Deadpool 2 is better than the first

The creative team behind them is 110% committed to getting it right.

When I was in college working toward my BFA in musical theatre I took a class early in my degree which involved a few acting exercises. One of those exercises will stick with me forever. We were split into pairs and told to have one person do everything in their power to make the other laugh while the other person tried to avoid said laughter. This is the sort of game you might play as kids just because kids are imaginative and it doesn’t require anything in particular, but it’s also a really good acting exercise. When you’re acting, especially live, things go wrong and you have to roll with it and not break character.

Anyway, the lady I was paired with tried her darnedest to make me laugh but she was making absolutely no progress. There are a lot of reasons that she couldn’t make me laugh but one of the biggest was her inability to fully commit. Nothing against her but acting was not her passion. As I recall, she switched to a fashion degree shortly thereafter. Telling a joke or being funny requires being committed. If you half-ass it because you’re worried about the response or looking stupid or any other reason you will look stupid and people will feel awkward and pity you instead of laughing at you.

As she was trying to make me laugh one of the guys in another pair jumped up on a platform behind half of the class. I don’t remember exactly how he went about it but he walked or ran until he fell off the platform and dropped suddenly and unexpectedly which caused everyone who could see him to laugh out loud, including me. He was fully committed to getting that laugh and it worked.

Deadpool 2 continues the creative team’s efforts from the first movie to be fully committed to what they’re trying to accomplish. Nothing is held back. The gore and blood and violence are there. The jokes similarly shove themselves into your eardrums without waiting for permission. Ryan Reynolds gives everything he has to fully realizing the Merc with the Mouth. He doesn’t hesitate when the time comes to be gross or crass he just goes for it. This is what makes both of these movies so good.

The moment that made this stand out in stark highlight was the climactic battle of the movie. I’m not going to get into spoilers but it’s an action movie so if you didn’t know there was going to be a climactic battle I’d think you maybe have no business watching Deadpool movies. The fight itself was very Deadpoolish but while it was going on they replaced your standard orchestra/choral singing with this song:

They could have used any kind of generic lyrics or gone entirely without and just had the choir voice vowel sounds and no one would have noticed or complained. A lot of people probably missed this joke entirely on their first run of the movie – though they do play it at the end of the credits to make sure you get the full effect. But Deadpool’s creative team doesn’t ask themselves, “What would be the cheapest or easiest way to get this done?” they ask themselves, “What would be the absolute best way?” and then they ask, “Can we add anything else to make sure it’s perfect?”

The only thing that worries me is that the fear that some people will see the ultra-violence or the crass jokes and think that that’s what’s really doing it for the Deadpool franchise and try to just ape those aspects. But, of course, that’s not entirely what’s going on here. A lot of peoople are enjoying those elements but what really makes these movies work is the complete commitment to presenting the most authentic version of Deadpool on the big screen as humanly possible. Any movie team that similarly commits to whatever it is they’re trying to do will likely meet with similar success.

Deadpool movies are not and will never be for everyone. You need to be old enough to deal with the stuff they’re going to show you and you also have to enjoy them. But if you  do enjoy the comics or enjoyed the first Deadpool film I can easily recommend this one even more because Ryan Reynolds and friends didn’t let their feet off the gas, at all.

The 4 best and 4 worst things about Solo: A Star Wars story

The movie has ups and downs but ultimately comes out ahead.

Solo: A Star Wars Story came out last weekend. I put it in a poll against Deadpool 2 and it squeaked out as the movie for which people wished to see me write a review. So here we are. Here’s an odd thing. When I walked out of the theater I was pretty sure I hadn’t enjoyed the movie. But the more I thought about it as I was preparing to write this review the more I realized that yeah, I did enjoy it.

It was a pretty generic summer blockbuster but there’s value in that kind of movie, too. They don’t make you think hard, they don’t make you cry too much, they don’t piss you off. They’re there. They’re the pretzels at the bar. Comforting and offering a pleasant distraction with their familiarity even when they aren’t particularly note-worthy.

One thing I think is of particular interest is that this movie demonstrates Disney’s continued desire to implement large chunks of the old Expanded Universe stories that they axed out of the canon in one of their first moves after purchasing the IP. We’ve seen this before in Disney asking Timothy Zahn to write a new Thrawn book to add to the new canon before they added the character to the TV show Rebels. The writers of this film also borrowed from the young Han Solo trilogy written by Ann C. Crispin. The original story was a trilogy of books so some chunks of the story are condensed while others are left for possible future films and some of the details are different but many of the same major character moves for Han still exist in both stories very similarly.

Even being a very generic movie, there were a few things that stood out, both good and bad, in the movie. Let’s look at those, shall we? SPOILERS ahead!

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

The trailers were misleading

The trailers made this movie look like it was going to be a heist movie in the vein of Ocean’s 11 set in space. You may recall that one of the first articles ever posted on this website was one in which I hoped that Jon Snow’s trip beyond the wall in Game of Thrones was going to be turned into a miniature fantasy version of a heist flick. Heist movies are one of the few genres that greatly intrigue me outside of fantasy and sci-fi. Every time I think I see a meshing of the heist with one of the other two I always get excited and this movie was no exception. But it didn’t really happen at all.

The train robbery that the latest trailer focused so much on was really just the end of the first act of the movie. It involved something of the highly specialized crew but the recruitment phase that is a staple of the genre doesn’t really exist and the entire story arc is over so quickly that it doesn’t feel very heist-y. The infamous Kessel Run was used as part of the second act of the movie, but again it only gets an act devoted to it instead of an entire movie and again omits the necessary crew building step as they only make one stop to add to their team and there’s little to no specialization among the various group members. The movie also ignores all three opportunities it has for describing intricate plans, another staple of the genre.

The movie works as the generic sci-fi action flick it ends up being but it’s always confusing and frustrating when trailers lie directly to the potential audience like that.

It reintroduced the Kessel Run workaround

As I mentioned above they included a story arc about the infamous Kessel Run. For those of you who are not nerdy enough to remember what that is, let me explain. In Star Wars: A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker meets Han Solo for the first time Han brags that the Millenium Falcon is one of the fastest ships in the galaxy and that it even made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Now, in the context of only that movie, it was probably a writing error because parsec sounds like a fancy futuristic unit of time. A parsec is a unit of distance, though, and some people endlessly made fun of the movies. (The script apparently indicates that Han was lying through his teeth in an attempt to con Obi Wan and so one could interpret that to mean that Han was the one making the error rather than the writers. George Lucas also later indicated that Han was both telling the truth and that the distance unit is used because the Falcon accomplished the feat with superior navigating rather than velocity. So there’s definitely some mystery, here) In the expanded universe a workaround was introduced wherein getting to Kessel required flying past a cluster of black holes known collectively as The Maw. A faster, smaller ship could do the run in less distance because it would be able to fly closer to the black holes while trusting the lack of mass and velocity to keep it from sucked in.

The movie changes some things. Instead of flying through/past The Maw ships are forced to navigate a deadly combination nebula and asteroid field known as The Maelstrom (which is pronounced bafflingly by Lando as “The Maw-lstrsom”). When they flee Kessel after successfully performing their theft they are forced to flee through the Maelstrom without using the safe route that has been inexplicably blockaded by Imperial forces (Yes, it’s a pretty glaring plot hole but is really just a means to an end, so we’ll let it slide.) During their flight through the nebula, they do come across The Maw, but it’s not the same. It’s described by the characters as a single massive gravity well instead of a cluster of black holes. I’m not sure what the difference between a massive gravity well not created by a planet or star and a black hole is, but that’s how they describe it. Eventually, Han and company escape and he immediately starts crowing about how they made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. It was a nice call-back to both the original series and the Expanded Universe many of us grew up with.

The action was abysmal

As I’ve mentioned before, I am by no means any sort of expert on combat sequences. But even I could tell that the action scenes in this movie were abysmal. I’m not sure what led to the issues but the majority of the fight scenes were so shaky and filled with so many cuts that it was quite impossible to figure out who was doing what to whom at any point until the fights were finished.

The relationship between Han and Chewie was great

The action was abysmal, but a lot of the emotion was terrific. I think if you asked casual fans what they most wanted to see in this movie they would say the beginnings of Han and Chewie’s relationship. I don’t know that that item would be as high for the more hardcore fans but it would probably be on the list, too. And you absolutely get to see that relationship from the very beginning and follow through as they gradually go from guys working on a criminal crew because they don’t even know what else to do into lifelong friends who just want to stay one step ahead of everyone and anyone who might want to kill them.

Perhaps the best part of their relationship is how the movie allows it to grow alongside the plot instead of trying to force things. It happens very naturally and organically as the story unfolds and it’s really terrific. Aldon Ehrenreich was not a 100% pitch-perfect Han Solo, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the rumors indicated he might be and his best moments were always with Chewie which would be the place I’d want the strongest moments to go, anyway.

Emilia Clarke is maybe not a very good actor

Emilia Clarke gained fame and notoriety for her role as the Dothraki Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones. She’s a hot ticket for any movie that wants to add some female star power. But the more I watch her the less convinced I am that she actually has much acting talent. I noted in several of last season’s Game of Thrones reviews that while the plot was still treating her as a superhero her actions and emotions were far less consistent with that reading of her character. Watching her as Qi’ra in this movie I again felt like her actions and emotions were out of sync with who and what the movie wanted us to see her as. In Game of Thrones, I figured it was bad writing, but now that the sample size has increased I start to wonder if it’s actually the acting.

Her character doesn’t seem to feel anything strongly throughout the entire movie. The most animated she gets is when Han kisses her, but she doesn’t otherwise act particularly as though she likes him. Unless you count that she seems to stick her neck out for him at the beginning of the second act but that could also be read as her seeing an opportunity to take out Vos. The problem with either interpretation is that she never expresses a desire to accomplish either of those things until she gets the latter at the end of the film.

Apparently all she ever wanted was a chance to kill Vos and take his place in the dastardly criminal organization, Crimson Dawn. But without any sort of foreshadowing for that moment it reads as a writer choice to keep her separated from Han so that it will be just him and Chewie when Luke needs a ride off of Tatooine in a decade rather than a reasonable conclusion for her character arc.

Don’t get me wrong, it could still definitely be the writing. For all Solo’s high points it’s got some low ones and not writing her character well would easily fall within the bounds of the other issues with the movie. But this is the second time I’ve been able to watch her and think, “Clarke seems to only be able to act one beat per scene, max, and it isn’t even always one of the beats that belongs there.” and that probably isn’t all on bad writing.

