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Josh Reviews Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

I quite liked the first Fantastic Beasts film.  I enjoyed being back in the world of Harry Potter (what has now been dubbed “The Wizarding World”), and I thought the film was fun if a little slight.  (It was a gentler, more meandering tale than the last few Harry Potter films, which were darker and more intense.)  I wouldn’t say I LOVED the film, but I was eager for the story to continue in the next of five planned films.

The trailers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald were intriguing, but also raised some alarm bells for me.  This new film looked a lot more epic and a lot darker than the first Fantastic Beasts — this excited me.  The trailers played up this film’s connections to the broader Harry Potter mythology — Dumbledore, Hogwarts, the human form of Nagini, etc.  This also excited me.  But mostly absent from the trailers were the foursome who were the focus of the first Fantastic Beasts film: the sisters Tina and Queenie, the “No-Maj” Jacob Kowalski, and Newt Scamander himself.  This worried me.  Was this second film abandoning these characters?  I doubted it would, but then I worried that they would they be in the film but overshadowed by all of the more exciting mythology, the Dumbledore-versus-Grindelwald stuff.  Would Newt & co. be unnecessary and boring in their own film?  Would I wish that Dumbledore was the main character, rather than Newt?

Having now seen the film, I can say a few things:

First off, I quite enjoyed it.  I thought it was, overall, a stronger film than I’d been expecting based on the early reviews.

Second, the film feels very much of a piece with the first Fantastic Beasts film.  I’d worried this film was going to be a major course correction from the first film, but in fact it continues nicely from the first Fantastic Beasts in terms of tone and style.

Third, I had expected that the film would be structured with Newt & co. going on a series of adventures that I’d find somewhat entertaining but not as much fun as the “good stuff” of the mythology revelations and spectacle that I expected in the film’s climax.  In fact, I was very taken by the film’s first three-fourths, and all of that adventuring by Newt & co., while I found the film’s last thirty-or-so minutes to be head-spinningly confusing, overstuffed with exposition describing IMPORTANT REVELATIONS that I felt weren’t sufficiently explained nor were their repercussions sufficiently explored (the latter being a task, presumably, held for the next film).

OK, let’s dig in.

I was pleased that, contrary to how the film was being advertised, the big-four … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Luke Cage Season Two

November 26th, 2018
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For quite a while, I’d wished that the Marvel Netflix shows would come out at a faster pace.  We had to wait almost three years, for example, between the first two seasons of Jessica Jones.  (Though the character did appear in The Defenders in between.)  But weirdly, since the summer there’s been a bit of a glut: Luke Cage season two came out in June, Iron Fist season two came out in September, and Daredevil season three came out in October.  I wasn’t certain how I wanted to proceed.  I wasn’t in a huge rush to watch Luke Cage or Iron Fist, since I’d found both of their first seasons to be extremely mediocre.  (Click here for my review of Luke Cage season one, and here for my review of Iron Fist season one.)  But I was curious to see if they’d managed to course-correct for their second seasons.  (I avoid reviews of shows or movies I haven’t yet seen, but I’d seen headlines and it seemed that people felt that Iron Fist, at least, had improved significantly, so that was encouraging.)  The show I was most interested in seeing was the third season of Daredevil, and I debated whether I wanted to watch the shows out of order and jump ahead to that.  When news broke that both Luke Cage and Iron Fist had been cancelled before I’d started watching, I debated skipping both Luke Cage and Iron Fist altogether.  In the end, I decided to go in order and take a look at Luke Cage, and see how things went from there.  (Actually, the news that both Luke Cage and Iron Fist had been cancelled made it an easier decision to watch their respective second seasons, because I knew that I was making a finite commitment…!)

