Seriously, there’s a show called Magicians. I rarely do straight up reviews or recommendations, but this is a show that I feel not enough people are talking about. So I’m going to talk about it. I’ll tell you why it’s awesome and once we’ve all watched it, come back to this space and I’ll have some deep analyses and we’ll talk together about how awesome it is.
Ok, quick synopsis in case you haven’t heard of this show. It’s basically Harry Potter with college students who drink a lot, swear a lot and behave like awful people. It’s great. Synopsis over, and another transition handled most smoothly. I think I’m getting the hang of this writing thing.
Look, I get that “awful people doing awful” might sound kind of terrible. But it’s, like, super not. Yes, they’re all pretty much some combination of insecure, clueless, obnoxious, self-centered, callous, arrogant and self-destructive, but the writers are mostly aware of this and in general terrible behavior has terrible consequences.
But it’s OK because the characters are terrible in interesting ways and there are these really great moments when these guys who think they know everything realize they are completely in over their heads. And despite all their shortcomings – or maybe because of them – the characters and their reactions feel, for the most part, like real people having real reactions and real hardships. Yes, the writes don’t always pull this off flawlessly – I could name a bunch of decisions that seem to come out of nowhere or don’t really work – but for most part, the relationships and emotions of the characters feel true and real.
In fact, one of the main draws of the show is that while it is very much a fantasy story, with magic and elves and wizards, the characters are from the real world, and many of them, especially Quentin, have read and obsessed over fantasy novels. This mean they react like you would expect real fantasy nerds to react to finding a real fantasy world. They make knowing references to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, but more importantly, it means that they have certain expectations of what happens in a fantasy story, similar to what our expectations, as viewers are. The writers skillfully set up these expectations – both for the characters and the viewers – ad they turn around and savagely and bloodily subvert them. If you haven’t guessed by now, I like when things are subverted. You should too.
Then there are the magic elements themselves. It’s not fantasy storybook stuff, it’s dangerous and messy and dirty and the consequences of messing up, or even just not doing well are tangible. I really respect when shows don’t hesitate to explore the logical conclusions of their premises, even when those conclusions are grim and dark. And I will admit that sometimes events don’t make a whole lot of sense, like when they all suddnely become geese and fly to the south pole for no apparent reason. You might think that I of all people would get upset about that kind of random shenanigans. I didn’t, because first of all, that was a glorious moment, which will defend most strenuously, and secondly those kind of shenanigans just don’t happen too often.
Still, even when stuff doesn’t make sense plot wise, the show consistently uses the magical elements in service of character building and this is what saves it. In one scene, the characters can only cast a spell by telling their partner a deep secret. Again, this doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense, but this then allows the show to springboard to a place where the characters are able to explore and deepen their relationships in a meaningful way. Which is good! That a makes it good to watch. Also, yes, it’s a TV show with a TV budget. For all that though, the special effects aren’t all that bad. There’s even a funny in-joke about how a magical castle had to be made invisible because the magic builders spent so much on the interior they couldn’t afford to make the outside look nice. I chuckled at that joke. So meta!
Did I mention, the show is funny?Because it is. I know I mentioned the character interactions at least. These are funny! Sometimes, the humor is light and nothing more than an incongruous f-bomb. But more than that, the show is really smart about how it uses its humor. It will disarm the viewer with seeming throwaway jokes and you’re like “huh, that’s funny” and you expect the show to move on. But it doesn’t. It keeps exploring the topic, and what starts as just a joke evolves into a deep exploration of the characters or the way society talks about women.
It actually does this again and again, and it’s incredibly effective, especially when it goes to these really dark and bloody places. One second you’ll be laughing at a clever joke, and next you’ll find the laughter catching in your throat, as a character has their hands cut off. This could easily have been jarring in a bad way, but instead it’s jarring in a good way, amplifying the emotions both in the moments of levity and making the shocking moments of blood and darkness all the darker.
So, you know, the Magicians. Go watch it! And then we’ll talk about all the ways the fart jokes are really funny and all the ways it works as a subtle indictment of rape culture.
Like, I actually do like Star Wars. I kind of love Star Wars. That said, here’s another article about why Star Wars sucks. Basically, it’s about the force. I hate the force.
There’s this thing about the force I’m going to call “the evil-switch”. It’s basically, the idea that you can take a person, flick a switch in their head, and suddenly they become an evil version of themselves. It’s what happens when you get seduced by the dark side. You’ve seen the films, you don’t need any more examples, but here’s the one everyone has heard of. So, take Darthy V. Before Darth Vader became himself, he was just plain ol’ Annakin, a pretty stand-up guy, mostly, but then he flipped the switch, and became the most evilest guy you could think of. Then you have Ben Solo and don’t get me started on the expanded universe, but it happens a lot in the expanded universe. People go evil a lot there.
