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Things We Lost in the Fire

Posted : 2 months, 4 weeks ago on 26 May 2017 03:22 (A review of Things We Lost in the Fire)

Remove the interracial marriage and diversity of the cast and Things We Lost in the Fire wouldn’t have looked out of place as a women’s picture tearjerker from the studio era. It’s a full-blooded melodrama that alternates between forlorn, cloistered emotional spaces and facile, artificial operatic set pieces. Your mileage will vary, and even mine did, someone who is generally a fan of this kind of thing.


What’s so damn frustrating about Things We Lost in the Fire is how it wants to operate in both worlds, and ends up becoming some weird hybrid creature that’s generally good but more fascinating for its oddities and unintentional camp. I mean, this is a film about a widow and the junkie best friend forming a strange bond during their grief while deploying cringe lines and soapy moments that handicap the truth of any given situation. Here is a film where a cold turkey session ends with a kid handing someone a cookie.


None of this should work, not even remotely should it work, but Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro give the film more weight and intelligent performances then it probably deserves. Berry successfully proves that Monster’s Ball was no fluke, and her generally uneven performing style just needs a certain type of material to flourish. While del Toro has done this kind of material better, he still manages to make us feel empathy for his character and root for his success.


The film’s entire ethos boils down to “accept the good,” a New Age fortune cookie platitude that doesn’t mean much of anything in the end. Things We Lost in the Fire just wants to expunge your tears and work your empathetic impulses into a frenzied overdrive. This is basically a Lifetime movie with European arthouse garnishes, and sometimes that’s all you’re really in the mood for.  

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Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Posted : 2 months, 4 weeks ago on 25 May 2017 09:44 (A review of Robinson Crusoe on Mars)

As originally conceived, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was set be another disposable and ludicrously cheap/camp piece of sci-fi film-making from the 60s. Man gets stranded on Mars, fights all sorts of strange lizard monsters, befriends friendly comedic sidekick alien character, and becomes great liberator. It would have far more in common with its decade B-movie brethren than the final product, which functions as something of an intelligent dry-run for something as audacious as 2001: A Space Odyssey in its brightest moments.


Robinson Crusoe on Mars is primarily a survivalists tale and incredibly scientifically accurate for what was known or hypothesized about Mars by 1964. There’s an air of authenticity and verisimilitude to the first half that’s most engaging and dynamic. Think of it as Cast Away Goes Cosmic in a sense. These changes created a film that rewards patience and finds the dynamic qualities of silence, until the inclusion of a character dubbed Friday (Victor Lundin) turns into more action-adventure spectacle that’s fairly common for the genre, especially around this era.


Prior to that, there’s a suffocating atmosphere of isolation and desperation for survival with Paul Mantee’s Commander Kit Draper struggling to find consistent sources of shelter, air, water, and food. Friday’s inclusion adds wrinkles and complications that the narrative simply cannot hold. Friday is a slave that Kit rescues from his oppressors, and they go on a mad dash across the Martian terrain in the final act. This entire sequence adds a certain coded racial element that may be well-intentioned but is clunky and uneasy in a thematic sense.


Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ sense of propulsion and urgency completely changes in this section, and the more deliberate pacing is gone in favor of high octane thrills. Personally, I found the man-against-nature sections more engaging and artistically rewarding. Given the age and general B-movie qualities on display here there can be a certain flavor of camp involved, but there’s also a clear-eyed determination and a serious treatment of the science and theories involved. There’s also the pervasive sense that the attacking aliens here have a strong, near copycat quality to the ones found in 1953’s The War of the Worlds. Not entirely surprising considering both films were helmed by the same man, Byron Haskin, but it does give a general feeling sameness once they arrive that takes some of the menace out of them.


Still, for all of the problems, mainly boiling down to its ambitions exceeding its grasp, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is worth seeking out for its wide-eye sense of wonder and general sense of awe in the mysteries of the unknown. It’s refreshing to watch a science-fiction tale that is steeped in warmth, vitality, and a quest for smarts instead of action-adventure spectacle with little going on between the ears. Think of it as the next progression after Forbidden Planet took the first newborn steps towards making science-fiction a serious artistic contender in film medium. 

