Monday, December 18, 2017

A Visual Feast, and More - The Last Jedi, Reviewed

It's extremely likely that you have already made your mind up as to if (probably yes) and when (sooner the better, but who needs those crowds?) you are going to see the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi (episode VIII if you are keeping track that way). Let me give you two (spoiler-free) reasons as to why you definitely should see it, and sooner rather than later.

The first is that director Rian Johnson has nailed the tone of Star Wars in a way unequalled since the first film in 1977. All the antecedents are there: the fairy tale, the family drama, the western, the war movie, and the samurai epic. He adds nuance to the tragedy of Kylo Ren and brings Luke Skywalker back into the fold, but in a very counter-intuitive way, a way that Mark Hamill took exception to, but to which he has committed in a visible and fulfilling way.

After the weight and predeterminism of all the prequels (including the excellent Rogue One), and the way that The Force Awakens evoked so much of the original film, I cannot fully express just how delightful it felt to be exploring new ground in The Last Jedi. There are new worlds to visit, new creatures to marvel at, and a couple of well-thought-out twists that bring a much needed sense of unpredictability and awe to the franchise. 

And humour! After far too long an absence, someone has finally remembered that humour was a key reason for the success of the original trilogy, and emulated it here without undermining the gravitas of a rebellion fighting for its very existence. My advice on this basis is to avoid spoilers and revealed jokes alike, and see it as soon as you are able.

The second reason is that The Last Jedi is the most visually striking Star Wars movie to date. Ever. And, yes: that includes the original.

You might think this is due to the ever-increasing abilities of visual effects artists, but it doesn't; it is the manner in which those effects are used. From a squadron of battered landspeeders kicking up red plumes as they traverse salt flats, to the iridescence of ice foxes retreating from an  advancing army, Rian has reinstilled the sense of childlike wonder that every fan of this universe longs to experience. He even manages to include the best destruction of a capital ship in a space battle ever, and you will recognize it when you see it.

I went into The Force Awakens with a sense of apprehension, having avoided seeing the third prequel for almost a decade. I left The Last Jedi with an ever-building sense of hope; a hope that  we could perhaps end up with a second trilogy to approach the resonance and impact of the original. 

As it happens, Johnson is not available to helm the final chapter of this latest trilogy, but he has been given the keys to the kingdom in that he will be the boss of a brand new trilogy after J.J. Abrams wraps up this one in 2019. I'm looking forward to that in a way I could not have anticipated even a few days ago. For the time being, I am hoping Abrams can meet the bar which has been set very high now by Johnson, and then stick the landing as well.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 17: Big Sky Brewing Co.'s Power Wagon Wheat Wine

A lot of brewers are making big ABV beers today, but not all doublestrength brews are created equal, by any measure. There is a wide range of styles for the lovers of big beer to choose from, from crisp and bitter double IPAs to rich malty Imperial stouts, but one of the oldest in the infamous barleywine, which gets name dropped by no less a worthy than Xenophon himself in his tale Anabasis. (Why, yes - the same work that inspired Walter Hill's street gang classic, The Warriors - go to the front of the class!)

Power Wagon is different though, making up more than half its grain bill through three different varieties of wheat. Wheat ales make for some of the smoothest drinking, but sometimes at the expense of a robust flavour, which is why you so often see them augmented with citrus flavour or spices like coriander. I imagine there is a risk of having a high-test wheat beer turn out to have a mediciney flavour. Can Power Wagon dodge this bullet? We'll see...

It pours a pale, cloudy golden yellow with a hint of orange in there, and fruit and pine in the nose. 

The first sip brings the anticipated wheaty smoothness, and the grainy taste of wheat prevalent. There is a following sweetness, not unlike honey, and tinges of fruit. Even the fruit leans towards the sweet side - think oranges and maybe...mangoes? as opposed to grapefruit or lemon. But then the hops arrive to calm things down, reducing the sweetness and introducing a mildly piney bitterness that doesn't make your face want to cave in. Smoother and a bit sweeter than most barleywines. Some of the complexity undoubtedly comes from this special edition being barrel aged.

As the beer warms, both the sweetness and hoppiness appear to intensify, but perhaps that is just the 9.7% ABV talking.

All in all, Power Wagon is a wonderful departure from many other winter warmers, adopting a sweeter, breadier stance than many of its fellows. If this was an experiment, I would certainly consider it a success, and also a bit of a privilege - normally Power Wagon is only available as draft. I'm pretty sure I will be keeping a weather eye open for this one on tap at my local growler bars.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017 Advent Beer:16: Wold Top's Ditto Doppelbock

Christmas is a frantic time, which is why tonight's beer was paired with a hastily consumed bag of Mary Brown's chicken instead of being savoured afterwards and reflected upon in an appropriate manner. As a result, there is not a lot for me to share with you about this beer from Yorkshire.

I can tell you that at 7% ABV, Ditto is a fairly big bock, and like the song says, I like big bocks and I cannot lie. It is a crisp, malty and strong beer with a sweet finish that belies its strength. Dark, with a lot of character.

And it pairs well with fried chicken.

Friday, December 15, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 15: Crazy Mountain's 2017 Bridge Street Holiday Ale

Crazy Mountain Brewing Company of Denver Colorado brings us the calendar's prettiest label thus far; a rustic painting of a covered bridge in Vail, draped with snow and festooned with Christmas lights. Elsewhere on the label they describe the bottle's contents as an ale brewed with maple syrup and spices.

The spices are in evidence shortly after pouring: hints of clove and ginger waft up from the glass, which in itself is quite pleasant to look at, filled as it is with a deep amber.

Clove and ginger sort of break down the front door on this one, leaving very little space for the maple sweetness to assert itself. There is an almost floral quality to the beer; not unpleasant, but certainly unexpected.

All in all, a neat experiment, but not a strong contender compared to other winter ales that have arrived via this calendar.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 14: White Pony Brewing's Dark Signs

Apologies for the rushed post, but I have company arriving in 20 minutes and don't want to do the blog at 11:00 again. Hardly ideal conditions, but we press on regardless!

Another unusually multinational brew, Dark Signs is a dark winter ale brewed in Belgium for White Pony Brewing, based in Italy. Since this self-described 'extra-strong ale' rocks out at a whopping 11.9%, I have to wonder if there is perhaps an Italian law to prevent beers and wines becoming mixed up?  (The Untappd beer app has it reading as 13.1% for some reason.

Dark Signs certainly smells like a Belgian beer, at any rate: the sweet tang of the heavy alcohol presence is joined by notes of toffee and caramel, and a hint of apple, at least to me. There is a bit of yeasty mustiness as well, and the bottle states that champagne yeasts are in play here as well.