But let’s just think about this for a second. What the films are saying is that the basis of becoming evil is anger. If you have enough anger, if you act on it enough times, you reach the point where you turn into an evil version of yourself. You just become evil. Actually, the way it’s presented in the films, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a slow progression. One act of anger is enough to turn you forever. For Luke, the pivotal moment comes towards the end of Return of the Jedi, where he’s battling Darth Vader and he has him on the ropes. Sure, he’s made to be pretty angry here, but it’s not like we’ve seen him steadily building up to be angrier and angrier earlier in the film.
Yet, the way the scene is presented, it’s pretty much, if Luke had struck down Darth Vader here, then that would have been it. Evil-switch flicked. And once you’ve turned evil, there’s pretty much no way to go back. Yes, again, Darth Vader does it, but only after three films and a lot of effort by everyone. So basically, if you get really angry this one time and do something awful, that’s it, your evil-switch is flicked and your going to be a bizarro evil version of yourself for the rest of your life.
But that’s really not how life works. If you do one bad thing, you don’t suddenly become an evil robot. That’s stupid. People don’t just turn evil all of a sudden. That just doesn’t happen. If we go back to the scene we just talked about, when the emperor asks Luke “so… do you want to be evil?” Luke’s answer is a pretty resounding “um… no. That’s stupid.” It’s a powerful, chest-thumping moment because, “all right! Down with evil, up with good!”
We can compare that to scene in episode three when Annikin gets asked the same the same questions and his answer is almost literally “yeah sure, why not.” That’s scene doesn’t resonate in the same way because that’s not how people behave. We can identify with Luke because if someone said to us, “Hey you, do you want to be evil for the rest of your life?” our answer would also be “um, no. That’s stupid.” That’s why the moment when Annakin’s turn in Episode three rang so false. No one can identify with just turning evil out of nowhere. It’s supposed to be this defining moment in the Star Wars Mythos.
The whole prequel trilogy, and arguable the originals, have all been building to this moment. And it just ends up being kind of “meh.” Lucas has received a lot of criticism for his handling of this scene – justly so – but the problem isn’t necessarily his handling of the scene, or not just that at least, so much as the fact that the basic concept is flawed. Evil-switches don’t exist and I think as an audience we’re reacting to that, even if we’re not aware of it. In a world of lightsabers and levitating rocks, someone just turning evil is more than we are willing to suspend our disbelief. And, if you think this is hypocritical of me, recall, I argued strongly for being able to say something like that.
Having said that, I think I need to clarify what I mean a little bit, and preemptively defend myself. I’m not going to deny that there have been some atrocious and terrible acts committed by man. I’m not even going to deny that normal people have the capacity – under certain conditions – for doing terrible things. I mean, World War II did happen. But the thing is, pretty much every time you have someone committing terrible acts, they are preceded by a fairly predictable pattern of events.In the case of normal people doing terrible things, this usually happens through dehumanization of a person or group, and some sort of distance, either psychological or physical between the perpetrator and the victim. Another typical prerequisite is a gradual escalation of violence and desensitization. In most cases, there is still a lot of emotional distress involved – most people just don’t feel good about doing awful things.
We can compare this to Star Wars where Annakin goes from being basically a decent guy (or at least not super evil) to a remorseless childkiller in a matter of hours. So I’m not saying that some people aren’t evil or that evil doesn’t exist (actually, I would say that, but that’s a discussion for another day) or even that people can’t become persuaded to do evil acts, but I am saying that the way this is presented in Star Wars, the existence of the evil-switch, is patently ridiculous.
I also want to, again, stress how much I adored Rogue One.
So, I’m pasty as fuck. I’m a dude. I’m straight. My parents are pretty well off. I guess, at this point, it’s kind of a cliché to say that I’ve been playing life on easy mode. Doesn’t make it any less true. I’ve never had the experience of being discriminated against or dismissed simply because of who I am. I’m not trying to be smug here, I’m just stating a very basic fact of my existence. To use another cliché (it’s ok be cliché if you acknowledge it, right? Right?) my life has been shaped by privelege in ways that are insidious and though I’m always trying to as aware of it as possible, it repeatedly manages to catch me by surprise when I find out about the reality of people who aren’t me. So here’s something I’m not proud of. There was a period in my life when I, despite the aforementioned privelege, really saw myself as part of a persecuted minority. I didn’t really act on my conviction and I grew out of it fairly quickly, but I thought I’d put it out there as a kind of cautionary tale.
It was around the time I turned 20, and really, what kicked it off was a site called Stumbleupon. This was back in 2010 and Stumbleupon was kind of a big deal. Essentially it was a kind of curated version of the internet, tailored specifically for you. You plugged in your interests and it would take you to sites tagged in those categories. You could upvote or downvote a site and as you kept going, Stumbleupon would take your preferences into account, getting better and better at predicting the kind of sites you like to go to. It never occurred to me that it was also getting better and better at screening out anything that would change my mind.
It started kind of as an accident. When I first entered my interest, I cast a fairly wide net. I selected post-modernism, even though I barely know anything about post-modernism, and post-punk even though I barely listen to current-punk. And one of those interests happened to be atheism. Now I don’t have any religious beliefs, but its not something I consider to be a core part of my existence. And neither did I at the time, it was just something that had always been there, sort of in the background. I had always been very pro-science, but I hadn’t necessarily been anti-religion. That was about to change.
