We Stand on Guard : Water! Giant Robots! Occupied Canada! (A review)

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I can’t remember the last time I’ve done a book article that wasn’t about my own, and I don’t think I’ve ever done a single book review, but there’s a first time for everything, right?

Plot

We Stand on Guard is a six-issue series published from July – December 2015, and is now compiled in a single graphic novel. It’s the culmination of writing by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Steve Skroce, and coloring by Matt Hollingsworth. The story begins in 2112 in Ottawa, Ontario. After the White House is destroyed the United States invades Canada for revenge and…freshwater? I wouldn’t necessarily call this “SPOILERS!!1!1” since it’s a predictable scenario. By the 22nd century, the United States has run out of freshwater and decided to invade the Great White North and uses the attack as justification for invasion.

The story follows Amber, a child when the invasion happens, and is surviving in the Northwest Territories in 2124 when she comes upon a band of Canadian resistance fighters called, “the Two-Four.” Most of the story takes place in, and around, their underground base near Great Slave Lake. There is also another plot involving one of the resistance members being taken prisoner by the occupying Americans.

That’s all I’ll really say about the plot to avoid any significant spoilers.

Social/Political Commentary

The premise of the story is one part the Iraq War, and another part War Plan Red, a military war plan created by the U.S. military in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s for a possible war with the British Empire, and the focus of military action would have been Canada. War Plan Red is actually referenced in We Stand on Guard, but more as a historical precedent than as the actual operation used in the novel.

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War Plan Red Image Source

We Stand on Guard seems like it was trying to make a point about the United States’ behavior in the places it has occupied, specifically Iraq. There are detention camps, special forces, psychological torture, and guerrilla warfare. Basically, it turns Canada into Iraq.

Canadaraq?

Iranada?

Caraqada?

Anyway…

It doesn’t shy away from making the occupation forces out to be typical bad guys, and the resistance fighters to be the typical good guys, and while it’s an interesting concept it ignores the possibility for a deeper and more thoughtful dialogue. Now, someone might think, “But Adam, it’s a comic book! It doesn’t have to be nuanced!”

To that I say, Watchman, V for Vendetta, The White Donkey, and Maus. Just because it’s a graphic novel doesn’t mean it has to be mindless.

What it does well, though, is showing what happens to an occupied and brutalized populace, and makes them more approachable by stripping away anything foreign or unfamiliar. The Canadians look like Americans, behave like Americans, talk like Americans, which brings the idea of occupied/occupier closer to home (figuratively and literally).

Characters

The problem is that I didn’t feel anything for these characters, at least nothing that made me feel too invested. All the characters look like they had been models before the war, and there’s one scene where you get a butt shot in a shower of the main character, and she looks oddly healthy for living in the Northwest Territories. Of course, there’s the obligatory, “grizzled old man,” because it can’t be a war story without that. Aside from that, all the characters are pretty similar. One dies? Okay. A bad thing happened to another character in the past? Fair enough. Part of this is because there are multiple plot-lines, and it never feels like you spend too much time with one character. This would have done better as either a longer series, or a longer graphic novel, because at least then there would be a better chance to connect with the characters. Oddly enough, the one character I liked the most was a side character, and I didn’t feel too much about Amber. She’s a generic protagonist. On the one hand, it’s disappointing that a female protagonist is so blah, but on the other hand it’s strangely satisfying that her gender didn’t have to be a focal point. So that’s cool.

Visual

Since it is a graphic novel, it would be good to talk about the visual aspect. Look, I don’t know much about drawing, and I sure as hell can’t do it myself, so take the next part with a grain of salt. I thought visually, it was satisfying to look at, but nothing that made me take pause and marvel at its originality. It’s good comic book art, what else is there to say? One part of the visual aspect that I can’t decide if I liked, or not, were the moments of violence. It definitely affirms that it’s a war story and tries to be honest about the brutality of war, but at the same time it feels like it was done for the sake of being “mature” and “edgy.”