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Posted : 2 months, 4 weeks ago on 25 May 2017 05:13 (A review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)

During Dick Tracy’s “More” sequence, Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney sings: “But there’s nothing better than more, more, more/Nothing’s better than more.” If ever a lyric perfectly encapsulated the blockbuster film-making ethos that was it. And so we find ourselves watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Marvel’s impressive sequel to their gang of space rogues and damaged souls banding together as adoptive family epic.


The things you liked about the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie? Well, they’re all here, and there’s just more of them. It helps that Marvel didn’t change creative teams between entries, and James Gunn’s insouciant tone and pop culture savvy finds a perfect foil in Kurt Russell’s presence. Lee Pace was a bit wasted in the first film, but Russell was a post-modern action hero before that entire style of acting came into vogue. His Ego is the first truly memorable and pleasing villain in the Marvel super-franchise since Tom Hiddleston’s scheming Loki.


Then there’s Groot, the lovable sentient tree creature here in baby form. The film opens with him dancing around as a spectacular battle scene rages behind him. It’s a full-on charming assault, and if you get groove to these opening minutes then you’ll find yourself quickly taken in by the film’s wavelength. I loved it, and was only too happy to watch Groot basically work as an unintentional agent of chaos. A scene where he’s playing fetch for Yondu and Rocket is a loony bit of comedy.


Notice that I have mostly mentioned things that are entertaining, mocking, and free from a self-serious tone? That’s because Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wants to provide maximum amount of escapism per minute of running time. Thank god, because the deluge of overly grim superhero films has made heroism feel like a chore. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 never wants you to forget that these can fun, even when things turn serious.


Surprisingly, the film handles these more serious moments with some aplomb, especially in the praise of step-fathers or found parents/family connections. Nebula and Gamora’s strained sisterly bonds are further explored, and Nebula becomes a sympathetic figure once you realize just how deep the sources and scars of her trauma go. Yondu gets the redemption arc, and his final scenes are a mixture of laughs, tears, and badass action. Vol. 2 frequently achieves the goals it’s striving towards with the strains minimal or hard to see.


There is a strange regression with Drax that shuffles him back into a one-dimensional joke machine for a large portion of the first half of the movie, then the growth he experienced across the first comes back and he’s richer for it. His strange, near paternal relationship with Mantis is refreshing for the emotional spine it strengthens throughout the film. It’s these moments of connection and not the frenzied sock ‘em scenes that linger in the memory. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is more of the first film’s strengths (and a few of its weaknesses), but like the song says, “nothing’s better than more.” The sophomore slump has successfully been avoided, and I’m cautiously optimistic that they can create a successful third outing. Maybe we’ll even get Angela!

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Beauty and the Beast

Posted : 2 months, 4 weeks ago on 25 May 2017 03:43 (A review of Beauty and the Beast)

There was a time when Disney would simply release their films from the vault, either on the big screen or on the home video market, then throw them back after a predetermined period of time. It was a simpler time. Then in 2010 Tim Burton was hired to do a live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland, it made a billion at the box office, and the next thing you know there’s a cavalcade of live-action retreads of their beloved classics.


Here we are seven years later, and Disney’s self-cannibalization has transitioned away from the oldies like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella and towards films that are barely old enough to drink legally. Beauty and the Beast is an opulent musical, because Disney spares no expense, and curiously inert in many ways. For all of the razzle dazzle, there’s something strangely hollow at the core of this Beauty and the Beast. It strikes all of the poses, but I’m not sure if it possess the wounded soul of the 1991 animated film.


Of course, these live-action retreads are merely the latest in a long line of diminishing the brand. The 1990s Renaissance, one of the most beloved and creatively fertile periods in the company’s history, saw the emergence of never-ending inferior sequels, spinoff TV shows, and the occasional Broadway adaptation. The sheer volume of materials and product released meant that some of it had some value, last year’s The Jungle Book was a solid charmer with incredible special-effects work.


