Agents of SHIELD S02.E05 — A Hen in the Wolfhouse

Nothing really bad in this episode. But some things were just stupid.

The Good

Raina’s storyline was intriguing. It was nice to see her running scared. And when it became clear that Coulson was going to call her bluff, Ruth Negga played Raina’s slowly dawning panic perfectly. It’s too bad her story doesn’t seem to pay off any further than that since the bad guys (all of them) now possess the Obelisk.

Agent Bobbi Morse makes quite an impression and I immediately liked her. Although I’m now waiting for the reveal that she has been brainwashed by HYDRA. Presumably SHIELD has ways of detecting that and warding it off. Incidentally, Agent Morse is played by Adrianne Palicki whom viewers may know as Tyra Collette on Friday Night Lights. She would also have played Wonder Woman if NBC had picked up the series. Hunter’s crack about liking her better as a blonde may be a reference to Palicki’s natural hair color in real life.

The FitzSimmons reunion was also quite nice. We don’t know what will come of it, but at least it’s happened now.

Kyle MacLachlan is clearly having fun with his role, and I was having fun watching him.

The Bad

Not much, but it is a little silly how everybody calls Raina “the girl in a flower dress” even when she’s standing all the way at the other side of a restaurant and nobody would actually be able to see the flowers on her dress.

Hands up if you didn’t foresee the reveal of Bobbi Morse being Hunter’s ex-wife? Anyone? No? Ok then.

The Dumb

Coulson pulling the “classified information” card on Skye is silly. The reason to withhold information from underlings is so that they can’t leak it, under duress or otherwise. Skye is not about to leak information of her own free will, and if she’s been captured, then SHIELD has way bigger problems than a little information leak.

This episode also demonstrates that the plotline of Jenna Simmons infiltrating HYDRA is beyond stupid. As the script itself points out, she has been involved with SHIELD all of her life, shows no inclination for mass murder and mayhem, and is a terrible liar. Who would think that she would be capable of going undercover at HYDRA? And for that matter, why did HYDRA take her in when they knew all of this about her? Not to mention Simmons’ method of passing messages on to SHIELD is frighteningly obvious. It’s surprising that an organization like HYDRA didn’t catch her going out to lunch and furtively dropping messages into the trash can before. I’m glad she’s been exfiltrated because I don’t know how much longer I could have put up with the contrivances necessary to keep her within HYDRA.


The Flash S01.E03 — Things You Can’t Outrun

This episode review was delayed because I didn’t have anything really pressing to say about it. It follows the formula successfully established in previous episodes and still mostly does it well. Once again, the villain is perfectly conceived to challenge Barry’s powers. I was a little disappointed in Team Flash’s solution to taking him down, however. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to make use of Barry’s ability to create whirlwinds which he demonstrated in the pilot episode. Simply tiring the guy out by running fast seemed a little lame, especially since we know that super speeding also makes Barry go hungry. It’s nice that they didn’t kill the villain this time. The lab is going to be housing a lot of super criminals, and it’s pretty clear that they are going to break out at some point (maybe this will be the basis for the Arrow/Flash crossover).

It wasn’t clear to me whether Barry deliberately breathed in the villain’s gas during their first encounter. It turned out to be a good move since it allowed him to bring a sample back to the lab and synthesize an antidote. The way the scene originally played, though, it looked as if Barry was overwhelmed and ended up breathing in the poison gas unintentionally.

It also seemed to me that Wells was not very concerned about Barry’s condition. His first reaction was to immediately try to extract the gas from Barry’s lungs. As we saw in the end, there’s a suggestion that he actually deliberately caused the failure of the particle accelerator that created Barry (it looks like an enigmatic ending with Wells is part of the series formula).

There is a suggestion that Barry and Caitlin might start a romantic relationship, but I still hope it doesn’t happen. Can’t we have a male and female character who don’t end up romantically involved?

My favorite scene was when Detective Joe West visits the elder Allen in prison and promises to find out who killed his wife. This was later followed by a little bit of fun when Barry has to vibrate his face in order to avoid being recognized by his father. However, I don’t think Henry Allen was fooled.

Shout Outs in this Episode

Caitlin recounting how her fiance said, “We were like Fire and Ice.” This is of course a reference to the fact that Caitlin Snow is the civilian identity of Killer Frost in the comics.

Wells also mentions a Big Belly Burger at one point. This is a nice little continuity nod since Big Belly Burgers were occasionally consumed or used as bribes in Arrow.


Gotham S01.E05 – Viper

This is a buildup episode in which not much apparently happens until the last few minutes when several things fall into place.

