Friday, February 22, 2013

The PlayStation 4's Secret Weapon

So in spite of what I thought would be the intelligent thing to do, Sony has gone ahead and announced the PlayStation 4, which shall be released early Q4 in anticipation of Black Friday and the holiday season.

At first, my reaction to all the news coming out of the press conference involved a lot of groaning. None of what I heard really got me excited. It all sounded safe. Predictable.

But after giving it some time, I think that Sony has the potential to do something great, they need only realize it.

If you've ever seen "2001: A Space Odyssey", you'd know that towards the beginning you witness the first moment where an organism on Earth discovered tools. If you haven't seen "2001: A Space Odyssey", you'd still know about that moment because it's been referenced and parodied in our popular culture over and over again.

One thing people rarely say about "2001: A Space Odyssey" is that it is a very slow movie. Everything happens at a snail's pace, and to be honest, it's a bit hard for me to watch for that reason. But one part where this deliberate pace really works is during this scene.

You see the ape idling away, unconsciously touching the bone. He fiddles with it. Moves it. Picks it up. Drops it. Picks it back up again.

If you know what's going to happen, it can be pretty frustrating. You generally want to just scream, "IT'S A TOOL, YOU DAMN DIRTY APE! IT WILL REVOLUTIONIZE MODERN SOCIETY! NOW HIT SOMETHING WITH IT FOR FUCK'S SAKE!"

That's kind of how I feel with Sony right now after giving it some thought.

The PS4 has a lot of interesting potential. Sony has (intentionally or otherwise) put itself in a position where it could conceivably destroy its competition and seize the throne once more.

It need only realize that the bone it's playing with can be used as a powerful weapon.

That bone is cloud gaming.

Looking Forward

One of the most interesting aspects of the PS4 is how it moved to the x86 architecture. Generally, people have made the comparison that modern video game consoles are essentially PCs with very specific hardware/firmware/OS configurations geared towards playing proprietary software, but the fact is that most modern gaming consoles would make very poor PCs. Anyone who installed Linux on their PS3 can attest to this firsthand. The PS3 can pull off some pretty impressive things, but it has less RAM than my phone and about the same processor as a 6-year-old Apple PowerBook.

The PS4, on the other hand, would make a fine PC. I know this because I coincidentally just recently helped a friend build a PC with an eight-core AMD processor and a mid-range graphics card and it's pretty damn excellent for a pretty decent price. It won't be setting the world on fire, but it does its job very well.

The problem, however, is that moving away from the PowerPC architecture means that the old games for the PS3 are not compatible. They can be made compatible, either through some kind of emulation or through individual porting, but certain games that were designed to maximize the PS3's hardware will probably need to be redesigned from the ground up.

The news of the PS4 lacking backwards compatibility upset many people, myself included. However, Sony's response regarding the possibility of making older games available through a new cloud-streaming service got a few raised eyebrows.

When Sony acquired Gaikai in October, it didn't exactly make that many waves. Sure, cloud gaming is an interesting concept, but it hasn't really gotten anywhere just yet and probably won't get there anytime soon.

People just sort of instinctively dismiss Sony's casual mention of a cloud gaming service because we all sort of just assume that it will be underwhelming.

But why do we so easily dismiss the prospect of cloud gaming?

The Perceived Problems of Cloud Gaming

I've talked a bit about this before, but the biggest perceived hurdle involved in cloud services is bandwidth/spectrum crunch. We don't have a lot of bandwidth and we are basically running out. In terms of wired bandwidth, the solution is generally to just lay down more cables, which costs money, but it is doable and cost-effective (and frankly, we've needed more fiber for a long time). Wireless bandwidth, on the other hand, is limited by the laws of physics, but that's not really an issue here. No one in the next 10 years is going to reasonably expect to be able to play a streaming video game on a mobile device with no lag or connectivity issues. It's just not a reasonable expectation. We barely expect to watch movies on our mobile devices with any amount of consistency.

But even though wired bandwidth doesn't have as many limitations, the fact remains that the few services that have successfully transitioned to the cloud have had a serious impact on our network infrastructure. Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu make up more than half of our total network bandwidth. If cloud gaming became a thing as popular as Netflix (which it absolutely has the potential to become) then we'd have to lay down a lot of new fiber to keep things running smooth. After all...

Additionally, anyone who has ever played a game with a networking component knows that lag is pretty much inevitable. Even in the best of situations, if networks are involved, something is going to slow down or get disconnected or misbehave in some other way.

So when we hear that Sony is looking into the possibility of offering some games streaming through the cloud, I think very few of us are taking them seriously. We roll our eyes and say, "You expect me to play an entire game on the cloud when the PlayStation Network can barely keep up with me playing CoD? Get real."

But here's the thing. Cloud gaming is not quite the same concept as playing an MMO or even playing online multiplayer. See, online multiplayer's biggest hurdle is not you connecting to the central server. It's you connecting with some other random schmo on the other side of the continent. The lag comes into play most often because it's hard for the central server to keep everybody connected and communicating with as much up-to-date information as possible. Not only does it have to keep track of where everybody is, it has to tell everybody else that's connected to it. So the limitations of your connection are augmented by the limitations of other peoples' connections.

With cloud gaming, it's actually not as complicated. It's just you talking to a server. The server doesn't have to coordinate with other random people, it just has to worry about you.

"OK," you might respond, "But modern games are huge. They take up like 10-20GB. How can you stream that much data?"

Well, you don't. That's not how cloud gaming works. The games themselves are actually running on dedicated hardware connected to the server. This way the games aren't limited by your hardware. Your local machine might be pulling some of the weight. It might have to store some local assets to minimize the amount of data that the server needs to send you, but ultimately, all you are sending the server is command inputs, and all you are getting back are graphical images of the game you are playing. In essence, it's not actually all that different from video streaming, other than the fact that the audio/video you see is rendered in real-time based on commands you send to it. Yes, that's still very complicated and even the slightest bit of lag can seriously impact certain types of games, but these are problems we've been working on solving. They're not quite as insurmountable as one might think.

So really, the concept of cloud gaming is not only fairly reasonable, it's potentially awesome. If it becomes the new standard, we would potentially no longer have to buy a new console ever again. All the hardware updates would happen on the server side and so long as our machines could keep up with displaying the graphical data, we wouldn't need to change a thing. How cool would that be?