This version of Beauty and the Beast is a delight in many ways, most of them for the old fashioned simplicity and outlandishness of its musical numbers. There’s no post-modern winking to the camera, but there are several moments where everyone involved is clearly trying to smooth over some of the more questionable aspects of the material. Or perhaps they’re trying to add in some sense of modernity, but they’re clunky more often than not. For every moment like Mrs. Potts admitting the culpability of the service staff in their master’s cruelty, there’s the entirety of Josh Gad’s LeFou as mincing coded gay sidekick.


Beyond this, there’s a general sense of more-is-more bloat that overpowers the material. “Be Our Guest” features visual references to Singin’ in the Rain and Esther Williams’ aquatic musicals, and the number begins to succumb to its own precociousness and weight. “Be Our Guest” was already a dazzling showstopper in its animated incarnation, and I’m not sure it needed more bells and whistles involved. Then there’s the subplots which occasionally turn the narrative into a slog, not only LeFou as emotionally conflicted gay tagalong, but dead mothers as bonding experience or Belle inventing a prototype washing machine.


Then there’s everything else going on in Beauty and the Beast, and it’s simply wonderful. The entire cast is game for everything thrown at them, with Luke Evans’ Gaston threatening to steal the entire show. Granted, the likes of Kevin Kline, Audra MacDonald, and Stanley Tucci are underused. Kline is a musical-comedy veteran (he won a Tony for Pirates of Penzance), and he never gets a moment to really strut his talents while MacDonald isn’t given enough to sing and Tucci is simply reigned in too much for my liking.


Opulence, inclusivity, and a general sense of warmth and hope pervades throughout, and it feels like a balm for the current times. It may not aim for the artistic heights of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, or even for the emotional depth of Disney’s 1991 film, but it’s a solid entry in the company’s current live-action crop of retreads. It’s pleasingly made if somehow more reliant upon aesthetics than emotional connection, but sometimes that’s all you’re in the mood for.   

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Teen Titans: The Judas Contract

Posted : 3 months ago on 19 May 2017 08:40 (A review of Teen Titans: The Judas Contract)

Fans of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies know that Teen Titans: The Judas Contract was originally announced as the intended third feature from the line. Then it all just disappeared for no apparent reason and remained dormant until the credits stinger of 2016’s Justice League vs. Teen Titans. Now that it’s here, there’s something faintly quixotic about the whole thing. After all, did you ever think that that not only would they adapt this material, but do so as a direct sequel?


Justice League vs. Teen Titans grafted newer materials to an older story, an infamous squaring off of the Titans against Trigon, and crafted something that felt misshapen. A similar problem occurs here. We have to reintroduce Nightwing to the group dynamic, discover Terra’s entire personality and background, add in Brother Blood, Mother Blood, Deathstroke, and remember how it all ties back to Son of Batman. In the end, the classic story falls apart as Brother Blood, Mother Blood, Jericho, and several others character essential to the narrative are reduced to mere specters, cameos, or completely written out.


Where exactly does that leave The Judas Contract? Well, in a strange spot. Without a build-up of Terra across a different film she comes across a bit limp here. Her ultimate betrayal should sting and hurt more than it does. No fault of Christina Ricci’s solid voice work, but 80-some minutes is not enough time to really develop the nuances of her arch as a character, nor any of the myriad of other plot elements running about in the background.


For all of the removals, compression of the material, and necessary edits, they left in the queasy romance subplot between Deathstroke and Terra. Objectionable enough in the comics, even worse seeing it play out in animated form. I’d have gladly dropped that particular thread for a richer approach to Deathstroke and his rivalry with the Titans, Robin and Nightwing in particular. He feels too petulant and entitled here where he should feel battle-scarred and forged in the darkest parts of hell. Still Miguel Ferrer, no stranger to these films and in his last screen appearance here, is terrific with the material that he’s given.


There’s still plenty to be excited about here. While DC can’t seem to grasp its romances or female characters in large part with these films, they do manage to make entertaining action sequences. Same goes here, with the final confrontation between the three warring factions being the obvious highlight. Even better is the real sense of comradery and friendship on display here. Damian Wayne goes out of his way to try and connect with Terra, and their damaged souls could almost have a moment of real human connection if The Judas Contract wasn’t a tragedy lying in wait. These films have found a way of leveling off into a pleasant 80-minute piece of entertainment, even if they are deeply flawed.