I don’t regret watching Luke Cage season two, but the show remains far more mediocre that it should be.  I can’t really recommend it.  It’s ludicrously slow.  The first five or six hours are particularly painful.  While I have found that most of the Netflix Marvel shows start off strong and then sag, Luke Cage season two was a rare one that did get better as the 13 episodes unfolded.  But there is still barely 5-6 hours of plot stretched out over 13 episodes.  The show suffers from an unfortunate tendency to give us the same type of scene, over and over and over again.  This results in a painful sense of wheel-spinning.  In those rather dreadful first five or six episodes, how many times did we get a version of these scenes:

* Luke Cage walks into the barber shop feeling discouraged, and someone gives him … [continued]

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Star Trek: Assignment: Eternity

After reading several recent Star Trek novels that played with the history of the Star Trek universe, and that involved Gary Seven and the mysterious Aegis agency for which he worked, I decided to go back to an earlier Star Trek novel that focused on the enigmatic Mr. Seven, Greg Cox’s Assignment: Eternity.

I have always loved Mr. Cox’s Eugenics Wars duology, two novels that attempted to merge the hints we got in various Star Trek episodes about the Eugenics Wars that gave rise to Khan, with the actual history of the 20th century as it unfolded in the decades after the Original Series.  (Our actual history caught up to the years in which this global Eugenics Wars conflict supposedly took place!  Mr. Cox’s brilliant novels suggested that the Eugenics Wars had happened under all of our noses, weaving the story of Khan and his conflicts with the actual history of those years.)  Those novels Eugenics Wars novels also involved Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln, who were introduced in the Original Series episode “Assignment: Earth”.  Mr. Cox had a great handle on those characters, and when I realized that he had written another book involving them, I decided to track it down.

In Assignment: Eternity, a tragedy involving an Aegis operative in the time of Captain Kirk and the Enterprise’s five-year mission leads Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln to travel forward in time to Kirk’s era.  But Kirk doesn’t trust the mysterious Seven, and with the Enterprise on an urgent mission of mercy, Kirk does not want to divert his ship at Seven’s whims.  But a crisis is brewing on the Roman side of the Neutral Zone…

This was a great book.  Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln (and Isis!) are terrific characters, and their one on-screen appearance left so much to be explored about all three of them.  It’s great to get to see these characters again, and as before Mr. Cox has a wonderful handle on their mannerisms.  It’s fun to see these characters, and also the mysterious Aegis (and props, by the way, to Howard Weinstein for coining that name in DC Comics’ original Star Trek comic-book series) explored in this story.  I’d wondered whether the Aegis was continuing to operate in Kirk’s era — apparently they are.  (I liked the note that the Aegis is no longer operating within the Federation, since apparently they have gotten onto the right track.  The Romulans, however…)

I enjoyed the way that Mr. Cox developed an entire story out of an offhand line of dialogue in “Assignment: Earth” about the Aegis having the ability to cloak a planet.  The idea of a hidden Aegis base within Romulan space is a … [continued]

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News Around the Net!

WOW — Vince Gilligan is reportedly working on a Breaking Bad movie?!  And it will apparently be set after the events of the series, telling the story of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)’s life after escaping from the Neo-Nazis in the series finale?!  That is huge news.  Will this ever actually happen?  Will this be a theatrical release or a TV-movie?  Stay tuned…

In other big news, Disney has announced that in addition to Jon Favreau’s upcoming Star Wars live-action TV show, The Mandalorian, they’re also working on a show featuring Cassian Andor, with Diego Luna reprising his role from Rogue One!  I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I’m super-excited for these upcoming Star Wars shows and their potential to further expand the Star Wars universe.  Diego Luna was phenomenal in Rogue One, and I’m excited to see more of him.  And I love the idea of a show set in the time period between Episode III and Episode IV.  The reign of the Empire is a ripe period for lots of great stories.  On the other hand — AARGH, yet ANOTHER Star Wars prequel??  Look, as I just wrote, I am all for new stories set between Episode III and IV, and I’d love to see Diego Luna pop up as Cassian in those stories.  But I think it’s a big mistake to make Cassian the main character of a new long-running TV show, considering we already saw him make the most important decisions of his life, and meet his end, in Rogue One.  This feels like yet another example of Star Wars eating its own tail and retreading old ground rather than moving forward and telling new stories with new characters.  I hope I am wrong about this!!  I am rooting for this to be great.