Writing

Circling back to the writing aspect, it’s an action story, and a pretty uniform one at that. Outgunned underdogs get their hands on some enemy tech, there is a climactic battle, and all is right with the world. The end felt so incredibly rushed that I looked to see if there is a sequel The dialogue follows this formula, and I feel like it was created with, “Mad Libs: Action Movie Edition.” Exposition, banter, lightly seasoned with choice expletives (to remind you this is a mature graphic novel), makes it run together and not really give any of the characters their own voice. There is also one character, a Quebecois fellow, who speaks exclusively in French Canadian, and there is no translation given. I pretty much skimmed his lines, saw if I recognized any words, and pretty well figured out what he’d said based on context. The strange thing is he plays a significant part at the end of the story that made me scratch my head and wonder if they had felt it necessary to shoehorn in a significant part for the First Nations/Quebecois guy.

Nationalism

Now, the one part of this whole novel that mildly irritated me was that it felt like it was trying to be a piece of “Canadian Exceptionalism” much like American media is drenched in “American Exceptionalism.” Obviously it’s not terrible to be proud of your heritage, but it also seemed like it was stooping to a level of mindless nationalism. Part of me hopes that it’s subtle satire aimed at American readers like myself. There were also two lines that stuck out to me that made me consciously roll my eyes. One of the characters, descended from Syrian refugees, mentions how Canada brought in way more refugees than the United States did. It’s a fair point, but the context it’s used in felt like the writer was doing it to say, “Take that America!” The other line is a character talking about Canadian heroes, and one of the names mentioned is that of the Trudeaus, meaning Pierre and Justin. Pierre did a lot of good for Canada, and Justin seems like a good leader (especially in comparison to our own…), but elevating him to the status of hero? He appears to be a good man, and a pretty conventional Western leader, but hero? Who knows what will happen, but talk about the cart before the horse. I get that the dark satire of Starship Troopers (the movie) inspired this, but it felt like it forgot that it was trying to be tongue-in-cheek.

Conclusion

I saw this at a local bookstore, noticed the cover, and thought, “Huh, this looks interesting.” But the cellophane wrapping prevented me from flipping through and seeing if I wanted to sink money into a book that I’ll read in one sitting, and possibly never read again. As luck would have it, the local library had a copy in circulation, and I’ll be honest, I’m glad I didn’t spend money on it. It read like a watered down version of The Man in the High Castle, and instead of making you sympathize with, but question the “good guys,” and make the “bad guys” out to be human too, it just turned it into a juvenile, black-and-white morality, action story.

That is not to say I’m upset that I read it.

The problem is not that it’s terrible, but it’s a book I read once and will probably never read again. I can appreciate the work that goes into a graphic novel, or any writing for that matter, but We Stand on Guard is just too generic to warrant spending money on it. Maybe I’m just being cynical and someone else would find the premise extremely shocking and inventive, but ultimately it felt like a darker, grittier reboot of Canadian Bacon.

Worth a read if you can find it at a library and have an hour or two to kill.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to leave a comment.

Thanks for reading.

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Writing Update – 2/24/2017 (New purchases & interviews, and New projects)

First off, I want to thank recent (and semi-recent) purchasers of In the Land of God. I also want to thank whomever left the recent five-star review on Amazon. I don’t know what is more affirming, seeing a new sale (hurray, people were willing to pay for my work!) or seeing a positive review of something I wrote (hurray, strangers don’t think my work sucks!)

I also want to thank Grand Valley TV for a chance to be interviewed by Kyle Bindas (which should be ready to watch in the near future), and the Grand Valley State University Book Club for the chance to speak at their meeting on the 16th. I honestly can’t decide whether the speaking event was exciting, or nerve-wracking. Maybe a little bit of both? Exciting-wracking? Nerve-exciting? I don’t know. You’d think a writer would be better at concision and precision.

Anyway…

Now that the Oscar-style thank you speech is out of the way, on to new business.

For those of you that don’t know, I wrote a post a while back about my next novel and an upcoming anthology of horror stories. To elaborate, the next novel that I’m working on (sort of) is a tragic romance set during a future global conflict. It is set over the course of a summer and consists of three, interconnected plot lines. One plot focuses on a soldier caught up in the war, a priest who is confronted with the reality of his nationalism, and a young couple fresh out of high school grappling with the harshness of their coming-of-age. I’m sure it sounds all very pretentious and gloomy, but hey, it’s a story I’ve been kicking around in my head since high school and I figure there’s no time like the present to write it.

