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Fresno Pop Culture Examiner 2013 in review

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For hundreds of people living in Fresno it is the end of another year. But as 2013 draws to a close, this Fresno Pop Culture Examiner thought it would be interesting to take a look back at all of the articles and reviews he has published this years, while also looking forward to all that is to come in 2014.

For this examiner, the years started off with the announcement of the nominees for the 85th Annual Academy Awards, a small number of which he also posted reviews for the year before. When the awards ceremony was held in February, is was Ben Affleck's Argo that took home the top honors.

Super Bowl XLVII proved extremely exciting to watch this year as Jim Harbaugh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and his older brother John, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, made history by squaring off for the year's championship; in fact, this duel between brother inspired many to nickname this year's game the "Harbowl." But that wasn't the only big sports story this year as the Boston Red Sox defeated the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 2013 World Series, marking the first time in 95 years that the Red Sox had won the championship on their home turf.

In speaking of making history, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected as Pope Francis I, becoming the long-speculated successor to the retired Pope Benedict XVI and the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church overall. In addition, the whole world was treated to a wonderful gift this July as Prince William and Princess Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to their first born son, Prince George of Cambridge. The event was treated to much fanfare and overwhelming support from the people the world over.

There was also a great deal that happening in the Hollywood celebrity realm as well, starting with the announcement that director J. J. Abrams, in the wake of his successful reboot of the Star Trek film franchise, had singed on to direct the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII. Even more shocking, it was announced that, despite some reported bad blood between the two of them in the wake of the Transformers films (the fourth of which revealed new photos of the vehicle modes for the robotic characters, by the way), Megan Fox had signed on to play the role of April O'Neil in the upcoming Michael Bay produced reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In April, it was then announced that late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon would be taking over hosting duties on The Tonight Show from Jay Leno following the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. In more movie news, it was revealed that Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling had signed on to write a a series of spin offs to the immensely successful film series, and that Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Arc writer Lawrence Kasdan would be teaming up with J. J. Abrams to pen the screenplay for Star Wars: Episode VII. In speaking of Star Wars, even though we did have to come to terms with the cancellation of the Clone Wars animated series, Disney also announced their plans to release a new Star Wars film every year beginning in 2015. Besides Megan Fox, there were a few more surprising casting choices announced for upcoming films as well, including the casting of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in the upcoming sequel to this year's Man of Steel. Still, this casting was not nearly as controversial, or unexpected, as the announcement made four month earlier that also cast in that film was Ben Affleck as Batman, a decision that was met with enormous fan outcry not dissimilar to the initial reaction to Michael Keaton's casting in Tim Burton's Batman from 1989.

There wasn't a whole lot of announcement made at Comic-Con this year that really stood out for this examiner, until we received two very large surprises when the title of the upcoming sequel to The Avengers was revealed to be The Avengers: Age of Ultron, a reference to a popular comic book villain that none of us expected to see in the film beforehand; while the other, even more unexpected surprise was the reveal that Batman would be appearing in the upcoming sequel to Man of Steel. In related news, it was also a complete shock when, just this month, Bryan Singer announced the release of X-Men: Apocalypse for 2016, an announcement that was a huge deal and fuels a lot of speculation among X-Men fans, especially with the release of Days of Future Past still five months away.

Unfortunately, this year also saw the announcement that, after thirteen years of marriage, actors Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones would be separating. Even more tragic, not only did we have to say goodbye to someone as great as former South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, and philanthropist Nelson Mandela, but we also lost many respected names in other aspects of the world, not the least of which being the entertainment industry with the passing of people such as Conrad Bain, Roger Ebert, James Gandolfini and Paul Walker. There were also numerous tragedies this year, such as when paralympian Oscar Pistorious was charged with murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. This examiner heart goes out to all those we have and to all those who have suffered this year.

On a personal note, it was also a personal disappointment for this examiner when it was announced that Blockbuster Video would be officially closing all of its remaining locations and their DVD mail operation in the United States; and with that decision the era of the home video store came to a bittersweet close.

On the other hand, this November did finally see the hotly anticipated launches of both Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One, with both consoles setting records by selling over a million units on launch day alone.