A deadly new drug hitting the streets is a fairly common storyline in police procedurals, and it’s Gotham’s turn to take it for a spin. In this case, the drug is called Viper and even before the episode states it outright, it’s pretty clearly a precursor to Venom (the drug of choice for Bane). This episode also establishes a touch of the supernatural. It should go without saying that Edward Nygma’s explanation of how Viper works is pretty nonsensical. The body just doesn’t work that way and no drug could do what he claims Viper does (especially if it is merely an inhalant). But in a a TV series where such a drug exists, you could also have a woman who can control the growth of plants. Or a man who can fire a freeze ray. Or a hatter who can control people’s minds by putting bands on their heads.

But back to the present. This episode does something I’ve always found irritating about the portrayal of drugs on TV: it assumes that people are going to take a new drug on the streets just because it’s there. It all starts with the world’s dumbest street guitar player who has a stranger drop a vial of Viper into his guitar case and decides to inhale it even though he has no idea what it is or who gave it to him. There is no indication that he is a junkie. The thing about drug addicts is they got into the habit for a reason. It may have been peer pressure, dissatisfaction and boredom, or a need to escape the small tragedies of life. Although drug users have made a choice that many others would not agree with, they generally still have some measure of rationality. They are not going to just use any old drug that falls into their hands. And if they know it is likely to kill them, they will avoid it. In this episode, the dealer simply has to hand it out to everyone he meets on the street and suddenly Gotham is caught in the grips of an epidemic.

Meanwhile, things are getting more interesting with Jim Gordon as he is forced to reveal to Sal Maroni that he refused to kill Cobblepot. No matter how much he tries to keep his nose clean, Gordon cannot help being dragged deeper into the world of crime and compromise.

Speaking of corruption, it looks like Bruce has discovered some of it within Wayne Enterprises in the form of a subsidiary which manufactures Viper and is lying to the police about it. This sets up an intriguing possibility: maybe someone on the board of Wayne Enterprises was involved in the murder of the Wayne family. As Bruce reads through filings and mountains of paperwork to investigate what’s going on, we see the beginnings of the World’s Greatest Detective taking shape. It’s a little unbelievable that someone so young could understand all these balance sheets and reports, but he is the  future Batman after all and there has to be some suspension of disbelief. It was nice to see Alfred joining in. Now it’s time for him to start asserting himself. Up until now, Alfred has been helplessly watching Bruce sink deeper into his obsessions, but Alfred is not merely a butler standing by. He is also a guide and confidant, and soon enough it will be time for him to start pushing Bruce into the right path.

The upcoming war between the Maroni and Falcone crime families continues to build, and this week everything is going wrong for Falcone. His casino is robbed with Cobblepot’s help, and he falls right into a honey trap set by Fish Mooney (who is also fooling him into thinking she’s feuding with the Russian crime boss). Watching Jada Pinkett Smith at work is still hugely entertaining, especially when she is training her new singer to evoke certain emotions and manipulate a man. Still, I can’t believe that a man like Falcone could rise to such a powerful position by being a fool. He also said that he and the Wayne family had an understanding. Perhaps he will be able to call some corporate firepower into the upcoming gang war. We have seen plenty of evidence for how canny Sal Maroni is. Soon it will be time to see why people fear Carmine Falcone.


The Pitfalls Facing Marvel’s Cinematic Civil War

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie writes that Marvel’s Civil War storyline was a paranoid rightwing fantasy and a mess. I agree with the second part, but as much as I admire Bouie’s writing in other areas, I disagree with the first. The Civil War storyline was not a paranoid fantasy of on either side of the political spectrum. In fact, its problem was that it aspired to be a commentary on the real world while completely failing to connect to the real life issues we were dealing with. The Civil War storyline was still a terrible mess, though, and Marvel is going to have to reckon with those flaws if rumors of a planned cinematic adaptation are true.

A quick recap for those who didn’t read the original mini-series. The storyline kicks off when the Superhuman Registration Act is signed into law, requiring that all people in the United States with super powers must register with the government. The superheroes would essentially become government civil servants with no secret identities. The law gets an especially big boost when a battle between some heroes and villains goes horribly awry and results in the destruction of several city blocks and 600 civilian deaths including 60 children. The superhero community itself is divided in its reaction to the law. A pro-registration faction led by Iron Man argues that it is reasonable to ask superheroes to publicly identify themselves and be accountable for what they do. An anti-registration faction led by Captain America responds that secret identities are necessary to protect loved ones and that registration will become a tool of oppression.

So far so good, and when the series began in 2006, fans eagerly anticipated where it would lead. Unlike Jamelle Bouie, most comics fans of the time understood that the Civil War storyline was an allegory for the Patriot Act, not about gun control. Here was a superhero story relevant to our times.

