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!

 

IWSG May 2018

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Every month, we announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG post. These questions may prompt you to share advice, insight, a personal experience or story. Include your answer to the question in your IWSG post or let it inspire your post if you are struggling with something to say.

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May 2 question – It’s spring! Does this season inspire you to write more than others, or not?

The awesome co-hosts for the May 2 posting of the IWSG are E.M.A. Timar, J. Q. Rose, C.Lee McKenzie, and Raimey Gallant!

Is it finally spring? Are we really, really sure? Have we checked the forecast for the next 45 minutes? OK, cool.

I’m not sure whether or not this season inspires me to write more than others. For one thing, I’ve not been writing for long enough to really know which season is my best season. I will say this for spring/early summer. There are a lot of big movies coming out and I like critiquing movies, and big movies make me feel like maybe someone will read the things I write if I write them soon enough. I did a thing about Ready Player One a few weeks ago, then a listicle about my fears for Avengers: Infinity War last week, and later today I’ll have a review of that movie going up. And, in a sense, spring inspired that because spring is the season for these kinds of movies to start coming out.

So I was inspired to write that way, for sure! And I actually made some serious headway in my current short story WIP last week, too. The first draft is nearing completion which is pretty exciting. But was it because it was spring? Or was it just because I was sick and bored? Maybe spring can inspire me to write by making me feel too ill to do anything else.

I’ve never been much of an outdoors person and I’ve been fortunate to always have air-conditioning and central heating except for four memorable, miserable years in college. So seasons have rarely seemed overly important to me. I don’t even change the way I dress usually since even if I leave my home I’m just getting in my car and going somewhere else where I will also be indoors. The extra daylight hours can help me feel more productive which might lead to more writing. Or it might lead to more doing lots of other things, too.

In conclusion, spring might make me write more, or it might be something else that makes me write more, or I might not even write more. Who even knows? One thing we can say for sure is that spring is a season and I do enjoy writing during it. I hope you have found this incredibly helpful.

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.

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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.

#IWSG Writing through the struggle

Writing is not always easy.

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Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!
Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer – aim for a dozen new people each time – and return comments. This group is all about connecting! Be sure to link to this page and display the badge in your post. And please be sure your avatar links back to your blog! If it links to Google+, be sure your blog is listed there. Otherwise, when you leave a comment, people can’t find you to comment back.
Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!
Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG
The awesome co-hosts for the April 4 posting of the IWSG are Olga Godim, Chemist Ken, Renee Scattergood, and Tamara Narayan!
Click here to view everyone in the Blog Hop.

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April 4 question – When your writing life is a bit cloudy or filled with rain, what do you do to dig down and keep on writing?

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At first, I kept trying to read this question without the word “life” in it and I wondered if a lot of people struggled with writing when they had to write scenes with inclement weather or while it was wet outside. Once I finally got a handle on the actual question, however, I realized what was going on. And…I wish I had a good answer for this but I don’t think I do.

For the most part, whenever I’ve had trouble with writing I’ve walked away from it entirely. I’ve had a couple novel ideas in my life that I started and then got overwhelmed or realized I didn’t know where to go with them and so I just left them. If you consider the work I do with Let’s Plays and strategy guides on my YouTube channel to be a form of writing – and I do because the former requires the same kind of critical thinking skills and ability to form arguments that are necessary for writing reviews and analyses while the latter requires actual script writing – then I also gave that up the last time I felt out of sorts about it.

These days I mostly write here and at the baseball blog and things haven’t gotten difficult for me, either place, yet, though I’ve been contemplating putting this blog on hiatus at least during the baseball season as a sort of preemptive measure. The work I do on my YouTube channel has similarly been rebooted and not faced any hardship. I don’t know what I’ll do if I face any, this time. I hope that I’ve learned my lesson and that the real path is to reevaluate, maybe take a step back, but not to abandon. But I won’t know until I get there.