Speaking of TV show spin-offs from beloved movie franchises, Disney has just confirmed the rumored Loki TV show, with Tom Hiddleston reprising his role.  Here too, I am rooting for this to be great, but I’m a bit doubtful.  Mr. Hiddleston is amazing as Loki, but can the character really carry his own show?  Also, I’ve been burned before.  The Marvel CBS shows, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and then Agent Carter, were billed as in-continuity expansions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  But the quality was low (the two short seasons of Agent Carter were OK, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was terrible and quickly lost my interest), and the Marvel movie and TV folks quickly split due to internal disagreements, and the series’ didn’t wind up being connected to the movies in the ways fans had originally hoped.  The Netflix Marvel shows also began in continuity … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Smiley’s People (1982)

November 19th, 2018
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A few years ago, before the American film adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was released, I watched the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation, which starred Sir Alec Guinness.  I loved that miniseries, and quickly looked to track down the BBC’s follow-up from 1982, Smiley’s People.  But for whatever reason, life got in the way and I never wound up watching it.  A few months ago, I finally read le Carré’s original novel Smiley’s People, and afterwards I decided that the time had come to watch the BBC miniseries version.  I am sorry it took me so long to get to, as it is magnificent!

Set several years after the events of Tinker, Tailor, George Smiley (Alec Guinness) is once again on the outs with the circus (le Carré’s name for the British secret service).  But he’s called in when an old Russian general, who Smiley had handled back in the day, is shot in the face soon after calling the circus with an urgent demand to meet with “Max” (the name by which he knew Smiley), saying that he had information concerning “the Sandman” (which Smiley recognizes as a reference to the mysterious Russian spymaster — and Smiley’s nemesis — Karla).  As Smiley begins piecing together the chain of events that led to the general’s murder, he begins to suspect that he has last found the key to exposing and defeating the wily Karla.

This six-part miniseries is an extraordinarily faithful adaptation of le Carré’s novel.  Just like the BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, this adaptation takes great care to bring le Carré’s novel to the screen with a minimum of adjustments.  It’s fun — and rare! — to see such a faithful adaptation.  The six-episode format gives the miniseries the time to do so, without the necessity of condensing things to fit into the format of a two-hour movie.  It’s a testament to the strength of le Carré’s original novel that the story works so well on screen, without needing all sorts of changes.

The BBC’s adaptation of Smiley’s People is a wonderful follow-up to their previous version of Tinker, Tailer.  Sir Alec Guinness is back as Smiley, of course, but so are most of the rest of the important supporting cast-members.  It’s a great pleasure seeing these actors — and these characters — again!  I love how smoothly Smiley’s People and Tinker, Tailor fit together, due to this continuity of the cast.  I loved getting to see more of Anthony Bate as Oliver Lacon, Beryl Reid as Connie Sachs, Siân Phillips as Ann Smiley, and especially Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase.  I was particularly taken with Mr. Hepton’s work as Toby, and I … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Powers: Volume Five!

I am having a great time re-reading Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s wonderful comic book series: Powers!   Click here for my first overview of Powers, from back in 2010.  Click here for my review of Powers volumes 1 & 2, here for my review of Powers volume 3, and here for my review of Powers volume 4, Powers: Bureau. 

After the twelve-issue Powers: Bureau series, the series relaunched again with a new #1, beginning a fifth volume.  Powers volume five was great, and I enjoyed those issues thoroughly.  I look back fondly on the first two volumes of Powers, and perhaps the series no longer has the same spark of originality and surprise that those early runs did.  But the seven issues of Powers volume five were as much fun to read as ever.  Unfortunately, the series ran into publication problems with this volume, which was produced during the life and death of the Powers TV show.  After issue #8, the series vanished, right smack in the middle of a story.  I trust that Powers is not dead, and that Mr. Bendis & Mr. Oeming will return to Powers eventually, but this long wait is really trying my patience.

