Friday, March 22, 2019

All 21 Marvel Movies According to Me

I grew up on Marvel comics. I was rabid collector for twenty-some years. Over time the price of comics steadily crept up in sync with the decline in story quality and I stopped collecting entirely sometime in the late 90s.

Which is why I LOVE Marvel Studios. They capture everything I loved about comics that the publisher has lost sight of. They are kid friendly and fun, but fully aware that it's grown-up True Believers who make up the core of their target audience.

Unlike those Zack Snyder atrocities over at DCE, Marvel movies focus on staying fun and entertaining, and yet they consistently (well mostly) balance this with a serious, grounded tone in (most of) their stories. Exactly like the comics of the bronze age, which were for kids, but never made you feel like you were reading a children's book.

If you want to get a sense of my philosophy as a storyteller, you needn't look much further than these movies.

Now that I've seen Captain Marvel, it seemed like a good excuse to look back through them and rank them with a fresh perspective.

A couple things to keep in mind...

I do not pretend to be objective about this list. Anyone who does is lying. This list is influenced by my philosophy on story structure, pacing, style, and very much on my own personal taste. I've always gravitated toward lower-to-non-powered heroes.

Also, this isn't necessarily a straight ranked list. First I grouped them. Those groups are fairly set in stone, but the actual order within each group are subject to change depending on my mood from day to day.

Except these top 4 which are actually ranked in order.

Best of the Best

These are the standouts of the franchise that either set or raised the bar.

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)  -- I gushed at some length when this one came out. It had the most solid story of the franchise, tons of geek out moments, perfectly paced action, awesome characters. It was everything I wanted out of a Cap movie. I especially loved how it tapped into a zeitgeist that appealed to my sensibilities, yet it did so in a way that fans did not complain about its politics. They were not smacked over the head with it because it fit seamlessly into the story.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) -- This film was nothing short of brilliant. Damn near flawless, and another that I gush over often. It's a case study in how to properly incorporate humor into a grounded, relatable story that doesn't come across as a gag fest. Not to mention how to make a fantastic space opera setting feel grounded and relatable.

3. Marvel's The Avengers (2012) -- After all these years and all these sequels, the first movie to bring the Avengers together remains one of the greatest superhero movies of all time. I even manage to forgive Joss Whedon for giving the bad guys at the end the Death Star syndrome to wrap up the big battle at the end. Great laughs, every character had a memorable moment, and a clean plot. It really was the total package.

4. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) -- I was so hesitant of this one at first. Spidey is near and dear to my heart, and I did not know what to make of all the changes they were making to him and to his supporting cast.

But dammit if this movie didn't perfectly capture the heart and soul of Peter Parker. I participate in social media groups populated by old curmudgeons who refuse to live in the now. They hate how this Spider-Man is basically Iron Man's plucky sidekick. And yet they ignore that it hits EVERY other note of the Lee-Ditko era of the comic.

This film had wit and charm and one hell of a villain. This places so close to the top of the list because it is another case study... How to properly modernize a character for a new generation without ruining him.

Awesome Flicks

While maybe not as stellar in my mind as the above, these are endlessly rewatchable.

5. Captain America: Civil War (2016) -- Very little to complain about here. It juggled a lot of plot elements really well and kept a solid pace. Great geek-out moments during the airport throwdown. Spider-Man's powers were wildly inconsistent, and they had to forget Vision was present during too much of the fight to allow Cap to get away. Zemo's plot was airtight until the end, when it suddenly relied on convenience. But the movie was such a fun ride until then, and Iron Man vs Cap was so cool, the sins are easy to forgive.

6. Black Panther (2018) -- A little too formulaic and way too over-hyped, but a fun ride. I enjoyed both of the movies that they mashed together to make this happen. Part 1, T'Challa as James Bond. And Part 2, the Lion King.

7. Avengers: Infinity War (2018) -- I am hard pressed to think of much to complain about in this movie. Tons of great performances. For such a dense script, it somehow managed to give every character at least one great moment. Probably the most well-told and epic story of the franchise overall. And what a cliffhanger. Steve Rogers should be a red stain on the grass after Thanos punched him at the end, though. Loses some points for being a bit bleaker than I've come to expect, so others get ranked higher just for being more fun. Of course the comic was waaay darker.

8. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) -- Possibly the most underappreciated of the MCU. This and the first one had a great balance of humor, charm, and action packed sci-fi adventure. And Luis.

Still pretty damn good

These lost points for one reason or another. But I really enjoy them overall.

9. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) -- So you may notice the pattern that each category starts with Captain America. I pretty much use him as the benchmark for the rest. When First Avenger came out, I absolutely loved it, and still stop flipping channels when I find it's on. It slowly lost points as better paced sequels came out. The montage of Rogers as WWII mascot went on way too long and hence ground the film to a screeching halt. And there wasn't nearly enough of Cap vs Red Skull.

10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) -- This might be the one I am most conflicted on. There is so much to love. Wanda and Pietro, Hawkeye's development, the into of the Vision, James Spader's deliciously insane portrayal of Ultron. But that's just it. There is too much. Too many plot elements crammed in made the pacing feel all kinds of awkward.

11. Captain Marvel (2019) -- The latest installment of the franchises lands firmly in the middle of the list. It was fun, action packed, with a tight story and great character moments. But at the same time suffered from some ridiculously lazy writing. The haters need to seriously get over themselves. Brie Larson was great, and helped salvaged what could have been a very mediocre film.

12. Thor (2011) -- Loved the opening sequences. Felt it was a decent story. Loved Loki, natch. Laughed through most of Thor being on Earth despite that part dragging out so long. Rolled my eyes at the bizarrely goofy portrayal of the Warriors Three on Earth. The end battle was decent but almost anticlimactic. I want to like it more than I do.

13. Ant-Man (2015) -- I know I ranked the sequel way higher and said how underappreciated this movie was. And I meant it. I thought this one was a lot of fun. They did some crazy creative things with his powers that you don't see in the comics that made it a pleasant surprise. But it loses points for having a painfully thin plot and a pretty lame villain that followed the formula of...

14. Iron Man (2008) -- Speaking of thin plots and lame villains. You'd think the one that started it all would be ranked way higher, but I just can't.

The first half with Tony in the cave building the first suit is stellar. Seeing him build the upgrades and going out on his first flight was pretty cool, too. But the trilogy suffers from some major problems. 1. Not enough superheroics in the armor and 2. Tony creates ALL of his own villains. That second one was a huge problem with Age of Ultron, too. Still, it's a fun enough ride that I can roll it.

15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) -- When this one first came out, I was really harsh on it. A subsequent rewatch made me lighten up on it a lot, but not entirely. For all it's flaws (being insanely formulaic with too many forced gags instead of the natural humor of the first one)... this movie had heart. The underlying story about family was powerful enough to keep the whole thing tied together. And damn it's fun.

Decent to Okay

We're getting into shaky ground now. I still rewatch them.

16. Doctor Strange (2016) -- Awful pacing. He apparently becomes master of the mystic arts in a matter of what? Months? It loses huge points for being like 95% origin story. Awesome SFX and a cool villain, though.

17. The Incredible Hulk (2008) -- Yes, it had an embarrassingly thin plot. But Ed Norton was great in the role. What plot there was I thought was interesting. And that big brawl with Hulk and Abomination destroying Harlem was epic. C'mon. I don't know why I'm such a sucker for Hulk fights. I own Ang Lee's Hulk on DVD, but only for Hulk vs those gamma-dogs and the big Army chase across the desert. So I am kinder to it than most critics.


I don't outright hate them.

18. Thor: Ragnarok (2017) -- There are times when I have said outright that I hate this movie. The gags were so effing forced they were painful. But Cate Blanchett was incredible. I loved the battle on the rainbow bridge. And I could not help but chuckle at many of the Hulk moments, almost despite myself.

19. Iron Man 2 (2010) -- This turned out to be the most disappointing series of the franchise. There is just nothing special about this particular installment. I loved the recasting of Rhodey. And I started to love Michey Rourke as Whiplash. But then it dragged on. And on. And on. And... zzzzzz... Then the big battle at the end happened and it was over.