Donald Glover’s Lando was amazing

When I saw 2009’s Star Trek reboot there was one actor who completely out-did everyone else, for my money. Karl Urban was given the responsibility of bringing DeForest Kelley’s Leonard “Bones” McCoy back to life on the big screen despite not looking anything like the original actor. Urban was so good in the role that he solidified his position as one of my favorite current actors. He didn’t just duplicate the acting and emotional choices the original actor might have made but he also duplicated mannerisms and intonations that Kelley may never have even been consciously aware of.

I bring this up because Donald Glover did the exact same thing with his version of Lando Calrissian. His first lines were spoken from off-screen and, out of context, I would have been hard-pressed to tell you whether that was a line spoken by Donald Glover or Billy Dee Williams. He brought that level of authenticity to the character throughout the entire movie. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone, though. Even from the very first trailer, it was obvious that Glover embodied the charisma of the Williams’ interpretation of the character and during the press tours it came out that Billy Dee actually met with Donald for lunch and answered questions about how to play the character. My one complaint about Lando Calrissian in this movie was the decision to change him from a gambler who was so very good at it that it was nearly a super-power into a common cheater and grifter. But there could definitely have been worse things. There are rumors swirling that Disney may greenlight a Lando spinoff and if they can get Glover on-board for it I think that might be their best decision with this IP, yet.

Tobias Beckett is inconsistent for the sake of the plot

Tobias Beckett, as played by Woody Harrelson, is a complex character. But he’s a bit…too complex. When Han meets this character he’s a very happy-go-lucky scoundrel, much in the vein Han grows into by the time of A New Hope. He puts on a tough face, but you can tell he has a heart of gold. The easiest way to tell if a scoundrel has a heart of gold is always by the crew they surround themselves with. Chewbacca seems threatening in ANH, but he never hurts anyone. His actions tell a story of giant furball who knows his strength and size are intimidating to strangers and has enough of a sense of humor about it to mess with them from time to time. If Han is hanging out with an honorable warrior with a sense of humor like that then you can tell he can’t be as bad as he wants you to think he is.

Tobias’ crew is much the same way. He has a woman who has a clear, strong sense of honor who obviously desperately loves him. The pilot is a good sort with a calm sense of a humor who tries to draw the new guys out of their shells. There is no way a truly evil dude would have worked with a crew like those two for very long. And, yet, the movie telegraphs very early in the second act to even the least genre-savvy viewer that Beckett is absolutely going to betray Han at some point. That’s not entirely unexpected or unreasonable; scoundrels with hearts of gold are still scoundrels, after all. We’ve seen before how such characters might abandon the other heroes for selfish reasons – heck, just look at how Lando abandoned Solo and Beckett at the refinery when Enfys Nest shows up. But when Beckett’s betrayal comes it has nothing to do with personal gain or keeping his hide. He does it simply because he apparently likes working with Paul Bettany’s evil criminal mastermind character, Dryden Vos.

There are some villains who disguise themselves as scoundrels with hearts of gold but there’s always something foreshadowing about their behavior or their associates to give it away. It takes more than a warning to assume everyone will betray you to make that shift work.

Han shoots first

After Beckett betrays Han he also betrays Vos and then tries to make off with the hyperfuel. Han wants to give the fuel to the rebels because it’s the right thing to do but once Han escapes Vos and catches up with Beckett. Beckett, unfortunately, is not interested in splitting the treasure and so he monologues for a moment as he tries to distract Han, who already has the drop on him, so he can shoot him and escape with the booty.

There has been a grueling debate among the Star Wars fanbase ever since George Lucas released the special editions of the original trilogy. You may recall that in ANH Han runs into the Rodian bounty hunter Greedo after agreeing to transport Luke, Obi-Wan, and the droids to Alderaan. In both versions of the scene, Han is forced to sit down at a booth at gunpoint by Greedo. In both versions, they have a conversation where Han tries to convince Greedo to let him go. In the original version, this conversation is mostly a distraction so Han can get his gun out and blast the villain, ruthlessly but necessarily in order to save his own skin. In the modified version, Greedo shoots first but inexplicably misses a seated Han from less than three feet away before he gets blasted. Lucas wanted to make Han look less scoundrel and more heart of gold but it’s a far weaker interpretation of the character and most fans argue that “Han shot first”

As Beckett tries to distract Han in Solo, Han doesn’t fall for it and he doesn’t hesitate. He guns down his mentor and friend before Beckett can shoot him. This is Han the scoundrel with the heart of gold. He didn’t want to shoot Beckett, you can tell from his actions before and after he does so, but he knows he has no choice if he wants to live and Han is a survivor. You can’t survive in the criminal underworld without being a little ruthless sometimes, and it was good to see that acknowledged as we continue to hurtle to a new world with fresh takes on Star Wars.

Solo is not a perfect movie. It’s not even really a particularly good movie by most measures. But it’s a fun movie that does nostalgia in a significantly better, if more specialized, way than Ready Player One. It’s easily the kind of movie that your average Star Wars fan can keep around the house for a bland but quite enjoyable palette cleanser in the years to come. As long as you aren’t entirely opposed to the idea of a Han Solo origin story, you’re not expecting some sort of cinematic masterpiece, and you have a large, friendly bucket of popcorn to munch you should find this movie plenty enjoyable.

Before we see Solo, let’s fix The Last Jedi

I trashed this movie pretty hard, but it wouldn’t take much to fix it.

So it’s no secret that a lot of people didn’t like The Last Jedi. A lot of people did, too, which is fine. But for the most part, it seems to me that the people who like it do so because they see what it was trying to do and give it a pass for not actually accomplishing those things. There’s honestly nothing wrong with that approach, but it doesn’t work for me for this movie.

So instead, I’d like to pontificate for a moment about a few things we might do to actually fix this movie. I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about this and my suggestions might not be perfect but I think they would get us closer to what Rian Johnson actually wanted to accomplish.

So here, in no particular order, are the things I would change to help The Last Jedi accomplish its goals.

Canto Bight

Let’s not change anything here. I know a lot of people hate this sequence because it ultimately doesn’t solve the problems they set out to solve. That’s OK, though. Some people also dislike it because ultimately nothing Finn and Rose accomplish there sticks – the damage is repaired, the horse things are recaptured. But that wasn’t the point either. The point is in that final moment with the kid who force pulls the broom to himself. He was inspired by their actions. A rebellion is built on hope, I’ve heard, but it’s sustained with inspiration. The kid sees a different path, now, and he probably isn’t the only one. That is because of Finn and Rose. The sequence does everything we need it to.

Poe’s plot

OK, so, let’s actually have Poe screw up. I think the simplest way to do this is to change the initial plan. Instead of having a plan to destroy the enemy cruiser that Leia tells Poe to abort let’s have the plan always be about Poe distracting and annoying people. And then let’s have him audible in the bombers. At this point, ensuing deaths would be 100% his fault because instead of just insisting they follow through on a plan to which everyone initially agreed he really appears to be seeking glory and heroism. This much more closely fits what everyone accuses him of.

Then let’s actually remove him from the command structure. Don’t demote him; bench him entirely. Confine him to quarters while you try to figure out what you need to do with him and have that decision delayed by the First Order’s follow up attack and Leia’s coma. Don’t let him out to try to fly against the Imperials. Keep him locked up and frustrated. Then, when he comes up with the plan with Rose and Finn that counters what General Holdo wants to accomplish, he’s really acting out. Instead of just acting on command authority without consulting others who are technically above him but practically in a different command structure. He’d be using authority he shouldn’t even have anymore. The rest of this can play out more or less the way it actually did in the movie only it will fit a lot better.

Rey and Kylo’s plot

Actually, this isn’t bad either. the biggest change I’d make here is that I’d have Rey learn the truth of her parentage in the cave. As things stand the cave is entirely pointless. She stands around snapping her fingers and absolutely nothing happens. Why is this sequence here? Let’s kill two birds with one stone. I had the light shown to me when I read somewhere – I forget where so if you know please tell me so I can properly credit the writer – that the way Rey’s parentage is revealed is a tad on the icky side because it could have been a moment of empowerment for her but instead becomes something Kylo gets to wield against her. So let’s take that away from him – he doesn’t need it – and give it back to her.

After meeting with Luke and realizing he doesn’t want to train her she’s probably already feeling rejected, again, so let’s let her face her past on her own terms. The follow through where she continues to resist the temptation to slip to the dark side then follows a bit more strongly, as well. I think it was intended to show her hitting rock bottom but it never really feels like that so I think a different angle might do better.

General Holdo

For starters, let’s put her in a uniform. There’s really no need for the dress and it’s distracting as hell. Then, now that we’ve fixed Poe’s place in the story, we don’t have to change her much. Everything she does makes sense in this new context. Except for one thing. The way she acts after sending the transports off to Crait. First of all, she always should have adjusted course to try to block line-of-sight to the transports just for added security and safety. But let’s assume that wasn’t an option because the very act of changing course would have given the game away. That seems reasonable. You know what would have been a hell of a lot more distracting than just trying to fly along on her merry way? (Which, ya know, flying straight is probably something the autopilot could have handled anyway.) Doing the thing she eventually did, anyhow. Flip the cruiser around and use it as a giant weapon against the First Order fleet.

This moment of self-sacrifice would be even more of an excellent lesson for Poe about “Glory” and the costs it has if it had been planned from the beginning and made clear to Poe that that was the case. It makes Holdo a stronger character with firmer convictions and noble purpose instead of the helpless incompetent who stood there and watched half of her allies get slaughtered before she finally coming up with a desperate plan.

Luke Skywalker

Finally, we get to Luke. We’re going to need to make a couple changes here. I still, for the life of me, can’t see Luke Skywalker being the kind of guy who would whip out his lightsaber and wield it against his sleeping nephew before realizing that’s probably a bad idea. But I can see a couple other options that would work just as well to motivate Ben – keeping in mind that Luke losing an apprentice in any sense, but especially one which saw students or staff die at the hands of a traitor could still lead him to run away and lick his wounds as he ends up doing. He could see or sense Ben meeting with Snoke and arrive on the scene wielding his lightsaber which caused Ben to move up the timetable for his betrayal; it’s already canon, after all, that Ben was being tempted to the Dark Side. Luke’s fears did not come out of nowhere. Or perhaps Ben could overhear Luke having a conversation with ghost Obi-Wan about Luke knowing that Ben has been meeting with Snoke and maybe Old Ben tells Luke he should just kill young Ben, now. Heck, you could rip a page out of Final Fantasy XV and have Snoke use a Jedi mind trick on Luke that causes him to think Ben is Snoke or someone else just as evil and have Luke attack him unintentionally.

The point is that you can move the characters to the same places with the same feelings without turning Luke into such a cowardly figure. I think most Star Wars fans are willing to go along with you to a world where Luke isn’t perfect. Where Luke is scared, or confused, or angry. But to ask us all to believe in a Luke who is so cowardly that he would so seriously consider killing his own student and nephew while he slept in cold blood is just a bridge too far.

