I know last time I said this would be out in a week but, instead, it’s been…five months?!?!?!

There’re reasons for that, outside of writer’s block: I’ve been dealing with a health issue, which I won’t go into detail about as it’s too personal, but that alone messed with my head and – no thanks to the usual bullshit that comes with changing doctors and medical insurance – I went without anti-depressants for too long and that, obviously, made things worse.

Thankfully, I’m somewhat better now – I still haven’t found a much-needed therapist – and finally got past my creative blockage.

So, yeah, hope you enjoy this piece, and – even if you don’t – thanks for giving it a look!


There’s nothing surprising, in the least, that Shang-Chi manages to have some of the better action scenes of any MCU installment.

When it comes to martial arts in cinema – the choreography is as important as the staging. You can’t just half-ass it and cover it up with a lot of CGI either, because you need incredibly physical performers that can make their engagement in combat seem as natural and effortless to them as breathing or blinking. Each movement must feel fluid, as if purely instinctual, and anything else comes off as stiff and mechanical. It’s all essential.

It’s not perfect, for nothing is truly capable of such, but – as far as the MCU goes – it’s gotten closer to it than most. There are those niggles with plot contrivances and occasional holes, the hat-on-a-hat comic relief (I really wish Ben Kingsley was just a cameo), and a third act that’s a bit of a convoluted CGI clusterfuck – but they’re far more tolerable here than other MCU films. There’re conventions common across the MCU, such as the obligatory love interests, that get on my nerves because they rarely serve any other purpose within the movie they appear in and even rarer they’ll make a return. While I wouldn’t call Shang-Chi “subversive”, they do something unexpectedly creative enough with the tropes of a staid formula that’s oddly refreshing.

Katy/Ruiwen (Awkwafina), for example, is initially framed as a seemingly useless comic-relief sidekick but…she’s not.

Outside her integral role in the final battle with a CGI Cthulhu monster (who’s introduced a little too late), she’s actually the one who pushes an otherwise avoidant titular protagonist (Simu Liu) to directly deal with their situation and really the only person he can confide in about his unusual and utterly fucked-up backstory. She is, in fact, the love interest – but that’s not established until the story’s epilogue. It’s not stated in dialogue but with a small gesture where her and Shang-Chi’s hands clasp around each other. Though it is foreshadowed when one of Katy’s relatives suggests dating Shang-Chi, it is quickly dismissed because, at this point, neither of them see each other as romantic partners but very good friends. Like, of all the romances in the MCU, this is easily the most verisimilitudinous. They started as friends, went through turmoil, and it brought them closer together like many couples in reality. I’d like to see more of that in the MCU instead of all that other tepid shit.

It would be remiss, of course, to not bring up the stand-out performance by a fantastic actor: Tony Leung as Zu Wenwu. I’d go as far as to argue that he’s easily the best villain within the MCU, next to Wilson Fisk and Thanos – they’re layered and empathetic at times but we’re kept aware what they’re doing is still wrong. Like Fisk, he is partly motivated by love. Like Thanos, he’s an abusive father who rationalizes his mistreatment as a form of “building character” or protecting his children.

Wenwu is a particularly interesting case because his comicbook counterpart – The Mandarin – is a product of orientalism and cultural appropriation. Asking Katy for her Chinese name, in a weird way, is about how many notable personalities from China and associated territories use an English first name professionally. I mean, Tony Leung was not named “Tony” – it was Chiu-wai. Much like how Chan Kong-sang became “Jackie Chan” or Li Lianjie became “Jet Li.” It’s a practice that, more or less, is done for the sake of insensitive, overly-entitled Anglophones. English-speakers who, from my experience as such, are often so linguistically lazy that they’ll not bother learning how to pronounce non-English words and names or become childishly petulant when suggested they perhaps should. As Leung said, names are important – and it’s insulting to refer to a man as just being “Oriental”. Well, that or common Chinese cuisine…

With all that said, does that mean Shang-Chi is a good martial arts film than simply a superhero movie with elements of martial arts? Well, like so much of the MCU, it’s the latter. It never reaches the heights of (say) Hero, Tom-Yum-Goong, City of Violence, or even Master of the Flying Guillotine but there’s nothing wrong with that either. Not every martial arts film needs to be a masterpiece, but I wish Disney/Marvel leaned into it mainly being a martial arts film, rather than being another “superhero movie” that lifts tropes and aesthetics from other genres. What made Logan one of the best comicbook adaptations, at least in my opinion, is that it wasn’t a “superhero movie” – it was a neo-western akin to a film like No Country for Old Men or televised series like Breaking Bad. Why not do the same for, perhaps, the sequel to Shang-Chi? We can only hope!

Our next entry, however, comes much closer to achieving such…


Apologies, but I need to get this off my chest: I don’t like Clint Barton, both in the comics and MCU. At all. He’s just so…boring, to me.

If you noticed, I said “Clint Barton” and not “Hawkeye”, and there’s a reason for that: I adore Kate Bishop. It’s even better that, when compared to a dull Jeremy Renner, she’s played by an energetic Hailee Steinfeld who manages to make clumsiness ridiculously adorable. Although to be fair, I actually like Clint/Renner in his role here and there’re plenty of reasons for that.

It’s not really a superhero story when considering that the two main leads don’t really partake in the usual costumed crime-fighting antics, nor does the situation involve typical villainous machinations – its scale, much to my delight, is more grounded and personal than the rest of the MCU. It’s more like a Shane Black action-comedy that takes plenty of notes from Die Hard, including being set during Christmas while having nothing to do with the holiday – but, hey, at least New York has snow!

There’s obviously that element of Clint passing the torch to Kate, who is as rich as she is an utter fuck-up, but the inciting incident is almost farcical. Clint is in town to see a terrible (and hilarious) Broadway musical about Steve “Captain America” Rogers and the Battle of New York from The Avengers. Which, like a soldier coming back from Afghanistan and watching Black Hawk Down, gives him post-traumatic flashbacks (more on that, in a bit!). Kate, expelled from her university for an ill-conceived experiment/prank, crashes a secret auction involving the Ronin costume – only to steal it, then wear it, and finally get caught on camera. Given Clint’s worldwide mass murder tour, many disgruntled criminals come out of the woodwork to seek vengeance, including the enigmatic and eclectic Echo (Alaqua Cox) as well as Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh, i.e. the best part of Black Widow).

Of the many (and I do mean many) issues I had with Endgame as a film, the plot point involving Clint going on an indiscriminate rampage under the alias of “Ronin” is among the worst. You’d think, with the five-year time gap and what had happened over those years, he’d have a noticeable change in personality but he just…doesn’t. In fact, his old teammates are disturbingly willing to forgive and involve him in a time-traveling heist, though he could easily become a liability and sabotage their whole endeavor. Hell, they don’t even consider locking him up for the psychotic rampage alone. The point is that there’s no sense of consequence for those actions and, akin to WandaVision, feels aggravatingly counter-productive. In fact, it felt downright pointless. Though I’d have preferred to have it happen in the film, the showrunners of Hawkeye actually address this (to a degree).

For whatever reason, I seem to be one of the only people who liked the series and, admittedly, I’m confused by that. In terms of quality, it’s far more consistent than the other MCU series like WandaVision or Loki – it’s not bifurcated by a useless B-plot nor do the episodes feel as if they last longer than necessary. It has a nice sense of momentum where every episode is eventful, rather than having an entire episode based around an info dump or contrived battle, though it starts to spin too many plates by the end and rush significant character arcs. As much as I love Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, he was introduced too late in the story – a similar issue Book of Boba Fett had with Cad Bane – and not particularly necessary to make the narrative work. At least, unlike Cad Bane and Book of Boba Fett, he has a neat fight with Kate. 

Along with Kate’s clumsiness being an endearing trait, the showrunners manage to make Clint interesting as a person by dealing with his various mental and physical traumas caused by superheroics. Which, given how it was completely absent with Natasha Romanova in Black Widow, is refreshing to see in an MCU installment. We all know these stories take place in a heightened reality but it can help when reality (especially in live-action entertainment) is acknowledged, from time to time, and we’re reminded that no normal person could possibly live through such events and, if they did, couldn’t ever recover from it. His hearing loss nicely parallels Echo’s own condition along with the revenge subplot and, even better, the reason for his hearing loss is shown and not simply told. We’re given but a brief montage of moments from the previous films, being knocked around by so many goddamn explosions – it makes perfect sense without any utterance of an explanation. He might be a highly trained government assassin but he’s still a normal human being, and there’s nothing you can do against inevitable physical entropy.

There are a lot of other things I like, especially the Central Park LARPers as well as Clint and Kate just hanging out celebrating Christmas in a safe house, but it ultimately comes down to how it scales back and treats the characters like people. None of the spectacle ever overrides the very human qualities of the cast the way so many MCU films have and, unfortunately, that’s the opposite case with the next entry.

I’ll never comprehend how anyone could’ve possibly enjoyed the film as its very existence is baffling…


It’s better to ask “why is Eternals?” than “what is Eternals?” Because what Eternals is, as a cinematic narrative, is practically impossible to describe and it’s not worth such consideration unless you already had a personal connection with the source material. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am, for having sat through the entire film and rarely finding a moment of joy.

Admittedly, I’m biased as I’ve always been fond of Jack Kirby’s New Gods, and Eternals felt like a cheap knock-off with the stench of Erich von Däniken attached. Y’see, Däniken is a racist piece of shit and it’s why so many of his “ancient astronaut (totally dubious and unfalsifiable) theories” had aliens who were somehow responsible for the pyramids of Egypt, the Moai statues of Easter Island, or literally any place that both isn’t in Europe and is not Stonehenge. It’s why we have cultural detritus like Ancient Aliens around with a bunch of arrogant, ignorant honky motherfuckers being reductive about and wildly misinterpreting cultures none of them actually understand.

I know I’m being digressive, but I’ve never come across a script as unengaging, over-bloated, and confused as the one for Eternals. It wants to be too many things at once, with too many bland characters, and too much dull exposition for the half-baked mythos. Thinking and writing about it can be painful, at times.

I don’t mind expounding on what the Celestials do, a bit, given their background presence in the MCU but the filmmakers don’t have their priorities in proper order as the monolithic pseudo-deities are treated with more importance than anything else in the narrative. For example; I’d like to know who Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), or Sprite (Lia McHugh) are as people but you really can’t when they also have to share screentime with another eight or so characters – which could easily be remedied by cutting out some of them, as their involvement is negligible at best and pointless at worst.

So much of the film are these characters meeting up with one another, constantly bringing up how they’re “family”, which is as unbearable as it was in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and the threat they need to deal with, as though the audience must be constantly reminded like easily distracted children. They never act like a familial unit, but a bunch of random people who don’t really like each other, so these proclamations made about their relationship are completely hollow and nakedly manipulative. ‘Cause, y’see, they have to be family because they said they were family! It’s like that bit in Futurama where the Robot Devil chastised an opera because the characters were outright stating how they felt and, yes, it does make me as angry as it did him. I want characters defined by what they do and not simply what they say.

You can’t even enjoy the action sequences because every fight feels like it belongs in a videogame. Its humanoid characters are covered in special effects while battling space dinosaurs that never look organic as much as motile plastic – may as well just show a child smacking action figures together while going “BOOM!” and “POW!” and “WOOSH!” Shang-Chi’s martial arts felt naturalistic because, save for the third act, we mostly have flesh-and-blood people in combat with little use of CGI – there’s a sense of impact to all those punches and kicks.

Is there anything I could compliment? Well, yeah, surprisingly. Kingo’s (Kumail Nanjiani) reappearance in the present day, portraying him as a Bollywood actor shooting an elaborate musical scene, is easily the most lively scene and makes you want to watch that movie-within-a-movie instead of the actual movie. Nanjiani’s presence is also what makes the boring shit afterward more tolerable, until he just leaves the film right before the climax, ‘cause reasons (although, to be honest, that’s every character’s motivation: ‘cause reasons).

The filmmakers, despite the abominable script, know how to make a film look good outside of the CGI; the cinematography does a phenomenal job of capturing landscapes that lends them a level of majesty equal to their grand scale. Despite the inconsistent color-grading, you always know what is happening on-screen due to otherwise good lighting and shot composition. It is, on a purely technical level, well-made. The problem, however, is none of that really matters. It cannot improve or elevate the material, to salvage the unsalvagable.

Much like Erich von Däniken and the insufferable, intellectually lazy UFOlogists he’s inspired, I never want to hear about or speak of Eternals ever again. I want it to go the way of Inhumans, where it gets swept under the rug and only referenced offhanded (and underhandedly) in other installments without any fanfare whatsoever. It certainly doesn’t deserve a sequel because, even though there’s plenty to build off of, the characters were so devoid of personality and the mythos so poorly conceived that I just don’t give a shit. If the film bothered to make me care about the cast first and foremost, especially without their convoluted origin story, then I’d feel more charitable about seeing a follow-up that could improve upon its other issues.

But, again, that’s not going to happen – I refuse to suffer this foolishness any further under the naive presumption the sequel will fix everything…

…Okay, that did end on a very negative note.

However, I can promise that won’t be the case next time – that’s right, I’m going to do another set of MCU mini-reviews! It’s been a while since the first one and other installments came out since then, so it only made sense to make a third set of mini-reviews. If I manage to see Thor: Love & Thunder in theaters, maybe there’ll be a fourth about it and Ms. Marvel soon after.

Sooner than several months and more within a week or two, of course (hopefully)!

MCU Catch-Up (Part 1): On LOKI, BLACK WIDOW, and WHAT IF…?

Hey there, everyone – I’m back!

Finally got a new laptop (and eventually figured it out, kinda) and have a keyboard to properly write, ’cause my phone’s touchscreen hates me. Originally, prior to my computer troubles, I was planning on doing separate reviews for each Marvel Cinematic Universe series on Disney+ and the films. Except, much like The Falcon & Winter Soldier, I can’t really say enough about any of them alone for an entire piece.

However, I can as mini-reviews! In two sets, actually, and here’s the first…


After WandaVision and The Falcon & Winter Soldier, having a series with the strengths of both while lacking the weaknesses of either – well, mostly – was a nice development. Much like WandaVision, it’s partly a character deconstruction of the titular individual but also functions as an adventure akin to The Falcon & Winter Soldier, albeit one of time-travel and parallel timelines than international intrigue and espionage.

The antics with the space-time continuum are far more interesting and meaningful here than in Endgame, as it rarely ever diverts attention away from the protagonist for the sake of plot contrivance and fan service. I mean, why would they, when he’s played by Tom Hiddleston? He’s consistently been my favorite thing about the MCU because, even in something badly-written, he puts a level of dedication into portraying the character that makes him relatable and – despite his godhood – feel incredibly human.

There’s actually very little for me to condemn except for how both Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Wunmi Mosaku are essentially playing the same character. The only real difference between them is how they respond to the reveal of the Time Variance Authority’s true nature, but ultimately unnecessary and does little more than pad out the runtime. It’s like Monica Rambeau, Jimmy Wood, and Darcy Lewis in WandaVision all over again. That final episode, however? I’ve never loved and hated something so much simultaneously. It is both an info dump explaining what’s been going on in this series while also another in-house ad for subsequent installments of the MCU and…stop it, Disney. Fucking stop it.

Anyway, what made all that tolerable is Jonathan Majors, who delivers the aforementioned info dump, for his performance is so expressive that he manages to make convoluted and interminable exposition less arduous to endure. I shouldn’t be surprised by this given his role in Lovecraft Country, where he seemed to channel the spirit of Gil ScottHeron (now that is a biopic I want to see!), with his versatility proven here by feeling like a completely different person to Atticus Freeman. But, more importantly, does this properly stick to landing by the end unlike WandaVision and The Falcon & Winter Soldier? The final scenes actually live up to all that came before, moreso given it isn’t resolved with some big battle (though there is a brief skirmish), and the cliffhanger is enough to make me look forward to the next season.

Seriously, I’m eagerly awaiting it. The next entry? Not so much – I dreaded it.


Like Black Panther before it, Black Widow feels like the sequel to a nonexistent previous film and suffers greatly for it. The “Budapest Mission” that’s been occasionally referenced in other films should’ve been enough by itself (especially as a prequel) but, for whatever bizarre reason conceived by Disney, we got a film that bewilderingly came out well after Endgame but takes place between Civil War and Infinity War. You could blame it on all the pandemic-based delays but that’s just an excuse when considering this: shouldn’t there have been two Black Widow installments already? One about the “Budapest Mission” and the sequel? And, if we were only getting one of them, why choose the latter?

Bringing up Black Panther once more; that film was full of characters standing around talking about past events which we almost never see, we’re just told about them (‘cause of course), and its aggravating to have so much of the runtime spent on it instead of making the narrative more self-contained and eventful in its own right. Black Widow does the same goddamn thing, and it’s significantly worse for one reason.

Y’see, Taskmaster is the film’s secondary antagonist and there’s a big reveal about their identity, but it doesn’t matter because there’s no set-up and the pay-off would’ve only worked if…we had a previous installment about the “Budapest Mission” to properly introduce and develop them. The filmmakers obviously want us to care about this reveal but, sorry, that’s impossible for a person who has only been mentioned a few times and seen once in a flashback to the nonexistent previous (and likely better) film. It’s a perplexing creative decision, on so many levels, and makes me wonder how it ever got past the pre-production phase.

Although it’s not totally worthless, as long as you just concentrate on all the interactions between Natasha Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) and the surrogate family she formed with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Alexi “Red Guardian” Shostakov (David Harbour), and Melina Vostokova (Rachel Weisz). The dialogue between them is all about characterization with as little exposition as possible, refreshing given the MCU formula’s tell-over-show approach, and it’s impressive how the script is able to capture the Russian mindset of these people. There’s that fatalistic edge in how they perceive and connect with the world around them including a cynical and sarcastic sense of humor, making the film’s comedy more dark than quippy, that’s incredibly amusing to see play out. They’re weirdly functional as a familial unit despite their outwardly dysfunctional behavior and the adversarial friction between each other is simply accepted as a dynamic for catharsis and reconciliation. If misery loves company, then Russians worship misery’s company.