However, even though the initial misconceptions about cloud gaming are fairly easy to dismiss, there are actually some serious hurdles that are preventing this from becoming a reality.

After all, OnLive and Gaikai aren't brand new. They've been around for a few years. And they work pretty well (or so I'm told). So why haven't they caught on?

The Actual Problems of Cloud Gaming

People forget this, but it took Netflix a really long time to develop a decent cloud service. I mean, they were already gaining ground on Blockbuster and Hollywood Video with their mail-delivery disc rental, but they weren't some monumental powerhouse. Then in 2008, they partnered up with Starz to stream some of the movies that Starz had the publishing rights to. Then they expanded a couple years later. Then they started making their services available to Xbox Live customers. Then they made it available to the PS3 and Wii. Then iOS and Android. During this transition, Netflix spent hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire the publishing rights to all of this content, as well as to invest in the necessary infrastructure to keep up with increasing demand.

OnLive and Gaikai (and any other game streaming service I'm not aware of) are small companies with a very small market. Their products might work well, but the video game industry is a tough nut to crack. To succeed, you need good marketing, solid and affordable hardware, and a good game library. 

OnLive, in my opinion, has terrible marketing. Every ad or commercial or press I've seen for it makes it sound like a scam. They clearly understand that people have misgivings about the concept of cloud gaming, but rather than address those concerns, they pretend they don't exist and that they've solved all of the problems. This makes them seem dishonest, and generally they never live up to their own hype. 

Gaikai I literally had never heard about before they were acquired by Sony a few months ago.

The hardware that supports OnLive is varied and inconsistent. They supposedly support tons of devices, but one instinctively knows that this is problematic, especially when they supposedly support mobile devices. Gaikai was in a similar boat before they were acquired by Sony, but more on that later.

As for games? This is probably where cloud services really shit the bed. OnLive, which is presently the most successful service out there, only has about 300 games to offer, and each has to be bought individually for essentially the same price as the disc version.

It's no surprise that OnLive hasn't gotten any substantial success. Why would I invest in hardware to play a potentially inferior version of a game I could just as easily buy for the same price and play without depending on an Internet connection or suffering glitches and poor video quality? The simple answer is, I wouldn't. And neither would you.

Imagine if Netflix had started out by only offering about 300 movies and you had to buy each one individually. Do you think they would have ever exploded in popularity the way they did?

But the limited selection and pricing schemes make sense. Game developers are notorious for demanding inflated prices for their hardware and being very protective of their publishing rights. OnLive couldn't offer a subscription service if they wanted to, simply because the only way they can get newer games is if they sell them for the standard price that everyone else has to. They have no special relationship with publishers and the publishers see no value in offering their games as part of a subscription package, and OnLive probably couldn't afford it anyway.

Still, that's not the only problem. The other big problem OnLive has is that they're not willing to commit to a serious infrastructure. The sad truth is that if they did somehow become an instant overnight success, their servers probably couldn't handle it and they'd drown in demand they couldn't supply.

So those are the real problems facing cloud gaming. A lacking infrastructure, dishonest marketing, wary publishers, skeptical consumers, disparate hardware requirements, and limited funding.

How Sony Could Make It Work

Despite these problems, I came to the realization that Sony is probably the best-equipped company to handle this problem head-on. They already have the tools at their disposal. They have the marketing. They're already a big name in the industry. People will listen to them. They have the standardized hardware. The PS4 sounds like a really solid machine and every single one will be functionally identical. With a stable broadband connection, decent servers, and well-written protocols, it could probably manage streaming games from previous generations with pretty decent quality. They have the infrastructure... sort of. They own Gaikai and they have a pretty decent PlayStation Network service that's not all that great, but they have the money to make it better if they care enough to. They don't have very many financial limitations. If nothing else, they've at least made it clear that they intend to do something along the lines of cloud gaming.

Most importantly, Sony has games. Games that people love. Games that they have the publishing rights to. And even more importantly, Sony has been previously willing to give their games away for free to PlayStation Plus subscribers. In measured amounts, certainly, but it's still something they've tried out, and maybe it's actually got some of them thinking.

So imagine this possible future, if you will.

It's June 11. The first day of E3. Microsoft goes up and announces the new Xbox. It's everything we expected it to be. They talk about better hardware, better graphics, better social aspects, better Live, better Kinect, better Windows 8 integration, and better pricing. They leave the stage confident that Sony is demolished.

Then Sony takes the stage. They unveil the PS4. It looks basically like what we expected it to look like. The hardware is about what we thought it would be. The gameplay demos are what we expected. Sony is about to be written off.

Then someone takes the stage to talk about the new PlayStation Cloud service. Everyone gets comfortable and zones out, idly tweeting about some other aspect of the coverage. Then the speaker drops a bombshell.

"On launch, we'll have all of the previous-generation games published by Sony Computer Entertainment available on PlayStation Cloud. This includes the Uncharted series, the Jak series, the Infamous series, the Ratchet and Clank series, the God of War series, the Sly Cooper series, the Spyro series, the Resistance series, just to name a handful."

The press gives a decent round of applause, then the speaker continues.

"These games, of course, will all be purchasable digitally through the PlayStation Store, but PlayStation Plus subscribers will be able to play all of these games through the PlayStation Cloud service for no additional cost."

And then everybody completely loses their shit. The PS4 has gone from just another PlayStation to the motherfucking monolith

Sure, Sony doesn't have the publishing rights to that many games. I haven't stopped and counted, but it's probably not much more than around 100 or so titles. But most of those titles are big, important titles. Titles that cover every genre. Brands that Sony has tried very hard to embellish. Some that we just haven't seen in quite a long time.

Think about it. You buy the console and pay a $50 one-year subscription (maybe the price will go up, but even if it does, the point stands) and you can suddenly play every old Sony game ever made. No need to worry about storage space. You just flip through the catalog and start playing. Look me in the eye and tell me that you wouldn't get excited over that prospect. That you wouldn't want a PS4.

Even if the selection was just limited to older titles owned by Sony, that alone would basically shake up the console world in a way it hasn't been impacted since the introduction of the Nintendo 64.

Then all Sony would have to do is keep their word. The service wouldn't have to be perfect. We're talking about older games, here. Older games you're playing essentially for free. Sometimes Netflix is slow or glitchy, but we still love it. So long as the service worked pretty well most of the time, we'd all adore it.