Remarkably smooth for such a high-test beer, the tastes present as sweet first, then malty, then the other characteristics come sifting through. The toffee and caramel notes are pronounced, the apple less so. It is a most festive taste, an ideal tipple to share by a fire with a visitor from afar. And it truly extra strong - I can't dispute the possibility it is actually 13.1%. This is definitely a beer I will keep an eye out for after Xmas!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 13: The Duck Rabbit's Wee Heavy Scotch-Style Ale

We now enter the second half of the Craft Beer Advent Calendar with high hopes tinged with apprehension after last night's unfortunately yeasty encounter. Today's beer comes all the way from Farmville, North Carolina, and a brewery which takes its appellation from a classic optical illusion, not just a classic exchange between Daffy and Bugs. The addition of a tam o'shanter to the label conveys both a sense of whimsy and cultural appreciation for this Scotch ale.

A lovely dark coppery-red in my mug, the sweet, malty aroma presages what is to come: a rich, malty beer, with lively carbonation, and a sweetness brought on by the 8% ABV. There is a hint of caramel in there as well, and the big alcohol taste is neither sharp nor hot, although there is definitely a discernible warming effect!

A great midwinter's beer, for certain!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 12: Nickel Brook's Half Bastard Stout

It was only after photographing the label and noticing the pseudo-cyrillic lettering that I finally twigged to the fact that this is a sequel of sorts to 2013's brilliant Bolshevik Bastard. BB was one of my favourite beers from that calendar and I came across it afterwards a couple of times as well.

Half Bastard is an attempt to keep the characteristics of a Russian Imperial Stout but with a much lower ABV, 4.5%. As RISs are one of my favourite styles, this strikes me as a potentially worthwhile effort. I say 'potentially' because in some ways that high ABV is a feature of Imperial Stouts, not a detriment. But regardless, like the man in this criminally underwatched video (made here in Alberta!) says: I like stouts; that's what I'm about.

On to the beer though; another foamy bugger, this one, that takes a while to pour. Some coffee and a bit of chocolate come through on the nose, along with a hint of something tangy...hops maybe? Only a sip will tell!

First impression is not good, sad to say - the coffee bitterness is followed by a sour flavour I was not expecting. Further sips and a bit of online research leads me to believe this beer is 'infected'. Sigh. This is not to say the beer is undrinkable, lambics and other sour beers are intentionally infected by wild yeast all the time. But in my case at least, it this one unfinishable Half Bastard.

Still, should I come across this one again, (preferably in a can, as apparently bottling can be the cause of infection), my faith in Nickel Brook, and my deep and abiding love for stouts, are sufficient enough to justify another attempt.

Monday, December 11, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 11: De Molen's Dasher & Dancer

Dutch Brewers De Molen are frequent contributors to the Craft Beer Advent Calendar - unless I miss my count, Dasher & Dancer will be their 5th appearance.

Their labels aren't particularly captivating, but as someone who may or may not have an allergy to one or more specific types of hops, I appreciate the detail with which they list their ingredients.

The label also attempts to identify what style of beer is contained within, and Dasher & Dancer is characterized as "Red Ale - ish". With dry hops listed as an ingredient though, the prudent drinker should be prepared for something more along the lines of an American Amber than, say, an Irish Red Ale.

Said hops make a floral, almost pungent appearance immediately after opening, but but one really notices upon decanting is the aggressive and persistent head-building. Despite angling along the side of the glass, I had to abort the pour at about the 40% mark and slurp furiously at the foam in order to prevent a containment issue (plus, spilled beer is alcohol abuse).

Even after letting the glass settle for a bit, emptying the remainder proved to be a two-stage process, and it still left a full, textured head that would not have appeared out of place in a root beer float.

Once able to get some sips in, the charms of the style become apparent. The dry hops are sharp and biting, but the maltiness still carries through. Traces of lemon follow up in the finish, but there is an almost grainy texture to the mouthfeel - not unpleasant, but unexpected. Honestly, Dasher & Dancer has an earthy tang that reminds me of a roggenbier made with rye as much as any red ale, but it is still a crisp and tasty brew. Score one more for De Molen!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Dance Dad: Performance Vs. Competition

Glory's dance school performed at the Festival of Trees last Sunday while Audrey and Fenya were assisting the choir in church. This left me in my familiar role as logistic/morale officer, something I enjoy doing way more at a performance than a feis.

The scheduling at a dance competition will be familiar to anyone who has a child in track or swimming or other similar sports; long periods of waiting punctuated by a flurry of events far too close to each other in terms of time, sometimes overlapping, and often at opposite ends of the venue.

For a performance, though, once I have Glory in the building, and with a clear destination in mind ("Same place as last year?" "Yep."), she is more than capable enough on her own. This frees me up to stake out a good sightline in the audience area, creeping ever forwards after each successive preceding act in my quest to ensconce myself in the coveted front row.

Arriving 40 minutes early meant I accomplished my goal after a mere three performances. Sadly, this also gave me front row to largely unattended toddlers meandering onto the staging, draping themselves on the monitors and so forth.

Small matter! Once the dancers from Scoil Rince Mahoney took the stage, I was captivated. Any of the dances Glory was involved in (including a complicated 12-hand arrangement of her instructor's own creation) gave me an opportunity to refamiliarize myself with my camcorder; my apologies for the out-of-focus shots!

The finale brought the entire contingent on stage at one time, and the stomps at the end of the number were startling, even above the music. It was a good showing for the troupe, and I think their instructor Lori was pretty happy overall.

The next feis is in January, and there is a lot of practice between now and then, but I know Glory enjoys the liberty of performing without being judged every once in a while (typically Christmas and St. Patrick's Day), just as much as I know I enjoy watching her!

2017 Advent Beer 10: Le Grimoire Shamans

Today'a advent offering brings us yet another fruity beer, but our first one from La Belle Province. Le Grimoire, out of Granby, QC, brings us a wheat beer flavoured with apple and cinnamon. Fruit flavours are often paired with wheat, but oranges and lemons are far more common. I'm a big fan of most stuff that tastes like apple pie, though, including (but not limited to) apple pie, so let's give this a shot.

Shamans pours a very light and pale straw colour, with a bit of haze to it, but without much of the cloudiness I expect from a witbier. It gives off the promised aromas of apples and even a bit of the cinnamon, but also some tangy yeasts and a bit of sourness.

It's a bit sweeter than anticipated in the mouth, and the apple loses some of the anticipated crispness of the flavour, in favour of something akin perhaps to a Jolly Rancher. It is smooth in the mouth, but some of the sour tang remains, but still not reminiscent of Granny Smith or McIntosh apples. The cinnamon comes mostly in the finish and brings some much needed spice to the party.

Not unpleasant, but I think I would be more akin to try Shamans again if I found it on tao somewhere.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 9: 8 Wired's Palate Trip

If an American IPA isn't bitter, is it still an IPA? It's like some kind of Zen koan.

Despite the fact that there is normally no fruit in them, the hops often impart a citrus-y quality to IPAs and double IPAs, bringing tastes like lemon, grapefruit, orange or persimmon to the party. New Zealand's 8 Wired Brewing Co. has taken an American-style IPA (more hops and more alcohol, 6.5% ABV to be precise) and made it sour, without expressing precisely how they have accomplished this. Which is just as well, because I probably wouldn't understand it anyhow.