It’s unfortunate, then, that such pleasant moments are sandwiched between dull action sequences with unremarkable choreography and further accentuates an issue I’ve always had with MCU Natasha: she comes off as more invulnerable than Captain America, a superhuman soldier that nonetheless takes a notable amount of damage which leaves a mark. Natasha can fall several floors, hit a bunch of construction scaffolding along the way, and get up with little more than a limp that goes away in minutes. She breaks her nose on a desk and then resets it, wherein the wounds just disappear. She gets into a goddamn mid-air battle straight from Bayonetta, which would work in a comicbook or cartoon or videogame but simply breaks suspension of disbelief in a live-action film. Moreso when it’s clearly established within the setting she’s a normal, albeit expertly-trained, human being. Maybe I would’ve cared about her or felt excited about anything she does if they actually treated her like that…

Now, let’s move on to something very different.


I love anthologies. Can’t get enough of ‘em. Wish there were more – many, many more.

What If…?, loosely based on the comicbook of the same name, is certainly one of those but it suffers from inconsistent quality as well as self-limited by its own premise. There’re some fantastic episodes – “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” is easily my favorite, followed by “What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” – and others that’re amusing, like T’Challa (the late, great Chadwick Boseman) as Star-Lord or Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) as Captain America (“Captain Britain”?) or the globally catastrophic frat party Thor (Chris Hemsworth) throws on Earth, but it’s hard to feel as much enthusiasm for the others. I can’t help but blame this on the fact the setting of each story is just an iteration of the MCU than an entirely separate reality, which is what the comics did. The MCU is relatively young, compared to that of the mainline 616 (a clusterfuck of canon like all superhero comics), and there’re only so many scenarios you can use before the creative well runs dry.

It’s rather puzzling when Loki brings up Variants and they differ greatly from the Loki we’re familiar with – including one who resembles Abomination from The Incredible Hulk, a Gran Prix racer, and even an alligator (all without explanation as to why,  thankfully) – but there’s nothing like that in What If…? I suppose, given it is the first season, they were playing it safe and are leaving their more ambitious material for the next – but I’m annoyed there’s still an aversion to risk at this point, whatsoever. Disney could lose fifty million and it wouldn’t matter. It’s a drop in a bucket worth two hundred and four billion dollars. At least Werner Bros. has been redirecting their DC properties allowing more creative freedom for filmmakers, forsaking the shared universe concept, and telling self-contained stories.

What basically damned the season was extending the eighth episode – “What If…Ultron Won?” – into a two-parter when it worked well enough on its own. The destructiveness on display is downright creative, like Ultron (Ross Marquand) enlarging his head to cosmic proportions and biting down on a solar system as if it were a sandwich, and could’ve ended on a dark note similar to the Dr. Strange episode. If it had to extend into another episode, I’d of just preferred Ultron and Uatu the Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) both going Super-Saiyan while battling across alternate realities – perhaps teasing the audience with what’ll be seen in the next season – but instead decides to be a team-up with all the previous episodes’ protagonists (and a Gamora Variant, voiced by Cynthia Williams, that hadn’t appeared until the finale), which was a terrible idea. Evil Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) should not have been given a redemption arc of any kind, as it lessens the impact of that episode’s bleaker-than-bleak ending, and a potential sequel to Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and his machinations are now impossible due to the outcome of a battle between a god-like Ultron and the terribly-named Guardians of the Multiverse (um, why not use “The Exiles”? A team made up of multiversal Variants?). None of them should be able to stand any chance against the omni-genocidal robot with all six Infinity Stones, either on their own or as a group, but they’re able to anyway ‘cause of both literal plot armor and deus ex machina.

There’s obviously a lot of untapped potential in the show and am happy it’s getting another season like Loki, but my expectations for it are lower. The talent is definitely there; the animation, even if off-putting at first, quickly grows on you and the voice-acting, save for some bad line readings here and there, is pretty good. Also, despite the contrivances in some episodes – like Ultron bifurcating Thanos effortlessly even when possessing five of the six Infinity Stones – I’m willing to forgive that when it’s to indulge further in the oddity or ambition of an episode’s premise.

I hope for the best yet am still expecting the worst – it’s far less disappointing that way…

Don’t worry, the next set will be less harshly critical (kinda) and, thankfully, you won’t need to wait a month (or three, or six…) – it’ll just be a week!

I’m making it a personal (for there is nothing professional about me) goal to post my work on a weekly basis, starting with the next set of mini-reviews and, after that, my Non-Fan Review of The Clone Wars and an essay on the world-building of Disco Elysium.

See y’all then!

[Edited 4/23/22, for grammatical correction]

Pop Culture Heresy: Big Events & Canon/Continuity

I’m still working on my review of The Clone Wars, as well as starting another about Loki, but I finished one of my two planned op-eds about my least favorite aspects of comicbooks.

Hope you enjoy! Or, if you hated it, thanks for taking a look!

At times, I find my ever-lengthening backlog of comics incredibly discouraging and wonder if, perhaps, I should swear off them entirely or at least take an extended break. I don’t think I ever can though – whether its superheroes, creator-owned material, or manga – as there’s just so much to appreciate in the medium and want to show support. Still, the industry build upon it makes that extremely difficult.

There’re several reasons but, for now, let’s stick with superhero comics and two particularly egregious bugbears of mine in relation to them: Big Events and Canon/Continuity.

I’m not even sure why they’re called “Big Events” anymore because they’re commonplace to the point they’re just…events. They’re not special these days and, year after year, I find out about another one via social osmosis and wonder if anyone else actually asked for this or if the heads of the industry are erroneously mistaking the sensibilities of the audience for their own (it happens more than you’d think) and now we’re stuck with it. Like, did anyone want a sequel to Civil War? ‘Cause I sure as shit didn’t and hated how it got in the way of things I otherwise enjoyed. I would, in fact, love to read a series where there wasn’t some tie-in to a Big Event or paid the kind of lip-service to past canon/continuity that, were it done in live-action entertainment, would only make sense to use in a long-running soap opera.

Pictured: Jonathan Hickman, trying to make sense of X-Men canon/continuity.

I know no one who considers themselves a fan of superhero comics wants to hear this but, as someone who has read and absorbed much of the same information as they have, this fetishization with maintaining canon/continuity is why – even as superhero films are becoming incredibly popular worldwide – the uninitiated are still hesitant to pick up a single issue much less an entire series of superhero comics. Trying to memorize and understand 60+ years of publication history and numerous retcons is self-imposed homework that comicbook fans pat themselves on the back for, while most people just want to see stories involving larger-than-life characters performing heroic feats (and, hopefully, with some social commentary).

You’re not researching the timeline of the British Empire and how their colonization affected various regions of the world like India or Hong Kong, but instead a heightened reality of made-up people who do whatever the assigned creative team wants them to do. Like, seriously, why’s that so precious to comicbook fans? I can’t think of another storytelling genre, next to the aforementioned soap operas, that handicaps itself so much paying tribute to an utterly fake history that’s revised constantly anyway. It’s fucking fiction and shouldn’t be treated like a real historical document, when it is meant simply to entertain on some level or another. It’d definitely make discussing comics less frustrating without lore-addicts, as they obsess over canon/continuity to the degree that the story being told is a secondary or even tertiary concern…

Ultimately, the problem comes from hyper-focusing on content while dismissing context. That’s why the same people who now complain about “social justice warriors” (an insult that is, contrarily, complimentary) supposedly taking over comics and making them political will still read X-Men comics, which (until more recently) were about how often in-groups demonize and oppress out-groups, or titles where the villains are millionaire or billionaire businessmen who use charities to cover up their illicit activities and somehow view them as “apolitical.” They’re absolutely taking everything in these comics for granted and reduce them to just stuff happening in a ridiculous alternate reality with superhumans, as opposed to works of Art created by those who had something to say about their society at the time by using those superhumans as symbols or abstract concepts physically incarnate. I can assure you that if you read any of the Golden Age Superman comics, ignoring their politics is either a sign of purposeful ignorance or lacking in Artistic literacy – Clark Kent literally goes around punching corrupt politicians and tormenting abusive factory owners. The fact his arch-nemesis is Lex motherfucking Luthor, a Randian capitalist if there ever was one, should be a sign Superman is a very progressive political figure no matter how much people (e.g. Geoff Johns) attempt to sanitize it.

A totally “apolitical” comic!

The reality is that all Art is political. Perhaps not outwardly, with characters espousing the tenets of an ideology, but the way a story is told is indicative of those creators’ ideology whether or not it was intentional on their part. Nothing is truly “apolitical” and its usage is often more disingenuous than not, for those who claim themselves to be “apolitical” are simply adherents to a status quo that already supports center-right policies. Those who complain about superhero comics (or videogames, or movies, or series, or animation) becoming “too political” are actually complaining about left-wing creators existing at all. These supposedly “apolitical” people are not “saving” superhero comics from anything heinous – they’re neutering and rendering them meaningless, due to their inability to enjoy Art that doesn’t directly pander to their limited sensibilities.

For me, one of the biggest problems in superhero comics is that most current professionals in the industry were, at one point, fans themselves. They continue this focus on “Big Events” as well as canon/continuity that only makes the medium more insular and inaccessible to anyone who isn’t a fan already or, at least, willing to become as dedicated as those fans. When Marvel brings in someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Black Panther or DC hires a slew of Young Adult fiction writers – it’s a godsend, not an aberration. It’s why I’m grateful for the late and great Dwayne McDuffie as a contemporary creator; he was well-aware that superhero comics, as a genre in the medium of sequential storytelling, could appeal to more kinds of people but the tastes of these largely white, cisgender, and heterosexual men (and some women) hinder such a possibility because that audience was seen as “integral” and to be patronized to the remiss of other demographics. The fact that, as a black individual, he’s had to deal with such ignorant complaints about how having too many people of color on a superhero team was, apparently, “pushing an agenda” sometimes makes me feel ashamed of being someone who likes comics and related media.

My confusion towards this attachment to “Big Events” and canon/continuity is quite simple: I think more personal, grounded, and/or wholly self-contained stories in superhero comics tend to be the most interesting. These End-of-the-World scenarios should be an occasional occurrence, with at least *some* years inbetween each, rather than an annual practice that diminishes everything that makes these stories feel special and imaginative.

Another totally “apolitical” comic!

Those panels above? They’re from a great run by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams where Hal “Green Lantern” Jordon returns to Earth after an extended trip through the cosmos – only to get a 101 course in social justice by Oliver “Green Arrow” Queen after defending a corrupt landlord against his rightfully angry tenants. Hal, realizing how short-sighted he had been, agrees with help Ollie catch the corrupt landlord red-handed and ends up doing so. However, Hal’s bosses – the Guardians of the Universe – are displeased and chastise him for getting involved in unofficial business via a psychic projection from afar.

Ollie, who holds a healthy disdain for authority figures, counters by accusing them of being aloof and out of touch with the people they’re supposed to keep safe. That, in hyper-focusing on large-scale events over the smaller ones, they don’t see people as much as individuals but statistics. Surprisingly, despite their often stubborn nature, Ollie was able to convince them. One of the Guardians is tasked to go down to earth, in the guise of a human, and…go on a road trip with Hal and Ollie across the United States. All while dealing with and solving contemporary societal ills they come across along the way.

We desperately need a de-escalation when it comes to the stakes in stories like these because, once a city/planet/universe is in danger, there’s little room for further escalation – and that’s already been done in the form of a multiversal conflict. Like, does Batman always need to save all of Gotham from being blown up ’cause reasons? No, he doesn’t. He could be solving various mysteries or stopping criminal activity that does not involve catastrophic destruction to make things exciting.

One of my favorite Batman comics is The Long Halloween, written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Tim Sale, that is just him trying to find the perpetrator of a string of murders over a whole year while being assisted/undermined by a Hannibal Lecter-esque Calendar Man. There’s very little in the way of him punching supervillains and their henchmen while using gadgets and thank God for that, ’cause that’s all we’ve gotten from the character over the years in live-action cinematic adaptations. People might ridicule it for being aged and more light-hearted than the annoyingly popular GRIMM UND GRITTY version of the character, but at least the 1960’s Adam West series show him doing more detective work than all the live-action films combined (excluding the one based on the series, of course! Gotta love that bomb scene…).

Ranking de Franquicias: Jungla de Cristal – LAS CRÓNICAS DE AXA 2.0
Imagine this, but with Batman. Seriously.

Honestly, it’s weird how many creatives can’t imagine a scenario for an action film that is both exciting and isn’t apocalyptic. Moreso when one that’s considered the best of its genre, Die Hard, is a perfect example of how a story can be engaging without having ridiculously high stakes. John McClane isn’t saving all of Los Angeles from a doomsday weapon, but hostages in a single building during a violent heist, and I wonder why we can’t get a Batman movie like this. Would it be less exciting if it was just him solving puzzles from The Riddler in order to save a couple dozen people from his various death-traps? In the wrong hands, of course – but why not just try it, to mix things up and set new trends?

A ton of current action cinema is adapted from superhero comics and, unfortunately, they’re adapting the least interesting aspects of superhero comics while barely using any of its better qualities. They don’t have to stop being action movies but they can at least be creative action movies – it’s why I’ll never shut up about the Battle of Titan from Infinity War but still think the final battle in Endgame was steaming dogshit up until the climax.

It’s like the final fight between Neo and Agent Smith in The Matrix Revolutions where the stakes are beyond catastrophic and, in a computer simulation where almost anything is possible, all they do is smash into one another over and over again much in the same way Superman and Zod did in Man of Steel. It doesn’t matter how much destruction you add to these stories – they’re still utterly boring when you don’t put much thought into the actual action taking place on screen beyond making it “feel big.” But, if every story has to be epic, it simply means none of them are epic for something that’s truly epic should stand out from other narratives in terms of scope.

Did you know Avengers' shawarma scene was shot after the film's premiere,  partially spoiled by Robert Downey Jr? | Hollywood - Hindustan Times
More of this, please! DO IT, YOU COWARDS!!!

That’s not possible when several similar and/or related works all aim too high far too early on and stick with that as the baseline, with the lack of contrasting stories that are more grounded and personal exacerbating that problem. You can’t have proper pay-off without set-up. A constant stream of epics are basically trying to be pay-offs with barely any set-up and practically no build-up – like the superhero comics themselves, there isn’t much breathing room between one epic movie to the next epic movie. Whatever intention they had for a massive pay-off only feels hollow, because it just happens and gets resolved in two or so hours with no lasting effect afterwards. There isn’t even a way to differentiate between one doomsday weapon from another when, regardless of superficial differences, they essentially function the same way within each plot and may as well all be the same movie.

If I could make any suggestion to those who publish superhero comics: rein it in and go back to basics – uncomplicate this convoluted fictional history, even if it means pressing the reset button, and make stories that are accessible to almost anyone rather than an ever-dwindling niche of diehards. Not simply a retcon that still carries over decades-old warts, but a full-on clean slate. Pure tabula rasa. In fact, that is why the MCU has worked as well as it has even as a shared cinematic setting; they are not burdened by the albatross that is canon/continuity and, in being somewhat recent, manages to make the material more accessible to audiences than any current comics are ever capable of or willing to do.

Are the fanboys going to dislike it? Of course they are but, as should be obvious by now, they don’t derive enjoyment from their chosen media anymore – they can only engage with it by being bitter, needlessly outraged assholes. It’ll never matter how much you pander to them because, almost habitually, they’ll see any reasonable changes as “SJW infiltration” no matter how minor or negligible. They actively obsess about everything they dislike so much that they can’t notice anything they like anymore and, when they do, it’s only done out of spite to “trigger” their perceived opponents. Making any attempt to appeal to them is a waste of time, when other demographics overshadow them in number, and why self-sabotage for the sake of an obnoxiously vocal minority with such rigidly specific and unrealistic demands? You may as well give Homer Simpson carte blanche to dictate how all cars are made…

This is what the fanboys want…and it’s ugly as Sin.

As for the filmmakers who adapt these works? Some of what I said before equally applies here, but it’s mainly showing some restraint and employing a sense of gradual escalation – as opposed to turning the dial to eleven and then breaking it off immediately. Instead of starting off with an entire city being in danger of getting blown up, ’cause reasons, maybe start with any other nefarious activity a villain can do – such as smuggling designer drugs, doing human trafficking, planning a series of bank heists, or committing a political assassination – and up the ante a little with each subsequent installment. Then, once The Avengers-style movie comes along, we can get pay-off by endangering a city and the one after that can become a global crisis…after more installments build up to that. Same goes for the subsequent universal crisis and the multiversal one after that.

I don’t say this simply for myself, as an admirer of comicbook as an Artistic medium, but – much like the late, great Dwayne McDuffie – for those who haven’t had a chance to appreciate it yet. The fact the MCU is as popular as it is, and regardless of my own problems with it, is evidence alone that it’s not the material itself that was unappealing to a larger audience but in how it had been executed. It’s been that way for decades and, despite their adaptations having overwhelming success, attempts by comicbook publishers to introduce a newer audience to mainline superhero canon/continuity don’t work as well as expected. There’s a very simple reason for this: even in something meant to be introductory – there’re still decades worth of baggage anchoring it in past canon/continuity that, for most other people, is alienating. Well, that and the fact superhero comics in the United States involve more financial and time investment than seeing a handful of two-or-so-hour movies every year.

