Now That It’s Over — Let Me Be Honest About GAME OF THRONES (w/spoilers, obviously)…

I watched the show, from beginning to end, and still find it to be one of the most overrated TV series in years next to LOST.

This isn’t a revelation that came with the poorly-written, lackluster finale where Arya Stark turns into Frodo Baggins at the end of Return of the King but within the first season itself. Yes, the one that so many have retroactively portrayed as being close to perfection while ignoring the telltale signs of issues that’d become apparent in future episodes. Even Saturday Night Live had a sketch back then, which has since been scrubbed from the internet (for some reason — but I’ll assume that a segment of Game of Thrones fans are giant crybullies), mocking the gratuitous nudity and sex in the brothel scenes (apparently we’re too dumb of an audience to understand what happens in a place referred to as a “brothel”) by speculating they were taking advice from an over-sexed thirteen-year-old boy on set. It perfectly represented everything wrong with the series, just as it began, and now it’s gone…

As time went by, subsequent seasons came out and I noticed others commenting on the overuse of rape as if it were some great surprise. Really? Do you think a show that’d be so pandering with (largely) female nudity would leave rape as shock value dramatics off the table? Even though it manages to have varied and layered female characters unlike many shows and movies, which erroneously think a “strong female character” is simply a male action hero with different reproductive organs, you still have them getting sexually violated or physically beaten as if they were in a snuff film and it all functions as a juvenile approach to character-building. The kind of grotesque non-creativity that Satoshi Kon deftly criticized twenty-two years ago in Perfect Blue that goes unheard while Darren Aronofsky heavily borrowed from it.

There’s a lot of problems I have with the series but, to avoid making it a series of impenetrable blocks of text, I’ll make a somewhat breezy Cracked.com-style list of my three major issues. Starting with…

1. HISTORICAL FICTION WITH MAGIC (KINDA)

If there’s one thing I can’t stand in horror stories involving zombies, it’s the refusal of characters to refer to zombies as “zombies.” They always have to come up with some awkward alternative, as if it’s embarrassing to utter the word. But…why? They’re animated cadavers that mindlessly devour human flesh — they are zombies, based on the common pop culture portrayal of them. Some may run than limp along, others more invulnerable to damage, and can even have fungal growths spouting from their craniums like The Last of Us but they’re still zombies. Is it because the creators think to have characters refer to them as such be “too silly”? Why be so hesitant to embrace zombies fully as horror story monsters in a horror story? Why act as if they’re anything else?

Similarly, watching Game of Thrones is more like watching historical fiction about the War of the Roses with the pretense of also being a fantasy adventure. The majority of the series is a bunch of people standing or sitting around discussing statecraft and all the fantasy elements, like the dragons or magic, are few and far inbetween until later on. They’ll appear to remind us that this is, in fact, a fantasy story but will remain downplayed as we watch a bunch of similar-looking honky motherfuckers as they speak of the fake politics of a fake kingdom with a fake history at interminable length. Maybe you’re supposed to be impressed by how Shakespearean it all is but The Bard himself was more willing to embrace the fantastical in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest while this show only does it begrudgingly despite the intentional inclusion of those elements.

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PULSE POUNDING ACTION! ACTION!! ACTION!!!

It would certainly be easier to accept, if it were a stage production, technical limitations and that much of the plot would have to be driven by dialogue via character interaction. However, Game of Thrones isn’t a stage production — it is an expensive televised series, yet it feels like a stage production nonetheless. It has no excuse to be that way, other than pompously self-satisfied enough to assume soap opera-style melodrama makes up for the lack of concrete action.

If Game of Thrones was titled “The War of the Roses” and actually about the War of the Roses, I’d have far less issue with that storytelling format. I’d be more willing to tolerate all the statecraft because there’s a real-world historical basis for it and, hell, you might learn something from it. Though a dramatization of those events, they are based on an important occurrence that shaped the United Kingdom as a confederation of nations inhabiting the same island(s) — something that has affected how we live right now, in some way or another. For all the real-world parallels Game of Thrones tries to use as part of its setting, it doesn’t really matter if you lack an attachment to Westeros as a place and having such would only be possible if you’ve already spent time immersed within it. The only perspective you see of Westeros is from those with immense power, compared to others, as they go about their political machinations. You never really get a sense of how the other half lives and I can’t help but find it aggravating as peasants and slaves exist only to aggrandize or demonize those in power, never to explore their perspective of the events. They may as well be non-player characters in a videogame than real people.

The reason I despise talking about the novels with people who’ve read them, as someone who hasn’t, is how some insist I should read them to “get” and “truly appreciate” the setting. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, declaring who does or doesn’t “get it” is fanboyish gate-keeping based on obsessive adoration of the content than an understanding of the narrative structure or overall cultural context. Maybe, when discussing what makes the characters unlikable in a modern context, I don’t want to be chastised because I’m just supposed to take everything as a given — immune to all scrutiny — while purposefully ignoring the world outside of it. Except it is a product of our modern culture and did not form in a vacuum separate from that culture. The books and TV series using real-world parallels from the past at all means any attempt at keeping it separate from reality is utterly inane. At least when it came to Lord of the Rings, stuff like The Silmarillion was supplemental than integral to understanding the story of a halfling journeying to throw a piece of mystical bling into a volcano. In fact, LotR never shied away from the fact it was a fantastical story in a fantastical setting the way Game of Thrones did until latter-day seasons. Though, even then, they botched it.

2. MAGIC: THE ULTIMATE DEUS EX MACHINA

I’ve never been as fond of fantasy as I have sci-fi when it comes to storytelling. Though concepts within both genres are wholly imaginary — sci-fi usually attempts to explain the mechanics of its technologies, in as internally logical a way as possible. Faster-Than-Light space travel might not be realistic but having characters, who’re informing the unaware, explain how it works which adds both a sense of texture to that world as well as setting up rules that those characters are governed by within it. But magic? At best, it’s vaguely defined — at worst, it’s arbitrary.

It’s a lot more interesting to watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where they’re dealing with starship engine troubles, discussing these well-established aspects of that device and the inner-workings in order to fix it, as opposed to seeing Gandalf use spells in the most convenient of times without a proper explanation as to why he didn’t do it before (those giant eagles would’ve cut down on a lot of travel time). He’s brought back from death in a more powerful form and the reason for it comes down to “just ’cause.” How the fuck can there be any tension, by that point? All dire situations can be fixed by Gandalf and the only reason he doesn’t is that Tolkien willed it so.

I know I just argued about the show’s unwillingness to fully embrace its fantastical elements, but part of that is because usage of magic becomes common in later seasons and ruined by the haphazard writing. The initial nature of it being seldom used is dropped for a more typical portrayal where it can pretty much do whatever the showrunners want at the moment to either increase or relieve tension, though it may not make any sense, than this unpredictable and unwieldy force as suggested in the story. The show couldn’t commit to its own hesitancy in using magic. It ends up going all Gandalf as the conclusion drew near since it’s easier to tell a fantasy story in that way, than sticking with what has been given precedence and keeping things consistent.

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Worst. Wizard. Ever.

I assumed, at first, magic was downplayed because so much indicated that — within this setting — it was ultimately unreliable and tended to make situations worse as a result. It was admittedly refreshing that one of the reasons magic was almost non-existent is that its practitioners, like Melisandre, were never consistent with the efficacy of their spellcraft. She sacrificed an innocent girl under the assumption that would lead to an important battle being won, but that doesn’t happen — the would-be king’s army fails miserably and Melisandre’s contribution didn’t help at all. She just burned a child alive based on a premonition that supposedly came from some fire god. Everyone else, on her word alone, simply took it on faith that human sacrifice would work in their favor and that adds a level of realism to the show far more than people dryly talking fantasy politics for tens of minutes. People in the past did exactly that, presuming certain atrocious rituals would please supernatural forces, and the results weren’t that much different.

When Melisandre manages to resurrect Jon Snow after being murdered, it’s portrayed as being more of a happy accident than anything else. There’s a delayed reaction that makes her think the spell didn’t work at all. Problem is that, past this point, magic is increasingly useful to being downright uncharacteristic and contradicting what came before. It even allows one character (Beric Dondarrion) to keep coming back to life, after numerous on-screen deaths, and to set his sword aflame as if he were in Dark Souls. So, this “Lord of Light” will turn that guy into an undead killing machine for no adequate reason other than “fate” while sacrificing a child based on their whims to win a battle doesn’t do anything? What an asshole! The fact Melisandre keeps doing things in favor of such a wretched deity, who screws them over in times of need when not refusing to assist them whatsoever, only makes her look like a dumbass than some wise mage…

Unfortunately, she’s not the only unbearably unintelligent character featured. It also seems, with many others, the showrunners caved into fan service — completely forgetting how those characters were written in previous seasons along with the ever-present possibility of their expendability. Y’know, the one thing the show is most known for.

3. NO LOVE FOR KINGS, QUEENS, LORDS, OR LADIES

I’ll never, ever understand the fondness others had for this guy:

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The Cinematic Prometheus

Ned Stark, if you were really paying attention, isn’t only a complete fool who brought death unto himself (he was very credulous of someone who is obviously untrustworthy yet never expects betrayal) but also a total piece of shit who made the conflict featured throughout worse due to short-sighted apathy anda slavish devotion to the divine right of kings.

Did everyone forget that, within the very first episode, he completely dismissed the warning of two men who saw the White Walkers before decapitating them? That his reason for doing so was basically “it is the law and you can’t contradict it”? I’d argue it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that one act alone almost doomed everyone else in the story, making them ill-prepared for the Night King and his zombified hordes. Calling this guy “heroic” is almost kind of offensive, especially when you find out he’s well-aware of Robert Baratheon’s incompetence as a leader and supported his rule for the pettiest of reasons.

He didn’t go to war against Aerys Targaryen II because he was a sadistic ruler that made the people under his reign suffer horribly (Jaime Lannister, however, rightfully killed him for that exact reason), but because his best buddy wanted to have sex with his hot sister and denied it. Making it unforgivable when he lies about the truth of the matter, that the relationship between Rhaegar and Lyanna was entirely consensual and not an act of rape (of course that has to be brought up!), that rationalized Robert’s war to become a gluttonous and wasteful king who doesn’t really improve anything. Ned knows this system is broken and the people in charge are corrupt as well as incapable of proper governance, but he nonetheless continues to support it because…it’s the law. The guy may as well be the Sheriff of Nottingham yet people keep acting like he’s goddamn Robin Hood.

It’s bad enough the show has a baffling number of characters to keep track of, many of whom only serve a perfunctory role and not developed past it, but that a majority of prominent ones are members of a feudal monarchy. They tend to be bougie pricks who never truly suffered under the opulence they lived in while everyone else was reduced to squalor. Like Ned Stark, most don’t reconsider the system to be a cruel joke that needs to be broken down and rebuilt from scratch with all the evidence of its disadvantages. Just about everything within the story implies that rule based on royal lineage only engenders endless conflict as numerous families manipulate and wage war with one another to gain a position of superiority regardless of the collateral damage caused. To hold such an amount of overwhelming power indefinitely until another challenger comes along, as more collateral damage is caused in the process. Not to mention, noted by some characters, those born into noble houses aren’t inherently more skilled at statecraft than anyone else and assuming that’s the case is part of the problem. Plus, well, the inbreeding that makes them mentally and emotionally unstable.

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Too bad he didn’t finish the job properly…

I can imagine some (disingenuous) pedants would argue characters espousing anachronistic viewpoints in a setting evocative of Pre-Renaissance Europe would, somehow, break all immersion. Yet this doesn’t explain why characters such as Tyrion Lannister or Oberyn Martell exist as well as the fact they’ve been two of the most popular characters on the show. Both frequently voice attitudes and behave in ways, closer to our own values and comportment in reality, that clearly make them outliers within the setting. It was nice, after so many scenes of people murdering infants and children like it’s a mundane activity, to have someone like Oberyn come along to point out how awful they are for doing such.

Both of them are well aware of their position in the world but, rather than be deferential to nobility, are often critical of it — Tyrion himself knowing that, if not born a Lannister, he’d of been culled as a newborn and frequently shows disdain for how others exploit “honor” to justify the unjustifiable. They know that almost all nobility, far from being majestic, is comprised of vainglorious human garbage. Then there’s Davos, the closest person to being “nouveau riche” in the cast. A guy so laid back that he doesn’t treat his new status as anything of note — never holding it above others or with a rigid sense of obligation, his loyalties based on his internal moral compass — and that informality makes him just as relatable to any contemporary person as either Tyrion or Oberyn.

If there’s any indication the showrunners aren’t responsible for the nuanced characterization of women in the cast, as much as G.R.R. Martin, it’s Arya Stark. Even the actress portraying her, Maisie Williams, had issues with how her character had become invulnerable instead of dying and whose arc was anti-climactic as there was no pay-off for the set-up. I’d add that it’s also when the showrunners fall into the trap of turning her into another vapid iteration of a “strong female character.”

Arya becoming a single-minded, emotionless assassin at the cost of her childhood should’ve been a tragic story to the very end than treated triumphantly at any point — another sign that pursuit of the Iron Throne only ruins the lives of others, with youths faring worse than anyone else. It’s acknowledged, once or twice, but she becomes defined wholly by how supposedly “badass” she is and ends up killing the Night King in a contrived manner ’cause fan service probably. The straw that broke the camel’s back, for me, was how dozens upon dozens of people in King’s Landing are being burned alive by Daenerys’ dragon while remaining unaffected herself. It’s almost like she was surrounded by an invisible everything-proof shield! Then a horse, also unharmed, comes out of nowhere to give her a ride and…that’s when I truly stopped giving a singular shit whatsoever.

A POSTSCRIPT

There is another fantasy story, also based on a series of novels, which I wanted Game of Thrones to resemble a bit more: The Witcher.

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It fully embraces the fantastical while managing to weave it into incredibly personal stories dealing with the human condition. Where monsters and people meet one another and, rather than any killing, come to profound existential truths with a tragic or heart-warming end attached. Politics, parallel to both past and present, are dealt with in a succinct manner than lost under a mountain of minutiae that is meaningless in the long run. All while fully acknowledging conflicts between the affluent are always masturbatory and help no one but themselves — the kingdoms and their rulers feeling interchangeable despite their ostensible and self-proclaimed differences (hint: they all fucking suck). Magic is not just a superpower that operates purely by the will of the storytellers but an arcane form of science with cohesive rules. Its practitioners are more like chemists, physicists, and engineers who follow specific methods and formulae for results than wizards flinging their hands around and making particle effects appear. Even the titular character, Geralt, treats the monsters he hunts less like the mythical beasts they are and no different to any other animal (or even person) as if he was just a gamekeeper — between the moments he’s either acting as a soldier of fortune, an investigator, or a political advisor.

It should be clarified what introduced me to the series wasn’t any of the novels, like many of those who watched Game of Thrones, but the third and final installment of the videogame series. I literally started at the end of Geralt’s story and, due to being was so intrigued by the world and those inhabiting it, decided to go back to the beginning of it all. Yet, having watched Game of Thrones from beginning to end, I feel the exact opposite about A Song of Ice & Fire — I’ve glimpsed into this place and its people, but far too alienated to indulge further. It was an exercise in drudgery, chasing a carrot at the end of a stick in the vain hope of finally catching it, that only ended in further disappointment. There’re things I liked about it such as the cast and production design, much in the same way with most Marvel movies, but the whole package is still less than the sum of its parts.

I could concede that the show “ended as good as it could have” but…that’s defeatist bullshit. It’s just setting the bar low and excusing creative laziness even as the show put itself on such a pedestal. Anything less than giving us the moon would be a broken promise because that’s what they advertised to everyone, for years. It had all that time leading to the finale to end all finales and, instead of delivering any of that, we just get another typical fantasy adventure that thinks too highly of itself.

[Originally posted on 5/28/19 @ Medium.com]

Childhood’s ENDGAME: An In-Depth Review (w/spoilers)

I’d listen to the words he’d say
But in his voice, I heard decay
The plastic face forced to portray
All the insides, left cold and gray
There is a place that still remains
It eats the fear, it eats the pain
The sweetest price he’ll have to pay

If Infinity War is The Empire Strikes Back of Marvel Movies, then Endgame is Return of the Jedi. This is not meant as a complaint, at least entirely. Like RotJ, Endgame has a strong start where the previous installment’s climax carries over but, as it goes on, it starts to drift back into bad habits from the other movies before Infinity War.

It never veers into territory where merchandising drives the creative decisions like with the Ewoks (who, to be honest, I like…because they eat people) or unwilling to kill off a primary member of the main cast (Harrison Ford hated Han Solo and wanted it to happen), but instead lays on the cheap humor a bit thick in parts to where it got grating as it has before due to how inappropriate and eager-to-please it can be. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) becoming a fat drunkard is, while amusing at first, something that remains throughout and became distracting with the obviousness of the fat suit. The worst part being when he summons his armor and his gut looks as if they stuffed some pillows under his shirt. Oh, and did I mention that five years of sedentary gluttony doesn’t affect his combat prowess much? ’Cause it doesn’t. Somehow. I could go on for days about the pointlessly mean-spirited remarks made in Scott “Ant-Man” Lang’s (Paul Rudd) direction too…

The difference is RotJ’s issues affect integral narrative beats that render the stakes tensionless (Stormtroopers being defeated by Ewoks with silly traps is hilariously bad) and the resolution feeling less earned by the protagonists than it should — Endgame’s problems are mostly tangential and make it better overall, but not by much. Though more structurally sound in storytelling, unlike RotJ, those tangential problems start to build up to the point it — like Hemsworth’s prosthetic beer belly — becomes a distraction.

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“I’m a big Trent Reznor fan too.”

Since I keep comparing the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Star Wars, I’ll make one more statement: the film didn’t disappoint me as much as The Last Jedi, with its implied intention to cause a paradigm shift in the conflict, only to revert back to the status quo by the end. A decision made purely for fan service (which further weaponizes a consumeristic audience to everyone’s, especially critics, detriment) and maintain recognizable branding for merchandise. Endgame at least keeps some of its promises, giving a sense of finality and permanence in certain regards, that indicates possible good tidings in the future. The ultimate problem is that leaves a good deal of other promises unfulfilled and myself once again cautious of the franchise’s future. Though I’m still looking forward to Spider-Man: Far From Home while having absolutely no interest in The Rise of Skywalker (easily one of the worst subtitles ever — it makes “Attack of the Clones” sound clever). At least the Marvel movies, unlike Star Wars, have a chance at being interesting.