My biggest fear in this regard, right now, is actually a short story I’m working on. Some friends and I get together every Halloween for a party which includes, because many of them were or are English majors even though I was not, a short story contest. I want to enter this story in the contest but I also want to convert it into a prologue or first chapter for a novella or novel. However, I’m not even halfway through the short story version and I’m already getting intimidated by its length. I don’t feel like I’m going to give up on it, but I’m also not doing a terrific job of carving out time to actually work on it, right now, either. I never add to it more than once a week and even that has been a rarity so far.

I spend a lot of time wondering if I have bitten off more than I can chew but when I ask myself what it is I want to give up the answer is always none of it. In fact, I keep coming up with ideas for new things I also want to do even as I try to remember when the last time I worked on the short story was or how I’m ever going to find time to hit all my weekly goals this time. I’ve tried making schedules to ensure I get things done but I usually grossly underestimate how long things will take or have tiny little things pop up that interrupt me. So far I’ve been able to recover by, again, not actually working on my short story, and eliminating the “free” time I try to schedule in my week to do something less structured. Anybody got any tips?

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!

Jessica Jones season 2 wanted to be more

The pieces really just didn’t quite come together.

I don’t think it’s any secret at this point that the first season of Jessica Jones is by far my favorite season of Netflix/Marvel television. They took a truly terrifying villain and made the entire season about Jessica battling both him and her inner demons. The threat was clear, terrifying, and terrifyingly real – Killgrave is basically an amped up rapist who is so charming when he isn’t raping people that people who haven’t survived his abuse find it hard to believe that he could commit such atrocities. The story never wavered or lost its way. It featured a cast of a wide variety of strong women characters that had their own flaws and views. The acting was phenomenal. It really did a terrific job putting a spin on drug abuse, parental abuse, and rape in ways that were a bit unique and hopefully reached a wider portion of the audience with how terrible those things can be and helped them become more sympathetic.

Season 2 doesn’t do any of those things. But it shouldn’t necessarily be knocked for that, because it wasn’t trying to be season 1 again. It wanted to be something different. I know this is bordering on becoming a broken record at this point, but remember last week when I said that one of the cool things about anime was that they had the freedom to try different kinds of story-telling techniques? It really feels like Netflix used its unique position as the kind of platform and industry leader it is to try to do something a bit unique as well. Most serialized shows, books, and movies are written with a story and characters in mind and developed in a way such that the two fit together. Sometimes you’ll see them written in a way where the story takes such a priority that the characters are forced to change and act out in order to continue it. Jessica Jones season 2 appears to have been written with the idea, “Here are the characters. Here are their circumstances. What happens next?”

However, unlike The Melancholy of Haruhi I’m not entirely sure this was done well. The writing was both particularly good and appallingly lacking and left me feeling a bit bemused when I completed the season, Sunday afternoon. Nothing the characters do seems weird or abnormal for them; in fact, everything they do seems to be 100% in character based on everything we know about them from both seasons of television. But there is no cohesion, no driving force. The plot just ambles around until its time for the season to end. SPOILERS will follow for Season 2 of Jessica Jones.

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Unlike every other Marvel TV show so far, there is no set “villain” who is totally evil and wants to commit evil that must be stopped. The closest we get is Alisa, Jessica’s mom, who is sympathetic in that she has what amounts to a mental illness she cannot control. The next best choice would be Dr. Karl Malus who saved both of their lives with illegal experiments. But so far as I can tell, he really, earnestly wanted to help and honestly didn’t know that Alisa was going out to murder people to protect him.