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Justice League Dark

Posted : 3 months ago on 19 May 2017 07:15 (A review of Justice League Dark)

Maybe it’s just a general sense that dark magic, weird mysticism, and twisted fantasy are subject matters that fascinate me, but Justice League Dark is one hell of a fun ride. Here is a film that dives into a niche group of characters and gives them a chance to shine. Yes, some of that shine is only possible because of an unnecessarily shoehorned Batman, but if everyone in the production felt he was required in order to make and sell it, then I can forgive it. After all, we got a film that features Deadman, Zatanna, and Constantine fighting an ancient evil, and that is worth a lot for me.


Not everything works entirely. Despite his prominent placement on the artwork Swamp Thing is a mere glorified cameo reduced to two scenes, but that second one is a dozy. While fighting the big bad demonic presence at the end, Swamp Thing barrels in with twisting and swirling vines and Venus flytrap-like tendrils on the attack. And Etrigan the Demon, and Jason Blood by extension, plays a larger role, but he still feels underused and awkwardly deployed. If nothing else, Etrigan’s origin story provides a perfect avenue to maybe get a Demon Knights film up and running. (How is THAT for a fringe property? I love it.)


I still maintain for all of my immense enjoyment of Justice League Dark that time would have been better served removing him from the narrative and redistributing it to Swamp Thing, Etrigan, explaining to non-obsessives just who the Demons Three, maybe giving Black Orchid more of a personality, and really diving into the mythology. A one-and-done Justice League Dark film is not for me. I demand a series of these things. If a brat like Damian Wayne can get a full-fledged trilogy, then give John Constantine’s sardonic, chain-smoking magic wielding presence a chance to explore the worlds of I, Vampire and his own rich mythology.


But that is everything that Justice League Dark does not do well, and everything else it excels at. Constantine’s a fun presence to spend time with, and he works well with Zatanna and Deadman acting as foils for his more brazen zingers. For characters that are so tortured in their histories, this league is a lot more fun to spend time with then the major league players. They joke, they have believably lived-in pasts and tensions within the group dynamic. Much credit goes to Matt Ryan’s vocal work as John Constantine which fits the character like a glove.


The past few years have not been kind to female characters in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies. Justice League Dark has it at a 50/50 split with Zatanna feeling like a fully realized character and Black Orchid just kinda…being there. After Constantine, Zatanna is clearly the leading presence here. If Constantine is the de facto leader then she’s the bruised heart and soul of the team. She also gets several stellar action scenes where she witness just how formidable she is as a magic user. Camilla Luddington’s vocal work cannot go without praise as the character feels nearly impossible to imagine working without the textures and range she brings to it.


In the end, Justice League Dark works so well because it’s briskly paced, unafraid of going dark or completely bonkers, and presents us with a group of characters that are more colorful then some of the big leaguers. Is this one of the best of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies? I would argue that yes, it is, flaws and all. Batman sells, and if his presence introduces more people to characters like Deadman, Etrigan the Demon, Felix Faust, and Black Orchid, then all is forgiven.

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Justice League vs. Teen Titans

Posted : 3 months, 2 weeks ago on 4 May 2017 03:19 (A review of Justice League vs. Teen Titans)

Don’t let the title fool you, this is far more a Teen Titans story than it is a Justice League one. They’re very much not on equal footing, and the forced presence of the league ends up being a detriment to the rest of the story. It’s predictable where the story is going to take the league’s presence from frame one, and it feels like the creators wanted to ensure this would sell on the strengths of the bigger named characters instead of trusting in the presence of the Titans.


Justice League vs. Teen Titans is a step up from the prior New 52 adaptations though, even if this one is uneasy in how it manages to shoehorn in the newer incarnations of the league with a classic-run Titans story. If I had been a creative in charge, I would have made it so the league only appeared in the opening teaser just long enough to get into the argument with Robin and dropping him off with the junior team. They wouldn’t have returned to the story until the very end.