As I stumbled around (as we called it) something happened. A certain kind of story kept popping up. In newspaper articles, or blogs or what have you. The story had various permutations, but the core was often the same. It was the story of the well-meaning atheist and the oppressing religious nut. Sometimes it was a student being brow-beaten by a teacher, sometimes it was a teacher facing off against the school, sometimes it had nothing to do with schools (though, for some reason, it usually did). It probably started very innocuously. A news story about creationism taught in science, a kid being bullied for what he believed. But I clicked the “like” button, and somewhere, the algorithm powering the machinery took note. It started feeding me more and more of these kinds of stories and I kept liking them.
Soon, without my realizing it, my worldview started shifting. I wasn’t just me, boring Erik, I was parter of a larger group, atheists, and we were under siege. On all fronts, the masses of barbarism and blind dogma were fighting the forces of progress and it was up to people like me to keep them from winning. Our champions were people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and James Randi. I was fired up, I really was. I mean, I didn’t just believe religious extremism was bad, I believed all religion was bad. It stopped people from thinking, from questioning and it was my duty as an atheist to spread enlightenment wherever I could. It felt really right and, more importantly, it felt really good. I was part of a group and we had a goal, we had a narrative, and we had an enemy. It was addictive.
But I was wrong, obviously. I think in a world where atheists are overrepresented among the highly educated and the rich, it’s very hard to seriously argue that we constitute some kind of oppressed minority. Outside some parts of America, and repressive regimes, I think I think it’s fair to say you don’t really see any kind of discrimination of atheists whatsoever. This is especially true in Sweden, where the the religious party (the Christian democrats) is one of the smallest, and also kind of a joke.
And not only was I wrong, I was finding myself in some pretty uncomfortable camps. There is a kind of European secularism that holds that religious ideas are incompatible with the principles of democracy. And when they talk about religious ideas they mean Islamic religious ideas. Even Richard Dawkins has been known to say things like Christianity can be useful as a shield to protect against the dangerous Muslims. To these people, any concession to religion (only Islam) was a starting point to the death of free speech. Showing respect was the same as giving up on the European cultural identity. The people who were the most hardcore secularist were also the people who were voting for the far-right parties and saying they weren’t against immigration, just mass immigration. This is what did it for me in the end, finding that a person who was a racist and kind of a fascist had alarmingly similar views on religion.
In the end, I like to think I was fairly harmless. Like google, I try to live by a “don’t be a dick” policy (though, like google, I’m sometimes a dick) and together with my natural timidity and the fact that you don’t really meet a lot of religious people anymore this meant that I didn’t really get the chance to spread my anti-gospel. Even though Stumbleuopn isn’t really a thing anymore, that kind of closed loop information system is still very much a part of how the internet functions. I know first hand how easy it is to get sucked into it and how good it feels to be part of it.
What I’m trying to say is, it’s very easy to look at someone who’s a gamergater or a men’s right activist or whatever and think “wow, that’s an awful person” and I guess, in a way, you’re not wrong, but at the same time, it’s important to remember that at the same time there is a person behind those hateful screeds. I’m not trying to defend these kind of people, or suggest we should feel sympathy, I’m just saying we should remember that the internet is a place where it’s easy to get radicalized. If we respond to hate with hate, that’s not going to solve anything.
I put the warning super short because, otherwise it felt like a clickbaity title and I didn’t want to, like, disappoint you guys because you matter to me. Yes, even you Michael.
Speaking of mutants, here’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time about the Marvel comics. Why do mutants suffer universal hatred and oppression while normal superheroes are just accepted as a fact of life? I mean, they’re all super-powered individuals right? Why have the people of the marvel universe decided that if you’re superpowers are genetic, you’re a villain and a pariah, but if they come from anywhere else, you’re awesome. That doesn’t make any sense!
Hash tag why is this not a tweet?
*Correction: An earlier version of this post had the word “Michael” not in cursive. This was clearly not conveying the fullness of my emotions, so I had to fix it.
I just now had a quick thought and – the benefit of having a platform – I thought I’d share it with you.
The Harry Potter films are usually quite good, I tend to think. Maybe the fact that I literally grew up alongside Harry Potter in my imagination makes me a little biased, but I will stand by my opinion. Even if it is a little biased. They’re good. Generally quite good. Mostly good. They’re all right.
But there’s one scene that stands out as particularly, egregiously bad.
But, as I sometimes tend to, I want to take a step back first and consider the overarching message of the series. It’s kind of hard to pin down, but I usually interpret it as being something along the lines of “racism is bad, don’t be racist.” I don’t think this is a very controversial interpretation.
Voldemort is quite obviously magic Hitler, a point the films underscore by having his followers adopt a mixture of Nazi and KKK iconography, just in case we didn’t get how evil he is.
