Unordered List

Sunday 28 December 2014

Mockingjay and Costume Design: Real or not Real?

In terms of costume design, first two Hunger Games movies never quite lived up to my expectations. It wasn't that the costumes were bad -- far from it -- but they seemed far too homogeneous. Given free rein to create the most outlandish designs imaginable, the Capitol fashjons were disappointingly conservative and homogeneous.

Mockingjay, Part 1 was another matter entirely. With no Hunger Games, Capitol makeovers, or District 12, the story focused on Panem's growing revolution, shown through the eyes of the propaganda war between the Capitol and District 13. Before the film even came out, YouTube propaganda clips began to illustrate the calculated nature of President Snow's public image.

Mockingjay flipped the cliché of dark and light, with the villainous President Snow surrounding himself with pure white to match his signature white roses. His brainwashed prisoners Peeta (dressed in an uncharacteristically stiff suit and a painful-looking white paper collar) and Johanna presented a united front, fitting in with Snow's clean, luxurious aesthetic. Meanwhile Katniss, daughter of coal miners, wears black body armour and fatigues.

In the earlier films, this kind of contrast was meant to highlight Katniss's salt-of-the-earth nature with Snow's obsessively controlled image, but this time it's more complex. Katniss may look more practical and less "styled" than Snow and his entourage, but that's because her District 13 stylists decided this was the best way to market her to the rebels. Her Mockingjay armor (in real life, modeled off a Japanese archery breastplate) was designed for her by Cinna, and continues the asymmetrical theme of previous outfits she wore to public appearances.

Thursday 18 December 2014

Posts from elsewhere: Captain America, Constantine, and Agents of SHIELD.

I hope to have enough time for another costume design post by the end of the year, but in the meantime, here are some other things you may enjoy!

End-of-year guest post at the Book Smugglers blog.

Each year the Book Smugglers invite various authors and bloggers to write guests posts during the holiday period, and this year I was one of them! Most people discuss and recommend books from the past year (it's a book blog, after all), but I decided to talk about a single movie: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Obvs.

While CATWS wasn't the best film I saw in 2014 -- or even my "favorite," technically speaking -- it's certainly the one I wrote about the most. I love this movie and its fandom, and this post explains why (along with a bunch of fanfic and art recommendations).

Why NBC's Constantine failed to live up to its comic book origins

I haven't decided yet whether to continue writing about Constantine here. It doesn't feel particularly constructive to keep writing negative reviews of a mediocre show, so I may just leave it until the season finale. Constantine has improved a little over the past couple of episodes, but not enough that I actually care about it being renewed or not. Hellblazer is one of my favourite comics, and this show is just... disappointing.

"Previously on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." podcast

I co-host a weekly Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. podcast over at Film Divider! We're now up to season 2, episode 8. Catch up here!

A Hero at the End of the World, by Erin Claiborne

Reminder that this book is awesome and you ought to be reading it! Find out more here.

Friday 5 December 2014

The three main problems with NBC's 'Constantine.'

After six episodes, Constantine has graduated past "unwatchably bad" and settled into a network TV formula. It's better than it was at the start, but it's definitely not good.

Aside from obvious issues like clunky dialogue, Constantine has three serious ongoing problems:
  1. It's virtually indistinguishable from other genre shows of the same type, ie Supernatural.
  2. Both of the supporting characters, Chas and Zed, are completely pointless.
  3. It's often racist.
There's no better example of problem #1 than last week's episode, "Rage of Caliban." The plot was an unimaginative spin on "young child possessed by demons" horror movie tropes, practically begging for some kind of genre-savvy humor. It even takes place on Halloween, and the guest characters are a suburban family so bland they'd probably be rejected from a cereal commercial for being too generic.

Out of six episodes, only two have really felt individual to this show: "The Devil's Vinyl" (a reasonably interesting riff on the urban legend of a blues musician selling his soul to the devil) and "A Feast of Friends", which was adapted from Hellblazer #1 and had a satisfyingly unpleasant ending.

Every other episode is either painfully predictable, or reliant on familiar genre cliches. No wonder Constantine's ratings are dropping: It's just retreading the same ground that Supernatural has been covering for the past decade, along with a handful others like Grimm, Sleepy Hollow, and Teen Wolf. Constantine has failed to carve out a niche of its own.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

READ THIS BOOK: A Hero at the End of the World

This is a bit of a departure from my usual topics, but today marks the publishing date of one of THE MOST EXCITING BOOKS of my entire life. It's called A Hero at the End of the World and it's written by Erin Claiborne -- a very talented author who has been writing fanfic for years, and is now branching out into original fiction for the first time. This book is absolutely laugh-out-loud funny, a kind of Douglas Adams-esque satire on young adult fantasy tropes: A story about a Chosen One character who fails to live up to expectations.

A Hero at the End of the World is published by Big Bang Press, a small press I helped launch last year. It's specifically dedicated to publishing original novels by fanfic writers, and Hero is the first. And it's getting SUCH GOOD REVIEWS, I'm so excited! Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred recommendation (which is notoriously unusual for a debut novel), and the Book Smugglers (a popular YA/fantasy book review blog) rated it "Excellent." Here's the plot summary:
"According to prophecy, 17-year-old Ewan Mao is destined to kill the evil tyrant who has been terrorizing Britain for as long as he can remember. But when Ewan chickens out and his best friend Oliver Abrams defeats the villain instead, Ewan’s bright future crumbles before his eyes. 
Five years later, Ewan is living at home and working in a coffee shop while Oliver has a job in the government’s Serious Magical Crimes Agency. They haven’t spoken since they were teenagers, but a routine investigation leads Oliver and his partner, Sophie Stewart, to uncover a powerful cult… one that has drawn Ewan into a plot to end the world."