There were also some cool trailers released for exciting new films this year, many of which this examiner felt compelled to provide commentary on. Super Bowl XLVII offered up plenty of exciting TV spots for this year's biggest films, including Snitch, The Lone Ranger, World War Z, Oz: The Great and Powerful, Fast and Furious 6, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Iron Man 3. Trailer released in theaters that were of special notice to this examiner included those for The Wolverine, Thor: The Dark World, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Captain America: The First Avenger, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Godzilla.

But if this examiner has any forte at all, it is for pop culture reviews, and this year offered plenty of material to do so. There several hotly anticipated films released in 2013, such as Oz: The Great and Powerful, Disney's attempt to create their own prequel to the 1939 classic; it was a fun and enjoyable family film that paid tribute both to L. Frank Baum's creation and to the original film and one that I recommended parents could take their children to go see. On a different end of quality spectrum is G.I. Joe: Retaliation, based on the Hasbro toy line and the sequel to 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. While the film is loud, dumb and often lacking in any sense, it is nevertheless a much more enjoyable adaptation of the concept than the first film was that people can have fun with if they turn their brain off. As the summer movie season began, one of the most anticipated new releases was Star Trek Into Darkness, the twelfth film in the series and the sequel to J. J. Abrams's successful reboot film released in 2009. The film is a fun thrill ride through space much like its predecessor and has a great performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as the main villain, but it does suffer from a lack in originality and paying numerous references and fan service to the Trek that fans will know from before, to the point that certain fans may be more offended than amused; still, if you're the casual audience that these films are aiming for, then you should have a great time. That's more than I can say for Disney's The Lone Ranger, which while it can be entertaining at times, especially during the final action sequence, it suffers from a long running time, poor characterization of the title character, lack of balance between drama and comedy, and being too much of a star vehicle for Johnny Depp. Fairing much better is Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, the director's loving a visually stunning tribute to Japanese kaiju (giant monster) film and mecha anime, making it worthy investment of your time despite a lack of in-depth plot and fully-developed characters. And then there is one the films this examiner look forward to the most this year, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second film in Peter Jackson's Hobbit film trilogy following last year's An Unexpected Journey; this was a film that had some flaws, but they were ones that this examiner was easily able to rationalize and ignore and manage to give it a low five stars, a welcome addition to Jackson's vision of Tolkien's Middle-earth that sets the stage well for the epic conclusion next year.

But even among my film reviews there is one genre in particular for which I have always had a keen eye for: comic book films, and 2013 gave us plenty of them. The first big film of the summer was Iron Man 3, the seventh installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first of what Marvel is calling "Phase II." The film has great action set pieces and once again an iconic performance by Robert Downey, Jr., but it does sometimes put too much emphasis on comedy and there is controversy over a twist that is revealed about the film's main villain. Another controversial superhero film this summer was Zack Snyder's reboot of the Superman film series, Man of Steel. Giving the series a modern twist and a welcome sci-fi edge, not to mention a action packed final act that rivals even the magnitude of The Avengers, that same incredible action spectacle is also the film's biggest source of controversy, that and for not seeming to go as in-depth into the characters as in past incarnations; still, despite its flaws, the bar is set for a new pantheon of DC films to spawn from it, and I eagerly await to see how things may be improved upon in the sequel. The superhero surprise of the summer was The Wolverine, the sixth installment in the X-Men film series,which wisely chose to explore a smaller and more personal story about the title character which, while less commercial, was very engaging and far more focused than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, even despite resorting to cliches typical of a summer superhero movie during the third act and having to work with the limitations of a PG-13 rating. The last comic book film of the summer was Kick-Ass 2, and much like when I reviewed the first film, I found it to have heart and depth that was sadly downplayed by all of the gritty violence and crude humor indicative of this franchise, which resulted in an unintentionally prudish review that I can maybe recommend to teenagers and young adults, or those who want something different, but certainly not to families. Lastly, in November, Marvel came back with their second Phase II film, Thor: The Dark World, which despite being an entertaining ride from start to finish with some terrific visuals, great action and some worthwhile performance here and there, particularly from Tom Hiddleston as Loki, it was also bogged down by misguided moments of humor, a flawed romantic plot line, underutilized characters, and most of all from a poorly realized villain.