Of course, they'd also offer new games through the new service, but you'd probably have to pay for them. Maybe not full price, but enough to offset the additional cost of processing the enhanced graphics in the cloud. And if it was good enough, we'd probably be OK with it. A lot of us would still generally buy physical copies of our games at full price on launch day, but those of us with less disposable income and less interest in keeping games for more than an initial play-through would probably be willing to buy the discounted cloud version.

With the financial success of the console and the influx of new subscriptions, Sony would have the money and confidence to bolster their infrastructure, acquire more publishing deals, take more risks, and really make the service the new industry standard.

Meanwhile, Microsoft would probably be scrambling to acquire OnLive and set up a similar service, though they probably would keep the pricing scheme rather than give away games to subscribers. Their service would fail. Nintendo would just keep doing what they do and enjoying their niche market.

Over time, cloud gaming would basically be the new normal. Games would no longer have to worry as much about selling X number of copies in order to succeed. They could spend less on spectacle and smaller games would be easier to try with minimal investment. Eventually Microsoft (or someone else) will catch up and offer a decent competing service.

Sony could literally change the face of the industry.

Too Bad Sony Probably Won't

That being said, the problem is that Sony probably doesn't want to go all in on something this potentially risky. They've never been much of a risk-taking company. They might make their games available for their new Cloud service, and they might make some of the games free for PlayStation Plus subscribers, but it would be similar to their current offerings. Certain games will be free for a brief period of time, others will be discounted, you can only access them so long as you maintain the subscription. Their selection would probably be small to start with and grow slowly over time, but it will never take the world by storm simply because the alternative of buying a full physical or digital copy has more to offer than the cloud version.

Meanwhile, the new Xbox will kick their asses because even if it will be technically inferior, it will almost definitely be backwards compatible, it will probably be cheaper, and it will probably have much better marketing. 

Let me make this clear. I'm a pretty big Sony fan. I didn't used to be. I never owned a PS2, I didn't buy a PS3 until I had already bought a Wii and an Xbox 360. But the PS3 is what I consider to be the best console currently available. Sony has proven that when they're pointed in the right direction, they can really work some magic. But Sony has a bad habit of doing something just because it worked well in the past. "So what if the PS3 is expensive? The PS2 was more expensive than the GameCube but we won because we had better graphics and DVD support. The PS3 has the best graphics and supports the new Blu-Ray. The PSP has the best graphics and UMD support. Surely, they will be major successes." Almost all of their major failures can be attributed to them trying to repeat history. Sixaxis, Move, Home, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, and possibly also the PS4.

Just saying, they're not big on trying new things, and that's usually their biggest downfall. They'd rather react than set the terms themselves.

The PS4 will probably do just fine, but it will never dominate unless Sony stops fiddling with the bone and starts cracking skulls.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Top 20 Favorite Comic Book Movies

I was struck with the sudden urge to list my favorite comic book movies to date. Not sure why, but I'm going to do it. Here are my rules:

1) It has to be a live action film. It can be heavily stylized and have all the computer graphics it wants, but at the end of the day, the film needs to have living actors being filmed with cameras, so no direct-to-DVD animated features, even if they're really good (and some of them totally are).
2) It has to be based on English-language comics. It can't just be about superheroes and it doesn't count if it just so happened to also have a comic tie-in. "The Hobbit" is not a comic book movie just because it was turned into a graphic novel before it turned into a movie. It has to be BASED on a comic book, even if it's only loosely connected.
3) It doesn't have to be about superheroes.

OK, let's do this.

#20 - "Wanted"

This movie is a guilty pleasure and I know it. The dialogue is laughably cliche, the story is ridiculous, and most of the people I know who have seen it don't like it.

But this is my list, so there.

In spite of its numerous flaws, there are two things I really like about this movie. First of all, its cool sense of style. Everything about this movie is over-the-top and never takes a moment to come back down. It's a movie about super-assassins who take orders from a magic loom. This loom is never explained. It just is. And I love that. This movie never takes itself seriously, but it doesn't stop to poke fun at itself either. I rarely like it when comic book movies take the subject matter lightly and then point it out. It's like a comedian laughing at their own jokes. "Wanted" is always ridiculous and does it all with a straight face.

The other thing I like about this movie is that it completely disregards the source material.

The comic book "Wanted", written by Mark Millar, is about super-villains who have long since taken over the world, made the world think superheroes never really existed, and have been ruling from the shadows ever since. While it's a cool premise and occasionally has interesting things to say, most of the book is just juvenile for the sake of being "edgy". Millar often has a problem with that, and "Wanted" is where it really comes out the most. It's just so damn hateful that it's really hard to enjoy. So frankly, I think the movie is an improvement, even if it never really scratches the surface of the questions of morality that the comic brings up, simply because the movie is a lot more fun than the comic. Simple as that.

#19 - "Hellboy"

I honestly feel bad putting this movie so low on the list. "Hellboy" is actually a really well-made movie, at least from a big-picture perspective. The world-building is great, the characters are great, the design of everything is great... It's really an enjoyable experience if you haven't seen it yet.

The problem is just that the movie (and to a greater extent, its sequel) never comes up with anything particularly clever for its characters to do. When I think of this movie, all I can remember are the characters. I have to ponder for about a moment before I can even remember what the central conflict of the movie is and how it plays out. That's a serious problem.

I love Guillermo Del Toro and I would be glad to see another "Hellboy" movie, but they really need to come up with better stories for these movies.

#18 - "Daredevil" (The Director's Cut)

PUT DOWN YOUR TORCHES AND PITCHFORKS. Yes, I know, "Daredevil" is generally derided as a really bad movie. But look, before you get upset with me, do me a favor and watch the Director's Cut of the film first.

My biggest problems with the theatrical cut was that there was way too much emphasis on the love story between Matt Murdock and Elektra, which is also SUPER-RUSHED. Their first date consists of standing on a roof in the rain and it immediately cuts to them having sex. And this is meant to be the thread that connects the narrative of the film. It also doesn't help that Jennifer Gardner is really awful in this, though the depths of her suckitude as Elektra had yet to be fully charted.

However, the Director's Cut both paces the (still pretty awful) romance in a more believable way and also removes the major emphasis it has in the theatrical cut. There's a lot more going on in this film and most of it is actually halfway decent.