One of the best things about Big Bang Press is the amount of freedom we have. A Hero at the End of the World is a mainstream teen fantasy novel with a diverse cast including queer characters and people of colour in the lead roles. It's written by an author who is proud of her background as a fanfic writer, and published by people who love fandom and want to promote the work of creators who come from the fanfic and fanart communities. (And did I mention that this book was illustrated by fanartist Jade Liebes? Her art is amazing!)

I hope some of you guys decide to check this book out! Erin is a great writer, and we've put a lot of hard work into making this the best book it can be. For more info, please check out the Big Bang Press website, Tumblr or Twitter accounts! Or you can just can order a copy in paperback or ebook format right now. :D

Sunday 9 November 2014

Interstellar, costume design, and the difficulties of "realistic" visual worldbuilding.

Interstellar is one of those movies where the costume design is almost invisible, which is part of what makes it so interesting. The simplest explanation is that the visual style is purposefully "realistic" and avoids any kind of futurism... which in itself is unrealistic. A conundrum, right? Technically, it doesn't make sense for people 50-100 years in the future to wear the same clothes as people in 2014. But from the perspective of a filmmaker who wants his apocalyptic sci-fi film to be taken seriously, this aesthetic decision makes perfect sense.

The earthbound setting of Interstellar is a classic American fantasy: a manly farmer hero, raising his kids in a bleak, rural landscape. Despite the film's image as a deep and thoughtful space epic, it still relies on the familiar old Hollywood scenario of a messianic white American dude being the one person who can save mankind. (And yes, I know his daughter does the actual saving, but this is very much a film about Cooper, not Murphy.) Underdog heroes NASA and Matthew McConaughey save humanity while the rest of the world is apparently helpless. Politically and socially, this is a tired old trope, but it aligns well with the kind of generic hero that can be inserted into a complex movie with minimal exposition. Cooper is the kind of guy who, for better or worse, is perceived as "universal." Luckily, McConaughey's performance was brilliant.

So here we have Coop and his kids, looking both relatable and realistic in their jeans and hoodies. This is the difference between a meticulously researched film that is actually realistic, and a film whose worldbuilding gives the appearance of realism, and therefore does not jolt viewers out of their comfort zone. On the whole, the appearance of realism tends to be the better choice. We're watching fiction, after all.

Sunday 2 November 2014

Constantine: "The Darkness Beneath"

Previously: Constantine, "Non Est Asylum"

If you're still on the fence about watching this week's Constantine, here's a line that tells you everything you need to know: "There's nothing blacker than gypsy magic."

Yes, this episode hinged on the kind of racist stereotype that I'm surprised is even allowed on TV in 2014. Friends, this was not a pleasant hour of television.
In order to introduce the new female lead Zed, episode 2 saw Constantine visit a Pennsylvania mining town without his regular (and so far pointless) sidekick Chas. This town had a problem with vengeful spirits killing off local miners, and because Constantine is indistinguishable from Supernatural, our hero traveled across America to solve their problem by interrogating a bunch of angry men and befriending a sexy yet mysterious lady. That's Zed, by the way. We still don't know much about her except that she was probably described as "tempestuous" in the casting call.

The victim in the pre-credits scene was a mean drunk husband who burned to death in the shower. After various unimaginative demonic shenanigans, we learn that his wife is the one who brought the mine monsters into town, and Constantine's solution is to... bring her (implicitly) abusive husband back to drag her down to Hell. Oh, and she's a "Romani girl," hence the godawful "gypsy magic" line I quoted above. To make matters worse, this tired old stereotype was completely unnecessary to the situation at hand, and could've been removed without making any difference to the plot.
The most frustrating thing with this episode was how easily they could've made it better. It was written by the creator of Farscape, a delightfully weird show with its fair share of interesting female characters. But this episode wasn't just poorly written, it was a paint-by-numbers example of generic supernatural/mystery TV. What makes this all the more baffling is that it's adapted from a comic that actually does have some personality, and both of the showrunners are supposedly Hellblazer fans. I'm yet to see much evidence that anyone in this show has gone beyond reading the Hellblazer Wikipedia page, though.

Sunday 26 October 2014

NBC Constantine: "Non Est Asylum"

I'm a big Hellblazer fan, so I've been looking forward to NBC's Constantine with trepidation. Is it going to be any good? Well, no. Hellblazer is not well suited to the formulas and restrictions of US network television. But I'm a glutton for punishment, so I'm going to keep watching.

Predictably, I wasn't exactly blown away by the pilot episode's combination of stilted exposition and occult horror cliches. That being said, a pilot is a pilot is a pilot. It's entirely possible that this show will improve later on. In the meantime, I'm gonna do one of the worst things a TV critic can do: over-analyse a show based on its inevitably simplistic first episode.

We begin with an origin story that will be familiar to Hellblazer fans: John Constantine in a mental hospital. He allowed a young girl to be killed and dragged to Hell by a demon, so now he feels bad. And for whatever reason, that leads to electric shock treatment. Everything else in the episode will feel familiar even to new viewers, thanks to its solid basis in cliché. Daddy issues, a Dark Past, and a young woman (Liv) who needs the protagonist's help -- it's all there, and it all progresses more or less as expected.
Having saved the girl and confronted his literal/figurative demons, Constantine ends the episode with an embarrassing voiceover monologue while wandering the city at night. So noir. "I'm the one who steps from the shadows, all trenchcoat and arrogance," he says, like a 14-year-old boy trying to sound cool. Not exactly Shakespeare, but it adheres to my expectations for mainstream US drama pilots, which generally consist of characters explaining things to each other in very plain terms.

The biggest disappointment was that they hired the excellent Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, Doomsday) to direct an episode that could never be much above mediocre. I hope he comes back later in the series, to work on something a little more interesting. He's a perfect choice for this show, and honestly they need all the help they can get.

