31 July 2011

Ben's Top Ten Comic Book Movies

Before 2000's X-Men paved the way for the blockbuster Spider-Man in 2002, comic book movies had a spotty history. Most of the ones that were successful weren't based on superheroes; those that were succeeded only in embarrassing comic fandom with their low-budget awfulness. Today, it's an expectation to see two or more superhero comic book movies every summer. Although a pessimist could see it as another symptom of Hollywood's further descent into creative bankruptcy, the flipside is that comic fans have now had the opportunity to see a bevy of heroes and villains come to life on the big screen, with mainstream appeal that many of us never thought possible. Backed by ever-larger budgets and the radical advances in special effects that have made comic book physics possible in live action, Hollywood superhero films have made it a truly a great time to be a comic fan.

It seems a fitting time, at the end of this summer chock full of more superhero movies than any I can remember, and as all of geekdom waits with breathless anticipation for next summer's Avengers film, to look back at the history of comic book and superhero movies and outline a personal top ten. Will The Avengers blow them all away? Tough to say, but I'm not counting on it; while the pantheon of movies establishing the Marvel Universe on film have been competent and highly enjoyable, few have that extra spark to elevate them to the realm of the truly extraordinary. Here are the ones that, in my mind, stand out heads and shoulders above.

10. Iron Man

The first Marvel movie designed specifically to build the Avengers film franchise faced the challenge of selling a B-list superhero to mainstream audiences. The movie succeeds almost entirely on the strength of Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark, but director Jon Favreau shouldn't be forgotten as the man who took a tough sell and made it work. It should also be noted that, like the best comic book films, it sticks very close to the source material. The journey of the reluctant hero, specifically a scoundrel turned virtuous, is exemplified in Tony's capture, enlightenment, escape and resolve to use his gifts for the betterment of humankind. That's something all audiences can cheer for. It's biggest weakness is a forgettable villain, but then again, I don't know that Iron Man has any memorable ones.

9. V for Vendetta

Combining the frightfulness of 1984-esque cautionary politics with the suspense of a conspiracy thriller and merciless revenge narrative, V for Vendetta is far from a superhero flick. The audience gets behind the protagonist V with trepidation as his tactics blur the line between terrorist and freedom fighter. He plans to liberate a fascist future Great Britain by blowing up Parliament, a plot that was timely and controversial in a post-9/11 world despite being written over two decades prior. James McTiege, who cut his teeth as an Assistant Director in the Matrix films, helms V with action that is stylistic but not overwhelming, keeping the plot rooted in intrigue rather than flash.

8. Spider-Man 2

In some cases a comic book movie sequel surpasses its predecessor because it gets to skip the prerequisite origin story necessary in most fledgling franchises. Spider-Man 2 is such a film; it not only features a more interesting villain (Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus as opposed to the Green Goblin in the first movie), but it hits Peter Parker's greatest struggle on a pitch-perfect note. I was actually unimpressed with the first Spider-Man and saw its sequel only out of obligation. To my surprise, it turned out to be one of the best comic book movies to date. Director Sam Raimi leaves more of a footprint on this second film of the Spider-Man trilogy, another of the film's many strengths.

7. X2: X-Men United

Here's another movie that gets to skip the origins and get right to the meat of a rousing superhero adventure. What makes X2 so great is how successfully it offers up the payoff from seeds sown in the first movie, summarized in Xavier's memorable line, "I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul who comes to that school, looking for trouble." And come they did-- General Stryker's crusade against mutant-kind starts the war that unites hero and villain alike against a common enemy. Combined with the revelations of Wolverine's past and the compelling new character Nightcrawler, X2 ranks as the best X-Men movie to date. It's a shame that director Bryan Singer left the franchise to make a lackluster Superman movie instead of dishing out more mutant madness.

6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

TMNT isn't usually perceived as a comic book movie; the 8 - 10-year-olds who saw it in theaters were most familiar with the cartoon and toy line. But the Turtles phenomenon originated in a 1984 adult-targeted comic by independent publisher Mirage Studios, and the film version jettisons most of the kiddie fare that accumulated in the interim. It stays more faithful to the tone of the original comics, slightly reworking elements of the first dozen issues or so to form a fresh take on the Turtles, free of the robot ninjas, Turtle vehicles and visitors from Dimension X that populated the cartoon. These Turtles cuss and clobber with the best of them, and possess a degree of internal drama and relationship dynamics that a kids' cartoon just couldn't touch.