But really, I know that's not why most people dislike this movie. They mostly just think Ben Affleck isn't good in the role.

You know what? I don't get that. I think he does just fine. I get that people had a major hate-on for him at the time because of "Pearl Harbor" and "Gigli" and his general overexposure in the media. But you know what? I think he's fine in this role. Not perfect, but certainly not as bad as everyone seems to think.

And on top of that, the late Michael Clarke Duncan is PHENOMENAL as Kingpin and Colin Farrell is pretty hilarious as Bullseye (even if he's not quite as great as the comic book version of the character).

I will say that Daredevil's costume is pretty hideous, but this was in the post-"X-Men" ALL COSTUMES MUST BE MADE OF LEATHER phase, so I can forgive it.

Also, yes, 90% of the soundtrack is Evanescence, but they were big at the time, so again, I can forgive it.

I really suggest people check out the Director's Cut with fresh eyes (no pun intended). It might be a lot better than you remember. No, it's not perfect, but it's memorable, enjoyable, and certainly worth watching.

#17 - "Blade II"

Hello again, Guillermo Del Toro.

You know, people keep talking about how we need a comic book movie with a person of color as the main character, rather than as just a sidekick. While I certainly agree with the sentiment and would love movies about Luke Cage or Black Panther, people always seem to forget about the "Blade" series. They also forget about the "Spawn" movie, but that movie is probably worth forgetting.

While the first "Blade" got too caught up in the romance plot and it's world-building to really focus on the story, and "Blade: Trinity" is just... bad, "Blade II" was a pretty excellent film, even if it didn't have much depth.

This movie is pretty much a never-ending action sequence, but that doesn't mean it's dumb. There's compelling conflict the whole way through. Blade is working alongside the vampires (which provides an excellent amount of tension for the film) in order to stop a new breed of vampire that poses a greater threat to both vampires and humans alike.

Like I said, this isn't a deep film. We have good character moments, but they really don't have anything big to say that provides something for the audience to relate to.

What you DO have are a lot of really excellent action scenes that you feel invested in the whole way through and a plot that's a bit predictable, but still provides enough twists and turns to keep it fresh.

#16 - "Kick-Ass"

Yet another movie based on a Mark Millar comic, and again, I like the movie better than the comic because of what it changes. Specifically, it got rid of a lot of the mean-spirited undertones from the comic and focused on having fun rather than pretending to be realistic.

I like the idea of people becoming superheroes in a world where superheroes only exist in comics. I like the idea that attempting to do this is treated as a bit psychotic.

People enjoy this movie for many different reasons, but what I like most about it is the subtext about certain comic book tropes, particularly in regards to the relationship between Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. In the comics, this relationship is a lot more fucked up and the underlying subtext says less about the comics themselves and more about the people who enjoy them that is frankly just kind of stupid. In the movie, however, they do a lot more to draw parallels between their relationship and the relationship of Batman and Robin.

Both the comic and the movie are very clever to turn the pre-teen sidekick trope on its head to show just how fucked up it is, but the movie follows through and makes Big Daddy's madness more about vengeance and believing that his daughter deserves vengeance as well, much in the same way Batman justifies his indoctrination of Robin.

While I like Kick-Ass as a character and I think his story is pretty interesting, Hit-Girl is easily the most enjoyable and darkly fascinating aspect of the film. Not only does Chloë Grace Moretz out-act pretty much everyone else in the movie, her unflinching dedication to the character is really amazing.

Many people think the existence of her character is reprehensible, and I get that, but we're SUPPOSED to see it as reprehensible. If Robin actually existed in the real world, Hit-Girl is pretty much the best-case scenario, and that's pretty terrifying. I don't know about you, but I'll never look at young sidekicks the same way again.

#15 - "300"

Overrated? Probably. Homophobic? Yeah, though I think it's partially ironic considering the massive amounts of beefcake strutting around the movie. Historically inaccurate? Obviously.

But holy fuck, this movie is so much fun.

This movie is on the list pretty much for the same reasons as "Wanted" and "Blade II". It has a great sense of style and the copious amounts of action are genuinely engrossing the whole way through. By keeping the numbers small, each Spartan death feels like a big deal. Each battle feels potentially pivotal, particularly as the enemies get bigger and crazier.

I know people have issues with Zack Snyder's tendency to do that whole "vaulting" thing where he speeds up, slows down, and then speeds up again. I personally love the technique, particularly for comic book adaptations. It gives action beats a sense of power and a particular visual impression left on the viewer without actually slowing down the pace of the scene. I'm not really sure why people hate it so much, to be honest. Maybe someone can explain it to me?

#14 - "Mystery Men"

This is one film that's not on a lot of people's radar. It came out a year before "X-Men" made comic book movies a big thing and thus did really poorly in the box office. It was based on an indie comic no one had heard of, let alone read, and it marketed the film towards kids in spite of its PG-13 rating. Additionally, critics were mixed about it and no one really ever heard of it again.

Personally, I absolutely loved this movie as a kid. Back when I first got a DVD player, my family only had a handful of DVDs, so I generally watched the same few movies over and over again. This was one of them. I watched it so many times, the DVD basically became unplayable.

There was just a lot that I really liked about this movie. With the exception of Spleen, whose superpower is farting (I've never been one for scatological humor), all the "superheroes" are great. The Shoveler is played completely straight-faced by William H. Macy, who literally says to his wife, "God gave me a gift. I shovel well. I shovel very well," without a hint of irony. The Blue Raja is played by the vocally talented Hank Azaria (mostly known for his work as pretty much every character on "The Simpsons") with the unusual ability to throw silverware with the accuracy of Bullseye, and also the ability to fake a British accent. The Sphinx, played by Wes Studi, one of the more prominent Native American actors in Hollywood, is one of the few characters with actual superpowers, but mostly just spouts out formulaic fortune-cookie wisdom, which never stops being funny. Janeane Garofalo pretty much steals the show as The Bowler, who telekinetically manipulates a bowling ball with the skull of her father in it. Kel Mitchell plays the Invisible Boy who claims that he can turn invisible, but only if nobody is watching... even himself. Even Ben Stiller, who I usually dislike, is actually kind of excellent in this film as Mr. Furious, who is pretty much the only character to have a substantial arc.