Jeri’s story is only tangentially related to the rest of the characters but takes up huge chunks of the runtime. Trish’s story might end up being the most interesting – she starts out just really wanting to help people, including Jessica, but does some very bad stuff as she convinces herself more and more that the ends will justify the means. However, we only follow her enough to keep track of her impact on Jessica’s story. Jessica’s story is well written in the micro – as I said before everything that happens and that she does makes perfect sense – but doesn’t seem to have a point. The show starts out showing her a bit out of control with her anger which might have made sense to tie into Alisa’s own issues with rage and show Jessica who she might become if she doesn’t get a handle on it but Jessica’s own anger problem is dropped pretty early on; the last I can even recall seeing it was also the first time which occurred in the second or third episode. There’s a smaller plotline involving Malcolm’s ultimate goals

The writing isn’t perfect and there are a handful of weird plot holes and poor writing decisions: Jeri’s partners want to kick her out even though she’s the best thing their firm has going for them. Pryce Cheng somehow figures out that Alisa and not Jessica killed his friend midway through the season. Early in the season, Jessica informs Malcolm, factually, that she can’t judge him for having indiscriminate sex because it’s also part of her method of dealing with things. Then, later in the season, she chews him out over it. Yes, people can be inconsistent and hypocritical, but it doesn’t usually go unaddressed in shows. Plus Jessica is supposed to be a straight-talking protagonist, so it’s a bit odd she just does an about-face like that without it being acknowledged at all. And, of course, Jessica and Alisa use their super strength to stop a bus and reunite Jessica’s season 2 beau with his kid. Even though adding the mass of two people to the back-end of a bus with no leverage is not going to stop it no matter how strong they are.

Technically the plot is resolved when Alisa and Karl both end up dead which means they won’t be able to conduct further experiments. But they were not really a direct danger to people outside people directly investigating them. We learn more about Jessica’s history but it doesn’t change how we perceive her. Speaking of changes, the season does very little to change the characters at all. Jeri is the same person she was at the beginning; she just helped someone else commit murder. Jessica is the same person she was at the beginning except maybe she understands how lonely she was? But she acts like that was an epiphany the entire journey taught her even though she clearly wanted to be spending time with Oscar and Vido before, she just didn’t have the time. Malcolm changes a bit from a guy who will do anything for Jessica and wants to do good and help out to a guy who decides he wants a bit more respect and a better paycheck. Trish changes the most and that’s where a second rewatching, focused primarily on her, might pay off. When I had but one episode to go I saw someone else watching the first episode and being informed with Trish’s ambitions allowed a much deeper interpretation of her early actions and casts a more sinister light on her attempts to get Jessica to investigate her past.

In the end, the moment-to-moment writing is just too good for this season to be a complete train wreck. The roles are also entirely too well-acted. But the lack of a coherent end goal for the plot and the shallow character growth of most of the ensemble means this season was a disappointment compared to the first. The best way I can describe it is that the plot was structured like a slice-of-life anime – a genre defined by its complete lack of stakes – but isn’t charming enough and doesn’t do enough with the characters to make it work. In the pantheon of Netflix/Marvel shows, I’d still put it above the rookie efforts of Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and The Defenders but it’s no better than season 2 of Daredevil and doesn’t even really approach the quality of the first seasons of DaredevilJessica Jones, or even The Punisher.

The Ever-Expanding Universe of Haruhi Suzumiya

This is the anime that never ends.

Last week I mentioned that anime was one of my favorite mediums because the story is never over just because the show ends. One of the most popular anime in existence, according to My Anime List is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, is a prime example of this phenomenon.

For starters, the anime is based on not a manga, but a light novel (think young adult novel) this time. The light novel series did also get a manga adaptation, as well, however. This is what I was talking about when I said the story never ends. You liked the anime? Great, go read the light novels. Enjoyed that, too? Here are the manga. Oh, and a couple movie adaptations!

But Melancholy also serves as an example of the kinds of things Japanese media is willing to try that you probably wouldn’t see in American media. The original 28-episode anime was not aired in chronological order, for example. The anime features an ensemble cast and one of them has god-like powers but doesn’t realize it. She is constantly, obliviously changing the universe to suit her whims while the rest of the cast struggles to both live their lives and to keep her happy so she doesn’t accidentally destroy the universe in a bout of depression. The ordering of the episodes is meant to help increase the audience’s perception of her abilities. At the end of every episode in the original Japanese version two characters would talk about which episode was coming next, Haruhi would name the next episode according to the chronological order while the male lead, Kyon, would name them according to original air order.

