Zootopia (2016)

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I’m closing in on the end of my Disney film-watching endeavor (and coincidentally, getting awfully close to finishing “the shelf” as well).  The second-to-last film on my list was Zootopia, one of Disney’s most recent features and yet another that I had yet to see. (I’m looking like a bad Disney fan with all of these recent movies I haven’t watched yet, aren’t I?)  I had heard good things about this one, and my affinity for big-eyed cartoon animals assured that I’d find at least something to enjoy here.

What surprised me though was the actual plot of the film. Disney’s latest films don’t shy away from addressing more adult topics, but Zootopia’s focus was exceedingly adult-oriented.  The film centers around Judy Hopps, a small-town bunny who dreams of traveling to the big city and becoming the first bunny-cop.  Her dreams are realized, but it turns out it’s not as simple as it seems.  Her boss doesn’t treat her with respect, thinking she can’t handle the difficult job of being a police officer and relegates her to being a meter maid.  Judy doesn’t give up though, demanding she be given a chance to prove herself and earn a spot on the force.

This plot is pretty innocuous, and doesn’t sound too controversial. All in all, it sounds like a decent, run-of-the-mill Disney plot.  What stands out here though is the entire storyline which shows how Judy is going to accomplish her goals.  The film heavily focuses on the concepts of prejudice.  Predators are “going savage” in the town, causing all of the prey to become wary of their neighbors.  What transpires is a wholly adult conflict, with people distrusting those around them, or those who are “different” from them.  Obviously here “predator” and “prey” is a symbol for various races or ethnicity, using different animal species as a placeholder for the diversity we face as humans.

I don’t object to Disney films addressing adult topics, but it was surprising just how prevalent the idea was throughout the film.  There were far more serious scenes than light-hearted ones, creating a much darker, sobering tone for the movie than I ever could have guessed. Yes, there are moments of levity, but they are sprinkled throughout far more serious-minded scenes, bringing the overall feel of the film down to a much more realistic level.  Using animals to tell this story helps to soften the content a bit, but it’s still exceedingly obvious what the movie is really getting at.

There’s plenty to say about this movie, but I just can’t quite find the words.  I enjoyed it, and yet it felt more geared towards adults than anyone else.  Do children even realize the deeper themes being addressed here? Maybe I’m not giving kids enough credit, but it just feels like maybe it would be over their heads a bit.  I can’t fault Disney for wanting to teach a moral in their movies, especially when said moral feels applicable to our everyday lives.   It was just an unexpected twist for Disney, to find a movie that felt a bit more like a PSA than anything else. It was good, but it felt just a bit too heavy-handed for a kid’s film. I fully acknowledge that it’s an important lesson, but there’s just something about it that feels off to me. Maybe it’s the sad realization that we live in the 21st century and are just now getting around to teaching children to treat one another as equals, regardless of race, ethnicity, or any other distinguishing factor.  Seeing a Disney movie address this topic reminds us that there’s a need for it in the first place, and it’s a bit saddening to realize that.  I’m not looking to bash Zootopia, because I did genuinely like it and thought it did a good job of presenting an adult topic in an accessible way for children; it was just a little too realistic for the normally magical Disney, and took some getting used to.  The moral is certainly a vast improvement over what certain earlier Disney films teach us, so if nothing else at least the company is progressing with the times. It’s just sad to think that we’re still at a point where films like this need to be made, and that tolerance isn’t just a norm that we all automatically subscribe to. Maybe I’m reading a bit too much into this (it is just an animated movie, after all).  Either way it’s a really good film, just be aware that if you’re looking for a light-hearted, fluff film that doesn’t make you think, you’ll probably be disappointed.

-Jess

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Big Hero 6 (2014)

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It’s really great to see that Disney has once again hit its stride, and has been turning out a number of truly entertaining films in recent years.  The latest on my list is Big Hero 6, a contemporary story about a young boy named Hiro and a healthcare robot named Baymax.  Since this movie is only a few short years old I won’t give much away, but suffice it to say that this film features Hiro and Baymax teaming up with a handful of smart and industrious college engineering students to take on a bad guy.