We also repeatedly get characters the narrative tells us are the ones who Know Their Moral Shit tell us that wizards are being silly for mistreating house elves, centaurs and giants. Now this isn’t completely unproblematic, because what ends up happening is that the mistreated groups are either white people, running into the same pitfalls as the x-men series, or they’re literal sub-humans, like the house-elves.
I don’t know, I feel like the message that racism is bad gets a bit undermined when you cast your misteated race as literal sub-humans, but maybe that’s just me.
But whatever. Rowling’s heart is in the right place. Or something. She’s right that racism IS bad. And the film I’m talking about, The Order of the Pheonix, doesn’t quite try to contradict this message. But it might as well be.
What I’m talking about is the centaurs. In the books, the centaurs are basically way smarter than humans, despite or maybe because the fact that all they seem to do is run around in the woods naked and occasionally look at the stars. I’m being facetiously unfair. But the centaurs, the book keep reminding us, are smart. Super smart.
In the book, the kids use this fact, sort of, to their advantage. They lead Umbridge into the woods, where she proceeds to insult the heck out of a whole herd of Centaurs who then proceed to in return brutally do something to her (something actually pretty awful if this website is to be believed). The point is, in the novels, the brutal treatment is justified because the centaurs are proud creatures and she just insulted their intelligence and Umbridge is also an awful person. Or something. This point is weaker than I thought it would be.
What I’m trying to say is, Rowling really makes an effort to hammer home that Centaurs are beautiful creatures with vast intelligence that deserve to be treated equally. She doesn’t quite pull this off, but like, she tries really hard ok? Stop ruining my childhood, self. Anyway, let’s look at how the film handles the scene where they attack Umbridge. Where again, the point Rowling is trying to make is that Umbridge is being bigoted and insulting the creatures is intelligence.
So how does the film handle this scene?
Yup, the film changes nothing about this scene, except make the centaurs apelike brutes who don’t have speaking parts and only attack Umbridge because “GRRRBLARGH!”.
There is absolutely no hint that they have any type of intelligence, in fact the way they’re depicted calls to mind the evolutionary ancestors of humans.
So, to summarise, the film takes the centaurs, one of the races that Rowling uses to illustrate why we shouldn’t class people as subhumans and turns them into literal subhumans. Somehow, the film manages to take Rowling’s already problematic stance and make it infinitely worse. Good job guys!
I haven’t played Mass Effect Andromeda, but I did finish Mass Effect 3 about four years ago. So here’s a post about that game. I think after the sour taste of Andromeda, everyone’s kind of nostalgic about ME3. And for good reason! It’s a good game! “Shame about that ending though,” all the angry nerds say. Obviously, I disagree.
So, first, I have to acknowledge that it’s not a brilliant ending, and I can definitely see why it arouses such intense emotion. Here’s the thing though. Everyone is wrong and I’m right and here’s why. Basically, as far as I can tell, the internet’s had three major beefs with the ending: it had some serious plot holes, it didn’t explain what actually happened and it robbed the players of control. I think this sums up the main criticisms fairly well, so for the rest of this post I’m going to systematically go through why they are wrong.
From now on, I’m going to assume you not only have played the game, but have intimate knowledge of the complicated lore. So, you know, spoilers I guess.
First of all, I’m going to point out that plotting is Mass Effect at its least defensible. Not going to lie, the ending had some serious plot holes. Let’s move on.
This is not the impression I get from the internet. From what I can understand, the weak plot is actually most people’s smallest problem with the ending. And I can see why. As a work of fiction Mass Effect, brilliant though it may be, is clearly within the mainstream storytelling tradition. As such, it contains two core mainstream values: clarity and agency. What do I mean by these? So clarity just means we are always fully aware of what’s happening at all times. In Mass Effect, we are always told what our choices are, whether those choices are good or evil and we later find out what consequences our choices have. I mean, they even clearly mark the good choice with nice blue text and the evil choice with evil red text. And if it’s not immediately clear what the consequences for our options are, up until the ending, everything we have played has assured us that it will be at some point.As for agency, this is expressed in two ways. We have clear control over Shepard whose actions in turn have consequences throughout the universe. This makes for some powerful gameplay moments when you realize, for example, that choices you made in the first game have had an impact in the third game. The main reason the series ending get’s so much hate is because it betrays –or subverts – both these principles.
The fans expected something like the ending to Mass Effect two. In many ways, the final sequence of Mass Effect 2, the suicide mission, is the culmination of mainstream storytelling in videogames. The player makes clearly defined choices and these clearly defined choices have clearly defined outcomes. Clarity and agency in perfect tandem. There’s even a flow chart of all the possible outcomes. Google it. I want to be clear that this isn’t a knock on the game. There’s nothing wrong with being mainstream. In fact, the game is very satisfying, especially if you manage to get everyone through alive. Which, I mean, not to brag, but I totally did. You get the sense that your choices matter, and in this galaxy, you, a single person can still make a difference. It’s a powerful feeling and it explains why the Mass Effect 2 was so popular.