And where the hell is my Black Widow movie!?

Worst of the Worst

I can say nothing polite about these.

20. Thor: The Dark World (2013) -- Stupid. Contrived. Boring. Forced humor. It was so empty I can't even remember enough about it to specifically criticize. Oh... that gag with taking the train back to the fight when he lost his hammer. GAH!!  Okay now I'm pissed off at having lost 2 hours of my life again.

21. Iron Man 3 (2013) -- Remember the problems established by the first installment? Not enough superheroics. Check. And it's now gotten beyond tiring that Tony literally creates all of his own enemies. Not only that, but this time they even teased that we were finally get Iron Man's greatest foe from the comics. And that turns out to be a slap in the face. Then what happened to Pepper was beyond contrived. Absolute trash.

And yet, Robert Downey Jr is one of the best parts of the franchise in every other film he's in. I'm really looking forward to Endgame, and I'm kinda bummed that he's retiring the role.

Thinking I'll do this same treatment to the Marvel Netflix shows.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

How To Be An Author

A guy walked up to me at my booth at Comic-Con one year. He asked if he could take a look at my comic, so I said handed him one. He looked at it with awe and wonder, then looked up at me and asked, "How do you do..." The word hung for a few seconds as he waved his hand over my book and finally said, "... this."

I'm sure every writer reading this has been asked "How do you come up with your ideas?" or "How do you sell your books?" But never did I imagine someone who had so little of a clue as to not even know how to ask the question. I could tell he was eager and wanted to create comics, but he didn't even know even one of the steps involved in "...this."

Maybe he thought he could ask the question because I wasn't known. I was a normal guy just like him. And yet I apparently had this magical power he wanted to understand.

In my last post I mentioned that, despite so many false starts, I'd been holding onto the winning strategy all along. But before I get into specifics of writing and marketing books, there's a different strategy that a lot of aspiring creators need to apply first.

It involves changing your mindset.

This entry is for people who think they want to __________, but struggle like I have. Fill in your own blank. Because regardless of what you really want to do in life, it likely involves a huge change in mindset to get our of your comfort zone and go from dreaming to chasing that dream.

There are 7 "steps" to achieving success. They are not easy steps. And the real trick is in order to truly understand them, don't think of them as a sequential list. They all revolve around and connect back with each other.

If you're a self-help junkie seeking the secret magic bullet to success, these may sound like the same platitudes you've come across a million times. The thing is... they're all true. But like all things, you can't just acknowledge them in your head. You have to believe them in your gut.

What made these "steps" finally click came from talking to a number of successful pros, and studying successful people. They all had different paths, but every single one of them has these 7 elements in common in their stories.

#1 Define Success - First you have to visualize it. Not in abstract, but in concrete terms. What does it look like? What does it sound like? What does it smell like?

What you tell yourself is what you will achieve. If you don't think you're good enough, you won't be. If you think that all you'll get out of your hard work is failure, you're right. If you think what you really want out of life is nothing but a pipe dream, it is.

#2 Have A Strategy - I've managed projects in my day job, so I can attest to the power of having a solid project plan at the outset. Nothing motivates an engineer better than a hard deadline with consequences for missing it. The idea doesn't just apply to IT and business. You need to handle your life like you would a business if you want a return on your investment.

The difference between goals and dreams is a timetable. Set a plan to keep focused. Break your goals down into measurable benchmarks and deadlines.

But just as a goal is near impossible to reach without a project plan, a plan is not worth much without an end state goal. You have to know what you are working for. Always keep that north star in sight and make sure your plan is moving toward it.

#3 Turn Intention into Attention - This one is probably the hardest. They call them comfort zones for a reason. This requires a conscience decision to stop dreaming and start doing. This is what the old saying about the road to Hell means. All the good intentions in the world mean squat if you don't act on them.

No more some-days. No more maybes. Do not accept any more excuses. Never quit.  Make every decision like your life depended on it. Because in a way it does.

One way to stay motivated is to learn to recognize little successes. When you hit one of your little benchmarks in your plan from #2, celebrate it. No step forward is too small.