THE BEST (AND WORST) OF BOTH WORLDS

When the film does keep its promises, they’re still handicapped in execution, and — as the title of the section references this — Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) makes for an illustrative example. He’s my favorite character in the film partly because we’re given pay-off to his arc in the previous one…yet we don’t see it. We’re told it with exposition. The five year time jump was an idea I really liked, as we get to see this half-empty world (reminding me of all those empty city streets in Neon Genesis Evangelion) and how the characters handle the situation for good or ill, so I’d understand why the Russos were hesitant to use a flashback but it means an important character moment happened off-screen (again). It’s explained to us, sure, but it’s dull for Bruce to do so purely through dialogue than with some kind of visualization — perhaps the moment he was finally able to reconcile both halves of himself, to become “the best of both worlds.” There’s no reason to keep it a mystery either, so why not show it? Given the film is already a minute over three hours, I’d be willing to have another (at most) 30 seconds to get that visual along with the explanation. That means you get to see that moment as the audience while the other characters, unaware of such, have it explained to them. It is, however, the least problematic example.

The most problematic one comes in the form of Natasha “Black Widow” Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint “Hawkeye/Ronin” Barton (Jeremy Renner). I must ask: outside of an attachment to these characters’ comicbook counterparts or the actors playing them, how do these movies try to connect the audience to them as people? Even as someone who’s read the comics, I still try approaching these movies from the mindset of someone who may’ve only had a passing understanding of them via cultural osmosis. Telling me a film is “for the fans” is utterly meaningless as a defense because Art is for everyone. These films — which is what they are in form, not simply live-action comicbooks — should still be judged on their own qualities within the medium rather than what studio press releases tell you to think (it’s astonishing how many people mistake such as their own opinion) or to confirm the biases of obsessives as if obliged. My point is that I could tell you why I like Natasha in the comics at length, but I couldn’t do the same for Johansson’s cinematic portrayal. I don’t dislike the latter because I liked the earlier either — a habit that others who both read the comics and watch the movies have, but which I find incomprehensible.

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HULK THE SMARTEST THERE IS!

When it comes to Natasha’s comicbook incarnation, she is a vivacious adrenaline junkie that’s slammed ass with almost every eligible bachelor in the 616. She doesn’t do it due to past trauma of lost childhood and forced sterilization (easily one of the most grossly sexist creative decisions made in any of the Marvel movies), but because she enjoys it and lacks any interest in motherhood as it’d get in the way of her lifestyle. Y’know, like a real woman would be — with a semblance of personality. Johansson has been in so many of these movies and, outside of what I referenced (both from the god-awful Age of Ultron), I couldn’t really tell you anything else about her other than she’s a typical action movie hero. Endgame doesn’t bother to shed any light on her background further than her father’s name was “Ivan.” That’s pretty much it and…who gives a shit?

An apologist could bring up the smaller character moments but, similarly to Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his portrayal across all these movies, they’re so inconsistent that they feel random or forced. She’s still stoic 90 percent of the time, with the other 10 percent often coming off as contrived than an organic progression of characterization. It should’ve been the other way around — she starts off as cold and distant, but becomes more open and friendly with each appearance. Hawkeye is even worse since, like her, he’s a typical action movie hero but the only difference is he has a family who’d been taken away in The Snap. We’re introduced to this notion, during the time jump, he’s gone off the deep end as he travels from one nation to the next wantonly slaughtering criminals with no rhyme or reason. My interest was piqued there, for a second, making me think we’d get someone as mentally unstable and desperate as Thanos (Josh Brolin) himself became as one of the protagonists. Except he doesn’t act that way at all — he’s the same stern action movie hero as before. As much as I found Thor looking like The Dude (but even more disheveled) from Big Lebowski annoying, Hemsworth really does a great job of getting across how broken he is as a person and has become avoidant of everything else in his life. There was an opportunity here for Renner to give a new spin with the character, but it’s one that goes untaken.

It makes the scene where Natasha and Clint are fighting one another over who gets to sacrifice themselves for the Soul Stone, a fantastic premise for an action set piece, kind of empty simply due to their involvement. Part of me couldn’t help but think, originally, it was going to be Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) who would sacrifice himself and Stark would attempt to stop him in vain. The reason I make this suggestion is that, given the ending, this would’ve made for fantastic foreshadowing. Instead, we have two characters who — purely in the context of these movies and not elsewhere — haven’t been properly developed enough to make the emotional impact of the scene effective. You really only care if you’re projecting the comicbook version onto the cinematic one or just like ScarJo who, though very attractive, isn’t an expressive enough actress that her crying feels as convincing as crocodile tears. It is, in my opinion, the worst part of the film not due to what it represents in the plot but because of how it was done.

MÖEBIUS SLIP

I usually hate time travel in cinema. Very rarely am I ever that impressed by such stories and, when I am, it’s more a case of presentation than a tightly-written script like 12 Monkeys, Looper,or Donnie Darko with one exception to that rule being Timecrimes. Others can be a fleeting amusement but it’s not a storytelling genre I’m all that keen on — which is made all the more strange by my fondness of alternate realities.

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Seriously, go watch TIMECRIMES. Now.

Endgame is now one of these movies…and, goddamn, does it never shut up about it. It’s enjoyable when the characters speak of paradoxes, chronal self-correction, and tangent timelines — all an effort to figure out how to do an awesomely high-concept jewel heist with precision — but gets bogged down when characters start name-dropping other films with time travel. If they just began and ended with Back to the Future as their point of reference, then it’d of been a lot less cringey, but they can’t keep themselves from also bringing up TerminatorBill & Ted, and Time After Time to hit you over the head harder than they already did. Yes, we get it, you’re talking about time travel and thus bring up a movie with time travel, over and over again — rein it in, guys.

It’s certainly not as funny as when they’re testing out their time travel tech, causing Ant-Man to come back as a geriatric and then as a baby, because at least it’s moving the plot forward. It gives you an idea of how important it is to get the technical kinks worked out before doing their continuum-invading caper. Even the scene where The Hulk confronts The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) is a lot more interesting than having one character commenting on another’s ass like they’re on some wacky videogame side-quest. Can’t they just take this shit a bit more seriously? I’m pretty sure they’re trying to bring back half the universe yet the only person — other than Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket Raccoon (Sean Gunn/Bradley Cooper) — approaching it with a proper sense of gravity is The Hulk. Also, unlike his cohorts, he doesn’t screw up his task and requires a risky (as well as contrived) detour.

Thor and Rocket’s segment was probably the worst of the bunch next to the one with Action Hero Man and Action Hero Lady, made depressing by the fact their plotline during Infinity War was one of my favorite things about it. Thor’s heart-to-heart with his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo…who looks damn good for her age), as much as I liked it initially doesn’t ever lead to that moment where he cuts his hair, trims his beard, and burns all fat off his body by bench pressing submarines like a Nordic (but untattooed) Jason Mamoa. Yet another part of me couldn’t help but wonder why Thor, an emotionally and physically unfit mess, was brought along at all other than to talk to his (not yet) dead (hot) mom. There’s also something uncomfortable about Rocket assaulting Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) with a weirdly phallic object to get the Reality Stone…out of her body. How? They never explain nor show it in use but, since it may well’ve been a prop from Dead Ringers, it’s probably creepy as shit.

Now that I think about it, the detour Stark has to make in the 1970s to retrieve the Space Stone just feels like an excuse for him to talk to his (not yet) dead father, Howard (John Slattery). Well, that and Steve Rogers to stare at Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) through the shades of a glass panel like some lovesick stalker. It occurred to me that so many of these creative decisions weren’t made with narrative structure and themes in mind but for the sake of cheap sentimentality or laughs and fan service. Much like how it didn’t make sense for Thor to go back to Asgard given it might, y’know, trigger him due to his poor mental state — there was no reason for Steve to go back to the events of The Avengers except so there’d be a fight where he literally fights himself (and then ogles his own ass ’cause yuk-yuks). Oddly enough, that fight in of itself showed that which characters went where/when wasn’t thought about much if at all. You’d think Ant-Man would’ve tagged along with Black Widow and Hawkeye since, well, they’re the type of people perfect for a covert ops scenario like that. In fact, wouldn’t it make more sense to have it be characters who weren’t already at Stark Tower to stick out less? So, if not Natasha and Clint, you could have James “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Okoye (Danai Gurira…more on her character and others, in a bit) go to decrease the risk even further.

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This is America (Chavez)’s ass!

Since I mentioned her before (and want this part of the review to end on a good note…kinda), my other favorite part from all the time traveling is where Nebula retrieves the Power Stone during the opening of the first Guardians of the Galaxy. There a great bit of anti-fan service that portrays Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) dancing to Redbone’s (utterly irresistible) “Come and Get Your Love,” if done diegetically, makes him look like a jackass but that they also knock him the fuck out. I also love the Terminator 2 moment when the covering of Nebula’s arm melts away and reveals a robotic skeletal frame beneath. It’s the only part of the heist where time travel concepts are explored further. Nebula’s younger self ends up having her future self’s memories, as they both exist at the same time, that causes a paradox and their minds to fracture as a result — just like Roland Deschain and Jake Chambers in Stephen King’s The Waste Land.

Even better, Future Nebula is captured by Past Nebula and — though dead in Future Nebula’s timeline — a still very much alive Thanos, as well as his other Children, that made me ecstatic about what would happen next. The problem with getting your hopes up too high about something is, when ending in disappointment, it makes that lack of fulfillment feel worse

COMFORTABLY NUMB & PERFORMATIVELY WOKE

The biggest problem with this movie? Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson). No, not Larson herself nor the character (she’s just been introduced), but the fact that — given both Infinity War’s post-credit sequence as well as her solo film preceding Endgame — you’d assume her participation in the plot to be major, right? You don’t do that much build-up without proper pay-off yet her role here is basically a glorified cameo. The most time she spends on-screen is within the first act and only appears two more times briefly after that.

Um, so…what was the point? Why make such a big deal about a character who’s tertiary at best? Was it just to stave off all the nay-sayers (e.g. me) who wondered why — with the existence of Haywire (criminally underrated), Atomic Blonde (fantastically shot and choreographed), and Red Sparrow (Oscar Bait dreck wasting a potentially interesting premise)— Disney/Marvel still hadn’t made a Black Widow movie yet while Warner Bros./DC actually released Wonder Woman? Okay, yes, I’m glad we got a Captain Marvel movie and that their cinematic iteration is a lesbian (how many kids would refer to their mom’s best friend as “auntie”? Especially back in the U.S. during the 90s? Nota lot!) but that lack of implied pay-off just makes it retroactively hollow as a result. Adding injury to insult, she’s not the only one either.

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“Iron Throne ain’t shit! Don’t got a sweet-ass view like this…”

Since Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) ended up victim to The Snap, leaving both Okoye and M’Baku (Winston Duke) alive, one might imagine those characters may’ve had a bigger part in Endgame but they don’t. Along with Carol, they are kept out of the plot with a couple of throwaway lines to try justifying it — they’re maintaining order in a now half-empty but chaotic world — but that instantly falls apart when Rocket and Nebula, both doing the same thing as them, are brought along on the time heist. Two of them would obviously be motivated to bring back the Wakandans, their warrior-king included, who disappeared in The Snap and the other simply due to being aware of how much damage it caused across the universe (Carol even states such outright to Black Widow). Why would they not take the opportunity to reverse all of that, if told about such a possibility? I’d of liked to have seen them taking part in the time heist since we’d get to know them a bit more as people and it’d make the events more intriguing having these fairly new players around. I’ve been dying to see more of Winston Duke as M’Baku, as I found him underused even within Black Panther (he had some of the best scenes), but now they’ve relegated him to being a non-speaking background character. Much in the same way that Captain Marvel, despite Disney/Marvel’s hype machine saying otherwise, has been greatly reduced in their ostensible importance.

As I said in my reviews of Luke Cage and Black Panther, Disney/Marvel only care about racial and gender diversity insofar as it can make them money. This is reflected in their tendency to pull their punches when it comes to the politics of those characters and I should’ve noticed that in Captain Marvel with its unwillingness to openly admit that Carol Danvers was a gay woman. I assumed it was an attempt at subtlety and that others could pick up on such obvious hints made about it but, after people started ‘shipping her and Thor together because of a single staredown (’cause game recognize game!), it then occurred to me the omission may’ve had to do more with not alienating part of the audience who are homophobic or petulant man-babies who complain about Art “pushing an agenda” (newsflash, you fucking assholes: they all do). The fact they’re willing to make such concessions on their behalf, despite not deserving such consideration, is both troubling and a sign the companies’ progressive cred is purely a PR tactic.

Yes, I know, they all participate in the interminable climactic battle but that was a case of “too little, too late.” Like everyone else in that sequence — they blend into the deluge of fan service-fueled visual clutter.

THIS’LL BE A BEAUTIFUL DEATH…

As much as I disliked the Battle of Wakanda during Infinity War, at least it made sense both in narrative and execution as the armies used actual tactics and one could follow what was happening. The climactic battle in the third act of Endgame, however, lacks both and functions as indulgent spectacle. It’s all quantity over quality.

When I spoke with a friend about the scene, he told me he liked it because he got to see all these different characters on-screen. Y’know what? That’s a perfectly legitimate reason to like it — I’m fond of mix-and-matched team-ups and it’s one reason I enjoyed Infinity War as much as I did. The issue for me (as usual) is there needs to be some kind of meaning behind it to justify their presence. Simply having the characters appear amongst others does not mean anything, when they aren’t significantly contributing to whatever is occurring within the plot. We did agree on one thing though: the bit where all the female characters gather together to do a woefully disingenuous “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” shtick was the cringiest thing ever (yet more performative wokeness from Disney/Marvel).

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Pictured: an actual “strong female character.”

Almost proving my point, they show Mantis (Pom Klementieff) among them and she looks as confused as I was about her being there. All these other female characters are being defined wholly by their fighting prowess (since no one has yet to figure out the “strong” in “strong female characters” isn’t necessarily physical strength as it is how complex/complicated they are as people…) and she disappears once the combat starts. It all feels like a big step back from the Battle of Titan, which only involved six superheroes taking on a single supervillain, where she actually did something of import and being sabotaged by a fellow teammate was tragic — she could’ve had her moment of glory, pretty much saving the day, but kept from such due to a childish tantrum. Thanos was also more interesting as an adversary there, as he now lacks the Infinity Gauntlet and the heroes just keep hitting him in some way or another. It’s rather boring after seeing him throw a small black hole at Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) or using chunks of a moon to crush Tony Stark as he flies about while Spider-Man (Tom Holland…who is just kawaii) swings around to keep others from harm.

Y’know what I’d of preferred? If Thanos didn’t fight them. At all.

There’s a throwaway line (a lot of them are in this movie) where he admits, upon seeing his potential future and unhappy with the results, he was wrong and would rather make the universe “abundant with life.” Prior to Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor showing up he sits contemplatively on a rock that suggests a lack of bellicosity (doesn’t explain why he blew up Avengers HQ though) and, given how much I liked Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) in Captain Marvel, revealing himself to be a now-reluctant antagonist would’ve been neat follow-up in Endgame. Yet Thanos pulls a Kylo Ren (hey, there’s Star Wars again!) where he thinks the best way to do that is to…deconstruct the universe.

One would think, with everything that’s been revealed to him, he’d know that would be impossible to do — his alternate future self makes it clear even destroying the Infinity Stones almost killed him (not to mention his arm being burnt to a crisp making half of all life in the universe disappear). I suppose one could argue that, at that point, he’s so far gone that he’s prone to causing destruction regardless of the reason. Except, to me, that’s a half-assed excuse to make him another bland bad guy who does bad things ’cause reasons at the very last minute. There was obviously more going on with him during Infinity War, beyond causing destruction for destruction’s sake — but that’d apparently get in the way of all the obnoxiously overblown action, the kind fanboys ruin their pants over with a copious amount of watery ejaculate.

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I’ll never get sick of this guy, like, ever.

If there had to be some climactic battle to end all climactic battles, I’d rather it involve the Children of Thanos — Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor), Obsidian Cull (Terry Notary), Proxima Midnight (Monique Ganderton/Carrie Coon), and Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw) — betraying their adoptive father due to his change of heart, then fight the heroes before unleashing their respective armies. They do appear in the final battle but, much like Mantis, you might not notice them under the avalanche of CGI monsters and pacing so fast the whiplash would cause decapitation. Ebony Maw is probably the only one you’ll recognize because he actually gets some lines in a previous scene and shown more prominently on-screen, unlike his other siblings, as the fighting rages on and when it finally ends.

There are a couple of things I liked, however: Spider-Man — living up to his “friendly” reputation — trying to introduce himself to Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) among the chaos, as if it weren’t happening, and Tony Stark’s death. I’m not being smarmy on the second point whatsoever. If you’re going to give a character a fitting and heroic end, that was the way to do it. It wasn’t just Dr. Strange reminding him wordlessly of his prediction with a single index finger, but that Stark has been defined by his selfishness as a character and — now being a father — does the most selfless thing ever in his life (“I am Iron Man!” are also great last words as any). Alongside a bittersweet epilogue of his funeral and Steve Rogers retiring as Captain America, it’s like watching the end of Logan all over again and I’m grateful for that alone.

It was a creative decision I was not expecting and was genuinely (as well as thankfully) surprised. I can only hope Spider-Man: Far From Home manages to do such as well but, since this started with an apropos song, I may as well end it with another from Nine Inch Nails off the same album…

Tried to save a place
From the cuts and the scratches
Tried to overcome
The complications and the catches
Nothing ever grows
And the sun doesn’t shine all day
Tried to save myself
But myself keeps slipping away

[Originally posted on 5/14/19 @ Medium.com]

Staring Into INFINITY WAR, Part 2: Agony Is Your Triumph (w/spoilers)

You sure you’re up for this particular murder mission?

Absolutely! The rage and vengeance, anger, loss, regret — they’re all tremendous motivators. They really clear the mind. So…I’m good to go!