As for the antagonists, we also have the excellent Eddie Izzard as Tony P., leader of the Disco Boys, who admirably fakes a rather convincing American accent, Greg Kinnear as the corporate-sponsored hero, Captain Amazing, and last but certainly not least, we have Geoffrey Rush as the primary villain, Casanova Frankenstein. How Rush has managed not to play more supervillains, I'm not sure, but he really ought to.

While this movie is probably not the BEST film on this list (hence why it didn't break the Top 10), I certainly think it's the funniest. That being said, despite its gigantic cast, this movie actually manages to balance out the third act rather nicely. Each character gets a moment to shine in the final battle and while it's certainly not "Avengers" material, this movie managed to establish seven unique characters AND a plot AND a decent final climax without needing a bunch of lead-up movies. Pretty impressive, if you asked me.

#13 - "Men in Black"

Not a lot of people realize this film is based on a comic book, but it kind of is. Though the comics were more serious, the titular Men in Black policed the paranormal as well as the extraterrestrial, and Jay was white instead of black, the overall premise was mostly in tact. I personally think there could be a serious interpretation of the source material at some point in the future, but as a comedy, this film works really well.

The sequels not so much, but this film has stood the test of time and really holds up. It's funny, interesting, at times a bit profound, and the dynamic between Jones and Smith is pretty much perfect.

I think my favorite thing about this movie is Agent Jay. The test he takes toward the end of the first act works brilliantly to both help us understand the character as well as making us like him. His ability to think outside the box and accept things beyond the obvious make him stand out both to the organization and to the audience. The part where he explains his hesitation during the shooting range scene is probably one of my favorite monologues in all of cinema.

I won't go on and on about this since everyone already knows this movie is great, but it definitely deserves its praise.

#12 - "Thor"

Much like "Mystery Men", my love of "Thor" is mostly centered around the actors. While the action beats are often forgettable, the lighting and camera work are often amateurish, and the overall plot is more than a little rushed, Kenneth Branagh put a tremendous amount of work into getting great performances out of all of the actors, which (for me) makes up for most of the shortcomings.

No, it's not terribly believable that Thor learns humility and falls in love in about two or three days, but I buy it because Chris Hemsworth sells it. Sure, he's overreacting, but I believe it. I mean, he has a really rough couple of days. He gets banished, his hammer basically tells him he's not worthy, he believes his dad is dead and that it's his fault, and Hemsworth really works with it. It's rushed, but it's still a character progression that makes sense to me.

Tom Hiddleston's Loki ALMOST doesn't work, but in that last moment where he reveals his TRUE plan, it all makes sense emotionally. He plays with the fact that we expect a face-heel turn and twists it to his benefit. I think it's why he's generally considered the best supervillain from Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (other than the fact that he's the only one they didn't kill off). Then there's Anthony Hopkins as Odin, who manages to be a total asshole but still command an immense amount of respect. Yes, he's a huge dick to Thor and Loki, but unlike how he is often portrayed in the comics, Hopkins gives the character enough emotional weight to make us understand why he would do these things, even if they're objectively bad decisions.

I pretty much love everyone in this cast, even Natalie Portman's re-imagined version of Jane Foster, which some people seem to dislike. Despite being relegated to love interest, she still has her own motivations and passions about her work that are initially far more powerful than her attraction to Thor. I mean, she runs the guy over with her car and is more interested in the markings on the ground than his well-being. I love that.

#11 - "Watchmen"

To most comic book fans, this movie garners two major points of criticism. That it is too slavishly devoted to the source material and that it changed the ending. The funny thing is that most critics bring up BOTH of these points simultaneously without a hint of cognitive dissonance. That you can say that this movie changed too much and also not enough is evidence for just how difficult this adaptation was.

This movie's production history was REALLY troubled. They tried modernizing it, simplifying it, softening it, and along the way, it fell apart again and again.

Then Zack Snyder stepped in and decided to be almost completely faithful to the original story, both in story and visuals. Since it's a long graphic novel, some story aspects required simplification, but for the most part, he decided that the best way to adapt the story was to just film the comic book as it was.

While the finished product may not be very well-paced as a result, I think that the negative criticism this movie gets from comic book fans has a lot to do with how hyped we got from the trailer.

The trailer for this movie, attached to "The Dark Knight", was pretty much perfect. Everything looked right, and the one line we got was delivered exactly as we all hoped it would be.

The thing is, "Watchmen" is paraded as the quintessential comic book. The "Citizen Kane" of comics. And this was comic out in the wake of "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight". We were really optimistic and hopeful and there was kind of this unspoken assumption that a faithful adaptation of the greatest comic book ever would result in the greatest comic book movie ever.

Obviously, given that I ranked this movie at #11, this didn't turn out to be the case.

But that doesn't make this a bad movie! On the contrary, I love this movie. I think it definitely preserves everything essential about the graphic novel and the visual flair is pretty much perfect.

I really think this was close to the best "Watchmen" film we could have gotten. I personally think they should have cast older women for both Silk Spectre and Silk Spectre II, or at the very least, better actresses, but beyond that, I'm very much happy with the film.

I think that the problem is that the comic itself is a bit overrated. It's great, don't get me wrong, but I think it's mostly considered "the greatest comic" by people who generally aren't big comic book fans. "Watchmen" serves as a great tear-down of the status of comic books at the time it was made, but comic books have been dealing with serious stuff for decades now. "Watchmen" only appears unique to people who haven't actually been reading comic books for the past few years.

That's not to say that it's not a masterpiece, but I wouldn't really call it my favorite comic, nor would I call it the best comic of all time.

I think we all hoped that the movie would be way bigger than it was and that the mainstream audiences would finally "get it" the way we hoped they would. But really, that wasn't fair of us.

We got a movie that was almost an entirely faithful adaptation of the story, something we had been clamoring for for years, and when it wasn't as amazing as we had hoped, we assumed that it was just because there was something wrong with the adaptation. Sorry guys, but this movie is great. The problem, if any exists, is just that the source material isn't as earth-shatteringly good as we seem to think it is.

#10 - "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"

I wish this film hadn't started production until after the comic book had ended. The changes to the ending really weaken the overall film by making it about Scott overcoming his lack of self-respect rather than overcoming his immaturity, selfishness, and inability to confront his own shortcomings. It also does a disservice to Ramona and Knives by making the narrative less about them and more about how Scott treats them, which isn't THAT bad, but it also makes Ramona seem a lot more reprehensible and a lot less likable.

