Brad Shankar’s favourite things of 2018

Superheroes and sleazy lawyers and Gods of War, oh my!

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

In many ways, 2018 has been arguably more disheartening than 2017 in terms of global political and social events.

But rather than dwell on the negative, we here at MobileSyrup like to reflect on some of the things that truly had a positive impact on us throughout the year. In that regard, entertainment has been a resounding success in 2018, filled from beginning to end with some of the most incredible artistic works from the past several years. With that in mind, here are five of my personal favourite things from the year.

It’s worth noting that this is also an opportunity for me to right a wrong from last year when my ‘Five Favourite Things’ list (bafflingly) included three movies, a video game and a technological trend. This made it feel both poorly structured and disappointingly lacking in variety, so to keep things more interesting, I’m going to point to one ‘favourite thing’ per medium and give a brief shoutout to one honourable mention.

The AIAS Game Maker’s Notebook podcast

As great as some gaming podcasts can be, they almost always come from the perspective of a journalist or internet personality. What makes The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ Game Maker’s Notebook podcast so notable, then, is that Ted Price, president and CEO of prolific games developer Insomniac Games, is the one hosting the show. With over 20 years of experience on the likes of Spyro the DragonRatchet and Clank and, most recently, Marvel’s Spider-Man, Price is able to give phenomenal insight into the world of game development.

This ensures that his rapport with his developer guests always feels natural and enlightening. Best of all, Price deftly manages to keep it all fun and jargon-free, meaning that anyone can appreciate the general back-and-forth discussion on each developer’s design philosophies. Some of this year’s guests include NetherRealm Studios founder and creative director Ed Boon (Mortal Kombat, Injustice), Bethesda Game Studios director and executive producer Todd Howard (The Elder Scrolls V: SkyrimFallout 4) and Toronto’s own Capybara Games co-founder and CEO Nathan Vella (Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, Below).

My personal favourite guest, though, was most certainly Sony Santa Monica’s Cory Barlog, the creative director and co-writer of this year’s sensational God of War (see more below). Barlog comes off as nothing less than eminently kind and humble, which makes it especially remarkable to hear him go into the incredible amount of work and passion that went into making the game. Incidentally, he’s also the star of one of the most heartwarming videos I’ve seen this year.

Honourable mention: Kinda Funny’s ‘In Review’ podcast series — The Kinda Funny guys are some of the most likeable content creators on the web, so seeing them review each entry in various comic book movie franchises is endlessly entertaining.

Better Call Saul (Season four)

Warning: spoilers for Breaking Bad’s fourth season below

With Breaking Bad rightfully being heralded as one of the greatest TV series of all time, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould really have had their work out for them on the Saul Goodman-led prequel Better Call Saul. I’m still not ready to say it’s on the level of Breaking Bad, which is my personal all-time favourite show, but it sure came close in its fourth season.

This year, Better Call Saul took suspended lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) in some truly fascinating directions. With his brother’s (Michael McKean) shadow looming over him more than ever, Jimmy ends up continuing to drift down the dark path toward fully becoming Saul Goodman. Seeing him drag the ever-loyal Kim (Rhea Seehorn, giving this season’s most powerful and nuanced performance) down with him — as well as the resulting strain this puts on their relationship — is heartbreaking, however inevitable it may have been. Jimmy McGill is dead — long live Saul Goodman.

At the same time, season four leaned further into the show’s tantalizing Breaking Bad connections through Mike’s (Jonathan Banks) efforts to grow Gus’ (Giancarlo Esposito) burgeoning drug business. Learning more about the painstaking work that went into building that empire — particularly from Mike’s perspective — only makes its eventual fall at the hands of Walter White years later feel all the more impactful.

Between a brilliant ending and lingering questions about Saul’s post-Breaking Bad fate, season five really can’t come fast enough.

Honourable mention: DC’s Legends of Tomorrow — Once seen as the black sheep of the CW’s superhero show family, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow has quickly become the network’s absolute best ‘Arrowverse‘ series by expertly blending Deadpool-esque irreverence with surprisingly emotional storytelling.

God of War

God of War Kratos and Atreus in boat

Despite being one of PlayStation’s biggest franchises, God of War has historically suffered from one major problem — protagonist Kratos was always a terrible, thoroughly unlikeable character. All he did was scream and kill people, which doesn’t exactly make for an interesting lead.

The easy thing to do for the next game, then, would have been to reboot the franchise entirely. But Sony Santa Monica instead undertook the seemingly insurmountable challenge of continuing Kratos’ story, baggage and all. The end result is a game that retains the sweeping scale of its predecessors while telling a deeply personal and unforgettable story about father and son. Indeed, it’s through the introduction of Kratos’ wholly endearing son Atreus that Santa Monica Studio has finally managed to bring much-needed depth to the grizzled warrior.