I know I spent some time in my original review complaining about Luke dying. I didn’t think it was necessary and I didn’t like the way it was done. I still don’t think it was absolutely necessary but I can see how it works even if it wasn’t. Luke’s continued existence in the franchise would be something of an Avengers problem for every subsequent movie where people would ask why he doesn’t come out of retirement to help solve this latest problem the same way they ask why the Avengers don’t always show up to help out heroes in every solo superhero movie.  I also still don’t like how Luke’s death was done with what amounts to a fakeout followed by the real death. But I’m actually not entirely sure how I’d fix that. The best I’ve come up with is maybe to show him straining more when we flash to his real body after the reveal so that it’s more apparent that what he’s doing will kill him.

And that’s it. Well, one more thing, I’d like to see Rey ditch the ancient Jedi texts. In a movie that goes on and on about letting the past die it still feels incredibly odd that the absolute worst part of the past – the texts of an order that did stupid things in the name of stupid ideals and hurt people and ultimately got themselves killed – survives. And I wouldn’t have Rose fall in love with Finn after knowing him for less than 24 hours. That seems way too convenient.

OK, so that’s it. As you can see most of the movie survives intact. It’s just a few key changes to actually communicate the messages and ideas Mr. Johnson appears to have been trying to tell through this movie. He doesn’t have bad ideas it’s just like he didn’t bother to completely plot out all the details and trusted the audience to just accept whatever outcome he gave them. How about you? Do you like these changes or would you rather make different ones?

Agents of SHIELD has a stakes problem

The characters are fun but they can’t get no relief!

he stakes of a story can be a difficult thing to arrange. When we gathered here a month or so ago to talk about Ready Player One one of the primary problems with the film was its lack of stakes. The biggest issue was that in an effort to add more comedy to the film the creators chose to make the antagonists into complete buffoons; this drastically reduced the threat those antagonists represented.

So the trick then is to simply include competent villains, right? Well, sure, but even that doesn’t guarantee success. Another issue that film faced was that the task went from being one that took extreme knowledge and skill to one that took luck and otherwise didn’t make much sense. If the audience can’t follow a logical path from the efforts of the protagonist to their victories then it’s hard for the audience to take it seriously. If the protagonist relies too much on luck – which is more or less what led Parzival to all of his discoveries – then that also makes it difficult for the audience to care.

But even those are just scratching the surface of the kinds of missteps that can reduce the stakes of a story. Take Disney/ABC’s Agents of SHIELD for example. The antagonists in this TV series are frequently competent and sometimes more than competent. But the stakes are still an issue. The first reason is obvious to anyone who both consumes comic book stories and has done any reading on this topic: people coming back to life.

I won’t spend a ton of time on this subject because it’s been pretty extensively covered by other pontificators. I do want to say that there is room in stories for false deaths that still maintain stakes. (I can think of one recent example that still worked pretty well.) Like any story trope they can be overdone but just because there is a fake death or two doesn’t automatically ruin the stakes of a given story; a story can have stakes that are other than those of whether the heroes live or die and if there is foreshadowing that dead characters may return then it can still work out OK. I think death reversals fail primarily when they aren’t foreshadowed in any way and are done just as fanservice rather than in service of the story. SHIELD wouldn’t even exist, after all, if they hadn’t revived the allegedly dead Phil Coulson from his murder in The Avengers. Another terrific example is the characters who have returned from death in a certain HBO series. However, when too many characters – good, evil, or both – come back too many times for too little reason it can begin to wear on the audience’s ability to care about what’s happening through confusion or simple apathy.

The fake deaths aren’t the only problem SHIELD has, however. By far the larger issue lies in the number and depth of the threats the team faces on a regular basis. Just for the sake of comprehension let’s go over every threat faced in just part of this current season of Agents of SHIELD. SPOILERS for the first 17 episodes of the fifth season of SHIELD follow.

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

  • Time travel to the future
    • Mindless alien predators
    • Intelligent super-powered aliens
    • Greedy humans
    • Scared humans
    • Super-powered humans
    • Betrayal by alleged allies
  • A need to return to the past
  • Imminent alien invasion
  • Other aliens with hidden motives
  • Prophecy of the destruction of the planet.
  • Time loop.
  • The branding of SHIELD as enemies – again.
  • The destruction of multiple obelisks which somehow forms a phenomenon that brings nightmares to life.
  • The return of HYDRA. AGAIN.
  • Multiple superpowered enemies with varying motives.
  • The impending death of the team leader who has already died twice.
  • A prophecy that they must allow their leader to die.
  • Yo-yo has her arms cut off.
  • Fitz has a split personality.
  • Talbot’s impending betrayal

All of those threats or obstacles occur within 17 episodes of this season, usually more than one at a time. And I’m probably forgetting at least some of them. None of these threats are treated as minor and there is absolutely no break between them. The moment they deal with one problem two more sprout in its place. It’s frankly exhausting.

The fact that Agents of SHIELD never allows a moment’s rest for its hero creates a few problems. The most obvious one from a logical standpoint is that it ruins the believability of the story. Whatever superpowers some members of the team have, they’re all still mostly human. That means they need things like food, sleep, rest, and even relaxation. The constant inundation of enemies and disasters means they might get to eat and occasionally sleep but they’re never resting or relaxing. There are always three or more threats that need to be solved RIGHT NOW.

The other issue is probably pretty familiar to people who spend a lot of time writing stories or are knowledgeable about how they are written but might be less so for other people. Stories operate on the idea of building up tension and bring the story to a conclusion. That release of tension allows for catharsis. That’s a technical sounding term but it just basically means the relief of strong emotion or tension. A good climax will build up all kinds of strong emotions and tension in audience members. The conclusion of the story will relieve them – usually replacing them with exhilaration or sadness depending on the kind of story. This is true of a romance where the climax might be the final moment of will-they-won’t-they and it’s true of an action story where the climax is probably the final confrontation between the hero(es) and villain(s).

Because SHIELD has so many concurrent threats there’s never a release of tension. OK, great, they stopped evil villain A over here but there’s still natural disaster B and ticking time bomb C to deal with. But those won’t be solved until two weeks from now and by then we will have introduced threats D, E, and F. In a way this even goes back to another piece I wrote about filler episodes, a few months back. SHIELD hasn’t had a recognizable filler episode in at least a year and it really could use a handful to just let the characters breathe both literally and metaphorically.

The lack of a break between threats also causes them each of them to blend into a kind of white noise. As an audience member, without that catharsis, how can I judge how dangerous the latest HYDRA plan is versus the impending alien invasions versus the prophecies that Daisy will destroy the world? And if I can’t tell how dangerous they are, how can I care at all? Much less take them seriously. It’s all a swirl of loud noises and flashing lights and after a while I’m just blind and deaf instead of terrorized.

SHIELD has tripled down on these issues the last few weeks by having the cast break the fourth wall a bit and make frequent jokes about how they never stop fighting six different kinds of danger at the same time. It’s a bit baffling that the writers clearly understand what it is they’re doing without making any attempt to rectify it.

And, for the record, stakes are a complicated topic and it is possible to have all those threats and still have a strong story. But if you’re going to do that you need to eventually solve all of them and give your heroes a break. The natural point for that to occur is at the end of the season but SHIELD likes to use that time to set up the next huge threat as a cliffhanger. The cliffhanger should probably be dying as a TV trope, anyway, but that’s an entirely different article.

The first season of the show was hardly perfect, but one thing it did do right was deal with threats in a manner that allowed for occasional resolution. There was definitely a serial plot happening in the background but it was broken into episodic stories which allowed for at least a measure resolution at the end of episodes. Yes, the show was a bit campy, but that part hasn’t actually changed. The ways in which the show has improved since then include accepting the campiness and making it a part of its identity instead of trying to pretend it wasn’t there.

It’s unclear how long the show can maintain this break-neck pace without ever providing any resolution to anything and maintain viewership. Honestly, it’s unclear what kind of viewership the show is currently enjoying. It’s in the middle of its fifth season which doesn’t sound like a show that is barely crawling along but I rarely hear people talk about it and it seems entirely possible that Marvel/Disney just might not have noticed the losses they’re taking on it because of the massive profits they’re making everywhere else.

On the other hand, a quick google search of the show suggests multiple outlets were begging people to come back to the show around December of last year because it was good again. So maybe I’m completely off-base. I know I suggested on Twitter that the show was not very good because of the issues I outlined above and received nothing but disagreement. So maybe I’m the clueless one this time.

One thing that should be obvious from my writing about the show at all is that I am absolutely still watching it. It’s one of only two weekly televised shows I keep up with on a semi-regular basis (the other, Once Upon a Time, is approaching its series finale) so that should tell you a little something about how enjoyable it can be beyond the complaints I’ve raised here. The stories may not be well-conceived or always well-written but the characters are charismatic in their own ways and there is absolutely worse dreck on television. If you’re looking for a show with a great deal of technical writing proficiency you probably want to look elsewhere but if you’d like a mindless, campy melodrama then Agents of SHIELD might be just the show you need.

Avengers: Infinity War is not only ambitious, it’s pretty damn good

They did something no other Marvel movie has even attempted.

Avengers: Infinity War is easily the best movie I’ve seen since Thor: Ragnarok. To truly understand the greatness of the movie I think we’ll have to, as usual, go into spoilers. But before we get there let’s get one thing straight. Alan Silvestri is a music scoring god. At the ripe age of 69, he’s still knocking scores out of the park. His work was tremendous in the terrible movie that was Ready Player One where he played up the cheesiness of the film to the hilt, highlighting moments that thematically matched Back to the Future with stings from that score. His work was no less tremendous in this film even though the intent and execution were entirely different where he dealt with a far more serious tone.

The movie is pretty dark, especially for Marvel fare, so you might want to take that into consideration when deciding whether your kid is ready to see it. Or whether you really want to watch it, yourself. The movie earns that darkness with quality writing and there’s still a fair amount of humor but it’s something to keep in mind.

I also want to address the five points from my preview article and I think I can touch on one of them without getting into spoilers. If even that seems like too much for you and you haven’t seen it, yet, turn away now. You have been warned.

I worried that the movie would turn into a Transformers flick with tons of incomprehensible CGI battles. I can assure you now that that is simply not the case. Yeah, there are plenty of CGI battles to be had in this movie but the stakes and players are always crystal clear. The choreographers, costume crew, and animators all do a terrific job highlighting who is who with different costumes, moves, and frequent, brief pauses to allow the audience to reorient themselves. The movie also did a great job varying the scale of the various conflicts so that they didn’t all feel the same and when it goes big they really go all in. That might honestly be the motto of this movie, “Go all in, all the time.”