Which means, perhaps, those in comicbook publishing as well as its fandom need to leave behind such outdated modes of publication and distribution – like making more titles digital-only at a lesser price than physical copies, perhaps forgoing an on-going format for more series of self-contained graphic novels. It’ll be hard, I get that, but let me end by asking an important question: do you want this beautiful form of Art to still exist, even if it changes, to be enjoyed in the future or to deprive that future enjoyment for others by being too stubborn and willing to simply stagnate out of existence? All over petty concerns based in a sense of unwarranted ownership and gate-keeping?

‘Cause I can’t imagine how you can love comicbooks and not choose the former…

Next up: my review of The Clone Wars, hopefully, but if not that – it’ll be my op-ed on Tolkien’s influence on the fantasy genre or my Loki review. If I don’t keep getting distracted, as I’m prone to, it’ll be up later on this month.

[Edited 4/23/22, for image replacement]

Cue (Inappropriate) Laugh Track: On WANDAVISION

Seems like I can’t keep promises I made to myself (of all people) – that’s writer’s block for you!

Seriously though, I had a good deal of difficulty writing this piece and that made it equally hard to concentrate on writing anything else. I was even planning to follow it up with a review of The Falcon & Winter Soldier but, after that ended, found I had very little to say on it in comparison to WandaVision (which I’ll get to later on).

Anyway, let’s just get this over with…

When it comes to change, it’s usually a good idea to take baby-steps in order to gradually develop healthier habits. To try and rehabilitate harmful behavior drastically can, counterproductively, only entrench those negative qualities – there’s a place to be weaned as opposed to immediately going cold turkey. So, how does any of that relate to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or its latest release, WandaVision? Under Disney’s neurotically risk-averse supervision, the MCU is made up of making one baby-step forward and then taking two baby-steps back. There’ll be incremental risks, such as Captain America: Winter Soldier playing out more like a spy-thriller than a superhero film, but will pull their punches and go back to following a formula that has become staid at this point.

WandaVision has, surprisingly, been the MCU’s most experimental (by their standards) title – it is, in fact, a big step forward as opposed to a baby-step. Yet, at the same time, it seems the studio wasn’t entirely comfortable with its scenario and found ways to make it feel more like the rest of the MCU. It is, ostensibly, a character study taking place in a cordoned-off reality that parodies the conventions of U.S. televised comedy from the last seven decades. The rules of that reality don’t always make sense but that’s fine, given it’s all meant to symbolize Wanda Maximova (not “Maximoff” – oh, and played by Elizabeth Olsen) as she tries to process her grief and inability to cope with loss. Hell, even the first episode outright references David Lynch’s Eraserhead and that sets up a ton of precedence along with the Pleasantville homages.

All of that? It’s fantastic and I honestly couldn’t get enough of it. The problem, however, is that it isn’t the entirety of the show.

Fixing What’s Unbroken

There is a B-plot, of sorts, involving Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) teaming up with Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) that may as well have been in an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (I suppose it’d be “Agents of S.W.O.R.D.” in this case…) – it doesn’t feel like it needs to be there and complicates what would’ve been a straightforward character study. Over-expository dialogue has been an issue in the MCU for a while, but that was a case of telling over showing, whereas WandaVision‘s is downright fatuous. It’s a trend I’ve been noticing in general with entertainment, partly due to the popularity of Artistically illiterate internet detritus like CinemaSins and the endemic presence of lore-addicts in many fandom communities, where plot elements that would’ve been left intentionally unexplained or only implied for thematic reasons are now explicitly described to the point there’s no mystique or attempt at engaging the audience to ponder and interpret the meaning of the material.

I love Jordan Peele’s Us but still despise it when a character explains why the Tethered exist in a way that “makes sense” but…it shouldn’t have been there whatsoever. We don’t “need” to know why a bunch of mute doppelgangers inexplicably lived in corridors below the earth feeding upon raw rabbit flesh; any explanation would be unsatisfactory and only take away from symbolically representing an underclass, one formed from an economic system that operates as a zero-sum game where someone “has” to lose in order for another to win (i.e. capitalism). It’s like how Prometheus and Alien: Covenant tries to explain the background of the titular creature, also known as a “Xenomorph,” when that’s the last thing you should do. There is a reason the film series is called “Alien” and not “Xenomorph” – the creature represented the unknowable, of what is completely alien to us as humans. James Cameron’s Aliens, David Fincher’s studio-sabotaged Alien 3, and (yes) even Alien: Resurrection (shut up, I like Jean-Pierre Jeunet – he gave us Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, and Amelie…) showed enough of an understanding of that, that they expanded on Xenomorphs without also getting into minutiae that would only make them less interesting.

By the fourth episode of WandaVision, a lot of the first three episodes’ mystique is lost because, rather than vaguely alluding to the world outside of the sit-com reality of Westview, New Jersey; it becomes an active part of the narrative to the rest’s detriment. As much as I do like many of Monica’s scenes, especially her experience with The Snap being reversed (it’s more horrifying than triumphant as it was in Endgame), they – once again – both feel out-of-place with the main narrative and explain too much that was better left unsaid. Part of what made those first three episodes work was trying to figure out how the situation came to be in the first place, and in such a way that it complements Wanda’s character study, where any big reveal should be at the conclusion of the story. Except, here, it’s halfway through. It’s like if The Maltese Falcon revealed the titular McGuffin was a fake far earlier in the plot and, at that point, who gives a singular shit about anything else that happens after?

Honestly, the show comes off as either overwritten by those credited for the script or having too many goddamn script doctors brought in that they lost track of all the changes. Though, given Disney’s behavior in recent years, the latter is more likely. Why else would it be so inconsistent in quality? To be full of many insipid throwaway lines that end up contradicting other insipid throwaway lines? It’s completely absurd.

Rewriting the Rewrite of the Rewrite

The series’ mystery antagonist, when revealed, was given a really catchy theme song that’s so good you forget it’s complete nonsense. Though present throughout, under a different identity, they were not the one responsible for the events “all along.” They were responsible for sabotaging Wanda’s machinations in some form or another but it’s firmly established, at several points, that the sit-com reality is Wanda’s creation alone. She was not tricked or forced into creating an altered reality to live out homages to The Dick Van Dyke Show and Malcolm in the Middle but, suddenly, we’re getting this contrived bullshit at the last minute. So, did they just happen to be living in the same town that Wanda showed an interest in settling down? Were they expecting Wanda the entire time? Was Wanda’s presence in the town unexpected to them? Were they always manipulating Wanda or just playing it by ear? There is no straight answer given for any of this and, somehow, suggests all of them being the case. Gee, how convenient! Nothing tells you a story is ill-conceived more than being so indecisive about a minor, yet nonetheless important, plot point…

Apparently, it’s not enough for the series to have one antagonist but two – the second being Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg), the acting Director of S.W.O.R.D. – and his characterization is even more confusing. He initially claims that Wanda had stolen The Vision’s (Paul Bettany) corpse from a research facility and, more or less, revived him in the sit-com reality but is able to track them within its barriers and even Wanda herself, in a moment of vulnerability, views Vision as a corpse rather than being alive to imply that being the case. This is contradicted down the line when it’s revealed that Wanda didn’t resurrect The Vision at all – he is a mystical conjuration. You can try and argue it’s a twist but then you’d have to explain how Hayward was able to keep track of The Vision, despite being a conjuration instead of a resurrected corpse, or why Wanda would view him as a corpse if he wasn’t already a corpse – it’s more appropriate to call them what they actually are: plot holes.

Best. Sexy Halloween costume. Ever.

Y’see, Hayward – for some reason (it’s never made clear ’cause of course) – lied about The Vision’s corpse being stolen by Wanda and, apparently, repurposed them (acting more as a shell without a soul) to deal with Wanda taking an entire town hostage. But…why lie, at all? As the acting Director of S.W.O.R.D. and the given situation, there’s nothing technically illegitimate about his actions yet the show continually attempts to paint him as being in the wrong. Depending on the scene, Hayward is either a milquetoast professional or a gung-ho prick who shoots first and asks questions later, yet he’s introduced as the latter but shown as the former in flashbacks when meeting Monica and Wanda. It’s as if they shot the flashbacks prior to all the rewrites and still wanted to use them, even if they were incongruous with his new introduction. I know why this inconsistency exists and it’s awful: the show can’t let Wanda be the true villain of the story – so, along with the mystery antagonist, Hayward is an attempt at distracting the audience from the heinous nature of Wanda’s actions.

What makes all of that nauseating is, even as the story fully acknowledges how wrong it was of Wanda to force her will onto others, the show is determined to come up with reasons why she isn’t “as bad” as the mystery antagonist or Hayward. The non-reason given is that Wanda didn’t do it “on purpose” but that doesn’t matter anyway because, regardless of intention (which is not magical), she still caused a good deal of harm to others. She forced real people to play out a cowardly fantasy purely for her own sake and, when brought back to their senses, sounded as if they’re losing their minds to eldritch madness. This is something that even the imaginary Vision, Wanda’s own creation, points out to her and indicates – on some level – she knows it’s wrong.

When you really think about it, the only reason the mystery antagonist and Hayward are “bad” is because they were trying to stop her and…that’s it, really. Except their actions, even as the show incompetently tries to vilify them, are absolutely justified and would make them the heroes in any other (better) story. It’s the kind of Bizarro World morality as displayed in the works of Ayn Rand, where selfishness is lionized and altruism is demonized, but it’s not done for the sake of a personal philosophy (as wretched as that may be) but because studio execs – who, ironically, are often lacking in creativity despite being in an industry dependent on it – are simply checking off items on a list of arbitrary storytelling “rules” and tropes to follow based on how popular and profitable it is for their products.

What makes it perplexing, with WandaVision, is that it’d likely still be successful even if it took more risks and the fact it’s on a streaming service should give the showrunners more leeway. Even the more recent Falcon & Winter Soldier, other than being more cohesive as a narrative, can be politically subversive from time to time (though it too ultimately fails as a story) yet WandaVision – which is a far more personal than political story – can’t ever admit that the protagonist is the villain of her own story or have her face the consequences for her actions. It makes the finale feel so…goddamn hollow.

But, hey, how else would she appear in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – coming out in March 2022!!!

And, Now, A Word From Our Sponsors…

The reason I front-loaded this piece with negative criticism was to better emphasize what makes the series so disappointing, because explaining what I liked and why might’ve come off as gushing praise. I’ve only briefly mentioned my fondness of the plot focusing on the altered sit-com reality, and further details about it deserve description far more than any other aspect of the show.

I’m honestly flabbergasted by how little anyone else speaks about the usage of the laugh track given how integral it is to the narrative. It’s easy to just presume it’s only part of the sit-com aesthetic, I suppose, but it’s obviously symbolic to Wanda’s character study – a manifestation of her psychological defense mechanism to avoid dealing with the past. The telltale signs are there; the comedy used in the series is purposefully broad and more awkward than it is clever or witty with the laugh track covering it up, much in the way many real broadly-styled sit-coms do with their lamer jokes, and the moments when it isn’t evoked indicates Wanda’s temporary loss of control over others and even the cordoned-off reality of her making. By the end of the series, when there’s no laugh track available, that loss of control becomes very apparent as random objects change to look like they did in previous decades despite the current time period resembling the early 2000’s. But, more importantly, the increased frequency of those changes parallel Wanda’s slide into deep depression and how she cannot avoid dealing with the trauma any further.

“What does our company do, exactly?”

The majority of sit-coms, as a form of entertainment, portray a heightened reality where no conflict cannot be solved with emotional but ultimately empty platitudes that – despite their vapidity – lead to feel-good closure without much effort spent on actual introspection. What make comedy series like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Peep Show brilliant is how both eschew making their characters aspirational and suggest that, were they real people, they’d be absolutely intolerable to deal with and even threatening around any other normal person. As silly as this may sound, I’d argue they’re basically the Watchmen (the comic, not the movie or HBO series – which’re both massive pieces of shit) of sitcoms. Both deconstruct tropes of the genre and the main cast darkly mirror their popular counterparts, and neither of them could possibly work in any other genre or storytelling format.

A trait they both share, and this relates to WandaVision as well, is how the cast go through situations where they should learn a lesson based on the “rules” of the genre but simply don’t. However, at the same time, that’s also been the case for their popular counterparts – we, as the audience, simply accepted that lack of development as a genre staple. It is only until the premise of a sit-com is grounded more in our reality that the problematic behavior of the characters is now made obvious, as someone who never learns their lessons and regularly repeat mistakes tend to be a terrible human being. The difference is that, unlike those shows, Wanda Maximova needs to actually learn and grow – it’s the conclusion heavily implied as part of her character study.

The showrunners display a deep understanding of sit-coms and put a ton of effort into how each decade is portrayed, right down to what visual effects are used, which is startling when compared to the scenes outside of these segments. You can tell that there was a lot more love and care put into them to the point where the lighting and sets felt appropriate with each sit-com decade – they don’t come off as if they were made in the here and now, then lazily filtered the footage through some computer program that only feels inauthentic. You can’t help but be glued to the screen to see what weird-as-fuck-but-nonetheless-amazing thing will happen next…only to be interrupted by the ultimately meaningless antics of Monica, Jimmy, and Darcy as if it were an in-house advertisement for another series.

It was bad enough when Age of Ultron wasted part of its runtime on “setting up” Civil War and Ragnarok, as if they weren’t already going to market these films to oblivion, that’ve been rendered pointless the moment both of those films were released. However, that film was woeful from beginning to end as is and WandaVision had more imagination in its first episode than the entirety of that wretched waste of celluloid’s one-hundred-and-forty-one minutes.

Roll Credits

Watching and writing about WandaVision has honestly been an exhausting experience, but not for the better. It’s not like with films such as, say, Sorry to Bother You or Downfall where the subject material is so heavy that, though it is far from being “fun”, is also what make them meaningful and justifies the emotional whirlwind it puts you through. I wanted WandaVision to do the same, actually – going into the uncomfortable depths of a psyche traumatized by loss, and how such trauma when ignored and untreated can cause one to lash out and harm others under petty justifications. As much as it tries to do that, it fails where those aforementioned films succeeded due to a lack of a committed (pun intended) vision. Perhaps that is somewhat unfair as there was a vision but one undermined by a risk-averse studio, who lacked much-needed faith in it, and that’s far worse.

This exhaustion was further compounded by The Falcon & Winter Soldier which, even if more cohesive in tone and style, took the potential to be truly profound social commentary about systemic issues…only to be sanitized much in the way WandaVision had been. Scenes such as Sam “The Falcon/Captain America” Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and his sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), being denied a loan based on implicitly racist reasons – or almost everything involving Isiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) – are fantastic and a definite step up from the respectability politics of Luke Cage‘s first season. However, not unlike Black Panther, it still pulls its punches by the end and cartoonishly vilifies the primary antagonist, rendering otherwise legitimate grievances invalid with inexplicable acts of evil. The handling of the Flagsmashers and their leader, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), is easily one of the most tone-deaf creative decisions made in the MCU next to how Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) treats women like shit to…show he’s the bad guy, I guess? ‘Cause, hey, you can’t give credence to someone’s frustration with racial oppression and being left to suffer by his own family when he shoots and beats women, right?!

WandaVision' Finale Reveals Evan Peters' Pietro Real Identity
Wait, is this another season of American Horror Story?

Consider this one point: they redeem the secondary antagonist, John “U.S.Agent” Walker (Wyatt Russell), despite outright murdering a defenseless man with Captain America’s shield and staining it with blood in a fit of misdirected rage, while dozens of bystanders record it with smartphones, right at the very end of the series. Much like how WandaVision can’t allow Wanda to be the true villain of that story, The Falcon & Winter Soldier can’t allow it for U.S.Agent either. They throw other characters, whose actions made sense given their situation, under the bus to make them seem “less bad” (even though it doesn’t) no matter how abrupt and absurd their change of motivation or rationale.

Like, where were the showrunners on January 6th of this year? Did they completely miss that attempted coup which was, in fact, not done by antifascist activists – who the Flagsmashers bare a strong resemblance to – but the kind of jingoistic, bellicose dickheads who’d be more like U.S.Agent? Either they buried their head in the sand during the whole clusterfuck or they did notice and, being unreasonably risk-averse, didn’t want to offend anybody (even the fascists) and did this “both sides” bullshit to cover their bases. Whatever the reason, it’s absolutely craven on their part and proves that, far from going “full-on SJW” as the many man-children of the internet claim, Disney is willing to pander to the worst of humanity (they certainly did so with Rise of Skywalker…) as long as they get money. Any contrary assertion is downright delusional.

How about Loki, though? Of course I like it, so far – as I did with WandaVision and The Falcon & Winter Soldier in their first half. The thing is, however, that I really want to like this series more than those two yet dread it will still disappoint as they have (if not worse) by the end. Tom Hiddleston is always an absolute delight as Loki and, after finding Endgame‘s usage of it somewhat underwhelming after so much build-up, the series’ take on time-travel and tangent timelines is incredibly inventive rather than simply an excuse for fan-service or slapstick gags. Part of me knows how the series is going to end – the title of the upcoming Dr. Strange film is indicative enough – but I can only hope that, unlike WandaVision and The Falcon & Winter Soldier, it sticks to landing and ends with a proper bang than a compromised whimper.

A little over a year ago in my review of Jessica Jones‘ final season, I said “Ever since Endgame, it feels like the sky’s the limit…” and Far From Home helped reinforce that. That’s not so much the case now and I really didn’t want that to be the case – but that’s what happens when you get your hopes up, I suppose.

As I was tormenting myself to finish this piece, in spite of my avoidant behavior, I finished watching all of The Clone Wars and…I’ll tell you what I think, for next time (you might be surprised)!