5. Batman

Since Nolan debuted his Batman trilogy, the 1989 Tim Burton Batman has taken a lot of flak for being such a radical departure from its comic book roots. No one thought that way back when these films were rare, and it's easy to forget what a monumental blockbuster Batman was. While it's true that Nolan gives the best interpretation of Bruce Wayne himself, Burton and Jack Nicholson have to be given credit for nailing the Joker perfectly. Heath Ledger's Joker deserves praise, but comic book die-hards must admit that it is a radical departure from the character's pulpy roots. By contrast, Nicholson's Joker is one of those unforgettable, born-to-play-the-role casting choices that overshadow any of the film's flaws. And, to paraphrase the man himself, this Batman definitely has the most "wonderful toys."

4. The Rocketeer

The Rocketeer is another movie not often recognized for its comic roots, but being a kid-friendly Disney film doesn't stop it from delivering high adventure and campy retro excitement. It's no surprise that Marvel recently tapped Rocketeer director Joe Johnston to replicate his success in this film with the new Captain America, also set in the era of World War II. The visuals borrowed from the original Dave Stevens stories, including a bulldog-shaped cafe, the chisel-jawed pilot Cliff Secord and the iconic helmet and jet-pack are all replicated faithfully (chiseled jaw courtesy of a well-cast Bill Campbell). Cliff protects the very rocket technology that's strapped to his back from Nazis and gangsters in a yarn that combines the thrills of Indiana Jones with the soaring flight visuals of Superman.

3. The Dark Knight

When it premiered, many critics posited that The Dark Knight should be viewed less as a superhero movie and more as a crime drama, and they were right. The complexity of TDK's plot and the horror of the Joker's machinations as both crime boss and madman are what elevate it to the status of "best comic book movie ever" for many fans. Volumes have been written about Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, and, though it was Oscar-worthy, I stick to my guns that Nicholson was the "truer" Joker. TDK also suffers from the same problem as the Burton and Schumacher films in that the screen presence of two villains pushes Batman himself into the background. Still, it gets the third-place slot on my list because it is not only everything you could want from a Batman movie-- it's just a damn great movie, period.

2. Superman

The first big-budget comic book movie is also one of the greatest. Who but Superman could be the precursor to all the great superheroes that would follow? Superman is a huge and ambitious movie, starting on a doomed Krypton and taking its time building Superman's origin. By the time we flash forward to modern Metropolis, it feels like we're starting a second movie. It's at that point that Christopher Reeve makes his debut as the Man of Steel and nails the role in a way that no actor has done before or since (sorry, Dean Cain). He gets the duality of the nerdy Clark Kent and the fearless Superman, and has perfect chemistry with Margot Kidder's Lois Lane in both roles. Gene Hackman has a unique and lighter take on Lex Luthor, but it fits the tone of the film well and keeps the hero as the star.

1. Batman Begins

I'm not the only one who, when the dust settled after the mega-blockbuster Dark Knight, decided that its predecessor was the superior film. The reason is simple: this is the only Batman movie that is truly about Bruce Wayne, and Bruce Wayne only. Earlier I wrote that origin stories can sometimes bog down a comic book movie; in Batman Begins, the opposite is true. It is all origin story. Even the primary villain, Ra's al Ghul, relates to the plot from Wayne's own experiences training to become Batman. The movie took a gamble in using two lesser known villains, Ra's and the Scarecrow, and the decision works well in keeping the focus on Batman's roots, philosophy and quest. It wasn't easy for Christopher Nolan to wash the taste of the previous two Batman films away, but he did it, and that alone may be the biggest achievement in the history of comic book films.

04 July 2011

My Picks for the DC Relaunch

If you follow comic news at all, you know that in September, DC Comics is making a nigh-unprecedented move by "re-launching" all of its comics with new #1 issues. As part of that undertaking, they are canceling a lot of current series, starting a bunch of new ones, and pushing the "reset button" on decades of continuity within the shared universe of heroes like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Some characters will get entirely new origins, some will stay largely the same, but all of them will be younger and participate in stories that are more reflective of modern society.