Being a fan of sour in general, I can see the appeal of sour beers (when they are done ON PURPOSE that is...) and have been known to enjoy the occasional Cowbell Kettle Sour from Wildrose. A sour IPA though? It borders on the intimidating.

It ours a hazy golden yellow, with a fringey head of foam, and tart, fruity aromas are discernible the moment the cap is loosed. Once decanted, you can detect the grapefruit and almost a berry sweetness in the nose. Was yeast a factor in the souring? Maybe.

A sip presents a strong sour kick, but not overpowering. The hops are still detectable, but more in the nose than on the palate. The extreme bitterness has its edges rounded off by the sour. Tart, refreshing and quenching, this beer would be tremendous with a plate of hot wings, or as the antidote to a hot summer day. It is perplexing in its fashion though, and worthy of the name Palate Trip!

Friday, December 8, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 8: Clown Shoes' Advent Party Crasher

Today's offering is a well-timed American Imperial Stout. Now, Imperial Stouts are my favourite style overall, although they are typically Russian. Like most styles with American in the name, the primary differentiator is the addition of hops. And at the end of a particularly trying week, the 10% ABV is a real mood lifter.

Advent Party Crasher pours a deliriously opaque chocolate brown that borders on black - no light can penetrate it. A finger of caramel-coloured head tops the presentation, and notes of chocolate and coffee waft up from it.

The coffee and chocolate come through in the taste as well, and there is a degree of crispness from the hops, but it is balanced out by the high alcohol sweetness. It is delightfully smooth, and there is a hint of smokiness in the finish. Solid stuff!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 7: Camba Bavaria Grisette

I'm not an adventurous person by nature, but I do relish the opportunity to sample a new beer style - in this case, a grisette.

A grisette, as near as I am able to determine, is a Belgian style comparable to a saison, but where a saison is commonly associated with farmhands, grisettes are typically found amongst miners.

Like a saison, they are light, highly effervescent beers. Camba Bavaria's version pours a soft, hazy, golden yellow. There is lots of yeast and fruit esters in the nose, and a hint of the 5.9% ABV.

The real difference is in the taste though. Like a saison, the grisette is fresh, light and tingly, but there is also an intrinsic sourness to it; not overpowering, but distinct.  Some beer drinkers will no doubt find this offputting but I think it is captivating, and no doubt quite refreshing after a long day wresting coal or what-have-you from the bosom of the earth.

There are hints of grapefruit or perhaps sour apple here as well, but I inadvertently paired it with oversalted popcorn, so I'm afraid it didn't last all that long. A good showing for our first continental European beer!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 6: Belching Beaver - Beavers Milk Stout Nitro

First of all, kudos to these brewers in Oceanside California for adopting Canada's national animal as their mascot; I was pretty surprised this Belching Beaver was an American Brewery.

I like milk stouts quite a bit, particularly La Vache Folle out of Quebec. These stouts add lactose to the traditional recipe of roasted malts and the rest, imparting a creamy sweetness to the taste and a smoothness to the mouthfeel.

For extra good measure, BB has bottled their Beavers Milk Stout with nitrogen, demanding an aggressive pour that necessitates completely inverting the bottle. Normally this is a great way to make a mess in the kitchen, so decanting in this fashion becomes almost an act of faith. I was willing to try it, but wanted documentation in case anything went wrong...

The pour went about as well as could be expected, and I truly believe that Guinness-style cascade is one of the prettiest things you can capture in a glass. And such a head! So thick, it made the entire sleeve look almost gelatinous.

There are aromas of roasted malts and chicory, maybe a hint of coffee as well. Time for a sip...

Oh my.

That is ridiculously smooth. Maybe the smoothest beer I've ever tasted. The mouthfeel is completely silky, helping to prompt a an empty glass far earlier than anticipated. In terms of taste, the chicory and coffee elements are there, along with the sweetness brought on by the lactose. It imbues the aftertaste with characteristics reminiscent of dulce de leche, the South American milk/caramel confection.

Like all stouts, Beaver's Milk Stout Nitro has a nice stick-to-your-ribs quality, but the 5.3% ABV probably wouldn't get you into too much trouble if you wanted another pint.

And for the record, I do want another pint of this!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 5: Naparbier's Alien Klaw

At last, the inevitable return to hop country! Alien Klaw is labelled as a 'Belgian IPA' or India Pale Ale. IPAs are interesting (not least because most people think Alexander Keith's is one, when it is actually a lager), as additional hops were added as a preservatives to British ales shipped to India. The extra hops made them more bitter and citrusy than a standard ale, which undoubtedly felt quite refreshing during a hot, humid day on the subcontinent.

I was prepared to dismiss the Belgian style as marketing flim-flammery, but BeerAdvocate describes it as a recent innovation and style 'in development. So, Naparbier's attempt then incorporates Spanish, English, Belgian, and Indian elements, at least historically. Whew!

Alien Claw pours a cloudy, hazy yellow-gold, quite pleasant to gaze upon reflectively-or would have been, had the aggressive head formation not promoted some frantic slurping on my part. Once things had receded a bit, the first sips revealed the tangy, citrus notes you expect from a proper IPA, but the bitterness was smoothed out a bit by the higher alcohol sweetness (6.8%ABV). Sharp, tart, and smooth.

I'm by no means a serious hophead, but my respect for the style is sufficient for me to appreciate this spin on it, and I would absolutely try this beer again. Still not precisely sure what I am looking at on the label though.

Monday, December 4, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 4: Evil Twin Brewing's The Quads Are Not What They Seem

Dear Craft Beer Advent Calendar:
I am a big fan of your product and have enjoyed it every year for the past six. Thank you so much for improving the packaging and abandoning cans in favour of bottles. Since you have access to the December calendar every time you make one though, could you possibly see your way fit to keeping the high-test beers (8-11%) more aligned with the weekends? On Friday night I had a 5.1% beer, but on the first school night in December you throw a 10% Belgian quadrupel at me? That seems a tad unsporting to me.
Thank you for your consideration and for a stellar assortment of new beers every year!

Now that the correspondence is out of the way, let's talk about tonight's offering: The Quads Are Not What They Seem, from Evil Twin Brewing. Evil Twin is a 'gypsy brewer' from Denmark who crafts his beers in other people's breweries, often in the U.S., under contract.

The strength of the beer should come as nor surprise, as 90% of Evil Twin's brews clock in at 10% ABV or greater, and besides, a high alcohol content is typical of this Belgian style.

I started this beer with a slice of pizza during a slightly rushed supper (Monday nights are often a bit mad around here with Glory's photography class running until 7:00, at which time I bring her dinner to her an she its it in the car on her way to dance; what a trooper!), but was able to savour the second half afterwards in more favourable conditions. Which is to say, in an abbey-style glass, ensconced in a recliner, in a quiet house, and with the dog on my lap. Darn near ideal, in many respects.

