even the guys in charge. So there's very little harm in speculation and fake stories at this point because it doesn't really affect anything, and debunking is easy. All Warner Bros. has to do is put out a press release saying Lex Luthor will be played by so-and-so, and we all start talking about who's going to play Alfred or Robin or Lois Lane. And this is why Cosmic Book News and Latino Review keep getting away with it.

The rumor mill is an annoyance, but honestly not a very big one. And it's good at keeping me on my toes.
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Big casting news out of Hollywood yesterday. After some rumors that Warners was trying to lure Christian Bale back to the role, they've announced that the new Caped Crusader, making his debut in 2015's "Man of Steel" sequel, will be played by Ben Affleck. I wasn't paying much attention to the casting speculation, but this is a choice that demands some commentary. I'm disappointed, but not for the reasons that you might think.

Affleck is a decent actor and looks the part of Bruce Wayne, which is all that's really necessary for him to play Batman. You don't need to be a decorated thespian to be a good superhero - "Captain America" and "Thor" prove as much. Affleck's previous turn as a crime fighter in 2003's "Daredevil" was nothing to be ashamed of, and people forget that he was considered a contender for the role of Superman back in the 90s. And he did put on the blue tights briefly for 2006's "Hollywoodland," a period thriller where he was cast as the jaded '50s Superman actor George Reeves. Sure, some of the fans are upset about the Affleck's casting, but some of the fans are always upset. I expect Affleck is perfectly capable of turning in a decent performance as Batman, and have no objections to him on those grounds.

So why am I disappointed? Because Affleck just came pretty damn close to getting nominated for an Oscar for directing "Argo." Over the past few years, he's proven that he's far more valuable to us as a director than as an actor. I know he's continued to take other acting gigs, like appearing in "To the Wonder" for Terrence Malick and the upcoming thriller "Runner, Runner," but I'm worried that being a leading man in a big franchise film, and everything that comes with it, are going to take his attention away from the kinds of projects that are better served by his talent. How is this going to impact "Live By Night," the adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel that he was putting together with Leonardo DiCaprio? What about his rumored Revolutionary War film, "Bunker Hill"? Scott Cooper has already replaced Affleck on the big screen adaptation of "The Stand"? And I can't imagine that Affleck only signed on for one movie, so how is that going to affect his other potential projects further down the line?

I'd be much more excited about the "Man of Steel" sequel if it had been announced that Affleck was directing it, instead of starring in it. Remember, Affleck turned down a chance to direct a possible "Justice League" movie last year. I'm not thrilled when I see promising directors who have made a name for themselves with smaller films getting involved with the studio franchises, but at least Justice League" would have given Affleck a chance to stretch a little as a director, tackling a big blockbuster action movie after a string of mostly realistic, serious dramas. I'm still waiting for him to show a more range, though "Argo" was a step in the right direction. Affleck being behind the camera would have also made me more excited about the prospect of a Batman and Superman movie than I am at the moment. I understand why Warners wanted him for "Justice League," since Affleck's style is a good match for the starker Christopher Nolan style that defines the current DC movie-verse. Instead, we're probably going to end up with Zack Snyder again, and while I know he's getting better, he's still a director I have some serious issues with. He's still an action junkie in the worst way.

I have to wonder why Affleck said yes to Batman, after expressing dissatisfaction with superhero roles in the past. Warner Bros was instrumental in "Argo" getting made, so saying yes to Batman definitely helps Affleck to cement his relationship with the studio, and that may result in their backing some of his future, non-franchise films. Over at Forbes, Scott Mendelson goes into this possibility in more detail. Like the recent Michael Bay deal that got Paramount to pay for "Pain in Gain" in exchange for Bay directing "Transformers 4," this could be a move that ensures Affleck gets to make his own pictures on his own terms.

I also suspect that Ben Affleck took the role because he just likes acting, which accounts for him casting himself in the lead roles of two of the three movies he's directed. And that's fine, because he's not bad at it. He's not great, which I've felt has held back his work to an extent, but he's always done an acceptable job. As for playing a superhero, on the one hand he's got his artistic credibility to uphold as a serious filmmaker, but on the other hand, it's Batman. What red-blooded American male doesn't want to be Batman?

So put the pitchforks away. It could have been a lot worse. Ben Affleck deserves a chance to show us what he can do, though I wish were talking about him behind the camera instead of in front of it.
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Why The World's Finest?

The biggest news out of Comic-Con this weekend is that Warner Bros. has opted not to go for a full "Justice League" movie in 2015. Instead, we're getting the movie team-up of Superman and Batman, a pairing that happened occasionally in the comics under the title "World's Finest." We don't have an official title yet, so I'll be using this one for the time being. Seeing Batman and Superman onscreen together in the same movie has been a common geek fantasy for a couple of decades now, and the inevitability of a "World's Finest" movie has been a long-running Hollywood in-joke. However, there have rightly been concerns about putting DC's two biggest heavy-hitters together.