Naturally this endeavor has caused an uproar in the fan community, with reactions ranging from the unbridled rage of the forum-trolling DC fanboy to the cautious curiosity of the more casual fan. I probably fall more toward the former in my reaction-- particularly because a lot of my favorite books are being canceled-- but I determined to give a handful of books in this reinvented DC Universe a shot before I jump ship. I'm giving the following ten books ONE issue to impress me, and one issue is all that a good writer/artist team should need. Here they are in reverse order, with the number one book being the one in which I'm most interested:

10. Red Hood and the Outlaws

I was against the resurrection of Jason Todd, the second Robin who now goes by the name of Red Hood, but since he seems to have become a cemented part of the DC Universe, I'm interested to see the new direction the character will take in this book. I'm also a big fan of Starfire, and am curious to see what she will be like when detached from the Teen Titans.

9. Justice League Dark

DC is now following Marvel's lead in forging multiple variations of its flagship team book. Justice League Dark is comprised of characters who typically deal in the mystical, the demonic and the otherworldly-- think Avengers if it they had Dr. Strange for a frontman. My primary interest in JLD is the presence of Zatanna, one of my favorite DC heroines whose own book is being canceled.

8. Flash

The Flash is one of those characters who I want to love, but can never seem to find much good material about. Like many second-tier DC characters, he doesn't have much of a rogue's gallery to speak of, and the apparent limitations of his powers can be a stumbling block for a lot of writers. But I'm curious to see what the new creative team can do with the newly resurrected Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen.

7. Action Comics

I won't deny being peeved that Superman's origin is being retooled so much. His new costume looks outright ridiculous, and the fact that his marriage to Lois Lane is being retconned makes me furious (a la the Spider-Man/Mary Jane marriage over at Marvel). Still, all those arguments crumble before the fact that Grant Morrison, my favorite writer and the author of one of the greatest Superman stories ever told, will be writing this new Action Comics.

6. Wonder Woman

Many long-time fans quit reading Wonder Woman after her last major revamp, just a single year ago. J. Michael Straczynski, who has done a number on a lot of characters, turned her from a majestic Amazon warrior to a leather-clad street thug. Now, while she may be keeping the stupid pants, it appears that she's being revamped again. I love the character so much that I'll bite once again and see what they're going to do with her this time. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised.

5. Justice League

I almost feel obligated to buy this book, since it's coming out first and is purported to be the cornerstone of the entire relaunch. Hopefully it will give insight into the changes we can expect to see in the new universe. If nothing else, there will be very pretty art from comics legend Jim Lee-- who, as has become apparent recently, draws really well but couldn't design a post-1990's costume to save his life.

4. Mister Terrific

Part of DCnU's intended purpose is to diversify their roster of heroes, so Mister Terrific is one of several black characters being brought to the forefront with his own title. Since the Justice Society of America to which he belonged will no longer exist in the DCnU (grrrr), I expect that Mister Terrific will be retooled quite a bit. I've always liked the character's personality and powers on that team, so I'm excited to see him get the spotlight.

3. Batgirl

Probably the most controversial title in the DCnU is Batgirl. After giving the mantle of Batgirl to a new and well-loved character, Stephanie Brown, only a couple of years ago, DC is hitting reverse and bringing back the character who defined the role, Barbara Gordon. This is a divisive move because Barbara has spent the last 20-odd years as Oracle, a paraplegic master hacker who formed her own team, the Birds of Prey. Many saw her as a great representative for those with disabilities, and giving her back her mobility seems to run contrary to the idea of "diversifying" the DCU. Still, it's being written by one of DC's best writers, Gail Simone, so it's hard to pass judgment on the new series yet.

2. Aquaman

Aquaman takes a lot of crap in the wider pop culture for being the "lamest" superhero. Now he is under the creative control of Geoff Johns, a man who has made a name for himself reinventing classic characters, most recently Green Lantern and the Flash. That being the case, I'm excited to see if Johns can do the impossible-- make Aquaman into a badass. Coupled with the art of Ivan Reis, with whom he worked on DC's Blackest Night series, and he could potentially make this a phenomenal series.