What would the rest of the story have encompassed then? Why a straight-up adaptation of the classic Trigon, which this somewhat resembles. I mean, they do place a strong emphasis on Raven – finally there’s a female character without torpedo tits (seriously, what’s up with the anatomy of Starfire and Wonder Woman?), a complete personality, and the ability to function as something other than window dressing. It’s in these moments that Justice League vs. Teen Titans feels straight out of the best moments of the 80s comics with team functioning as a close group, and Beast Boy cracking numerous jokes.


If nothing else, this just made me want an entire film dedicated to the team without the crutch of Batman, Superman, and et al. to ensure sales figures are up to snuff. The teaser in the mid-credits lays the groundwork for an adaptation of The Judas Contract, one of the more famous stories and a canceled film that was originally planned as the third offering from these direct-to-video films. This is a good thing as it means more Taissa Farmiga as Raven, Jake T. Austin as Blue Beetle, Brandon Soo Hoo as Beast Boy, and Stuart Allan’s reliably entitled brattiness as Damian Wayne. But next time out could we possibly spend a little less time animating Starfire as a brainless piece of cheesecake? 

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Justice League: Throne of Atlantis

Posted : 3 months, 2 weeks ago on 4 May 2017 02:38 (A review of Justice League: Throne of Atlantis)

It picks up directly where the teaser from War left us off, but Throne of Atlantis sidelines Aquaman in his own story for about half of the running time. This is a damn shame because it is at its most fun and engaging when it places the Justice League in the backseat to the craziness of Aquaman’s story. His name is Arthur, and the comics have never shied away from treating his mythology as Arthurian in scope and emotional textures. Justice League: Throne of Atlantis flirts with these moments and tones then pulls away from them to give us more of the Justice League.


How odd that they decided to make Aquaman a mere supporting player in a film that places him in the center of the cover and title’s implications would say otherwise. In fact, the presence of the Justice League often feels unnecessary. Much of the film combines parts of “The Trench,” the first solo storyline from Aquaman in the New 52 continuity. There’s just so much story to tell involving Aquaman, his origins, and his mythology that spending the first 30 minutes with the league is just…odd.


Oh well, at least this thing is wonderfully animated and with a solid voice cast. Michelle Monaghan’s shout-heavy Wonder Woman has been replaced by the regal, tough vocal work of Rosario Dawson. Can you say upgrade? Justin Kirk’s irksome Hal Jordan has been replaced by the more playful, rascally voice of Nathan Fillion, and the character falls into place. Shemar Moore remains as Cyborg, but someone told him to turn down the gruffness and chest-heavy speaking and he sounds more comfortable in the role. The replacement of Alan Tudyk with Jerry O’Connell as Superman was unexpected, but man is O’Connell fun in the role.


Then there’s the newest cast members, like Sumalee Montano as a warrior version of Mera, Sam Witwer as Ocean Master, Harry Lennix as Black Manta, and Matt Lanter as Aquaman. I love all of them in their respective roles, with each of them perfectly capturing the vibe and emotional textures of their characters. In fact, I want more of Lanter as Aquaman in these films. Give me an entire solo outing from him, with Montano and Witwer returning, and I would be one happy comic book guy.


Justice League: Throne of Atlantis is bloodless in comparison to the Justice League episodes “The Enemy Below,” but it’s entertaining enough in its own action-heavy way. While “The Enemy Below” managed to place the emphasis on Aquaman’s tragedy and history, Throne of Atlantis seems unconcerned with exploring any of its characters. It just wants to set up two sides on the board and watch them attack each other. It’s a fun 70 minutes, but it could have been so much more.


And, yes, there’s another post-credits stinger. This one hinting at the Legion of Doom. Make of that what you will.

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Justice League: War

Posted : 3 months, 2 weeks ago on 3 May 2017 06:44 (A review of Justice League: War)

Frenzied and chaotic are the best terms to use for Justice League: War. Another lean 75 minutes that’s puffed with too many ingredients and the bread never rises. Unless all you wanted was a series of action scenes with the occasional pauses for one character’s origin story, a few moments of groan worthy comic relief, and a general sense that something is off about all of these characters.