The ending to Mass Effect 3 is the exact opposite of that. Here we are, at the Citadel, all hope gone, the world seemingly about to end. And… that’s it. Suddenly our choices don’t seem to matter. Depending on how many galactic forces we have assembled, the outcome may change slightly, but not in any radical way. We are given a choice, but it’s a strange one. Control the reapers. Destroy all technology. Synthesis. We are used to a clear binary good/bad, but here the game resolutely refuses to give us any hints about which choice is right. In fact, none of the choices seem very satisfying. And it gets worse because the game, again, refuses to tell us what has happened. A cascading energy source travels throughout the galaxy. The Mass Relays are destroyed. But what does it mean? The game doesn’t tell us. Where does the Normany land? The game doesn’t tell us. What the hell is going on? The game, maddeningly, doesn’t tell us.
Adding more salt to an already frustrating insult-wound is the fact that, no matter what choice you make, the cinematics are practically identical. There’s no clarity, because, what the hell just happened? And there’s no agency because all the endings are pretty much the same, Shepard has some agency, but the player’s agency seems invalidated. What all of this adds up to is an ending that is precisely what no one would expect. A total rug-pul. Everything about the series has been telling us this is a mainstream product. It’s a game with a multi-million dollar budget with amazing graphics published by EA. So it’s no wonder that fans are upset with the ending for jettisoning these principles.
But they’re wrong. Whether it was intentional or not (and it almost certainly wasn’t), the ending of Mass Effect ends up being savagely brilliant. No matter how hard we try, the game says, some things in life can’t be changed. Some choices don’t matter, sometimes good and bad aren’t easily distinguishable and sometimes we don’t know what the consequence of our choices are. It’s a hard lesson, made harsher because we don’t see it coming. In fact, it’s almost kind of nihilist. But this is what life is like sometimes. It’s a wonderfully daring stunt to pull off, especially in such a high-profile game as Mass Effect and it’s more than a little disappointing that the response was so overwhelmingly negative that we probably won’t see anything else like it in an EA game again.
Oh well. For what it’s worth, Mass Effect, I didn’t hate you.
I never saw X-Men Apocalypse because it did not look like fun, so here’e a take on an X-men film that people seemed to actually like. Spoiler: I did not like it.
Actually, that’s a bit harsh. There were some emotionally satisfying arcs, some dramatic moments, some pretty cool effects involving a speedster. What I mean to say is it was just a little overrated. It certainly wasn’t The Force Awakens Bad, but it just felt kind of like the film was a betrayal of it’s own premise. Magneto and Xavier are good friends now, but to save the future Wolverine must go back in time to when the were enemies and make them friends again.
And, I guess, stop Mystique from murdering Bolivar Trask, which sets up a chain reaction that bla bla bla because comics. So, I don’t know, I at least expected the film to be focused on the reconciliation between those two characters. I mean, they’re pretty much friends at the beginning of the first X-men film right? I know that timeline is pretty well tortured by now, but still. Those timelines are still sort of vaguely connected right? And the whole premise of the film is that they have to reconcile. But then, the film happens and there’s no reconciliation at all! They’re enemies, then I guess they’re friends for a while, but then they’re enemies again and the good mutants defeat the evil Magneto.
All this does is put one of the most interesting characters from the comics in the same boring villain role. He is at his most interesting as a good guy, still struggling with the baggage of what he’s done but trying to find redemption. Instead they have him chucking football stadiums at nice people like some sort of comic book villain. Goddamn football stadiums.
Also, am I the only kind of weirded out by the films treatment of race? I guess mutants are at their most effective when they’re standing for lgbt people, but this DOFP is clearly going for the race angle. Sure, the 70s is not quite civil rights era, but everyone involved is super keen to tell you how Proffessor X is the MLK to Magneto’s Malcolm X, even though that in itself has uncomfortable implications (hey, let’s talk about racism, but let’s make all the actors white!). Also, the comparison kind of becomes sort of strained when the stand-in for one of the most prominent civil rights leader starts chucking stadiums at people. Then there’s that thing where the central message of the films , though it seems to be about the oppressed minority, is actually directed at white people.
What am I talking about? So if we got back to the plot, the whole reason we have an apocalypse is that Mystique kills Trask. The catalysing force is violence perpetrated by mutants. Yes, it comes in response to the oppression of mutants by non-mutants, but the film makes it clear that the violence by Mutants is what sets off the genocide. Even though the method that the genocidal machines are created is through Mystique’s blood in a because-comics chain of events, the film the film still makes it clear that it is the violence of the mutants that motivates the humans to build the sentinels.
This is, really, putting the guilt on the mutants in a way. Don’t lose your shit, the film seems to be saying, or you’ll just make everything worse. I guess this is good advice for anyone wanting to make themselves heard, but it’s also super condescending and really easy to say when you’re in the majority and don’t have to deal with constant systematic oppression. Really, it’s a kind of way to shift the blame, kind of “I mean yeah, we shouldn’t be opressing those guys, but they shouldn’t have got so darn worked up about it either.” Comfortably, now, the conversation isn’t about what we can do, or how we (and here, “we” is the majority) are oppressing this group, but about how irresponsibly they are acting. The onus is lifted from us, and we can feel a little better.
