Monday, 29 February 2016

Monthly Mini-Reviews: February - Ant-Man, Dickensian, Ghosts of Manhattan

Monthly Mini-Reviews is back - in a brand-new format! This month: shrinking superheroes, Dickensian fan-fiction and steampunk vigilantes...


I had heard a lot about how Ant-Man proved that Marvel were running out of steam but I'm happy to say I very much enjoyed it. It is a not a ground-breaking remodelling of the superhero genre but I found it to be one of the studio's most outright entertaining. 

Paul Rudd is a fun, charming lead as ex-con Scott Lang, who is hired by Hank Pym to steal his inventions back from the corrupt Darren Cross (who reminded me of a sort of Kevin Spacey lite). The linking to the wider world of the Marvel films that threatens to swamp some of their other entries is hardly an issue here, basically only a scene where Ant-Man takes on the Falcon serves to remind you that it is set in the same world (as well as a great line where Scott says what the audience are thinking: "why don't we call the Avengers?") 

The strongest aspect was probably the use of Ant-Man's skillset. The superpower of shrinking and growing things felt fresh rather than simply being Honey, I Shrunk The Superhero (a highlight involves Thomas the Tank Engine). All in all, Ant-Man is a refreshingly simple yarn after the fun yet bloated Age of Ultron. It might feel more in line with Marvel's TV shows (which are generally about what the lesser-known characters get up to while the big guns are busy) but just because its smaller-scale doesn't mean it's less good. 

Dickensian (Series One)

Everyone is always saying that if Charles Dickens were alive today he would be writing soaps. Well, kudos to Tony Jordan (creator of the brilliant Hustle) who has decided to put that to the test - by mashing up several of the author's works and making a TV series based around the soap opera format (multiple half-hour episodes per week),

The trick with this series was keeping the interest up once the novelty of seeing Miss Havisham and Scrooge walking down the same street had worn off. Thankfully, it largely managed it, becoming a treat for Dickens fans as it acted as a prequel to about four different novels (A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Bleak House). There's a strong cast all-round but highlights were Sophie Rundle as a young Honoria Barbary who runs the whole gamut of emotions throughout the series and Stephen Rea as Inspector Bucket - the man in charge of investigating Jacob Marley's death - who plays him like a Victorian Columbo.

Unfortunately, the show's very format is to its detriment as the excessive runtime is filled with less-interesting subplots like the comic bumbling of, um, the Bumbles (with slapstick and broad innuendo that feels as dated as a Dickens novel). That aside, this was still a very well-conceived, enjoyable show. They've already ticked off Dicken's most known novels but there is more than enough material left for a deserved second series...Please, BBC, can we have some more?

Ghosts of Manhattan

George Mann's Ghosts of Manhattan (writer of the brilliant Doctor Who novel 'Engines of War') is an ambitious and breathless mash-up of pulpy costumed heroes, steampunk and HP Lovecraft-esque horror fantasy. Primarily it is a pastiche of pulp fiction novels - there's a city run by mobsters, a beautiful femme fatale and a man who takes the law into his own hands. The difference is this is a 1920s New York with dirigibles flying over head and coal-powered cars on the streets.

Mann writes it as if it is a pulp novel of the time, with lots of memorable turns of phrase that stay on the right side of purple prose (what would you call that? Violet prose?). He is also a natural at the sharp and fast-paced action scenes, with some brutal violence that might make you winch (Mann often writes for such non-violent heroes like the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes so he probably enjoyed cutting loose here).

The Ghost is a great creation, one who is steeped in the long history of fictional vigilantes. He might seem reminiscent of Batman at first glance, but actually he is cut from the same cloth as less well remembered vigilantes like The Shadow and The Spirit. There is also an intriguing notion that the Ghost and his alter ego Gabriel Cross seem to see themselves as distinct people which I wish had been further explored. In short, Ghosts of Manhattan might be haunted by the spirit of the wealth of material in its genre but it still stands on its own two feet.

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