At 10% we are heading into barleywine territory, beers meant to be lingered over, like brandy. There is a brandy-like quality to the aroma and taste of TQANWTS, There are also strong caramel notes, at least to me, and elements of spiciness and biscuit.

Of course, being a big Twin Peaks fan, I can't help but appreciate the name, even as it reminds me that I am overdue to watch the third season, released this year after a two decade hiatus...

A holiday treat for the nose, palate and eye, pouring a deep, dark reddish amber which seems to enhance the richness of the beverage. A worthy addition to the calendar, as all Evil Twin offerings have been, even on a school night.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

2017 Advent Beer 3: Saugatuck Brewing Cocanuck Stout

Good heavens, another sweet beer-it must be getting close to Christmas!

Day 3 brings us a Canadian beer with a tropical ingredient, brewed by our friends at Saugatuck Brewing in Michigan. Now, I consider myself a fan of Saugatuck, brewing as they do the delightfully surprising Blueberry Maple Stout from the Advent Calendar of two years ago, as well as the amazing Neapolitan Milk Stout, inheritor to the mantle left by the long-absent Neapolean and current emperor of dessert beers.

Now, I have no idea what prompted the Canadian content in this brilliantly punny name and label, coconut trees being anything but a native plant in our native land, but Cocanuck Stout is bold about its added ingredient. The coconut is evident right from the first sniff, yet almost subtle, or perhaps it just seems that way because most of us don't anticipate coconut in our dark beers (although it is not completely without precedent, as Brewsters was selling a Hawaiian Coconut Porter earlier this year as well).

Like the rest of Saugatuck's stouts and porters, this is a thick, dark, malty affair, and the chocolatey notes you expect from those roasted malts make a grand complement to the coconut, not unlike a Bounty bar.  And the coconut's naturally nutty bitterness comes through as well, offsetting the sweetness, but only a little.

Between the sweetness and the 7.5% ABV, I wouldn't be too prone to have two Cocanuck Stouts back to back, but as a liquid dessert, I see it being indispensable. Well, assuming you can find them outside of the calendar, that is.

I know it's unlikely, but I kind of hope there is another Saugatuck offering in this calendar. If not, well, there is always next year!

2017 Advent Beer 2: Nøgne Ø's Dubbel Advent

After Friday's tasty but undeniably pedestrian beer, this is more like it: a Belgian style strong ale, brewed in Norway, specifically for the Christmas season!

Partaken of by both Totty and myself during our now traditional December Second-World-War Aviation-Wargaming-and-Advent-Beer-Tasting event, Dubbel Advent pours a deep rich amber, and like most Belgian dubbels, carries a fruity sweetness to the nose along with the tangy yeast esters characteristic of the style.

The taste is far more malty than hoppy, as expected, and has all the breadiness I long for in dubbels (and bread, for that matter). There is a tart sweetness reminiscent of spiced apples that fits the season perfectly, undercut by a touch of bitterness more associated with coffee or baker's chocolate than hops.

And Øh bøy,  at 8.0%, it is a legit winter warmer, something else greatly appreciated in a Canadian December!

I've never had a disappointing beer from Nøgne Ø, and this excellent strong ale maintains their excellent reputation. I doubt I will find this one on its own, but would definitely pick up Dubbel Advent if I came across it again; a great beer to share with a friend on a cold winter evening. Gød jul indeed!

2017 Advent Beer 1: The Shipyard Export Ale

So, here it is the third day of December, and nary an Advent Beer post in sight! What's going one? Have I abandoned the way of the calendar? Have I taken ill, or perhaps leave of my senses.

Yeah, nah man, it's just been busy. Last Christmas was the same way and this one shows no signs of relenting, but I am participating in the Craft Beer Advent Calendar for the sixth consecutive year now.

Production of this formerly rare item has ramped up sufficiently that I no longer have to reserve one in the summer, and was able to wait until a suitable Air Miles promotion was in play before making my purchase.

Having said that though, I must confess that the temptation to skip on the blogging portion of the exercise was surprisingly strong this year. Things are busy, and I'm running out of adjectives for describing head! But when I pulled today's beer out of the carton and recognized the brewery from an earlier calendar, I realized there isn't a cat in hell's chance of my remembering all these ales and lagers a few years from now, mnemonic support is one of the primary reasons I keep a blog, so all two dozen advent beers will be logged here, never fear! But my tasting notes are going to be a bit more subdued for the most part; after all, for aficionados of minutiae, sites like Beer Advocate already exist.

Today's inaugural entry is a grand justification to this approach; The Shipyard Export Ale is a fine beer, an American blonde ale that is well balanced, presenting both malt and hops in an even-handed fashion.At 5.1% it is only marginally higher in alcohol than most other beers. A great beer to have in a pub, along with some hot, presumably fried food, an either engaged in feisty debate with one's friends or perhaps enjoying a sporting event.

But it doesn't distinguish itself in any meaningful way. 

If I was in Portland Maine, I would love the chance to try Shipyard Export on tap, but if not for this blog post (and a well-executed, classic label), I would probably forget about it before finishing this calendar.

That said, for a straightforward, no-nonsense, mainstream beer, it's a tasty one!

London Blitzpatrick

Last summer, I stumbled across an intriguing Kickstarter from The Plastic Soldier Co. in the U.K., proposing to remake TSR's well-received Battle of Britain boardgame from the 80s, but replacing the paper counters with small but detailed aircraft models.

Knowing Totty to be the biggest fan of Spitfires I know, I took pains to make him aware of the campaign, and he jumped on board right away. After a long a tortured production process, his kit finally arrived last week, and we got to play it last night.

Totty had upgraded to receive additional model planes, a much larger roll-up map designed for conventions and demos. Originally he was supposed to receive a set of what many consider to be the ultimate wargaming accessory: the pushy stick. Also know as rakes or croupier sticks, they are a fixture in many old war movies, as plotters move markers representing military units on map tables too big to reach across. Sadly there was an issue with the supplier, so PSC was unable to supply them. They are also planning to replace all the planes from the initial kits, as the plastic proved to be too soft, giving many of the aircraft warped wings or twisted tails.

By this point though, I found the idea of pushing fighters and bombers across a big map with only my hands, like some kind of caveman, actually disagreeable. So I set out to cobble together a set by myself.

A quick trip to Michael's for some doweling, a dip into the supply box for some bass wood, and a liberal application of both the Dremel tool and hot glue gun, and I had a reasonable facsimile in place.
DIY pushy sticks.

Totty was happy to see the sticks, and although they didn't work altogether well with the diamond-shaped bases of the aircraft, they were quite useful for moving counters and cards across the table during setup.

With a 3' x 5' mapboard to work with, there was just enough room for the two of us to set up our various flight displays, but once set up, it is a very good looking game, and it plays pretty well too.

Yes, THIS is what tabletop wargaming is meant to be!

The gameplay is quite a bit more random than I had expected. As the Luftwaffe player, I had a set of ten mission cards of which I needed to pick 7 to assign to my various flight groups. These could involve bombing a coastal radar station, destroying an airbase, or bombing a city. Once assigned, however, missions cannot be exchanged and targets of opportunity cannot be struck at. 