What's the problem? For one thing, Superman and Batman have traditionally existed in very different cinema universes. Superman has always been a more romantic and idealistic figure who fought his opponents in broad daylight. Batman is a creature of the night, darker and grittier and more adult. Sure, they could both be goofy and silly, but there was still a wide gulf between the Metropolis created by Richard Donner for the most iconic Superman films and the stranger, more sinister Gotham City created by Tim Burton for Batman. It didn't help that Superman became something of an also-ran during the 90s and 2000s, and proved difficult to reinvent for more silver screen adventures. It's only now, after "Man of Steel" made decent bank by following the gritty reboot template set out by the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, that we've got both DC superheroes operating in something like the same universe and they've both proven to be bankable.

Why now? Well, that's no mystery. DC is still struggling with its film franchises, but it wants to put out something in 2015 to try and counter the runaway success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will be releasing both "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and "Ant-Man" that year. With "Man of Steel" as a solid, but not spectacular foothold, "World's Finest" makes more sense than a "Justice League" movie. You'd only have to introduce one new superhero, the new Batman, instead of a whole group of them. Batman is enough of a draw on his own that he should be more than enough to keep superhero fans occupied, speculating about casting and storylines and villains. There are rumors that a "Justice League" movie is still in the works, but a few more years down the road, after DC has had the chance to try out some other characters. Hollywood Reporter has suggested a Flash movie is in development for 2016. Alas, still no word on Wonder Woman.

Will a "World's Finest" movie be a success? I think that's reasonably likely. From a marketing standpoint, Superman teaming up with Batman certainly has all the makings of an event. The announcement at Comic-Con didn't announce a title or casting, but simply showed people a combination logo of the Batman and Superman symbols and the crowd went nuts. The concept should even be strong enough to overcome the divided reactions toward "Man of Steel." There are a lot of other factors that we don't know yet that are going to have some significant impact on the project. Who's going to play Batman is a big one. The release date is another. We do know that Zack Snyder is directing the film and David Goyer is writing it, the same pair that just did "Man of Steel." These are not the guys I'd want handling this movie if I had my way, but at least there will be a sense of continuity maintained.

But will it be any good? Maybe. There have been a lot of stories about Batman and Superman fighting each other or teaming up or both. There's no lack of material for the filmmakers to draw from. I think Zack Snyder can handle the fighting part, but I'm not sure about the team-up parts. A lot of the fun of these ensemble stories is all about the character interactions and the little absurdities. "Avengers" worked largely because of the involvement of Joss Whedon, who was good about injecting humor, keeping the mood light, and balancing the various characters against each other. Snyder and Goyer are operating in a much more serious and somber universe, which may ironically end up making the whole venture come across as a lot sillier and campier. Still, it's much to early to say anything yet.

If the movie were coming out in a normal year, I'd be much more confident about its chances. However, 2015 is going to be a monster year for blockbusters, and there's actually some danger of a movie featuring two of the most famous comic book characters who ever existed getting lost amid all the other massive tent pole films.

More on that tomorrow.
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I know, I know - it's no use dwelling on would'ves and should'ves and could'ves. However, the timing and circumstances just haven't been right to get me back to San Diego Comic-Con, and considering how exponentially more difficult it has become to get tickets and arrange accommodations for the event, I don't think I'm going back any time soon.

Still, it's fun to fantasize about these things. I worked out a loose schedule of events for myself, as if I had gone to Comic-Con this weekend, and I thought I'd share it with you. First thing you'l notice is that I've purposefully avoided most of the big panels for movies and television shows. The reality is that most of these panels are going to find their way online, and most of the exclusive film clips and bits of marketing will emerge into the public's view all too soon. There were a couple of panels that I waited for hours to see live, and ended up with such poor seats that I would have been better off just waiting to watch them on Youtube. Second thing you'll notice is that the schedule is physically impossible to accomplish, because some of the panels are back to back and everything at Comic-Con has a line to get in. But this is my fantasy schedule, so we'll dispense with such inconvenient details.

So which panels caught my eye this year?

Thursday, July 18th

3:30PM - TV Guide Magazine Celebrates The X-Files' 20th Anniversary: Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are going to be there, plus series creator Chris Carter, plus many of the writers including Vince Gilligan, the Morgan brothers, and James Wong. This has all the earmarks of a real event. More importantly, there's going to be a giant crowd of "X-files" fans in attendance, and as "The X-files" was one of my first major fandoms, it would be a chance to geek out among my own kind.

4:30PM - Geeks Get Published-and Paid!: This is relevant to my interests! I may not want to write books right now, but maybe someday in the future I might manage to cobble something together that people would actually pay to read. And the biggest hurdles are always how get published, find an agent, etc. This panel purports to have the answers, and is using geek authors as presenters.

7:15PM - A New Generation of Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation: As much as I love what these guys have produced and what they stand for, I've never been to a Spike and Mike screening before and I would gladly take the chance to remedy that. Alternately, the "Tournament of Nerds Show" running at the same time sounds fun.

8:30PM - Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog Sing-Along: I didn't even like "Dr. Horrible" all that much, but a sing-along screening sounds like a blast.