That description sucks, I know. It’s just impossible to describe it more without giving away key plot points that are better revealed while watching the film.  What I can tell you is that this movie is creative, and has a slightly different feel than some other Disney films. For once though, I don’t mean that in a bad way.  Parts of it remind me of Meet the Robinsons, specifically the heavy emphasis on science and science-based careers.  Disney’s bread and butter is magic, but I really like that they ‘ve crafted a fun movie centered around science.  Had this film come out when I was a child, I might have been more inclined to study engineering or another science-related field.  It’s great to see a kid’s movie that doesn’t fall on magic as its sole source of entertainment, and shows that other, more tangible forms of “magic” can be equally as interesting.

While the film is grounded in science, it doesn’t sacrifice heart.  There are plenty of emotional scenes peppered throughout the film (some are even too emotional, if you ask me).  I appreciate the fact that Disney figured out how to balance these characteristics, helping create a movie that is logical and heartfelt all at the same time.  Hiro and Baymax have a great relationship, and yes, Baymax fills in as the amusing animal-like sidekick that has been popularized by Disney over the years.  He’s cute, innocent, and endearing, and there’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll like him after watching the film.

This post is a little sad and lackluster, since I can’t discuss much without giving away key moments of the story, and I don’t want to spoil anything.  Suffice it to say that it’s well worth a watch, and will certain take your emotions on a roller coaster ride.  Is that a good thing? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

-Jess

Frozen (2013)

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I feel as though this movie doesn’t really need a post all its own. After all, is there anyone not already familiar with the Frozen phenomena?  After all, this movie was (and to a slightly lesser extent, still is) BIG.  There are countless memes and articles about why this movie is the best, and how it’s the forerunner for so many wonderful tropes that Disney has thus far ignored, etc etc.  Now before I go being all contrarian, let me make it clear: I actually like this movie very much. It’s well written, has beautiful animations and music, and the story itself is fun and heartfelt.  That being said, I do feel as though it’s just a little overrated.

To be fair, that’s not the movie’s fault.  It was released just like countless Disney films before it, and it somehow morphed into this worldwide obsession with the stories and characters that nobody could have predicted.  A quick search online will show you numerous arguments that Frozen is so forward thinking, that Disney finally gets it.  For the three people in the world who don’t already know the story: Elsa and Anna are sisters, as well as princesses. After their parents die, Elsa assumes the throne as queen, but she has a secret: mysterious ice powers that she has kept hidden from everyone her entire life.  Unable to control them, Elsa thrusts her kingdom into perpetual winter and flees the castle.  Anna then spends a good part of the movie trying to find Elsa and convince her that they can figure everything out together.

As stories go, this one is really well done, and I can certainly see where the obsession comes from.  Neither Elsa nor Anna is focused on finding a husband (in fact, the movie finally addresses the absurd notion perpetuated in its previous films with Elsa’s classic line, “You can’t marry a man you just met”, eliciting a chorus of, “About damn time, Disney” from around the world.)  There is a major emphasis on sisterly love and sacrifice here, leading many to claim that this is the first popular Disney film to not emphasize romantic love as its primary theme (to which I say umm hello? Have you seen Mulan?) 

I get it, I really do.  Top of a more progressive story with a cast of lovable and funny side characters and you’re sure to have a hit on your hands. I think my issue is just that so many people over-emphasize the groundbreaking nature of Frozen that I can’t help but feel that it’s being blown out of proportion.  While I will agree that Frozen seems to present certain themes in a more straight-forward light than others, it’s not the first Disney film to address such themes.  Beauty and the Beast features sacrifice for non-romantic love, and Brother Bear emphasizes the bond between siblings much the same way Frozen does.  People seem to forget these points when discussing this film, and it just irks me because it detracts from the other great work Disney has done in its time.

Now that I’ve sufficiently pissed off the die-hard Frozen fans, I really must emphasize that I actually like this film very much.  The characters are funny and the princesses are more relatable than many (compare how Anna and Cinderella wake up and you’ll know what I mean).  Olaf is the cutest little snowman ever, and if you’re ever having a bad day, just turn on “Let it Go” and belt it out. You’ll instantly feel better, I guarantee it.