Likewise, the composition of each flight group is also random. 6 cards are drawn, each one representing one type of aircraft, so you get no say as to the initial mix of fighters and bombers in any given group. You need both, obviously, but when you need three successful hits on a city to complete the mission, but when you are only rolling 2 dice because the only aircraft to survive a savage intercept by the RAF is a couple of Ju-87 Stukas, well, your work is cut out for you, Jerry.

My 4' wide table is barely big enough to hold the enormity of this game!

Battle of Britain is more of a tactical than strategic game, since you only play 4 turns, but each turn begins with the RAF player choosing where to spend his precious air combat markers, as he has but 5 to spend. The turn ends with surviving Luftwaffe planes trying to destroy their targets and then determining if they have enough fuel to return home.

It's tremendous fun, and despite some missteps at the beginning as we navigated the rules, we finished our first game in around 3 hours. Although I'd heard some reviews saying that the victory conditions favoured the English, I managed to secure victory for The Hun; by the end of the game, Sheffield, Exeter, Preston, Coventry and even London were in flames. Totty's squadrons acquitted themselves pretty well though, and by destroying over a score of my aircraft, the final score was 38-28.

"Guten abend, Tommies!"

All in all, well paced and fun game to play, with almost precisely the right amount of detail and only the barest amount of logistics to impede scramble calls and death from the skies. I look forward to our inevitable rematch!

Monday, November 27, 2017

To Bolder Go... - Star Trek: Discovery vs. The Orville

Star Trek: Discovery has polarized many fans of the enduring franchise, marking its return to episodic television (after an unfortunate but much-needed 12-year hiatus) with extremely mixed reactions.

Discovery marks a number of firsts for Trek being the first to step away from network or syndication standards in favour of a more 'premium cable' model, along the lines of Netflix or HBO. It is also available to far fewer viewers in the U.S. where it can only be seen on CBS' All Access streaming service.

This has allowed them to orient their material to a more mature audience, introducing the first same-sex couple in a Trek series, and dropping the first f-bombs in franchise history. Discovery is also the first series where the ship's commander is not the focus of the program.

Set ten years before the familiar voyages of the Enterprise, it also dabbles in a fair amount of revisionism, tinkering with the canonical timeline in a way seemingly designed to tweak long-time fans. Why have we never heard of Discovery's experimental drive prior to this? Where did the captain get the tribble he keeps in his quarters? Why do the Klingons look so different from any of the previous iterations? Why are we seeing cybernetic or robotic characters on starship bridges, when the android character Data was such a big deal on Next Generation almost a century later? How come we never knew that Mr. Spock had an adopted sister, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin)?

Burnham's famous sibling is not even the most interesting thing about her character. The first two episodes of Discovery exist primarily as her backstory, or perhaps origin, as her rash actions help catapult the Federation into war against the Klingons, and effectively ends her Starfleet career.

A seemingly chance encounter brings her under the dominion of the Discovery's captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs, best known as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter films). Here is another crewmember haunted by their past, and although not quite as driven, Lorca shares more traits with Captain Ahab than most of his crew would probably be comfortable with.

Having effectively done away with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's oft-misunderstood admonition against interpersonal conflict has opened up a lot of fertile ground for storytelling, but also takes Discovery a step further away from what we have come to associate with Star Trek. As a result, a number of would-be fans are not watching the show, and some of them are even pointing their attentions to an unlikely competitor: quasi-spoof The Orville, starring and helmed by, of all people, the creator of Family Guy, Seth McFarlane.

The Orville is set in a carefully crafted analogue to the Star Trek universe, but instead of following the steadfast crew of a legendary ship, it centers around a significantly lower tier ship and the quirky misfits that keep her flying.

A lot of archetypes and stereotypes from previous incarnations of Trek are present, from the robotic crewman Isaac who hails from a synthetic society, to the alien Bortus, the stoic and taciturn second officer whose species have only a single gender. A waif-like but super-strong security chief, a couple of wise-cracking helmsmen and a captain and first officer who were once married to each other (Seth McFarlane and Adrienne Palicki) rounds things out.

The bridge layout, colour coded uniforms and presence of a Planetary Union instead of a Federation make the homage even more obvious, but the bickering, job dissatisfaction and knowing winks and nods thrown to long-established tropes put a fresh spin on things.

Although The Orville is funny in an earthy, prime-time Fox sort of fashion, I was astonished to see how much seriousness existed in the stories themselves. Like the original series, they make effective use of taking existing trends or problems and extrapolating them to the Nth degree, such as a planet where social media has replaced the justice system, and an undercover crewman risks reprogramming after being caught on video dancing inappropriately with a statue. Or the ethical debate that ensues when Bortus and his partner ask to have their child's sex reassigned after being born female, something considered a rare birth defect on their homeworld.

Given the maturing of our collective tastes in science fiction, it becomes difficult to take established Trek concepts like universal translators or such a casual approach to first contact scenarios seriously, but within the framework of a lightweight adventure/comedy they become a lot easier to swallow, as the whole affair is taken much less seriously. As Mystery Science Theatre 3000 used to remind us, "it's just a show, I really should relax."

Most surprising of all is how seriously Seth McFarlane takes his role as starship commander Ed Mercer, and how effective he is at it. Despite having limited his career by showing up to work hungover on many occasions after discovering his wife's infidelity, Mercer is not portrayed as a buffoon, but as a flawed officer who still cares about his crew and doing the right thing. That he does so in between dick jokes and offhand workplace humor is just incidental, and last night I watched him give a firm but supportive pep-talk worthy of Kirk or Picard to a troubled crew member with nary a chuckle or smirk in sight.

In the commentary on science-fiction sites like io9, many Star Trek fans have said that the dark tone and moral ambiguity of Discovery (and for some, what they feel is a lack of respect for prior canon) have driven them to the whimsical idealism and visual familiarity of The Orville, which I can completely understand.

On the other hand though. I have really enjoyed the first half of Star Trek: Discovery's first season. The production values are amazing, even if so much of the technology transcends even what we saw on Next Gen and I too am curious how they intend to reconcile the historical inconsistencies. I appreciate how they have loosened the leash on opposing views between the crew but have maintained respect in their interactions (for the most part). As much as I would love to see a post-Deep Space 9 series taking the franchise into the future where it belongs, I am forced to admit that witnessing the earlier days of the Federation makes for compelling viewing.

And despite the overtures to a more mature audience (and perhaps more cynical as a result), the idealism at Trek's heart can still be found there; you just have to look a little harder in some instances.

So which one is truer to Trek, in spirit if nothing else? That is difficult to say, and in the end, perhaps completely unnecessary. There is no question that Star Trek: Discovery is a darker and more mature take on the franchise, with conspiracies, politics, hidden agendas, and all the less-than-ideal products of the human heart (and alien as well). Open defiance of orders? Vulcan terrorists? Roguish, hapless Harry Mudd capable of cold-blooded murder?

