I have a confession:
I do not particularly like Marvel’s The Avengers, Joss Whedon’s enormously popular superhero team-up film.
I liked all the films that preceded it, to varying degrees, even finding merit in Thor, a film which almost universally inspires indifference in audiences. I have liked all the films in the franchise which follow it as well, including Joss Whedon’s decidedly less popular sequel, The Age of Ultron. But, leaving the theatre on opening weekend in May 2012, surrounded by the excited chatter of my fellow filmgoers, I found myself disappointed. Sure, Joss Whedon’s dialogue was as whip-smart as ever, and his characterizations of each hero on the team were pitch perfect, but I nevertheless felt that film wasn’t as great as the sum of its parts. Each film leading up to The Avengers charted a certain arc for its characters, a distinct and entertaining version of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, while The Avengers, rather than culminating in something appropriately mythic, really just gathered all those characters in a single place to punch stuff. And while I stand by that initial assessment, in subsequent viewings I’ve come to enjoy the movie for what it is: an absurd, enormous action movie. It is a really, really good gigantic dumb action film, Oscar-calibre by comparison to its compatriots such as Transformers or any of the Fast & Furious films.
Almost by definition, a superhero team-up calls for some absurd and enormous action. Each hero, after all, is designed to be greater-than-adequate at saving their world or city on their own. Thus, if you want a threat that will get more than one superhero in the same room, it ought to be gigantic. Which brings us, appropriately, to the “beer” portion of this week’s Beer & Batman: La Formidable, an American-Belgo IPA from Portland’s Gigantic Brewing Company. Brewed in Canada at Beau’s All-Natural Brewing Company’s Vankleek Hill facilities, it is distributed here under Beau’s “B-Side Brewing Label,” a fantastic initiative to get international craft beer into our domestic market – something of a superhero team-up between breweries, if you will. It’s a good pairing for a book that details the first team-up between Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman – a team-up which is being dramatized, in a decidedly different version, as a big dumb action film of its own, Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, out next month.
The comic version of this meeting of giants has a much less clunky title than its cinematic counterpart, and that simple title (Trinity) is indicative of how straightforward it is. Which, you might recall if you’ve been reading Beer & Batman from the start, is precisely what writer/artist Matt Wagner does best. But rest assured, the simplicity doesn’t mean it isn’t huge – Trinity is almost as gigantic as the beer, bearing all the hallmarks of a huge superhero team-up like The Avengers, right down to the ridiculous, almost nonsensical world domination plot and the requisite head-butting between its heroes. Like The Avengers, it doesn’t entirely amount to the sum of its parts, but it gets the job done effectively and entertainingly.
Trinity opens with a sequence that feels classic and iconic, as Clark Kent, on his way to work, rushes into action as Superman and rescues a commuter train about to crash after a sniper assassinates its driver. It’s a dynamic and heroic sequence, a fantastic introduction to the Man of Steel and Matt Wagner’s bright, art-deco conception of Metropolis. Meanwhile, Batman is working to figure out Ra’s Al-Ghul’s latest plot, leading him to Metropolis, finding that the Demon’s men were responsible for killing the train’s conductor, creating a diversion to occupy Superman while they broke into LexCorp to score their real objective. This offers an easy excuse for Superman and Batman to collaborate on the case, as Ra’s Al-Ghul uses the information stolen from LexCorp to dig up one of Luthor’s failed experiments: his attempt to clone Superman, Bizarro. Though their meeting didn’t occur in the pages of any comic I’ve discussed in Beer & Batman thus far, Batman and Superman have already met prior to Trinity, and already know each other’s secret identities. (This meeting takes place in Man of Steel #3, written and drawn by John Byrne, if you are looking to catch up.) Matt Wagner writes them as two men with acknowledged differences, but enormous mutual respect and recognition of a common goal. Even with Bruce and Clark’s dynamic already in place, Trinity does a great deal to further integrate Batman into a deeper and richer world, using his undisputed heroic status to position him comfortably in the company of aliens and gods.
Wonder Woman’s inclusion is a little less seamless. Bizarro, stealing a nuclear submarine on Ra’s Al-Ghul’s direction, accidentally drops a nuclear missile on the Amazon’s island Themyscira. Having mistaken Bizarro for Superman, Wonder Woman leaves Themyscira and visits Metropolis to confront him about this accidental destruction. Superman easily clears up the confusion, and Wonder Woman volunteers her assistance in apprehending Bizarro and foiling Ra’s Al-Ghul’s dastardly plot. It’s a team-up-for-the-sake-of-teaming-up moment, and Wonder Woman reads continuously as something of an afterthought. She definitely suffers from the weakest characterization throughout, but, at least, Matt Wagner gives her equal billing with her male counterparts, a courtesy which Zack Snyder and company didn’t bother to extend in the upcoming film.
With all the players in place, the plot wastes little time plowing forward: Ra’s Al-Ghul intends to detonate one of his stolen nuclear warheads in the stratosphere, at a critical convergence of global telecommunications satellites, thus crippling the world’s communications. It isn’t entirely out of character for the Demon’s Head though neither is it one of his best or brightest plans. Because of the number of characters and the outsized nature of the plot, Wagner seems to take an almost reductionist approach to all his characters, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Ra’s Al-Ghul – this isn’t the dignified and nuanced adversary which we spent the better part of last month getting to know. This is a mustache-twirling comic villain, who, in one of the book’s most distractingly uncomfortable moments, even goes so far as to threaten Wonder Woman with rape. Our heroes get similarly reductionist treatments: Superman comes out looking the best, as he is well suited to simplicity. Batman is written as extraordinarily grumpy and violent, much to the chagrin of the peculiarly naive and utopian Wonder Woman. I’ll put both Ra’s Al-Ghul and Batman’s attitudes down to the emotional blows which both were dealt in Son of the Demon, but Wonder Woman is a little at odds with more popular characterizations of her as an effective soldier who has no qualms about making the tough calls.
But nevertheless, there is a lot more in Trinity that works than doesn’t. Wagner’s art, as always, is appropriately iconic, and his storytelling is clear. As well, few books make their colourist work as hard for their money than Trinity, as Dave Stewart does the heavy lifting to distinguish each of the book’s thirds, providing a distinct color palette to Metropolis, Gotham City, and Themyscira. Wagner also shuffles each of the Trinity’s opponents, giving Batman the opportunity to square off against both Bizarro (who is as delightful here as he is elsewhere) and the expendable renegade Amazon Artemis, likewise allowing Superman and Wonder Woman to confront Ra’s Al-Ghul. It’s a fun if simplistic way to see what makes each hero unique.
That, for all its flaws, is what makes Trinity work for me: it is fun, something which I don’t expect to see in theaters at the end of March. Like The Avengers, it isn’t anything smart or sophisticated, but it’s big and entertaining, and that pairs it perfectly with Gigantic’s La Formidable: this is a beer with a lot of flavour, one which is very easy to drink. Of course, like many craft beer drinkers, IPAs are probably the style I reach for when I want exactly that: something refreshing and flavourful. If a beer style were a Hollywood blockbuster, I have no doubt that it would be an IPA, and just as one has certain expectations regarding a Hollywood blockbuster, La Formidable delivers on everything one might hope for. Those West Coast hops make good on the promise of citrusy orange and grapefruit flavors, well balanced against the adventurous use of the Belgian yeast, which offers some spicy and fruity accents. In short, La Formidable, like Trinity, is everything it advertises on the label: nothing more, nothing less.