Friday 10 October 2014

Schedule for Seattle Geek Girl Con this weekend

I’m in Seattle for Geek Girl Con this weekend! I’m doing two panels and a talk about superhero costumes — please come along! :D Here’s my schedule. (The superhero costume design talk is probably the most relevant to people who read this blog: 3pm on Sunday in room LL2.)
3pm: “21st Century Boys: Slash in the Mainstream”
“Today, male/male slash is the predominant form of ‘shipping in online fandom. Growth of slash and femslash has spawned new problems: exploitation of ‘shipping by media; the push to make fanfic “publishable”; and the ongoing struggle to translate fandom’s feminism, diversity, and push for queer pairings into increased media representation.”
5pm: “Fandom and the Media”
This panel is basically me and several other fandom/geek culture journalists (Lauren Orsini, Aja Romano, Versha Sharma, Lisa Granshaw and Amanda Brennan) discussing our experiences in the field, and talking about what it’s like to report on fandom news when you yourself are a fan.
3pm: “Evolution of the Superhero Movie Costume”
I’m doing a 45-minute talk about how superhero movie costumes have developed over the years, and why. If you like my blog posts about superhero movies, hopefully you’ll enjoy this! 

Sunday 5 October 2014

Filmoria podcast on Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I recently recorded a podcast about Captain America: The Winter Soldier for Filmoria, along with Rebecca Pahle of the Mary Sue, and Grace Duffy and Lesley Coffin, both of Filmoria. Regular HelloTailor readers may already have read quite enough about this movie, but on the off-chance that you're still interested, you can listen to the podcast here on Soundcloud! I'm still fascinated by this movie, and we all had a great time discussing it at length. :D

Monday 22 September 2014

Costuming and Design in Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- Nick Fury, Black Widow, and S.H.I.E.L.D.

Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the gritty superhero we never knew we wanted.
Part 2: HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon. 
Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes.
Part 5: Worldbuilding in the MCU
Part 6: Costuming and design: Steve & Bucky.

People love to namecheck spandex when talking about superhero costumes, but as far as I recall there's no spandex to be seen anywhere in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Cap's costume toned down to a subtle navy blue for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the most comicbook-looking character we see is Nick Fury.

With each new appearance, I've grown to love Nick Fury's costumes more and more. Not just because they look cool, but because of the internal logic of why he dresses like that. To understand what I'm getting at here, take a moment to think about S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, and Fury's role within the organization.

In The Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and other Marvel movies, S.H.I.E.L.D. is portrayed as a quasi-governmental Men in Black organization. It's populated by military types, agents like Coulson, jumpsuit-wearing Helicarrier personnel, and a smattering of individuals like Black Widow and Hawkeye. Fury is in charge, with Maria Hill as the deputy director and Alexander Pierce as his immediate superior, a kind of liaison between S.H.I.E.L.D. and various world governments.

Up until now Fury was the authority figure, a character who swoops in and solves problems or tells the heroes what to do. He was basically a trigger-happy, morally ambiguous Gandalf figure.

CATWS brought in a much-needed new dimension of fallibility to Nick Fury, as well as showing him inside S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters for the first time. Alexander Pierce, in his old-fashioned but stylish three-piece suits, both fits in with those surroundings and represents the political establishment. Meanwhile Fury, with his ostentatious black leather outfits, does not exactly seem like he belongs in a grey office building.

There's a certain internal consistency to the costumes at S.H.I.E.L.D., with Maria Hill and most of the Helicarrier personnel wearing navy blue uniforms (the same shade as Cap's new uniform and his nylon biker jacket in this movie, incidentally), and characters like Coulson and Agent 13 wearing subdued businesswear.

Nick Fury does not fall into either category. He's sure as hell not wearing normal clothes that could blend into his surroundings, and I highly doubt that his outfits adhere to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s official uniform. Instead, I can only describe his favourite costume as some kind of supervillain-themed black leather cosplay outfit.

Yes, Nick Fury is a goth.

Sunday 31 August 2014

Doctor Who: The Doctor's new outfit, and some thoughts on female companions and costume design.

The unveiling of a new Doctor Who costume is a lot like a superhero rebranding -- or a new collection by an established fashion label. It's a combined attempt to get people excited about innovation, while reassuring everyone that not too much has changed. And so, the BBC announced Capaldi's new costume by talking about how it blends elements of old and new -- for example, the visual callback to John Pertwee's costume.

Thanks to the age gap between Capaldi and Matt Smith, the whole "old vs. new" thing is specifically relevant to this regeneration. Smith was dressed in an almost grandfatherly way (tweed, bow tie and braces), but that had the side-effect of making him look like a hipster. This was problematic because the Doctor's costume should never resemble a current fashion trend.

If you can look at the Doctor and say, "That guy looks like he should be hanging out in a vintage shoe shop in 21st century Hackney," then it detracts from his image as an alien -- although of course, if you make him look too alien then you can't take him seriously. Capaldi's costume sidesteps this issue by being extremely simple and pared-down, which I enjoy a great deal (not least because I want to wear the entire outfit myself).

Looking at Clara and the Doctor in the first episode of season 8, the similarities between their two outfits are obvious. He's wearing a white shirt with a prominent collar and no tie, in a more severe version of Clara's lace collar. Then there's the black/white/red color palette, and the fact that he's wearing a cardigan rather than a waistcoat underneath his jacket. If you wanted, you could probably even stretch to linking Clara's tartan skirt to the fact that Twelve has a Scottish accent.

To me, this link between the Doctor and Clara's clothes is a clear sign that intentionally or otherwise, he imprinted on her after regenerating. (Although if you look at Clara's cardigan, you'll see that it's patterned with bow ties -- a callback to Eleven's signature accessory. She's still looking back to the Doctor's previous incarnation, whereas the new Doctor is calling out for her attention.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Interview: "Snowpiercer" costume designer Catherine George.

Following my review of Snowpiercer, I originally intended to write a post discussing the film's very striking costumes. But after looking back at some photos and clips, I was struck by how much more I wanted to learn about the process behind this film's visual design. Each section of the train had such a strong theme (filth and poverty in Tail Section; delusionally wholesome springtime pastels in the school car; opulence and luxury towards the front of the train), but nevertheless felt grounded in reality.