It's a lot to take in, and a considerable change-up from what me are used to. Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, Discovery still feels more like the original series than anything that came afterwards, at least to me. The newness of everything, the uncertainty, stands in stark contrast to the safe familiarity of the Federation by Next Generation, where many of the Enterprise-D's missions consisted of hosting or conveying important characters or plot devices, like a combination space-going convention centre and taxi service.

In the meantime, The Orville cloaks a great heart built on an unmistakable love of Star Trek within a shell of quick gags and reference humor. I've loved sci-fi comedy since Red Dwarf, and while The Orville is neither as clever nor as subversive as it was, it is enjoyable and accessible. For a comedy, they do action pretty well, with fights featuring characters thrown every whichaway. They have only minimal amounts of continuity to speak of, making it far more accessible than Discovery as well.

I just figured out what it reminds me of: the classic Trek episode "The Enemy Within". You know this one: a transporter accident ends up splitting Kirk into two selves, one compassionate and selfless, the other more instinctive, impetuous, and violent. (You may remember it as the episode featuring the adorable unicorn space dogs that befall the same fate as Kirk.)

As a child, I remember wondering how Kirk was going to defeat his 'evil'self, until Spock explains that the captain needs that hardness, that edge, the ability to make tough calls and hard decisions; his noble and savage selves would need to be reintegrated. This was heady stuff for eight-year old me, and was my first introduction to the world as being a place of not just black and white, but also shades of grey.

Perhaps these two programs reflect two different aspects of the same beloved universe: one exploring the darkness, the other gravitating towards a lighter and more nostalgic tone?

There can't possibly be any intentionality or grand design between two wholly different networks developing two unrelated and competing shows at the same time.  Still though, the simple fact that a darker, more 'adult' version of official Star Trek product was released at almost exactly the same time as a goofy, humor/adventure derivative of it is a pretty astonishing coincidence.

In the end, I don't think anyone can really tell you which show is 'better', and I'm certainly not going to try. I will tell you that, in their own ways, they are both brave television and reflect a dedication to the different ideals presented by Star Trek, and there is no reason a person cannot enjoy both of them, as I am. It's nice to be given a choice, don't you think?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Center Mass, But No Ten-Ring - Marvel's The Punisher, Reviewed

Marvel's popular vigilante character, The Punisher, is problematic no matter what media he is depicted in.

Originating as a one-off Spider-Man villain in 1974, ex-Marine Frank Castle rolled through the Marvel Universe conducting a one-man war on crime and occasionally running afoul of heroes like Captain America. Bits of his backstory were slowly teased out, revealing that he had lost his wife and children  after they had the bad fortune to stumble onto a mob hit. Declaring war on crime, the mob initially but more comprehensively later on, he brought lethality to a medium that had previously left criminals trussed up for the police, or perhaps suspended by webbing from a lamppost.

The Punisher provided a great foil for traditional heroes with a traditional morality, and nowhere was this better highlighted than in his appearances in the classic run on Daredevil written by Frank Miller and drawn by Klaus Janson back in the early 80s.

Daredevil (and attorney alter-ego Matt Murdock) sees Castle as a hypocritical and amoral murderer, no better than the criminals he preys upon. The Punisher meanwhile mocks DD as an ineffective liberal, too soft to do what is needed to really stop crime. Their physical and philosophical feud made a real impression on me as a teenager buying his entertainment off the spinner rack.

Later on, when I was getting my comics at a specialty shop in Edmonton (Starbase 12, actually), things changed when the Punisher got his own title with a limited series from Steve Grant and Mike Zeck. Grant supplied a great modern crime story and all the trappings to make Frank Castle a bit more sympathetic, explaining how some of his more irrational behavior (shooting at jaywalkers and such, for example), was the result of his being poisoned during one of his periods in prison. Zeck supplied some brilliantly painted covers, and it was not too long after this that The Punisher got his own ongoing series, written by Mike Baron.

Baron is also no stranger to vigilantism and philosophy, having dabbled extensively both in his sci-fi comic Nexus, but the real fights took place in the letters column every month. For every person who suggested an established villain or hero from Marvel's extensive pantheon for Castle to butt heads with, another fan would eschew all fantasy in favour of just watching him gun down drug dealers issue after issue.

To his credit, Baron walked that tightrope pretty well for over 60 issues, and I read and enjoyed almost all of them, but the real question remained: was the Punisher a hero, an anti-hero, a villain, or something else entirely?

Successive writers and artists have tackled the question in many ways, Garth Ennis having had the most prolific turn at the wheel, but whose well-known distaste for superheroes had the Punisher getting the better of anyone in tights who came after him, including Spider-Man and Wolverine. The latter of these he ran over with a steamroller, knowing it wouldn't kill but would remove him from the fight fairly authoritatively. As comics became more and more adult, the crimes depicted in them got progressively darker and more disturbing, and Castle's punishments got more graphic and outlandish as well.

Seeming to live in his own comics universe by this point, and garnering attention with dramatically shadowed and realistic cover art from Tim Bradstreet, The Punisher became more and more popular as did his skull logo. Military personnel drew it on vehicles and helmets, some units even adopted it into their morale patches. Astonishingly, a Kentucky police station actually put it on the hood of their police cruisers until public outcry forced its removal.

I bring all of this up simply to give some context to what has gone on with character prior to the arrival of Marvel's The Punisher on Netflix last week, and to explain where I think the tv characterization has missed the mark.

Jon Bernthal's tortured portrayal of a broken man dealing with tremendous trauma and loss rings just as true here as it did in the second season of Daredevil, and he is unquestionably the best thing in it. In the comics, Frank Castle may have anger issues, but Bernthal's rage-filled revenant is an anger issue. Where the comics depict a coldly calculating and dispassionate warrior, the small-screen version is a long fuse leading to an enormous keg of screaming, grunting, bestial avatism. It's alternately compelling and horrifying to witness, but an effective choice for television.

Less effective in my eyes is the fact that this Castle's vendetta is a personal one. In the comics, the senseless and random deaths of his family drives him to declare war on all crime, but here he is directly avenging the deliberate murder of his family to prevent him blowing the whistle on a conspiracy. Although this makes his motivation more understandable and the character a bit more relatable, it limits the future storytelling possibilities. Frankly, making his goal of immediate revenge more rational almost undermines the character by making him indistinguishable from a host of other vengeance-driven characters. (And for the record: no, I didn't like it when Tim Burton set it up so that the Joker killed Bruce Wayne's parents either, or when those South Africans admitted to killing Rigg's wife in Lethal Weapon 2.)

For another thing, the Netflix Punisher has absolutely no connective tissue to the other Netflix Marvel shows or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I get that Chris Evans is not going to drop by to throw hands with Jon Bernthal (although I'd love to see it!) and that we don't need to see Jessica Jones poking her nose in unnecessarily, but there isn't even an attempt to show the Punisher as existing in a world different from ours. There is no Stark Industries tech seen during the scenes in Afghanistan, no sign of the damage from the Battle of New York or even a mention of the destruction of the Midland Circle building from The Defenders. Even a "get a load of  this guy-thinks he's Thor..." when Castle prepares to defend himself (gruesomely) with a sledgehammer would've been a nice touch.