I often speak of tension, or the lack thereof, when it comes to action cinema and how they execute its set pieces whether they be a fist-fight, a shoot-out, or a car chase. To me — it is far more important than spectacle. As much as bombast can be fun, it’s utterly meaningless without proper build-up and consequence while (even worse) rendering entire set pieces redundant. It’s why, as much as people gave it accolades, a film like The Raid: Redemption is dreadfully dull to me despite all the effort put in its martial arts choreography. It’s similar-looking fights in similar-looking apartments, one after another, with very little characterization thus we’re not adequately given any reason to care about those involved. It is a pure spectacle and I hated it.

Part of that is the protagonist rarely ever felt vulnerable and incapable of defeat. Sure, he’d get hurt, but it wasn’t dealt with the intensity of a combat wound — no fatigue to be seen — as if it were a scraped knee or bruised shin. It doesn’t impede them anymore or less, which makes their inevitable victory all the more obvious and boring. It’s amazing how Die Hard is considered one of the best action films of the 1980s (rightfully so) while current filmmakers nonetheless miss what made it work so well: John McClane got hurt. Really hurt. He had to run across broken glass barefoot to escape the gunfire, later shown to be pulling out the shards stuck in there before continuing on. It’s as painful to watch onscreen as it looks. But, then again, everything he deals within that movie is a struggle and — even better — you have distinguishable antagonists who’re an ever-present danger throughout (one of them even gets their own subplot!) than ineffectual, faceless canon-fodder.

The reason for bringing this up is because, as live-action adaptations of comicbook material, the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe forget this and fall into the pitfall of rendering tension moot for the sake of spectacle. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to believe Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are normal human beings, when their skills are no more different than the superhuman abilities of other characters — all while rarely ever getting hurt to a debilitating degree, despite the conflicts in which they become involved. Moreso when explicitly superhuman characters like Captain America (Chris Evans) actually show more vulnerability, to the point it is a defining character trait. Maybe one of the reasons I keep lavishing praise on shows like Daredevil (other than how much I like Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk and, no, I’m never going to shut up about that)is because the titular protagonist (Charlie Cox) gets the utter shit kicked out of him. It has nothing to do with dislike and experiencing schadenfreude as much as the complete opposite — even when beaten and broken, the tenacity to persevere shines through and downright encouraging to witness. It’s far more admirable a quality than simply slaughtering one’s enemies en masse with little resistance or strain. It may be entertaining in a videogame, as part of an interactive power fantasy, but passive mediums — especially cinema — needs adversity whether physical or psychological to test the protagonists lest the fantasy of overcoming great odds ultimately becomes an empty experience.

Thankfully, like so much else in the film, Infinity War delivered on that in quite a few surprising ways…

A TALE OF TWO SHERLOCKS

My familiarity, until more recently, of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) — commonly referred to simply as “Dr. Strange” — was a passing one. I noticed him, sure, but he never really intrigued me. Outside of him and Victor Von Doom being Best Frenemies Forever, an interesting relationship dynamic if there ever was one (probably why I liked Chadwick Boseman and Winston Duke’s interactions in Black Panther so much), I only recognized him as the most powerful wizard within the 616.

That changed with reading a large chunk of Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo’s run with the character that’s a wonderful mix of Cronenbergian body horror coupled with aesthetics straight from Beetlejuice, portraying the Sorcerer Supreme as having the grossest diet imaginable — Lovecraftian monsters. Seriously, he chows down on tentacled horrors from beyond the veil of time and space (via mystical kitchen fridge). I also love how one of the primary antagonists resembles a Shoggoth with a death mask for a face, fueled by the pain and anguish from the protagonist’s usage of magic.

So, yeah, it was exactly my kind of thing…and don’t tell me the image of Benedict Wong shoving bits of Starspawn down Cumberbatch’s gullet isn’t the funniest thing ever. ’Cause I’m pretty sure it is and you’d be a total liar saying otherwise!

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I don’t wanna imagine what heartburn from that feels like…

This was followed by what was easily my favorite scene in Ragnarok:

The solo feature, upon initial viewing, left me cold despite its many appealing aspects — a recurring issue I’ve had with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The characterization came off as inconsistent, of not knowing whether they wanted him as a prickly but compassionate medical practitioner (his bedside manner is terrible) who learns to be more open-minded and less egotistical or just Iron Man but with magic. It is only due to Infinity War, firmly establishing it is the earlier case, that’s made me retroactively like the film somewhat more than I had before (it’s got other problems). I’d go as far to say — out of all the protagonists featured — he’s as much my favorite as Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor) was among the antagonists. Though sarcastic on occasions, he’s not prone to the same adolescent quips like others and earnest enough to treat a serious situation with a proper sense of gravity than smarmy frivolity. So very much unlike his new (also: armored) Best Frenemy Forever…

It’s unfortunate that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has effectively made me hate Tony Stark as a character. It has nothing to do with Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance — he’s perfect in the role, though Marvel’s films and series haven’t been badly cast overall — and I can’t help but respect the guy given the rock bottom he once hit ages ago then recover from it so well. He’s not the problem, at all, and I don’t want anyone to forget that when talking about Iron Man as a fictional character. The issue, per usual, is how he’s written but it’s also the studio’s tendency to never let him truly evolve as a person.

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The Ultimate Fair Weather Friend

The studio entertains character development with interesting ideas — his alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, inability to keep promises, an obsessiveness that ruins his closest relationships, incapable of properly grieving for his dead parents, or being stricken with eldritch knowledge — but these traits are not portrayed or dealt with consistently. They may matter within the film featured, only to be abandoned by the next, then reintroduced elsewhere down the line when it seems fitting. Iron Man 3 ends with Tony promising Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to abandon his continual tinkering with power-armors and causing them to self-destruct to prove he will keep his promise. Age of Ultron, however, has him back in power-armor (and accompanied by autonomous look-a-like drones) without any mention to the events of IM3 or what happened between then and now. When Civil War came around, it appears that Pepper did take issue with breaking his promise and Tony is not on speaking terms with her. Finally, apparently happening between films and off-screen, Spider-Man: Homecoming reveals that Tony and Pepper are…back together again. Why? They just are. ’Cause reasons.

This would be excusable if we were dealing with pre-reboot James Bond, a walking vehicle to showcase exotic locations and get involved in conflicts that provide action set pieces with little to no personal arc attached, but the Marvel films keep showing an interest in Tony Stark’s psychology. Even the wretchedly half-assed IM2 made his self-destructive tendencies a central focus of the (otherwise unfocused) narrative. With Infinity War, he’s gone back to being who he exactly was at the end of the first IM, but — much like acknowledging Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) can be an insufferable, selfish man-child — the film treats Tony as someone who never stopped being a rich brat that needs a tough lesson in finally growing the fuck up. Who better to help than a wise mage who never suffers fools gladly?

Every interaction between Dr. Strange and Stark involves them butting heads, with the earlier frequently admonishing the latter’s showboating. There’s even a scene where Stark touches a valuable artifact, like a reckless child, that Dr. Strange responds to with a smack in the back of his head as if he were a schoolmarm. It’s not only a lot more enjoyable to watch than characters swapping similar bits of witticism but that those characters are a lot more interesting when strongly differentiated among one another. Comedy series like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia work as well as they do because everyone in the main cast has distinct personalities that often clash with one another. Deadpool and its sequel aren’t much different in that regard, as the titular character (Ryan Reynolds) is surrounded by a supporting cast who’re disparate in outlook and behavior, and a lot of the comedic value would be lost if everyone else was a deranged fourth wall-breaking assassin who treats murder like a punchline to a joke. The moralizing from Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and cynical apathy from Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), when contrasted with Wade Wilson’s incessant pop culture referencing and madcap antics, are absolutely beneficial to the narrative than a detriment to it. Making Dr. Strange into another Tony Stark did not work at all and I’d like to think it was (thankfully) obvious to both Taika Waititi and the Russos given their own background in comedy. Having Tony Stark into Dr. Strange’s heel (or vice versa depending on perspective) was easily the best decision they could make.

Stark does feel like he’s learning something, particularly when what remains of The Guardians of the Galaxy — Peter Quill, Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) — show up shooting first and asking questions later with him, Dr. Strange, and Spider-Man (Tom Holland…whose cheeks I just want to squeeze like an overly enthusiastic great aunt). Quill ends up being a mirror that Stark gazes into and comes to the depressing realization that, perhaps, he might actually hate himself. That all his vainglory was to cover up for how empty he felt following his parents’ passing unless he was either with Pepper Potts or as Iron Man. Much like how Quill stopped maturing entirely when cancer took his mother and abducted by Yondu (Michael Rooker)as an eight-year-old, Stark has been stuck at nineteen since a brainwashed Bucky (Sebastian Stan) assassinated Howard (John Slattery) and Maria (Hope Davis).

It comes to the point where Stark ends up having to parent Quill, belligerently dismissing all advice and demands superiority purely by ego (akin to Stark’s own behavior at the beginning of the film). It’s thematically apt given Thanos (Josh Brolin) is a malevolent god-like father figure but with the indication that Pepper is now pregnant with Stark’s child, or at least they’re trying to have one, that’s causing Tony to act more like a father as the film progresses. Even the callousness directed at Peter Parker in Homecoming (which was really confusing) has faded away and is more like heartfelt, albeit condescending, concern. He treats Quill like his least favorite and rebellious child, expected to hurt himself regardless of any attempt to dissuade him, while Parker is the loyal and favored son he actively protects from harm. Only to be (further) traumatized upon his slow death due to The Snap, holding him as he slowly disintegrates before his eyes. Exacerbated by the fact he reacts only as one whose life has gone largely unlived could and, even worse, it was Quill’s fault. Everyone else involved knew the stakes and approached it with bravery, almost succeeding thanks to Mantis’ hyper-empathic ability (giving her a great moment in the spotlight as opposed to being treated like garbage), while Quill’s tantrum sabotaged their efforts and partly why the universe is now half-empty. Stark failed as a surrogate parent and has to now live with both dying under his watch.

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Tony Stark and Peter Parker. Kinda (not really).

Though everyone acts as horrified by The Snap in some way, Dr. Strange handles it like a champ and it makes perfect sense: he already died. Not simply having seen it from delving into and observing possible future timelines in a prior scene but because, within his solo feature, he literally got killed several times over — if not hundreds or more — annoying a cross-dimensional entity into submission with a time-loop. Others have a difficult time comprehending their mortality, all slowly turning to ash that’s blown away by the wind with expressions of shock and despair, but not the Sorcerer Supreme for he has long ago conquered it by enduring it many times over and still alive despite it. As indicated with his torture by Ebony Maw, he is so dedicated to his cause and the lives it protects that the pain done unto his being is simply part of his duty. A trait he happens to share with a certain Norse god, you know the one!

THE FROG, THE RABBIT, & THE GIVING TREE

If one was to tell me my favorite plotline in the film would be Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Rocket Raccoon (Sean Gunn/Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel) attempting to forge a mythical battle ax — I’d accuse them of totally fucking with me and wouldn’t believe a single word. Yet, somehow, it is not a lie. It is the absolute truth and, by the gods, I couldn’t be happier overhow wrong I was.

It’s the least eventful narrative thread but there’s a greater sense of faith in itself, being character-driven without much action-based spectacle, and respectful of the audience who can appreciate it. With only one set piece — said forging of a mythical battle ax — and everything beforehand acting as build-up via interaction between the cast. Though “exciting” would be an odd descriptor to apply, it is the only one that aptly expresses my own experience. The Battle of Wakanda, wherein various superheroes mow down legions of alien monsters with a massive death wish, isn’t nearly as intriguing to watch — even with the epic scale and visual splendor — as Rocket going to sit down and sympathetically ask Thor questions about his state of mind. I’ve already seen these characters demolish faceless canon-fodder but it’s rare to see any interchange that managed to be earnest and saying a lot with so little, all while involving individuals as fantastical as a living Norse god and a gun-loving animal that talks. Even if you aren’t familiar with who either of them are, the scene I mentioned — with small but significant gestures — informs you that Rocket seeks connection, if only out of curiosity, but is very guarded about approaching others while Thor is an arrogant, perhaps naive in spite of his age of one-and-a-half millennia, yet well-meaning person. At no point is this brought up verbally by either like, well, so many other Marvel movies. I wish this subdued approach to characterization were more common than an exception to the (formulaic) rule.

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“Ya gangrenous-lookin’ buddy? We met before…”

A recurring gag throughout is that Thor refers to Rocket Raccoon erroneously as “Rabbit” (which, as none exist in Nordic nations, he’d make that mistake as a Nordic deity) that he tolerates uncharacteristically. He’s taken a great deal of offense from anyone who brings up the fact he’s an animal at all — moreso when it’s a pejorative like “pest” — but doesn’t display any with Thor and there’s a good reason for this: it’s wholly complimentary and never degrading. Even Peter Quill, supposedly his friend, treats Rocket like shit despite being well aware he’s likely a normal raccoon forcefully uplifted into sapience (not to mention all the augmentations that make him bipedal and presumably speak) that leaves him in an existential nightmare. Like, I can’t be the only person who notices that…right? When berated for his kleptomania, I was absolutely baffled — he’s a goddamn raccoon. They’re natural scavengers and the kleptomania is likely an extension of that, along with his intense curiosity and constant tinkering, yet everyone else keeps forgetting that. It’s treated like a personality flaw than a pathological condition as if he were Marie “Shut Up, Shut The Hell Up” Schrader from Breaking Bad. No wonder the only one he still tolerates is the tree with a five-word vocabulary…

Groot, currently in an adolescent form, is fairly apathetic for most of the run time — either fiddling with his handheld videogame or petulantly complaining (based on the responses towards him). He joins Thor and Rocket on a whim, having shown dissatisfaction with the other Guardians, but doesn’t seem to have much investment in their task either…but only at first. During the forging of Stormbreaker, the mechanism used to channel the heat from Nidavellir’s neutron star breaks and Thor proceeds to replace it with himself — which initially succeeds but leaves him charred to near death and the newly forged uber-ax accidentally split in two. When Eitri (Peter Dinklage) searches for a handle to combine the two parts in vain (um, the guy can’t even use his hands) and stating that, without the ax being fully formed, Thor will die. That is the moment Groot finally stops being apathetic and cares enough to use his own arm, then cut it off, to succeed in their quest.

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They’re Groot

This indicates in the previous scene, where Groot shows outright disdain for the other Guardians, that his behavior had less to do with being an asshole teenager than it is being greatly disappointed they were still thepricks he met in the first Guardians of the Galaxy. It made sense back then when their alliance was originally built on selfish goals, that soon becomes a friendship, leading Groot to sacrifice himself to keep others safe from harm. Though rendered as a merchandising opportunity in the next installment, an obnoxiously cutesy baby who doesn’t contribute as much as distract, it was nice to have the character I actually liked and wanted to see more of — not his nauseatingly infantile doppelganger — come back in such a magnificent fashion as he not only saved the life of a god but made himself part of the second most powerful weapon in the universe. Even all of them showing up at the Battle of Wakanda is my favorite part of that event, next to the entrance of Thanos and his subsequent Snap. A CGI clusterfuck battle can never be as enthralling or fulfilling the way subtle characterization and creating a situation that requires more than fisticuffs can be. I want more of that from these Marvel movies and, hopefully, this is a sign of good tidings in the future.

THE WEAKEST THERE IS…

If there’s any superhero (sometimes) whose gotten the worst treatment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s Bruce Banner — a.k.a. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo…formerly Edward Norton). The Incredible Hulk is (for good reason) considered the weakest of the Phase One movies next to Thor and can’t say I disagree, even if I still liked it more than the ill-conceived Ang Lee film from 2003. As someone who is quite fond of the character in the comics, I take bigger issue with how mismanaged and underused he is than I do Natasha “Black Widow” Romanova. He’s always second or third fiddle to another character and it’s rarely ever dealing with Bruce Banner outside of being The Hulk as he wrecks shit. The moments he is given are usually as Stark’s put-upon science-bro who’s neurotically on edge every hour of the day and they’re wonderful, even if few and far inbetween, unlike the inane romance with Natasha. It made no sense nor had any precedence, save for a scene at the beginning of Age of Ultron, especially since their previous interactions involved Bruce either threatening her or trying to murder her as The Hulk. Maybe if it was to indicate they were now friends, there’d be no issue — but not as romantic partners.

I like Mark Ruffalo in the role and actually more than Edward Norton. You’d think to portray a children’s TV entertainer with anger issues in Death to Smoochy would make Norton perfect for the role, but he’s too confident and level-headed for a wimpy scientist who lives in constant dread of losing control and unleashing a bellicose ogre into the world. Ruffalo, on the other hand, really does come off like that ticking time bomb of a human being. You get this sense that The Hulk is almost as much a metamorphological defense mechanism as he is a dissociative identity — as much of a product of Bruce Banner’s physiology as his psychology. This has been lightly alluded to but never substantially explored, until Infinity War came around.

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(The Hulk’s audition tape for JOHN CARTER)

It’s quite amusing how the ad campaign purposefully trolled the audience into thinking we’d just get The Hulk again, shown running alongside the other heroes into battle, but that never happens. The Hulk’s actual screen presence is quite brief and mostly relegated to the opening scene, as Thanos whups his ass like a punching bag in a gym for hyperactive Muay Thai fighters. He’s bled before, sure, but no other enemy with the misfortune to cross his path could take him down with such swift grace. The scene is evocative of another at the end of The Avengers where Loki (Tom Hiddleston) — also a (frost) giant but the runt of the litter, I guess — is picked up and slammed into the floor over and over again like a ragdoll but reversed. While The Hulk approaches fighting like an aggressive toddler with no form or tact, Thanos is nothing but calculated with each move and finishes him off with one forceful suplex. Aside from being sent to earth via Heimdall’s (Idris Elba) Bifröst bridge, he only appears in a few more instances. “Instance” being the operative word here. It’s all about Bruce Banner from here on and it’s been something I’ve been dying to see for a while now.

The Hulk becomes eerily reticent likely because, considering the theme of parenthood in its many forms, Bruce Banner had a physically abusive father and suppressed all memory of it. The Hulk — after Banner was exposed to Gamma radiation — is simply those suppressed memories made emerald flesh. Problem is that The Hulk assumed he could never be hurt the way Banner’s father hurt him…until Thanos came along and proved otherwise. This isn’t wholly speculative on my part either, as it was integral to Peter David’s comicbook run of the character and it’s referenced here. Remember when this happened?