Like everyone else, I watched it. Twice. Unlike everyone else I was crushingly, painfully disappointed. I feel like this is enough of a contrarian opinion to fulfill the mandate of this blog, which I guess is “write the stuff no one else will write.” And even if it doesn’t, what the hell. It’s like I always say, I make the rules, I break the rules. So here we go.
Psych! Nope. I’m going to go go off on a couple of maddening tangents. You know what’s a pet peeve of mine? You want to know what really get’s my goat? Who am I kidding, of course you do.
So I’ll tell you. It’s people who say something like, “you can’t complain that this fantasy movie with orcs and elves and magic is unrealistic. All that stuff is already unrealistic!” I hear this a lot. And you know who are the most annoying people? People who say this. Of course I can complain about this stuff. I can and I will. Now here’s why I’m right and they’re wrong.
A film or a book or whatever can have as many fantastical elements as it wants, and that’s completely fine. Mostly. Within some limits obviously. Some things are harder to swallow than others. If it’s something really tenuous like a dictatorial government successfully subduing it’s citizens by publicly killing randomly selected children once a year, I might have some difficulty accepting that this actually works year after year. So there are limits, but usually this can be fine. Give me your elves and your werewolves and monsters and what have you, and I’ll be down with it. Usually I’ll be more than down. I’ll be up, even. I love that stuff! I love it so much that I have blog devoted to nothing more than analyzing the shit out of that stuff. But here’s the thing. For it to work, it has to stay internally consistent. It has to follow it’s own rules. A work of fiction can have as many fantasy elements as it wants, as long as it clearly follows its own rules. It’s when it stops doing this that I – rightfully! Angrily! Furiously! – begin to complain.
Say your world is one in which there are vampires – that’s fine. Say they sparkle – well that’s a bit silly, but sure, it’s your world, you can do what you want. Say they all have their special powers – now your starting to veer into randomly made up on the spot territory, but as long as you’re consistent you’re still mostly fine. But now say that one of your vampires, who has the power to read all minds suddenly stumbles across a person whose mind they can’t read, well now you’re starting to break your own rules. This isn’t just unrealistic, it’s unrealistic within the boundaries you’ve set for yourself. If you give a reason for why this vampire can’t read this person’s mind, it could be ok, but if you shrug it off as just one of those things, like the power of love, then you are breaking you’re own rules in a major way. This is not ok. This makes your universe as a whole less cohesive and believable, and if any random thing can happen, why does anything matter? Yes, I’m making an allusion to the Twilight books. Yes, there are a lot of other reasons why they don’t work. Yes, I have read the first book, but only the first book. No, I didn’t super enjoy it, but no, I think the level of hate it gets is out of proportion to how bad it is. Side-track over. So, anything can be unrealistic, but if it breaks its own ruleset, it’s internally inconsistent, and this is the worst thing for creating a believable alternative universe.
Now that said, obviously, no work can be completely consistent. If everything about your movie is super cool, and otherwise completely works, we might forgive that in a world where water is super scare, your main antagonist would literally just dump millions of liters of water literally onto the sand.
And this is fine! Building a coherent world is hard. No one can ever make everything completley consistent. But the best get close. This is why, to me, the world of Westeros is so compelling. It builds a world with clear rules and then uncompomisingly sets out to follow those rules. Where many authors go through plot contortions to save characters from deaths or gruesome fates, George Martin follows through on the logical consequences of his characters actions. Mostly. Obviously, good characters, dialogue and a whole bunch of other stuff are important too, but if you create a plot in which literally many things that happen is predicated on breaking the fundamental established rules of your universe, then you have a problem. So let’s talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
And, yes, maybe I’m the odd one out here. And I will happily admit the film has a lot of things going for it. It has charm. The characters, especially the new characters, are mostly well-written, pretty well-acted, well-cast and it has some amazing visual set-pieces. And yet, and yet and yet. I can’t love it.
Let’s back up a bit. Again. Let’s talk about what makes Star Wars great. To me, one of the best things about the Star Wars universe was how real the galaxy felt. It felt real because it had a sense of scale. It had a sense of rawness and grubbiness and character. You don’t know what all those guys in Mos Eisly are up to, but they all feel like they could have their own stories, their own crazy adventures. The galaxy felt lived in, by real people. Sure, the details weren’t filled in, but they didn’t need to be. The subsequent films in the series expanded on the galaxy, always hinting at worlds beyond what we saw. The prequels, for all their faults, really work when their adding new places, suggesting new characters. One of the big reason they mostly don’t work is that they then undermine this sense of scale by adding needless connections to the sequels and unnecessary links between characters that didn’t need to be linked. C-3PO is build by Darth Vader. Obi-Wan killed Boba Fett’s father. Chewbacca fought with Yoda. These connections make the universe feel small, answering questions no one was asking, filling in details that didn’t need to be filled in. Breaking the number one rule: the universe is vast and varied. The prequels make it feel small and homogenous and are, thus, within the rules of the work, unrealistic
Ok, but let’s for real, talk about The Force Awakens. I’m going to be the curmudgeon here, but I’m not even going to complain. I’ll just literally tick off the plot and let you form your own conclusions. Then I’ll tell you what those conclusions should have been. By the way, spoilers I guess, though by now, everyone and their grandma has seen the film.