Quite brilliantly, Sony Santa Monica managed to weave that central narrative into every bit of gameplay, feeding everything the player does — be it the fantastic axe combat or intriguing Norse mythology-based exploration and sidequests — into the larger idea of protecting and teaching Atreus. Should Kratos be damned for his sins? Maybe, but he’s certainly not going to let his son make the same mistakes. Everything has a well-defined purpose in God of War, and it’s just a blast to to play, to boot. In addition to (deservedly) winning Game of the Year at this year’s Game AwardsGod of War will easily go down as one of the best games of this entire generation.

Honourable mention: Marvel’s Spider-Man — This year, Insomniac Games gave us the best Spider-Man game yet thanks to top-notch web-swinging and combat mechanics in addition to one of the most compelling interpretations of the character to date.

Pray for Me

For one reason or another, it’s become quite popular to hate on Black Panther lately, but I still find Ryan Coogler’s superhero epic every bit as excellent as I did back in February. That’s in no small part due to the film’s music. While Ludwig Goranson’s original score is sublime, my favourite song ended up coming from the Black Panther album’s “Pray for Me,” by The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar. To be clear, the album as a whole is great, particularly the Academy Award-shortlisted “All The Stars,” but “Pray for Me” has stuck with me the most for a number of reasons.

For one, I’ve always liked The Weeknd (and being from Toronto makes him even cooler), who performs the song with an appropriately haunting croon. Kendrick Lamar’s verses, meanwhile, are equally strong. What’s more, “Pray for Me” also gets deeper emotional meaning when you relate its lyrics to the tragic story of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, who is one of the most gripping and fearsome cinematic villains in recent memory.

Notably, the song also appears in Black Panther itself when T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) stake out the South Korean casino to find Klaue (Andy Serkis), which leads to some solid character interactions, a great one-shot brawl and even a fun Stan Lee cameo.

Honourable mention: “Don’t Think Twice” — Utada Hikaru’s theme song for Kingdom Hearts III — one of my most anticipated games of all time — is sung beautifully and lends an appropriately sombre feel to the long-awaited conclusion of Sora and friends’ struggle against the villainous Master Xehanort.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse characters

Last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming finally gave me the cinematic version of the iconic Marvel hero that I’d always wanted, following years of flat and mischaracterizing Tobey Maguire performances and messy, misguided Andrew Garfield-led films. As a result, I didn’t think that any other film adaptation could ever top that for me, besides, perhaps, next year’s Homecoming sequel, Far From Home.

Then Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse crawled its way into 2018 and became not only the best Spider-Man movie yet, but also one of the greatest superhero movies of all time. Despite being the seventh Spider-Man flick since 2002, creative dream team Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 and 22 Jump Street) have turned the wall-crawler’s latest big screen adventure into this year’s most utterly entertaining, imaginative and heartfelt movie.

Cleverly, rather than give us yet another Peter Parker-led story, the filmmakers have instead decided to focus on the irresistibly charming Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). Miles’ struggle to find his place in the world is moving, especially when you factor in his complicated relationships with his father and uncle. But it’s his off-kilter dynamic with Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) — a refreshingly older and more cynical version of Spider-Man — that wound up being the most compelling narrative thread of Into the Spider-Verse. Throw in a number of other great characters, including Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and you have a veritable Avengers-esque gathering of colourful Spider-People that celebrates exactly what makes Spider-Man so special.

That’s to say nothing of Into the Spider-Verse‘s phenomenal, one-of-a-kind animation, which was handled by a talented 180-person team mostly operating out of Vancouver. With a stunning visual style enhanced by the occasional comic book-style thought bubble, caption and sound effect, Into the Spider-Verse‘s truly feels like a Marvel comic come to life.

Further, this deep reverence for the source material carries over to some profoundly touching tributes to Spider-Man co-creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. While both of these wonderful men — whose impact on me simply can’t be understated — sadly passed away earlier this year, their work is, at least, honoured so wonderfully in Into the Spider-Verse. In fact, between this movie, Tom Holland’s scene-stealing role in Avengers: Infinity War and the recent PlayStation 4 game, this has arguably been the best time to be a Spider-Man fan, period. Excelsior!

Honourable mention: Avengers: Infinity War — Despite a seemingly unwieldy cast, Infinity War‘s enthralling 10-years-in-the-making story nonetheless manages to give each of its heroes their time to shine while also offering up one of blockbuster cinema’s most memorable and well-realized villains in Josh Brolin’s Thanos.

Image credit: Better Call Saul – Sony Pictures Television/AMC, God of War – Sony Interactive Entertainment, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Animation