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Well, that was also in the comics. Specifically The Incredible Hulk Vol. 1, issue #376 in December of 1990:

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Bruce Banner seems to barely register to the other characters in the MCU or just seen as useless when compared to The Hulk. So many of the conflicts haven’t really required Banner’s scientific knowledge to deal with a problem as much as brute force, which his alter ego has in excess. Despite being away for two years and a dire warning that must be heeded, Tony Stark doesn’t act all that enthusiastic to see a close friend and dismisses the advice of putting aside his rivalry with Captain America — acting as if he can solve the entire situation by his lonesome. Natasha herself comes off as frigid when greeted by him later, accompanying James “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle). It’s as if they’re not responding to Bruce Banner himself but to The Hulk, who was in control when he (respectively) clobbered and unceremoniously dumped them, but they’re not bothering to differentiate between the two. Even Rhodes himself takes amusement in embarrassing the guy in front of T’Challa, tricking him into bowing when no one else does (’cause T’Challa is the most chill monarch ever — he doesn’t chide Banner for the mistake either!).

But to also be fair, the last example wasn’t malicious as it was a gentle ribbing while both Tony and Natasha actually begin to treat Banner with a bit more respect after their reunion. After pressuring Banner to summon The Hulk to no avail (“Dude, you’re embarrassing me in front of the wizards!”), Stark realizes he simply can’t no matter how hard he tries and proceeds to console him apologetically. After the initial awkwardness passed, Natasha and the others credulously seek Banner’s scientific expertise to help Vision (Paul Bettany) with the utmost interest. When it becomes clear that Shuri (Letitia Wright) is more qualified than Banner in such a task, he isn’t left on the sidelines and away from the action as he was by Wong (Benedict Wong) in the first act, he’s brought into the fray — given none other than the Hulkbuster power-armor (hey, actual irony!). Watching Banner trying it, especially when doing so with unexpected glee, was pure joy to my eyes and ears. The best part is when he clumsily trips over as Okoye (Danai Gurira) is passing by, making a priceless expression that could only be accompanied with a thought like “we’re bringing this goofy motherfucker along, are you shittin’ me?!” Yes, you are — and it is glorious.

I had mentioned previously that, despite my disappointment with the creative decision to kill off all the Children of Thanos, that did not apply to Obsidian Cull (Terry Notary…and, yes, I’m still calling the character that) because he provides Banner his ultimate victory not just in battle but as proof that he can protect himself without The Hulk. What makes the victory all the sweeter is that Obsidian Cull is practically a Hulk doppelganger, another big dumb monster that communicates purely in grunts and reckless violence, that Banner defeats not by combat prowess — which he severely lacks — but through ingenuity. It’s hard to not read this as symbolic of one shedding their codependency and finding self-confidence. He’s a bystander at first, a nuisance that got in the way, but soon becomes more of a participant to the point he’s fighting alongside teammates without being The Hulk. It’d be remiss to forget that this is only half of his arc, the other which I expect to make it come full circle in Endgame. If what I’ve written here tells you anything, I’m ecstatic to see — it feels great looking forward to a Marvel movie again!

A review of Endgame will be up soon enough (I promise this time, really!)…

[Originally posted on 5/8/19 @ Medium.com]

Staring Into INFINITY WAR, Part 1: Sympathy For The Devil (w/spoilers)

I know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail nonetheless. It’s frightening. Turns the legs to jelly. I ask you: to what end? Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same.

Now, you might be wondering (probably not) why this isn’t part of my “Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios is Awful” series.

I’m done with it. It was the wrong way to frame my analyses of these movies, TV shows, and who makes them — to alter my approach of Art criticism a bit and see how it goes. I’ll keep my previous entries up for both the sake of transparency as well as to remember what not to do in the future. However, that is not due to having some newfound love for the studio and its practices (which I absolutely don’t — I’ll deal with that elsewhere — though I apply more blame to Disney nowadays), but rather the fact they’re taking the creative risks I’ve been dying to see forever now. It should not have taken this long but, given the short-sighted entertainment industry avarice, we’ve been given nothing but an elongated set-up to something that should’ve started far sooner.

I don’t know how much sooner exactly — but, again, it should not have taken slightly less than a decade. Perhaps, given the set-up at the end of The Avengers, it’d of been soon after that film. Here’s the thing though: you don’t need to watch any of the other movies beforehand. It’d almost be a disservice to just how well this film understands self-contained storytelling. If you want to go see them, you can — there are plenty of things to like within each (like the always magical Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Ragnarok) — but one can simply read the plot synopses on Wikipedia to fill in some of the blanks. I’d still highly recommend Captain America: Winter Soldier as I have before, but that has less to do with lore-building than just as a damn good movie by itself. It expands on the previous installment and many of its themes while dealing with contemporary socio-political issues (as best as one could with an expensive blockbuster, anyway — still an admirable feat compared to most) more evocative of 1970’s conspiracy thriller and less like a superhero film. Funny, considering the Russo Bros. also directed that one…

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“You want the moon? I’ll give you the fuckin’ moon!”

With Infinity War? Just reading about it wouldn’t work as almost everything that is said and done in this movie is shown, with as little exposition as necessary. But even then, they still use such for further characterization than simply getting information across. The film is what I’ve wanted to see more of from this franchise since Winter Soldier because, along with those elements, it subverts all expectations that’ve come from the continual iteration as well as an over-budgeted and bizarrely aggressive marketing campaign that weaponizes its fandom. More importantly, so many plot points within it recontextualize certain aspects from those other movies to the point they practically feel ret-conned. As if to make up for lost time…and I love it.

DESTROYER OF WORLDS

Anyone who knows me well enough should be aware of my sentiments on the villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the obvious exception of Loki (Tom Hiddleston). There’s always this great storytelling potential with each one, especially if allowed to stay alive, but they’re often reduced to one-dimensional baddies who “need” to die as if we’ve never moved on past action movie tropes of the 1980’s. They’re occasionally given legitimate grievances or personal issues to deal with — whether it’s Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), Hela (Cate Blanchett), or Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) — but end up getting swept under the rug in order for them to be demonized and defeated gloriously by the hero, in a half-baked and tensionless action sequence that may as well’ve been from G.I. Joe.

Erik Killmonger is particularly egregious because, as someone who was both witness and victim to anti-black discrimination in the United States and rightfully aggrieved that Wakanda’s isolationist policies allowed it to continue, he still “needs” to be some woman-hating gangbanger prick to make his death (at the hands of his cousin nonetheless) seem justified. Keep in mind that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) not only forgave the man he thought killed his father and their accomplice, but saved the life of the man who did kill his father — yet it’s not considered that he allow Killmonger to live and make amends with him as family. Even James Wan’s recent Aquaman acknowledges that as an option within its main conflict.

None of them can really live up to Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk in Daredevil nor able to, what with the difference in format, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of being more layered as characters within a feature-length film (plus some) as Loki is highly indicative of that.

But now? I have Thanos (Josh Brolin) along with his Children…

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The Family That Slays Together, Stays Together

Thanos — unlike Killmonger — is not right. He is most definitely wrong. A person who thinks that mass genocide across planets is “saving” them from a painful existence simply cannot be correct, when such situations are far more complicated and need nuanced answers to be resolved. Yet, at the same time, I think Thanos knows this and still does it regardless. Unlike so many other Marvel movie villains — neither he nor anyone else ever state such outright. It’s all implied through cryptic lines that could mean many different things depending on how one wishes to interpret them (I’d call him “The Dark Souls of Marvel Movie Villains” if that phrase wasn’t so obnoxiously, and erroneously, overused).

As far as my interpretation of the character goes? He wants to die.

He lived through seeing his civilization and people become extinguished before his very eyes, to be the only one left of his kind, and it broke him so much that — upon observing so many other civilizations were in the same state — he just couldn’t let it happen again. It’s difficult to not think, on some level, he wanted people to fight back and be victorious in order to prove him wrong and finally put out of his misery. Throughout the film, he’s partial to those who challenge him — even as he torments and tortures them — as if to act as an obstacle for them to overcome. The best evidence I can give for this is a single line, near the very end of the film, where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) decides to pull an Oberyn Martell (hey, Peter Dinklage is here too!) and Thanos responds:

You should’ve gone for the head…

He doesn’t gloat of his superiority or personally belittle the hero who struck a blow against him, but instead pointing to his failure to finish the job properly and make him remember what to do next time they met in battle.

Thanos isn’t just an oddly religious alien warlord. He’s a force of nature. He’s an atom bomb with arms and legs. He is a Hindu god.

I don’t make that last comparison lightly but instead of using the terribly translated and outdated version that asshole J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted, I’ll go for a better-written and more recent variant (emphasis mine) by Paramahamsa Sri Swami Vishwananda:

I am death, the mighty destroyer of the world, out to destroy. Even without your participation all the warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall cease to exist. I am Time, the mighty force which destroys everything, fully Manifesting Myself, I am here engaged in destroying the worlds. Even without you, none of the warriors arrayed in the enemy ranks shall survive.”

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Thor and Thanos. Kinda (but not really).

Thanos is something else and it’s perhaps more integral to the film’s plot — a trait he shares with the legendary Darth Vader of Star Wars fame: he’s a father, though not a very kind one, of course…

THE PRODIGAL DAUGHTER

One of the (many) things that made the Guardians of the Galaxy films incredibly disappointing for me — despite James Gunn’s skill as a director and writer (prior to being erroneously fired by Disney over an obviously manufactured controversy but has since been rehired, hopefully because Disney was shamed into submission) as well as a top-notch cast and soundtrack that almost rivals the musical selections in a Edgar “He Should’ve Written & Directed Ant-Man Goddammit” Wright film (“The Chain” is my favorite Fleetwood Mac song…)— was how the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) felt like all tell and no show.

When first introduced, they both verbally remind each other that they are sisters, which is odd given most siblings (whether they’re biological or adoptive) don’t need to do such as they’re already quite aware of this fact. Despite the second film’s pretense of supposedly being about “family,” it doesn’t actually bother to explore Nebula’s stated grievances and why she’s so fratricidal towards a sibling she seemed to get along with otherwise. I mean, sure, she has an expository monologue — all of which would’ve been more interesting to see as a flashback — that’s about as natural as a botox injection and little more than set-up for a lame punchline. In the end it was all just an excuse for an action scene to keep things “exciting,” much like the other subplots that only make the whole film a less cohesive piece. It’s hard to really care about events when they’re so dissonant to one another and characters have to tell you, the audience, how to feel as opposed to getting it across with more subtlety either in the visuals or writing.

As I said before, Infinity War does a commendable job recontextualizing and certainly does so with this relationship by finally giving us both a glimpse at Thanos’ relationship to both Gamora and Nebula along with better idea of them as rival siblings.

Despite initially coming off as another generic “strong (but still sexually objectifiable) female character” these movies keep on using — with exceptions like Shuri (Letitia Wright) or Okoye (Danai Gurira), who are actually strong female characters — this film informs us that she is instead little more than a spoiled kid who ran away from home to make her Daddy mad. She and the other Guardians ride around like a mercenary Scooby Gang who don’t take anything seriously and, even when coming across a scene of wanton slaughter, can’t keep from thinking about how they’ll enrich themselves from it. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising given they’re all lead by a pop culture-obsessed man-child who’s first shown kicking animals, none of which endangered him or even impeded his movement, for fun while dancing to music on a Walkman (how charming! Well, not really…especially if you replaced them with puppies).

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The Guardians of the Galaxy. Kinda (but not really).

Though ostensibly a villain, no thanks to a visage that exudes malevolence (which is surprising given it’s Amy frickin’ Pond with her beautiful red hair and lovely Scottish accent — like Kelly MacDonald before her…), I can’t help but think Nebula was the true hero and we were manipulated into thinking otherwise due to a skewed perspective of these events. Both she and Gamora were plotting an insurrection as seen in the first GotG installment and eventual assassination of their adoptive father, but only Nebula stuck to the plan — changing it when need be — simply to fail in the end…all because her sister, either out of cowardice or indecisiveness or (in my opinion) still being emotionally co-dependent on Thanos. Gamora just went A.W.O.L. and off to play with her new group of opportunistic drinking buddies (Groot (Vin Diesel) being the exception — he’s pure, like Spider-Man (Tom Holland) — but Rocket (Sean Gunn/Bradley Cooper) is getting better about it…) until Pops got sick of waiting for her to make a check-in call before the clock hit 12:00 A.M.

But Nebula? She continued on, despite all the strain she went through to accomplish what would ultimately be a botched job, only to be tortured and implied to have been sexually assaulted (Thanos’ torture chamber attendant seemed rather…handsy, like some Japanese chikan). Yet, unlike her other siblings, she is a survivor. She’s one of the few left in an otherwise half-empty universe and given the tenacity she has shown through all the turbulence that has befallen her, I doubt she’ll stop moving until she’s dead…while still on her feet.

Perhaps she’s more like her father than her other brothers and sisters — especially Gamora — could ever be.

Though it would be remiss to not bring up how, on some level, there is something bittersweet about Thanos and Gamora’s relationship when — in a rare instance — a brief flashback sequence, rather than an expository monologue, tells of how they first met:

The subsequent scene wherein they have a heart-to-heart, much of which hit rather close to home given my own parental experiences (“I never taught you to lie…that’s why you’re so bad at it!”), reveals that — even with all her belligerence and the inconvenience it has caused him — she is definitely his favorite child and whom he wishes to carry on his legacy once passed on (all despite being one of the youngest and most rebellious). She yells and screams about how much she hates him and what he represents, as Thanos sighs with great restraint, before responding with the reminder that she could’ve easily absconded and never come back before, but nonetheless did, only to support his omni-genocidal galactic crusade upon return for two decades. Eventually this interaction devolves into an act of abuse that — though physical for Nebula, all too familiar with it — tortures Gamora psychologically enough to break down what little resistance (if there was really any to begin with, as much as avoidance) she had left in her being.

It occurred to me during these scenes that — though played by actors largely in their 30’s and 40’s — Gamora acts more like a girl than she does a woman and this applies to many other characters including fellow Guardians Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) as well as Thor, Loki, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) — whether or not he is The Hulk — and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr). They’re all children in the bodies of adults. Even Gamora’s “will-they-or-won’t-they?” shtick with the unflatteringly aforementioned Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) comes off less like two platonic grown-ups dealing with sexual tension now than curious children about to lose their innocence, both on the verge of full-blown puberty and trying to process all these weird new feelings they’re unfamiliar with. Thanos himself practically symbolizes adulthood, as it comes relentlessly out of nowhere and one is given little breathing room for recovery, to render unto them all the rudest of awakenings. It won’t be pretty — it never is, but perhaps should be.

INTO THE SOUL OF DARKNESS

“I am Time[…]fully Manifesting Myself

Earlier within this piece, as an aside, I mentioned being loathe to describe Thanos as “The Dark Souls of Marvel Movie Villains” and that wasn’t as frivolous a statement as it may’ve seemed. To briefly clarify, for any unfamiliar with the phrase or its origins, before going further…

Dark Souls is a videogame series made by Japanese developer FromSoftware that gained what you’d call a “cult following” due to its oppressive atmosphere, punishing gameplay difficulty, and purposefully opaque storytelling. “The Dark Souls of [X],” when not simply observing similarities between it and another title (such as The SurgeandNioh), almost always references the second of those three aspects as its most defining quality — of being the most harsh or challenging, regardless of the activity or medium involved — with the other two seen as “optional” by many despite being integral to the experience. All of which I find completely wrong-headed.

I’d not only apply all those qualities to Thanos as a character but to Infinity War itself as a film. Their tone, even with those moments of light-hearted relief, is overwhelmingly grim. Both challenge the protagonists — emotionally, existentially, and physically — in ways they have not before and even questions their competency as heroes. Neither will bore you with an abundance of minute details espoused at length, the basic essentials kept succinct, but rather make inferences and leave others pondering what may be going on inbetween the lines.

It was rather surprising for any of this to be the case in my experience watching the film. Expectations were set low and my dwindling interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were part of that — to expect great disappointment and end up unexpectedly ecstatic— and then there’s this visual clusterfuck:

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It looks like a toy box violently puked action figures onto a pile of neon signs, causing a migraine in the process, and represented my worst fears about the movie. A bloated, indulgent mess full of bells and whistles with nothing else rattling around in its skull regardless of whatever pretenses are made. Another exercise in empty spectacle, which we have an overwhelming surplus of already.

But…it’s all misdirection. A red herring. A sleight of hand. This poster, however, is better representative of the subject material and tone of the film:

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Infinity War isn’t just any horror film — it’s a cosmic horror film.

I’ve already spoken of Thanos at length as well as Loki, Gamora, and Nebula to a lesser extent but have yet to speak of his other Children that’ve gone unnamed so far. They are Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor), Proxima Midnight (Monique Ganderton/Carrie Coon), Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary…I also prefer to call them “Obsidian Cull” ‘cause it sounds better). Very much unlike their younger siblings, each acts as an extension of their father’s will to some degree or another — almost like avatars for a Hindu god, actually!

As someone who cared little for Thanos’ comicbook counterpart (‘cause why do you need him when you have Darkseid?) I wasn’t aware of the Black Order, whom the Children of Thanos are based upon. Viewing Infinity War, it was refreshing to find villains who I knew so little about but managed to be intriguing — especially due to their excellent visual designs — and wanted to know them more as people…though they aren’t really people, when you think about. They’re humanoid in form and inexplicably speak English, yes, but they’re still extraterrestrials. The way they perceive the material world may not coincide with the way we, as homo sapiens of planet earth, do and makes it practically impossible to fully comprehend them as beings.