The other project, the anthology of horror stories, will come from myself and the cover artist for In the Land of God, Micah Chapin. To give an idea of what it will be like, the plan is to have stories that range from Weird Fiction (a la H.P. Lovecraft sans overt racism), to existentialist horror, to apocalyptic horror reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s. I’ve written a few of the stories, and truth be told I haven’t talked with Micah about that project in a minute, but there’s more headway with that project than with the second novel.

Part of it is good old procrastination, and part of it is just…life getting in the way. Wrapping up my college career, work, and just living tend to be pretty big obstacles to getting writing done (not that I would trade any of them for more time to write. Although a Faustian deal for better time management skills would be alright. I kid.)

Perhaps the biggest reason those projects have gotten neglected is because I just banged out the rough draft of something I’ve never done before, and no, it is not fan fiction. After being inspired by Hamilton (it’s so damn good) and current events, I decided to try my hand at writing a play. Why a play? Well, why not? That’s not much of an explanation, though. Here’s a better one. I want my writing to have a cinematic feel, I think cinematic writing is easier for modern audiences to digest. That’s not a dig, the reality is we live in an extremely visual society, and we have for the better part of a hundred years. Why not make your writing accessible for your audience? Now, that doesn’t mean I won’t take a paragraph or two to wax philosophic, but the majority of the story should create a vivid film in a reader’s head. Plus, if I’m being honest, it’s more fun to write that way. Where were we? Oh, right, writing a play. Anyway, my takeaway from the rough draft is that it’s a completely different animal. The formatting is different, the conventions are different, even the process of getting the final product in the open is a different beast. I self-published In the Land of God not only because of principle, but because it was feasible to self-publish. You can’t really self-publish a play. I mean, you totally can, but the real name of the game is getting the play produced. That’s easier said than done, and it means either throwing my hat into the ring for a contest, or finding a theatre willing to produce the play. The other difference is that getting a play produced is different than getting a novel published. Sure, a novel relies on a lot of moving parts (an editor, possibly an agent, a publishing platform, people to get the novel into the hands of readers, readers in general), but a play, right out of the starting gate requires more people to make it a reality. It sounds like I’m pulling a 180 in terms of my philosophy, but in all honesty it doesn’t feel that way. I still love the independence of writing, but I also realize that it’s a different situation because it’s a different genre. Apples and oranges, spaghetti and pizza.

Anyway…

My point is, I wrote a play, and it feels pretty good to have done something and done it so quickly. It still needs work, and it needs to be expanded (it’s only about 61 pages long at the time of my writing this), but it feels like I have something. Part of me wants to embark on writing a musical, but at the same time I feel like a toddler that took his first steps and got so excited he signed up for a marathon.

If you have any comments, leave ‘em below, and you can follow me on Twitter by clicking the link up top. Also, if you have any tips when it comes to getting a play produced, feel free to leave them below (trust me, any help is greatly appreciated).

Thanks for reading.

A luta continua

In the Land of God is available on Amazon as an eBook and paperback.

 

Five-Star Review for In the Land of God ; Radio Interviews; What’s next?

Five-Star Review for <em> In the Land of God </em>; Radio Interviews; What’s next?

First review is in for In the Land of God and it’s five stars! (no, it wasn’t my mom) and two upcoming radio interviews on Whale Radio (Whale Radio! on Wed. @ 7 p.m. (EST) then  Thurs. @ 10 a.m.(EST))

Reviews

Feedback of any kind is a great confidence booster. Even if it’s negative it means somebody read your book and it made them want to leave a review. Of course, a positive review is always a better confidence boost.

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A good review isn’t just good for your ego, it’s also an affirmation for two groups of people: potential readers and customers that have a copy, but haven’t read it yet. Reviews aren’t the be-all-end-all, but aside from the cover it’s the first thing a potential reader will see on Amazon and other online stores.

Even if you’re afraid of the negative review, it’s never a bad idea to encourage people to leave any feedback they have about your work. This goes for anything you create. Welcome the constructive criticism, and take note if it’s a recurring complaint. Also, it’s been said before, and I’ll say it again: DO NOT ENGAGE WITH REVIEWS.