OK, so let’s hit the spoilers.

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

I’m already doing these out of order so I’m just going to keep going with that to make things fit the new order I want. Cool? Cool.

Did they kill off characters just do prove Thanos was a badass?

The fear that got me started on the preview article even if it didn’t show up until second on the original list was that lots of characters would die for this reason. And I nailed that one. Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) die at the beginning of the movie for absolutely that reason and that reason alone. This was incredibly frustrating for me as I had just watched Movies with Mikey about Thor: Ragnarok earlier the day I saw this movie. Mikey goes on at length about how that film eliminates the chaff of the prior two films and reboots it with just the necessary and good characters. And then this film eliminates at least two of them without preamble. So, yeah, two characters – one minor, one major – killed off in the first 10 minutes of the movie and I was prepared to riot before the title had even appeared onscreen.

The good news, however, is that every other character death felt earned. Even the ones in the final moments that will almost certainly be undone by the end of the next film. Particularly moving was Vision’s (Paul Bettany) death – which happened twice. Wanda Maximoff (aka Scarlet Witch) (Elizabeth Olsen) must murder her lover, Vision, in order to prevent Thanos (Josh Brolin) from completing the Infinity Gauntlet by collecting Vision’s Mind Stone. She has spent the entire movie trying to find a way around this but ultimately has failed. Just as she finishes destroying the stone and him he mouths, “I love you.” to her and it’s a gripping moment in a movie that doesn’t otherwise really deal in character drama outside this and a couple other moments. That isn’t the end of the scene though. It leads to the moment when Thanos finally drives the point home that he absolutely cannot be stopped (yet). He uses the Time Stone that he just recently acquired from Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and company to reverse time until Vision is revived. He then takes the gem and kills him, again, without any hesitation whatsoever.

So you get a nice, strong bit of character drama, you are reminded once last time (in this film, anyway) how terrifyingly unbeatable Thanos is, and you are reminded how utterly ruthless he is when it comes time to kill people in order to achieve his goals. There’s a ton of quality stuff happening in that single moment. And it’s far from the only moment in the film to work that hard or that well.

The movie did chicken out when it was given the easy shot at Iron Man after setting everything up for him to get offed. Though it did it in a way that was traumatizing for the character and offers him new opportunities for growth and/or movement.

Was Wakanda screwed?

One of two climactic, simultaneous battles of the film took place there but it looks like they either never had any intention of allowing my specific fears to come true or they did some serious re-working. For one thing, perhaps the most memorable scene from the trailers, which provided the screenshot that became the headline for last week’s preview article, doesn’t currently appear in the movie. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his Wakandan cohorts were given equal billing at the very least when the fight came to their turf. T’Challa actually did lead the fight, Okoye (Danai Gurira) continued to hold her own with superpowered beings all around her, and Shuri (Letitia Wright) had a terrific moment when she mocked the brilliant Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Tony Stark for not thinking of something that was blindingly obvious to her as well as having the tech and acumen to pull off a tricky bit of malware removal that they couldn’t have hoped to manage.

The country doesn’t escape unscathed. There are fires and destruction all around the capital but for the most part, they held their own nicely. At least until Thanos used the gauntlet to implement his ultimate plan. When he destroyed half of humanity T’Challa was one of those who was killed. This seems like a huge mistake. T’Challa was already missing for a large chunk of his own movie and now, while it seems unlikely he’ll stay dead permanently, he’s likely to miss at least a large chunk of the next movie. Honestly, I would have been far more interested in seeing Okoye “die” in his arms and how that affected his character as he fights through the next film. It also would have been more believable that she might stay dead.

Wakanda deserved to have their hero be one of those who was front and center in the next film. It’s possible that Shuri, Nakia, or even M’Baku might take over the role. However, Black Panther made that seem like a pretty unlikely outcome. Even if they do choose to go that route or otherwise ensure that Wakanda’s heroes are able to continue the fight without their king in the next film, it’s getting to be a bit frustrating that Marvel can’t seem to let Chadwick Boseman develop any kind of momentum in the role.

Did many (or any) characters get interesting arcs?

This was the biggest question I had to ask myself when I walked out of the theater. Did anyone actually get an arc? The answer turns out to be quite different from anything I’d considered before seeing the movie so let’s break it down into two parts.

For one thing, some heroes were utterly missing. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Antman (Paul Rudd) got only passing references. Hawkeye is an original Avenger and he merits only a single line about being under house arrest. And he has to share that line with Antman who may or may not even actually have ever been an Avenger. Even worse, to my way of thinking, were the omissions of Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Korg (Taika Waititi). Last we saw them they were traveling with Thor. They had just been introduced in his latest film, last year, and it seemed like they were going to be terrific sidekicks going forward for him. It seems unreasonable that they might have perished without even a tiny bit of screen time in this movie but we only ever saw one Asgardian refugee ship and it definitely got blown to pieces. In addition to that, it seems unreasonable that the MCU would want to continue with Thor as the only Asgardian. Hopefully, we’ll discover in the next film that they acquired another ship somewhere and that Valkyrie and Korg were leading the other half of the Asgardian refugees somewhere else.

The other issue with most of the heroes arcs is that they’re either ignored or repeated. Captain America (Chris Evans) has apparently been running his own version of The A-Team (which could have been an interesting stand-alone film) but is more or less the same as we last saw him. He was also, oddly, barely in this film. Tony Stark has reverted to the same argument he’s had with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in seemingly every film since the second: she wants him to stop being Iron Man and he can’t/won’t do it. Banner has lost control of Hulk, again, though in a different way. Loki betrays everyone he sees, again. Spiderman wants to save the world from threats that probably outclass a high school student and conflicts with Stark’s paternal instincts while he’s at it. The Guardians seem almost dull without their characteristic conflict.

It was a bit jarring to realize that absolutely none of the heroes change in any noticeable way and some reverted a bit. That’s when I realized. This movie isn’t about the heroes at all.

It’s about Thanos.

Someone referred to this movie as “Our generation’s Empire Strikes Back” and I can see why someone would say that. But this movie is far more like the prequels than Empire, except it’s actually pretty good at what it does with a couple notable exceptions. This movie reveals the backstory and motivations of Thanos, which makes him a far more interesting character. Obviously, his motivations are monstrous, he’s cruel, and he’s incredibly ruthless but you can at least see why he’s doing the things he’s doing and it’s for more than just the sake of ruling/destroying the universe. He actually thinks he’s saving it.

The second biggest problem with Thanos is that his plan is, as half of the internet has pointed out by now, pretty dumb. I’d argue that if you have a gauntlet that will allow you to change anything you want to change and you’re worried about the finite resources of the galaxy that it would make far more sense to just use this infinite power to create infinite resources. For one thing, killing half the population of the universe delays the problem rather than eliminating it. Living beings reproduce, that’s how they live. Half of the population of the universe will continue repopulating until they reach this level again. Is Thanos going to just destroy half the universe again, at that point? Also, if you absolutely must destroy half the universe and you have a gauntlet with powers that specifically control minds, souls, time, and reality and you’re “doing it for their own good” maybe you could do it in such a way where everyone forgets all those people were ever alive in the first place instead of in such a way that causes them to watch, horrified, as their loved ones disappear in a puff of ash one by one? Just a thought.

When you introduce an artifact as powerful as the Infinity Gauntlet – or even one as powerful as any of the gems/stones used on it – you’re going to run into plot hole issues like this. It doesn’t make sense that a creature who can control reality itself could ever actually be threatened by any of our heroes and yet he was. You’re just going to have to kind of ignore those if you’re going to enjoy the film so the job of the writers is to make the plot holes as small as possible and then make you want to ignore them. They mostly succeeded in this film.

Did it ignore opportunities to delve deeper when the story offered them?

Yes. Absolutely. Easily the weakest part of the film is the one moment where they try to be a bit deep. Thanos and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) travel to a distant world, I forget the name but it’s unimportant, they run into Red Skull (Ross Marquand, doing a passable Hugo Weaving impression) who informs Thanos that in order to gain the Soul Stone (no, not the World of Warcraft spell) he must sacrifice the one thing he loves the most. A single tear drops from his eye as Gamora taunts him because he has never loved anything in his long life.

Of course, it turns out that Thanos did “love” someone. Despite having dozens of “children” that he forced to fight to the death and otherwise abused physically and emotionally, he apparently “loved” Gamora. She realizes this to her dread just as he decides that his love for her will not allow him to stop his quest to save the galaxy from itself. He throws her from the top of the cliff, she dies from the fall, and he gains the power of the Soul Stone.

I’m sorry, but no. Thanos does not “love” Gamora. He is an abuser and a bully. He has abused and bullied everyone he has ever known. His feelings for Gamora might seem like love in his twisted mind but they absolutely are not. It literally (literally) gave me pain to see Marvel treat whatever he felt for her as if it were the same as love because it categorically was not. She was an object to him. At best, she was an idealization of what he wanted her to be. He never saw her for who she was and most definitely never loved her. They could have had this be a different kind of moment. A realization that what he felt for her wasn’t love after he’d killed her and that he’d have to get the stone another way. ANYTHING except to treat whatever twisted, vile emotions he felt toward her as if they were the same as love. It was gross and more than a little despicable.

The one thing I will allow from that scene that wasn’t wholly terrible is that when Gamora realizes that he thinks he loves her she does not for one instant have an, “Awww. He cared about me the whole time!” reaction. She immediately tries to kill herself to prevent him from using her. Then she fights him tooth and nail until her demise. At no point does she consider for an instant that his “love” might be a good thing or wonder if she should have seen it sooner. Good for her for never losing sight of the one thing the writers did, that he’s terrible and his “love” is not a good thing to have.

This movie tried to do something that had never been done before; make a villain the star. The fact that they even attempted this is impressive. How very well they accomplished it is even more so. I wish I had a time stone so I could go back in time and convince them to clean up a couple of these issues, particularly the Gamora thing which I cannot stress enough is absolutely terrible in every way, but it was a far, far better film that I had feared it would be. It was almost certainly the best of the “Avengers” movies, so far.

Ultimately, the way people perceive the quality of this film will rely heavily on the sequel; this was really just the first half of an incredibly long movie, after all. The number of characters who are returned to life as well as the manner and timing in which it happens will also weigh a great deal on how people ultimately view these two films. If my decades of consuming media have taught me anything one of the hardest things about writing a story is getting the ending right. You can see this in everything from Mass Effect‘s complete audience revolt to George R.R. Martin’s reluctance or difficulty in finishing A Song of Ice and Fire. If Joe and Anthony Russo along with whatever writers they get (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did Infinity War, but I can’t find listings for who will be writing the next part) want to really make sure the audience views both films favorably they’ll have to figure out how to stick the landing.