There’re a bunch of pieces I’ve decided to drop simply because I either don’t have a lot to say about them, as I have with The Falcon & Winter Soldier, such as the follow-up to my JoJo’s NonFan ReviewThus Spoke Rohan Kishibe – despite liking it far more than that show. The most justice I could do is highly suggest watching it because, in my opinion, it’s better than entire sections of JoJo’s within only four episodes. At this point? I’d rather see more of it than an animated adaptation of the “Stone Ocean” storyline because the approach is so refreshing. There aren’t enough (decent) anthology series around and Rohan Kishibe is as perfect a host as the Crypt Keeper, for he is not always a participant in events but can act as a witness to observe and record them for others to know. To describe any episode in too much detail would ruin an otherwise fantastic experience of seeing them firsthand.

After that? A couple of rants about how much I find “Big Events” and continuity/canon in superhero comics overrated and that J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence only handicaps the fantasy genre. I am not looking forward to how people will respond to them, given prior experience…

Lovecraftian Ludonarratives: Mini-Reviews for SUNDERED, DARKEST DUNGEON, and CONTROL

I needed me some vidyagames, but not just any vidyagames – ones like Bloodborne!

They’re not other Soulsborne titles but love letters to the various works of H.P. Lovecraft (minus the virulent racism, thankfully!) along with those who followed in his stead, as far back as August Derleth and Robert E. Howard (yes, that one) and as recent as Brian Lumley and Stephen King. Though Lovecraft in videogames is neither uncommon nor recent, when considering Alone in the Dark or the point-and-click adventure Shadow of the Comet, it’s often difficult to gamify the author’s work without cherry-picking elements and creating an original story around them. The fact Dark Corners of the Earth tried to be a first-person shooter where you incinerate Starspawn with a flame-thrower, mow down Deep Ones with a machinegun, blast Dagon in the face with a ship’s cannon, and take on a Flying Polyp with a retro-futuristic blaster is more than enough to prove why faithfully adapting Shadow Over Innsmouth as a videogame is impossible without ruining the source material. Though, even as a videogame, it failed miserably…

These games, on the other hand? It depends – but let’s get the worst out of the way first. May as well start with the bad news before getting to the good stuff.


Sundered®: Eldritch Edition

There’s nothing as disappointing as wasting so much talent on something that’s otherwise lacking in quality. One can never fault Sundered‘s developer, Thunder Lotus, for their art direction and design along with the graphical fluidity of its character animations – imagining the painstaking work required to achieve such and how that, by itself, is admirable. Regardless, it’s not enough to carry the rest of the experience.

It is, ostensibly, a Metroidvania title with procedurally-generated dungeons upon each death – which carries no penalty, save for wasted time – and attained abilities for both combat and mobility to proceed. I’ve played enough games that use procedural generation to know that it works best when you can differentiate between each individual run and, if you’re unable to, suggests the developers should’ve used a specific level design instead. It’s done incredibly well in games like Enter the Gungeon where there’re innumerable combinations of rooms and challenges making every iteration feel unique, helped by its fast-paced quarter-munching arcade cabinet vibe, as well as Rogue Legacy with its addition of a procedurally-generated lineage of monster hunters invading a haunted shape-shifting castle (huh, that sounds oddly familiar…). When it doesn’t work, as evidenced in both Let It Die‘s Tower of Barbs and Bloodborne‘s Chalice Dungeons, it feels like the same three or four areas that’re sequenced in a different order each time yet can’t tell the difference after a while. Sundered is in the latter category and worsened by how badly the game already is at directing the player to the next objective.

As if the terrible navigation wasn’t frustrating enough, the frequency and intensity of spawned enemies make it a war of attrition as wave after wave comes after you with no end in sight. This isn’t difficult or challenging combat – it’s just being bombarded at every angle and given little room to react properly. You don’t die numerous times due to a hostile non-player character being smart enough to attack when leaving yourself open, as most of them are little more than cannon-fodder but, from being so over-stimulated by the visual clutter that you give up and let them kill you. The treks through nearly identical-looking procgen’d levels might be boring but, Jesus fuckin’ Christ, at least they weren’t assaulting my eyes and almost giving me a headache.

I regret not heeding George Weidman’s warning about the game and, being unusually gullible (’cause Lovecraftian horror), assumed the problems he brought up would somehow be fixed in future patches – because, unfortunately, that didn’t happen and it only makes me happier over the recent Cyberpunk 2077 controversy. At this point, it’s hard to defend any game with the possibility patches might fix issues when you know that such issues could’ve already been dealt with beforehand. Thunder Lotus, as much effort as they put into their graphics, didn’t put nearly enough effort into polishing the gameplay – they gave us a videogame we can enjoy gazing upon but at the cost of interactivity, and it’s just not worth it.

The next game is proof that you don’t need to be photogenic when you provide a far more fulfilling ludic experience…

Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon: The Crimson Court - How to Get a Courtyard Invitation |  AllGamers

In the cosmicism of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, humanity is not important in the grand scheme of things. How could we be? It’s nearly impossible for us to truly comprehend the vastness of space and time like Yog-Sothoth, with what we do know is infinitesimal in comparison. At best, we’re pawns in their incomprehensible machinations and can’t do much about it besides play along. At worst, we’re completely useless. You can always try to prepare for the worst, to avoid the pain of a severe loss, but they’re inevitable – though, at the same time, it only makes those small victories against overwhelming odds far more meaningful as result.

Darkest Dungeon has this theme woven into its game mechanics and manages to instill a great sense of player disempowerment with its punishing difficulty, something Bloodborne (as good a game as it still is) could not entirely achieve as an action title. Though its endings are fatalistic in nature, as even the player character attaining godhood makes them little more than a monstrous infant, it’s still a game where – with enough might and perseverance, and death rendered a minor inconvenience – you can still attain godhood. None of the player characters featured in Darkest Dungeon will ever reach that level of cosmic power. They will defeat many a beast and have moments of heroism, of course, but they are all nonetheless vulnerable and suffer permadeaths.

You are expected to treat each recruit to your cause, fighting back the otherworldly abominations of an abandoned palatial estate, as expendable. Each class of player character even looks the same, save for a limited selection of palette-swaps, further entrenching their interchangeability and disincentivize attachment to any one individual. There’ll always be another caravan of treasure-hunters and mercenaries with a death wish to send to their doom, yet the longer any of them manage to live – the more attached you become anyway…

They may be the digital simulacrum of people but, as any good ludic experience should, seeing these player characters go on one expedition after another and building them up to become legendary adventurers makes it all the more tragic when they do finally fall. Though some of their personality quirks grant benefits, others can often be detrimental to themselves or their comrades, but – unless you have the means to suppress those bad habits entirely (you usually won’t until later on) – you learn to live with their flaws and work around them, just like you do when interacting with other people in reality. Even those fireside chats, as procedurally generated as the dungeons themselves, make you care for them despite being little more than a proxy of a person made of computer code.

As someone who despises real-time combat in role-playing games and shoehorning stats into otherwise action-heavy titles relying more on hand-eye coordination skills, games like Darkest Dungeon remind me of why I appreciate turn-based combat mechanics in RPGs and utterly thankful when indie developers implement it into their games. Complaints about how it “looks silly” come off as wildly superficial when, honestly, the empty spectacle is just as silly-looking yet far more aggravating (if not just boring) to play. I greatly prefer an element of strategy over having poorly-programmed friendly AIs who only impede my progress or chiseling away at bullet-sponge enemies with an interminable health bar until it finally falls over, instead of making every move matter and where each successful attack hits hard – putting you in situations that cannot simply be won by turning off your brain and mashing buttons.

The row-based combat is similar to that of many Japanese RPGs but each party member’s position is integral as certain actions can only occur in a specific space and it noticeably differs with each character class. An Arbalest or Musketeer, for example, tend to gravitate being last in line as their primary attack focuses on sniping but can also serve as support – like minor healing and debuffing hostiles – while Crusaders and Hellions are best left at the head of the line with their powerful short-range attacks and high defense. Even then, there’re more versatile classes like Jesters and Shieldmaidens, whose attacks involve moving backward or forwards in a line-up and can complicate certain party line-ups when handled poorly.

It really helps the game emphasizes party management over inventory, which cuts down on so much monotonous busywork. There is an inventory system but it’s mostly for optional items, “Trinkets,” that grant bonuses – with more powerful pieces having a downside attached, to balance difficulty – but its most prevalent in the expeditions taken where, due to having a limited inventory space, makes preparation and collection a series of Sophie’s Choice scenarios. You *can* buy more food and torches just in case, but it means there’s less space to pick up valuable objects whether it’s currency, resources, or aforementioned Trinkets.

Said resources go to developing the game’s hub area, the Hamlet, where player characters relax between each expedition – whether it’s relieving stress at the bar or church, curing a pathological disease at the local medical ward, or upgrading the adventurers under your employ. It’s necessary to develop each establishment past their baseline benefits and give player characters a better chance of survival with improved equipment and skills (in a, thankfully, linear five-tier leveling process), so choosing whether to acquire currency or resources during each expedition is an important consideration to take. What good is currency, when you cannot further upgrade the player characters? What good are those resources, when you don’t have the currency to pay for those upgrades? If the inventory system was unlimited in its capacity, so much of what makes this game fulfilling as a challenge would be lost.

There’s very little to complain about Darkest Dungeon without sounding like petty nitpicking. Even if the game’s setting doesn’t actually do much interesting or new with the material that influenced it, its strengths as a videogame overshadow such minor weaknesses. Being derivative isn’t necessarily a bad thing when given the right kind of presentation. The next game, on the other hand, is a game that brings us an interesting take on H.P. Lovecraft’s brand of horror but, Shoggoths be damned, it’s as tedious to play through as it was to read through the man’s worst prose…


Haunted houses are a common trope in horror fiction. It is usually inhabited by a malevolent entity whether it’s a ghost, a demon, or something else entirely who torment the current tenants of the house until they die or run away for their lives. However, in more recent years, there’s this particular iteration of that trope where the house itself is the malevolent entity. I’m not aware of any term describing this sub-trope and decided to give it a name of my own: “The Living Architecture.” There’re obvious examples in videogames: Silent Hill 2 and its sequel, Silent Hill 4: The Room; the various indie projects of Kitty Horrorshow, but notably Anatomy; and, now, we have Remedy’s Control.

The Oldest House is obviously not a house, given its appearance as 33 Thomas Street in New York City, but it’s not a piece of Brutalist architecture either. It’s alive. Even then, it’s not just a living Brutalist building…maybe. It’s connected to an upside-down black pyramid that exists in a pocket dimension appearing as little more than blank space, as well as a group of entities who’re collectively called “The Board of Directors” that occupy it and a Finnish janitor who is not actually a Finnish janitor (played by Martti Suosalo). All of them may, in fact, be the same being taking different forms much like the titular creature from Stephen King’s It where Pennywise the Dancing Clown is but one of the monster’s many avatars. All that we really ever get to know about them, technically, is that they aren’t the two antagonistic forces within the narrative: The Former (exiled from “The Board”) and The Hiss, both of whom are just as inscrutable. Then, it gets more surreal.

This scenario’s wild card takes the form of Jesse Faden (played by Courtney Hope), who acts as the conduit for another entity – one she’s named “Polaris.” Like its namesake, it guides Jesse to the Federal Bureau of Control and, by proxy, her kidnapped twin brother which usually appears as a shimmering fractal spiral to highlight checkpoints and mission objectives. The thing is, though, I honestly can’t determine whether it’s Jesse or Polaris who is the actual player character. There’s something off about Jesse, though that does apply to the rest of the phenomenally characterized cast, with her reactions towards the extraordinary and inexplicable as either slight bemusement or stoicism bordering on apathy. As if she’s not really there, that something else is in the driving seat and she’s providing commentary while watching from a Cartesian theater. Nothing suggests Jesse has any firearms training and each superpower she gets is new to her, but nonetheless uses both rather proficiently upon receiving them. If Jesse Faden is simply a puppet of Polaris, does that make the players themselves Polaris?

I don’t know. They never explain it and, by Cthulhu’s tentacle-beard, I love that!

Too bad playing the game is nowhere near as interesting as the setting, its inhabitants, or any idea explored within the plot. It’s confusing how Remedy can use all these high concepts in their story, yet it’s attached to this third-person shooter format – which made sense with the first two Max Payne games, what with all the homages to John Woo and The Matrix, but feels lazily implemented in a game like Control. You’d think, given all the shape-shifting rooms and Weird Fiction elements, it’d involve more puzzle-solving with aspects of survival horror but, no, you’re just mowing down a bunch of dudes in SWAT gear with firearms like so many other titles but with magic bullets and typical variations of telekinesis. Well, okay, there are other kinds of enemies but they’re incredibly annoying (especially the ones that fly) and, when combined with some environmental effects that overwork the hardware (causing graphical slowdowns or skips) and misleading visual overlays that don’t indicate if you’ve lost health but feel like such, turn battles into as much of a clusterfuck as they were in Sundered. Don’t get me started on the weirdly granular skill tree, resource-gathering for upgrades, and combat mods that’re so specific in their function they’re useless…

What made this unengaging gameplay loop tolerable enough to wade through, if anything, was everything else around it. Each collectible – which comes in a variety of forms – does a fantastic job at world-building; giving you a better understanding of the FBC’s function, those within its weirdly inexhaustible workforce, and what (very) little they know of the Black Pyramid/Oldest House/Astral Plane/etc. If them kidnapping Jesse’s twin brother isn’t enough to indicate their dubious ethics, an FBC psychologist (who clearly does not understand children) conceives the world’s most unnerving kids’ show. Y’know, to both “entertain” and educate the six-year-old orphan they hold captive about all the supernatural nonsense. Seriously, “Threshold Kids” feels like part of [Adult Swim]’s live-action line-up but with the disconcerting oddity amped up to even rival The Eric Andre Show.

There’re also awkward, badly-edited instructional presentations by Casper Darling (played by Matthew Porretta), who seems like a charmingly goofy tinkerer that wouldn’t be out of place in Ghostbusters, but it slowly becomes apparent that he’s actually a…mad scientist. Not akin to a comicbook supervillain or from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, but fugitive Nazis hiding in South America to make clones of Hitler like The Boys from Brazil. Much like ally Emily Pope (played by Antonia Bernath), he seems too nice and that’s more alienating than Jesse’s cold demeanor, and one can’t help but wonder that they must be hiding something unforgivable under this obvious façade of congeniality.

Though their function may be necessary, most of those employed by the FBC aren’t actually good people and more interested in getting the job done than anything else – they’re as if Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “Banality of Evil” physically manifested. Even the FBC’s previous Director, Zachariah Trench (played by James McCaffrey, the voice of Max Payne himself!), is more paranoid and ominously menacing than Joseph fucking McCarthy during the Red Scare, whose obsession with security and safety becomes more of a curse than a blessing as it consumes him. It’s rather depressing the most trustworthy person is the ghost of Alan Wake (yes, that one…also played by Matthew Porretta) and only a little of what he says makes any sense. It’s indicative of how the setting itself, along with the Brutalist architecture, is as atmospherically hostile to the player as Yharnam was in Bloodborne – the Oldest House may tolerate your presence, for its personal benefit, but only begrudgingly…for now.

There’s a lot more I can say about the game, for another nine or so blocks of text – including how the song “Take Control” by Poets of the Fall or Casper Darling’s creepy stalker music video for “Dynamite” is fucking amazing and why – but that’s the ultimate problem with Control: it’s more interesting to think about and discuss than as a ludic experience. That’s unfortunate, for its potential was about as vast as the Astral Plane itself…

The three-month delay is honestly quite shameful, on my end, but I do have a good reason: I’ve recently moved back to Southern California to take care of my dad, who’s recently had shoulder surgery, as well as doing some home improvements for his place – plus, like, I really needed the change in scenery and it was becoming too expensive to live up north. I’m still acclimating to my new environment, which is warmer and dryer than what I’ve gotten used to over the last seven years, but – now that I have a good deal less to worry about and depress me into another writer’s block – I intend to put out more content on regular basis and have a bunch of other pieces current in the works. Oh, and my birthday was eight days ago – so, yeah, happy (belated) birthday to me!

I’ll have a review of WandaVision by next week, or the one after that, as well as a (mostly) freeform rant/op-ed and another installment of Surfing the Netflix: Animation Edition on none other than Thus Spoke Rohan Kishibe, as a follow-up to my Non-Fan Review of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.

A Non-Fan Review: JOJO’S BIZARRE ADVENTURE (The Anime) – Part 2

This took longer than expected…again (I really need to work on that).

Anyway, continuing on from the previous installment!

O Senpai, My Senpai

Much to my admitted shame, I assumed that Hirohiko Araki was a gay man when he is, in fact, not, and based that on his work than anything more empirical like statements from interviews. He’s actually married to a woman named Asami (huh, “Asami Araki,” quite the alliterative Marvel name…like Peter Parker, Susan Storm, or Warren Worthington!) and they’ve had two daughters together. Heck, here she is doing a very JoJoesque pose:

(Sorry, I couldn’t find a larger photo…)

It’s unfortunate how certain stereotypes become so socially ingrained that, though you do know better, you still accidentally use them for reference. Men having an interest in fashion design, being effeminate in mannerisms and taste, or objectifying the male form (it is a thing but uncommon like the “female gaze”) doesn’t necessarily make one gay, obviously, but you still make the association after years of hearsay and pop culture hammering it into your skull. Even shows as recent as Venture Bros. – with one of the two titular characters exhibiting effeminate traits and tastes but nonetheless attracted to women – or as far back as Mr. Show have made such point:

Nonetheless, JoJo’s has plenty of character moments that can be read as queer-coded. Jonathan Joestar and Dio Brando may be adoptive siblings and intense rivals, according to the text, but it wouldn’t be too far off to compare their interactions to that of quarreling lovers whose relationship has soured and lead to overwhelming contempt. They speak to and fight each other with a sense of passion that isn’t really there with Jonathan’s love interest, Erina, who’s not a character as much as an object to be acted upon. Even the conclusion of “Phantom Blood” comes off as a romantic tragedy between them and, in “Stardust Crusaders”, it’s revealed that Dio is still very much alive a hundred years later (’cause vampirism)…but now has Jonathan’s body to replace his own. A body he’s quite fond of showing off as much as possible.