If somebody leaves feedback on a social media platform, then you can (and generally should) respectfully respond, even if it’s a basic response like, “Thanks for sharing!” It might be something you can’t change, or won’t change, but the small act of engaging with a reader is usually not a bad move. Obviously if they’re being antagonistic and rude then don’t bother, but if it’s a genuine criticism then hear them out. I had one guy tell me he didn’t like the cover. I asked him for feedback, he gave it, and I thanked him for his feedback without grovelling and panicking that one person didn’t like the cover.

All reviews are helpful.

Radio Interviews

I know we all have short memories now thanks to the internet, but you might have seen me post about an interview I had at Grand Valley’s radio station, “The Whale.” Well, tomorrow night I’m going to be sitting down with Stephen Borowy to talk about In the Land of God, then on Thursday morning I’ll be talking with Jason Blanks for another discussion. Both of them have interviewed me before, they’ve done a phenomenal job, and I’m excited to talk with them again.

Like you probably read up top, you can listen online, free, at Whale Radio!

Interview with Stephen will be Wednesday night 7 p.m. (EST)

Interview with Jason will be Thursday morning 10 a.m. (EST)

In case you miss the live broadcasts, I will be posting the interviews in separate blog posts on here on Wednesday and Thursday (crosses fingers, knocks on wood).

What’s next?

The book is written, it’s published, and now I can sit back and wait for the money to roll in.

Not really.

Through December and into January I will continue promotion for In the Land of God and I plan on starting a Kickstarter for a hard launch in mid/late January (probably in the ballpark of $300 to cover 100 copies and the shipping costs). I will also set up speaking/reading events in the greater Grand Rapids area, and I want to coordinate advertisement and sales with local coffee shops, bars, libraries, and independent bookstores.

As far as writing goes, I will continue to work on stories that will probably wind up in a weird fiction/horror anthology that I’m working on with my cover designer, Micah Chapin. If you want to read one of the stories you can check out “The Watchers” I have no release date for that project, but I can tell you I’m excited to work on it.

I also plan on starting work on another novel. Writing is an addiction, it’s like a lesion on the brain that needs to be drained with regularity, and the only way to do it is at a keyboard or with a pen and paper. I won’t give too many details, but it’s an idea I’ve had since high school dealing with multiple plot points and nuclear holocaust. As you can see I’m not much of one for happy stories, but I want to write honest stories, and happy stories aren’t happy stories. Our life stories don’t have particularly happy endings, so why shouldn’t stories reflect life?

Anyway.

Feel free to leave a comment on here or on Twitter (@ahahnjones).

Thanks for reading, and I hope you stick around.

A luta continua.

In the Land of God  is the debut novel of Adam Jones. It is available on Kindle as an eBook for $2.99 and on Amazon as a paperback for $9.99. Check out here and Facebook for updates about the novel.

 

 

 

 

 

ArtPrize 2016: Art Fest in the Fiefdom

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Edit: Big news! It melted this cynic’s heart. The “Wounded Warrior Dog” piece won this year’s ArtPrize and the $200,000 prize. I guess people love their dogs.

It’s that time of year again in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mass congestion, packed restaurants and bars, swarms of families and old people roaming around the big, scary city.

Yes everyone, it’s ArtPrize season in Grand Rapids.

What is ArtPrize anyway? On the surface it’s an open, democratic art competition where anyone can enter their work as a way to gain exposure, a potential buyer, or even the grand prize of $200,000. On a slightly deeper level it feels like a publicity stunt for the DeVos and Van Andel families (owners of the Amway corporation, and in the case of DeVos donors to various far-right political organizations).

On the one hand I love ArtPrize. There’s something festive about the buskers, the crowds of people, and the soccer moms drunk on local craft beer. It brings energy and cash to downtown, well, the nicer parts of downtown GR. The part of the city that doesn’t need the help. In a less cynical vein it’s great to see people creating and engaging in art. I’m a huge proponent for the democratization of art, even if the barrier of entry is a $50 fee..