I hated writing this post, not wanting to sound like I was bashing a film that I enjoyed.  I guess my issue is more with the fan reaction to the film than the film itself. Of course, I’m not begrudging anybody being obsessed with a movie, and certainly don’t want to criticize anyone’s interests. I just wish people wouldn’t lift up this movie by forgetting or insulting the rest of Disney’s canon by claiming Frozen is the first to do anything. Have there been some crummy Disney films? A look at my past posts will tell you that, at least in my opinion, there definitely have been.  Does that mean they’ve all been sub-par? Of course not.  Many of them are truly wonderful works of art, and shouldn’t be forgotten just because a great film has recently been released.

Now that this post has completely veered away from Frozen and turned into a diatribe against “in the moment” fandom, I think it’s best to sign off for now.  If by some chance you haven’t seen Frozen yet, I highly recommend it. If you’ve already seen it, what do you think? Is the Frozen phenomenon just a little over-hyped, or am I completely off my rocker?

Both are equally likely.

-Jess

DC’s New 52

For the past few weeks I’ve been neck-deep in a slew of trades from DC’s New 52 run, and as I’ve absorbed each story I’ve paused and reflected which, if any, I wanted to write about.  Lately I’ve felt that my comics posts have been a bit negative in nature, primarily due to the fact that when I dislike a comic, I tend to have more to say about it than if  I liked it.  That being said, I don’t want this blog to morph into a comics-bashing site, so I’ve decided to write a more generalized post about the overall narrative in the New 52 comics.

When I realized that the New 52 was going to be a massive reboot of the continuity, I was a little annoyed.  Again, really? Didn’t we just go through this not that long ago? Okay yes, it was a little longer for readers at the time, rather than the few months it took me to read through the trades since the last reboot.  Still, is a reboot in the storyline really necessary every few years? I had a bad taste in my mouth before I even began, fearing that DC would start rebooting all of their comics every few years, simply for the sake of trying to garner new readers.

Since beginning the New 52 comics, my feelings have been mixed, to say the least.  The individual stories themselves are good, with overall solid writing and interesting storylines.  That being said, I was really unhappy with the massive overhaul that seemed to have taken place. It felt as though nearly the entire continuity had been rewritten, with plenty of characters completely changing while others were nowhere to be found.  As I was reading, I found myself wondering, “What was the point in reading these nearly 400 trades, if they were just going to reboot everything so that none of it mattered?”  Obviously that’s a rather cynical take, and it’s not as though those stories aren’t still part of canon or play a role in the stories being told.  It just felt like I was being expected to forget what I had read, and replace it with all of this new information. If it was frustrating for me, a person who’s only been reading comics for a little over a year, I can’t begin to imagine what lifelong fans were going through.

Other than this obvious change to the larger story, one of my biggest issues was with the overall tonal shift of the comics.  Prior to the New 52, DC had struck a good balance between tone and emotion with its individual titles.  Some were dark, others were more lighthearted, but all had a variety of emotions that lent a level of realism to the stories.  With the New 52, it felt as though DC believed the only way they would get and keep readers was to be edgy and dark, regardless of the title.  Batman is edgy and dark most of the time, yes, but should a Superman comic really be the same? Or even worse, Shazam!?  Certain titles that have no place being dark have been twisted and morphed into something they’ve never been before. I’m all for allowing characters to change and evolve over time, but some of these shifts were too drastic to be believable, and they were all inevitably towards this singular tone.  It seems the days of lighter comics like I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Justice League are gone, leaving me to wonder if the tone of the DC multiverse will ever be as varied and diverse as it once was.

That being said, I can’t completely hate the reboot.  I genuinely respect what DC was trying to do, specifically in attempting to bring a level of diversity to its characters.  Many of these characters were created 60+ years ago, and because of the time period they were created, most are white males.  This doesn’t do much to bring in a more varied readership when there’s a large group of people who can’t relate to the bulk of your characters.  DC’s attempts to modernize its characters are obvious: Earth 2’s Green Lantern is now gay, Hawkgirl is black (and completely independent, I’m happy to note; no sign of Hawkman as of yet).  Even non-hero characters have been made more original and modern; my favorite being Lana Lang, now a strong and sassy electrical engineer who dives headfirst into danger and talks back to Superman when he’s annoying her.  The diversity is noticeable, and I applaud DC for wanting to branch out with their characters and reach out to a wider audience.