1. Batwoman

Batwoman, who starred in the best comics written in the last five years when she temporarily replaced Batman as the star of Detective Comics, isn't even really in the DCnU on purpose. J.H. Williams III has been at work on her solo series for what seems like forever now, and given the number of delays and the popularity of the character and her trademark artist, DC would be crazy to exclude her from their bold new venture. Thus, despite all of the hype for DC's revamp/reboot/relaunch/whatever you want to call it, I'm most excited about the one book that has absolutely nothing to do with it.

16 June 2011

Twin Peaks Review

Ever since I became a fan of LOST, people have been asking me if I've seen Twin Peaks. I recently, finally, took a look at the short-lived cult favorite show from the brilliantly disturbed mind of famed director David Lynch. As a serial show centered around a few main mysteries, it has a lot in common with LOST, but also differs in some key ways that led to its quick demise after only two seasons. Despite its flaws, it's a worthwhile show, deserving of its iconic status, and a treat for LOST fans who want more suspense, thrills, and extended, involving storylines.

Like LOST, Twin Peaks made its mark in pop culture lexicon, so the question "Who killed Laura Palmer?" might be familiar even to TV and film buffs who haven't seen the show. That's the question that opens Twin Peaks, and propels an exploration of the dark secrets and quirky characters that populate the seemingly charming titular town nestled in the mountains of Washington state. The teenaged girl's body washes up on a river outside the home of Twin Peaks resident Pete Martell not long before another girl, Ronette Pulaski, emerges from the woods, bloodied, battered and in shock from whatever nightmare unfolded the night before. The investigation of both events brings FBI agent Dale Cooper to Twin Peaks, thus beginning his odyssey into the mysteries and supernatural forces that surround the town.

David Lynch is an auteur director, with a visual style easily recognizable to those familiar with his work. Though he only directs the early episodes and some key ones later in the series, he leaves his mark on the dark, spine-tingling tone of Twin Peaks. It's a mishmash of moods, ranging from the comedic to the horrifying. Twin Peaks oddly yet successfully combines the whimsical antics of some of the comic relief characters with a chilling murder investigation and other serious topics like domestic abuse, drug use and entrepreneurial corruption.

The likeable protagonist, Dale Cooper, is played by Kyle MacLachlan in his most famous role. To say that Cooper is eccentric is an understatement, yet his quirky traits are charming and almost always germane to his investigation.

He becomes fast friends with Sheriff Harry Truman and his deputies, who learn to forgive Cooper's bizarre methods as it becomes apparent that they bring real results.

Meanwhile, Laura Palmer's high school friends Donna and James begin their own investigation into Laura's murder while sparring with obnoxious football jock Bobby and mixing it up with other Twin Peaks residents and their own personal dramas.

It's sometimes hard to keep track of all the ways in which Twin Peaks' main cast of at least 15 regulars (and many more recurring characters) are interrelated. It seems that almost everyone has at least two lovers, and often there are multiple layers of betrayal, as in the case of hotel owner Ben Horne's plot to burn down a saw mill to make room for his next commercial venture. The main element that will keep the viewer coming back is the mystery of Laura Palmer's murder and the cryptic clues that make the answer seem to get further away with each installment.

Those clues are the sort of fare in Twin Peaks that will be appealing to LOST fans. In the pilot, Cooper extracts a small printed letter from Laura's fingernail and is certain not only that the murder ties to one he investigated previously, but that the killer is sending a message. In the old train car that served as the scene of the grisly crime, Cooper and Harry discover half of a necklace and the words "Fire walk with me" written in blood. Later in the series, and without giving too much away, there are locales like an old cabin and a circle of ash that provide more clues-- hey LOST fans, sound familiar?

Lynch's trademark surreal imagery plays a major role in the show. Early on, Laura's mother has disturbing visions, her shrill screaming echoing in the viewer's mind and giving goosebumps. Cooper, who already conducts his business in the most unconventional ways, becomes even more unpredictable when has a bizarre dream early in the series (the first of many) and spends several episodes trying to decipher it, convinced that it contains the solution to Laura's death.