That being said, I love this movie. Not only is it hilarious, well-acted, sharply-directed, and really clever, but it really resonates with the post-Boomer generation, which turns everything into a conflict in order to find a way to deal with it.

This movie also popularized the term "hipster" as a pejorative term, mostly by the film's critics. Since then, "hipster" has become the new "emo kid" in terms of being the whipping boy of popular culture. It's kind of disheartening to me that older audiences disregarded this movie because they couldn't see past the unique visual style and assumed that that was all there was to it, but I believe this film will be fondly remembered once people get over their irrational hatred of Michael Cera.

If you haven't seen it yet, give it a watch. It may not have a totally coherent ending, but it's still a lot of fun and really in a class of its own.

#9 - "Sin City"

I have grown to really dislike Frank Miller in recent years, and part of the problem (other than his general racism and homophobia) is that he never really left "Sin City". Everything he's written since then has been done in a gritty film noir style, even when it REALLY doesn't fit the tone.

That being said, most of "Sin City" is actually worth reading, and this film was pretty much the first to just take the comic book source material and film it as-is. Filmed almost entirely on blue and green screen, Robert Rodriguez was able to infuse the unique sense of style that the comic books had into the film without really having to change much of anything.

The movie has some problems. Since it tells a bunch of shorter stories, it runs into pacing problems as each story has its own arc. By the time you return to Harigan's story, you're kind of worn out and checking your watch.

Also (and this is a problem in the comics too) almost all of the protagonists are the same. Straight white male, getting older, back against the wall, fighting for love, gravely voice, big gun, big fists, you get the picture. They still manage to be interesting and compelling characters, but there's not a lot of range here. If you don't like the first story, you won't like the other stories.

But for a movie with almost no actual set, this film has atmosphere like you wouldn't believe. Some of these locations feel more real than some movies filmed on location. That's not to say that they look real. Like everything, they're highly stylized. But everything feels real if that makes any sense.

I've been wanting a sequel to this since it came out, but now that it's actually about to happen, I'm actually kind of dreading it. Not just because two of the cast members have since died, but also because I really don't know if another movie can really say anything that the first movie hasn't already said. I guess we'll find out.

#8 - "V for Vendetta"

I've mentioned a number of times how much I love the Wachowskis. While they didn't direct "V for Vendetta", their involvement as producers was definitely more than just superficial. While I think this film lacks their unique sense of visual style, the underlying themes are very familiar.

Much like the reaction to "Watchmen", comic fans have disliked this film for the changes it makes to the source material. In this case, however, I can understand their issues.

This film DOES take out quite a bit of the political undercurrent of the comics and alters them to make them applicable more to the post-9/11 world rather than just about the U.K. under Thatcher. I can see why this bothers some people, but frankly, I have a much easier time relating to the current political climate rather than the political climate of a different nation in a different time.

It may seem a bit exploitative of English work, but the story isn't really about America, and in a way, that's kind of what I like about it. While the issues raised are politically American, they are still applicable to the entire world, and by having this take place in a foreign culture, it gives the viewers a certain amount of distance to really think about the larger implications of these issues.

Another big change is that the comics never really paint V as a hero in the strictest sense. While he still does many questionable things in the film, the film ultimately makes it clear that we're supposed to be on his side for the most part. The comics aren't quite so clear on the issue. V brings about anarchy in order to cleanse the world and allow something new to rise up from the ashes, and we're never really sure if that's really a good thing. The fact that he's motivated by vengeance is also troubling since he may not actually have the right amount of clarity.

Still, unlike "Watchmen", I don't think complete moral ambiguity serves this story very well, or at least, it wouldn't have worked for the film.

The biggest (though probably most subtle) change the film makes is that while anarchy is a part of V's plan, it is not really the stated goal of his plan. He uses anarchy, not as a method of destruction, but as a method of unification. Empowering the individual and the collective in order to undermine the government they had become dependent on. Alan Moore was more about reducing everything to zero and asking the reader to fill in the blanks.

I personally think that the reason the film is so different from the comics is because Moore essentially asked his audience to make up their own minds. The film is essentially the Wachowskis and James McTeigue demonstrating their own personal interpretation of the story.

Unless Moore made the film himself, it would be impossible for any other filmmaker not to put their own feelings into the adaptation, so I'm actually glad that they decided to embrace it rather than try to remain 100% faithful.

The film itself, while a bit ham-handed at times, is really solid and engrossing. I enjoy watching it every year on November 5, and I haven't grown tired of it yet.

#7 - "American Splendor"

Probably the most meta comic book movie ever, this movie is an adaptation of the autobiographical comic books of the late Harvey Pekar. It's weird because on the one hand, it could just be seen as a biopic of Pekar and not so much an adaptation of the comic, but the movie includes bits of interviews with the actual Harvey Pekar on the set of the film, little snippets of animations done in the style of the comics, and some parts that are straight-up adaptations of certain "American Splendor" comics.

Harvey Pekar is both inspirational and very sobering. On the one hand, he stands as an example of an ordinary American pursuing an artistic endeavor for no reason other than he wanted to and finding success in it. On the other hand, his artistic success never exactly changed his financial situation (he still worked at his day job until he eventually retired a few years before his recent death) so he was only able to find satisfaction in knowing that his writing meant something to both himself and the people around him.

This is easily the greatest comic book movie that isn't about a superhero. In fact, I had a hard time not putting this at the very top of the list. But the truth is, as excellent as this movie is, comic book movies are about more than just being good movies.

To me, a comic book movie is about fantasy and escapism and "American Splendor" is very much the opposite of that. While I cannot deny how excellent this film is, it simply isn't something that I can just pop in and watch at a moment's notice. If I was giving out an award or something, I'd pick "American Splendor", but we're talking about my favorites, and sadly, #7 is the best I can offer this excellent film.

#6 - "Spider-Man 2"

As much as I love "Spider-Man 2", I can't deny that it's the cheesiest film in my Top 10 by far. If you think I'm being too harsh, just go back and watch the bank heist scene. Everything Aunt May does in that scene could have been lifted straight from a cartoon.