There’s a reason I said “read as queer-coding” than “is queer-coded.” Most examples of such, up until the “Golden Wind” story-arc, aren’t even implied by the text. It’s purely interpretation on my (or anyone else’s) part and shouldn’t be factualized, especially if the creator has not confirmed it elsewhere. That isn’t to say I think authorial intent is absolute – Upton Sinclair admitted as much when it came to The Jungle (“I aimed at the public’s heart and, by accident, I hit it in the stomach.”) – yet it’s important to consider to some extent than be flippantly dismissed. Moreso when it’s done for the sake of projecting one’s sensibilities onto a work than trying to understand what it is actually about. It’s an all-too-common form of online solipsism that I’ve come to despise, moreso when done with this unwarranted sense of authority over the material.

However, with all that said, interpreting various scenes in JoJo’s as being queer-coded is definitely more legitimate than, say, arguing the Star Wars Prequels are secretly brilliant ’cause reasons – which (in my experience) have little or nothing to do with the movies themselves (no, goddammit, The Clone Wars being good doesn’t make them better by proxy nor should I have to read novelizations or comics to “get it”). It may be accidental on Araki’s part but, well, it’s hard not to see it as queer-coded in moments like this one:

This is disgusting yet beautiful - 9GAG

For context, Old Joseph and Abdul (again, not “Avdol”) have been affected by an enemy’s Stand that not only magnetizes them but gradually increases that magnetism with time – to both one another and metal objects. It’s actually from two of my favorite episodes in “Stardust Crusaders”, since it’s less of a battle than it is a Buster Keatonesque set-piece that’s downright farcical, with the pictured scene as one of the many gags featured. The whole situation actually gives you a sense of how both Joseph and Abdul have been a team for a while now and dealt with events similar to the one encountered, especially as they cooperatively defeat the enemy Stand-user by using their Stand’s power against them rather than with Magician’s Red or Hermit Purple. At face value, it could be viewed as homophobic – I can’t really agree given a few small, but important, details; neither Joseph or Abdul are embarrassed of the physical contact by itself for “looking gay” (they’re quite comfortable being in close proximity while traveling together) but that, since this is happening out in public with numerous bystanders around, their failed attempt to try separating from one another ends up being misunderstood as a sexual act done out in the open.

Oh and, by the way, that enemy Stand-user is a woman named “Mariah” (as in Carey). In case you’ve lost count; I’ve now mentioned only three female characters so far – four, if you want to include Erina (I wouldn’t).

Araki’s portrayal of women throughout the series greatly confuses me. Erina exists merely as a love interest (or, perhaps, so both Jonathan and Dio had a case of the “Not-Gays”) that leads to Joseph being the primary protagonist in “Battle Tendency” yet with Joseph’s mentor, Lisa Lisa, it’s the polar opposite. She’s an indominable figure and stern instructor who does not suffer fools like Joseph so gladly, betraying her outward appearance as this porcelain-skinned and raven-haired Englishwoman who wouldn’t be out of place as a more subservient lady-in-waiting from the works of Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde. Even when she does end up becoming a damsel-in-distress at one point, it isn’t due to suddenly being rendered incompetent or powerless but because her opponent – aware of how dangerous a foe she was – played a dirty trick to win a fight they may’ve otherwise lost. She is sexually objectified earlier on, with Joseph peeking through a keyhole as she bathes, but Caesar chastises Joseph (and the audience by proxy) for it upon his notice. In fact, the story-arc has many moments where Joseph says some misogynistic bullshit – which almost every other character, thankfully, chastise him for rather than treat it as endearingly “quirky” behavior.

So, what the fuck happened with “Stardust Crusaders”…?

Maybe one of the reasons I dislike Jotaro is that, when introduced, he keeps calling his mom – who is literally the nicest woman alive – a “bitch.” This isn’t helped further when Holly, Jotaro’s mom, ends up terminally ill and whenever a character brings it up later on – she’s displayed as fully nude with thorny vines covering up areolas and genitalia as if it were a centerfold in Playboy. Just…fucking what?!

Another reason to dislike Jotaro? After rescuing Anne, mistaken as a prepubescent boy at the time, he feels her up to confirm she wasn’t a boy as first assumed as if that isn’t sexual assault or anything. Some episodes down the line, when Jotaro and co. end up on an abandoned freighter, Anne is stalked and leered at by a perverted orangutan while she’s taking a shower – which wouldn’t be so bad if her fully nude backside wasn’t displayed. It was already confirmed that she’s twelve goddamn years old and yet she’s sexualized by the cinematography while portrayed as, somehow, having the wide hips and buttocks of a woman twice her age. I never thought I’d make an argument like this but, at least when Lisa Lisa was being sexualized, she was a surprisingly youthful-looking woman in her 50s – not one year away from being a teenager.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg and, even if I could go further, thinking about all those other equally atrocious moments involving women in the story-arc just upsets me too much.

It makes “Golden Wind” and Trish Una’s somewhat lackluster presence refreshing because, though she too is sexualized, Trish wears (though somewhat skimpy) clothing than none (at any point) and is closer to the age of the main characters. I hate even writing that out – but, perhaps, that’s a bit unfair to Trish as well. She definitely had the potential to be a more active participant, rather than simply escorted from place to place, as a Stand-user herself and hints of a romance between her and Guido Mista, but the former happens too late within the story-arc and the latter is underdeveloped. It doesn’t help that, when her Stand is eventually revealed, their power is to…make non-rubbery things rubbery. It’s suggested earlier on to be far more powerful than that, perhaps enough to rival “The Boss” and their Stand called “King Crimson” (after one of the best rock bands ever), but I’m not sure how that can compete with weaponized time-skipping straight from that one episode of Futurama.

However, with that said, I want to end on a more positive note. For all the issues I have stated about the series – I do, in fact, like this series overall. It’s why I saved the best for last…

Shine On

I think what many people like about JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, more than anything, is Araki himself – or, specifically, his Artistic presentation. It’s a creative vision that is just as distinct as Hideo Kojima’s and, erratic in quality as it may be, that’s to be appreciated in a world where it’s becoming a rarity and many creatives can end up feeling interchangeable (upper-management meddling doesn’t help). There’re a lot of issues I have with auteurism as a concept since film production, videogame development, and even making a superhero comic are collective efforts than a product of one person’s endeavor but it’s also hard to deny that films directed by David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino always feel like one made by Lynch or Tarantino and no one else. So, in that sense, Araki is an auteur – but his style is an acquired taste like sardines or caviar.

If you aren’t exactly on Araki’s wavelength, which I occasionally wasn’t, it’s understandably difficult to connect with the material. There’s a reason I didn’t get into the series any sooner and it’s that those who are on Araki’s wavelength, despite their enthusiasm, do a poor job of explaining what JoJo’s is or why the series is worth time and energy to one who’s unfamiliar. It’s as if they’re speaking a different language only they can understand, in having inundated themselves with anime and manga while lacking all other points of reference. It’s a sadly common behavior across all fandom – this inability to properly communicate to anyone outside their group about their chosen hobby. All due to fixating on a single form of entertainment or franchise, while neglecting all others, that creates an increasingly insular and inaccessible community. Why would someone with a passing interest in superhero comics get into them, if introduced to fans obsessing over canonized minutiae only they care about and demand memorization as a prerequisite for entry? Who’d want to become a “Gamer” when something that’s meant to be enjoyed causes you to be an overly-defensive, needlessly competitive asshole who only cares about “gittin’ gud”? I mean, even as someone who likes anime enough to consider Perfect Blue and Princess Mononoke two of my favorite films next to Blade Runner, it’s hard to fault someone for staying away when so many series portray underage girls in the creepiest way imaginable. It’s impossible to notice any of those red flags when unwilling to take off your rose-colored shades and put on a different pair.

If there’s any aspect about Araki that I find absolutely charming, it’s that he imbues the series with this rock-and-roll sensibility throughout. If it wasn’t already obvious from before; whether it’s a character, their Stand, or a Stand’s ability – they’re likely named after a band, a solo musician, a song, or even an album. The way in which they’re applied doesn’t always make sense, like a millennia-old Aztec vampire being named “AC/DC”, but it’s hard to not love it in certain cases like “Robert E.O. Speedwagon” (which is, like, the best name ever!), “Steely Dan”, or the Stand “Killer Queen” with special attacks called “Sheer Heart Attack” and “Bites The Dust.” How about the songs I used at the beginning of each section? They’re all featured in the end credits and, in having no prior knowledge of this, made the usage of Yes’ “Roundabout” a pleasant surprise only to then become gleefully nostalgic upon hearing Savage Garden’s “I Want You” and Jodeci’s “Freek’n You.” It was like watching Jordan Peele’s Us and getting giddy as fuck when “I Got 5 On It” is sung by the main characters – it’s a feeling I don’t get as much as I’d like these days.

Each story-arc also feels like you’re getting a glimpse of Araki’s pet obsession at the time as “Phantom Blood” seems inspired by Victorian literature like, duh, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, “Battle Tendency” by pulp adventures like Indiana Jones, and “Stardust Crusaders” comes off as equal parts Spaghetti Western – Jotaro is basically a Japanese Clint Eastwood – and 80’s Cannon Film action schlock. He definitely goes all out with his Italophilia in “Golden Wind”, which was only hinted at in previous story-arcs, to the extent characters are named after specific cuisines (it’s really weird to be reminded of Sorcerer Hunters…) and the road trip format features many scenic landscapes of the peninsular nation – it’s like marketing material to promote tourism (shit, it made me want to visit the place more than I already did). That leaves “Diamond Is Unbreakable” as the odd one out, but for good reason.

Whereas the foreign locales in most other story-arcs acted as background for the action set pieces, akin to a James Bond movie – save for the visually underwhelming Ye Olde Britain of “Phantom Blood” – the central Japanese suburbia that is Morioh is a very lived-in place that exudes personality. It’s as much a character as primary protagonist Josuke “JoJo IV” Higashikata and his wide array of supporting cast members, as one grows familiar with the layout of its streets and geographical points of interest that remains consistent from beginning to end. There’s never a point where it looks like the characters are hundreds of miles away in an entirely different environment, as specific areas and notable landmarks are revisited regularly enough to assure you this all takes place within a single township. More importantly, due to its superficial mundanity, the events that play out really does put the “Bizarre Adventure” in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. It makes the appearance of an invisible baby and a new resident who may or may not be an extraterrestrial feel far more momentous than a steady stream of back-to-back battles.

The slice-of-life elements of “Diamond Is Unbreakable” is something the rest of the series really needed more of because, as amusing as moments like the “Torture Dance” may be, it does a better job at characterization. Seeing these people go about a daily schedule – whether it’s attending school, working their job, or stopping by the local bodega for another box of Pocky – help differentiate them better, as personality traits are more clearly defined through such interactions than the all-too-brief lulls in between fights. When there is a confrontation, it’s more often framed as an elaborate puzzle or mind game than straightforwardly violent as it is elsewhere. It’s when the series is at its most character-driven that makes for a world of difference, reminding you that action sequences should be built up to in order to act as pay-off, and that endless action just bleeds together after a while. If I were to recommend JoJo’s to anyone, I’d always clarify that “Diamond Is Unbreakable” is where they should start – it’s the only story-arc I’d actively rewatch like “Battle Tendency” but unlike the rest, save for a small handful of episodes (definitely the Iggy/Pet Shop fight).

I’ve actually considered reading that part of the manga, as well as future story-arcs that’ve yet to be adapted into anime…and this is where I’ll conclude my rambling.

Neon Genesis EvanJoJolion

After watching all of the anime and writing about it, I think I’ll need a bit of a break from JoJo’s – but that doesn’t mean I don’t look forward to future story-arcs. Quite the opposite, actually!

The fact “Star Ocean” has a primary protagonist, Jolyne (I can only hope they’re named after the Dolly Parton song), who’s female is interesting enough by itself – due to how downplayed the presence of women have been in the series so far – but that she’s also Jotaro’s estranged white trash Floridian daughter is just as intriguing. Though I’m more interested in both “Steel Ball Run” and “JoJolion” as the series pulls a Devilman: Crybaby where the timeline is rebooted, having characters sharing the namesakes of those from the previous timeline while being entirely different people. “Steel Ball Run” especially as it’s framed as a Western (a genre I’m quite partial to) about a cross-country horse race with a paraplegic protagonist, Johnny Joestar, and a fictional U.S. President named “Funny Valentine” as the villain. So, like Hidalgo, but with superpowers! Trying to describe “JoJolion” – based on the Wikipedia page about it – wouldn’t do much justice as it’d be confusing without experiencing it firsthand. Well, save for involving magical fruit and silicon-based humanoids infiltrating society, which is…different. You’d almost assume, by the story-arc’s title alone, it was in reference to Neon Genesis Evangelion but there are no biomechanical giants piloted by traumatized teenagers fighting Angels from the Old Testament (though there are mysterious structures called “Wall Eyes” that make me think of SEELE’s logo and their monoliths).

However, none of them have been officially published in English nor have they been adapted into anime. I could pursue the fan-translated manga online but I’m already reading Dorohedoro, which I’d prefer to finish first, and my comicbook backlog in general is big enough to break the back of many a camel (if they were physical rather than digital). As David Production’s anime adaptation of the series has popularized it and “Golden Wind” only finished its run on Toonami this late October, it’s possible – when including David Production’s project schedule as well as COVID-19’s presence – that a “Stone Ocean” anime will appear sometime in the middle of next year or early 2022. Maybe I’ll just wait, until then…

Okay, that’s it – time to make some changes on this site.

Having just one review – or, in this case, two halves of one review – a month isn’t working out for me. I’m still going to write such pieces but there’s going to be more in the style of opinion-editorials or brief observations about a current interest of mine, because I don’t get as much exposure as I’d like for my writing and it only discourages me. I don’t think I can ever be a YouTuber with a following to justify a Patreon (my ko-fi account is still incomplete due to my moving to SoCal) and a single video every few weeks as a feasible method of income, since I am an opinionated nobody who hates being in front of a camera (suppose that gives me something in common with Thomas Pynchon) and can’t listen to their voice on a recording without getting violently embarrassed by it. Writing’s basically all I got and it seems no one is going to read unless I make some changes, preferably for the better.

All that said: my next Non-Fan Review will be on…The Clone Wars. ‘Cause, holy shit, I need to get some stuff off my chest about Star Wars as a franchise.

Happy Holidays, y’all!

A Non-Fan Review: JOJO’S BIZARRE ADVENTURE (The Anime) – Part 1

Yep, more anime (I’m on a kick)!

I’ll write about something (anything) else soon, I assure you.

By way of cultural osmosis, I’ve been aware of this series for years now but – much like my contrarian stance to never watch Titanic (still haven’t, just ’cause) – purposefully avoided it out of spite for the frequency and intensity of its mention. My curiosity peaked not due to any of the ecstatic praise I heard but this video by Marcus Turner who, not unlike myself, found himself exhausted by said praise from its weirdly reverent fans. Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? His complaints are entirely valid and I share many (but not all) of his issues, but it’s this one clip – presented without any context there and here – that made me determined to finally watch it:

It’s the juxtaposition between the mundane and inexplicable, making something commonplace and taken for granted eerie and untrustworthy, that pulled me in. The scene takes place later within the fourth story-arc, “Diamond is Unbreakable,” but – given my overwhelming boredom and having the first three available on Netflix – I thought I may as well see everything leading up to it to pass the time. So, does the series live up to its ludicrous hype? Yes and no. Like, 50/50, maybe? To be more accurate, it fluctuates between 15/85 and 90/10 depending on the episode and its importance (or lack thereof) to the story-arc overall. I know it’s confusing…

Lemme explain, and bear with me.

Let’s Fighting Love!

Shōnen manga and anime is less a subgenre than it is entertainment based on targeting a specific demographic – in this case, male youths between the ages of 12 and 18. They actually encompass a number of genres but, given popular trends, it’s usually associated with series that emphasize action with an epic scope and tendency towards having large casts. Such action sequences could last for multiple chapters/episodes and featuring dozens of characters – many of whom are perfunctory like love interests, secondary antagonists, or redshirts. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is an exemplar along with Dragon Ball and its influence can be seen in titles like One Piece, Hunter x Hunter, and more recently My Hero Academia. Though incredibly popular in its native Japan, the appeal had been greatly delayed in the United States – even with a niche fandom (there’s always one!) – before it downright exploded over the past few years as the anime became part of [Adult Swim]’s Toonami programming line-up.

Personally, I’ve become less fond of shōnen series but I don’t completely avoid them (obviously), partly due to a simple change in taste but mostly because of overexposure. It becomes harder to tell one work apart from another, slowly bleeding together and that – while some are exceptional enough to have longevity – go far past the point of diminishing returns. It doesn’t help as media companies become more risk-averse (despite, say, being worth billions and whose recent past involved unexpectedly successful risks) and, like any jack of all trades, tries to please everyone while leaving little to no impact on their hearts and minds. Shōnen is to anime what first-person shooters are to videogames for me; breezy entertainment to not think too heavily about and, once finished, aren’t really worth a subsequent experience when you can indulge in something new and more interesting.

As dismissive as that may come off, I’m always open to one coming out of nowhere and honestly surprising me – an exception to my own rule. Why else would I indulge in Dorohedoro and Beastars then praise them as much as I did? Some people are under this unfortunate assumption that being critical is equitable to joylessness but I wouldn’t spend as much time, energy, or personal finances being critical if I didn’t care for the material as much as I do.