If you need any proof that things would not be done this way in the US, look no further than the dubbed versions of the series. The episodes don’t include anything describing what the next episode will be like and they’re always shown in chronological order with no mention that there ever was another order the show could be watched in. This is just the beginning of the wacky shenanigans that the anime has gotten up to, however.

The series also includes EIGHT episodes that are almost identical as the entire group gets trapped in a time loop. That’s 29% of the series. And they’re all shown in a row, regardless of which order you choose to watch the show in. Can you imagine an American show doing something like that? Under normal airing circumstances that would be 2 months of showing basically the same episode with only a small hint of when the torture might end. The series also received a sequel movie which was nearly 3 hours long, the second longest anime movie created at that point. That wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary for American media; cartoon shows in the states have gotten movie sequels, spin-offs, and adaptations many times even if they are often half that long. However, the movie features an alternate universe and the anime spun that off into an additional 16-episode series where one of the primary cast members acted completely differently, became the female lead instead of Haruhi, saw two of the primary cast members – including Haruhi herself – reduced to far diminished roles, and two other minor characters from the original anime were promoted to ensemble members. The entire genre was changed from a supernatural slice-of-life to just a simple slice-of-life anime. While we’re on the topic slice-of-life is a genre which, in and of itself, would be unlikely to be duplicated in American media, to begin with. They usually don’t have too much drama and they aren’t even always funny.

But probably the weirdest thing to come out of the intellectual property, however, is an anime movie called The Melancholy of Haruhi-Chan. The -chan suffix can mean a couple different things, but here it indicates an idea of being more diminutive or cuter. The animation style is changed to something chibi-like which is Japanese for “little” and is used to describe animation where the characters are far smaller in proportion than normal, usually with adorable giant heads. According to synopses I’ve read, all the characters have their quirks blown even further out of proportion to what you’re likely to see in reality. A complete overhaul in character and art-style? How often do you think you might see something like that in American media? And this isn’t a reboot, it’s just a continuation of the series.

Now, this isn’t to say that Japanese media is automatically better than American media. Trust me when I say there are plenty of things American media is far more willing to work with than Japanese – LGBT representation, for one. They are just different. And, of course, it doesn’t matter if you’re creating something unique if that unique thing isn’t also good. And The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is definitely good. The characters are all quirky but only rarely overdo it. The biggest flaws in the series are probably Mikuru Asahina’s English voice actress – I get so tired of breathy, helpless voice acting – and the fact that Haruhi doesn’t pull back from her insanity quite often enough for it to make sense why the other characters would want to be friends with her outside of their need to fulfill their study and protection missions.

The quality of the story is so high that even the eight repeated episodes were a joy to watch. Just enough subtle details were changed every time to highlight the sameness of everything else and give the audience a reason to keep watching. The final resolution to that story arc was clever enough to pay it off, as well. The 3-hour movie and subsequent spin-off series are equally enjoyable, even though they’re quite different from the original series.

So if you’re looking for something a little bit different from mainstream American media that takes different kinds of story-telling risks in order to tell more unique stories, you should try some anime. And if you’re going to try some anime, you can do a lot worse than The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. But if it’s your first time watching it, I definitely recommend watching it in the Kyon Order (called Anime Release Order in that spreadsheet) first. Might as well get the full experience and milk that story for all it’s worth.

 

#IWSG: Rewarding Writing

I get very emotional when I finish a story.

So this is going to be a bit of a different kind of post for me. Normally I’m critiquing someone else’s writing but one of my friends convinced me to join the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. My understanding is that participating in this group means writing a post about the art of writing on the first Wednesday of every month. So that’s what you can expect here for a while. Hopefully, this will give you a bit more insight into me and my writing processes as we go through it and, of course, you should check out the other blogs on the blog hop and see what else is out there that strikes your fancy!