The new #1 kicked off with yet another new status quo for the series.  (I love how the series continually shifts and changes, as the characters live their lives and go through different shit.)  Deena is rich after writing a tell-all book (presumably exposing the secrets she learned at the end of Powers: Bureau — though wasn’t Deena already rich from the police settlement she received at the end of vol. 2?), while Walker is in hiding.

This new #1 also kicks off with another great Powers murder case: a new Power has murdered a famous billionaire along with everyone else on his yacht.  Who is this new Power, and why/how did s/he kill everyone on board that boat?  This is a great set-up for a new Powers story.

Mr. Oeming’s artwork is, again fantastic,  I’m running out of superlatives to use in praising his work.  Right away in issue #1 he’s dazzling, with his gorgeous rendition of the catastrophe on the yacht… and then an amazing double-page spread off the new Police HQ and all the crazy goings-on within.  And, wow, all eight issues of volume five boasted a spectacular cover.  Mr. Oeming has cemented himself as one of the best cover artists in the business.

I liked the new characters, such as the giddy female medical examiner and the stern new Police Chief, Conway.  I also enjoyed seeing familiar faces like Enki Sunrise and Captain Cross back in the story.  I really liked seeing Sunrise and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Star Trek Short Film “Calypso,” Written by Michael Chabon!

Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, has written a Star Trek short film!  It’s called “Calypso,” and I loved it.

“Calypso” is the second of four Star Trek shorts, called Short Treks, being released in the lead-up to Star Trek: Discovery’s second season.  The first, “Runaways,” focused on Discovery’s Cadet Tilly, and the other two also look to focus on Discovery characters.  But “Calypso,” although taking place on-board the Discovery, seems to be its own thing altogether.  Set a millennium further in the future than the 23rd-century-set Discovery, far beyond the future of any other Trek story we’ve seen before, “Calypso” tells the story of a man called Craft who is rescued from his battered escape pod by the Discovery’s now-sentient computer, who calls herself Zora.  The Discovery is empty of all life, and apparently has been for a thousand years.  Craft is fleeing a war and attempting to return home to his family.  “Calypso” tells the story of the bond this lonely refugee and the A.I. Zora form with one another.

I loved this short.  It’s a beautiful tale with two complex, interesting characters, a fascinating mystery backdrop, and intriguing mythological undertones.

It’s hugely exciting to see such an enormous talent as Michael Chabon writing for Star Trek.  In addition to writing this short, Mr. Chabon is apparently also on the writing staff of the recently-announced Captain Picard show, which will see Patrick Stewart reprise his iconic role!  This is very, very exciting.  As a Star Trek fan, I love seeing writers of this caliber involved with the franchise.  And “Calypso” shows that Mr. Chabon’s skills as a storyteller make him a great fit for Star Trek.  (The story credit for the short film is given to Michael Chabon and Sean Cochran.)

In less than eighteen minutes, “Calypso” does a great job of introducing and developing two entirely new characters.  Aldis Hodge plays the main character, Craft.  Mr. Hodge is fantastic.  He’s alone on-screen for most of the short’s run-time, but he easily commands the viewer’s attention.  Annabelle Wallis voices Zora, and she is equally great, bringing life and humanity to the (mostly) disembodied voice of this sentient computer.  Mr. Chabon skillfully brings these two characters to life, and makes us care deeply about them, in just the short eighteen-ish minutes of the short.

By setting “Calypso” a thousand years in Trek’s future, this short is pleasingly unburdened with any continuity, and thus is free to tell it’s own stand-alone story.  This works very well for this short film.  This is a character-study that can easily be enjoyed no matter one’s knowledge of Trek lore.  (This is … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Disenchantment Season One!

Disenchantment is the new Netflix animated series created by Matt Groening.  Mr. Groening, of course, created The Simpsons, as well as Futurama (a criminally undrappreciated sci-fi comedy that is one of my all time favorite shows).

Disenchantment is set in a medieval fantasy kingdom called Dreamland, and tells the story of a young princess named Bean.  Feisty and rebellious, Bean would far prefer to go out and have fun drinking with her pals than act like a respectable princess.  In the first episode, she befriends a runaway elf named Elfo, as well as a Luci, a tiny demon.  The three get up to a number of misadventures in these first ten episodes.