The thing about Sam Raimi is that he loves cheese. All of his movies have it and display it proudly. Sometimes it doesn't work out so well, like in "Spider-Man 3" where most audiences felt he went a little too overboard with the cheese and didn't balance it out. But in "Spider-Man 2", it works because we care about Peter as a character.

The first act of the film is probably the best part of the entire Spider-Man franchise for me. It's not like it's the first film to do the whole "hero is a failure at life" shtick, but there are two things that it does better than any other film like it.

1) It's funny. Sometimes it's difficult to watch a hapless loser fail again and again. Peter is given one last chance by Aasif Mandvi to deliver a pizza on time, he happens upon a crime along the way, he just barely misses the deadline, the customer refuses to pay for the pizza, Aasif fires him, his landlord hounds him for the rent, he forgets his own birthday, his best friend is upset with him for hiding the identity of Spider-Man, MJ is seeing someone, Aunt May is behind on her mortgage... The first act of the film is a never-ending chain of failure. But Sam Raimi manages to keep it fun by injecting humor into it. Like when Peter changes into Spider-Man during the pizza delivery, someone sees him walk into the alley and then deduces, "Spider-Man stole that guy's pizza!" Or how once Peter finally arrives at his destination, he emerges from a closet and spends nearly a full minute rearranging the mops that keep falling out. And the whole time, Peter maintains this almost superhuman naive optimism that you just can't believe exists in someone who has spent their whole lives in New York City. It makes you want to see him succeed.

2) This film makes his struggle the entire centerpiece of the film. Much like "Superman II", Spider-Man gets the rare opportunity to decide whether or not he even wants to be Spider-Man. More interestingly, however, the film has this transformation occur naturally. The more and more he regrets being Spider-Man, the more he starts to lose control over his powers. He can't climb on walls, he can't shoot his web, he can't see without glasses... he thinks something is wrong with him. And in any other superhero film, there probably would be something wrong. Like a supervillain poisoned him or some alien artifact is mutating him or something like that. But when he sees a doctor, all he says is that, "Maybe you aren't supposed to be Spider-Man climbing on those walls." It's a psychological block. In the first film, Peter accepted that "With great power comes great responsibility," but in this film, he asks if he can just deny the power itself, and therefore deny the responsibility that comes with it. That is such an interesting struggle that really drives the whole movie forward.

I love this movie and embrace its cheesiness, because at its core it has its priorities straight.

#5 - "X2: X-Men United"

The first "X-Men" film was a big deal... at the time. In retrospect, it's not really all that good. It has some funny moments and the overall plot is solid enough, and most of the casting is spot-on, but I have a lot of problems with it. Primarily because that movie doesn't trust the audience enough to risk us sympathizing with the Brotherhood. On it's face, Magneto's plan to mutate the entire island of Manhattan sounds like a potentially interesting plan... but we find out that the process straight-up kills people after a few days. Because of this, we are essentially forced to take the X-Men's side in this conflict. Additionally, a lot of the characters are bland and one-note. Though I will say, one of my favorite lines from any movie ever is, "You know this plastic prison of theirs won't hold me forever."

"X2", on the other hand, is pretty much straight-up "Wrath of Khan", by which I mean that this film delivers on all of potential that we caught a glimpse of in the first film. Additionally, the film is literally like "Wrath of Khan" at the very end when a character sort-of-dies at the end to save the rest of the group and then gets to say the opening line from the first movie in voice-over just before the very end while showing their burial site. But I digress.

"X2" is the best X-Men film in the franchise thus far because Bryan Singer realized that the Brotherhood is meant to be sympathetic. By giving the X-Men and the Brotherhood a common threat to face together, they not only set up an excellent dynamic throughout the film, the encapsulated the entirety of the plight of an oppressed people.

Xavier's peaceful approach has been compromised. William Stryker has manipulated the President into allowing him to raid the X-Mansion, allowing him access to both Xavier and Cerebro, which he then attempts to use to wipe out all of mutant-kind. In order to stop him, the X-Men have to team up with the Brotherhood and go on the offensive against humans for the first time in the franchise.

Every step of the way, we go deeper into the whole civil rights aspect of the story, specifically through Bryan Singer's experience as a gay man. The scene at Bobby's house where he essentially "comes out" to his family makes this very apparent. The movie also gives us brief character moments with nuggets of poignancy. Like when Nightcrawler asks Mystique (who rarely ever says anything in these movies) why she doesn't use her power to look normal all the time, to which she responds, "Because we shouldn't have to." There's also this fantastic moment in Bobby's house where Pyro looks at a picture of Bobby's family and just the way it's framed tells you pretty much everything you need to know about him. That's the power of film, people.

If I have any problems with X2, it's pretty much the same problem I have with all of Singer's superhero films. The female characters get kind of screwed over. That's not to say they're weak characters or anything, just that for some reason, Bryan Singer's female characters always tend to be very soft-spoken, particularly when compared to their comic book counterparts. Take Rogue for example. In the 90's, Rogue was extroverted, much more super-powered, and a lot less vulnerable emotionally. In the films she's... Anna Paquin. That's not to say she does a bad job or that she's not interesting in her own right. There is one moment I like where Magneto makes fun of the white streak in her hair (that he caused) and she starts to remove her gloves before Bobby stops her. She's not a wimp or anything. It's just that she's so... quiet and unassuming. Pretty much all of the women are. It just bothers me, I guess.

Beyond that, the film is just excellent from beginning to end.

#4 - "Captain America: The First Avenger"

I honestly had a really hard time placing this one and I had an even harder time accepting that I placed it so high. I mean, "Captain America" has a lot of problems, particularly when it comes to the villain and the pacing of the third act.

But the reason I place it so high is because the things it does right are not only done incredibly well, but they are surprisingly rare for a comic book movie.

For example, the character of Captain America is probably the most straight-faced good-for-goodness-sake altruistic hero since Richard Donner's Superman. And this movie wears that proudly. Seriously, how many other movies in the past two decades have had a Lawful Good superhero that wasn't treated as corny or old-fashioned or anachronistic? It was refreshing to see a superhero who didn't have an asshole phase during their journey.

On top of that, the world-building in this movie is effortlessly great. It throws in elements from "Iron Man" and "Thor" without ever once stopping to explain itself. It was the first movie in the MCU to have the balls to just roll with it, and I love that.