The true Marvel Souls starts here…

You know less about them than Thanos but, as inferred by Gamora’s backstory, it’s easy to deduce they’re each from a world he had conquered while culling half of the sapient population. Proxima and Crovus only have about six lines between them while Obsidian Cull (I told you it sounded better!) is reduced to unintelligible grunts, but— given his namesake — Ebony Maw is the most talkative of the four. He is both Thanos’ herald and (presumably) eldest Child, the film itself opening as he gracefully steps around corpses while evangelizing his adoptive father’s morbid spiritual philosophy with the calm of a Buddhist monk and eloquence of William F. Buckley. His appearance, though off-putting, is nowhere near as intimidating as his siblings coupled with a lack of signature weaponry in hand. That’s because Ebony Maw doesn’t need one as he is the weapon. Telekinesis, when used elsewhere, is often amusing or goofy but rarely is it ever as fucking terrifying the way Ebony Maw applies it during Infinity War next to the way Rainmaker does in Looper. It goes beyond making objects float in midair or pushing things out of the way — with an eerily acute perception of his immediate surroundings, he uses the very environment against the protagonists. He doesn’t just shove glass filaments into Dr. Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) face, but makes a wall swallow him while upside down. Then there’s turning rubble into flying spikes of death, causing a fire hydrant to burst open and temporarily incapacitate Wong (Benedict Wong), or chopping a car in twain a half second before it hits him. Made all the more unsettling by how slight and effortless his gestures are to make any of this happen, when it’d be portrayed with heavy-handed dramatics like arms flailing about or intense bodily tremors elsewhere.

In case it wasn’t already obvious (which it should be), I find the character absolutely delightful. Vaughn-Lawlor’s every utterance is pure gold and, next to Thanos himself, is what I wish more of in Marvel villains. At least, insofar as making them viable as threats rather than coming off as performative and largely ineffectual. Unfortunately, much like an ouroboros, this circles back to an issue stated earlier on in this piece…

FALLEN ANGELS

It is bad enough when the film kills off some of the most interesting, imposing antagonists within the setting — but it’s worse when their deaths are treated as part of a joke or simply rote in execution. Especially when, purely out of convenience, these indomitable warriors from space who’ve likely slain thousands (if not more) by hand and able to fight superhumans to a standstill suddenly lose their competency. All of this is done in order to give one of the many heroes an easy “win” that, with everything else suggesting their only victory would be a Pyrrhic one, feel unearned and only means there are now three less villains to use within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I generally despise resurrecting characters as a rule (comics are terrible about it) but this is one of the exceptions where I wouldn’t mind it.

Notice how I said “three” and not “four”? That’s because, given his personal arc within the film (which I shall explore next time!), I didn’t mind that Bruce Banner defeated Obsidian Cull by flinging him into a force field and getting disintegrated in the process. He’s a big, dumb lizard man who only makes guttural noises and whose entire existence is to get embarrassingly beaten up by the heroes with no semblance of personality as the other Children. His loss is not one that leaves an intense absence. I could even get past how his death was downright slapstick, but it’s tough to tolerate when Proxima being flung into a War Wheel by an ill-defined, inconsistently-powered character (I hate Wanda so much) is equally comedic.

Good riddance to reptilian rubbish!

Keep in mind that, in their previous encounter, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) was retreating most of the time and easily overpowered when dealing with Proxima directly. She could’ve been killed were it not for the intervention of Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson…and why do these movies keep forgetting she’s just a normal — albeit highly trained — human?), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie…who at least has a rocket-launching jetpack with metal wings) but, now, the cosmic Amazonian mass murderer of planets is careless enough to be defeated with…whatever Scarlet Witch’s powers are supposed to be. It doesn’t matter since her abilities are derived from how convenient it is for the plot at that very moment, like an anthropomorphic Sonic Screwdriver, than based on any kind of internal logic presented by the narrative (because there is none) just like they were in the comics.

Similarly, Ebony Maw’s death functions as the punchline to a joke set up by Peter Parker referencing Aliens as a “really old movie” (okay, that was hilarious, I’ll admit) — getting vacuumed into the celestial abyss after the most obvious of tricks, becoming an oversized popsicle. Which, just like Proxima, doesn’t make sense given his prowess as displayed in prior scenes. It’s just there to make Parker and Stark look all the more amusing, as if that was really necessary (it wasn’t). Corvus Glaive’s death may’ve been forgivable, given the injury sustained in a previous battle acted as potential foreshadowing, were it not for it being so bland as getting stabbed from behind by another character off-screen as if it was a surprise (it wasn’t). Only made nonsensical by Vision (Paul Bettany) being broken to the point he’s barely functional, though he could’ve as easily distracted Corvus enough for him to be injured once more and fall back to fight another day in Endgame.

I’d ask “why?” if the answer wasn’t so obvious: there is none, save for habit and expectation via well-worn fictional tropes. To stick to a formula that has only wasted further potential under the fallacious notion that “the bad guy must die because the bad guy must die.” It’s not a rule set in stone, just like the insertion of useless love interests, but they keep doing it despite the lack of demand or obligation for it. I’m not saying these characters should never die (as that’d be awfully boring) but this is ending something as it is just beginning. Superheroes are often defined by their nemeses, to force scenarios that put their skills or abilities or own morality to the test, making this dismissive expendability detrimental to storytelling possibilities as time goes on and the roster shortens with each insipid death.

Hell, Mystery Men made that point back in 1999 — almost nine years before Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe occurred. Wish that lesson was taken to heart…

That is not to say, as much as I still take issue, this is a deal-breaker of any kind nor is it the only problem I have. Yet none of them have ruined my fondness of Infinity War even with subsequent viewings — a great deal unlike most other Marvel films. Thanos and his Children aren’t my favorite thing about the movie, they’re just one of my favorite things about it. I mentioned Bruce Banner’s arc before and there’s plenty more. That is, for next time…

[Originally posted on 3/25/19 @ Medium.com]

Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios Is Awful, Part 3 — My Likely Unpopular and Misunderstood Review of BLACK PANTHER (or, The Marvel Cinematic Formula)

For anyone who is curious (though I doubt it): the reason I haven’t put up anything in the last several months is I’ve been suffering from Mitchellesque writer’s block and Shinji Ikari-level clinical depression. Along with that combination, there’s the job I’m actually paid to do and that takes priority over my hobbies. I write largely out of personal interest and, as much as I’d like to be paid for it, I’d rather put out something that feels right to me — even if it takes some time — since I’m doing it for free anyway.

The issue I had, to discuss the Marvel Cinematic Formula, was how to frame the subject. Previous attempts had either been too long or too dry in execution for my own liking. Thankfully, with the release of Black Panther, I’ve been given just what was needed…

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Japan’s answer to Charlie Brown. God help us all

It doesn’t surprise me that the film had such an emphatic reaction among audiences, but that isn’t because it’s a Marvel movie. Unlike the increasingly interchangeable, mediocre spectacles that is their oeuvre — a live-action adaptation of T’Challa, the Black Panther of Wakanda, holds far more cultural significance somewhat similarly to Wonder Woman. I absolutely get all the hyperbolic praise, unlike every other release from Marvel these days, as the cast and setting are an extreme rarity in the world of big budget studio films run and almost entirely populated by white dudes.

However, I didn’t love Black Panther like others have despite my fondness of King T’Challa and his home (it’s the only fictional location I’d want to live in!). Though, to my surprise, it was a far less annoying and disappointing experience — I actually ended up enjoying myself from time to time. I’d go as far to say it’s closer to my favorite (Captain America: Winter Soldier) than my least favorite Marvel movie (a two-way tie between Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron). It’s nonetheless hampered by the Marvel formula which is (aggravatingly) adhered to a slavish degree, despite not needing to anymore, and makes a few perplexing creative decisions as a result. Of course, that would involve going a bit more in-depth…

*THERE BE SPOILERS, FROM HERE ON*

The most distracting element of Black Panther overall, and I’m sure this may sound confusing to some (or many), is that it comes off like the second entry of a trilogy than its initial chapter. Despite taking place chronologically right after the events of Captain America: Civil War — there are aspects of the narrative, especially characterization, done less as an introduction to the material than as a reintroduction.

A portion of the main cast — Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), M’Baku (Winston Duke), and Zuri (Forrest Whitaker) — feel as if their character arcs began in a non-existent previous film, with many of the events relating to them in this film acting as pay-off. We’re told that Nakia and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) are former romantic partners, for example, but it’s never adequately explained why they broke up. More importantly, the performances by Nyong’o and Boseman don’t indicate a strained relationship — they’re charmingly adorable around one another — so why not just omit the detail entirely? It could be argued that’s giving the characters these internal lives outside of the events of the film, but that’s hard to believe when the characters — explicitly through conversation — keep bringing up the importance of those past events in relation to a current one. Then there are the motivations of W’Kabi having occurred off-screen but driving him throughout, to the point of betraying T’Challa, as well as how both T’Challa and M’Baku are inferred to be frenemies but never elaborated upon despite being integral to the third act.

Zuri, however, is the most egregious given he’s introduced within this film as a surrogate father figure (was Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s hot mom not enough? I mean, Rene Russo was one of the best things about Thor 2…) but is killed midway through the film and assumes you should somehow care. Much like Quicksilver in Age of Ultron, I wondered why they involved him at all if he wasn’t going to be sufficiently developed as a person and simply killed off to artificially ramp up tension. He’s as underdeveloped and pointless as Whitaker was in Rogue One — the film’s cast is already overstuffed for a first installment and I’d of preferred they held off on using him altogether. He’s definitely not Obi-Won Kenobi from A New Hope and there could’ve been some much-needed breathing room without his presence.

Speaking of artificially ramping up tension: Black Panther is a prime example of how Marvel films make their protagonists far too powerful and seemingly invulnerable — causing so many of the action sequences to become redundant as result. The filmmakers seem aware of this, to some degree, and have to contrive ways in which the character is made vulnerable in order to experience adversity of any kind. The film literally starts out with T’Challa dropping in from the sky and neutralizing a bunch of Boko Haram members, which would’ve been fun or amusing if it wasn’t done so effortlessly on his part. Their bullets just bounce off his suit like small pellets, with no sense of impact whatsoever, and makes one wonder if there’s ever going to be a viable threat for him to face.

Well, he does — in a very forced way.

This ad is brought to you by: Wolf Cola, the Official Soft Drink of Boko Haram

It’s telling the two best fights involve a ceremonial death match wherein T’Challa — apparently granted superhuman strength and speed from a mystical plant — has to depower himself with a concoction for combat to be on equal footing. Just think about that for a moment; if T’Challa didn’t handicap himself, there is no doubt he’d win without issue and the ceremony would be unnecessary in the first place. I get these are larger-than-life characters who have epic conflicts but, goddamn, you want them to be naturally vulnerable on some level so they can be challenged and persevere. This problem is exacerbated when Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is basically Q to T’Challa’s James Bond as well as his teen sister, gives him a new suit that is more advanced and powerful than his previous one. Along with also being bulletproof, it all fits within a necklace as nanomachines and has a defensive shockwave function after absorbing enough kinetic energy. Like, couldn’t they have those added features and made it less bulletproof, just to entertain the possibility he could be killed if he got too reckless? If it wasn’t for the fact vibranium just so happened to be stored and transported by some pseudoscientific mechanism that made their super-suits malfunction, the final confrontation between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) would’ve just been them hitting each other continuously with no progress being made either way. Gee, that would’ve been totally fucking dull!

I’ve been noticing this about the Marvel films for a while now and probably why I lack much of any emotional investment in the characters or events. I mean, why care when you know these people won’t be significantly harmed or even die? Sure, they’ll kill off supporting cast members and the villain-of-the-week to make it seem like shit’s gotten real but never one of the heroes. They treated War Machine being blown out of the sky in Civil War as if it was this momentous occasion…except he didn’t die, simply injured and shown to be recovering just fine. Even after falling hundreds of feet back to earth, in a broken metal shell that likely would’ve further injured than protect him. When characters are put into a truly dangerous situation that requires them to be unconventional in approach, like in Iron Man 3, the ending will likely involve a deus ex machina that renders it moot. Well, that and having it done as a ludicrous battle instead of a more subtle confrontation that isn’t entirely predicated on fisticuffs. It’s impossible to be surprised or excited anymore when you’re given almost no curveballs whatsoever.

The best compliment I can give the film is that, like both Guardians of the Galaxy installments, it is far more self-contained than anything else under the Marvel Studios brand. Outside of referencing the death of T’Chaka (played by father-son team John and Atandwa Kani — which was a brilliant casting choice) from Civil War and a post-credits scene with a Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) cameo, everything that happens in the film is specific to Black Panther as a character and his world. It isn’t like Spider-Man: Homecoming where they bring in Michael fucking Keaton as the antagonist and waste a potentially interesting plotline involving him as a corrupt surrogate father figure, all so Robert Downey Jr. can take up a third of the run time to remind us Iron Man exists (as if we needed that — and we really don’t). One can only hope it continues this trajectory and the sequels won’t end up being one half of another character’s movie or just another ensemble piece like, well, Civil War.

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Groot had all the best lines!

The other best compliment I can give the film is that, unlike both Guardians of the Galaxy installments, the interpersonal banter between characters is more naturalistic. It lacks this eager-to-please, overly quippy approach that just gets grating and feels as if written by a teenager who just learned the concept of “self-aware humor.” Certainly helps that T’Challa and his family, including Killmonger, actually come off as a family due to how they act towards each other. They don’t need to vocally remind us, in a patronizing fashion, that they’re “family” even when all their behavior indicates the exact opposite. There’s an attempt at subtlety that is best exemplified by the criminally underutilized M’Baku (and, by extension, Winston Duke) after his initial macho posturing and begrudging defeat in the first ceremonial duel. Having saved T’Challa when mortally wounded in a similar bout with Killmonger which, along with having yielded to him in combat before (due to a compliment nonetheless), suggests a deeper connection — he’s surprisingly casual, no bluster whatsoever, when speaking to him or other members of his family as if he’s known them personally for years. Despite the antagonism present in his mannerisms, it is difficult to not think he and T’Challa are the best of friends in an odd way. If there was just another scene explaining why he chose to assist T’Challa against Killmonger with the rest of his tribe, rather than being another deus ex machina, would’ve made it the movie’s biggest highlight. It falls short, of course, but remains the most interesting interpersonal dynamic presented in the whole narrative.

Though it’d be remiss to not admit that Erik Killmonger is the closest Marvel Studios has gotten in creating a consistently dimensional villain for any of these movies. He’s still nowhere near as good as Wilson Fisk was in the first season of Daredevil (I’m pretty sure no one else can be, at this point) — but at least he’s given grievances that, unlike Ivan Vanko in Iron Man 2, are presented as legitimate throughout. Even T’Challa outright admits that the guy has a point and he did kind of win despite dying, given his own cousin’s change of heart. It’s always nice to have some hint of moral grayness in stories that are otherwise far too black-and-white, because it’s verisimilitudinous than cartoonish and reminds you the “hero/villain” dynamic is often an issue of perspective than a law of nature.

It’s just unfortunate that so much of his background, per usual, isn’t shown to us as much as told. Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) does an info-dump explaining he was in the military and how it prepared him to take over Wakanda — but I was wondering why, y’know, they didn’t use flashbacks to get the same information across visually. Marvel Studios seems to only use such a helpful storytelling device with chagrin and would rather have characters literally spell things out for the audience, though no one talks that way even when informing someone else in reality. So, what? They’ll have a dream sequence where Killmonger talks to his late father, but not remember his experiences in the military? If they did, it’d of been a great way of reaffirming why he thinks starting a worldwide race war is the best route for social revolution. It’s too bad that, unfortunately taking a note from Luke Cage, the film bends a knee to respectability politics by the end. T’Challa chooses to be more diplomatic in his approach, while never entertaining the idea that revealing Wakanda to the world — especially mostly white, neocolonialist nations — might still end up reacting with hostility and violence.

There’s another problem though: Erik Killmonger shouldn’t have been the first antagonist for a Black Panther movie. As I had stated earlier, this film would’ve worked better as a second installment and stand by that. The main antagonist should’ve been Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) but, more importantly, they should’ve adapted the Reginald Hudlin-written and John Romita, Jr.-illustrated comicbook storyline — “Who is the Black Panther?”

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[Cue the BET series theme song]

I’m sure it wouldn’t happen, given how much Marvel Studios goes out of its way to not call out racism — which makes so much of its “progressive” cred come off as disingenuous — and the storyline involves a cadre of white supervillains lead by a totally racist Klaue to invade and take over Wakanda. This is all done on behalf of national Western interests, including France and Belgium, known for their colonialist pasts (or neocolonialist present) as well as the Vatican. I shit thee not, that is the actual premise and it’d of been magnificent live-action cinema. But, again, Marvel Studios likes to play it too safe and scared to imagine ever doing anything even slightly challenging — even their depiction of Ulysses Klaue is one that leaves any hint of being a white supremacist to a couple lines and the fact he’s an Afrikaner now (you know why…). Sure, he calls Killmonger a “savage” at one point despite knowing he’s Wakandan — suggesting he believes them to be too primitive to “deserve” their scientific advancements — but it’s completely tangential to what’s essentially a familial conflict. Also, like far too many Marvel villains, he gets killed off after barely being used.

At some point, Marvel Studios will end up in the same situation as Captain Amazing in Mystery Men where — due to all their decent villains being put out of commission — they’ll end up having to grasp at straws and just bring back the Average Joe version of Helmut Zemo or Tim Blake Nelson as The Leader (bet you don’t remember that!).

The welcome improvements certainly make it one of the better movies in the studio’s catalogue but they’re nonetheless marginal improvements — the same ones in Thor: Ragnarok that are attributed all this hyperbolic praise that’s downright misleading when considered further. Oh, Hela brings up Odin’s dark imperialist, bloodlust-driven past and her grievances for being locked away? It’d of been nice — just like with Killmonger — to actually see that as flashbacks than just pay lip-service. It’s always lip-service. There’s a saying that actions speak louder than words and that perfectly explains the ultimate problem with these films; so much of the plot and characterization isn’t driven by the subtleties of behavior and interpersonal interaction, in its many varieties — but almost entirely by what comes out of a character’s mouth. You have to assume what these films are supposedly about not based on the events that occur and the physical actions taken by characters, but because someone stated it outright.

I can’t be the only one who notices all this, right? That the concrete actions taking place in these movies are almost entirely about these characters either having extended exposition-laden dialogue or punching things ‘cause reasons? I’m pretty sure Alfred Hitchcock had a lot of events happen in his movies and rarely ever involved info-dump monologues or long bouts of pugilism. Drama, throughout its existence, had characters involved in numerous activities where neither verbose exchanges nor feats of combat occurred. Much like watching Game of Thrones or any of the overly-talky HBO dramas — you can’t help but wonder if these audio-visual mediums have regressed in form. It’s turning films and televised/streaming series, both which tend to lack and transcend the limitations of traditional drama, into glorified stage productions. Worst of all, they’re starting to feel like the same glorified stage production.