What did you think? Did you enjoy it enough to look past the flaws? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter!

 

My top 5 fears for Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War

I hope it’s really good! But the trailers and previous movies have me convinced it won’t be…

Avengers: Infinity War comes out tomorrow. Technically it comes out Friday, but all the best nerds will be in line tomorrow night to watch it. It will launch the beginning of the 2018 Summer Blockbuster Season. Comic book fans, movie fans, superhero fans, and just random people are super excited for this movie. I am not. Here are the top 5 reasons I’m pretty sure this movie is actually going to suck

It will continue the tradition of paying lip service to depth in storytelling

Remember when in Avengers: Age of Ultron there were a couple of superpowered beings who had been raised and brainwashed by HYDRA, Marvel’s version of super-Nazis? They fight the Avengers at every turn because they want to avenge themselves against Tony Stark – side note why does everyone want revenge against him? Even in Civil War, ostensibly a Captain America vehicle, the bad guy wants Stark at least as much as Cap – but then when Wanda realizes that Ultron actually wants to destroy the world instead of just Stark she and her brother turn on him and decide to join the Avengers. And literally no one questions this. They’re just allowed in.

That could have been a moment for interesting character development between the twins and the original Avengers and it could have been a strong moment of storytelling. We could have seen how the heroes struggled to trust these people who had previously been trying to kill them, how the Maximoff’s dealt with the fact that they’d been so wrong, or explored the folly of following a leader who promises to help you while clearly leading everyone in a direct path to destruction. Instead, all of that was just kind of glossed over because the Maximoffs needed to be good guys for the final battle and the movie couldn’t be bothered to take any time to deal with it.

If you watch closely in the second full trailer for Infinity War you can see Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes aka War Machine standing around looking dramatic with several other heroes. You may recall that he was paralyzed during the fight between all the heroes in Civil War. It was a weird, traumatizing moment following the levity of the rest of the fight. By the end of the film they’d already undercut that moment a great deal by showing Rhodey learning to walk again using some Stark-tech leg braces. We also know that the Wakandans have medical technology which very likely could help him walk, again.

The problem with all of this is that we were supposed to be made to feel terrible about the fight that had previously been among the most enjoyable yet produced in the MCU when Rhodey fell. It was supposed to show the “real consequences” of the difference of opinions the heroes were having. But by the end of the same movie the writers were saying, “J/k! He’ll be fine!” and now it’s such a minor point that they show it in the trailers with absolutely no context as if of course Rhodey is not only walking again but capable of resuming his role as War Machine.

If you don’t want characters to deal with traumatic life changes in your movies that’s more than fine. But to introduce these kinds of things then reverse them without ever actually addressing them is something of a slap in the face to the audience. And it looks like that’s the sort of thing we can expect the MCU to continue to do.

At least one character will be killed for no other reason than to “raise the stakes”

In each of the first two Avengers films, we saw a character die in order to make it clear that things were, in fact, quite serious. The first movie saw Agent of SHIELD, Phil Coulson, the only man who had shown up in every MCU movie previous to this one, murdered by Loki in order to inspire the Avengers to actually work together. In Age of Ultron it was Pietro Maximoff because Joss Whedon had so carefully crafted the movie to make it look like Hawkeye was going to die so that he could kill someone else and have it be a surprise. This also served as an impetus for Wanda going crazy and really taking the fight to Ultron.

You’ll hear a lot more from me about character deaths as you read this blog but suffice to say for now that, in general, I think they’re overdone. Too many writers use them as a crutch to raise the stakes or drive the action forward instead of as a logical conclusion to a character arc or to really impact the characters. The best writers can move stories forward, raise stakes, and provide tension and drama without killing people. And the MCU has largely ignored those two deaths since the moment they occurred. No one has referenced either Phil or Pietro since their untimely demises. Pietro was Wanda’s twin brother and we are led to believe they’d probably not often if ever left each other’s sides in their entire lives. This should be a really big deal for her and impact everything she does and thinks for years. But she’s too busy falling in love with Vision to worry about that, right now.

Now it’s true that the first two Avengers movies had Joss Whedon in charge, and he’s infamous for his love of surprising character deaths. But I would still expect at least a minor character or three to bite the dust in this film just to prove that “things are serious” I also wouldn’t be shocked if Iron Man or Captain America are killed in order to show that even the big heroes can be killed in the MCU sometimes, to show that Thanos is a True Threat, and in order to pass their mantles on to presumably cheaper actors as the MCU brings its latest “phase” to a close.

Be on the lookout for renewed emphasis on existing relationships with one or two characters in particular. Or even the introduction of new relationships of backstories. Those character(s) will be the ones with the highest chance of being killed.

There’s no way everyone will get their fair share of screen time

Do you know how many heroes are in the MCU, now? A lot. According to IMDB no fewer than 35 heroes or other prominent non-villains will appear in this film. At least 4 villains are supposed to be present, as well. And I know they don’t have every character listed because, for example, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is not named among the cast members even though she has a stunt double credited and has been interviewed about her role in the film. There are probably even more than that. That is a lot of named characters for a movie. And they have already managed to completely forget to include Hawkeye, an original Avenger, in the trailers and posters.

Now, admittedly, plenty of these characters wouldn’t get significant time in plenty of other movies. Hawkeye’s wife, Laura Barton, for example, is listed in the credits. But so far as the narrative is concerned she is only important for how she affects Clint. Dr. Hank Pym, Pepper Potts, and Happy Hogan all probably wouldn’t get to do much in even smaller films, either.

But this movie brings a lot of Type A personalities into the room and wants them to share screen space. Star Lord, Captain America, Black Panther, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and even Thor are all kind of used to running their own shows. There is no way we’ll see completed character arcs for all of them much less the rest of the heroes. And, given Marvel’s history on this front, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to actually just see fractured character arcs for some of the good guys and many others to be ignored entirely.

Wakanda is probably going to get screwed

We already know from the trailers that at least one major fight will be happening in the fictional African country. But what we also know is that the general assumption among most movie-type people is that movies lead by anyone other than white characters are not as successful. This movie was in production before Black Panther actually came to theaters so it’s entirely possible that the writers both underestimated how well that movie would do and how important that country should be in the narrative as well as how much it means to the audience.

Instead of allowing the scenes in Wakanda to be about the Wakandan people I’m afraid the white heroes are going to take over. This fear stems not just from assumptions about and by movie makers but also by what we saw in the film. As a group of heroes rushes to a battle in Wakanda it isn’t T’Challa as Black Panther who takes the lead, it’s Steve Rogers as Captain America. And they are flanked by Bucky Barnes, Black Widow, The Hulk, and Okoye. Technically the Hulk is green but when he isn’t green he’s very, very white. Where are Shuri, M’Baku, and Nakia? This is their country. They should be the ones leading the way to the fight.

I also worry that it will be their home that is trashed in the upcoming battle because the creators might have considered it the safer city to destroy since it is entirely fictional. It would undo the decision that T’Challa made at the end of Black Panther to step into the light and use their technology and skills to help the rest of humanity by putting them in a position where they would need help, instead.

It’s going to be a Transformers movie

If the movie is light on story, character development, and still lasts two-and-a-half hours or more it’s going to have to be full of something else. That something else is very likely to be incomprehensible CGI battles without nearly enough context. Movie production companies want to make money. That is their reason for existence. Michael Bay has shown that explosions are a universal language that allows for movies to more easily win over a global market and make money not just from the country of origin but from all over the world. Movies have been moving toward this trend a lot, recently, and the trailers for Infinity War certainly do nothing to convince anyone that it’s going to include anything other than a lot of people looking sad or angry and fighting CGI monsters. I suppose it’s possible that the fights will be more interesting than those in the Transformers franchise – at least we’ve had dozens of movies to become attached to these characters and watch them grow before now – but it likely won’t be to the degree we should expect.

So, yeah, I have a lot of worries about this movie as a storytelling vehicle. However, I think the best approach for most viewers going to see this film will be to approach it as if it were a professional wrestling match. They’ll have the faces, they’ll have the heels. There will be some fights that go exactly how you expect and some massive upsets. The action will be fake but the pain will be real. There will be challenges issued and pithy one-liners delivered. It will be a lot of mindless fun. Just sit there in the dark with your popcorn and try not to think too hard and there could still be plenty to enjoy.

What do you think? Are you still looking forward to it or have the other recent team-up films soured you a bit? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter!

 

Ready Player One is gorgeous on the outside but ugly on the inside

It omits the one thing that made the book special while including most of its flaws and adding some of its own.

Did you read Ready Player One? Did you enjoy it? Were you excited for Steven Spielberg’s movie?

Then you probably shouldn’t bother.

The biggest reason I say that, for many of you, is because the story of the movie and the story of the book share almost nothing but the broad strokes of character and plot. There’s still a Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan), an Aech/Helen (Lena Waithe), an Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cookie), and a Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). There’s still a hunt through the Oasis for an easter egg following the death of the Oasis’ creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance).

But almost all of the details are changed from the opening frame of the movie which sets Wade’s home in The Stacks outside Columbus, Ohio instead of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma up to and including the epilogue of the story.

If that’s not enough to make you want to avoid the movie then, by all means, have at it. Or, if you’re not afraid of spoilers for the movie or the 6-year-old novel, follow me past the spoiler tag where I can really get into the issues that ail this movie.

Spoilers Banner

The plot is a disaster

Let’s start with the thing we’ve already talked about a bit, the plot. So far as I am concerned Ready Player One was a flawed novel. Many people would go beyond that and describe it as disgusting “nostalgia porn”; I even saw an article today about how the Oasis itself is toxic because of its designer. I’m not ready to argue that far, at this time, but it’s definitely not a perfect story.

That being said, it did have one really cool and unique aspect, so far as I am concerned. It took Cline’s love of what is loosely defined as 80’s pop culture  (seriously, a lot of that stuff came out way before or way after the 80’s) and crafted a plot where that kind of knowledge was useful. There was a purpose to all that nostalgia; it was Halliday’s obsession and he had made it clear that if you wanted to win the prize you were going to need to be intimately familiar with it. Love or hate the nostalgia, it had a distinct purpose to serve in the narrative of the story – this was actually a distinct flaw in Cline’s follow-up novel, Armada, which included even more nostalgia and references to nerd culture without ever giving it a reason for existing beyond name-recognition for his audience.

The movie completely drops all of that. Those of you who have read the novel will recall that Parzival was able to find the first key using hints and clues from Halliday and applying it to things Halliday was known to have liked. Parzival’s encyclopedic knowledge and ability to research Dungeons and Dragons as well as the video game Joust are the keys to solving the first puzzle, in the book. The first trial in the movie is displayed for anyone and everyone. It’s a simple race that happens to include some references to nerd culture – an animatronic dinosaur and King Kong – but without any distinct purpose. They could have been any kind of hazard and had the same effect. The clue for solving this race didn’t come in the form of any kind of 80’s knowledge but instead in the form of watching a video recording of a conversation Halliday once had and figuring out what his intent was.