Happily, costume designer Catherine George agreed to an interview about her work on the film. She discussed the inspiration behind Snowpiercer's most memorable costumes, and what it was like to work with director Bong Joon-Ho and a cast including Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton.

HelloTailor: To begin with, how did first you get involved with Snowpiercer? The combination of Korean and English-language production made me curious about how you came to work on the film.

Catherine George: Director Bong had seen We Need To Talk About Kevin at Cannes in 2011, when he was on the jury, and he liked how the costumes looked. They sent me the script a couple of months later and I Skyped with Bong and and his producer Dooho because they were already in Prague prepping [for Snowpiercer]. Before I knew it, I was on a plane to Prague. Bong also met with Tilda Swinton at Cannes as they were both fans of each other’s work, and he decided to cast her as Mason -- a role that was originally written as a man.

[You can read more about the costumes of We Need To Talk About Kevin in this article by Clothes On Film.]

HelloTailor: How much did you consider the idea of finite resources onboard the train? In the Tail Section, people were wearing whatever rags they had left after 17 years. I was wondering what kind of thought went into the idea of a world where you can't really obtain new materials for new clothes. Was this a major concern when you were designing the overall look of each train car?

CG: Yes, we talked a lot about how long the passengers had been on the train, where they’d come from, what random materials they would use to fashion practical clothing. In the Tail Section, the aging and distressing was quite heavy and their clothes were made of different parts of garments pieced together. They had to improvise with whatever materials they could find. Curtis' coat had layer upon layer of repairs.

The character Painter wore a poncho made from old moving blankets. He also wore a helmet with a lantern left over from the train utility-wear, to enable him to draw in his cage at night.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Summer convention schedule: LonCon3 and Nine Worlds.

I'm going to be at two conventions in August, both in London! The first is Nine Worlds (A.K.A. London Geekfest), a really fun-looking media and fan-culture convention on August 8-10. The second is LonCon3, the World Science Fiction Convention, August 14-18.

I'll be on several panels at each con, and while I suspect my Nine Worlds schedule is probably more relevant to this blog's audience than my WorldCon panels, hopefully some of you guys will be there anyway! Here are the panels I'll be participating in, if any of you are gonna be at WorldCon or Nine Worlds next month. :)

Nine Worlds
All of my panels at Nine Worlds are somewhere called "County B," which I assume will make more sense once we're actually at the convention center.

22.15 - 23.30, The Fanvid Phenomenon. I love fanvids, and am looking forward to learning more about the creative side of them from some actual fanvidders on this panel!

22.15 - 23.30, Collaborative Fanworks. A couple of months ago I contributed to a Captain America fanfic written and drawn alongside several other fans, called Steve Rogers at 100: Celebrating Captain America on Film. It tells the story of various different (nonexistent) Captain America movie adaptations set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and has somehow led to me being on this convention panel about creativity and collaboration in fandom. IDEK, you guys. IDEK.

09.00 - 09.45, Remixing the remix: The etiquette of transforming fanworks. This is a panel about remix culture within fandom, but since it's at 9am, I have no idea what it will be like. Hopefully I'll be awake and coherent enough to not make an idiot of myself, anyway.

13.30 - 14.45, Fashion, Costume and Inspiring Fans: three talks on fashion and costume. I'm doing a talk on movie costume design! This is undoubtedly the thing HelloTailor readers will be most interested in, and I'd really love it if any of you decided to show up. :)

17.00 - 18.15, Legitimacy and Monetization of Fandom. This is a really interesting topic for me because I write a lot about the media campaigns behind big-budget franchises like The Hunger Games and Marvel, which leverage the power of fandom to help publicise their movies. However, I'm also the managing editor of a publishing company that was crowdfunded by the fan community, so I have a personal perspective of the indie side of things. One of our authors, Erin Claiborne, will be on this panel too, as well as a couple of other panels throughout the convention. You'll be hearing more about her soon because her book is coming out this Autumn!

I know far fewer people at WorldCon than at Nine Worlds, so feel free to contact me (Twitter @Hello_Tailor is probably easiest) if you want to meet up or recommend a particular event!

18.00 - 19.00, Capital Suite 7+12, The Superhero-Industrial Complex. REALLY psyched for this panel, where we'll be discussing Marvel's success with the mega-franchise model of releasing multiple movies set in the same universe.

15.00, Producer and Celebrity Relationships with Fans. This is a discussion panel and Q&A on the topic of actors, creators and celebrities breaking the so-called fourth wall between fans and celebrities.

12:00 - 13:30, Capital Suite 3, Commercializing Fans. Another panel where I'll be appearing in my capacity as managing editor of Big Bang Press, discussing the intersection of fandom and business.

11:00 - 12:00, Capital Suite 16, The Internet and the Evolution of Fan Communities.

I'll also be appearing at GeekGirlCon in October, in Seattle. But I'll post more about that in a couple of months, once I know my schedule!

Thursday 3 July 2014


Miraculously, Snowpiercer lived up to the many months of anticipation I've experienced since it was released elsewhere. My friends, I have been waiting a long time for this movie.

Every component part of Snowpiercer was another thing that I love to see in blockbuster entertainment. I don't just mean in the shallow, tropey sense that I love dystopian sci-fi, but in the sense that Snowpiercer is a straightforward adventure story that doesn't play to the lowest common denominator. It's simple, but it's not stupid. Its characters are people, there aren't any shitty moments of casual sexism or racism, and it's structured around a piece of interesting, thoughtful political symbolism that you could probably still ignore if you just want to watch Chris Evans Save The Day. 
A friend of mine had issues with the implausibility of Snowpiercer's setting, but I found it pretty easy to accept on its own terms. Like the contrived scenario in Sunshine (another sadly rare example of a good Chris Evans film), the plausibility of the premise was almost meaningless. No, you can't reignite the sun with a weaponized disco ball rocketship, Sunshine. No, it isn't feasible for an entire civilisation to spend 17 years in a perpetually moving train, Snowpiercer. But there were plenty of intentionally surreal touches there to remind us that director Bong Joon-Ho was well aware that the setting wasn't "realistic.". More importantly, the underlying metaphor was clear: Crash the train and risk killing everyone to gain freedom for a few, or maintain the horrifying status quo so that more people can survive in undeserved squalor.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Article link roundup + BBC radio tomorrow!