Maybe it’s the voices, maybe it’s the change in animation styles, I’m not sure exactly what it is, but a lot of them don’t feel right. Justin Kirk whiffs it as an obnoxious Green Lantern, Shemar Moore’s voice is too mature for teenager Cyborg, Michelle Monaghan’s too angry and shouty as Wonder Woman, and that’s half of the league right there. This Superman is voiced well by Alan Tudyk, but he seems too violent and dark here. There’s a distinct lack of hope and joy in his character.


Even worse is how Darkseid, a towering force of malevolence in the DC universe, feels so undercooked. There’s a little bit of buildup, then he’s here, and then there’s a never-ending climatic battle with him that just becomes monotonous. It lives up to the title of War, but that’s all that there is involved here. I’ve read the origin story that it’s based off of, and that still managed to pause its narrative long enough to give its characters room to breathe and develop bonds. I mean, we get so little of Sean Astin’s Shazam that it feels criminal given how giddy and scene-stealing Astin’s vocal work is here.


There’s a lot to enjoy here, mainly in the ways that the animation allows the characters to unleash the full use of their powers, but it feels anemic in comparison to a few of the other films. Justice League: The New Frontier had deeper things on its mind, The Dark Knight Returns was operatic and glorious, and Batman: Under the Red Hood kept everything focused on the characters and emotional stakes. War is just….75 minutes of the Justice League wailing on Parademons and Darkseid, eventually. Then there’s a mid-credits stinger for the sequel, Throne of Atlantis. Maybe that one will recast a few of the players and find a better balance between making us care about the characters and the giddy thrills we get in watching them turn it up 11.

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Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox

Posted : 3 months, 3 weeks ago on 1 May 2017 08:37 (A review of Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox)

Oh my god, a Justice League that doesn’t place its focus on Superman or Batman (or both), but on another member of the league’s expansive roster? We haven’t seen that since way back in 2008 when The New Frontier placed a stronger emphasis on players like the Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter over the big trinity. Of course, it would be near impossible to tell The Flashpoint Paradox without, you know, the Flash, but still! Let’s celebrate DC doing something slightly different!


I must admit that by this point, I feel fatigued by the omnipresence of dystopian hellscapes as alternate realities for superheroes. Watching the Amazons and Atlanteans fight each other grows wearisome after a certain point. Same goes for the gruesome violence and never-ending parade of distracting cameos. (Hey Grifter, whatcha doin’ here?) I mean, do I really need to glimpse the hole that Batman blows through Reverse Flash’s head? It’s sub-Tarantino at best, complete with his nihilistic violence without deeper meaning or context. There’s a point at which something just becomes merely excessive for the hell of it, and The Flashpoint Paradox hits that point and just continues running right on through it.


Despite some moments of truly glorious animation, The Flashpoint Paradox does suffer from inconsistency. All of the female characters look like cheap anime knockoffs with soft, blurry features and gigantic eyes while the male heroes are bulky, hulking brutes with ornate designs. You know when the animation is at its most consistent? In scene after scene of stabbings, shootings, neck snapping, and blood artfully flying across the screen.


And once more the abbreviated running time leaves little real time for developing the cavalcade of heroes and villains that pop across the screen. Cyborg gets no development, while the war between Aquaman and Wonder Woman feels rushed in beefing up to it, Superman is a mere afterthought, but this twisted Batman is fascinating, and the Flash is a solid translation. If nothing else, this just works as a temporary satiation for the deep hungry I feel in seeing more of these expand beyond Batman, Superman, and the Justice League. Would a solo Aquamna, Flash, Batgirl, another Wonder Woman, a Batwoman, Birds of Prey, Gotham City Sirens, or the Demon Knights not be awesome to watch? C’mon, expand beyond the safe, comfortable waters and into the wilder territory.


Of course this thing ends up a stinger that points towards the inevitable sequel, the first official entry in the New 52 adaptations, Justice League: War. Can’t say it didn’t make me smile, but I’m hoping future entries will drop the oppressive nature of the Superman and Batman, focus more on character, and maybe tone down the excessive violence a bit. I may be the only one asking for any of this, and I acknowledge that.

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