Would I put JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure on the same level of satisfaction I felt with Dorohedoro and Beastars? Oh God, no! However, given Hirohiko Araki’s quirks as a storyteller, it’s rarely ever boring and definitely clear what makes the series so memorable for others. I’ll certainly never forget its better moments…

Of Men & Mannequins

This isn’t a series you watch for deep characterization or storytelling; it’s for the beautiful men – either built like brick shithouses akin to Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star or lanky and lithe as if designed by Peter Chung – in the most haute of coutre as they contort themselves in stylish poses and wage high-concept battles, where reality is regularly warped by unconventional tactics and tests of will as much as idiosyncratic superpowers, sustaining injuries no one could possibly survive yet recovering from them with the alacrity of James “Wolverine” Logan.

As much as I like his videos, John Walsh will never convince me that Jotaru Kujo or Giorno Giovanna are as subtle or layered as he claims (though I love the phrase “magical sunshine karate” – I’ll get back to that soon enough). It’s not that I think Araki is incapable of writing amusing moments of male comradery, there’s plenty of them, but that it’s never consistent throughout most story-arcs save for “Diamond is Unbreakable.” The characters, more often than not, are too broadly-defined or one-dimensional, despite implications that suggest a potentially interesting personality but almost never solidify into traits.

The most mishandled character in the “Golden Wind” story-arc, Pannacotta Fugo, is frequently shown as someone with severe anger management issues. At first, it comes off as entirely comedic…until we’re given his backstory. Not only is his anger pathological in nature, prone to inexplicably violent urges, but he manages to keep it under control until attending a university where he is sexually abused by a professor, unleashing years of suppressed rage upon them. Like, holy fucking shit, that’s really interesting!

However, his peers – Leone Abbachio, Narancia Ghirga, and Guido Mista – have equally interesting backstories but, with the notable exception of Mista’s crippling tetraphobia and Zen-like acceptance of death (though he constantly manages to avoid it), feel disconnected from their current behavior. Abbachio’s alcoholism and Narancia’s abysmal education (he’s incapable of basic multiplication at the age of 17) could’ve been definitive aspects of characterization throughout the plotline, but they’re only brought up once or twice while carrying little meaning otherwise. Even in “Stardust Crusaders”, the only thing we know about both Mohammed Abdul (not “Avdol”) and Jean-Pierre Polnareff is that one was a fortune-teller from Cairo and the other was out to avenge his murdered sister. Polnareff being the designated comic relief and a stereotypical philandering Frenchman isn’t really enough to invest emotionally in him as a character as the story wants me to, not to mention wasting the presence of a prominent black Muslim character – in an anime nonetheless – by giving him the flattest of personalities imaginable (thank Allah for Isaac, the best character in Castlevania).

That is not to say there are no notable or interesting characters because there are – even if far and few inbetween. It’s definitely easy to get why Rohan Kishibe has become everyone’s (myself included!) favorite eccentric, perpetually curious artist to the point of getting his own spin-off.

He’s fab-u-lous!

Another example is Joseph Joestar who, out of the five featured in the anime (so far), is easily the most entertaining protagonist of the series. A factor being the odd juxtaposition (there’s that word again!) of his personality as, much like his grandfather and initial series protagonist Jonathan, he was raised to be the poshest of all posh Brits yet acts more naturally like the Ugliest American (who isn’t Donald Trump) ever. It helps that (very much unlike Trump) he’s introduced by maiming abusive, racist cops who’re beating up a poor black teen – one of whom loses their trigger finger with a projectile Coca-Cola bottlecap. It’s obviously as badass as it sounds. He also appears in “Stardust Crusaders” and “Diamond Is Unbreakable” in his older years – respectively forty-nine and sixty-one years after “Battle Tendency” – that makes him particularly dynamic, compared to the rest of the cast, as his personality and behavior differ a fair bit from one appearance to the next. ‘Cause, like, that’s what tends to happen as people age.

However, his grandson Jotaro acts pretty much as he did in “Stardust Crusaders” when making subsequent appearances in “Diamond is Unbreakable” and “Golden Wind” taking place, respectively, twelve and fourteen years afterward. Again, it’s distracting because – even within “Stardust Crusaders” – there’re plenty of character moments that suggest a more complicated individual yet lead to no significant changes in personality or behavior. He’s always this too-cool-for-you manga/anime badass that’re a dime a dozen these days. When it’s revealed he became an academically acclaimed oceanographer in his 20’s, it’s kind of confusing he never talks about his work in detail or relates the events of the plot to his knowledge of the aquatic. Worsened by the fact his interest in it is never set up back when he was the protagonist, though there were numerous opportunities to do so, to eventually pay off in this way.

What contributes to this problem, I think, is that there’re simply too many characters – including the plethora of disposable secondary antagonists – and, given the lengthy battles, leaves very little breathing room inbetween to know these people more intimately. With the exception of “Phantom Blood” and “Diamond is Unbreakable,” the other story-arcs feel like these massive road trips yet rarely involve situations that’d happen during such travels, where there’s downtime to gain a better idea of who these people are outside of getting into fights. Though, more frequent and lengthier than they should be, these same high-concept battles are also the series’ biggest highlight.

Stand(s) By Me

If Jotaro Kujo is the face of the series, his Stand – dubbed “Star Platinum” – may as well be considered his afterimage.

Stands as a concept isn’t exactly that original to me nor too hard to wrap my head around, as I’ve read superhero comics from DC and Marvel that include characters like Shade the Changing Man or Hisako “Armor” Ichiki. However, to succinctly describe them for the unfamiliar: they’re psionically-induced entities that tend to appear humanoid, though it’s far from unusual for them to be mere objects (one is even a fishing rod) or simply function as innate superhuman abilities, with powers unique to each user (who are also the only people capable of visually sensing them…most of the time). You’d think, being a signature concept of the series, it’d of been there from the beginning but it wasn’t and, instead, there was “Hamon.”

I honestly can’t think of a better descriptor for it than John Walsh’s cheeky “magical sunshine karate” and it makes sense, given their presence in both “Phantom Blood” and “Battle Tendency”, to be used specifically against vampires and their far-less-powerful undead minions. As someone from Southern California and used to hearing spoken Spanish, it was hard to not hear “Hamon” as “jamón” and cracking the fuck up over it – since, rather than magical sunshine karate, they were defeating a bunch of Draculas with the power…of ham! Y’know, as if they’re not only vampires but really observant Jews (of which I am not – ’cause pork is super tasty) or Muslims and, next to sunlight, violating their dietary restrictions is their biggest weakness.

Araki’s decision to eschew Hamon for Stands was a reasonable and ultimately beneficial creative decision. Stands don’t require ridiculously overblown training montages and emphasize mental prowess over the physical, even animals and children can possess them, that allows action sequences more versatility than how one guy punches another guy to win. The transition is evidenced as early on as “Battle Tendency” since Joseph is more reliant on using stage magic-style misdirection and clackers/bolas as a weapon than Hamon by itself while his best frenemy forever, Caesar Zepelli, is able to form weaponized bubbles and their mentor, Lisa Lisa, uses her scarf in tandem with it. When introduced in “Stardust Crusaders”, the whole concept is somewhat unrefined and the main characters’ Stands – except an older Joseph’s Hermit Purple, ’cause of course – are incredibly uncreative compared to that of the antagonists, whose Stands could take the form of a future-predicting comicbook or steal souls via a gambling loss. On the other hand; Jotaro’s Star Platinum unleashes a flurry of rapid punches, Noriaki Kakyoin’s Hierophant Green unleashes a flurry of…flying emeralds, Abdul shoots fire with Magician’s Red, and Polnareff’s Silver Chariot has a rapier to slash or stab at things. Even secondary or tertiary capabilities function more like a deus ex machina – such as Star Platinum’s Three Stoogesesque extend-o-fingers – contradicting the often stated importance of set attack range and makes one wonder why they’re not applied more, given their usefulness.

Though, to be perfectly fair, I never thought I’d enjoy an extended battle between a superpowered Boston terrier (named after Iggy Pop) and a lanner falcon (named after the Pet Shop Boys) as much as I’d imagine! It’s like Flint “Sandman” Marko and Bobby “Iceman” Drake got turned into animals and had an intense fight to the death, exhausting themselves enough that they resort to clawing at each other’s face and neck-biting…

That bird? He. Will. Fuck. You. Up.

It’s not until “Diamond is Unbreakable” that Stands are fully realized and “Golden Wind” innovates further. The former story-arc integrating them more into non-combat situations, with two of my favorite episodes revolving around Italian miracle cook Antonio Trussardi and lethargic-yet-consummate beautician Aya Tsuji. Both are entirely character-driven with a satirical edge, concerning xenophobia and how cosmetic companies exploit the insecurity of young women, that is delightfully refreshing after the over-emphasis on combat from before. The latter story-arc, contrarily, becomes more action-oriented but its situations involve a more collaborative usage of Stands among both protagonists and secondary antagonists – the primary, of which, is easily my favorite villain next to the previous story-arc’s Kira Yoshikage. An exemplar being how Giorno uses his ability to turn non-living objects into flora and fauna (or vice-versa) on Mista’s magnum bullets, ridden by golden-skinned gremlins (who remind me of the Dum-Dums from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) that can redirect their trajectory like soccer balls, to grow exponentially into a helicopter-entrapping tree after they dig into the upper corner of a building.

Going back to villains momentarily: as much as I love the fact Dio Brando is named after Ronnie James Dio and Marlon Brando – he’s just Evil McBadguy from the get-go, without much in the way of nuance (there could’ve been), and I’ll never understand why he’s such a fan-favorite. At least, with Kira, you can imagine him being in a Thomas Harris novel co-starring Hannibal Lecter (preferably Red Dragon) or in one of the better Dexter episodes (preferably with John Lithgow), and “The Boss” is a…fascinating twist on the whole Jekyll-Hyde/Banner-Hulk dynamic. Saying any more will just spoil it too much, so I won’t divulge further. It’s too bad the Pillar Men weren’t as interesting by themselves as much as their conception of being Mesoamerican-style vampires. They are far more alien in behavior and ability than other portrayals of vampires in popular culture, with their most typical trait being vulnerability to sunlight, that is about as interesting as Penny Dreadful‘s obscenely chimeric human/scarab/snake blood-suckers from Ancient Egypt (but very much unlike Anne Rice’s version, thank Isis and Ra).

One of the most disappointing parts about Stands is that – with very rare exceptions – they are confined to being an extension of a character, than characters in of themselves. You’d think, as the manifestation of a wielder’s psyche, they’d represent the character’s id acting interchangeably as the angel and devil on their shoulder depending on the situation. When Stands do exhibit a personality independent of the person who possesses them, it’s endlessly amusing (or intriguing) and their general absence is all the more noticeable for it. The reason I like Guido Mista as much as I do, along with having the most fleshed-out personality of all the characters in “Golden Wind” next to Bruno Bucciarati, is that his Stand (named after the Sex Pistols) – the aforementioned bullet-riding, golden-skinned gremlins – exhibit a level of autonomy that makes Mista treat them not as an extension of himself, but as if they’re his adopted children or beloved pets.

A recurring gag is that Mista has gotten used to having meals at specific times not out of personal habit but because he needs to keep the Sex Pistols well-fed consistently, lest they get grumpy and increasingly petulant, like any loving parent or pet-owner would. There’s even an interpersonal dynamic between them as Sex Pistol #5 – ’cause, due to Mista’s tetraphobia, there is no #4 – is often the target of bullying by #3 yet, time and time again, proves themselves to be the most reliant and self-aware of Mista’s Stand. They may come off as cowardly but display a greater level of forethought, all while their siblings recklessly throw themselves into danger with little to no consideration, that keeps Mista and his allies alive. The Sex Pistols not only perfectly represent Mista’s tendency to dismiss personal danger but, as if blessed by the Greco-Roman gods themselves, manages to evade mortality by luck ever so slightly. I just wish I could say anything similar, at length, about other Stands…

The other major flaw with Stands is that their abilities, being over-specialized, are so limited and there’s little chance of evolution. Many Stands tend to have a singular function or method of attack, which may explain the numerous secondary antagonists and lengthiness of battles, and some can be contrivedly situational. There’re secondary antagonists whose Stand abilities would be hard to imagine being used in any other scenario than in the episode(s) they appear and are dull enough that their replacement with, say, further character development for the protagonists would be far more beneficial. Speaking of which, I wish that – as opposed to using a deus ex machina when convenient – the protagonists’ Stands would “level up” in some way, to indicate some personal growth of the character than static throughout.

Thankfully, in “Diamond Is Unbreakable”, we at least get that in the form of Koichi Hirose and all three phases (called ACT 1, 2, and 3) of his Stand dubbed “Echoes.” He’s a genuinely good person throughout the story-arc, but initially timid to a fault until gaining Echoes as a Stand – becoming more confident and assertive in situations where he once easily buckled under pressure and prone to manipulation. To parallel this development is Echoes starting out as an egg then soon hatches into a small long-tailed creature that, at first, seems useless. As the story proceeds, Koichi realizes the extent of Echoes’ powers and uses them more effectively – eventually metamorphosing two more times to coincide with paramount encounters. Their abilities start off as long-ranged and weak but, with each phase, loses range and get substantially stronger. It’s even reflected in his tumultuous romantic subplot with Yukako Yamagishi, fellow classmate and Stand-user, that goes from being like Misery to Cinderella by way of Garden State

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve only mentioned two female characters: Lisa Lisa, paragraphs back, and Yukako just now. There’re not many of them in the series and Araki’s rather…complicated portrayal of women deserves its own section, along with how the comradery between male characters can occasionally segue into something ostensibly queer-coded.

Well, this turned out longer than expected…again.

I had more to say about the series than originally intended and, in getting ready to move back down to SoCal, have been preoccupied with other activities. It’s been a goal of mine to put up more than one essay a month but there wouldn’t even be one if I showed this piece in its entirety. As such, I’ve decided to split this review in two – though the second half on its way, to be posted at either the end of this month or very beginning of the next.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

Surfing the Netflix: Animation Edition #2

If my first post on this new website didn’t appear any sooner, other than the usual bouts of writer’s block, it was simultaneously working on three different reviews at once. They were all meant to be shorter and featured together but each went on longer than intended, and I decided to make a separate entry for each show.

As indicated in the previous installment, this one will be about…

Beastars (Season 1)

Anthropomorphism describes a phenomenon where qualities specific to human beings are projected onto non-human entities but, in this case, I am largely referring to other animals than the representation of abstract concepts or forces of nature. Said phenomenon has gone as far back as prehistory and a notable trait of Ancient Egypt’s religious pantheon along with the still-extant faith of Hinduism (e.g. Ganesha and Hayagriva) but, within my lifetime and perspective, it is a nearly universal trait in family-friendly and kid’s entertainment. And then, there are the furries

As repetitive as this may sound, I’m rather perplexed at the bewilderment towards the subculture as if formed from thin air (Where have they been? Under a meteoroid-sized rock?). There’s been this trend in which anthropomorphic female characters in animated family-friendly and kid’s entertainment are given hourglass figures and ample bosoms of women that – far from only being cosmetic – is portrayed sensually. When it comes to having a favorite animal, it can cause…odd and disturbing feelings. As a child who really liked rabbits (still do as an adult), even having four as pets I named after the main characters of Ghostbusters, there was something rather unsettling when first watching Space Jam at ten years old – having an awkwardly early prepubescence – and being introduced to Lola Bunny. I say “unsettling” because, on one level, the idea of being sexually attracted to a non-human animal is both grotesque and unthinkable yet, on another level, I can see the appeal when intellectually and physically humanoid with superficially animalistic traits. So, I think I found Lola Bunny to be a hot piece of ass…?

Gee, talk about being conflicted!

That is not to say I am a furry as – besides being very fond of the feminine form in its many variances – I’ll always prefer flesh-and-blood ladies ’cause drawings, CGI, and costumes can never be the same as the real deal. Simply put, I understand the appeal of furrydom insofar as that aspect goes. Nonetheless, I continue to indulge in and greatly enjoy works that heavily feature anthropomorphic animals. There’s a reason I’ll literally never shut up about BoJack Horseman or why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Street Sharks, Battletoads, Bucky O’Hare, and Biker Mice from Mars are etched into my mind for time immemorial.

Beastars, the anime based on Paru Itagaki’s manga series, is now one of those. It’s also the only work of fiction featuring anthropomorphic animals that, next to Space Jam, made me feel uncomfortable but primary due to its surprisingly nuanced social commentary. Managing to deal with racial/ethnic discrimination, the politics of sex/gender, biological determinism vs. social conditioning, and how “civility” as well as “peace” in “developed” nations obfuscate the exploitation they’re built upon in ways that a certain film (i.e. Zootopia) or vaguely similar series sharing a streaming platform (i.e. BNA: Brand New Animal) failed miserably at otherwise.

The setting is one where society is largely stratified between carnivores and herbivores that – while intersecting with economic class and politics – acts as the main impetus driving most matters, even its black market that (unsurprisingly) is based around practices used by humans to make animal-based products. Since there are no humans in the setting, it only makes these practices being forced on animal-people by other animal-people far more unsettling. When it’s not evoking cannibalism, there’s drug smuggling and human trafficking as well as the selling of internal organs obtained via back-alley surgery, all hidden under this accepted practice where carnivores – to curtail their hunger for flesh – largely consume protein-based substitutes imitating meat-based sustenance (huh, that sounds oddly familiar…). There’s also an accepted level of segregation by institutions and an intense concern about miscegenation…or, to put it another way, an irrational fear of “race-mixing.” All the animal-people of the setting can, in fact, interbreed with each other and spawn mixed-animal children but whether it’s between two different herbivores, carnivores, or (considered most egregious) between a carnivore and a herbivore is downright taboo to the point its treated like a mental illness by others.