Sorry I haven't posted the final part of my Captain America: The Winter Soldier costume review! I've been too busy for the past couple of weeks, but I should have time to write it soon. In the meantime, here's some other stuff.

BBC Radio: I'm going to be on BBC Radio Scotland's Culture Studio show on Thursday afternoon, talking about fan culture. I'll be live on air at about 3.30pm GMT+1, but if you tune in from the start of the show you'll hear some discussion of X-Men: Days of Future Past, and an interview with screenwriter Simon Kinberg. You can find the episode here on the BBC website, and I think you can listen online elsewhere with sites like Tunein.

Recent articles: A few of my recent Daily Dot articles may be of interest to you guys. First, the Ultimate Guide to Sebastian Stan. Second, my post-mortem of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season finale. Finally, my thoughts on the ultra-gothic new TV series Penny Dreadful, which I loved.

Fanfic: This is something of a departure from the kind of stuff I usually post on this blog, but I recently co-wrote a Captain America fanfic that takes the form of discussion, reviews and commentary on the various (fictional) Captain America movies that might actually have been made in the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself.

It's called "Steve Rogers at 100: Celebrating Captain America on Film," and I don't think it's too odious for me to say I LOVE THIS THING because 90% of it was written by other (much funnier) people. In particular, I love the parody of a slightly pretentious Sight & Sound article about a purposefully tragic French art film about Steve Rogers and the Howling Commandos. Personally, I stuck to my strengths and wrote a HelloTailor-style review of a terrible 1980s action movie called Captain America and the Red Skull: a hilarious fiasco from start to finish. You can see the poster above, created by the very talented Neenya.

X-Men: I'll write about X-Men: Days of Future Past once I've seen it, but until then, here's a link to my costume reviews of X-Men: First Class.

Wednesday 30 April 2014

Costuming and Design in Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- Steve & Bucky.

Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the gritty superhero we never knew we wanted.
Part 2: HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon. 
Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes.
Part 5: Worldbuilding in the MCU.

The decision to set CATWS in Washington DC was a big departure from the visuals of the first Captain America movie. Compared to the sepia-toned beauty of The First Avenger, Steve's new life looks depressingly drab and grey. The car chases churn through DC traffic on concrete freeways, SHIELD headquarters looks like a cross between a multi-storey car park and an office block, and the Helicarriers are all cold, smooth glass and metal. The only hint of the warm colour-scheme of Steve's youth is when he goes to visit Sam Wilson at the VA, a comforting moment among the corporate cleanliness of the rest of DC.

Each Avengers movie has its own aesthetic, with Iron Man flitting between palaces of high-tech luxury, Thor living in a world of gold embossed armour and faux-historical alien weirdness, and Cap spending the entirety of his first movie surrounded by 1940s grime. CATWS was definitely the ugliest instalment in the franchise, which kind of worked in its favour because it highlighted Steve Rogers' isolation in 21st century DC.

Sunday 27 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Part 5 -- Worldbuilding in the MCU.

Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the gritty superhero we never knew we wanted.
Part 2: HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon. 
Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes.

With a movie of this scale, I tend to fixate on what happens after the end credits roll. Not in an "I'm really looking forward to Sebastian Stan crying in the sequel!" way (although obviously that's a given), but in the sense of what impact Steve Rogers' actions will have on the rest of the world. I find it disappointing sequels focus purely on character development while hitting the reset button on the rest of the universe, as if the only people effected by a deadly supervillain/apocalypse are the hero and supporting cast. Luckily, the scope of the MCU gives us a better chance to see how the world changes and develops over time.

People love to point out the little details that link Marvel movies together, like Sitwell's offhand mention of Doctor Strange. But to be honest, that type of in-universe worldbuilding is pretty easy. The MCU's real strength is the way it portrays a world with a believable history and contemporary culture, rather than following the more familiar method of plopping a superhero into a city with no hints of influence from the outside world.

From the first Iron Man movie onwards, the existence of superheroes is something that has directly influenced everyday life in the MCU, from the legal ramifications of Tony Stark's unlicensed "prosthesis" to the way he markets himself as a celebrity hero, to his decision to move from weapons manufacturing to clean energy and robotics. By the time we reach Avengers, we've seen more than a glimpse of how the rest of the world is changing as a result. Agents of SHIELD was a stroke of genius because it shares more of the everyday nuts-and-bolts stuff that we're ever going to see in the actual movies. (Note to anyone who stopped watching after the first few episodes: AoS is so good now. Persevere.)

Captain America is the strongest strand in this worldbuilding web because in the MCU, he was the first publicly recognised superhero. He provides a historical link between the Red Skull in the 1940s, and the present-day world of SHIELD and the Avengers. Fittingly, CATWS was the first movie to give us a truly in-depth look at the non-superheroic side of the MCU.

Friday 11 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes

Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the gritty superhero we never knew we wanted.
Part 2: HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon.

Bucky's role in this movie is the point where Marvel nerd and non-nerd audiences part ways. Going by the reactions I've seen from film critics and my non-fan friends, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was an entertaining popcorn flick that probably should've had more dialogue and fewer action sequences. But if you go by Captain America fandom, EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS FILM WAS AGONY AND LIFE IS A WORTHLESS HELLSCAPE UNTIL STEVE AND BUCKY CAN BE TOGETHER AGAIN.

Needless to say, I fall into the latter camp. If you want to preserve the illusion of this blog as an impartial source of pop culture analysis, stop reading this post and wait for the next part of the review, because I have A Lot Of Feelings about Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.