It’s probably why the Phase 1 releases were my favorite (except for one film) over those that followed, and I’ll explain why next time…

[Originally posted on 5/8/18 @ Medium.com]

Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios Is Awful, Part 2 — Anti-Social Commentary

Within Marvel Studios’ catalogue, Captain America: Winter Soldier is one I consider to be their best. The reason being that it managed to be about something of import — in fact, it was about many things of import. It wasn’t just a bunch of gaudily-dressed crime-fighters who talked in Whedonesque quips while fighting a villain who does villainous things ‘cause reasons. The film dealt with the dubious morality of warfare in modern times, the increasing prevalence of a surveillance state (“This isn’t freedom, this is fear.”), that soldiers are treated as expendable commodities by bellicose politicians with nothing to lose and everything to gain, that democratic institutions have been slowly sabotaged by the interests of disaster capitalists, and (more relevant than ever before) how we’ve let fascist ideology continue and grow in the shadows by acting as if it ceased to exist long ago.

All of that is far more meaningful than anything in the other films, an overglorified series of bells and whistles with little else on their mind (even when claiming otherwise like Guardians of the Galaxy’s supposed theme of “family” — but I’ll go into that another time). That the narrative was centered on Captain America made it more profound because he represents the United States at its most ideal and optimistic. After having slept through so many decades he finds himself lost and confused by the cynicism, deceit, and opportunism that is prevalent in our socio-political landscape presently. The fact he was not around to keep it from happening, being quite literally frozen in time, gnaws at his conscious and what drives his actions throughout the plot. He may’ve not been able to stop it then but, by God, he was going to now

It was why I looked forward to Luke Cage as much as I did. If there’s any superhero that needed a live-action adaptation with this kind of social commentary, it would be Luke Cage. He’s a proud black man who is bulletproof and, gee, isn’t that topical? I was more than ready for a neo-blaxploitation series where someone of a marginalized group used their newfound powers to fight back against racist cops and the businessmen who profited from their suffering. To put it another way: I wanted to see the physical embodiment of the Black Lives Matter movement on-screen. If Captain America represented the U.S. as a nation at its best, Luke Cage could represent the need for social upheaval when the U.S. fails as a nation.

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What Luke Cage Should’ve Been

Except that wasn’t the case at all. It was something far worse — an ode to respectability politics. But what, exactly, are “respectability politics”? As described by the Wikipedia page on the topic:

“[A]ttempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference[…]was practiced as a way of attempting to consciously set aside and undermine cultural and moral practices thought to be disrespected by wider society, especially in the context of the family and good manners.”

In essence, it is about those among the marginalized (black individuals in this case) trying to appease the more privileged and affluent of society (who are almost entirely white) rather than challenging and perhaps changing mainstream social values for the benefit of all. It is the assumption that the marginalized are still marginalized not due to economic or political roadblocks based on discrimination but because of their own behavior. That an unwillingness to not just assimilate and behave no differently to mainstream sensibilities (even when they’re outdated horseshit traditionalized by those who’ve never suffered a day in their lives) is the source of further oppression, not those who had been responsible for such going on centuries now. Obviously, it’s quite appealing to many right-wingers and centrists who just so happen to be white — alleviating responsibility and admittance of a system skewed in their favor…

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What Luke Cage Actually Is

It’s not because the show starts off with the titular character taking issue with another black individual using the N-word, a legitimate grievance given its historical usage, but that does set a precedence. So many scenes involve older individuals speaking condescendingly to youths about “responsibility” that goes beyond simple intergenerational tensions. There’s this notion that those youths take part in criminal activities not because it may be their only way out of poverty, next to joining the NBA or becoming a rap/hip-hop star, but as a lifestyle choice. That, somehow, they’d become doctors or politicians or CEOs if they just rejected any form of criminality and “worked hard.” Nevermind how many actually get stuck “working hard” at several dead-end jobs at once in order to barely pay for food and shelter until the end of their miserable life. Though Luke Cage does the same during the series — he’s not “uppity” about it and doesn’t complain. There’s something incredibly naïve about all its finger-wagging by ignoring such real-life scenarios. It dismisses the myriad of disadvantages that community has faced and still faces whenever it’s inconvenient, pushing this disingenuous idea of meritocracy that white people love so goddamn much these days. An idea that, as of yet, has never been explained to me properly or consistently as to what does or does not constitute as “merit” — probably because human beings are biased in favor of behaviors they personally prize (or, more accurately, are socially conditioned to prize).

This is reflected in how Luke Cage is portrayed as a character, with the show going out of its way to make him as inoffensive and good-natured as possible. It reminds me of how a friend brought up his problem with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the form of Sidney Poitier’s John Prentice, as he was without flaw or vice and didn’t feel like a real person. That it made the whole conflict involving his soon-to-be in-laws less meaningful because they’re given no reason to dislike him other than he’s a black man. Like many in-laws they could use any reason to dismiss their daughter’s fiance, the fact he is black would enable them to hide their racial prejudices behind “reasonable concerns” whenever flaws became apparent. I disagreed with my friend then but I’m definitely in agreement now after this show. Luke Cage isn’t only well-spoken and well-read and always personable, but had a holy man for a father and was a cop prior to his false imprisonment (you can’t have really committed a crime and still be a good person, apparently, unless you’re Ant-Man). In flashbacks, he’s shown as completely unlike all the other stereotypical black criminals incarcerated with him and better for it. When ending up a fugitive on the run, given opportunities anyone else in the same situation would take, he refuses to do anything morally questionable in the slightest to make his life easier.

Such behavior, back in the 1950’s, would be given the underhanded compliment of “you’re a credit to your people, son.” Luke Cage feels less like a flesh-and-blood human being with both admirable and ignoble qualities than a ridiculously contrived paragon of virtue that no one in reality resembles and likely never will. Which is kind of weird, when considering how the other Defenders-related series do not have that same issue. Why is it that Matt Murdock can agonize over his bloodlust clashing with his Catholic morality and Jessica Jones can be a psychologically dysfunctional alcoholic due to mind-control trauma (equated with rape because of course it fucking is), but Luke Cage can’t have demons that tempt him or vulnerabilities that can compromise his principles on the same level? Maybe it’s because, on average, a white person having some personality or character flaw is tolerated and can make them seem more “complex” — but a black individual’s indiscretions are harshly scrutinized, despite being comparable to their white counterparts, to the point their behavior is heavily sanitized. That’s why the overrated and overused Tony Stark can be a vainglorious, self-involved, dishonest drunk who regularly makes an ass out of himself but still be “awesome” regardless. James Rhodes, on the other hand, is a bland tag-along who functions as a nagging hausfrau and damsel in distress at one point — due to doubting Stark whatsoever. Y’know, ’cause a man who gets shit-faced and urinates in his power-armor at a large party is someone who should be treated with nothing but credulity…

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I bet War Machine and Falcon never had to deal with this shit…

In fact, the whole show could be best described as “the credit to his people vs. the thug culture” in order to be almost sycophantic towards white police officers in the U.S. (“Blue Lives Matter!”) by rarely ever showing them in the wrong. There are but two openly racist white cops featured and only one of them is ever verbally acknowledged as such. The other? His comments are treated like verbal horseplay and, when revealed to be corrupt, ends up shown as a victim to a black criminal’s betrayal. There’s another scene where a black youth is brought in for questioning and beaten by an angry cop who is… also black. The most egregious instance is at the end of the season where Misty Knight is berated by a superior over a mistake she made and for not “trusting the system.” As wretched as it is that Misty’s superior is also a black woman, the fact such a statement is made while never acknowledging that same system disadvantages them as both black and female once was unforgivable.

We’re talking about a system where black individuals are incarcerated more often than their white counterparts for similar criminal activities, where (often white) cops use unwarranted lethal force on unarmed black individuals both young and old, and lets those same cops off the hook for such an abuse of power than sufficiently punished. Then there was that whole period where slavery was legal and encouraged (Thomas Jefferson sure loved it…also “freedom”!), then another hundred years of second-citizenhood via Jim Crow before the Civil Rights Movement. But, sure, just trust that system despite having failed that group time and time again. ’Cause it’ll work itself out eventually or something…right?

But then there’s this scene.

Where was this, for all that time? Why wasn’t this scene the entire attitude of the show? Method Man even references Trayvon Martin and connects it to the hoodies that Luke Cage wears throughout, becoming a symbol of solidarity among those in Harlem. It’s also the closest the show comes to being critical about the police and their tactics. Cops are mocked for harassing those in bullet-riddled hoodies (‘cause “they all look alike”) and ridiculed further by others displaying the attire proudly to them, a reminder they’re wasting time and effort chasing a framed man than the real culprit (it’s certainly happened before and even involved our current U.S. President — just look at the Central Park Five…).

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In case anyone forgot. Somehow.

The fact this was only one scene and not representative of the rest infuriated me, because it should be. This is a perfect example of how Marvel Studios employs diversity as a shield to cover up regressive attitudes, that they get their cake and eat it too without anyone noticing and making a fuss. They want to act like they’re “with it,” name-dropping prominent figures in African-American history and culture or having a character do a monologue about Biggie “Notorious B.I.G.” Smalls, but then turn around and demand we respect U.S. law enforcement the same way right-wing proponents of the Second Gulf War guilt-tripped others with “support the troops.”

Why does all of this bother me? Why do I care that much about any of this? Why not just ignore it all?

Ultimately, it’s the waste of talent and potential.

It is absurd how good the casting and technical aspects in some of the films and series are, to not only manage getting actors who are spot on in their roles but have an audio-visual flair that comes with the right editing, cinematography, lighting, etc. Yet it is usually done in service of narratives that are overblown, tensionless spectacles and are disingenuous enough to use in-house ads in the form of “references” or “Easter eggs.” They’ll entertain some good ideas that should be developed more but either toss them aside, forget about them entirely, or keep teasing at it like a carrot dangling at the end of a stick. They’ll pay lip service to more profound themes without actually exploring them in a substantial matter. They could be better, they certainly have the means, but they choose not to and that’s far worse than just being bad.

Speaking of which, for next time: I explain Marvel Studios formula, its overuse, and how it makes the films increasingly interchangeable and mediocre as a result.

[Originally posted on 11/25/17 @ Medium.com]

Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios Is Awful, Part 1 — An Introduction

Several weekends back, I had the displeasure of watching The Defenders from Marvel Studios on Netflix. It had been a while since I watched a TV show or streaming series that left me furious due to its lack of quality. The writing, acting, lighting, cinematography, and fight choreography are so bad that it’s offensive to all the senses. But, to be honest, it wasn’t surprising it turned out terribly. Not just because of the travesties that were Daredevil’s second season (or at least the non-Punisher half) or Iron Fist — Marvel Studios has been awful for a while now.

Let me repeat that: Marvel Studios is awful. They have been for a long time already.

Online film reviewer Confused Matthew once had a video that, save for some particularly mean barbs directed at director James Gunn, was spot-on when it came to a lot of their dubious creative decisions and behind-the-scenes behavior. Unfortunately, he later took it down. Why? He hopped aboard the same bustling bandwagon that continues to beat the putrid, decaying dead horse that is Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Even as the flesh has fallen off the bone, almost threadbare at this point, after being angrily pummeled with a truncheon one too many times.

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Yep, looks about right…

I agree it’s not a good movie in the least — far, far from it — but part of me wants to be contrarian and defend it or the somewhat entertaining but still awful Suicide Squad. They’re not just failures that future filmmakers can learn from, but they’re memorable as failures. Marvel Studios’ overall output is both obsessively formulaic and so easily digestible that the films are becoming interchangeable with one another — they will not stand the test of time. To me, that’s worse than being bad. Mediocrity never warrants a second thought the way something truly amazing or haphazard does.

One might make the assumption that I must not like the comicbooks or had a hatred of Marvel Studios from the get-go, based on my current distaste with them. Well, you know what happens when you assume? It makes an ass out of you and me (but mostly you). I’m quite fond of the comics though I don’t follow them religiously like others do — I tend to prefer the non-superhero work you see from publishers like Image (seriously, read East of West or Black Science) or Oni Press (seriously, read The Sixth Gun or Letter 44)— and I love cinema even more. Having a father who worked in the film and television industry, reared on the stuff since I was born, has made me far more partial to that medium and the format that has been used for decades already. I’m always excited to see something new or interesting, something that hasn’t been done before, something that may make movies better as a medium both technically and creatively. If anything, I was ecstatic to see these comicbook characters come to life — the storytelling potential, making such material live-action, was unimaginable.

Thing is, though, Marvel Studios couldn’t give less of a shit about creative integrity or has any interest in evolving cinematic storytelling. Its interests are the same as every other creatively bankrupt, vapid studio executive in Hollywood: more money to line their already overflowing pockets and justify another unsustainably large budget for the next over-bloated, homogenized piece of fluff that no one will remember a decade or two from now. They’re continuing the worst kind of practices in the industry and, yet again, almost no one seems to notice this as they wear the rose-colored shades sold to them.

It isn’t just Confused Matthew, several others critics whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely over the years — that include Robert Chipman and the guys at RedLetterMedia — seem to soft-ball these Marvel movies than give the acerbic criticism that came with the aforementioned BvS or Suicide Squad or, well, any other movie. It’s as if their critical faculties had been overpowered by some form of powerful hypnotism, to become as gullible and rabidly consumeristic as gamers drunk on hype after another masturbatory E3 convention (but aren’t they all?). Like the AAA videogame industry and its underhanded methods, Marvel Studios knows how to condition an audience to become addicted in order to fork over money for each and every installment of theirs’ — no matter how middling or subpar it actually is — convinced that they want or even need it. This isn’t a revolutionary change in narrative structure, as wonderful as that’d be, but a modernized version of selling snake-oil. Do you know why con-men are called “con-men”? It’s because they make you feel confident enough to let your guard down and fall for their bullshit…

If you think that sounds far-fetched, I have some unfortunate news: you are already under the sway of advertising and may not even realize it.

We like to think advertisements don’t affect us, that having some product pushed onto us with a TV spot or internet pop-up or billboard is something we’re immune to, yet being inundated with enough ads still make people buy products they don’t want or need but nonetheless feel they should purchase anyway. What makes advertising so insidious is being ostensibly innocuous — all while planting seeds of interest into your subconscious. Maybe, after some time, you’ll have the sudden urge to eventually buy those products and not quite sure why you did. If you’re perceptive enough, you’ll recognize those ads had an effect and kick yourself a few times over it. Others lacking such observational skills, on the other hand, will convince themselves they “chose” to buy those products of their own “volition.” Much like a puppet who simply ignores the strings attached to them, avoiding the sad realization their individuality is just an illusion within this capitalistic society…

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“There are no strings on me!”

As Mad Men had pointed out several times, advertising firms have a keen eye for small details and their effectiveness along with an understanding of social psychology. They know what sells a product isn’t the product itself — it’s the sense of personal validation that comes from buying that product. Advertisements are meticulously crafted to invoke a sense of want or need, with use of certain imagery or subtle musical cues that make you feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside when thinking about that product. If not that? They’ll make you feel like a pathetic piece of shit for not having already bought it.

This That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch, from years back, summarizes it pretty well too:

That’s what makes me hate Marvel Studios: their films aren’t really films, not anymore anyway — they’re in-house ads that sell their next product under the ever-thinning veil of being entertainment. Much in the same way almost every U.S. military film, as once stated by David Sirota in Back to Our Future, effectively functions as pro-military propaganda in order for a production to be given any kind of consultation or support. It took me a while to notice because, like so many others, I wore those rose-colored shades. I fell head over heels for the hype. I chased that carrot dangling at the end of the stick and, at this point, it’s made me weary. I gave Marvel Studios the benefit of the doubt for years, I continued to give them leeway under the promise they’d take chances and yet they never have despite having every opportunity to do so. They have grown so successful that taking risks would still yield some kind of return, and would be somewhat refreshing, but they are far too craven to give up their method of endless iteration.

But that’s just the tip of this sordid iceberg!

I found it impossible to explain everything I find wrong with Marvel Studios within a single essay — the issues attached to them go beyond simply being avaricious or creatively lazy. Were those my only issues, I may as well talk about Michael Bay’s Transformers series but even those movies seem inconsequential compared to the damage Marvel Studios has done and still doing. It contributes to the lowering of standards for quality narrative and corroding the concept of self-contained storytelling.

Over the next few weeks (or months) — I will write one essay apiece detailing, convincingly I hope, a specific problem with Marvel Studios as an entity. While most will deal with their creative decisions, which can be downright stupefying, I will occasionally delve into the behind-the-scenes tomfoolery they’ve done that (for example) left us without an Edgar Wright-directed and -written Ant-Man. Much of which, to my dismay, I’ve barely heard from anyone else of note. Maybe they were too busy creaming their pants over Scarlett Johansson’s ass in skin-tight leather or something.

Next time? I’m talking about Luke Cage

[Originally posted on 10/28/17 @ Medium.com]

A Non-Fan Follow-Up: Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel

A game’s visuals cannot be separated into some separate category for evaluation. That’s the old logic of graphics/sound/fun factor. They are instead an integrated part of the entire game experience. Striking images and loving details can actually make a game worse if they draw you in and suggest a world that the rest of the game cannot support. A basic dissonance is created between hand and eye, and you feel more like a viewer than a player. The world calls to you, but you cannot respond.

– Tevis Thompson, On Videogame Reviews

It’s an all-too-common experience among those who play videogames to enjoy them on a mechanistic level (e.g. the gameplay or quality of the graphics) in spite of a vestigial plotline and one-dimensional cast. The opposite, where the game’s storytelling and characterization overshadow lackluster technical traits, is a far rarer experience.

Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto IV is not great as a game whatsoever — its sandbox, beautifully rendered as it is, lacks much in the way of side activities and travelling between areas feel like drudgery — but I nonetheless defend it based on some fantastically written dialogue (“Maybe we’re all hypocrites. All imbeciles.”) and for having a protagonist like Niko Bellic. Neither belonged in an open-world sandbox, especially one with chaotic criminal activity as a prominent feature, and it had some of the same problems as the other installments (the lazy gay jokes, casual misogyny, and half-baked satire specifically) but you could imagine it being better suited to a televised or streaming series featured on HBO or Netflix than other videogames. Including those previous entries that had been highly derivative of film and television than having a voice of their own — that’s why Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was basically Scarface meets Miami Vice.