“Wait, what?! Isn’t this about some kind of quirky prestigious boarding school romance?” you may’ve wondered and the confusion is understandable. If anything, that part of the premise acts more like an introduction to the world these characters inhabit, rather than the overall structure of the narrative – which, much like Dorohedoro, takes a “big picture” approach and emphasizes world-building. It makes perfect sense when considering so much of the cast is comprised of teenagers who, perhaps due to financial privilege, have been sheltered for a good part of their lives. Their anguish from catching a glimpse of society’s dark underbelly is palpable and the adults who they’re surrounded by – much like in our reality – often appear either well-meaning but ineffectual, genuinely concerned yet overly cynical, annoyingly oblivious, frustratingly deferential to the status quo, or unapologetically abuse their power with little consequence. As far as that introductory romance goes, involving a wolf-boy and a rabbit-girl, it’s not as quirky as it is…troubling. On so many levels.

Legoshi (as in Bela), the wolf-boy, is infatuated with Haru, the rabbit-girl, but – given what has been stated – he’s greatly confused as to whether this means he actually loves her as another animal-person or…wants to devour her out of unquenchable bloodlust. The intriguing part is not that interpersonal dynamic alone but in how it deals with a number of real-world issues including the infantilization of women in media – specifically the “moe” trend – and how such depictions are both indicative of men’s sexual insecurity as well as the fear of female promiscuity. Haru is frequently victim to slut-shaming and that seems odd given she’s a rabbit, a creature usually characterized by their promiscuity despite a supposedly “innocent” appearance (it’s like Peter Quill being a dick about Rocket Raccoon’s scavenging instinct all over again), but it speaks to a common double-standard in our human society men are so often unwilling to acknowledge.

Badge Bunny v. Snow Bunny: Dawn of Lepus

Though Haru is seen as a “homewrecker” by other females, for having slept with their unfaithful boyfriends (or whom they mistakenly perceive as such). The same males who seek her out for carnal pleasure – which she, who enjoys the activity (no past trauma attached thankfully), can oblige – act ashamed of themselves when one comes to realize he is, in fact, far from the only classmate she’s been intimate with and it makes them hate her. This adverse reaction isn’t solely due to this setting’s weird version of miscegenation, though that’s part of it, but that men in general greatly dislike being reminded their sexual “conquests” are not all their own or that women do, in fact, have sexual agency. This disdain is exacerbated when it’s considered how a woman may be more sexually experienced, especially when being pursued by potential paramours in great number, than they may ever be in their lives.

Natural behavior being suppressed to one’s detriment is a running theme throughout and it’s telling the only character to not partake in the slut-shaming, other than Louis the Rich Racist Red Deer, is Legoshi. He, too, is publicly shamed albeit for different reasons. Encumbered by such severe self-hatred and constantly walking on eggshells to be unintimidating to herbivores makes him an emotional mess, especially when given no effective means to deal with it in a healthy manner (even their version of psychological therapy involves kidnapping and restraining them in a straightjacket with chains). Yet, no matter how reserved and respectful he may act to achieve acceptance, others always expect the worst of him based on appearance alone, only entrenching that sense of self-hatred further.

It’s something I greatly sympathize with, not only as someone who’s been described by others as physically intimidating and intense, but in how being treated as a ticking time-bomb by them – regardless of how I was actively behaving otherwise to avoid such – caused their fears to become a self-fulfilling prophecy as it only made me frustrated. Though I don’t have an unshakeable urge to feed upon others, of course, it still applies to animal-people as the major source of their societal ills are in how they prefer methods of suppression over honesty and open dialogue just like humankind. The reaction many herbivores have towards Legoshi can also be read as how white individuals are both overly judgmental and paranoid of black individuals (men particularly, in this case).

I mean, it’s hard not to interpret it that way when his romantic interest is a diminutive white rabbit who, at one point, tells him – misunderstanding his intentions at the time – that she’s never been intimate with a carnivore before, or when having an argument on a subway platform, police approach him as if he were committing assault from lightly grabbing her arm. The first scene in which he extensively interacts with anyone starts with him trying to deliver a posthumous love letter to an Angora-girl (who Louis obviously hates ’cause all goats eat paper like slack-jawed yokels – he says about as much!) from a murdered Alpaca-boy student, she reacts by pulling a knife [correction: it was actually a pair of scissors] on Legoshi and threatening him under the assumption he was going to attack her, despite no reasonably apparent sign of danger, because he’s a carnivore. At a time in the U.S. when white women call the cops on black individuals, children included, for innocuous actions as if sinister and many of those cops are more trigger-happy than usual – arresting and convicting them disproportionately to white people wasn’t enough, of course – it’s downright impossible for me to avoid seeing the parallels.

This is made more interesting by how other carnivores treat Legoshi as some kind of “race traitor”, whether it’s for having a romantic interest who isn’t just like himself (e.g. Juno the wolf-girl) or just not meeting some arbitrary criteria for how one is “supposed” to act like a carnivore. It reminded me of the intra-racial conflict present in Dear White People, as its characters try to define their own blackness and deal in how it clashes with their peers’ perception of identity. It is common for one person – whether it comes from arrogance, ignorance, or hiding their insecurities – to absurdly demand their version of blackness is the “correct” way to behave (the hotep episode is a great example).

“This is my design…”

Isn’t that the case with most unwritten social rules, though? That they’re arbitrary? Not arbitrary in the sense they don’t serve a function, they obviously do, but in that they’re the result of utterly subjective sentiments – as opposed to reason or empirical evidence – being factualized. It makes claims of “that’s just how it is” come off as either astonishingly ignorant or simply disingenuous because there’s usually someone with social clout that decided other people should follow a rule they made up for their own sake. It’s a common occurrence whether it’s casual or political – there’s always some asshole out to dominate the conversation, while shouting down every dissenting voice. Unfortunately, we tend to enable such behavior as opposed to discouraging it. Why else would we ever have someone as incompetent yet egotistical as Donald Trump in the position of President of the United States? He’s clearly the result of the Republican Party, opportunistic and hypocritical as they are, normalizing the most base instincts of the world’s worst people for their own benefit. It certainly doesn’t help the onus is put onto those victimized by them to be “the bigger person” as if that kind of moral victory actually means anything, ’cause it doesn’t. Not when you’re still treated like shit – regardless of how nicely you take their punishment. In fact, it only validates them further.

The phrase “Hell is other people” is associated with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, from his play No Exit, but is frequently misunderstood as a blanketly misanthropic statement rather than a comment about the conundrum humans face as social animals – we need others around us to properly function yet, simultaneously, those same people are what causes most of our frustrations. Honesty and open dialogue are impossible to practice when you know your personal validity is up for debate by others based purely on what you say and do, even when it doesn’t negatively effect them on any level; nor could they possibly understand your perspective due to the limitations of their own. If the phrase was blanketly misanthropic, rather than a poignant observation, it would echo a legitimate concern from those profoundly disappointed by the constant failures of humanity.

Or, in the case of Beastars, zoomanity – as Hell is now other animal-people.

Needless to say, I’m ecstatic there’s going to be another season and, though this entire piece could be about the masterful social commentary and world-building, I’d prefer to save it for next year when more has been developed to analyze further. So, instead, I want to bring up elements of the series I’ve liked outside of its narrative with a final statement.

To start, I can’t help but think that Paru Itagaki might be a bit of a Francophile – and, by proxy, those producing the anime. The setting of Cherryton Academy and city surrounding it have this Parisian aesthetic – particularly the architectural style and background music used – that can be blissful or haunting depending on the scene. Louis’ namesake is one shared by numerous French kings, thus apropos given his own affluent social standing. Itagaki herself admitted in an article by the French publication Le Monde to using actor Mathieu Amalric as the basis for Legoshi’s facial expressions. Other than just being appreciative as someone of French heritage (my ancestor was a grandmaster of the Knights Templar and his death actually fuels much of the conflict in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven!) and having been to Paris many years back, it brought back some fond memories of that visit as well as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie in lighter moments with darker ones reminiscent of Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible.

What made the opening credits sequence incredibly amusing to me wasn’t just how the stop-motion animation is evocative of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox

…but that ALI(Alien Liberation International)’s “Wild Side” sounds like it could be a track from French electro-swing band Caravan Palace, whose music video for “Lone Digger” can easily take place in Beastar‘s setting:

Another aspect the show shares with Dorohedoro is how well it blends CGI and traditional forms of animation together, if not better. Perhaps, due to the cast being anthropomorphic animals straight from a Disney or Warner Bros. cartoon (including young deer with traumatizing backstories and sexualized female rabbits), it was less distracting overall than full-on human characters given the animalian facial features. With the exception of Kaiman, obviously, as his Muppet-like mouth movements are more endearing than bothersome – looking like the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street whenever he obsessively scarfed down potstickers (“Me eat gyoza!”). I suppose, when it comes to non-exaggerated human facial features in CGI, it’s hard to not fall into the uncanny valley (or, as I’d prefer to say, drop off Mori‘s peak – credit to Fred Van Lente for that one). As much as a certain Robert Zemeckis film (i.e. Polar Express, at least Beowulf was written by Neil Gaiman) and videogames strived for photorealistic facial features, it’ll always be off-putting because we evolved to recognize the facial features of other human beings and most imitations will feel like something hideously inhuman such as the Mi-Go in sheep’s clothing (wolves would be preferable). Maybe that’s why eschewing realism or, well, the usage of anthropomorphic animals tend to fare better.

Though, unlike Dorohedoro, more traditional forms of animation are seldom used save for dramatic close-ups and a few other moments. The show’s crew seemed to spend more time on this lovely visualization during Haru’s internal monologue about her background and personal motivations (which, again, refreshingly doesn’t involve rape or molestation as a reason for her promiscuity). The best way to describe it would be as if someone spent three to five years doing elaborate drawings on each page of a flip book, featuring a rabbit-girl walking through a forest to only then step into a shallow pond that drags her down deeper until she drowns. It’s obviously more effective when experienced first-hand and in context – as it is for all forms of entertainment – but nicely punctuates the scene it’s used and I really appreciate the extra effort put into it.

The Panda from Beastars Is Basically Black Jack | OGIUE MANIAX
Dr. Gohin: Action Therapist Panda!

Unlike other admirers of the medium, who’re still stuck in their habits as collectors than pure enthusiasts, I’m someone who buys and read comics and manga digitally over physical copies these days. Not only is it an issue of having enough space for storage but that, unless there’s a proper store nearby, it’s gotten expensive – moreso if you need them delivered. There’re very rare exceptions, of course, such as the omnibuses for Alejandro Jodorowsky and Juan Gimenez’s The Metabarons or Jack Kirby’s Fourth World – but, given how many series are collected in tens of paperback volumes, that doesn’t apply as much to manga. I might enjoy Blade of the Immortal and Lone Wolf & Cub or finally get into Berserk, but I also don’t want them to take up entire rows on my bookshelf when there’s already so much taken up.

As digressive as this all may seem, I do have a point: the last manga I’ve bought a physical copy of was Osamu Tezuka’s two-volume Ode to Kirihito after reading the equally grueling-yet-intriguing single-volume MW (it was hard, at times, to believe it was from the same guy behind Astro Boy). That was five years ago, if I remember correctly, and yet am nonetheless considering to buy physical copies of Paru Itagaki’s manga – at least, once it’s been completely translated and released in English.

It’s not just due to my newfound fondness of the material and wanting to financially support it further but that, as much as I like the anime, there’s a level of expressiveness in Ms. Itagaki’s artwork that’s downright charming – much like Tezuka’s own style – and can’t be fully captured with the animation style used on the show. It’s not something I want to see displayed on a monitor, but on a page I can also feel through touching paper and sense by the smell of ink.

If that isn’t one of the best compliments I can give a manga creator, I don’t know what is…

Surfing the Netflix: Animation Edition #1

Originally, I was planning to review the first season of The Witcher…then ditched that to review the first season of Space Force as well as do a retrospective on Community. But, now, I ditched writing those as well. They felt less relevant as time went on and, honestly, I wasn’t really happy with how either of them were turning out.

However, I did want to start my new site with both some positivity (for the most part) and “Surfing the Netflix” installments dealing specifically with animated series. Though they may’ve been out for a bit, they still deserve the attention as delayed as it may be on my end. Each is wonderfully distinct in tone and presentation, and all of which I’d highly recommend watching – if you haven’t already (I assure you that they’re worth it) – and will clarify as to why.

Starting with…

Dorohedoro (Season 1)


When it comes to fiction, transgressive morality is often more interesting than reaffirming accepted social norms as it calls into question certain traditions and practices we take for granted, as well as how far boundaries can be pushed before its considered too much to handle. That sense of transgression in fiction, due to its very nature, should be equally defiant of storytelling tropes and narrative rules we accept too readily – as many are the factualized tastes of older and out-of-touch figureheads of an industry. Despite the influence of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces it is, admittedly, utterly irritating how it’s treated as law by some than simply one of many possible guidelines for narrative structure. The three act rule, far from obligatory despite the name, is simply a template to build upon, rather some scientific formula to be followed to the letter. Even Shakespeare wrote five-act plays, and others only one or two!

My point is that, next to a Goichi Suda videogame, the anime adaptation to Q Hayashida’s long-running manga series displays refreshingly transgressive sensibilities to both moral standards and “common sense” storytelling – all accompanied by an aesthetic that could be best described as dystopian goth-punk chic.

Just about every character is (excluding a rare few like Dr. Kasukabe) a reprehensible person with the line between protagonist and antagonist almost nonexistent. Kaiman (or “Caiman,” but I prefer it with a K), our ostensible protagonist, simply needs to find the sorcerer who caused him to become a reptilian-headed amnesiac in a rather…unique process. However, even if the sorcerers he subjects to this is proven to not be the guilty party, he still murders them while assisted by Nikaido – a self-hating and closeted sorcerer herself – with an almost genocidal glee. En, the ostensible antagonist, is a vainglorious fungivore and powerful sorcerer who – in the dimension his kin reside – functions as an odd combination of community leader, businessman, and mob boss (he’s got hit records too!) that seeks a way to travel six years back into the past to prevent a mass slaughter: even if it means kidnapping and brainwashing a person with the power to bend time and space at his beck and call. The culprit who instigated that event may’ve been Kaiman prior to his amnesia, with the recent serial killing of sorcerers making him a prime suspect and priority target to En. Their well-meaning intentions, as valid as they are by themselves, are pursued with such abhorrent methods that lack much concern for human life and tortuously rationalizing the indefensible ultimately renders them meaningless.

“I’m gonna make ya grilled portobello ya can’t refuse…”

Despite all that, the series goes out of its way to humanize them, and I can’t help but find them relatable. Similarly to Daredevil‘s first season, two of the (supposed) antagonists – Shin and Noi – are given a romantic subplot instead of the (supposed) protagonists, who’re entirely platonic and without an ounce of sexual tension between them. It really helps that, since the fights are as brief as they are bombastic, most other scenes act as a vehicle for small but significant character moments – like Kaiman working his part-time job cleaning up a hospital, or En and his associates preparing for a quadrennial oath-making holiday called “Blue Night” – around some incredibly well-integrated world-building.

The Hole (I’d like to think it was named after that Tom Waits song used on The Wire), Kaiman and Nikaido’s home city, is a perpetually dilapidated place that looks no different from Los Angeles in Blade Runner minus the futuristic technology but, hey, there’s still toxic rain! To contrast with “Blue Night,” The Hole has an annual “Living Dead Day” where – due to the residual effects of the sorcerers’ magic usage – zombies spring forth from the ground and are hunted down, wherein small metal plates from their body are collected and traded in for prizes (it’s as awesomely morbid as it sounds). The Sorcerer’s World, on the other hand, is absolutely delightful in how it eschews so many traits typically associated with wizards/warlocks/magi/etc. to be something satisfyingly modern and stylish. It’s an urban fantasy in the most literal way imaginable.

Sorcerers tend to wear casual contemporary clothing (save for dandies/fops like En) as opposed to scholarly robes, not much different from most residents of The Hole, but there’s a social practice where – made darkly amusing by COVID-19’s presence – sorcerers have customized masks, rather than conical hats, that are worn frequently if not constantly. That said: they do travel by way of enchanted broom and carpet. Except, in this case, brooms have developed to the point they can resemble hoverbikes (it also shape-shifts into a house-cleaning appliance!) while carpets function as taxicabs. Did I also mention all the juxtaposed Satanic and Buddhist imagery? That demons are entirely real and act like Juggalos with the business tactics of Wall St. CEOs? Or how it’s possible to become one of them by accomplishing bizarre trials of strength and perseverance, such as carrying and feeding giant fruit bats while in a 350-lbs suit of armor? ‘Cause, honestly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg…but I want y’all to still be surprised!

Big Barda, but albinistic and anime.

If it wasn’t obvious by now that the series is unconventional in telling a tale, it somehow manages to make the “Mystery Box” formula – something I’ve come to despise next to the found footage subgenre – actually work. Clues are dropped almost constantly, some of which could be red herrings, but Hayashida establishes enough of a coherent timeline of events that is leading somewhere, as opposed to a convenient way to make shit up with no real plan in mind. They may feel like mere twists and turns but, given how often flashbacks are used and connected to hints made elsewhere, are most certainly not. However, it never feels telegraphed or boring…

The reason a series like Game of Thrones fail as a narrative by the end is the over-reliance on the mystique of an eventual “big reveal.” Yet what occurs around the unveiling gradually has less and less of a connection to that event and comes off as, far from being well-realized and thoroughly constructed, creatively lazy and random – the length becoming interminable as it turns ten minutes into three hours with an agonizing pace. One may continue forth, due to the sunk cost, but it’ll always end with regret over the wasted time and energy you put into something devastatingly mediocre. It’s the equivalent of a carriage slowly being pulled by a horse tempted forward by a small carrot kept out of range on a long stick. Wait, no, at least the horse already knows its subpar reward. The mystery as to who Kaiman really is – along with the what, when, where, why, and even how – is genuinely intriguing with its deft use of anarchic unpredictability as a pretense even with the trail of breadcrumbs it leaves. You don’t have to choose between anticipating the destination or concentrating on the journey, as the false dichotomy often tells us – why not do both?