Still, as I’m reading these comics I can’t help but wonder if the massive reboot was really necessary. Couldn’t more diversity have been added without adding in this whole “everything still happened, it just happened in 5 years” thing? Couldn’t they have changed characters’ races and sexual orientations without completely rewriting their backstories?  If anything I think it would have been more powerful to reveal a long-standing character as gay, rather than completely rewrite their histories.  The stories are fun and entertaining to read, but it’s difficult to keep track of what’s still part of continuity and what isn’t. I vastly prefer a multiverse where everything that’s been written up until that point, both good and bad, is acknowledged as having happened.  Readers should be rewarded for their loyalty and knowledge, not pushed aside to make way for brand new fans who know nothing about the stories. (Is it obnoxious for me to say that, having only been reading comics for a little over a year?  I’ve read nearly 400 trades in that time, so I’m choosing to say no it’s not).

It’s somewhat comforting to know that Rebirth is just around the corner.  I have no idea what all is happening in the stories right now, but I’m confident that perhaps the continuity will be rewritten again, and hopefully for the better.  Had I been reading these comics a year or two ago, before Rebirth was a thing, I would no doubt have been really angry, feeling as though the past 75+ years of comics were for nothing, and that DC was looking to rewrite nearly everything in its history.  At least I can comfort myself with knowing that there is another reboot coming up soon enough, and will hopefully correct some of these issues I have with the New-52 era comics.  In the meantime, I’m just trying to enjoy the stories for what they are and focus less on their impact to the overall continuity.

-Jess

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

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Ever wish you could watch a movie about some of your favorite vintage video game characters? Well, your wish has been granted (at least, sort of) with Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s original and surprisingly creative 2012 film.  This is another one of those “I never got around to seeing it” Disney films, so I didn’t know what to expect. I had remembered hearing that this had received pretty favorable reviews, but then reviews aren’t everything, and just because the world likes something is no guarantee that I will. In this instance though, it turns out the world was correct.

Wreck-It Ralph stars, you guessed it, Wreck-It Ralph, a villain in a classic arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr.  Ralph has been the villain in his game for 30 years, and he dreams of more.  In a truly creative twist, we get to see Ralph and company travel between games, using their power cords and surge protectors to journey from cabinet to cabinet.  The novelty of this is that while Wreck-It Ralph and his fellow characters from Fix-It Felix Jr. might be made-up, we get to see cameos from plenty of real characters sprinkled throughout the film.  From Qbert and Bowser to Chun-Li and Sonic, there are nearly too many classic characters to count in this film. Sure, they’re not the stars, but my inner gamer was extremely excited to see appearances by so many classic characters.

Aside from these cameos, there’s also a great story in this film. Ralph is on a journey to win a hero’s medal, and along the way he meets Vanelope, a girl from a sickly-sweet-but-I-still-want-to-play-it game called Sugar Rush (think Mario Kart, but with candy everything).  Vanelope is a glitch in the game, meaning she’s not allowed to participate in the actual game play in case her glitching causes the shop owner to think the game is broken and unplug it forever.  The explanation given is descriptive enough to give the film a unique twist, rather than feeling like a typical rehashing of a story we’ve heard a million times before.  A bulk of the story takes place in the Sugar Rush game, meaning we’re met with an onslaught of candy-related puns and humor, yet surprisingly they’re creative and never cross the line of too much. Ralph is torn between searching for his medal and helping the young racer, and the relationship that develops between them is sweet and sassy enough to feel true to the characters.

Without giving too much away, I must say this film is a must-watch.  Mid-way through the movie I found myself idly wishing that there were more appearances by real characters, but upon further reflection I respect why Disney wrote the film the way they did. If real characters played a larger part in the film, it would have morphed into a Mario movie, or a Sonic movie, etc.  Here, we get the nostalgia and enjoyment of seeing characters from real games on-screen, while still allowing Disney to create a film that is entirely their own.  Rather than feeling derivative, Wreck-It Ralph  is a wholly original story, peppered with enough gaming references to instantly send me back to my childhood and reminisce about all of the incredible Nintendo games I played back then (…or played last Saturday, if I’m being honest).