The point I’m trying to make, with Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel (via “The Handsome Collection”), is that they both would’ve been better off as part of an animated series. The setting is full of colorful characters and enough wacky ideas that would make for entertaining material to watch. Instead we are given an incredibly unbalanced and heavily repetitive first-person shooter, with perplexing massive multiplayer online RPG elements attached, that only causes frustration and exasperation when played as a game.

Copy/Paste, Rinse, Repeat

Perhaps it was naïve of me to be incredulous towards Ben Croshaw’s criticism that the entirety of gameplay involved “go[ing] into a scrapyard and shoot[ing] Jason Voorhees” (or “shooting Jason Voorhees in a scrapyard…and also it’s been snowing a bit”). He’s prone to being hyperbolic for comedic purposes and the goodwill earned by Tales from the Borderlands was enough to make me take all that with a grain of salt, but I regret such leniency on my part now. Those statements, word for word, are so accurate that it’s fucking depressing.

If one were to be antagonistically (and irritatingly) pedantic, it could be argued there are more types of enemies than the signature Psychos — there are Nomads, Bandits, Bruisers, Tunnel Rats, various kinds of hostile fauna, the “Badass” versions of all those, etc. — but that’s ignoring the frequency in which you have deal with such opponents and how superficial their differences are in term of overall function.

Psychos and Skags, for example, may as well be the same enemy. They both rush at the player character to get up close for melee strikes but will occasionally use a fairly avoidable projectile attack at a certain range. The only significant departure being the latter’s projectile attack involves a temporary visual hindrance, but even that trait is shared with Spiderants — whose projectile attack also obscures the player’s view but with the added effect of briefly slowing them down. You’d think given they’re a mutated human, an alien canine, and a giant insect respectively that their behavior would be more distinct from each other but they will bombard you the same regardless. To paraphrase a common aphorism about the repetition of everyday life: same enemy, different skin.

My Picks: Daft Punk Ninja and Goth Indian Cowgirl

The level of recycled A.I. behavior on display is hard to ignore based on presentation alone when it makes all those encounters feel incredibly similar to each other after a while. Perhaps it’d be less of an issue were it not so central to the gameplay, if one could interact with the world of Pandora or Elpis in more ways than just shooting things, and sometimes done under the paper-thin pretense of doing something else. Even if a given mission will claim you need to collect items as part of some scientific research or to build a rocket— it will always involve having to plow through dozens of identical goons in post-apocalyptic chic or monster hordes to get them.

After attaining a body count comparable to the Black Plague, it makes you want to be challenged with anything else. Whether it is solving an environmental puzzle straight out of Prey (not to be confused with New Prey) or a rhythm-based mini-game reminiscent of PaRappa the Rapper. Just anything other than making a Mad Max reject’s head explode with a sniper shot for the billionth time.

The reason the cloned psychic stormtroopers in the first F.E.A.R. didn’t bother me, other than having an internally logical explanation for their uniform appearance, is because the programmed A.I. was complex and made those enemies act like a heavily organized group out to get you. They were a devilishly clever bunch and being able to defeat all of them effectively, without much harm done or dying numerous times, was satisfying. Even the demonic legions of New Doom were diverse enough in their roles to the point that one type of enemy could act as support for another type, where Imps distract with their projectiles and continuous movement while Pinkies pummel you up close or with a hard-hitting charge attack, that added some variety to the combat. The majority of enemies in Borderlands either run at you with utter abandon into gunfire or they’ll stand out in the open (they can’t even get behind cover properly) ineptly firing and waiting for you to pick them off. They may as well all be targets at a shooting range…

What’s worse is that, in an attempt to artificially ramp up the difficulty, the games challenge the player not by testing their skills but through enduring a disproportionate amount of attrition. The hardest sections involved an over-powered special enemy with an interminable health bar and nearly unavoidable attacks with a wide area-of-effect that could kill you in few hits. If these games encourage multiplayer as much as they do, it’s not because teamwork is integral (otherwise playing alone wouldn’t be an option at all)—but that those encounters are otherwise Sisyphean without assistance from others. It’s like the games are actively punishing you for trying to play by your lonesome. Thus the “Second Wind” ability, coming back from the brink of death upon killing a nearby enemy in an allotted time, comes off like a sick joke in such cases after making the standard and densely-grouped enemies feel as threatening as fish crammed in a barrel.

Too Spoiled For Choice

Also: adorable Australian accent.

I had previously brought up the “embarrassment of riches” issue but, unlike both Skyrim and Witcher III, neither of the Borderlands games bother to give you a large enough inventory space to carry the plethora of randomly generated guns, upgrade items, and character skin unlocks (…in a first-person shooter…?) disgorged at just about every turn. They even demand that you spend a rare form of currency to incrementally expand it as part of a time-wasting level-upgrading process. The fact all the firearms differ based on which weapons manufacturer created them — apparently every intergalactic corporation in the setting is some version of Zorg Industries from The Fifth Element — would’ve been amusing if they weren’t saddled with the added bonuses for what the hell ever and elemental effects that work better on some enemies than others ‘cause reasons. It’s such a pointlessly-layered, mind-numbing clusterfuck…

It ends up creating these instances where you get shotguns that fire three rounds at a time but have a four round clip or a submachine gun that needs to be reloaded constantly after firing a dozen single rounds. At one point, I found a pistol that added two extra rounds per clip…and which fired two shots at a time. Weapons not only have a level requirement attached but a color coded “rarity” status to indicate quality (white is the lowest and purple is the highest). Problem is that a purple rarity status doesn’t really matter when you come across higher level white rarity guns that do better damage and have a decent clip size. It sends you mixed signals that make you end up ignoring or selling off better weapons in order to hold onto a weaker and increasingly useless one because of suggested importance that isn’t always obvious.

When thinking about all this, I kept asking myself “isn’t this a first-person shooter?” The things I describe belong in a MMORPG with traditional turn-based combat. They compliment a system that determines each move made by one set of stats against another set of stats, with certain variables attached and outcomes based on a random number generator akin to 20-sided dice, but a first-person shooter almost entirely requires one’s mastery of the controls themselves to effectively aim and shoot hostiles as well as avoid (or hide from) damage. When you add an RPG element like hitpoints to a first-person shooter — you get bullet-sponge enemies and headshots that don’t always result in an instant kill, since they only count as critical hits.

I suppose if it weren’t for that system, the dim-witted A.I. would be less of a challenge than they already are and extend playtime far past the breaking point. Maybe that’s why your ammo reserves and clip sizes are so restrictive and force you to open identical chests for ammo, or scraps of money, or the health pick-ups that I rarely needed when they appeared yet never around when needed the most. It reminds me of playing that godawful Shadow Warrior reboot all over again and consider such a serious infraction in my rulebook. That, and using good ideas in the service of something shallow…

Rife With Wasted Potential

Back in May 31, 2013 Gearbox Software released this short film as promotional material for an add-on featuring a character named Krieg:

Though Tales from the Borderlands is the installment of the series that got me to open the door, this video is what got my foot in the door. It’s less than five minutes long and almost every second is amazing.

The fact Krieg is a demented, unsavory person haunted by an inner voice telling him to do normal, decent things — rather than vice-versa — is a fantastic premise in of itself and becomes oddly heartwarming by the end. His inner voice begs for him to tell Maya the Vault-Hunting Siren about working together in order to make him a better man once again, but ends up translating to “I POWDERED MY COCKATIEL FOR THE RIBCAGE SLAUGHTER!” when spoken. Maya, despite her initially repulsed impression of the man, smiles in response. His inner voice, after an amused chuckle, goes “Close enough…”

I wanted to see that journey. I wanted to see Krieg, with the love of his life (platonically anyway — she’s apparently asexual), go through many endeavors that gradually lead to fully recovering from his violent form of aphasia. I wanted to see the moment he could say all those romantic things he only once thought to Maya out loud.

Yet, you’ll get nothing resembling such. There are glimpses here and there— but never the kind of personal moments as seen in Tales from the Borderlands or “A Meat Bicycle Built For Two.” All these characters and the storytelling possibilities with them are window dressing in Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel.

Also: delightful Southern drawl. Just don’t ever mention it out loud…

Reducing the likes of Mad Moxxi, Handsome Jack, Patricia Tannis, or Tiny Tina as mission-giving NPCs and leaving player characters like Zer0 or Nisha Kadam either being largely silent (save for the occasional battle cry) or to only make brief, off-handed observations than partake in conversation limits the whole experience. There’s a part in Borderlands 2 where a prominent character dies and, rather than having a funeral in which close associates gather to lament that loss as one would expect, they’re stuck in place and waiting for the player character to tell them about it before instantly moving on. I’m not asking to press a button to pay respects but it’d be nice to have some kind of interaction between characters instead of being so disconnected from each other. The emotional weight of such an event is practically nonexistent, when everyone is going about their normal business instead of taking time out of their schedule to grieve.

The reason I had been willing to bother with any of this was Tales from the Borderlands, the same way Witcher III encouraged me to check out the short stories and novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. Both portray a very lived-in environment, enticing one to become privy of the occurrences that shaped them and gain further context. As amusing an individual as Tellico Lunngrevink Letorte (a.k.a. Dudu Biberveldt) is within the game he’s featured, it’s even better reading “Eternal Flame” to know how he and Geralt first met. Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel, on the other hand, don’t give that kind of insight. You may as well just read a fan wiki instead. It has the same effect either way and that’s disappointing on an astronomical level.

Oh, there are moments — but they are too far and few inbetween. Moreso in The Pre-Sequel than Borderlands 2 because (much like Big Boss’ storyline compared to Solid Snake’s in the Metal Gear Solid series) it’s way more intriguing to see the origin of villains, whose (supposedly) good intentions metamorphose into outright tyranny and sadism. That game also provides a couple of obvious connections to Tales from the Borderlands, like assisting Professor Nakayama in creating the embryonic version of a digitalized Handsome Jack. Then there is this visual reference, cementing both the young Handsome Jack and Rhys as two sides of the same Disaster Capitalist Tech-Bro coin, as their introductions involve getting embarrassingly hit in the face:

I wouldn’t accuse Gearbox Software of not caring about their work. If they did not, there would not be Handome Jack’s in-character Ask Me Anything reddit nor would they give CL4P-TP their own Twitter page were that the case. They obviously love these characters and the world in which they live, thus it’s baffling so little is done with them in the gameplay itself.

Despite series creator Matt Armstrong’s departure from Gearbox Studios, CEO Randy Pitchford has shown off a tech demo earlier this year that indicates another may be in the works. Unless it ends up significantly different from the previous titles and streamlines several elements — I can’t say I’m eagerly awaiting it. I’d rather see further collaboration with Telltale Games for a sequel of Tales from the Borderlands (even if that means less Batman and I always want more of that!) or just something completely different.

Given it’s been featured as side content in the main games already, a full-on car combat title would make perfect sense. Maybe they can even add in elements from lost (flawed) gems like Rogue Trip, what with the presence of mercenaries, and Critical Depth, ‘cause sci-fi McGuffin, with the visual flair and light-hearted approach as seen in the Vigilante 8 games as well as the challenging difficulty of Twisted Metal: Black. The very idea alone makes me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside, which neither Borderlands 2 or The Pre-Sequel were able to do — certainly not in the way that Tales from the Borderlands managed so well and unexpectedly…

[Originally posted on 10/9/17 @ Medium.com]

A Non-Fan Review: Tales from the Borderlands

Were I to explain my hesitancy about checking out the Borderlands series, it would be the games’ developer — Gearbox Software — and especially its founder as well as CEO and president Randy Pitchford. The always lovable Jim Sterling has brought up, on a few occasions, a rather infamous game by the name of Aliens: Colonial Marines. It wasn’t helped by the interview where Wesley Yin-Poole asks completely reasonable questions and Pitchford avoids answering any of them in a hyper-defensive manner. The nauseating self-aggrandizement and using disingenuous excuses like “it’s all subjective” or “we worked hard on it,” not taking responsibility for poorly handling the project in any way, was beyond infuriating. Last but not least, Ben Croshaw’s scathing reviews of the first two Borderlands games only further convinced me to not bother.

Yet, quite recently, I bought a copy of Borderlands: The Handsome Collection. Why? It’s all because of Gearbox’s collaboration with Telltale Games — Tales from the Borderlands!

Aim-and-Shoot, or Point-and-Click?

Anyone who knows me well enough can tell you that, though I still play them, I am not particularly fond of first-person shooters. I do, however, have a soft spot for a once-ubiquitous genre that has since become a niche market, especially among indie developers: the point-and-click adventure game.

Though Erik Wolpaw’s argument some seventeen years ago remains valid— a blunt, succinct takedown of frustratingly obtuse moon-logic puzzle mechanics and its prevalence within the genre at the time — it is apparent with games published and developed more recently by Wadjet Eye, for example, have learned a lesson from it. The pixelated graphics may be evocative of earlier titles that seem patronizingly nostalgic, but the puzzle mechanics are more accessible than those of yesteryear. There’s a greater emphasize on rewarding observational skills as opposed to idiosyncratic reasoning, with a coherent sequence of cause and effect. There is no point in any of these games (as Wolpaw mentions) involving a man fashioning a fake mustache from masking tape, cat hair, and a packet of syrup in order to impersonate a person who has no mustache whatsoever.

All-New Screenshots for 'Tales from the Borderlands' Episode 3 ...
“Hey, wanna see my Iron Man impression? PEW PEW PEW!”

elltale Games, on the other hand, has managed to popularize a more simplified iteration of the genre that may’ve started with Sam & Max (which I never tried despite my fondness for the cartoon) but gained wider attention with The Walking Dead: Season 1. Though it remains a high point in videogame narratives — it’s unfortunate I find so much of Telltale’s catalogue underwhelming otherwise. They’re never as well-written as TWD: S1 was, their Game of Thrones adaptation doing little but recycle material from the show with some nauseating fan-service than giving a differing view of Westeros or Essos or even beyond The Wall, and having puzzle-solving omitted as gameplay leaves so much to be desired. Quick-time events and the false promise of a branching narrative hardly make up for the absence of such a prominent element in point-and-click/graphic adventure games as a genre.

Part of the problem, at least for me, is how much of their output is based on intellectual properties not their own — moreso that they tend to be based in a passive form of entertainment. Along with Minecraft: Story Mode (that looks and sounds terrible) and Tales from Monkey IslandTales from the Borderlands is the only other game based on a franchise from an interactive medium. Perhaps it is why it turned out so much better than the rest…

The Unreliable Narrator(s)

A trope in fiction I am particularly fond of is the “unreliable narrator.” Moreso than these omnipresent entities that dispassionately detail events, there’s something very true to life of a story as told by someone whose perception of those events are highly questionable. I’d even argue that any story told from a first-person perspective should be inherently unreliable as people have a tendency to distort reality, often subconsciously but dishonesty is far from uncommon, when it comes to memory. Whether to demonize or aggrandize, exaggerate or downplay, obfuscate or contrive — every human being does this to some degree or another.

Tales from the Borderlands not only has two of them — in the form of the fast-talking, improvisational con artist Fiona (voiced by Laura Bailey) and the egotistical yet incompetent corporate middle-manager Rhys (voiced by Troy Baker) — but uses the Telltale “branching narrative” format, as with Life is Strange, to subvert and deconstruct such gameplay.

A Non-Fan Review: Tales from the Borderlands - NickNameNick - Medium
“Something about anime…”

The majority of the narrative is framed as Fiona and Rhys, in the penultimate section of the actual plotline, recounting all the events that lead to that point. A masked stranger has not only taken them hostage at gun-point and makes them trek across the desert— he’s the one who demands the recounting of those events with suspicious enthusiasm. He interjects incredulously when it isn’t Fiona or Rhys calling out one another’s bullshit, including when the earlier (if taking the option) honesty admits to trying to throw the latter out of her steampunk caravan.

Two other scenes involve what is typically portrayed as an oh-so-important binary choice at first are both proven to be false representations. They have the same outcome regardless of the choice made because it never happened. Fiona and Rhys, either under delusion or vanity, use hyperbolically heroic feats to cover up a moment of vulnerability. The idea of not being in control — despite being player-controlled characters—terrifies them at their very core. But it makes perfect sense for a con artist, a person who manipulates others for gain as an occupation, and a corporate ladder-climber, who desires respect and adoration from others, to be so averse to even admitting they ever had egg on their face.

The whole “branching narrative” format really does work better when telling this kind of story, rather than propping up some illusion of drastic change with each decision. The game’s even playful enough to just outright admit a lot of the choices made are entirely superficial in nature, such as a paint job for the aforementioned steampunk caravan or which outfit to wear as part of a later heist. The ending of the story is already set in stone, for the most part, at the very beginning and means the decisions are more about how Fiona and Rhys — and thus you, the player — choose to portray past events after the fact. But, given the untrustworthiness of those characters, how sure are you most of the options given aren’t also lies? Even the previews at the end of an episode are full of scenes that never actually happen in the next one…

Audio-Visual Delight

П - позитив | Пикабу
Dubstep Lord Humungus

Previous Borderlands titles were all accompanied by openings that introduced the player characters to an incredibly apropos rock song. Obviously, Tales from the Borderlands follows suit with every episode but manage to blow all those completely out of the water.

The pretension many videogame developers have as being amateur filmmakers can be an annoyance like David Cage’s ventures Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain, and Beyond: Two Souls. There’s an obvious admiration for cinematic craft but a lack of understanding in how it really functions as a form of storytelling. They can slavishly copy certain techniques and tropes but cannot quite comprehend how they’re supposed to be used to convey meaning or create an atmosphere. The opening for each episode of Tales from the Borderlands, more than most, adeptly uses cinematography and editing to set a tone and is further punctuated by their musical selection. It’s difficult for me to not squeal gleefully when quick cuts, slow motion, or the action taking place visually is timed to the beat or melody of a song so well and how a diegetic song becomes non-diegetic as displayed in the first episode’s opening. They’re as stylish as many other “cinematic” videogames try to be, but it’s the right kind of style — not by overshadowing or dismissing the more substantive elements of visual storytelling, but working in tandem with them.