Marvel Studios movies are very good at making everything equally engaging for new and old audiences alike, but I suspect that Winter Soldier was their first stumbling block. CATWS has inspired an overwhelmingly positive audience response so I wouldn't describe this issue as a "failure," but there's clearly a gap between people who came into the movie already invested in Bucky Barnes, and people who didn't. It's kind of like if someone made a movie about Sherlock Holmes' return from the dead, but half the audience were only familiar with Watson and therefore didn't understand why everyone was freaking out over the dead guy who reappeared an hour and a half into the movie.

I saw several reviews that pointed out the Winter Soldier had very little screentime for a title character -- in fact, that the film more or less could've stood up without him. And from a plot perspective, I suppose it could. They could've swapped him with any old assassin character, and the plot would've worked out just fine. Except this fails to take into account the fact that Bucky is the emotional core of the Captain America story thus far. To fully understand this, we need to go right back to the beginning of the first movie, when Steve and Bucky were growing up together in Brooklyn.

Monday 7 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier review, Part 3 -- Black Widow & Falcon

Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the gritty superhero we never knew we wanted.
Part 2: Hydra, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.

Giving CATWS an ensemble cast was a smart decision. Not only does it make sense to position Steve Rogers as a team leader rather than a solo hero, but it avoids the tired formula of superhero + love interest + villain, plus supporting cast of sidekicks and parental figures. Steve may still take the central role, but characters like Nick Fury and Black Widow certainly don't fall into any of those categories.

As Marvel Studios slowly begins to explore other genres (Thor as an operatic fantasy, Guardians of the Galaxy as a space epic), they can branch out into building characters with more depth and ambiguity than the traditional superhero formula allows.

I already discussed this in the first part of my review, but basically it would've been a mistake to try and build a typical 21st century superhero story around Steve Rogers. After all, his "superpowers" pretty much boil down to enhanced strength and healing abilities. There are already so many action movies about supposedly normal humans performing superhuman stunts (think of John McClane's progression from middle-aged everyman in Die Hard to indestructible teflon droid in Live Free or Die Hard) that Cap's physical strength runs the risk of seeming unimpressive when compared to, say, Iron Man.

Instead, this movie is more about the importance of teamwork and good leadership: a perfect development for a character who went from standing up to schoolyard bullies to selling American military propaganda to leading a close-knit group of commandos into Nazi-occupied Europe. Captain America's image as a hero is more about personality and symbolism than it is about Steve Rogers' ability to fall 50 feet without breaking his knees. 

Black Widow

There are far too many misconceptions about Black Widow's role in the Avengers franchise, either caused by people's existing prejudices (i.e. the assumption that any woman in a "catsuit" is just there for sex appeal), or because her characterization is subtle when compared to her larger-than-life superhero counterparts. Characters like Tony Stark and Falcon are easy to understand on a superficial level, but Black Widow tends to get overlooked because her emotions and motivations are often so obscure.

Saturday 5 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Part 2 -- HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe

Previously: Part 1: "Trust No One" -- Steve Rogers as the ~gritty superhero America deserves.

When it came to using HYDRA as the antagonist once again, Winter Soldier's writers were caught between a rock and a hard place. At face value, the concept of an evil organization infiltrating SHIELD is perfect for the Winter Soldier storyline ("You shaped the century.") and can be linked in with real-world concerns about PRISM and drone strikes.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers couldn't really create a new, more plausible evil conspiracy when they already had HYDRA ready and waiting in the sidelines of the Captain America mythos. This meant they then had to try and legitimize a scenario where thousands of SHIELD agents decided to join a blatantly evil secret society with roots in a Nazi cult, without ever being detected. And, in many cases, without a clear-cut explanation for why they joined in the first place.

With a villain as wide-ranging as HYDRA, they had to give us a few entry characters to illustrate different aspects of the organization. Zola represented the cartoonishly evil Nazi backstory, while Alexander Pierce had a more pragmatic explanation for why he believed in HYDRA's goals. The weakest point was Agent Sitwell. Introduced as the "human" side of HYDRA, he was the evil equivalent of Coulson's benevolent middle-manager schtick in Avengers.

Friday 4 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Part 1 -- Trust No One.

Previously: The costumes and characters of The Avengers -- Captain America.

I've been enjoying the number of reviewers who smugly namechecked Edward Snowden while writing about this movie, but they do have a point. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is about as "realistic" as you're going to get in the superhero genre, in a way that I found far more satisfying than the stereotypical ~gritty reboot~ atmosphere of the Dark Knight trilogy.

Whether or not you're a fan of Nolan's Batman movies, I think it's fair to say they were masterminded by someone who doesn't have much affection for the superhero genre -- which is funny when you consider the overt silliness of The Dark Knight Rises. CATWS provided an excellent balance between a relatively realistic concept (SHIELD's PRISM-inspired surveillance helicarriers), and the inherently optimistic nature of Captain America as a character.
Steve Rogers may do a lot of punching in this movie (perhaps too much punching, dare I even say it), but his true superpower is his status as a role model and leader. In the end, it's Steve who decides that SHIELD is beyond salvation, Steve who inspires Falcon to join the fight, and Steve who persuades SHIELD agents to ignore direct orders because it's the right thing to do.

He's the guy with the guts to go first when confronting everyone from schoolyard bullies to his own superior officers, and you can really understand why people rally behind him as a figurehead. He doesn't have the firepower of Thor or Iron Man or the political sway of Nick Fury, but he's the one trustworthy rock in the shifting moral sands of SHIELD and HYDRA.

Pre-Winter Soldier Marvel article roundup

I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier last week, but have been holding off on posting a review until it's out in the US. That hideously long review will be up either tonight or tomorrow, but until then, here are some Marvel superhero articles I've recently written elsewhere!

Wolverine Fatigue -- Has Wolverine outstayed his welcome at the head of the X-Men franchise? (Hint: the answer is yes. Please hand the reins of this political oppression allegory over to someone who isn't a white hetero dude.)