Marvel’s Civil War was a great concept but still ended up as a mess because of terrible execution on two fronts. The first problem was that Mark Millar and other Marvel writers involved in the story attempted to strike a balance between the two sides and ultimately failed. Both sides of the Civil War were represented by well-intentioned heroes on both sides. The effect should have been to make readers think that both sides had legitimate points to make and that the issues raised by the Superhuman Registration Act were worth wrestling honestly with. Instead, the Pro-Registration side becomes Fascistic to a degree that is impossible to sympathize with. Like too many other comic book superhero stories, this one devolves into good guys (Anti-Registration) vs bad guys (Pro-Registration) punching each other senseless. Partway through the story, it seems that nearly everybody has forgotten that this all started because 600 innocent bystanders were killed by superhumans run amok. The Pro-Registration side didn’t have to be in the right, but they also didn’t have to be literally hunting down fellow superheroes and locking them up in prison camps.

The second problem with Civil War was that it ultimately failed to connect its storyline with the security state issues that Americans were facing in real life. Part of this is an inherent problem of the genre. Superheroes don’t exist in real life, and so the particulars of the Superhuman Registration Act don’t line up particularly well with our world. In real life, a law requiring certain people to register their identities and accept government monitoring would seem draconian. But that’s because nobody in real life has the inherent ability to unleash massive death and destruction, toppling buildings and darkening the skies. The moral calculus is different in the comics universe, and to make the story feel relevant to the reader, the writer must focus instead on the underlying ideas and principles rather than the particulars of the legislation. The Civil War should have been an examination of the core ideas that each character represents. Iron Man is a benevolent member of society’s elite. Captain America is a New Deal Democrat who fought fascism. Spider-Man believes with great power comes great responsibility. The Hulk represents the capacity for destruction when our baser urges overtake us. And so on and so forth. How would society align these different ideals? That would have been a great story, but it is not the one we got. Instead, Mark Millar turns it into another adventure tale of intrigue, espionage, and lots of explosions. I had the same criticism for Millar’s Red Son about Superman landing in communist Russia instead of Kansas.

There’s every reason to believe that when the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes on Civil War that it would find a way to be more even-handed and avoid character assassination. It would be a sad thing indeed if Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man was turned into an unthinking government stooge, but if only because the push back was so strong, I think Marvel will take the criticism to heart and do something about it. On the other hand, I have no confidence that Marvel will do anything to make the story feel relevant to anyone who isn’t a flying thunder god. Marvel comics have historically tackled a lot of social issues (the X-Men are famous for this), but the movies have gone further and further into the realm of fantasy escapism. Maybe they’ll surprise me but…well, the next Avengers is called Age of Ultron, after all.


Review: Forever Lost

Forever Lost is a triumph on multiple levels. The artwork and music combine to give the player an oppressive, atmosphere experience. The game hints at a well-developed backstory which is intriguing enough to make me want to know more. And most importantly, it has some of the most complex yet thoughtfully designed puzzles I’ve seen in a modern adventure game. There are two episodes currently out with a third promised by the end of this year. I can’t wait to buy and play it.

The game is played in first person, and you navigate the world through a series of still scenes much like Myst way back in the day. This also has the effect of putting you into the mindset of your character. The game begins as your character wakes up and blinks open his eyes. As his vision comes into focus, you see an empty room with a bed on the floor and a cryptic message scrawled on the wall. How did you get here? What is your name? Why are the room’s doors locked? Your character is as clueless and bewildered as you, and thus the quest begins to escape from the room and find out what happened.

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The Flash S01.E02 — Fastest Man Alive

After the exposition dump that was the pilot episode, it’s hard to see how follow-up episodes could possibly keep up. Yet somehow there’s no sophomore slump for this show. There was plenty of character development, action, and intrigue to go around. And the villain of the week was just as compelling as in the pilot. The Duplicating Man’s power worked as an excellent foil to Barry’s power, giving him too many targets to deal with despite his super speed. And judging by the previews, the villain next week will be an equal match for the Flash in a completely different way. The writers are clearly having fun playing with the Flash’s power and how creative he has to be to use it against his enemies. My only concern is that two villains so far have been killed off and it’s hard to see how the writers can keep coming up with new ones at this rate. Hopefully they will follow Arrow’s example and keep a few of the really powerful ones around to come back time and again.

Barry and Detective West have real changes happen in their relationship. Joe’s change from discouraging parent to supportive backup was a little too fast and pat, but I do want to see what comes of his decision to work together with Barry to investigate the death of Barry’s mother. Hopefully flashbacks will not be as prevalent on this show as in Arrow. Oliver Queen is constantly haunted by what happened to him on the island, but Barry is not defined by his tragedy.

Meanwhile, Dr. Harrison Wells turns out to have even darker sides than suggested in the pilot. We knew that he could actually walk and that he was probably from the future, but who suspected that he was capable of murder? This seems to form the other overarching plot of the series, and it’s even more intriguing than the mystery of Nora Allen’s murder (especially since comic book fans will already have some idea of who did it).