On the other hand it seems like ArtPrize is a PR gig for big business, a chance for them to say, “See? We love people, we love the arts, we love Grand Rapids.” Check out the sponsors, the majority of these companies aren’t exactly local mom ‘n pop shops. It’s good for the smaller businesses, but the problem is the majority of the pieces are in the “safer” (read: wealthier) part of the city. This means people are most likely spending their money at the places that don’t need that extra cash. Circling back to the significant Amway presence, 57 entries are at the DeVos Place Convention Center and 15 entries are at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. In all fairness the Grand Rapids Art Museum had 15 entries, the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art had 16 entries, the Gerald R. Ford Museum had 33 entries, and the Grand Rapids Public Museum had 17 entries. The UICA is on the fringe of that Green Zone, and even then it’s on the corner of spooky Division Avenue. The rest of the venues averaged one to three entries, but most of those venues are walking distance from the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel which is connected to the DeVos Place Convention Center.

I wouldn’t call it conspiratorial, it’s just good business sense, but doesn’t that take something out of the art? “Come, look at the art, eat and drink in conveniently located restaurants. You really shouldn’t drive home, just rent a room at the Amway Grand.”

Even smaller businesses get in on the action. Big Boy charged $10 per car if you planned on using their lot, and Burger King charged $5 to use its lot. I get it, they don’t want to lose customers, and again it’s good business sense, but it seems a bit opportunistic. For a festival that focuses on the People’s art and the community of Grand Rapids, it sure seems like businesses are eager to turn a profit. I could get into a long winded discussion about why they’re so eager to get customers, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I suppose my biggest problem with ArtPrize is that it seems more focused on the spectacle than on the art itself. Fortunately, I did see some great pieces this year.

I talked with one of the men involved with the “Elder Heart” piece outside of the Gerald R. Ford Museum. The message of the work was a less glamorous take on warfare. It highlights the 22 veteran suicides per day as a result of post traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. It also makes note of the 2,977 people killed on September 11th, the 6,521 service members killed in the War on Terror, and the 8,030 veterans that commit suicide in one year. He served with the Army Rangers for 20 years, and as a Delta Force operative for 10 years. The one thing he said that summed up the feeling of this piece was, “We put humans in inhuman situations, then expect them to come home and be okay. That just isn’t the case.” It seems doubly true coming from him, a special forces veteran, the boys and girls we can “fire and forget” if necessary. Unfortunately, “Elder Heart” didn’t make it into the finalists. I’m not surprised, it’s more fun to support a war than to go to one or see its ugly aftermath. Besides, as long as you shower them in platitudes when they come home, that’s enough, right?

If you want to know more, check out www.mission22.com

A piece in a similar vein that did make it into the top 20 is “Wounded Warrior Dogs.” It featured a half dozen carved dogs, each bearing one or more horrendous injuries due to combat; prosthetic paws and legs, glass eyes, and even one with a doggie wheelchair. Each carving represented dogs that served in the Pacific Theater in World War II, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, or the War in Afghanistan. I found it in the older part of the Amway Grand’s lobby, and I’m happy to say it seemed to be getting the most attention.

It was refreshing to see art that dealt with concrete, and often unsavory issues that tend to be forgotten or conveniently ignored. “The Butterfly Effect” spoke about the dwindling Monarch butterfly population, “Copper Ghosts” dealt with the difficult lives of 19th century mining towns in the Upper Peninsula, and “Once Upon a Time” is a three-paneled painting covered issues like warmongering, our obsessions with technology, and the growing power of the business elite. Other pieces tackled issues like education, identity, and environmentalism.

In retrospect, it’s both funny and ironic that an art festival created by conservatives wound up featuring art that is so antithetical to the contemporary, conservative ethos. I love it.

That’s not to say everything I saw was good and subversive. There were two prominent works called “Fountain of Tears” and “The Smoke” that promoted anti-smoking. Yes, smoking is bad, but at the same time…yawn. That might have turned some heads when smoking was socially acceptable, but now it’s like saying, “I don’t think we should call black people the ‘N word!'” Very few people are going to disagree with you, and you’re not saying anything new. (“The Smoke” would make a kickass book cover, though.) Another piece, “Color Me Orange – Color Me Kind” dealt with anti-bullying. Michigan does have a bullying problem, , but taking a stand against bullying is nothing earth shattering. It’s sweet though, I’ll give ’em that.