Captain America as a modern-day hero of equal rights -- One of the reasons why I'm so fond of Cap fanfic, TBH.

Chris Evans and the gilded cage of Marvel movie contracts -- Chris Evans has said on multiple occasions that he wants to step away from acting, but is locked into a six-movie contract with Marvel. This article is a look at the various Marvel actors who have signed up for a decade of superhero movies, and may now be regretting it.

Why do film critics still think Black Widow is an eye candy role? -- I took a look at the reviews from film critics in well-respected newspapers and magazines, both for Avengers in 2012 and the earlier UK reviews for CATWS. A depressing number of of (male) reviewers described Black Widow almost exclusively in terms of her looks, even in CATWS, where she has second billing to Captain America. Bear in mind that Cap's outfits are just as tight and "sexy" as hers, and that Thor, Cap and Bucky have all now had relatively gratuitous shirtless scenes in each of their movies, probably putting them ahead of Black Widow in the eye candy stakes. It's really quite incredible how many professional film critics failed to comprehend Black Widow's true role in these movies, but instead interpreted her as a pouting, "leather-clad" badass -- a hilariously inaccurate summation of a woman who is specifically characterized as the most cerebral Avenger (i.e. beating Loki at his own game), and doesn't even wear a leather costume.

OK, that's all for now. If you haven't seen CATWS yet, here's my non-spoilery advice for what to look out for when you see it for the first time. If you've seen it already, check back later for my review, which will be approximately the same length as the Encyclopedia Britannica. My other Marvel movie reviews, including costume design analysis, can all be found on my Marvel tag.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Costuming and design in Hannibal: Bella Crawford, between life and death.

Previously: Costuming and design in Hannibal, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 (Hannibal's wrist watch.), Part 4 (Abigail Hobbs).

I already mentioned in my first Hannibal costuming post that the FBI team dress like characters in a crime procedural drama, while people like Hannibal and Bedelia du Maurier seem to come from another universe entirely. The main visual difference between the FBI lab team and your average CSI character is that they wear vanishingly few monochrome outfits.
Compared to a show like Person of Interest, where two or three main characters can be wearing all-black outfits in any one episode, Hannibal's crime-fighters look positively colourful. Beverley Katz has at least three different maroon jackets, Jack Crawford loves his dark blue and purple jewel tones, and even Price and Zeller mostly wear neutral colours like navy blue or beige. (Price is characterized by his slouchy dad outfits and cardigans, while Zeller's clothes are more youthful and flattering.)
The only character in the show who habitually wears black and white is Bella Crawford. In her first appearance in "Coquilles," she's wearing a pure white dress to a dinner party with Hannibal and her husband. In the darkness of Hannibal's dining room, she stands out immediately, and the draped style of the dress makes Gina Torres look like some kind of ancient Greek deity.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Costuming and design in NBC's Hannibal: Abigail Hobbs

Previously: Costuming and design in Hannibal, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 (Hannibal's wrist watch.)

While Hannibal Lecter's suits are undoubtedly the most eyecatching costumes on the show, I found myself really warming to Abigail's costuming when rewatching season 1. Her clothes in "Potage" are particularly interesting, because they were bought for her by Alana Bloom. This means that rather than wearing her own clothes, she's actually dressed in Alana's interpretation of Abigail-clothes.

Abigail may be an emotionally fragile 17/18-year-old girl, but I'm glad to say that she's neither dressed up like a TV teen (which wouldn't remotely fit in with the overall tone of Hannibal), or styled to look more childlike and therefore ~vulnerable. Like the adult characters, she has a very specific dress sense and colour palette, which in her case is very "outdoorsy". Either she's wearing sensible hunting clothes to spend time in the forest with her father, or she's dressed in green and brown, often surrounded by natural imagery of plants and flowers. While Hannibal is a Francis Bacon painting and Will is an Edward Hopper, I think Abigail is a botanical illustration.
Screencaps via
Abigail's hospital room is very serene, with her butterfly-patterned nightdress matching the pale blue-green bed linen, furniture and patterned wallpaper. This delicate floral motif is directly at odds with Freddie Lounds, who shows up wearing a leopard print dress, a red-lined cape and gloves. Freddie looks practically Disney villainesque in her predatory role as Abigail's unwelcome visitor, and is the one central character in the episode who isn't wearing an outfit that fits in with Abigail's colour palette.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Costuming & design in NBC's Hannibal: Hannibal Lecter's wristwatch.

As part of my ongoing series on costume and design in Hannibal, I'm going to post my first guest blog with contributions from an outside writer. My brother is a watchmaker and an avid fan of Hannibal, and recently mentioned to me that he had some thoughts on Hannibal's watch in the show (a $176,300 white gold Patek Phillippe 5270G Chronograph, apparently). Here's what he had to say:
via weartherude
Patek Phillippe are generally seen by most watch people as the big brand leaders. They have an extremely prestigious rep, although reputation is very, very weird with watches. It doesn't just vary by brand but also by model. The Rolex worn by a particular James Bond in a particular Bond movie may be seen as some amazing piece of art, but a gold-cased Rolex of the same model but a different year could be trash. To give you an idea of Patek Phillippe's marketing brand, here's a recent advert:

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Costumes and design in NBC's Hannibal, Part 2.

Previously: Part 1

Rewatching the first few episodes so close together, I quickly began to notice the many instances where characters are wearing colours that either match or complement each other. Part of the reason I picked up on this is because the transition between the pilot ("Aperitif") and second episode ("Amuse-Bouche") is so noticeable.