Honestly, this might be the biggest plot hole of the movie, too. There’s no reason in particular for Parzival to watch that scene or assume it had any kind of vital information in it. It was an off-handed comment from Art3mis that even made him look and had nothing to do with any hints or clues provided by Halliday prior to that point. But I digress.

That’s more or less how the entire plot of the movie continues. In the book, the nostalgia was threaded into the mystery in the hints, the challenges, and the solutions. In the movie, the mystery was in finding the correct video of Halliday to watch and interpreting what he was saying while the nostalgia just serves as a background of easter eggs for audience members to point out and recognize. The challenges were also significantly dumbed down. In the book, you’ll recall that there were actually 6 total mysteries to be solved, one for each key and one for each gate. And acquiring the key and clearing the gate involved completing other, separate challenges. The movie halves this to 3 challenges. There were good reasons for these changes; the movie can’t be as long as the book, so there cannot be as many difficulties to overcome and they can’t take as long to get through; they couldn’t secure the rights to everything that appeared in the book; and they wanted to change up the mysteries so that the readers wouldn’t walk in already knowing all the answers to everything. It all makes sense, but it also makes the story lose any charm it had. It dumbs the story down to a simple, stupid popcorn flick that really is trading 100% on the audience’s love of nostalgia without doing anything useful with it.

The stakes aren’t interesting

In the book, the Sixers, IOI, and Sorrento are incredibly frightening. They don’t just have unlimited resources, nigh-infinite man-power, and a team of researchers. Sorrento is genuinely good at his job. So are the people he commands. They have talent and skill and their numbers allow them to specialize in ways that none of the other Gunters can manage. They appear to be invincible.

In the movie, yeah, IOI still has the numbers and resources. But they hardly have half a brain cell to share among them. Sorrento is a useless hack and the Sixers are all brainless mooks who use their numbers to fight the enemy because they have no other strategy instead of in addition to terrific strategy. There are exactly two genres of movies that can get away with having incompetent villains: children’s movies and slapstick comedies. In other words, movies that aren’t really trying very hard to keep you interested except in the moment to moment childish gags. There was never any doubt in any audience member’s mind that the good guys would win and that it would end up being relatively easy for them. In a movie that wants to be taken somewhat seriously, it’s a problem. When you’re writing a serious movie and the only competent enemy for your hero to face is played by T.J. Miller – who played Sorrento’s Oasis lackey, I-R0k, and may be an incredibly versatile actor but whom I have never seen in a role of someone you’d consider threatening or even really particularly intelligent – you have a problem. And when the payoff of the story is a villain who finally, miraculously catches up with the hero and has an opportunity to kill him and just…doesn’t… that’s a problem, too.

The movie wants to moralize and eat its cake, too

When we arrive at the end of the movie the incompetent villains try to blow everyone up but fail because Wade has an Extra Life coin. The fact that the last person seen to be holding the coin before Wade’s resurrection was actually Art3mis does not bother the writers at all. In any case, Wade is given the Crystal Key and then must unlock the door that leads to the easter egg. During this time Aech/Helen is driving their postal van through the city in what the movie wants us to view as a dangerous car chase but really ends up just being annoying. How can I be afraid for everyone’s life when Wade’s actions – and particularly Anorak’s reaction, “Well, do you want it or not?” – turn what could have been a tense moment into a slapstick comedy bit.

After Parzival finally unlocks the gate he is admitted into Anorak’s throne room and given a contract to sign. The movie tries to build tension by having Wade begin to realize that Anorak has one last trick up his sleeve before Wade can win and Sorrento stalks toward the van with a gun. It fails for several reasons:

  • The worst of these is that Wade directed Helen to drive the van to the Stacks where he grew up and begs anyone who lives there to help protect them from Sorrento. All these angry people step up to stand between Wade and his tormentor but as soon as Sorrento whips out his pistol, they all just make way for him. I talked in my Star Wars: The Last Jedi review about how plans can fail and it can still be narratively interesting. When your plan changes absolutely nothing about the circumstances of the story or characters, it isn’t interesting.
  • There was no trick in the book. Readers were left baffled by why Wade didn’t just sign the contract and end the contest.
  • Signing the contract would not have prevented Wade from being murdered. This was not a moment where the hero can stop the villain cold by accomplishing their goal. Wade could just as easily have won the contest and been shot in the head if Sorrento hadn’t magically been persuaded to let him live by the golden glow in his hands and the tear streaming down his face. Maybe it would also have prevented Sorrento from winning and thrown the world into turmoil and hundreds of legal battles, but getting the egg logically should not have prevented Sorrento from shooting Wade.

The movie then goes on about how Halliday wished he had lived in the real world more and suggests that the heroes will shut down the Oasis for 2 days a week to force people to go outside. If you’ve read my posts about Star Trek you’ll know I’m all for moralizing in stories, especially science fiction stories. But you have to earn it. Show the audience why the moral you preach at the end is a real situation that needs to be dealt with and why the proposed solution makes sense.

The proposed moral is that Halliday, and by extension our current society, spent too much time in his computers and video games and not enough time in the real world. The movie only shows how this became a problem in that Halliday never kissed the girl he liked. But we aren’t given enough context to see whether this was actually a flaw brought on by his affinity for computers or if there were some others reason. Perhaps they didn’t actually click, perhaps even if he’d never touched a computer his social graces would have prevented it, maybe he was actually gay. The character doesn’t get enough screen time to eliminate any of these and if he felt that his love of computers was actually the problem then creating a contest which would encourage people to spend even more time steeped in the lore of his past and in the computer world he designed was a very poor way to communicate that indeed.

The proposed solution is a terrible one, as well. The book describes that all commerce is done through the Oasis by the time it starts. The movie does nothing to dissuade from this notion. That means that in shutting down the oasis 2 days a week The Hi Five will be throwing the world economy into chaos. Forcing people to not be on their computers two days a week also does nothing to encourage or ensure that they will use that time productively either in rebuilding society or in connecting with people “IRL”. People weren’t doing anything “wrong” per se, it seems odd to punish them for their habits and the way the world evolved rather than incentivizing people to improve the world and attempting to stimulate the economy.

The movie tries to add a sub-moral that Wade has learned the lesson that Halliday never learned, that you have to actually kiss the girl. First, as we’ve already established, we don’t know if Halliday ever actually had a chance to kiss the girl. Second, Wade never presented himself as the kind of person who wasn’t going to try to kiss Samantha the very first moment he thought he could get away with it, anyway. And this is the only moment that remotely resembles any kind of character growth in the film.

I hate to keep going back to a book to hold it up as a higher standard after I’ve already described it as flawed and many others have completely trashed it but even it is better in this regard, as well. The book starts with all 5 members of the Hi Five being completely opposed to working together. They’re all kind of selfish assholes to each other as they race to be the winner and only grudgingly offer tips to each other when they feel indebted. Throughout the course of the novel, however, they learn that relying on each other and working together isn’t all bad and banding together may be the only way to stop Sorrento and his goons. At the end, when Parzival declares that he’s going to split ownership of the company with his 3 remaining friends (Daito dies in the book because Sorrento and co. are much better at their jobs) it’s a much more startling revelation because of these previous actions, even though they had come together finally, and it proved his growth more than anything the movie added in. Of course, Wade does something else at the end of the book that does show up in the movie…

 

The worst moment from the book

While most of the movie was an exercise in chopping out as much of the book as possible without rendering it unrecognizable they still managed to carry over the biggest flaw from the book and somehow make it worse. Wade Watts could not have been a more realistic straight, teenage, white boy had Ernest Cline intended to create a self-absorbed asshole who believes he is God’s gift to creation. Unlike in the movie, the Hi Five were actually working entirely separately – including Art3mis and Parzival. Because of this, Art3mis didn’t want to become romantically involved with him. But Wade repeatedly attacked the boundaries she established. This is a portrayal of the “friend zone” in action where a woman simply wants to enjoy friendship with a man but he decides she owes him something different because of something he did for her or because of how he feels. This happens all the time, in real life; it’s very realistic. But in this story, it’s idealized into something that’s actually romantic instead of disgusting and the girl actually falls in love with the protagonist who behaves so boorishly. The movie doubles down on this by having Parzival tell Art3mis that he loves her literally the second time they meet in-game. And then it includes the incredibly cringe-worthy moment that was originally at the end of the book into the middle of the movie where Wade acts as though he is truly special because he is willing to look past the birthmark on Samantha’s face despite her assurances that it would cause him to hate her.

In real life, there probably are women who feel this way and they might even deal with rejection because of some flaw they or others perceive on a regular basis. And in real life, some of those women probably have been made to feel better by someone who saw past the “flaw” or didn’t view it as a flaw. But there is something slimy and self-aggrandizing about a story that was written by a man and starring a boy (and then written again by two men) that shows a woman swooning for a guy like this. Probably because being written by guys about guys it becomes all about how the guy is able to save the woman instead of how the woman becomes empowered. It might just be that some stories shouldn’t be told in certain ways by certain people unless they want to seem like enormous jackasses.

The movie tacks on to this issue with additional diversity problems. Yes, it features two women, one of whom is black, and a pair of Asian men. In the novel, at least, all of the Hi Five were top players and strong competitors with each other. Based on what else I’ve seen of Cline it wouldn’t surprise me to see that there were diversity issues or stereotypes at play that I missed when last I read the book but the movie definitely has them.

Hollywood’s problem with Asian actors continues as Daito and Shoto have barely a dozen lines of dialogue between them and they barely contribute to the story beyond being reliable side-kicks for our white hero. After being described as a terrific player on Planet Doom Aech is relegated to the role of mechanic and comic relief for the remainder of the movie. Art3mis in the book acted Parzival’s main rival, was a step or two ahead of him more than once, mostly stayed independent of him, and was determined to win the prize for herself so she could try to improve the world. In the movie, however, she gives up on her dreams, talents, and independence fairly early on in order to act as Parzival’s biggest cheerleader instead. In the end, every non-white, male character is subsumed to ensure the white male seems more important and competent than ever before.

There was one positive about this film. Alan Silvestri, of Back to the Future fame, wrote the musical score and perfectly implemented call-backs to that iconic 80’s franchise throughout the film. It was really a fantastic job. The visuals were also quite enjoyable, even if some of the scenes were so busy it was hard to even attempt to identify all the little easter eggs that had been included.