#4 Take Risks - For some this may be just as hard. Part of making that decision to take deliberate steps forward involves overcoming fear. Believe it or not, fear of success is stronger than fear of failure.

But therein lies the rub. Because there WILL be failure on your journey.  You need to understand and accept that up front. And when failure comes, don't dwell on it. Own it and move on.

Not one single success story came without failure. Without risk there is no reward. Another of my favorite Rocky quotes is, "Every champion was once a contender who refused to give up."

#5 Deal with Reality - This one may seem contradictory. Just because you think you want something doesn't mean it will happen.

On one hand, I loathe the the old parental axiom, "Not everyone gets to be an astronaut." I hate the idea of telling a kid what they can't be. But the statement itself is not untrue.

If the thing you defined back in #1 isn't happening the way you think it should be, then you have to make an adjustment to either your expectations or to your project plan.

Don't live in denial. Don't delude yourself. Understand and accept your limitations--differentiating between an actual limitation and your own imaginary ones. Admit when something isn't working. But don't stop there! Course correct. Take a good hard look at your expectations and your plan and make changes where needed. The trick, though, as I said above is to not dwell on it. Stick with point #3 and keep moving forward. Learn and adapt.

The flipside of this is do not have any expectations of a fast track. There is no magic bullet. Like I said, these are not easy steps.

Nothing worth having comes without hard work. LOTS of hard work.

The rest of the line from this epic scene in Pursuit of Happyness is...

"You got a dream? You gotta protect it. People can't do something themsleves, they want to tell you you can't do it. If you want something, go get it. Period."

Which takes us to...

#6 Network - Another huge lesson that Chris Gardner learned is that NO ONE succeeds alone. When you need help, ask for it. Surround yourselves with encouraging, like minded people who share your passion and support them as much as they will support you.

Part of this process is get rid of toxic people from your orbit. This may include purging yourself of toxic voices in your own head that likely sound like people from your past. Are they holding you back, keeping you mired in regret and inaction? Get rid of them. Or at the very least, marginalize them so they don't have so much influence over you.

#7 Find Your Passion - This may sound weird as the "last" step. Wasn't your passion what you defined at the outset?  Yes and no. This is more about defining your motivation to maintain your passion.

Do you really want something? I mean really want it in your bones? Then don't half ass it. Stay focused on it. Define what your motivation is for WHY you want it.

Always maintain a positive mental attitude about it. The only way you will be able to stick to your plan and pick yourself back up when you trip over one of those hurdles is to stay excited about what you are trying to achieve.

Now... I am writing this as someone who, to date, has done everything wrong.

I thought I had my vision of success defined pretty well, but not really. And I got stuck there. I meandered about it without a project plan. Being honest with myself, I half-assed a lot of it. I always thought of it in terms of some day. I had every good intention without taking tangible action. I didn't take many risks, at least not on the right things. Because I held onto unrealistic expectations of myself and how the business worked.

And when I did take big risks and fell on my face, I wasted more time than I want to admit dwelling on them. I wouldn't let go of unrealistic expectations. I wouldn't give myself enough credit for the small victories. I alienated myself from more than one network. I lost my passion. And I definitely didn't maintain a positive mental attitude through most of it.

I used to think that I was incapable of doing any of the things named above, mainly because I suffer from crippling social anxiety. I am no salesman.

But can you guess what was another thing that damn near every single working self-publisher I talked to had in common? They all considered themselves (either currently or in their past) to be socially awkward and shy.

Meaning that was just another excuse I was leaning on to hold myself back.

I know I'm a good writer. I've had enough qualified people throughout my life tell me as much, so I know I'm not kidding myself. I have studied my craft. I have applied feedback to improve. In 2014 I was nominated by the New Pulp Awards for Best New Writer. I got 3 novellas published. I taught myself how to produce my own book and published it myself.

If I don't say so myself, it's damn good. I don't consider myself a great literary wordsmith. I tell stories. And they are all stories that I think will resonate as they entertain.

I write because I have to. I write because my story ideas consume me and demand to be shared. And I write because I want to live comfortably in my eventual retirement. My stretch goal is to be able to leave my day-job-career early and write full time.

Next up, I'll get into the details of what it will take to get there.