As he, Donna, James and other characters unravel the events leading to the brutal murder, it becomes apparent that the seemingly pristine prom queen was leading a lurid double life. The side of herself that she hid from the residents of Twin Peaks is what ultimately sealed her fate.

Mention must be made of the bone-chilling score by Angelo Badalamenti, a recurring collaborator with Lynch, and a linchpin in establishing the mood of Twin Peaks (and Lynch's other works). With simple notes and low, rumbling growls of the synthesizer, he enhances the suspense and horror of the series' key sequences. In comedic scenes, he evokes a sort of 50's motif, light but mischievous. He also knows where to place a few incidental tracks in surprising but appropriate places. The drawback is that several of his compositions are used far too frequently; unlike modern shows, he didn't do entirely original scores for each episode. But in the right dosage, Badalamenti is magnificent.

For all of its compelling intrigue, the biggest difference between Twin Peaks and LOST was that it was mismanaged in its second season and, largely because of network interference, suffered a sharp decline midway through. Unsurprisingly, audiences who once made Twin Peaks a pop culture phenomenon abandoned the show in droves, and it sank even faster than Heroes, a more recent serial that became a disaster in its sophomore outing. In fact, the show crashed and burned so quickly that it took a letter writing campaign by Twin Peaks devotees to convince CBS to even air the last handful of episodes. While the last few episodes picked up in quality, the damage was done and Twin Peaks took a bow, becoming the stuff of legend among lovers of thought-provoking, highly artistic entertainment.

Three primary factors contributed to the death of Twin Peaks. First, David Lynch and fellow creator Mark Frost left the project in less capable hands to pursue other endeavors after the first season. The directors and writers that followed made comparatively mediocre contributions, and Twin Peaks became less like a surreal crime drama with humor sprinkled in and more like a soap opera. The exploits of secondary and tertiary characters like Lucy Moran, who gets pregnant and tries to pinpoint the father, and Bobby and Shelly, who concoct various schemes to make money while supporting a comatose family member, are not nearly as captivating as earlier threads. Even less so are vapid new characters like Evelyn Marsh and Dick Tremane. The show was always at its best when it focused on the core character of Dale Cooper.

Next, it became apparent early in season 2 that Twin Peaks would take a highly supernatural bend, and this alienated a lot of casual television viewers who were on board for the melodrama and the promise of a crime caper grounded in reality. Like LOST, it took Twin Peaks a bit of time to reveal its true colors, with very little early indication that it would feature spirits, elaborate visions, and communications from beyond.

For viewers like me, that's when an already great show gets even better. Viewers who relish in the otherworldly have much to love in Twin Peaks. But, of course, such elements had the opposite effect on many others, who felt betrayed upon finding that Laura Palmer's murder was much more than a mundane whodunnit.

Along with that sense of misdirection came the network-mandated reveal of Laura Palmer's killer halfway through season 2. At the time, it was thought that declining ratings were due to the drawn-out resolution of Twin Peaks' primary plot device. The plan was to continue the antics of the town's residents afterward by introducing new story arcs for Cooper and other characters, but it turned out to be a major miscalculation. After audiences knew who killed Laura, they tuned out in droves and ratings dropped like a rock. It didn't help that the story arcs that followed were much less interesting. Twin Peaks was synonymous with the mystery of Laura Palmer's death, but the networks only realized that after the point of no return.

When Twin Peaks got the axe, David Lynch got a chance to take one more trip into his fictional town in the form of a follow-up movie titled Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The film is actually a prequel revealing the details of the last days of Laura's life. While it contains much of Lynch's trademark surrealism, it fails to engross the viewer like the series once did due to the simple fact that it merely retreads past events already uncovered and referenced on the show. It's enough to learn about Laura's murder through Cooper's investigation and leave the details of it to our imaginations; we don't need to see that brutality unfold when it adds little to the mythos. Conversely, lingering questions that loyal viewers wanted answered go unaddressed, making for a frustrating experience. Fire Walk With Me is certainly not essential to the Twin Peaks experience.