The fakeout with the Duplicating Man’s clone showing up at S.T.A.R. labs was lame, though. The writers should be better than that.

There were hints that Barry is capable of getting under Caitlin Snow’s skin which could be read as a tease for a future relationship. I am personally fine with their relationship where it is now, but I hope it never develops into anything romantic. For one thing, it’s cliché, and she has plenty of character on her own without being Barry’s leading lady. Secondly, Iris seems much more clearly established as the romantic interest, and Candice Patton has more than enough chemistry with Grant Gustin to carry the role (despite the slight ickiness of the two characters being adopted siblings).


What exactly happens to all the clones after Duplicating Man is defeated? They apparently just lie there. Are they actually organic material generated from his body? Does someone have to clean them all up?

And whatever happened to the suit being necessary to Barry’s power since it is heat and friction resistant? Can he actually run just as fast in regular clothing?


Agents of SHIELD S02.E04 — I Will Face My Enemy

Actually a pretty strong episode today.

The Good

Skye is surprisingly plausible as a secret agent as long as she doesn’t have to get into fights. This show has gotten much better ever since they stopped trying to portray her as a super special snowflake for whom it’s worth moving heaven and earth to save. The plot about Coulson’s illness is much more intriguing.

Watching Agent May pretend to be jokey and capable of laughter was hilarious.

Coulson preparing to hop through the laser grid and May simply stepping through because they don’t have time to waste.

I don’t know how much of the fighting was actually performed by Ming-Na Wen and how much was her stuntwoman, but the fight scenes were top notch.

No storylines around Ward, his dark past, and possible redemption.

The Meh

Raina is a nice character and all, but where is her story going to go? After all this time we still don’t know what her motivation is.

The Bad

May’s shoes mysteriously change into wedge heels during action scenes. I know there’s only so much pain we can expect Ming-Na Wen to put up with for her art, but it didn’t have to be so obvious.

The Dumb

It’s become clear that the writers and Marvel at large have no intention of explaining what HYDRA stands for. They were originally introduced in Captain America as an organization that was too extreme even for the Nazis. Fast forward to today and they appear to be basically an ordinary terrorist organization trying to take over the world without much of a fascist ideology. It further reinforces the unfortunate trend of Marvel comics having absolutely nothing to say about the real world.

While we’re at it, how exactly does HYDRA get funding and keep operating with so many people given that the full might of the US military is presumably on them?


Gotham S01.E04 — Arkham

This was a rather slow moving episode mostly concerned with setup. The biggest change was that Barbara told Jim about her relationship with Renee Montoya. It’s not clear where their story goes from here. In comics canon, Jim cheated on Barbara with Sarah Essen and eventually divorced Barbara to marry Sarah. However, the character with that name in  Gotham is Lieutenant Sarah Essen who is not only Jim’s superior officer but also pretty openly corrupt. An affair between the two of them seems unlikely. If I had to guess, I would predict that Jim will eventually tell Barbara everything, but it’s not clear when that will happen or what Barbara will decide to do in the meantime. It’s that unpredictability that makes Jim and Barbara’s story the most interesting to me.

Everybody else is proceeding along expected paths. Oswald Cobblepot is moving up in the ranks at the Maroni restaurant. Fish Mooney continues to hatch plots to unseat Falcone. Bruce sees further corruption in Gotham and is told that it’s worth trying to save it. Some of the details may surprise (I’m guessing Fish Mooney intends to use her new singer to seduce someone, possibly Falcone), but there are no unexpected swerves in this episode.

Other elements of the typical Gotham formula were a little weak this time around. The villain’s gimmick was an easily identifiable spike weapon, and other criminals apparently knew where he worked. These seem like major weaknesses for a hitman, and he also did not have the flair and theatricality of the Balloonman. The political corruption story was also a bit silly. Killing City Council members is a terrible way to swing votes. And the involvement of the Wayne family was a bit forced. Why exactly did they have a plan to rehabilitate the Arkham district? Thomas Wayne was a doctor and wealthy businessman, not a realtor.

Last note: Between Selina’s attack on a gangster in the previous episode, the assassin in this episode, and the Joker’s magic trick in The Dark Knight, the Batman universe is apparently a terrible place for eyes.


Review: Lost Echo

I usually wait until the end of a review to mention the price of a game, but in this case it’s useful to set expectations for Lost Echo. At $2.99, Lost Echo costs considerably less than Broken Sword or The Journey Down or even Gemini Rue. Developer Kickback Studios is apparently made up of a two-person team who worked on the game for two years. That they were able to put together a game this complete and polished is a testament to their dedication and the power of modern independent gaming.

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