To me at least,  a big part of what makes the Punisher the Punisher is the fact that he lives in a universe where lots of folks on both sides of the law have extraordinary abilities. Having to deal with super-strong, bulletproof, or flying adversaries through a combination of intelligence, cunning, skills, equipment and nearly Batman-levels of planning helped Frank Castle to stand apart from a whole array of similar characters in other media (I'm looking at you, Don Pendleton's Executioner (and also a little bit at Charles Bronson in Death Wish)). Without this, there is almost nothing to distinguish the Punisher from almost any other vigilante character, outside of a flamboyant mode of dress based on an overarching cranial anatomical theme.

And even the costume gets short shrift in the Netflix, version, with the classic look only appearing in two episodes out of 13.  To be fair, it's not like Charlie Cox slides into his red suit for every episode of Daredevil , but between this and the fact that the showrunners made a big point about the fact that there would be no links to events from The Defenders, and no fantastic elements, I'm a bit disappointed. We've come so far in letting comic book characters in movies and tv look and act like their funnybook counterparts, it's a bit of a letdown not carrying on through The Punisher.

Honestly, if there is one character who could benefit from being portrayed as living in a world other than our own, it is Frank Castle. In the comics, The Punisher has gone up against powered armor, mutants, witchcraft, ninjas, vampires, Doctor Doom and the Kingpin. Facing him off against former servicemen who are now amoral mercenaries if not outright terrorists, bankrolled by corrupt officials in the public service, is just a little too close to 'the world outside my window' than I would care to admit. And this is to say nothing of how to sympathetically portray a troubled individual who uses guns to solve the vast majority of his problems  less than a month after yet another mass shooting has taken place. Realism could end up being the boat anchor that most limits the Punisher in future outings.

And speaking of realism, the show's one capitulation to the fantastic seems to be the sheer amount of damage that Frank Castle is capable of enduring. Seeing the effects of Bernthal being shot, stabbed, blown up, beat up, and tortured made me think they should have named his character The Punished instead.

All of this probably makes it sound like I didn't enjoy anything about Netflix's iteration of The Punisher, and that is not precisely true. It is a gripping tale of vengeful justice with a great actor in the lead role, despite the departures it takes from the source material.

The best thing it has going for it outside of its lead is a great cast of tremendously interesting supporting characters.  Some of these are former war buddies of Frank's, from Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) who runs a support group for other vets in a church basement, to Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), who now heads up a private military corporation. Billy also runs tactical training exercises, which is how he encounters Agent Madani (Amber Rose Revah) of Homeland Security, who is fervently searching out clues for an unsolved murder she left behind in Afghanistan which eventually leads her to you-know who.

The most intriguing character, however, is Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). In the comics, Linus Lieberman is a hacker and engineer known as Microchip who serves as Alfred to Castle's Batman. His Netflix analog is a principled whistleblower who ran afoul of the same conspiracy by leaking footage of the murder to Madani, and sees Frank Castle as a means of achieving his goals. Complicating matters is the fact that he has allowed everyone to believe the conspirators killed him a year ago, including his wife and children. His only contact with them is through the surveillance cameras he has surreptitiously installed in their home, seeing their challenges and heartbreak but unable to do anything about it.

Although their relationship starts out adversarial, Micro and Castle share this fascinating dynamic of two men separated from their loved ones, but are differentiated in that one of them is ostensibly working towards a happy ending that the other can never have. When Micro has to watch someone as dangerous as Frank Castle interact with his daughter and young son, his envy and discomfort is palpable, a real credit to the actor.

As an action series with a tightly wrapped story, The Punisher has a lot going for it, and most of this is due to its willingness to focus on the characters around him. In a lot of ways it is a series about trauma and the ways that people deal with it, like the troubled young veteran in Curtis's support group who is finding it difficult to fit in. This makes a lot of sense dramatically; after all, you know they are unlikely to kill a cash cow like The Punisher, but what about the young co-worker from the construction site? In the very first episode he tries to reach out to an incognito Castle who is struggling to leave violence behind him, but after being rebuffed, he gets coerced into pulling a robbery.

Despite the fact that it didn't feel very much like The Punisher to me (and there are no doubt a ton of dudes from those old letters pages who will disagree with me), it was a decent watch and I will be likely to check in for the inevitable second season. Here's my wish list for that endeavour:
  • Start the war - and reveal what compels Frank Castle to pursue criminals now that his family's murder has been avenged. Not revenge again though; this time, it's impersonal.
  • Make mine Marvel - remind us that this story takes place in the same world as Iron Men and thunder gods. Take your cues from Spider-Man Homecoming (but maybe not the tone).
  • Embrace the fantastic - Baron's run had some wonderful notions that were unrealistic but accessible, like the yakuza trained accountants who kept all the Kingpin's financial records in their heads. Normal sucks; why would you want to be that?
  • Anthology format - do you really need to build to a confrontation with a big bad? Or could you have a set of mini-arcs like last season's Agents of SHIELD, and go from investigating a militia, to infiltrating an outlaw biker gang, to taking down their cartel drug suppliers in South America? 13 episodes is as much screen time as four movies...
  • Leverage the Netflix Universe - as long as Kevin Feige is intent on keeping the MCU and Netflix in separate sandboxes (which makes sense in terms of tone if nothing else; could you imagine Tom Holland's Spider-Man vs. Bernthal's Punisher? Ugh...), then make use of what you have access to. If Daredevil doesn't come after Castle now that he is back killing people in job lots, there's going to be some explanations needed. Set up an arc with Alfre Woodard's Black Mariah from Luke Cage, or Vincent D'Onofrio's brilliant Kingpin, with a possible resolution in a second season of The Defenders.

The Punisher can be an intriguing character (even though Joss Whedon hates him!), and I hope that future seasons take a step back towards the comics that spawned him, but they haven't lost any real ground here and have a great lead in Jon Bernthal. They are close in some ways, but definitely off the mark in others - I'm definitely intrigued enough for another (9mm) round.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Motivations, Not Origins - Justice League, Reviewed

Justice League, the long-awaited, somewhat dreaded cinematic interpretation of DC Comics premiere super-team, features some divergent takes on some of the characters it introduces, most notably Aquaman and The Flash. Aquaman is no longer a clean-cut square in orange and green fish-scale tights, but a long-haired and rebellious loner, at home neither on the surface nor under the sea, but oozing personal confidence and no small degree of sex appeal. Flash is not a fully matured man of science, but an Asbergerian teen dealing with both physical and social awkwardness as he comes to grips with his own considerable abilities, literally tripping up when he can least afford it. In some ways, the Flash's progression can perhaps be seen as a reflection of these first stumbling steps of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), Time-Warner's answer to the far more successful and satisfying Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Everyone, is entitled to some missteps. Also, every studio, every creator, every manager of character-based intellectual property. Justice League, though flawed, corny, and in most ways inferior to what we are now accustomed to seeing from their competition, is an entertaining film that gives some long-established and much-beloved characters a chance to plant their feet and regain their balance after staggering out of the gate with an initial slate that was weaker than anticipated.