It's safe to say that there's been nothing on television like Twin Peaks, before or since. Even LOST stopped short of the depths of the bizarre that Lynch probed on primetime TV as he chronicled Agent Cooper's exploits. There is so much to captivate fans of suspenseful drama and surreal, artistic cinema that one can overlook the series' low points. The box set is available here, sans the movie, which can be ordered here. The series is also available streaming from Netflix. If you try it and you find yourself wanting more David Lynch, check out Mulholland Drive, probably the director's magnum opus and one of my all-time favorite movies.

Fun fact: Several well-known actors had roles in Twin Peaks early in their careers. Lara Flynn Boyle played Donna and was one of the few lead actors from the show who moved on to larger roles. Heather Graham guest stars as a love interest for Cooper, Billy Zane gets involved with rich girl Audrey for a brief stint, and The X-Files' David Duchovny... well, Duchovny's role you just have to see to believe. Twin Peaks also featured no less than three actors from the 1987 sci-fi classic Robocop-- a mini-reunion of sorts between Miguel Ferrer, Ray Wise and Dan O'Herlihy.

05 January 2011

Ranking the Characters: Final Fantasy VI

Here's a new little project. For nostalgia's sake, I'm taking a look back at Final Fantasies 6 through 9-- you know, back when Final Fantasy was still an RPG series-- and ranking the characters. The final score will be a combined total of three traits: design, or the look of the character both on screen and in official promo art; story, or the character's background and personality; and playability, or how good the character is in actual combat. Each trait is ranked from 1 to 10. If there are ties, I'm breaking them based on personal preference because, y'know... it's my list.

Without further delay, here are my rankings for Final Fantasy VI, from lowest to highest:

14. Gau
Design: 1
Story: 3
Usability: 1

Gau is so worthless. It's just the truth. His Leap/Rage command only appeals to the most rabid completists who are willing to spend hours on the Veldt learning useless, unpredictable and often harmful enemy skills. Once Rage is activated, Gau is out of the player's control for the rest of the fight, making the him a poor choice for boss battles. He looks like something a rabid raccoon puked up in your trash can, and has no story aside from a chance encounter with an old man who is hinted to have abandoned him.

13. Strago
Design: 4
Story: 3
Usability: 3

Strago only ekes out a 4 in design because Amano's illustrations of him look cool. He's uninteresting, since he's from an entire village that can use magic and therefore not unique. While his Lore command gives him access to a handful of spells that only he can use, almost all of them have general magic equivalents that are as effective or more so. There's not too much else to say about him, really. He's not actively detestable like Gau, but he's a total waste of space.

12. Relm
Design: 5
Story: 4
Usability: 1

Relm looks pretty cool in the Amano illustrations, but she's a drag as a party member. The Sketch command is unreliable-- it's basically like a one-time use Rage command. It's kind of cool that she is heavily implied to be Shadow's daughter, and she somehow tames the viscious attack dog Interceptor, but usually she is teeth-grindingly annoying (she paved the way for Yuffie and Eiko in a way).

11. Mog
Design: 7
Story: 2
Usability: 4

I wish I could like Mog. I mean, he's a Moogle, one of the primary Final Fantasy mascots. He gets design points for that alone. But there's just not much to him. He has no story to speak of. His Dance command, like many of these lower ranked characters, is unreliable and generally unhelpful once he goes on auto-pilot. His eight dances basically render him like Gau, if Gau only had 8 Rage commands. He doesn't look as stupid as Gau, but otherwise they're depressingly similar.

10. Gogo
Design: 5
Story: 2
Usability: 7

Gogo's got a wild look typical for Amano, but no story to speak of (although the offbeat dungeon you must navigate to recruit him earns a point). It's usability where Gogo really shines. Any attack you want to do, you can do twice with Gogo in your team. This makes executing the game's most devastating moves, like Bum Rush, Chain Saw and Ultima, doubly effective.

9. Umaro
Design: 7
Story: 2
Usability: 4

Umaro's a pretty fun character. You can't control him, but you can find Relics that add abilities to his repertoire. Unlike Gau or Mog, his attacks usually do a healthy chunk of damage, even to bosses. Once you near the end of the game, you want to have more control over your party, so he's not a good choice for the final battles. He has no story, but gets a point for the fun interchange with Mog when you first recruit him. In terms of design, he's pretty simple, but hey, how cool is it to have a badass Yeti on your team?