So, one of the first things that happens is that BB-8 sets off in a random direction. On a planet. Planets are big.
Literally, the second person it encounters is the one other person with a connection to the Skywalkers. But ok, maybe the old guy was living near Rey on purpose. Whatever. Moving on. Meanwhile, in space Dameron is escorted to execution by the one stormtrooper having moral doubts, and equally unlikely, the one stormtrooper having moral doubts suddenly finds himself escorting one of the best pilots in the universe. But ok, maybe Finn somehow engineered it so that he was the one to get that mission. They crash, on the planet, which, remember, is big, and literally the first place Finn encounters after walking in an entirely random direction is the settlement where Rey and BB-8 are.
But ok, maybe the TIE fighter was already pre-programmed to fly in the direction of von Sydow’s camp. But do you see wha’t happening here? I’m having to make excuses for the plot. I shouldn’t have to do this. So, getting back to the plot, the next thing that happens is that Finn and Rey need a ship, and literally the first ship they encounter is the Millennium Falcon. No wait, that’s not right. It’s literally the second ship. My bad. They escape into space and literally the first ship they encounter – within minutes – is piloted by Chewbacca and Han. Are you seeing a pattern here? Because I’m seeing a pattern here.
I’m going to stop here, but the entire rest of the film is like this. Actually no. I’m not. I just want to bring up how monumentally unlikely it is that Han and Finn would randomly stumble upon both captain Phasma and an escaped Rey all on a battle-station that is several orders of magnitude larger than the Death Star.
My point is this, a description of all the unlikely coincidences in the film is basically just a description of the film itself. And this is breaking the fundamental rule of the universe. That it’s big. These kind of coincidences don’t happen in a big universe. Now, don’t give me that “you can’t expect realism in a universe where there are lightsabers and the force and spaceships that go pew pew!” baloney. Yes I can! I went to great pains to describe earlier on why I can. All that stuff is fine, but these crazy coincidences are fundamentally incompatible with the many rules of the galaxy.
“So what?” you say. “It’s unrealistic, but you’re being a pedantic nerd. Just turn off your brain and enjoy the spectacle,” you say. Well, grr, that is also one of my pet peeves, but I’m going to get onto that one in another post. The point is that because all these moments are so unrealistic, that robs them of their emotional resonance. Stumbling onto the Millennium falcon, meeting Han and Chewie should be strong, powerful moments, but they aren’t, because they’re not earned. Instead of careful plotting, it’s like the creators of the film just decided Rey and Finn meeting Han and Chewie would be a cool moment, so it happens. Yes, all fiction is like this, but good plotting is there to disguise the fact that this is a made up story and everything happens because the author thought it would be a cool moment.
Let’s look at an example that really does work. For this, I’m going to go back to Game of Thrones. When Ned Stark gets his head chopped off (six year old spoiler!) you can perfectly trace the reason why this happened. He had been going about, bungling his way through some pretty damning secrets of some pretty powerful people. People with access to money, power, very few scruples and some pretty sharp axes. So the logical thing for them to do is chop his head off (or well, imprison him and put his life in the hands of an inbred psychpath but now we’re splitting hairs). Obviously, the number one reason Ned loses his head is because George Martin thought it would be a cool moment. But because he has taken the care to root the head-chopping in a logical sequence of events, we as an audience don’t think very hard about this fact. Now compare this to when Rey and Finn find the Millennium Falcon. It would be cool if our main characters find the Millenium for a good reason. But here it just happens. There’s no attempt to create a logical sequence of events, it’s just a dumb coincidence. It happens because screw you, don’t ask stupid questions. Thus, it is completely unrealistic and we (and like, really, only, I) can’t ignore the fact that it only happens because JJ thought it would be cool if this happens. I can’t ignore this fact. And now, neither can you. You’re welcome.
So, ultimately, the reason the Force Awakens Fails to completely engage me, is because there is no logical connection between events. Essentially, the film is just a series of really cool set-pieces, and great character moments linked together by a series of increasingly unlikely coincidences. Taken on their own, the moments are pretty awesome. Together, because they defy the basic rules of the universe and are inherently unrealistic, they add up to an incoherent mess. This is why I’m baffled by the overwhelming critical reception.
Loved Rogue One to bits though. Like, I actually cried when I walked out of the cinema because it was so good. At least it tried.
Correction: an earlier version of this post featured fewer pictures of goats. This serious shortcoming has now been amended.
Correction 2: I’m vaguely aware that I probably mischaracterized the Twilight films. I know this isn’t technically a correction, is actually kind an unrepentant anti-correction but just… don’t send me angry emails about it. Or do! I would love some indication that people actually read this blog. I’d be thrilled. So there’s the correction. Correction: I would love to receive angry emails.