Unfortunately, it was not enough to save this adaptation of the original, flawed story. Given a chance to wipe clean some of the prior mistakes the movie exacerbates, instead. Given a chance to improve upon the prior successes the movie excises. While Ready Player One comes in a gorgeous package, if you scratch off that first layer you will find – much like in one of my favorite 80’s pop culture touchstones, V – that underneath is a slimy, disgusting lizard that just wants to steal all your resources and leave your home unfit for your own survival.

Titan A.E. is a hidden gem

Not enough people know about this cinematic masterpiece.

Some of you are sitting in front of your screens right now going, “What are you talking about? Doesn’t everyone know about Titan A.E.?” And the rest of you are going, “What’s a Titan A.E.?” You see, this brilliant movie flopped very badly at the box office; it didn’t even make back half of what it cost to make. Since then, however, it has become something of a cult classic. If it was such a good movie, what made it good and how did it flop so hard? If it was so bad, why is it so beloved, now? Why are some people madly in love with it while others have never even heard of it?

For starters, it had terrible timing. The movie was picked up by Fox Animation right at the end of that studio’s existence. It seems Fox was determined to kill the studio regardless of this film or its success and that certainly hampered development – forcing, among other things, Fox Animation to outsource a good bit of the work. Another problem was that it is fairly easy to draw a clear line from several character and story tropes in Star Wars directly to this film. Ordinarily, that might not be a problem, lots of movies have done this and gotten away with it just fine – heck, even Star Wars wasn’t the first one to do a lot of what it did – but this movie happened to come out smack dab between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. There isn’t a much worse time for a space movie that superficially resembles Star Wars tthan that. It was also a bit ahead of its time in genre; Harry Potter had not yet paved the way for a swarm of very successful young adult movies and anime hadn’t quite gotten a full grip on the young adult audience to make it cool for teens to still want to watch cartoons, either.

Critics roasted the movie and people didn’t know what to make of it. But the critics were wrong. You’ll note I said above that the story superficially resembles Star Wars, and that’s true. It absolutely has a chosen one young man who must save the galaxy from a threat that wields planet-destroying lasers. There’s also a sarcastic man who’s been around the galaxy a bit and pilots a unique-looking ship. But, as previously noted, those tropes are hardly unique to Star Wars and Titan A.E. certainly puts its own spin on them. Spoilers follow for the 18-year-old movie.

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The biggest and most obvious twist is that the “Han Solo” character, Captain Joseph Korso (Bill Pullman), turns out to be a villain. His primary side-kick Preed (Nathan Lane) also turns out to be a villain but betrays Korso along with everyone else. That causes Korso to have a change of heart at the last moment and ultimately sacrifice himself for the greater good, which ultimately makes him like Han Solo in that sense but ignores the very different motivations that get him there. The villains are also much more unique than George Lucas’ space nazis; they’re beings of pure energy who destroyed earth because they were afraid of what the humans could create giving them a motivation for their behavior a bit more narrative kick than a simple, “We’re just evil, ya know?”

The movie features far better humor than any Star Wars film. Including such terrific moments as when an early-20s Cale Tucker (Matt Damon) gets caught staring at Akima (Drew Barrymore) as she pilots her ship into dock and whips out a cloth to attempt to act nonchalant by cleaning the windows. This leads to an even better moment later on when Akima notes they’ve been searching everywhere for the person who can save humanity and it turns out to be “the window washer.” Another terrific moment comes when Preed stops Stith (Jeneane Garofalo) from simply blasting her way into a prison and attempts to con his way past the guard as the crew moves to rescue Akima midway through the movie (unlike Princess Leia she’s sitting smugly in her cell having incapacitated a horde of lecherous slaves and prisoners with a makeshift club.) This scene has been done a million times before, but it’s wonderfully subverted when the guard notices multiple tiny details and completely sees through the lie before Stith is forced to beat him unconscious anyway.

Even at its worst the story is solid and serves as a brilliant setup for every other aspect of the movie – and there is no aspect of this movie that isn’t above average. The animation style was a then-revolutionary blend of 3D CGI and standard hand-drawn animation that showed up again in later films like Treasure Planet and creates a very unique feel for the movie. It’s brilliantly executed as the Drej are very obviously animated differently and look very different – and therefore more alien – than the rest of the characters and creatures in the film. The chase through the ice asteroid field represents both an imaginative, unique setting and a stunning victory for the animation crew that created it. Had the film been better received, that sequence might well be an iconic part of cinematic history.

The score is very well executed by New Zealander Graeme Revell who is kind of a lesser-known version of contemporary Hans Zimmer. The music includes not only his terrific electronic and orchestral work but a good number of pop songs written by then-popular bands specifically for the film. Highlights include Electrasy’s “Cosmic Castaway”, Bliss 66’s “Not Quite Paradise”, and particularly The Urge’s “It’s My Turn to Fly”. The voice work is all terrific from a phenomenal, star-studded cast and the various sound effects bring the movie to life.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the movie is that it tells a complete story without glaring holes in only 94 minutes including credits. That amount of time combined with the strength and depth of the story means there is no bad filler. Everything develops the world or the characters further or advances the plot. It’s an incredibly efficient use of time.

In that short window of time, they not only told a high-quality story but developed an incredibly interesting universe where it seems so many more stories could have been told. I have always had a soft spot for sci-fi tales that include aliens and don’t make humans the center of the universe. The setting of this movie has humanity nearly ready to go extinct after 15 years without a home planet and treated as the bottomfeeders and second-class citizens of the galaxy. It’s a lot more interesting and probably a lot more accurate to how the universe would be – humans can’t always be the best at everything.

One of the weirder methods I use to determine if a movie is any good is to ask myself if I feel like watching it again. The sooner I am able to answer that question with a yes, the more likely it is that the movie is good. For example, I still have no desire to watch The Avengers again despite the fact that I greatly enjoyed the movie the first time I saw it. This makes me think my subconscious picked up on some flaws I missed while I was watching what Marvel was then proclaiming the most ambitious crossover event in history.  On the other hand, I feel like I might be ready to re-watch Thor: Ragnarok again sometime within the next month despite seeing it far more recently. What does this have to do with Titan A.E.? I watched that movie Saturday night – not even remotely for the first time – and I could happily watch it again, right now. Perhaps the method is a bit prone to subjectivity but it has never failed me before. If you haven’t seen Titan A.E. I definitely recommend it. And if you have, go ahead and watch it again!

Space Pirate: Harlock, Game of Thrones, and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief

For starters, we probably shouldn’t commonly leave the “willing” part out of the definition.

As an actor, a writer, and a nitpicker of stories in every imaginable medium it probably does not surprise you to learn that I have plentiful and strong thoughts on the willing suspension of disbelief. Before we continue, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page as to what that even is. Wikipedia puts it pretty succinctly:

The term suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief has been defined as a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe something surreal; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.

There’s a lot to unpack in even that simple sentence. For starters, as you can see,  the term has two forms. One of them includes the word “willing” while the other omits it. I and many others learned it that first way but I would argue now that the “willing” part is crucial to the definition. When Game of Thrones ran into some criticism for the way it handled its penultimate episode, last season, the director responded with his own criticism of the fans. This was a mistake on his part for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that insulting your fanbase rarely seems like a wise course of action. But beyond that, he was also wrong. It isn’t the audience’s job to suspend their disbelief for whatever you put on the screen. It is your job as the creative staff to make them want to suspend their disbelief. In other words, to make them willing.

This willingness usually exists on a spectrum depending upon content and vehicle.

There is actually an interesting spectrum upon which you have more or fewer restrictions on how far you must go to convince the audience to suspend their disbelief. Consider, for a moment, whether you would willingly suspend your disbelief if a movie you were watching used obvious drop curtains and plyboard sets with frequent pauses where crew members could be seen shifting things around in order to set up the next scene.  Probably not, right? But you do that for the majority of stage plays you see and don’t even think twice about it. Why is that?

The willing suspension of disbelief also takes into account venue and subject matter. This means that a stage play is held to entirely different set of standards than a TV show or a movie. Other examples are cartoons vs. live-action, kids movies vs. more adult-themed fare, and comedies vs. dramas. I was recently watching Space Pirate: Harlock and was particularly struck by a particular moment in that film – one of the twists in that movie, actually. *** SPOILERS FOR SPACE PIRATE: HARLOCK*** In the last part of the film it is finally revealed that the earth has been destroyed by liberal application of dark matter. In real life no one actually has a clue what dark matter is or whether it even exists, but because science fiction is a sub-genre of fantasy the writers of this movie chose to re-define it as a destructive substance. We find out that sometime before the movie started the titular space pirate piloted his vessel into some dark matter, as well, when he felt regret over the part he had played in destroying the earth. However, he came out the other side with a ship that was now indestructible and had had its entire front-end replaced with a giant skull and crossbones rather than being destroyed. Imagine for a moment that that had happened in Star Trek. That franchise takes itself pretty seriously and it would be unreasonable to expect its audience to just go along for that ride as it seems patently obvious that whatever dark matter is it isn’t something that would simultaneously destroy a planet but render a spaceship indestructible and re-design the front half. *** END SPOILERS *** However, because Space Pirate: Harlock doesn’t really bill itself as a super realistic take on the genre even I, the super nitpicker extraordinaire, didn’t bat an eye when this reveal was made.

I have determined that if you disregard the complexities of sub-genre, vehicle of story, and setting there are two hard and fast rules when it comes to establishing a willing suspension of disbelief in your audience:

  1. Out-of-the-norm traits in a story must be established.
  2. Such traits must be established or foreshadowed before they become critical to the story’s climax.

Out-of-the-norm traits in a story must be established.

The Game of Thrones director from earlier also seemed to think that because the audience was willing to believe in dragons that they should be willing to ignore any plot holes or time inconsistencies that appear in their fantasy stories. As I argued at the time both here and on Twitter, story universes, even fantasies, must remain internally and logically consistent. Plot holes are still plot holes. Writers, depending on the universe they set themselves in, get to work with a certain set of pre-established rules, environments, and creatures. For example, if you set a story in medieval England and market it to a western audience you usually won’t have to completely re-establish castles, moats, forests, horses, rain, etc. Your audience will grasp these things using cultural consciousness. Cultural consciousness can be a bit of a complicated topic but for now, you just need to understand that, for example, almost everyone in America and England knows what a castle is even if they’ve never seen one in person and most of them can’t remember when or how they first gained that knowledge. That’s an aspect of cultural consciousness. Something we know about because of our culture.