In addition to reviews of theatrical films, this examiner also reviewed three direct-to-DVD installment in the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line. The first, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 2, sequel to the first part release in 2012, which was a fantastic adaptation of the second half of the celebrated graphic novel by Frank Miller that with all it maturity, reverence to the material, and large scope, works well both as a stand-alone film as in conjunction with it's first part to be viewed as a single animated epic. Superman: Unbound, despite obviously being made as a tie-in to Man of Steel's release, is a surprisingly enjoyable installment in the franchise despite it missing something with the departure of Bruce Timm from the producing chair, so while it is quite good, possibly the best of the stand alone Superman films they've made, it isn't this examiner's favorite in this series either. Finally, there is Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, which is quite possibly the most mature and most graphic film in the series so far, which some of the imagery perhaps crossing the line at points, and the numerous character appearances may deter some viewers, but it does finally offer a chance for the Flash to be featured in a prominent role and a worth while watch for mature DC fans.

This examiner also decided to do reviews of the pilot episodes of three new television series, as well as the entirely of a ten-episode webs series, that aired this year. Teen Titans Go! is a remake of the popular animated series based on the DC Comics superhero team from the 2000s, and while this new version of he show is written purely for comedy and aims at a far younger demographic than the original show did, it can still be watched for a laugh or if you just want to be amused for half an hour, especially if you have kids. This year we also got the premiere of the second season of The Legend of Korra, titled Book Two: Spirits. The two-episode premiere had some flaws but was mostly solid and gave a lot of promise for the rest of the season; unfortunately the first half of the season, despite still being of good quality, did suffer from some flaws in execution that didn't start to get rectified until after a brilliant two-part episode in the middle of it's run. Still, the ending of the season was strong and took the series in a very interesting direction for the upcoming third season. Marvel's Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. was ABC's attempt to bring the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the small screen by focusing on the adventures of espionage and law-enforcement agency S.H.I.E.L.D. as they unravel the mysteries of the Marvel Universe that the superheroes are too busy to take on themselves. The show's pilot episode opened to high ratings and promised great potential for the first season, but as the season played out ratings did noticeably fall off for each subsequent episode as flaws became ore and more clear, as the good people at IGN can elaborate on better than I can. Still, the mid-season cliffhanger at least implies that things may hopefully pick up speed and help get the series back on track so it may reach its true potential. Additionally, Mortal Kombat: Legacy II, released through Machinima and directed by Kevin Tancharoen, was the sequel the highly successful first season web series released in 2011 based on the popular fighting video game franchise. The ten episodes that comprised the season were praiseworthy for their fight choreography and serious treatment of this very fantastic material, but ultimately are hindered but the limitation of budget and allotted running time, and for a disappointing re-invention of the franchise's main protagonist, Liu Kang.

Lastly, this examiner also reviewed four comic book releases as well. Throughout the year, he reviewed all three installments in a trilogy of comic books based on the fantastic animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, a trilogy titled The Search. Written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Gurihiru, the same team who is 2012 gave fans The Promise Trilogy, the comic books set out the finally answer the fans most frequently asked question regarding the show, "What happened to Zuko's mom?" and did so in a surprising, revealing, and emotional way that greatly intrigued and impressed this fan in particular; this examiner highly recommends these comics to any die hard fan of the series. In addition, this examiner also decided to review the first issue of a very unique comic book series that began this year, The Star Wars. The twelve-issue mini-series is an adaptation of George Lucas's original rough draft treatment for what would become his greatest legacy, and while comparisons to the Star Wars mythology we all know and love is inevitable, the comic gives us a fascinating glimpse into both the film we could have had and into the evolution of the creative process, showcasing just how much a storyteller's idea can evolve, often drastically, as it undergoes rewrites and revisions until it reaches it's final form that may have little to no resemblance to the story the creator originally set out to make; it really is a fascinating and highly recommended read for any hardcore Star Wars fan.

Yet another big year for this Fresno Pop Culture Examiner. Just like in 2012, I am impressed that I found this much to write about over the course of the year, and yet I'm also excited to see what I will have to say in 2013. Here is looking forward to another great year of articles and reviews for next year, and hopefully a year of new readers to share them with as well.

Until then...Happy New Year!

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