Here’s something that’s been bugging me. Nerds all over, got super super upset when Superman killed Zod at the end of Man of Still No Colours. “Superman is super good, he never kills!” everyone said. I’m not here to make fun of that sentiment. I agree, superheroes shouldn’t kill. From everything I read, it seems like it was part of Snyder’s agenda to make the point that sometimes good guys have to kill, or something. And that’s bad. I mean, he could have had superman find a way to incapacitate him or whatever. But no, he wanted to show that sometimes good guys have to kill. For once I agree with the legion of angry fans. It was useless and pointless and completely against what the character and, you know, morality, stands for.
But here’s what’s bugging me: in Avengers 2: The Clusterfuck Setup For Sequels, pretty much exactly the same scene happened, only, like, a thousand times more disturbing. And although that film does mark the moment when we went from “holy shit, Marvel can do no wrong apart from Iron Man 2 and Hulk” to “holy shit, Marvel can make mediocre films that aren’t Iron Man 2 and Hulk” the bones of our complaints weren’t with the final scene. But it shouldn’t have been.
Quick question. Am I describing Superman or Avengers here? After a climactic battle which has taken enormous toll in terms of lives and property destruction, two beings – alien and superior to anything on the planet – battle and one of them ends up killing the other in cold blood for the good of everyone else. If you said “both” well, done, you read the sentence at the beginning of the paragraph.
I’m of course talking about the scene where Vision uses his vision-magic to take Ultron apart. The scene is remarkably similar to the climax of Man of Still Here I Guess, except that instead of being in the middle of killing some bystanders, Ultron is in the middle of harming literally nobody. Vision makes the calculation that the world is better off without Ultron, and kills him.
Seriously, watch these scenes back to back.
At least Superman has the grace to be upset. I would argue that Age of Ultron is even more disturbing than Still, because it’s not a spur of the moment, thing, it’s a calculated, rational, cold-blooded killing of a desperate being begging for its life. Why did we all, and really, I mean you all, get suuper upset when Snyder did this but mostly shrugged when Whedon did it?
Well, I’ve got a couple of theories, and handily they also function as rebuttals to any counterarguments against my argument. The first is that it’s OK, because Ultron is just a robot. He’s not a person, so killing him isn’t wrong. Except he’s not just a robot. The film goes to great length to establish that it’s a fully conscious artificial intelligence. So what if he he doesn’t have an organic body? He’s intelligent, he has emotions, he feels pains. Just because he’s not human doesn’t make it OK to kill him.
Well, maybe you could argue that it’s ok to kill him because he was evil and he was going to destroy all life. And here you have a point, except so was Zod. Either it was ok to kill Zod or it was not ok to kill Ultron. You really can’t have it both ways.
But you can argue that the hypocrisy is OK, because Superman has a legacy and that is he doesn’t kill. That legacy has been built up over decades. So, it’s OK for Vision to kill, but not Superman. But here’s the thing. Vision pretty much is Superman. Ok, he’s not, but he is. They don’t look the same, but their powers, and their power levels are pretty much the same, and forget what I said at the beginning of this sentence, they do kind of look similar, if you ignore the fact that one of them is red.
OH MY GOD IT’S LIKE THEY’RE CLONES.
And remember, the film goes out of its way to suggest that Vision is the closest thing to a perfectly benevolent being. I mean, he’s the only one apart from Thor who can pick up Mjölnir (and, I mean, really? Thor? He’s a perfectly worthy being? What criterion is the hammer going off anyway?). So, although he’s not actually superman, the film gives him pretty much all the signifiers of Superman.
So, here’s the thing that really bugs me, apart from the hypocrisy. I wasn’t that fond of either Man of Still Going To Keep Doing This Stupid Gimmick, or Avengers 2, and I found the ending to both a little disturbing. What’s going on is that the filmmakers are trying to set up an interesting moral dilemma. If someone is all powerful, evil, and threatening to kill everyone, is it OK to kill them first? Both films fall squarely in the affirmative. Yes, they say. If an evil, all powerful being wants to kill everyone, not only is it ok to kill them first, it’s your responsibility. The problem is, the question is based on false premises. In the real world, we don’t have inherently evil people who will kill everybody if left unchecked and even if we did, telling them apart from normal people who have gone astray and can be helped is nearly impossible.
This matters, because the worldview espoused in these films is inherently conservative, and borderline fascistic. The view that some people are incurably evil and need to be put down has strong implications for how we view the justice system. It leads to things like the mass incarceration they’re seeing in the States and, taken to it’s logical conclusion, fascism. Obviously Man of Still just a stupid movie, isn’t going to lead to concentration camps, but it does promote the kind of simplistic thinking that leads us to make unproductive changes to our justice system. And that’s not cool.
Huh, wow, this was maybe a stronger point than I intended it to be. Oh well.
Correction: an earlier version of this post had the same paragraph twice. Thanks to Michael Gardner for pointing this out me look like a fool in process. I mean, no one would have noticed, but now everyone knows and I look like a fool. Thanks, Michael.