There’s honestly very little for me to criticize with this film, which given some of my recent reviews is surprising.  I just honestly really enjoyed this film from start to finish. In the past I’ve criticized Disney films for straying too far from their roots, trying to be modern instead of focusing on interpretations of classic stories.  Here Disney found the perfect balance, giving a modern twist to “classic” stories in the form of vintage games.  It’s an engaging and enjoyable story, and one that hopefully will influence Disney’s storytelling method moving forward.

-Jess

Winnie the Pooh (2011)

Image result for winnie the pooh 2011If you’ve read my post on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, you know that Pooh Bear and I go way back.  I grew up with that silly old bear, and he and his Hundred Acre Wood friends hold a special place in my heart.  I never got around to seeing this when it was released back in 2011, so I was excited to finally sit down and see what Pooh of the 21st century would look like.

Needless to say, I was…underwhelmed.

That’s not to say that the movie is bad. It’s genuinely not a bad film. There’s just a part of me that wonders why it needed to be made in the first place.  Winnie the Pooh stays very true to the original film, featuring all of the same characters and generally the same character designs.  The layout of the film is even the same, taking place within the pages of a book, in which the pages and paragraphs appear in various scenes as though the characters are living among them.

I love this. I really do. I loved it about the original and I love that this film wanted to pay homage to it in such an endearing way.  That being said, there were almost too many similarities to make this film meaningful in its own right. Was it just because Disney thought they could cash in by remaking a film from 25 years prior? Did they think today’s kids wouldn’t be interested in the “old” story, so it had to be remade? (And if that’s the case, why keep everything the same? Why not modernize the whole story?)  There were just so many similarities that I found myself wondering what the purpose of this film was.

That being said, there are a few distinct differences between this and the original that stood out to me. Unfortunately, neither are positive.  The first is that all of the characters seem to be engulfed in a cloud of cynicism.  What I loved about the original characters was that they were so innocent and earnest in their naivete.  Here they’re still naive and silly, but when someone makes a mistake or doesn’t know something, the others criticize or insult him.  There is just something about all of the characters that feels edgy, and it didn’t sit well with me.   I prefer to think of these characters as perfectly imperfect, with a sense of childish wonder and amusement that never fades.  This just felt lacking from the newer version.

My second complaint is more superficial, but really stood out to me.  In this film the main antagonist is the fabled Backson, a terrible creature that is responsible for all of life’s little woes.

Um…excuse me…what exactly is wrong with heffalumps and woozles? Are kids today incapable of appreciating the brilliance that is these “scary” creatures?  Half the fun of heffalumps and woozles is saying heffalumps and woozles.  “Backson”, a simple misreading of “back soon”, is not nearly as entertaining.  I would really love to know why this plot point was changed when so many others were kept the same.  Yes, it’s a fairly minor point in the grand scheme of things, but it stood out to me the whole film, and I just couldn’t let it go.

Perhaps that’s my problem with this film as a whole. I’m stuck on my childhood memories of Pooh Bear and don’t want to see anything about him changed or altered in any way.  Maybe today’s generation loves this film the way I love The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and perhaps I’m just not the target audience for this film.  I’m very much attached to the Pooh Bear of my youth, and the thought that he could be changed in any way, however slight, doesn’t sit well.  This review should probably be taken with a grain of salt, because I’m entirely incapable of being unbiased.  It could very well be a great film, but I think I’ll stick with the original.

Long live the heffalumps and woozles.

-Jess

Shazam! Volume 1

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With DC’s 2011 “New 52” relaunch, plenty of characters and titles were revamped and “modernized” to various degrees.  There seemed to be a need to bring a sense of edginess to characters, whether they were historically edgy or not.  Truthfully, I never even thought about the implications it could have on Captain Marvel in the midst of all these changes.  i saw that Geoff Johns was writing a Captain Marvel comic, and the excitement in me took over. I was ready for some fun, old-fashioned Marvel-y goodness.

What I got was…well, definitely not that. It seems Captain Marvel didn’t scrape by unchanged in the midst of all the modernization.  The first and most notable change is his name.  Due to some legal mumbo jumbo, Marvel owns the name “Captain Marvel”, so DC had to title the original comic Shazam to avoid legal ramifications.  Apparently that led to people believing the comic title was actually the character’s name, so they just switched it and now his name is Shazam.