And I can't lie, as much as Red Skull is just a one-dimensional villain, I think that kind of works for this movie. He offers a sort of simplicity in evil that is fairly common in period WWII films. Plus, I just really love Hugo Weaving, even if he is kind of phoning it in. I would probably be fine in Red Skull never came back (and apparently Hugo Weaving has no intent to ever reprise the role), but for this movie, I'm OK with him.

Beyond that, there's just so many little things I love about this movie. The little kid who assures Cap that he can swim. The old lady with the tommy gun. Peggy shooting a moving vehicle from a quarter mile away with the smallest gun in existence and hitting. Cap using guns and lethal force without ever grinding the movie to a halt to question the morality of it. Every single thing Tommy Lee Jones says.

I just love so much about this movie that I don't really care if it has flaws or that it doesn't really have some deep message like "X2". I never get tired of watching it.

#3 - "Iron Man"

This film single-handedly redefined the superhero film, or at least it defied what conventional Hollywood executives thought about them. "You can't make a successful comic book movie about a character no one has heard about." Then came "Iron Man". "You can't make a successful comic book movie without a big name actor with a proven box office draw." Then came "Iron Man". "You can't make a successful comic book movie that's faithful to its source material." Then came "Iron Man". "You can't set up a shared continuity between comic book movie franchises." Then came "Iron Man". "If you don't have an action beat every 10 minutes, the audience will get bored." "Super heroes have to be young and naive." "Super heroes have to have a secret identity."

I could go on.

"Iron Man" was a game changer and is pretty much the reason we got about 1/4 of the films on this list. It was able to give comic book fans their own sense of fun by giving them things to giggle about the whole way through while still keeping it accessible to a new audience.

Like "Captain America: The First Avenger", "Iron Man" has a pretty weak third act, again mostly due to the fairly boring villain. However, what makes "Iron Man" slightly superior in my opinion is that it also has an incredibly strong second act. Seeing Tony build and test his suit is engaging and I honestly can't really put my finger on why. There's really no conflict to speak of, no clear goal to achieve. It's just Tony in his workshop building toys. But there's just something about that that works. And then it all builds up to him deciding to use his new suit to do some good in the world, and I love how unconventional it is.

Typically, once a superhero accepts their duty, their first act is to beat up some thugs in an alley. It's iconic. But the thing is, that type of crime isn't really what someone like Tony Stark has to deal with on a daily basis. Tony has to see on the news how his weapons are tearing apart innocent lives thousands of miles away. So what does he do? He flies out to the Middle East and kicks some terrorist ass.

I can't really think of another film that does this, and in a post-9/11 world, I think this really resonated with a lot of Americans who wished that there was a way we could help stem the tide of chaos in the Middle East without going whole hog and occupying it.

Beyond that, the other thing that works incredibly well is the chemistry between all of the characters. They all play really well off one another and their ad-libbing always feels natural. 

#2 - "The Avengers"

Do I really need to say anything at this point? While this movie is certainly not perfect, it is probably exactly what it needed to be. It delivers on its premise, it gives us solid character moments, it's paced well, and the final act is amazing. Heck, I can forgive the fact that pretty much every other MCU movie had a lousy third act by thinking of this movie as The Third Act. And still, because this movie doesn't throw out everything and the kitchen sink, there's enough left to build on for future installments without risking them being "disappointments". I can all but guarantee that "Avengers 2" will be far better than this film because Joss Whedon will be able to take the time to polish it and deliver on the setups that he wants to plant. "Avengers" was saved by Joss. It was likely shaping up to be a mess and Joss stepped in to make it work on really tight time restraints. While it certainly carries his signature style and care for attention to detail, no one could say it's his best work, and it didn't need to be. Joss was just trying to make it work, and the fact that he did is admirable.

While this film is not my all-time favorite, I very much suspect the follow-up will be.

#1 - "The Dark Knight"

I know this film is generally overrated and I myself have sung countless praises for it, but considering how hard I tend to come down on "The Dark Knight Rises", I think it's important to reiterate that this is my all-time favorite comic book movie.

It's not flawless. For example, why exactly does Batman take the blame for Harvey's actions when it would be just as easy to blame the Joker? Or yeah, Christian Bale's Batman Voice.

But this movie dares to do so many things with Batman that basically no one else has tried. I mean, name one other Batman story where Batman actively wanted to give up being Batman? Where he was actually working with an endgame in mind? Where he actually saw a path to making Gotham a better place? Where he was more interested in stopping ordinary criminals than stopping colorful psychopaths? Where he worked with the police and the DA's office rather than just do their jobs for them? Where the Joker was able to be dark and threatening in a very realistic way without sacrificing his psychotic sense of fun and humor?

This film is not just a great comic book film, it is an expertly crafted film in its own right. I've gone on about this before, but ultimately, that's why I feel this is the best film of the bunch. Because not only is it a great comic book adaptation, it's still an excellent film on its own.

Marvel Cinematic Universe: A Conspiracy Theory

As much as I enjoyed "Avengers" last year, I couldn't help but feel like I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't thoroughly spoiled myself about basically everything important. I knew about Coulson, I knew about Thanos, I knew about Hulk's "secret", I pretty much knew every major detail and every super popular line...

I guess I was hoping that the movie would still have one or two surprises left for me, but it really didn't. I still loved it, but I allowed myself to be completely engulfed by spoilers and TV spots and trailers and reviews and so on to the point where I had basically already seen the movie before I even saw it, and so I vowed to try and not let that happen for future Marvel installments.

Of course, I'm only human. While I don't intend to let myself get spoiled for every little detail and twist in a particular upcoming Marvel movie (I've actually been able to avoid most spoiler posts and set photos for "Thor: The Dark World" and "Iron Man 3") part of the fun for me, particularly with the MCU, is speculating on where exactly the story is going, and frankly, it's been kind of hard to do that so far.

So when I heard that the ever-reliable El Mayimbe of Latino Review had a scoop on the shape of "Avengers 3", I knew I had to hear about it. Given that it was a potential spoiler for a movie that hasn't even been officially announced yet, I knew that it couldn't possibly be anything more than a vague direction, and that's essentially what it is.

And I'm really glad I heard about this one because it pretty much feels like the big puzzle piece that was missing. I now feel like I get where the MCU is headed, at least to a degree.

That being said, some people would probably prefer to not be spoiled about anything, and I can't blame them.