In "Aperitif" there's still no overarching colour scheme linking the cast together, but as soon as Hannibal switches from his normal-person disguise of beige and brown sweaters to his own "real" clothing in episode two, everything begins to come together. After this, there are moments in every episode where certain characters are seen wearing complementary outfits or somehow fit in with the colour scheme of their surroundings. This is surely no accident, either as an aesthetic choice or as one of the many moments of visual symbolism in the show.
Before we move onto the rest of the season, I'd just like to spend a moment on Hannibal's uncharacteristically bland outfits in "Aperitif." Someone else has already written about Franklyn's habit of "mirroring" Hannibal's dress sense so I won't go into too much detail here, but as Hannibal's most obsessive patient, it's possible to theorise that Franklyn is attempting to copy Hannibal's style. There are several scenes throughout the series where we see Franklyn wearing layered outfits and "loud" ties that seem like a pale simulacrum of Hannibal's costumes, but in the instance of "Aperitif," I think the reverse may be true: Hannibal is mirroring Franklyn.
Screencaps from

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Costumes and design in NBC's Hannibal, Part 1.

I probably should've been writing about the costumes of Hannibal from the very start, but I confess to feeling a little overwhelmed. The quality of the costume design (and set design, and food design, and soundtrack...) in Hannibal is so incredible that not only does every episode deserve its own post, but lots of other people have already been analysing it since day one. Is there even room for another reviewer? But as luck would have it, I just moved in with someone who has never seen the show, and we decided to watch season 1 from the beginning. I can now verify that it's one of those rare TV shows whose rich detail means that it actually improves when you watch it for a second time.
In "Aperitif," Hannibal's costumes are far more varied than in later episodes, mostly because he's wearing a kind of everyday camouflage half the time. A more literal version of what Bedelia du Maurier refers to as his "people suit," if you will.

At home and in his own office, we see Hannibal in his typical uniform of luxurious three-piece suits. But whenever he has to go to the FBI, he wears what basically amounts to normal-person drag: a scruffy blazer, brown sweater, and unbuttoned shirt. The colours complement each other, but it isn't the kind of daring fashion choice we see him making in most other scenarios. I suspect this was him testing the waters at the FBI, attempting to fade into the background until he's scoped things out. Hannibal doesn't actually make much effort to disguise his eccentricities in day-to-day life, but he does ease people into them. That's how he gets away with making so many cannibalism puns during his dinner parties, I suppose. But while Hannibal's uncharacteristically scruffy FBI outfit was something I noticed when I first watched this episode, the moment that I found most visually arresting this time round was his first appearance onscreen.
The first thing we see from Hannibal Lecter is his hands, cutting into some meat as he eats alone in the dark of his house. Virtually all reviews of Hannibal comment on the way the show concentrates on the journey rather than the inevitable outcome of Hannibal's arrest and incarceration. We know that Hannibal is a cannibal, and the writers know that we know. There's very little suspense in that regard. So the show can cheerful jump-cut from Will Graham saying, face twisted into a grimace, "He's eating them!" to a lingering shot of Hannibal tucking into his first sumptuous meal of the series. We're all in on the joke, which makes Hannibal's frequent "I'm having an old friend for dinner," puns all the more delicious.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Supernatural Season 7: Why would you even do that?

It's no secret that I watch some seriously terrible shit. But while I enjoy a so-bad-it's-good movie as much as the next guy, I can't sustain that kind of interest for an entire TV series. Not unless Tommy Wiseau finally gets funding for his sitcom, that is.

Supernatural is my one exception to the "no awful television" rule, because it's in the unique position of being simultaneously terrible and brilliant. Its attitude to women (or anyone who isn't a straight white man) is atrocious, its episodic storylines are quite often shitty or ridiculous to the point of offensiveness, and it relies heavily on a very formulaic storyline cycle -- although as I'll explain later, its formulaic nature is actually one of its greatest strengths. But somehow, two years after abandoning it at the season 6 finale ("CASTIEL DID WHAT!?") I found myself crawling back to this godawful show, masochistically enthralled once again. 23 episodes in less than a month, you guys. Twenty-three episodes.
I suspect I have a pretty similar attitude to many Supernatural fans, in that I'm fully aware of the show's painfully obvious flaws, and yet keep coming back for more. Ordinarily I'm quite picky about TV shows, and will drop them as soon as they look like they've jumped the shark. But Supernatural is so goddamn addictive (not to mention un-shark-jumpable) that I went so far as to avoid spoilers for the two years I wasn't watching, on the realistic assumption that I'd eventually be lured back into the fold. And lo, I was.
For the past few weeks I've been watching and live-tweeting season 7, mostly to responses like "Why are you doing this to yourself?" and "You sound like an alcoholic falling off the wagon." Well, at least I'm not alone in that regard. Over the years I've seen plenty of people do exactly the same thing: drop Supernatural, only to succumb to its dubious charms after months or years away. My condolences, friends. I've often noticed it being referred to as the unpleasant ex-boyfriend of fandom: you know it's terrible and will end up hurting you all over again, but you just can't help yourself. This is the kind of gallows humour that bubbles to the top of your brain after watching 23 consecutive episodes of Sam and Dean repeating the same conversation over and over again, defeating yet another an implausible villain with some kind of maguffin device, and violently murdering several evil sexy women. So, why the hell did I put myself through it all over again? Why do any of us do it?

Wednesday 5 February 2014

A rough guide to Olympic figure skating.

I didn't have time to write about Supernatural this week, BUT I do have something for you, and that thing is an extremely important Guide to Olympic Figure Skating!

I'll almost certainly be writing something about figure skating during the Winter Olympics, so hopefully this will help to explain just why I love this sport so much. One of the reasons why figure skating is basically the only sport I'm interested in is because the narrative of each competitor is such an integral part of the entertainment experience, even moreso than other solo sports like tennis. I mean, obviously I love to watch it as a sport and as an art form, but it also has unbeatable levels of melodrama, feuding, and scandal. (And, needless to say, the costumes are fantastic.) In this article, I touch on the basics: things to watch out for at Sochi, the strange nature of institutionalised homophobia in the figure skating establishment, recent controversies, and more.
A rough guide to Olympic figure skating and its fandom.