Understandable. I often mistakenly think Batman’s name is Detective Comics, since he’s predominantly featured in that series. *Sigh.  I refuse to accept this name change, so I will continue to refer to him as Captain Marvel because that’s his name. Also, DC coined that name more than 25 years prior to Marvel ever using it, so legalities be damned, it’s more their name than anything.

It was clear that Johns was going for a modern retelling of Billy Batson’s origin.  We still keep the “orphaned” element, but here we get to see him in foster care along with other children, including Mary and Freddy. I can appreciate the fact that Mary is not depicted here as his biological sister, lending itself to the “family is what you make of it” sentiment.  I’m sure they could always swing it back around and reveal that the two are blood relatives, but I didn’t find this change to have much of an impact on the overall story, and so I was fine with it.

What I wasn’t fine with was Billy being depicted as this obnoxious, snot-nosed punk kid who is mean to literally everyone he encounters.  Yes, he’s had a rough life. Yes, he’s been bounced around foster homes. Is that really any reason to completely change his character’s personality though?  I loved Billy’s sweetness and innocence.  It was a welcome relief to some of the more hardened, cynical heroes (looking at you, Batman).  Here, we just get the edgy, modern Billy Batson, who doesn’t even begin to resemble the Billy of older comics.

Had it been as simply as this, perhaps I could overlook the change. It could all boil down to personal preference and that would be the end of it. Sadly, that’s not the case.  Billy’s entire origin story is predicated on the fact that Billy is a pure-hearted individual, and so the wizard Shazam imbues him with powers.  Here, Billy is considered completely unworthy, and argues with Shazam that nobody is pure of heart, to which Shazam grudgingly agrees and then just gives Billy his powers.  Where’s the worthiness? Where’s the desire to do something good? For all Shazam knows, Billy could have taken the powers and become a conduit for evil.  All Shazam knew was that Billy had the potential to be both good and bad.  Those hardly seem like odds worth staking the fate of the world on.  Billy’s personality shift directly alters his entire origin, and I found it far less compelling when I didn’t believe he was actually worthy of the power he was receiving.

To be fair, I didn’t hate all of the comic.  I loved that Johns managed to sneak in references to Tawny the Tiger, and the end reveal of a future team-up between Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind was really fun.  Still, I couldn’t get past Billy’s characterization, and it wound up distracting me throughout most of the trade.

Perhaps it wasn’t Johns decision. Maybe higher ups in the company dictated how Billy should be written. Or, perhaps Johns was thinking ahead to his Justice League: Trinity War storyline, in which the concept of finding a pure-hearted individual played heavily into the plot. There, Pandora was seeking someone with a pure heart to open her box and contain the world’s evil. In a pre-New 52 universe, Billy would have been the obvious answer.  His moral compass unfailingly pointed north, and he no doubt would have been the solution to the problem.  So, maybe Johns wanted to fill in that plot hole by writing Billy as a more flawed character.  This could be a stretch, but then I wouldn’t put it past Johns to have thought that far ahead. It also helps me resign myself to how Billy’s been characterized, but only slightly. If his entire story has been changed for the sake of one storyline, I just don’t see it paying off in the long run.

The Shazam! trade was relatively brief, as Billy was still adjusting to his newfound powers.  I’m hoping he slowly gains a conscience and begins to shift to being more like his character of yore, but I have a feeling his, “Golly, gee wiz” days are over.  It’s a shame, because I found him to be such a sweet and endearing character.  Portraying him as a cynical, moody teenager feels just a little too…well, realistic for me. Is it really terrible for a comic to linger in nostalgia for a little while, allowing the reader to reminisce about simpler times, however false those memories may be?

I love most of Johns work, and having ready pretty much everything he’s written for DC (at least as far as the beginning of the New 52 so far), I don’t say that lightly.  He knows his stories and always brings a unique and interesting spin to characters. Unfortunately, I just feel he missed that mark with Captain Marvel.  Billy could have been revamped without completely changing who he is or how he responds to the world.  I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there who enjoy his newer, modern characterization, but I’ll take his endearing, earnest goodness over the cynicism any day.

-Jess