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!
Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer – aim for a dozen new people each time – and return comments. This group is all about connecting! Be sure to link to this page and display the badge in your post. And please be sure your avatar links back to your blog! If it links to Google+, be sure your blog is listed there. Otherwise, when you leave a comment, people can’t find you to comment back.
Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!
Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG
The awesome co-hosts for the March 7 posting of the IWSG are Mary Aalgaard, Bish Denham, Jennifer Hawes, Diane Burton, and Gwen Gardner!

Click here to view everyone in the Blog Hop.

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March 7 question – How do you celebrate when you achieve a writing goal/finish a story?

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Unfortunately, I couldn’t really do much with this particular question. I don’t celebrate when I achieve a writing goal (usually that means completing a blog post since most of my writing is done here and at Royals Review) or when I finish a story. I just… move on to the next thing on my list. But it did get me thinking about how I react to the endings of stories when I consume them.

I have two basic reactions with varying levels of intensity based on a couple of factors. If the story stops without being completed or has a bad ending I usually get pretty upset. I refused to seriously consider purchasing Mass Effect: Andromeda after the travesty that was the ending of Mass Effect 3 despite being a huge fan of BioWare, the development company, and the Mass Effect series in general. I’ll also never forget my summer break between Freshman and Sophomore years at college when my sister suggested I binge watch the Dark Angel TV series starring Jessica Alba. She loaned me her DVDs – this was before the days of streaming TV – and I quickly watched the first two seasons of the series. I eagerly returned her discs and asked to borrow the next season. That’s when I discovered that Dark Angel, whose second season ended on a massive cliffhanger, did not have a third season. The show had been canceled. I didn’t speak to my sister for the rest of the summer and it was the very first time I can recall seriously considering that I might want to write something creative; I really wanted to know the ending of that story, even if I had to write it myself.

But when a story actually finishes my reaction is almost universally that of sadness. The amount of sadness depends on how much I enjoyed it. When I finished Final Fantasy Type-0, for example, I was still pretty sad even though if you followed along with my videos and handful of blog posts I pretty clearly hadn’t enjoyed the game very much. On the other hand, when I finished Titan A.E. the second time – when I was old enough to better appreciate it – I was devastated. In both cases I followed my regular pattern for dealing with the loss of a story: I started googling the name of the story all over the place looking for supplementary material. That is one of the reasons I can appreciate Japanese media (primarily video games and anime) so much; there’s always tons of supplementary material.

Seriously. Google an anime, some time, if you never have. They’re almost always based on a manga which will have similar and additional stories since the anime frequently primarily serve as advertisements for them. Frequently there are light novel adaptations, as well. There will be wikis with extra info, sequel movies, prequel movies, spin-off anime, and Original Video Animations, also known as OVAs. Brandon Sanderson is my favorite author for similar reasons. I was sad at the end of the original Mistborn trilogy. Good news! There’s a sequel trilogy – which has now expanded to five books – and author Brandon Sanderson sets most of his books in a shared universe known as The Cosmere so even if there aren’t direct sequels there’s a fair chance I’ll see some of my favorite characters making cameos in other series.

That instinct to find more even when the story is complete also contributes to my writing, here. What better way to keep the thing I love alive than to write my own thoughts, praise, and criticism regarding it? I suppose I could write fan-fictions but ever since an ill-fated attempt to write a Star Trek fanfic when I was 13 I’ve mostly avoided such endeavors.

So now I’m going to do something I don’t usually do. I dislike leaving call-outs for comments too often because I think it can come across really needy. But I’m curious, what do some of you feel and do when you finish a story? Are you happy, sad, or indifferent? Do you obsess over it for weeks or months? Insist all your friends give it a try? Let me know in the comments. I look forward to hearing from you.