I really enjoyed this show!  Disenchantment represents Matt Groening’s first project with Netflix, but Disenchantment looks and feels like a classic Groening project.  The character design reflects the familiar Groening overbite look, and the show combines heavy joke density with a strong eye for characters — the familiar magic balance that made The Simpsons and Futurama so great.

I used the word familiar a few times in the previous paragraph, and for me there is a comfort in the way that Disenchantment embodies a tone and feel that is familiar to fans of Mr. Groening’s previous shows.  If it ain’t broke…!  But there is enough that is new and different in Disenchantment that this doesn’t feel to me like just more of the same.

I enjoyed the show’s fantasy setting.  Mr. Groening & Josh Weinstein (who co-developed the show) and their team mines a lot of comedy out of the way they play with the settings and character-types that one might expect in fantasy stories.  If you love Game of Thrones and other fantasy sagas, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Disenchantment.  but I think this show’s appeal can stretch far beyond the fantasy audience.  Any fans of comedy (and who isn’t?) will easily love this show.

The show looks gorgeous,  As I mentioned above, the character designs fit into the Groening oeuvre, but it’s fun seeing these Groening-style characters in a fantasy world.  The backgrounds have a lush, painted look.  The artwork is gorgeous, and the level of detail on the backgrounds and characters is impressive, beautifully fleshing out this world.

As one might expect from a Groening-led production, the cast is terrific.  Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson is perfect as Bean.  She’s so funny, with perfect comic timing, and she’s also able to bring a lot of warmth to Bean.  This is a character who misbehaves a lot, but Ms. Jacobson’s gentleness makes sure that the audience cares and roots for Bean.  That’s critical.  The secret of Mr. Groening’s shows have always been that, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black Season Six

I mostly enjoyed the season-long prison-riot storyline in Orange is the New Black season five.  But as I was watching it, as I noted in my review, I found myself repeatedly wondering how the show could ever return to any sort of normalcy following those events.  Season six presented creator and show-runner Jenji Kohan’s solution, as the show left behind the minimum security prison that had been its setting for the first five seasons in favor of a new maximum security location.

This was a strong choice.  I respect Ms. Kohan’s willingness to shake up this show in its middle age.  Season five had a completely new structure, with the whole season being set over the course of just a few days’ events.  And now season six has abandoned the familiar Litchfield minimum security prison and moved to an entirely new location.  I like these changes.  On the other hand, this new maximum security prison wound up being fairly similar in many respects to the minimum security facility, enabling the show to return to some more familiar rhythms after the season five riot story.

If my wife wasn’t such a fan if this show, I am not sure I would still be watching this deep into the series.  Orange is the New Black is a different type of show than what I usually watch, but I am continuing to enjoy it.  The show’s ensemble of actors is incredible, and when it can successfully balance the humor and the drama, it has a flavor that I dig.  Sometimes that balance can be off.  (For a show that often winds up in the “comedy” category at awards shows, this can be a tough show to watch at times.  Some of those fast shifts from comedic to tragic don’t quite work for me, and there are times I wish the show would pick a direction and either be more serious/dramatic or lean more heavily into the comedy.)  And sometimes I think the show can lose track of its huge cast, leaving some great characters on the sidelines for too long.  But all that being said, I have grown to be quite invested in the stories of this group of women (and a few men), and I am happy to continue to follow them.  This show features characters and stories that are usually ignored on TV, and I sort of love the show for that.

So, what worked here in season six?