8. Setzer
Design: 7
Story: 7
Usability: 4

Setzer's one of those characters who's so cool, you wish he was a better fighter. The Slot command sucks, as they always do; furthermore, he's not a very strong fighter with any of his game-based weapons. He just looks awesome, though, and he has a pretty good story in the game. From his grand entrance kidnapping Celes to his history with Darill and being the owner of the world's only airship, Setzer makes a great addition to the cast of Final Fantasy VI. Maybe they just should have kept him as an NPC.

7. Terra
Design: 6
Story: 8
Usability: 6

Some may consider Terra the "main character" of Final Fantasy VI, but I think it's hard to argue that when she is absent from so much of the game. More than any other entry in the series, FFVI is really an ensemble story. Still, as a half-Esper, she's a crucial piece of the story in the first half of the game. She's great as an early magic user, and the Morph command she gains later can be of use with some boss fights. Oddly, of all the characters, her sprite looks the least like the original Amano designs, but both are pretty cool.

6. Edgar
Design: 7
Story: 7
Usability: 8

Edgar is a powerhouse addition to any party lineup. His non-elemental Tool attacks are devastating and diverse, with both single enemy attacks and ones that hit multiple targets. He's got a pretty good story too as the King of Figaro, with a legacy to uphold and a brother with whom to reconcile as the game unfolds. His design is cool, if predictably regal, though it doesn't seem to match the motif of the Tool command. Still, Edgar's on the short list of must-have party members.

5. Sabin
Design: 5
Story: 7
Usability: 10

Sabin's appearance is pretty simple, basically a dude in a tank top with a flat top haircut. He looks like he could be Guile's distant relative. But his story, which intertwines with Edgar's, is a good one. On the battlefield, Sabin is a monster. His Blitz attacks decimate most enemies and are fun to execute with their fighting game-style button sequences. He's also great for healing the party at no MP cost. Once he learns magic, Sabin becomes one of the most well-rounded fighters in the game.

4. Locke
Design: 8
Story: 10
Usability: 6

Locke is a good fighter. Coupled with his unique Steal command, that makes him a great asset to the party. He also looks like a badass, a little impish and sneaky but clearly not a man to be messed with. But it's Locke's storyline that ranks him near the top of the list. His touching quasi-romance with Celes brings emotion to this dark entry in the Final Fantasy series. As we learn more about his past, he grows to become the most fleshed-out character of them all. You just have to root for him.

3. Shadow
Design: 9
Story: 8
Usability: 8

If you want to lay waste to your enemies in battle, look no further than Shadow. Not only is he a daunting physical fighter with some unique weapons, but his Throw command makes use of an arsenal of deadly and powerful weapons. His dog, Interceptor, often makes a big difference in a fight with his guards and counterattacks. As for looks, Shadow is a very traditional ninja in appearance, and you just can't argue with perfection. His story is unique and engaging in that it must be pieced together by the player through flashbacks.

2. Celes
Design: 7
Story: 10
Usability: 9

Though they share many scenes, Celes edges out Locke simply because of her awesome Runic command. The ability to absorb all magic attacks from a foe turns the tide in many a battle. In addition, like Terra, she is an early magic user, and a powerful physical fighter to boot. Her story is closely related to Locke's and is equally emotional, but she steals the show in FFVI's most memorable scene, the opera. Amano's designs of Celes look great, deftly capturing the feel of femininity in a powerful military general.

1. Cyan
Design: 6
Story: 10
Usability: 10

Cyan's design is his only flaw, as he sports a rather bland blue suit of armor (though Amano's illustrations have more variety and dynamism). Like Sabin and Edgar, his attacks are unique and devastating to the opposition. If timed properly, the wait time for his SwdTech command isn't even noticeable, leaving him with no real disadvantages as a fighter. When it comes to character, none has a more tragic story than Cyan. The player feels his rage at Kefka for the murder of his family, and he gets additional resolution later in the game. Cyan is a big player in the story and, for me, the all-around best character in Final Fantasy VI.