Now one of the joys of being a writer, especially in the fantasy genres and sub-genres, is that you can add new definitions and re-define existing ideas that break away from the logical consistency defined by the cultural consciousness. For example, if your story is set in a fantasy variant of medieval England perhaps your moats are always populated by sarcastic mermaids. And if you establish it in your story before it becomes important to a climax in the plot, your audience will probably not bat an eye at this change. (This is also known as foreshadowing when a writer establishes something that is actually plausible both in the collective consciousness and in the story but might otherwise seem abrupt in an important reveal, later.) There are two important keys in that sentence that I don’t want you to miss, though. You must establish it. And you must establish it before it becomes important to a climax. Otherwise, you’re still dealing with a plot hole, even if it’s a fantasy story.

Such traits must be established or foreshadowed before they become critical to the story’s climax.

So in Game of Thrones up until that fateful episode the creators were willing to let the cultural consciousness define their ravens for them. What that means is that everyone perceived the ravens in the show as being identical to the everyday birds we are all familiar with. If they had really meant to include supersonic ravens they needed to be established. But even if they had chosen to establish such creatures at that moment, it still would have been a writing faux pas. When you fail to establish something like that until it becomes critical to the plot, especially as it pertains to resolving climaxes or saving protagonists, you are performing what is known as a Deus Ex Machina which is Greek for “God from Machine”. It turns out the ancient Greeks weren’t, as a whole, necessarily any better writers than the ones we have now. Some were great but others had failings. Sometimes writers write themselves into a hole and have no idea what to do to resolve the plot. It was at this moment that some ancient Greek writers would write a scene in which a god or gods would be dropped into or above the set using a machine and they would simply assign the outcomes the playwright desired regardless of how much trouble the story or characters were in. For a modern example of what this might look like we need look no further than the Mass Effect 3 ending.

*** SPOILERS FOR MASS EFFECT 3 *** 

In that game, the crew of the Normandy is tasked with gathering allies and resources to build some sort of mystery machine with undefined capabilities in order to fend off the enemy Reaper fleet. By the end of the game the machine is built and still no one has a clue what it might actually do to help preserve the galaxy – this should be reminding you of the first rule of the willing suspension of disbelief in regards to fantasy elements. Shepard turns the mystery device on at the last moment and… a simulacrum of a child appears which offers Shepard three impossibly simple choices with which to conclude the story. This seems almost a direct ripoff of the original Deus Ex Machina where a god-like being appears for no discernible reason established within the story to neatly ties up all the loose ends. It is simply adapted to the medium of video games and Mass Effect’s primary conceit of player choice. At least the Greeks had preestablished tropes of such gods doing those kinds of things in the beginnings and middles of even better-written stories when they implemented such poorly-written endings.

*** END SPOILERS ***

 

No matter the story a creator must rely on some willing suspension of disbelief from their audience. Even in something as simple as a story about a love triangle between three high school students you must convince your audience that they want to believe these fictional characters actually exist. As long as people are creating stories that need the willing suspension of disbelief they must remember to establish or foreshadow and to do it before it becomes vital to the plot. Or else I’ll come for them with mouse and keyboard and crit them with my Wall of Text.

 

Can we get a movie about Black Panther’s Okoye?

The Wakandan General stole the show, for me.

Before I start gushing about how amazing General Okoye was, I want to pause briefly to talk about the movie as a whole. It was really awesome! There. Review over.

No, I’m kidding of course. The action was good, though the opening fight sequence was a bit dark at least in the particular theater I saw it in. The politics were interesting in a way that The Phantom Menace has dreams and nightmares about. The expanded cast of characters – in particular, the aforementioned General, played by Danai Gurira; Wakanda’s top spy and love interest to the titular Black Panther, Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia; and the kingdom’s super-energetic top tech guru, Princess Shuri as played by Letitia Wright – were all terrific. If you’ve not seen it I definitely recommend it. If you’ve already seen it you should probably watch it again; the more I think about the movie the more the subtexts expand into my mind. That’s a great trait for a movie to have and definitely lends to rewatchability – that’s the technical term, of course.

Now I’ll dig into some spoilers, so you’ve been warned.

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First some nitpicking

OK, I want to take one more tiny detour into Nitpick land before I talk about how awesome the general was. If you don’t want to see any negativity or nitpicking, I don’t blame you at all and please skip on down to the header that says “GENERAL OKOYE IS THE MOST AWESOME!!!!” But I’m a native nitpicker – my sixth post ever on this website was just nitpicking for 4000 words, after all – so y’all are just going to have to get used to this quirk of mine or ignore it, I’m afraid.

I spent the entire second half of the movie annoyed at it to the point that I basically stopped enjoying myself. Killmonger had just killed Klaue and lugged him to Wakanda to use as a kind of party gift in order to convince the Wakandans to hear him out. I had several problems with the plan at this point:

  1. Killmonger obviously knew where Wakanda was and has the resources to go there at any time. If all he needed was Klaue’s body to get in, then there was no reason to go through with the heist, the sale, or the jailbreak. He could have killed him at the start and been done with it.
  2. He already had a royal ring. That seems like it should have been enough to get him in there and questioned about its origin and authenticity all by itself.
  3. There doesn’t seem to be any way Killmonger could have known about the specific internal politics of modern Wakanda in order to think that his plan to give them Klaue was a particularly good one.

I discussed this with my friend and discovered that I had missed a strong possibility on at least the first point: that Killmonger, as a black ops specialist trained in the art of destabilizing governments and by all accounts very good at it, might have gone through with the other stuff in order to make Wakanda/King T’Challa feel or appear weaker in order to give himself a better chance of convincing people to allow his coup attempt. That all seems quite reasonable once it’s explained even though it doesn’t end up mattering in the slightest – only one person is upset by T’Challa’s inability to bring Klaue in and that person would have been just as happy to have Klaue delivered to him without making T’Challa look stupid first. I’m still a bit annoyed I missed it, though. But hey, no one’s perfect.

As to point two, the same friend argued that they would have assumed it was a fake. I still think that it would have been concerning enough to the people in charge to get him an interview/interrogation with high ups – which is ultimately what bringing Klaue earned him – but that part’s a little bit debatable. So, in the interests of fairness, I’ll simply concede that one. Bringing Klaue in the way it was done gave Killmonger a stronger position to deal from than the ring alone would have. Fine.

It’s the third point that I still have trouble with. Killmonger is a master secret agent, fine. But Wakanda is also the most technologically advanced AND most secretive nation on the planet. For decades, centuries, maybe millennia they have been hiding their true nature from the outside world. You can’t accomplish this task for that long without some serious paranoia, tech, and the willingness/competence to use it. And it isn’t like Wakanda’s blood thirst for Klaue was super well-known or even all that wide-spread. As events unfold it becomes clear that exactly one person in the upper levels of Wakanda’s government cares enough about Klaue’s death to escort Killmonger directly to the council of elders and king without passing go or collecting two-hundred dollars: their chief of border security, W’kabi. Every other person at the top of the government wants him dismissed, arrested, or killed even after he brings them Klaue until T’Challa accedes to his request for a formal challenge.

In order for Killmonger’s plan to succeed he either needed high-level, sensitive, personal information about W’Kabi’s state of mind or he had to get incredibly lucky when he guessed that the country would be happy to see Klaue’s corpse and just happened to bring it to the one person for whom that actually happened to be true. I suppose it’s possible that Killmonger did that level of spy work before he formulated his plan, but it’s never once shown, discussed, or even alluded to. I had a long discussion with my friend about whether such a thing was necessary or not and I plan to talk more on that subject, later, but I’ve already spent more words on this subject than I had intended to.

Of course, none of this diminishes Michael B. Jordan’s excellent performance. Any issues here, real or imagined, lie directly at the feet of the writers. This is the kind of tiny thing that many people can and will completely ignore. But, like I said, I’m a nitpicker and I pick nits. As Geico would say, “It’s what he does.”

GENERAL OKOYE IS THE MOST AWESOME!!!!

OK, with the nits picked and out of the way let’s talk about the most awesome character in the movie. Wakanda has an elite force of royal bodyguards made up of women that is known as the Dore Milaje. Of all those badass ladies the most badass of all is their general, Okoye. Despite the fact that she is tasked with guarding a superhuman king who can run faster and jump higher and further than she ever could. The writers made an excellent choice in allowing her to find ways to make things work instead of becoming an annoying nag – think Obi-Wan Kenobi’s relationship to Anakin in The Clone Wars but how much worse that would have felt here – and Ms. Gurira plays it great. From the very start of the movie, she saves the Black Panther in the opening fight when he freezes upon seeing his ex.

Her best moment in the movie, however, comes when she chooses not to fight. After Killmonger appears to kill T’Challa in the ritual combat Nakia rightfully fears for the lives of his mother and sister and rushes them to safety. She sneaks back into the city/palace for supplies and steals one last infusion of Black Panther skills in the form of the heart-shaped plant and then goes to the general to assure her that she has successfully hidden T’Challa’s family and to recruit Okoye for the rebellion she’s plotting.

Keep in mind at this point no one really knows what Killmonger is going to do next, only that he acquired the throne legally according to the Wakandan justice system. And Okoye is forced to choose between her duties and her loyalties. In a move that may have stunned many, she chooses her duties. This reminded me strongly of the early history of the United States. You can read more about it on your own time but in 1801 the US faced its first transition of power from one ruling party to another. This was something that largely wasn’t done, many countries were still using royalty and nobility as their system of governance, and there was a lot of fear that a civil war would break out because of it. Okoye’s choice here was an important one because it meant she was supporting the laws of the country she loved to ensure the stability of her country. Imagine if instead of Killmonger one of the other noble families had challenged T’Challa and beaten him. And that T’Challa’s family and closest friends had started a coup. It would have been a civil war in their country. Okoye was working to ensure that she didn’t help set any such precedent and it was a great moment for her character. It doesn’t hurt at all that Gurira played the conflict and resolve perfectly.

Now, of course, the very instant she saw a way to make the law work to her advantage – T’Challa returned alive and so the duel wasn’t actually completed – she immediately started working against Killmonger, again. She did this even though it meant fighting against someone with superhuman ability. Even more impressively, she did this even though it meant possibly fighting to the death against her lover, W’Kabi, who had gone along with Killmonger’s plans gleefully. It was a re-affirmation of her core character; she never loses sight of her duties and always chooses Wakanda even when it would conflict with her personal feelings. So impressive is her willingness to stand up for what she believes in that W’Kabi doesn’t mess around when she holds her spear to his throat and informs him that she will kill him if he doesn’t lay down his weapons.

I would happily watch a movie that focused on her character more because other than maybe Shuri I felt like she was always the most interesting character on-screen whenever she showed up in a scene. She had to make multiple difficult choices and she got to kick some serious bad guy booty. I’m honestly still shaking my head at how easy she made it look to fight hand-to-hand and with a spear in such close quarters against villains larger than herself and while she was wearing a dress and heels during the casino scene. According to IMDB, she is going to be in Avengers: Infinity War and I can’t wait to see her do more excellent work.