Near the end of my time at ArtPrize I stopped at the Starbucks in the Amway Grand. I needed coffee, and I needed a break. Rather than awkwardly stand at the counter, I decided to strike up a conversation.

I asked the barista if they got busier during ArtPrize. “Definitely, we get a lot more customers this time of year,” she responded.

“Do you think more people come here than to the other coffee shops?”

She shrugged, “Yeah, probably.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Probably because we’re easier. Most people seem like they want to just stay around here, and people know Starbucks. Like, I’m sure a lot of people go to the other places, but if you’re already here, why go somewhere else?”

In a way, that last bit, “If you’re already here, why go somewhere else?” had deeper, darker connotations than I realized. On the micro scale it perfectly symbolizes what happens in Grand Rapids during ArtPrize. Why go beyond Rosa Parks Circle or Monroe Center? You can get food, drinks, and see the art all right there.

It may not apply as much to this year’s art, but in the past a lot of the art reflected the values in West Michigan, and anything controversial or unsettling was taken down. Artist SinGh had his Saddam Hussein piece removed in 2012, someone vandalized a piece about homophobia in 2014, and Nabil Mousa’s protest piece made of burned holy books was banned in 2015. Open and democratic huh?  2016’s finalists are unsurprising and “Emoh” almost feels a tad bit hypocritical. “Yes, yes of course we care about the homeless, just as long as they don’t get in the way of business or gentrification.”

Why get into a different head space when you can be surrounded by art that affirms your worldview? Why not give money to quasi-lords if they share your politics? Why go anywhere else if you can get culture and entertainment right here?

Why leave Grand Rapids at all?

Leave a comment in the comments section, or follow me on Twitter (@ahahnjones) and leave a comment there. If you’re from the area, what do you think?

Thanks for reading, and I hope you stick around.

Suicide Squad – Rushed and Overly Cautious

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Author’s Note: I know this review might seem a little late, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to do since I saw the movie, and it’s for a journalism class, so two birds, one stone! Let’s begin.

After a solid year of hype, trailers, and much excitement, Suicide Squad was released on August 5, 2016. How did my expectations stand up to reality? Not well.

I’ll start with the cinematic side. As soon as characters started to be introduced I knew that this would be more, “Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and Others!” than Suicide Squad. Each character was given a brief introduction via rock montage, but only Deadshot (played by Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) got detailed backstory exposition. Later in the movie, El Diablo (played by Jay Hernandez) gets a little extra attention, but it’s not much. Also, the Joker (played by Jared Leto), arguably the most hyped character in the trailers, probably got about five to ten minutes of actual screen time. None of the acting was particularly bad, it was just…okay. Margot Robbie is the strongest actress in the movie, and captures the character of Harley Quinn. Will Smith doesn’t disappoint, but he doesn’t necessarily feel like a villainous mercenary. Come to think of it, none of the Suicide Squad members felt truly villainous. Even the Joker seemed more like a predictable crime lord and less like an unpredictable psychopath. Speaking of predictable…

The plot was definitely safe and uninspired: American city is threatened by supernatural entity, ragtag group goes to save the day, “all hope is lost” moment, and then happy ending. Yawn. Which was supremely disappointing. This movie could have been an amazing opportunity to subtly critique America’s track record of hiring less-than-stellar people to do our dirty work, and how that can really backfire. Instead, DC played it safe and decided that the bad guys would just be the good guys after all! No moral conflicts, or arguments about if the ends do justify the means here! They attempted to make the U.S. government look untrustworthy, but even that felt reigned in. They also had a great chance to examine abusive relationships via the Joker and Harley Quinn. Did they do that? Nope! Those two seemed more like the “edgy” couple that spends a lot of time at Hot Topic than dysfunctional and toxic. There are brief flashes hinting at the Joker’s abuse and manipulation, but nothing truly unsettling.

Although the plot and characterization felt rushed and shallow, I can’t say I’m mad I watched it. It’s a generic summer-popcorn-action movie that suffered from too much hype. If I had watched it on Netflix I would be less disappointed.

Leave a comment below, or follow me on Twitter (@ahahnjones) and comment there. Did you love the movie? Hate it? Let me know, and let’s start a discussion.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you stick around.