Friday

10:30AM - Writing for TV: From First Draft to Getting Staffed: I love behind the scenes stuff, and I love hearing how writers and artists work. And frankly, I will take any tips on writing that I can get. So this kind of panel has way more interest for me that the kind where the actors show up with preview clips. Alternates: "Inside The Big Bang Theory Writers' Room," and "The Art of the Cliffhanger."

12:15PM - Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World: Since places for meta discussion of fandom have been pretty scarce, this sounds like an opportunity for a good conversation.

3:00PM - U.S. Pop Culture Abroad: Among other things, they promise to address what makes an American property successful overseas, and that's a question that has a lot of different ramifications for all corners of media. The panelists here look especially promising, including people looking at the question from a business as well as a creative perspective.

4:00PM - ASIFA-Hollywood's State of the Industry: ASIFA is the International Animated Film Society, the non-profit group that puts on the Annies every year, runs outreach programs, and maintains its own archives. And they're always great for an insider's take on what's going on in animation. Alternate: "Motion Picture and Television Illustrators of the Art Directors Guild."

5:45PM - Making Roger Rabbit: 25th Anniversary: There are a lot of tempting things going on in the 5PM and 6PM hours, but Disney geek that I am, I cannot pass up an opportunity to see animators Andreas Deja and James Baxter and producer Don Hahn reminisce about one of my favorite Renaissance Disney films. Alternate: "International Association of Media Tie-in Writers: Scribe Awards," because tie-ins are fascinating and I think I've read the work of every author listed to appear.

7:45PM - Your Opinion Sucks! Rotten Tomatoes Critics vs. Fans: A movie critics' panel! Where I may have the chance to vent my spleen at Ben Lyons! Yes! Alternates: "Worst Cartoons Ever!" for the chance to meet animation historian Jerry Beck, and "Drew Struzan: The Man Behind the Poster." The magic words are "poster giveaway."

Saturday

10:00AM - Comic-Con How-To: Writing Your Superhero Novel - I didn't realize there was such a thing as a superhero novel, outside of tie-ins, but now I'm curious to know more. And as previously established, I'll take any writing pointers I can get.

2:00PM - Art Lessons from Great Illustrators: Arthur Rackham: I love Arthur Rackham's work. I have a print of one of his watercolors hanging in my house right now, and this sounds like a great little art lecture to sit through.

3:15PM - Vertigo: The Sandman 25th Anniversary and Beyond! Neil Gaiman is always a great speaker to see and I'm a big "Sandman" fan. Gaiman and Vertigo have promised new "Sandman" content in the future, and I'd love to get an early peek. Alternate: Pinky and the Brain 20th Anniversary Voice Reunion, because I still spontaneously hum their theme song regularly.

4:30PM - Poppin' Some Tags: There are a couple of panels devoted to Hollywood costume designers, which makes sense considering the highly visible cosplay element at the con. This is the one that fits best into my schedule. Again, I have no experience with costuming, but I love hearing professional artists talking about their work. And the panel is moderated by Ron Perlman too.

6:00PM - Dissecting Brands: How Do You Know What Makes Batman Batman? Another panel that sounds like it could provide a potentially fascinating conversation, as branding has become a major part of how the industry functions. Notably, the a VP of IP Development from Hasbro is one of the four panelists. Alternates: Batman: The Animated Series Turns 21 and Financing Your Dream: Kickstarter Fundraising

7:30PM - Angry Asian Media Makers: I used to be a regular reader of the Angry Asian Guy blog, and still do my best to ceck in every now and again. So I feel it would be proper to show a little solidarity with my fellow Asian-American geeks. Alternate: ComiKev 2013: Kevin Smith Uses His Mouth on You in Hall H, because who doesn't love Kevin Smith in Comic-Con mode.

Sunday

11:15AM - Breaking Bad: As we go into Sunday, the programming gets more kid-oriented, so the big panels start getting more attractive. "Breaking Bad" is the one big show that I've been looking forward to the most all year, and I'd love a preview.

12:30PM - BBC America's Doctor Who 50th Anniversary: This is the kind of panel that's sure to be so packed, I'd be better off watching at home. But then, I'd miss all the fans, and the "Doctor Who" fans are a legendary bunch that are best experienced in person. Plus, I'm honestly curious as to how they're going to spin Matt Smith's imminenet departure.

2:00PM - 25 Years of the Disney Afternoon: The Continuing Legacy: As a child of the 80s and 90s and a Disney fan, a "Disney Afternoon" panel is irresistable. The "Disney Afternoon" programming has become one of those obscure corners of Disneyana now, barely acknowledged by official channels. And that's probably why the panel is taking place at Comic-Con an not the D23 convention. Alternate: Community: Celebrating the Fans

3:00PM - History of Disney Pins: The Tradition of Disney Pin Trading and Collecting: Most of the toy and collectors' panels don't have much appeal to me, but I ran into some of these pin-trading guys during my last trip to Disneyland, and I am curious as to what the culture is all about.

4:00PM - Everything You Wanted to Know About Live Action Role Playing... But Were Too Embarrassed to Ask: I think that title is self-explanatory. And bonus points for the Woody Allen reference. Alternate: Full-Time Creative Work on a Part-Time Schedule

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