I enjoyed the new setting, and I was pleased at the large number of new characters, guards and inmates, who were introduced.  This show already had an enormous ensemble, so adding in so mnay new characters was a risk, but … [continued]

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The Smiley Novels of John le Carré

November 5th, 2018
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I’ve enjoyed quite a number of movies, over the years, that were based on the novels of John le Carré.  Films such as The Tailor of Panama, The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, and, of course, the terrific adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I also watched and loved the 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, starring Sir Alec Guinness.  For a while now, I have been interested in diving into le Carré’s novels, and I decided to focus on his Smiley books.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold — I started with this relatively short novel, and it was a good place to start.  The cover of the edition I read identified this as a Smiley novel, but that’s not really the case, as Smiley is barely in the book.  Instead, the novel focuses on a broken-down spy named Alec Leamas, recruited by Smiley and Control for an undercover mission in divided Berlin.  This is a great, taut little Cold War thriller.  The plot is complex, but the novel’s short length prevents things from ever getting bogged down, and le Carré’s plot zips along well.  The novel is dripping with the tough, dirty, no-happy-endings tone that I expected from le Carré, based on the films I’d seen adapted from his work.  The spies in le Carré’s novels are not glamorous James Bond types.  No, these spies are very fallible, very mortal human beings.  There are no elaborate action sequences, mostly just comversations, and occasional violence, in small, closed rooms.  I don’t really know if le Carré’s stories are actually realistic, but they certainly feel realistic.  I was bummed that there wasn’t much Smiley in this book, but Leamas was so compelling a main character that I didn’t mind.  My only real complaint was that the novel’s ending was very abrupt, and rather confusing.  I had to re-read those final few pages several times, in order to suss out exactly what happened.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — I moved on to le Carré’s most famous novel, the first of his “Karla trilogy,” in which le Carré’s most famous character, aging spymaster George Smiley, matches wits with his Russian counterpart, Karla.  I loved this book!  It was everything I’d hoped it would be.  Reading the novel, I was impressed by how faithful both adaptations of it had been.  Somehow, the two hour film adaptation managed to fit most everything important from the book in… while the Alec Guinness BBC miniseries was almost a page-for-page adaptation.  Wow!

There is a reason this story has been so influential in the decades since it was published.  It’s a near-perfect spy tale, depicting the hunt for a mole deep inside … [continued]

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Catching Up With Powers: Bureau

Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s comic book series Powers has been, since it’s inception way back in 2000, one of my very favorite comics.  The series’ hook is fiendishly simple: it’s the story of cops in a world of superheroes.  Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim are homicide detectives who investigate murders that are connected to Powers — that is, super-powered people — either the death of a Power, or the death of a normal human being at the hands of a Power.

Mr. Bendis’ mastery of dialogue combined with Mr. Oeming’s gorgeously stylized artwork caught any interest immediately from issue #1, and I have loved the series ever since.  It’s helped that, ever few years, Mr. Bendis and Mr. Oeming like to turn over the applecart of their series and transform the status quo.  This keeps the book feeling alive and vibrant, as opposed to so many other major long-running comic book series, where the characters can feel as if they’re treading water.

I’ve written about Powers before.  My first look at the series was here, back in 2010.  My review of the first two runs of Powers can be found here.  My review of Powers volume three, which ran from 2009 to 2011, is here.  Powers also was adapted for TV, running for two seasons on the Sony Playstation Network.  I eagerly watched the first season, but was a bit let down.  Nevertheless, I wanted to watch season two, but somehow I never quite got around to it.  I still very much intend to watch those episodes someday.

Powers was unfortunately not included in the recent launch and re-launch of several creator-owned books by Mr. Bendis after his move from Marvel to DC.  This is particularly a shame because the previous run of Powers, published by Marvel’s Icon imprint, cut off in the middle of a story.  I really hope this gets finished someday!

After reading these new series Mr. Bendis has recently launched at DC (Pearl and Cover, as well as continuations of Scarlet and The United States of Murder, Inc. — all four of which, by the way, are terrific and well worth your time), I decided to dig back into Powers and reread the series from the beginning.  I was blown away all over again.  I love this series.

Since I’d previously written about Powers volumes 1-3, I thought I’d pick things up with my thoughts on Powers volume four — Powers: Bureau.  These 12 issues were published from 2013-2014.

As I wrote in my previous review, I thought Powers volume 3 was the weakest point of the series so far.  Mr. Oeming’s usually spectacular artwork seemed rushed … [continued]