This is by no means intended as a slight against Wonder Woman, as either character that was the best of of Batman Vs. Superman, or the movie that successfully defibrillated the DCEU. Justice League makes great use of the momentum and positive energy built up by WW and builds upon it with a team motif.

In fact, one of my favourite things about JL is that an opening scene makes the Amazons of Themiscyra look even more badass than they did in their initial appearance in Wonder Woman. There is a genuine sense of risk, sacrifice, dedication and most of all, teamwork, as Queen Hippolyta leads her sisterhood in a knock-down, drag-out game of keepaway. It is a desperate struggle to keep one of three matter-transforming alien supercomputers known as maguffins - I mean, Motherboxes - out of the hands of Steppenwolf, the leader of an invading army of parademons, and say what you will about director Zack Snyder, but the man knows how to direct an action sequence.

Due to a family tragedy, Snyder was unable to complete the filming, and new DCEU colleague Joss Whedon (on deck to write and direct the upcoming Batgirl movie) was called in to finish the job. Whedon also wrote some new material for the film, earning himself a a screenplay credit, and, I suspect, humanizing the characters somewhat. I'm not sure we will ever know, however, as he is a good team player, and no one else is willing to go on record yet as saying, “This here was Snyder’s bit,” or “That part was all Whedon.” For my money though, Whedon’s thumbprints show up in the fractious formation of the team, the snippy comments and whimsical asides, but also in the reverence for the lives of innocents, something a lot of viewers (myself included) felt was missing from both Man of Steel and BvS.

For all the improvements though, Justice League still wears its flaws way out on its skintight sleeves where everyone can see them. As beloved as these characters are, you are never allowed to forget that their owners are in fact corporate, profit-driven entities, not artists. Nowhere is this made more evident to me than in the brutalist approach to product placement for Mercedes-Benz, highlighted by a pre-movie advertisement featuring the principal characters, just in case you miss the cars in the film itself.

And there is no chance of that: Bruce Wayne's roadster, a sleek silver coupe that is at least as distinctive as Bruce Wayne’s other ride, lingers lovingly in the viewfinder, the three-pointed star logo forming the focal point of the shot in a way that the bat-symbol worn by Ben Affleck can only hope to match. And while it makes perfect sense for a billionaire to drive such an ostentatious ride, seeing Gal Gadot step out of a Mercedes sedan as Wonder Woman’s alter ego felt far too opportunistic, at least to me.

At a crisp running time of two hours, there isn't a lot of time to introduce and develop three new characters (Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg), so some of that has to lay by the wayside. But fear not! They are each getting their own spin-off films, something which does not arise from intriguing heroes presented on screen that the audience is clamouring for more of, but is instead mandated by corporate fiat. The major beats are all touched upon though, as different as they are from their origins in the comics.

The weakest link is probably Cyborg, the only character in the batch whose origin I read off the spinner racks as an adolescent (1980, Teen Titans Vol. 1, #1), and he serves as both expositional reference and a Swiss Army knife for the plot. Commandeer a one-of-a-kind vehicle? You got it. Physically Interface with Kryptonian technology in two fewer attempts than it takes most of us to correctly insert a USB plug? No sweat!

On the plus side though, updating his origin to incorporate the Motherbox is a smart play, and adds a degree of discomfort that the body-horror of a full-body prosthetic just doesn't carry like it once did. Instead, Cyborg complains of having a language in his head that he does not speak (creepy!), and which undermines the confidence of his teammates.

From a nerd's point of view, there are a few points to discuss as well: I took a personal dislike to the more armoured appearance of The Flash, especially around the neck. And how is that supposed to get crammed into a ring for a future movie for heaven's sake? The tv series with Grant Gustin wins this one. And Aquaman's pentadent really does look more like a hayfork than a symbol of office. Also, I know Bruce Wayne likes to get his hands dirty and invents a lot of his own tech, but the idea of his wrenching up a transport vehicle the size of a C5 Galaxy is a bit much, even for me.

Bear in mind there are ten credited writers on this movie, bringing to mind the old jape of defining a camel as ‘a horse designed by committee’.Story-wise, there really isn't all that much to Justice League, and Steppenwolf is neither a sympathetic or particularly intriguing villain despite being portrayed in motion capture by Ciaran Hinds of HBO’s Rome and Game of Thrones. But does any of that really matter?

Justice League, in both the comics and the movies, is about teamwork, as it should be. It is about strength through diversity. It reinforces that one person, even Superman, cannot do it all, and that maybe the best man for a job is a woman. It blends together both legendary superheroes with somewhat lesser known (Cyborg) or less popular (Aquaman) ones. It mixes established Holllywod actors (Affleck) and more recent discoveries (Gadot) with relative unknowns (Ray Fisher and Ezra Miller).

If not for the overarching corporate need for a larger mythology and ongoing narrative to drive sequels and spin-offs, a Justice League story mightn't require much of a plot, or any villain at all, frankly. Is it so hard to imagine a story about a group of disparate but gifted people coming together to overcome a natural disaster? Isn't the meat of such a tale to be found in the interactions between the principals and not in the blows and banter shared with their adversaries?

In short order, what I appreciated most about Justice League is:
  • These beloved characters felt like they were properly treated, some for the very first time (yes, even sexy hipster Aquaman who causes my wife to sigh audibly).
  • Every one of them gets an opportunity to look cool.
  • Almost every one of them gets to be vulnerable too (the Mark of Whedon? Possibly.).
  • The focus is on saving the innocent, not just beating up bad guys.
  • When the bad guys do get beat up, it looks great, as do most of the action sequences.
  • They don't make too big a deal of the fact that Steppenwolf, hardly a legendary villain from the comics, has a far more frightening boss who we can be assured we will meet in a future installment.
  • Where many comic adaptations muse about how to become more 'grounded' or 'accessible', Justice League leans into the larger-then-life aspects of its source material, resulting in perhaps the comic-bookiest of comic book movies to date.
  • Best of all, despite the fact that the spin-offs and sequels are a mathematical surety at this point, I felt like I was watching a complete movie, and not just a trailer for the next installment (I'm looking at you, Batman v. Superman)

At this point, I would normally attempt to assess how much relevance or appeal Justice League might have for the non-nerdy audience, many of whom will be encountering some of the League’s charter members for the very first time, but you know what? The ‘Trinity’ of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman is so beloved and well-established in popular culture that almost everyone has a longing for and a vested interest in their positive portrayal.

Like this film’s iteration of The Flash, the DCEU has taken its share of slips, stumbles and downright falls in its early days, from an overbearing and unnecessarily dark tone to some brutal mischaracterizations. With Justice League, the rehabilitation of this universe which began with Wonder Woman continues apace, and like Superman’s chest symbol, the hope continues to endure.