The aforementioned Fiona and Rhys are (respectively) voiced by Laura Bailey and Troy Baker but it would be remiss to not bring up how fantastic they are in their roles. This extends to the rest of the cast that includes both personal favorites of mine, like Patrick Warburton and Phil LaMarr, as well as those less familiar like Ashley Johnson as the kawaii GORTYS or Susan Silo as the intimidatingly statuesque Vallory. The reason I had been so harsh of Oxenfree isn’t just because I had been thoroughly impressed with Adam Hines’ writing contributions here but also Erin Yvette’s performance as Fiona’s inexplicably biracial sister, Sasha, who has the same effect on men as Helen of Troy and an intense fondness for submachine guns.

While the plotline keeps trying to ‘ship (that’s how it’s described in-game too) both Sasha and Rhys throughout—even asking for your blessing by the end—it’s hard to not think that he and Fiona, due to Baker and Bailey’s interplay, are a far better match for one another. All the antagonistic banter has an underlying playfulness to it, as if they’re the most stereotypical Jewish couple in science fiction and felt odd that no one ended up yelling “Jesus, why don’t you two screw already?!” There’s also this oddly suggestive bit. It was all the more amusing that, when Batman: The Telltale Series came around, Baker would be voicing Batman while Bailey would be Catwoman — their initial session of fisticuffs even coming off like Klingon love-making the way it did ages ago in Batman Returns.

Tales From The Borderlandsの新しいTales From The Borderlands ...
The Wrong Stuff

Then there’s Dameon Clarke as the one and only Handsome Jack. Or, more accurately, the holographic A.I. ghost of Handsome Jack. In the larger context of the series; he’s a Disaster Capitalist Tech-Bro who wouldn’t be that out of place as the antagonist in a James Bond film, though he has a better sense of humor and far more casual in approach, that once manipulated treasure-seeking mercenaries — referred to as “Vault Hunters” — to open alien tombs and abscond with the artifacts (read: giant monsters) inside to attain tyrannical power over the planet of Pandora and it’s neighboring moon of Elpis. Eventually, after pissing off one too many of the wrong people, he was killed by the same Vault Hunters whose achievements he claimed for himself.

He is a cartoonish supervillain in just about every way save for the fact, despite the obviously heinous nature of his actions, he still perceives himself as the hero in the situation. There isn’t the same kind of depth as there was with Wilson Fisk in Daredevil — but I always prefer a villain who’s under the erroneous notion they’re in the right. It’s far more reflective of reality where flesh-and-blood human beings regularly rationalize indefensible behavior by giving it a noble or pragmatic spin, due more to personal investment rather than any sort of principle. No one in reality is ever willing to admit they’re the bad guy and the fact a lot of fiction relies on such outright, unapologetic evil is creatively lazy on part of those storytellers.

Whether it’s his overblown ego or suffering from a Lovecraftian form of insanity — the guy’s definitely unhinged. He rules with an iron fist based on the half-assed excuse he’s getting rid of “bandits” (read: anyone he doesn’t like or just slightly annoys him) and, typical of all vainglorious dictators, constantly exposes those living under his regime to propagandic iconography of himself. This leads to a corporatized cult of personality that would cause Ayn Rand to rise from the grave and give her sycophantic approval — one that remains and thrives well after his death, of which the protagonist Rhys is an adamant follower.

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Daft Punk Ninja

Based on the player’s choices, the story in part becomes about whether Rhys embraces the Disaster Capitalist Tech-Bro mentality programmed into him as an employee of the Hyperion Corporation, outright rejects it, or so conflicted he goes back and forth between the two. Having the digitalized version of the man he worshiped haunt him allows for that conflict to be both internal as well as external, as Jack is capable of some interaction with the physical world and whose knowledge effects the outcome of the plot in a concrete way. Unlike The Walking Dead: Season 2, involving an unintentionally comedic scene where a man in his 50’s tells a preteen girl they “aren’t so different,” the comment as made in Tales from the Borderlands actually has some precedence. The dialogue between Handsome Jack and Rhys, as performed by Clarke and Baker, establish a solid connection well beforehand and is far more profound for that. Jack may be a sociopathic bastard but he’s incredibly charming and makes it hard for Rhys (and the player by proxy) to deny the gifts he promises — sometimes exploiting his own personal vulnerabilities as a way to elicit empathy, all in the effort of manipulating Rhys for personal gain to his unbeknownst detriment. Not only is Rhys an unreliable narrator himself, one under the control of a player, but directed by another far more unreliable narrator that further informs his decisions and the rationale for them.

Introduction by Epilogue

Despite being the latest entry of a series that had existed since 2008 and built its setting over three games, Tales from the Borderlands makes for a fantastic entry-point. Much in the same way Witcher III did for Andrzej Sapkowski’s short stories and novels that started in 1986 as well as the previous videogame installments by CD Projekt RED. The self-contained nature of those stories, even with all this canon attached, is incredibly refreshing. We’re in an age where shared universes are becoming more commonplace in cinema, much like invasive weeds gradually killing off the local flora, while serialization on television and streaming services treat episodes more like chapters in an on-going story than functioning on their individual merit.

It’s becoming harder to jump headfirst into any movie or the random episode of a show you’re unfamiliar with and not feel confused by what is going on, given this expectation to have watched every related film beforehand or episode prior to that. I sincerely doubt anyone who hadn’t watched The AvengersCaptain America: Winter SoldierIron Man 3, and Ant-Man would be able to understand why one should care about any of the events or people in Civil War — those who claim otherwise are likely either comicbook fanboys (who are far more obsessed about continuity than anyone should be) or liars. Maybe both. They’re not mutually exclusive.

It really is unfortunate that, instead of getting a second installment soon afterwards, Telltale Games would rather make goddamn Guardians of the Galaxy (as if the movies didn’t aggravate me enough already), the cynical cash-grab that is Minecraft: Story Mode, or vainly attempt at making lightning strike twice with another middling-to-below-average Walking Dead title (the one based around Michonne being the worst attempt). Because Tales from the Borderlands is, in my opinion, easily the best game they’ve made since The Walking Dead: Season 1 and deserved a sequel more than any other franchise they’ve worked on.

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At least they aren’t wearing those fucking V for Vendetta masks

I honestly do think part of that is because the Borderlands series is from an interactive medium and, more specifically, first-person shooters. Having a graphic adventure set in an interactive world that operated on otherwise disparate mechanics elsewhere is the modus operandi that Telltale should employ in general than adapting any passive entertainment like films, television, or comicbooks. There are so many games out there with an abundant mythology ripe for the taking but focus more on gameplay than storytelling. Giving them a graphic adventure treatment in order to explore those digitally constructed universes from a different perspective, especially for those who’re not fond of the gameplay model originally used, leads to a newfound appreciation with the material itself.

More importantly, we’d get more games that — as meta-commentary — deal with the nature of player agency as well as ludonarrative dissonance in new and interesting ways. That’s something which can’t be done with works from a passive medium, that only require observation on the audience’s part than any interaction. It’ll further cement videogames not just as a time-wasting hobby but as being true Art in its own right. There is no better example of this, and what can be done further if used as a template for future titles, than Tales from the Borderlands

[Originally posted on 10/1/17 @ Medium.com]

A Non-Fan Review: The Witcher III

For whatever reason, high fantasy (specifically of the Western variety) is something I never became partial to as a genre. Why is science fiction so much more appealing? High fantasy is as capable of creating believable, lived-in worlds while also dealing in morality tales and speculate on the state of human nature — so why the lack of enthusiasm?

Maybe it’s because so much of that genre feeds off the corpse of J.R.R. Tolkien like a rabid zombie, where every setting is a feudal medieval environment with elves and dwarves and orcs. Maybe, despite the fine details, such overused and iterative tropes make those works almost indistinguishable from one another. It also does not help that, with the wealth of mythological material from so many cultures at their disposal, many storytellers are determined to use the Nordic kind until the end of time (perhaps “Ragnarok” would be more apt?).

Yet, at the same time, one of my favorite videogames in the last decade or so — Dark Souls — is a Western-style high fantasy. Not to mention my fondness of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. None of these titles, however, came from anywhere in Europe or the U.S. but in Japan. They were the genre’s tropes filtered through disparate cultural sensibilities that, while not necessarily making it original (for nothing truly is), gave it a distinctly ethereal and ominous approach that differs from others of its kind.

That game also spends time world-building, but more through its environment and what can be inferred through the scant dialogue spoken and cryptic item descriptions. While the lack of info-dumps is well enough (players are rewarded not only with more weapons or armor or spells but further information about this world with exploration), it is a prime example as to why videogames can function uniquely as a storytelling medium as opposed to borrowing heavily from passive forms of Art like film or television.

The Witcher III is not Dark Souls, by a long shot, but one aspect makes it stand out among the rest: an anachronistically modern attitude.

Fantastical Frolic

Remember Dennis the Peasant from Monty Python & The Holy Grail?

Well, it’s kinda like that. Even the sense of humor. Yet The Witcher III and its source material is not a cultural product of Britain — but Poland.

Given the country’s unfortunate history of being occupied by Nazi Germany and then annexed by the Soviet Union as well as one of the last pagan areas in Europe to be Christianized, it is hard to not see Geralt of Rivia — the pallid-skinned, white-haired, dry-witted yet sarcastic protagonist — as being representative of the nation. He tries to maintain a tangible sense of identity, with his own internalized but consistent sense of ethics, despite attempts by other parties to change or erase it. He is mocked and dismissed by those who nonetheless require his skills and knowledge for problems they cannot solve themselves but he takes it all in stride. He endures and continues on, in some way, whether it is through the company of good friends or the peaceful quiet of loneliness.

He very much feels like someone who’d adapt well to a real, contemporary world like our own (though this goes for much of the cast). Besides the nonchalant approach to casual sex that’s fairly well-known about the franchise by now, several individuals are (similarly to Morrigan in Dragon Age: Origins) openly atheistic and scientifically-minded when it comes to magic. Even the Witchers themselves study and treat mythological beasts as if they were actual animals and curses were they akin to medical ailments. There’s also a very anti-authoritarian streak that would be more fitting for a 1970’s Punk or even a Millennial — both from the setting’s inhabitants and by the narrative — that treats all war and struggles of power as a masturbatory exercise among the elite. Those below them are more like expendable commodities than people, who will always suffer the worst effects of the conflict while the affluent hoard what gains are made. That war does not have a winner, for victory is really based on who loses the least.

You see, this is the kind of realism I want when it comes to high fantasy. Best of all, doing so while still embracing it exists in a world of rock trolls and vengeful specters. It retains a sense of humor even with all the grim (and Grimm) subject matter on display. Its best moments do not come with gratuitous violence or pandering sexuality but the very personal interactions between characters. All those animations of Geralt chopping off heads and limbs or putting another notch in his belt pale in comparison to him acting as an adoptive father to a rambunctious daughter or accompanying a friend to a wedding in which she’s a bridesmaid…while occasionally possessed by a highwayman’s ghost (it’s even better in context!). The most minor of characters are rife with personality; where cretins can have fleeting moments of empathy and self-awareness while ostensibly admirable people will rationalize indefensible actions with tortured, self-satisfied logic.

This is also a world where prophesies and destiny are tangible forces but there are still those, for one reason or another, who are skeptical of their viability and argue against it (or of certain “signs”). Those that believe in them are prone to making inaccurate predictions or reach for conclusions based on very circumstantial evidence. No one believes it without a second thought or without some personal bias attached. Even curses can be accidentally invoked by those who were simply too vindictive or reckless to think of its effects, with the means to reverse such a hex never being quite clear due to numerous factors both known and unknown. At least until a Witcher investigates and deduces a situation based on observation as well as previous experience.

Y’know, like most flesh and blood people would…

Fantastical Follies

Okay, okay, okay — enough adulation. There is one big problem I have with the storytelling and it’s one I have with a lot of Western high fantasy: it’s racially monochromatic.

Elves, dwarves, and hobbits may be intended to be oppressed social minorities…except they’re all portrayed as white. While the Hearts of Stone DLC adds the Ofieri — a conflation of people from India, Pakistan, and various Middle Eastern nations — to remedy this, it’s still bewildering to have groups referred to as “nonhumans” resemble all the other white humans (save for having pointed ears or smaller in stature or both). Why couldn’t elves, say, appear as East Asians? And, no, “‘cause it’s like feudal Europe” isn’t an excuse. If we are going to use history, why not use the mistreatment of non-white groups to emphasize that point in the narrative? It’d give more weight to the way elves are often seen as naturally devious or how females are exoticized due to their race, for example. If science fiction can use extraterrestrials to substitute real ethnic groups, why couldn’t elves and dwarves and hobbits? There is none — unless you simply contrive it.

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As far as the actual gameplay, it’s like a weird conflation between SkyrimRed Dead Redemption, and the aforementioned Dragon Age: Origins but manages to be better than all three combined — with a combat system akin to the Batman: Arkham games or Shadow of Mordor, as well as some eerily similar elements of dodging and riposting opponents from Bloodborne. Unfortunately, it carries over some warts from some of those titles. Big warts.

“Embarrassment of riches” is the first thing to come to mind because, as common in any game with role-playing elements (or made by Ubisoft), there are innumerable items that lie around for the taking and micro-managed to oblivion. Many ostensibly useless knick-knacks become necessary for fashioning new equipment as well as brewing concoctions — which would be welcomed, were the choices not so overwhelming and often go unused anyway.

The concoctions themselves are so specific in function yet last too long at the same time. Then there are oils applied to swords to cause extra damage to certain kinds of monsters, made convoluted due to some odd categorization (why are Nekkers considered “ogroids” instead of “necrophages”?). While this may be consistent with the source material’s lore of a Witcher’s methods — it only translates to busywork, padding out the least interesting aspect of play, in a videogame. Having only half of all types of monster oil and one concoction combining the effects of few others might be considered too streamlined — but it cuts down on so much wasted time and effort for such little added effect.

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It’s a problem endemic in action games with RPG elements attached. So much of the basic gameplay in such titles is based on mechanical skill, mainly mastery of the control scheme, which makes an abstract stat system more complimentary with turn-based combat feel out of place. In fact, given this is an open-world title as well, it feels more like an arbitrary barrier to where you can travel instead of allowing player agency — which is wholly counterproductive to such an experience. These aren’t a matter of challenge either as enemies at higher levels than yourself (each quest has a “suggested level” to accomplish them) are so disproportionately powered, a few blows are enough to kill Geralt, that it doesn’t matter how skillful you are as a player.

It also does not help that newer, better equipment is dropped so much or for sale in shops that anything crafted becomes quickly obsolete. Even one “free DLC” (read: content update) includes access to the best armor and weapons available, so why even put up any pretense of managing inherently inferior equipment? In fact, why have players endlessly replacing various swords than just keeping two throughout that only need to be upgraded or repaired? It could be argued that, because of their status bonuses, things like armor piercing or increased Sign intensity make the player weigh their options — but such effects are either meaningless or negligible. I can’t say which, exactly, because it was barely noticeable. Perplexingly, being able to dismember enemy combatants is noticeable but seems unaffected by any status bonuses from equipment. It occurs often enough as is, with lower level enemies becoming easily separated from their extremities.

Fantastical Philosophy

However, after so many role-playing games with a morality system, where one’s actions are measured on some variation of “good” and “evil,” Witcher III takes the best possible approach: it doesn’t have one. At all. The first area of the game (acting as something of a tutorial section), White Orchard, has two great examples of such.

The first scenario is when approaching a dwarven blacksmith whose workshop has been subjected to arson. Geralt, being a Witcher and thus an adept tracker, is tasked to follow the arsonist’s trail and apprehend him. You find him but are offered financial compensation to let him go free. Now, you can be an upstanding citizen and refuse the bribe to keep your promise. Why not? It is, ostensibly, the right thing to do. The problem is that, due a singular yet irrelevant technicality, the man is hanged and the dwarven blacksmith is further ostracized within the village he works. Was it really the “right” decision, then? Perhaps letting the arsonist go, to have the blacksmith just bite the bullet and live with his loses, might be preferable. The arsonist is a drunken lout, wounded by carnivorous river imps, who spent all his money on booze and is willing to part with whatever he has left to go unpunished for his crime. But, really, didn’t he already punish himself? He wasted the inheritance of his dead mother to get himself shit-faced and then inadvertently commit a crime in the process, towards someone with whom his dead mother was a good friend.

The second scenario involves coming across an herbalist with a young woman in her care, who had been severely wounded in a griffin attack. Geralt is given the option to use a basic healing item for Witchers to help her recover — though he warns that, for anyone who hadn’t gone through the mutagenic process he had, such a potion may have adversely detrimental side effects. You could simply let her die due to that fact, much to the herbalist’s disappointment. If you decide to use the potion, the herbalist is ecstatic and rewards you a bunch of items — thanking you for “actually caring.” Again, this sounds preferable, but the writers throw another curveball by having Geralt meet the injured woman’s significant other and he berates you for it. He explains your potion, though it let her live, broke her as a person. She is stricken by so many psychological dysfunctions that she cannot interact with anyone as she did prior to her recovery.

Which decision is right, which is wrong? That’s entirely up to you, the player, to decide and accept (or excuse). There is no “correct” approach to these situations and, thankfully, the game never lazily reduces them to cases of false equivalence. It is often so easy to make things either a wholly black-and-white affair or cynically claim “both sides” (even if there’s several) are somehow equally awful or valid ’cause reasons. There’s an acceptance and understanding of how complex (or complicated) the world is, where causation and effect are not always clear until well after the fact. Life is predictable, due to recorded history and everyday monotony, yet often punctuated by unexpected events that lead to upheavals and a clash of values. Those values are not always cultural or political differences between people of competing nations and ethnic groups — but your values as well.

Despite being the third and final installment in a videogame franchise, not to mention part of a literary one which first began in 1986, it more than succeeds on its own merits. It succeeds so well that I could not help but order and purchase the first official English-translated anthology of short stories — The Last Wish — that only endeared me further with the material as well as the subsequent Sword of Destiny. I’ve already gotten The Blood of Elves, the first book of the five-part saga, and plan on getting the rest soon enough.

[Originally posted on 8/25/17 @ Medium.com]