An on-going issue for me is that many anime series, and films, on Netflix (not to mention non-Japanese animated works like The Dragon Prince) suffer from the usage of cheap-looking CGI. It’s tolerable if restricted to various kinds of transportation or monsters, when occasionally interspersed with traditional animation, but usually an eye-sore when applied to humanoid characters throughout. They all look like animatronic dolls with a ceramic shell but their gears, pistons, and so forth are in such disrepair that every movement creaks or grinds – sounds so piercing that it makes your teeth rattle and ears bleed. As inconsistent or limited as traditional animation can be, there’s a certain quality – much like with stop-motion (or “claymation”) – where the flaws can be charming while over- and badly-implemented CGI distracts to the point I can’t enjoy anything else.

Tasha Yar, but androgenously teenaged and anime.

Thankfully, much like with the “Mystery Box” formula, Dorohedoro‘s usage of CGI evades this problem due both to Hayashida’s art style being complementary to it and the liberal usage of more traditional methods alongside it. It’s a great blend and the only other series I’ve seen equitable to it, Beastars (that’s for next time!), understands that CGI works best for fast-paced action or minor movements that’re almost seamless when cutting to shots utilizing frames of traditional animation.

I only just started reading the manga, having been tired of watching the same dozen episodes several times over, and Hayashida’s early artwork on the title is…rough. Really rough. Which makes it fortuitous that those producing the anime use her more refined style seen in later chapters, not to mention improving the visuals of certain locales like En’s vivid mushroom garden or the grungy-yet-cozy atmosphere of the Hungry Bug restaurant. Early on in the manga, backgrounds had a tendency to be these blank white spaces, making it less interesting to read than it is to watch the episodes – since it never gives a sense of time and place the way more detailed backgrounds engender. There’re other minor changes made, like the sequencing of events, as well as omitting some superfluous lines. They also toned down the nudity by not displaying any nipples, though I’d rather Ebisu (the fact she’s apparently thirteen years old is greatly obfuscated) wasn’t topless at any point, but at least she isn’t sexualized as much in the anime as she was in what I’ve seen of the manga.

It’s rare for me, moreso now than before, to find anime that manages to enthrall me as much as Dorohedoro does. It’s unabashedly bizarre and subversive with a sense of style and energy all its own, a unique creative vision that makes it a gem amongst the rubble. As fun as something like Seven Deadly Sins can be, what with being a shōnen-style take on Arthurian mythos, it’s still hampered by so many tropes and character stereotypes (both problematic and overused) that make it almost indistinguishable from other series in the genre. It’s kind of telling that one of the only other Netflix Original anime series that I’ve felt as strongly about is Carole & Tuesday and that’s not a surprise given it was directed by Shinichirō Watanabe (of Cowboy Bebop fame). It’s a nice feeling to have, in these otherwise depressing times…

Part of that isn’t just the prominent aspects of the series, which I’ve already described as much as I can without spoiling too much, but that even secondary or tertiary elements are a pleasant surprise. Most 24/26-episode anime series, if not simply using one song each for the opening and end credits throughout, will change both by the halfway mark. Dorohedoro has only twelve episodes so far and a single song for the opening credits – but has six different songs for the end credits. I can only imagine the scenario making it possible; that K(NoW)_NAME, the musical group involved, were workshopping a perfect song for the end credits but came up with several. The series director, Yuichiro Hayashi, perhaps couldn’t decide on picking one over the others and said “fuck it, let’s use them all!” How could he not? They’re all fantastic – I’d go as far as to say all are better than the song for the opening credits – and it’d have been a shame to throw any one of them out. Even the end credits change up the visuals to coincide with the episode they’re featured in and, by God, I’d love to see more of that done in the future.

So, it’s only apropos to finish with my favorite song of the bunch for the end credits – “Night SURFING”:

[EDITED: 2/10/2022]

Videogame Quarantine: Mini-Reviews of DEATH STRANDING, NIER AUTOMATA, GOD OF WAR (2018), NIGHT IN THE WOODS, and RESIDENT EVIL 2 (2019)(w/minor spoilers)

The last several months have been rather…eventful, for me. I got a new job that took up most of my time and energy, lost one of my cats, my father had a health scare, there was a change of ownership at my workplace leading to being laid off, my grandfather died, and then COVID-19 came along — where we all keep to ourselves as best we can, to avoid infection and the potential death that comes with it. I tried writing over those past several months but was often too tired or distracted to concentrate on it; however, with the free time available, it’s allowed an outlet to stave off both boredom and avoid further depression over the world’s current predicament (feeling like it comes straight from a Steven Soderberg movie, nonetheless). Which, almost presciently, our first entry deals with as a subject — in an idiosyncratic kind of way.

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Death Stranding

Ambivalence, in this day and age, is a sorely underrated sentiment. We live in a time of extremes, for both good and ill, but it’s ended up taking a toll on the discourse surrounding Artistic media. The “love it or hate it” paradigm makes it really difficult to have any nuanced discussion without presumptions that complicated reactions towards a work equate to “hatred” when not lavishing it in sycophantic praise. The reason I bring this up is that, when it comes to game developers, I’ve never felt more ambivalent towards a creator as much as Hideo Kojima. He makes plenty of creative decisions I can’t stand (“She breathes through her skin”?! Like a frog?!?!) yet when he does something I like, I really like it. Whether it’s the “Selection for Societal Sanity” scene from Metal Gear Solid 2 or the entirety of Metal Gear Solid 3 (with the best 007 theme song ever), they end making up for a lot and I can’t help but be forgiving.

I’ve played Death Stranding for well over 80 hours and still don’t know what to think of it; but, again, this isn’t from apathy — but ambivalence. There were certainly times I found it dull (with the largely expository and repetitive dialogue) yet it’s strangely refreshing to have a game where the challenge is almost entirely about traversal. It’s about scaling the various terrain of gorgeous landscapes, accompanied by movement mechanics and physics far more elaborate than any of the heavily downplayed combat. There are forced boss fights (one of which I, amusingly, defeated by throwing an attache at their head) I would’ve preferred to be omitted entirely — at least MULEs, Homo Demen terrorists, and BTs can be avoided entirely or evaded when confronted — as they aren’t nearly as enjoyable as maneuvering around a rock slide or trying to wade through waist-high snow as proficiently as possible while delivering a package. The experience, as aptly described by George Weidman, can become meditative as you slowly fugue into a Zen-like state to complete these tasks.

The narrative is less character-driven than it is by world-building in order to express high concept notions of a supernatural post-apocalypse where there’s the living, the dead, and those inbetween like Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) with a fictional ailment called “DOOMS.” It deals with internet isolationism in such a way that eerily echos the social distancing practiced now with COVID-19 and the protagonist being a lone courier with aphenphosmphobia makes it all the more relevant as speculative fiction. The society within the setting is one where people are forced to lock themselves away in fallout bunkers for safety from a now-inhospitable world, but to their own psychological detriment. In lacking much-needed human contact, there is an increased likelihood of suicide — which itself endangers the world further as corpses become Lovecraftian beasts made of crude oil or form vast, empty craters from exploding if not quickly cremated upon death— that’s lead to a Black Mirror-esque practice of combatting it with social media “likes.” It’s existentially frightening how closely it resembles our current reality and I doubt that’d happen without Kojima’s unique creative vision, warts and all.

Speaking of existentialism…

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NieR: Automata

Yoko Taro is another Japanese videogame auteur like Kojima but, unlike Kojima, my experience with his games has been indirect until now. Given his interviews and Q&As — part of me wants to love NieR: Automata unconditionally for Taro’s personality alone yet, unfortunately, I can’t.

I can appreciate what this game is doing. It acts as a Philosophy 101 course in the form of entertainment like The Good Place, where it’s less about dryly memorizing information than presenting ideas through an Artistic medium (though famous philosophers are name-dropped and some concepts elaborated upon). The way it plays with the limits of perception, changing from one point of view to another and gradually revealing more context to events we’ve initially taken at face value, is something I can’t help but love — made all the better with the involvement of automata (hey, just like the game’s subtitle!). There is a reason Blade Runner is my favorite film ever; well, that as well ashaving Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (where the term “robot” originated) and Harlan Ellison’s unfilmed I, Robot script on my bookshelf. I’m also pretty sure Robot Carnival being my first anime had something to do with it…

My point being: this is the kind ofshit I live for!

What left me feeling lukewarm, despite all that, is its main gameplay loop. The combat is derivative of Bayonetta (a title I absolutely adore) but lacks the variety of enemy types and movesets for the player character that Bayonetta had in spades. This is worsened by an incredibly unbalanced upgrade system, where there’s very little tension as one can enable a character to both auto-heal if briefly left unharmed and gain health back felling hostiles. The visual uniformity of said enemy A.I., with exceptions like the weaponized bipedal oil rigs named after Friedrich Engels, left them feeling no more different than the armies of ineffectual cannon-fodder from the Dynasty Warrior series. They all blur together and no one encounter stands out after awhile (save for the beautifully orchestrated musical soundtrack evocative of the Ghost in the Shell films). Perhaps that’s on purpose, to represent the ultimate futility of warfare, but it’s hard to tolerate after tens of hours. The further I got, the less enthused I felt to continue — and that’s unfortunate because, in another form, I may’ve never gotten sick of it.

As far as the next entry goes? I don’t think I could say the same.

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God of War (2018)

There didn’t need to be another God of War game. This game could have, in fact, had nothing to do with the series and (a few tweaks aside) it’d be much the same, except it’d be a unique intellectual property rather than part of a brand. It also didn’t need an open world, with arbitrary RPG-style stats and an upgrade system based on resource-gathering that convolutes otherwise simplistic combat, or a story that — despite its interminable length—feels largely uneventful. It’s the same kind of plot from Rise of Skywalker that everyone (myself included) hated: there’s a single goal stretched out with a series of fetch quests in order to attain it. Videogames have been doing this for a while, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but this game is an egregious case of spreading oneself too thin…and there wasn’t much to spread as is.

If the game does anything right, it’s the characterization of Atreus. There are far too many works of fiction where youths, rather than behaving like actual kids, are basically miniaturized adults with the lame excuse they’re “wise beyond their years.” Atreus himself is, in fact, wise beyond his years but still acts like a kid. It’s what makes the interactions between him and Kratos feel authentic as a father-son relationship, because — though he is well-read and knowledgeable —Atreus’ naivete about the world around him clashes with Kratos’ experienced understanding of it and his learned cynicism. It’s also nice to have a game where a supporting character isn’t invisible to hostiles and actively takes part in combat, though this is hampered from a lack of danger (he can’t die) and his education is not expressed mechanically. Those moments of Kratos teaching Atreus are largely bound to scripted events and what moves he learns for combat are based on something as abstract as experience points in an upgrade system instead of Kratos directly fathering him. He’s definitely a step above Ellie in The Last of Us or Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite as an element of gameplay, but nonetheless still far from ideal.

Since it’s on-topic — here’s more about the youth!

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Night in the Woods

If Bryan Lee O’Malley and Richard Scarry (somehow) collaborated on a graphic novel, then had it adapted into a videogame, the final product would likely resemble Night in the Woods. There’s that wonderfully interesting contrast I loved in BoJack Horseman starring fanciful anthropomorphic animals, yet it’s nonetheless grounded — sometimes hitting too close to home — as they deal with crippling personal issues and the toll it takes on others around them. That is not to say it is humorless (far, far from such) but it’s definitely more of a dramedy than pure comedy and I’m happy that’s the case. Not everything needs to be a laugh-per-minute romp.

Relatable characters like protagonist Mae Borowski and her handful of friends aren’t poorly conceived caricatures created by out-of-touch middle-aged men pandering to youths, but by those who truly understand the mindset and behaviors common among dissociated 20-somethings living in economic uncertainty. Keep in mind that I’m not using “relatable” synonymously with “likable,” something I find utterly meaningless when it comes to discussing characterization in fiction, since Mae Borowski herself is usually not a likable person. In fact, she wouldn’t be nearly as interesting was she “likable.” Her massive fuck-ups realistically reflect the complicated nature of human beings and the frustrations that come with it. We’ve each had our moments whether it is getting too drunk and making asses of ourselves at a party, awkwardly conversing with people you hated back in high school and haven’t seen since, or heated spats with those you may otherwise get along with due to a petty misunderstanding: that’s all in the game. It also adds replay value as you don’t get to see every character vignette initially and need subsequent playthroughs to view them, but it never feels like a chore as you get to know more about these people you’ve already connected with — all due to fantastic writing and dialogue. Up to a certain point anyway…

After the game had spent so much time on these amusing slice-of-life interactions with townspeople, it was odd how partway through the game turns into a supernatural mystery that only soured my experience. Remember how I said the characters felt like genuine people dealing with personal issues you could understand? It’s still there, kind of, but then you have dreadfully on-the-nose lines to hammer home the theme of economic woes that were once subtle before — I didn’t need ignorant rednecks overtly blaming the immigrants for a lack of jobs to make the point more obvious. I also can’t stand how Mae’s internal conflict about her hometown becomes personified as a literal Elder God, though it could’ve remained wholly symbolic and more fitting with the rest of the narrative. It all comes off as half-baked compared to previous sections, as if the developers wanted to end on a “big note” though it is contrary to what’s already been presented. It could’ve ended as unceremoniously as Clerks did (there’s an undercurrent of taking things one day at a time instead of needing every decision you make to be a momentous event), as opposed to this last-minute horror story as incongruent as a square peg forced into a round hole.

The next game, on the other hand, works quite well as a horror story (half of it anyway).

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Resident Evil 2 (2019)

It’s unfortunate that, due to Konami (for some incomprehensible and godawful reason) switching from videogame development to pachinko machines, there will never be another proper Silent Hill installment (that’s why we have Death Stranding now— it originated as a canceled sequel helmed by Hideo Kojima). The Resident Evil series, on the other hand, has remained relevant because of Resident Evil 4 and its influence on AAA game design for the last fifteen years. Perhaps to a fault, given its format became a ubiquitous template for most action-adventure titles to the point such games are becoming less distinguishable from one another. The AAA videogame industry is absolutely terrible about overexposure and diminishing returns which, by God, I just want them to stop doing. Even Dark Souls has been subjected to that treatment and now Soulsborne titles are everywhere

When Resident Evil 7, which returned to its survival horror roots with a storytelling presentation akin to prestige television, got a positive reception from both audience and critics — news of a Resident Evil 2 remake caught my interest. The original game barely held my attention as it came off like an interactive B-movie with terrible acting and cinematography (nor were there any real scares as much startles), but my experience with the remake has been the polar opposite. The title is able to make a gameplay mechanic I usually despise (e.g. inventory management) into an immersive part of the experience that had me hook, line, and sinker.

There was always that sense of dread mixed with excitement, figuring out how much I needed to defend or heal myself while leaving enough room open for key items, as there’s always the danger that comes with mismanagement. Flash grenades might take up a much-needed slot, but it means you’ll save on bullets and leave zombies stunned long enough to escape from them instead of powering through and taking possible damage. You may have to eschew the usage of green herbs because, though it may provide much-needed healing no matter how minor, it’s wasteful if not combined with red and blue herbs — as it fully heals and temporarily reduces damage, making it particularly helpful in tougher situations with stronger enemies. The fact I’d let out a sigh of relief when coming across another policeman’s hammerspace fanny pack to gain more inventory space must mean something, a feeling equal to the adrenaline rush from outrunning Mr. X’s pursuit or when surrounded by zombies who can’t be killed simply by headshots anymore and require Dead Space-esque dismemberment to sabotage their mobility.

In fact, I don’t dislike anything in the game that much with exception to Leon Kennedy’s flaccidly-told campaign (his weapons fucking suck too). In Claire’s campaign, you get a story with neat narrative beats — like Claire and Sherry’s relationship evoking Ripley and Newt’s dynamic from Aliens — that, while far from groundbreaking or deep, is surprisingly restrained for a game by Capcom. They’re a company where good storytelling and characterization went to die and a target of mockery in the gaming community yet, now, all the poor line deliveries and badly localized dialogue are nowhere to be seen. It’s not as obvious when you play Leon, failed boy band member and adamant Blue Lives Matter proponent, because — despite sharing many of the same environments — there’re no thematic connections to make memorable character moments as he goes from one place to another to open one door after another. He lacks a strongly defined motivation to push him forward as opposed to Claire with her brother Chris and later Sherry. Speaking of Sherry; even her stealth-based interlude keeps up the pace as well as establishing how terrible a person Chief Irons is and why, while Ada Wong’s segment is little more than an unnecessary interruption that does not provide further context to the plot or texture to the setting.

The Remake for Resident Evil 3 was just released yet reticent about playing it, coming out barely a year after the last installment has troubling implications and — based on what Ben Croshaw and Marcus Turner have said — it’s more of an action title than survival horror and I didn’t want that. I needed to fill the absence left by a lack of Silent Hill games and never in a million years would I have expected a remake of Resident Evil 2 to partially fulfill that role…

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Originally, I didn’t plan for these mini-reviews to have any sort of connective tissue between them — yet they did. They’re disparate as games but share something in common; the theme of needing personal connection with others while nonetheless forced into separation whether it is based on internalized, societal, or even cataclysmic factors (all three in Death Stranding’s case!). The fact I played them on the days leading up to the COVID-19 lockdown was a happy accident, though “happy” is a bit of a misnomer (if only at this time).

Getting back to writing after a far-too-long hiatus feels great, which makes me think it should be a goal to write more often and consistently put out a new piece at least once a month (if not more). I already have some others in the works — one of which is about Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher — and, hopefully, I’ll put them out sooner than later.

[Originally posted on 5/10/20 @]