It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a year since my original review of Life is Strange. I want to first apologize to everyone for letting my blog sit idle for so long, and secondly I’d like to thank everyone who’s contributed to my Patreon despite the fact I’ve been totally falling down on the job. And I’d like to extend a personal apology to Martin, who gifted me Life is Strange and then waited patiently for a follow-up I never provided.
Well the wait is over, Martin. Here’s the first of several follow up articles on Life is Strange.
Life is Strange
On my first playthrough of Life is Strange, I was so impressed with the characters that I didn’t pay attention to the symbolism present in the game. Fortunately my second time through the game, I took the time to fully appreciate the imagery and symbolism that you’d never even notice if you didn’t take the time to look.
I’ll talk about some of the more subtle symbolism in another article, but for now I want to focus on the one symbol that dominated the game: the Vortex. From the tornado to the Vortex club, vortex’s are the most obvious and most important symbol in the game. Destructive yet strangely beautiful, the supernatural tornado that almost destroys Arcadia bay is the harbinger of death that sets the stakes of the game’s story.
At first I’d just assumed that the giant tornado was a representation of nature reacting to the changes in the timeline, and perhaps it really is that simple. But if you’d care to follow me down the rabbit hole, subsequent playthroughs have suggested that maybe the vortex isn’t just nature attempting to right itself. Perhaps it’s something deeper, and far more disturbing.
After the tornado itself, the Vortex club represents the biggest symbolic enemy in the game. Though Mark Jefferson is the story’s antagonist, the Vortex club is what allows him to operate with impunity and, worse yet, are representative of much bigger problems. They’re a microcosm of Arcadia Bay itself, outwardly beautiful and welcoming but harboring darkness and ugliness beneath.
The Vortex Club represents everything that Max hates about Blackwell: the elitism, the bullying, their casual cruelty. Their name is never really explained as far I could tell, but Vortex club? That can’t be a coincidence.
What if the Vortex is the physical manifestation of her frustration and rage? Let’s face it, on her long journey through the game’s story, Max finds far more wrong with this little town than she finds right. Drug dealers, violence, corruption, and the cruel dispassionate way it grinds the life out of the people living in it. There’s a ton not to like about this small town. Admittedly it doesn’t differ all that much from pretty much every other city in the world, but for Max? She’s seeing her hometown for what it is, for the first time in her life without the benefit of a child’s sense of optimism.
Arcadia Bay has destroyed Max’s best friend’s hopes and dreams, trapped Chloe under a mountain of debt and crippling hopelessness. Arcadia Bay stood by quietly while Kate was ruthlessly bullied to the point of suicide, and it wasn’t until she was standing on the rooftop that anyone gave a damn. Nearly every member of the Arcadia Bay community that we meet is in some kind of pain, emotional, physical, or financial. The only exception being Samuel, the groundskeeper.
Perhaps the Vortex is Max’s subconscious wish to see this town washed from the face of the Earth. Which would suggest she’s far more powerful than she knows. Moments of extreme emotion allow her to stop time, but subtle frustrations and indignities can be just as powerful. Getting angry might cause you yell at someone, but living life in a constant state of frustration and fear can lead you to doing things far more destructive. With Max’s powers, she might very well be summoning this tornado without even realizing it.
And in true Max fashion, she even tries to warn people of the impending destruction, and true to that nature of most people, they ignore the obvious.
Birds die en mass, a snow storm in 60 degree weather, whales beach themselves, and an eclipse comes out of nowhere. It’s as if the entire world is warning Arcadia Bay to get the hell out of dodge, but no one is listening. Which is the problem that continually plagues Max throughout the game.
Principal Wells doesn’t listen when she tells him about Nathan’s gun. Victoria doesn’t listen when Max warns her that Kate is being driven to the edge. Chloe sure as hell doesn’t listen whenever Max tries to warn her off from doing something stupid.
Even with the power of time travel at her command, even Max can’t force someone to listen if they don’t want to hear. Hell, even with the ability to manipulate time, Max struggles to make even one person’s life better in this hellhole of a town. So is it really surprising that deep down inside, she might want to destroy it?
The vortex is symbolic of time and time travel of course, with every event in time spiraling outward to affect everything else around it. But if you dive deeper you’ll find it’s also symbolic of life, a rather poignant observation of our lives in this existence.The vortex is symbolic of frustration as well, but only in so much as life is frustrating.
If you were to stand in the center of a vortex and looked out, all you would see is a whirling mass of air, debris and mist. You wouldn’t be able to see outward or move in any direction other than where the vortex was already heading. You would essentially be trapped inside.
In a way we’re all in the center of our own personal vortexes, we just can’t see them. It’s easy to begin to feel trapped just as Max and Chloe do in their lives. We’re trapped on the inside of this swirling maelstrom of life, at the mercy of random circumstance and the inertia of events that were set in motion long before we existed. The honest truth of the matter is that we have very little control over our lives, and all we can really do is to create our calm little center in the middle of the vortex.
And if we’re lucky, we find someone to share that center with us.
Whether my theory about the tornado’s origins is correct or not, unraveling the symbolism behind many of Life is Strange‘s recurring images has been a wonderful challenge. I’m looking forward to continuing my exploration of the game’s themes and imagery, so stay tuned for more articles.
When my father died back in January, I was surprised at how well I took it. The tears were there of course, especially the morning he died and at his memorial. But otherwise I had all this grief stuff figured out, man, emotionally in-tune with myself and all that good stuff. I was a goddamn guru, I was thinking of starting up my own line of self-help books. But the reality is…
I miss my dad. A couple years ago I would have sworn I’d never say those words.
And then, two months ago, the dreams started. I rarely remember my dreams, at least usually, but these were so vivid. And they weren’t pleasant. I didn’t dream of my father resting happily in the afterlife, or even something so innocuous as simply seeing him in an unrelated stream of dream imagery. I was reliving my mistakes, my regrets.
I wasn’t a good son to my father. He was too depressed, too pessimistic, too stubborn. In short, he was everything I was, everything I hated about myself. So when a few years back he wanted to go on vacation with me, just him and me, I hedged. I made excuses, told my mom I didn’t want to be alone with him, until he finally gave up. I wish so much that I had gone, that I had made the effort to be with him when I had the chance.
I was so angry at him for so long, and now that he’s gone I don’t even remember why. All the anger and frustration, it died with him.
Death is the focus of so many of humanity’s religions, why people die and what happens to them afterward, but maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe death is for the living, a way to remind us of what’s important. To wipe away everything that clouded our love for each other, all the petty frustrations of our daily lives. I only wish it didn’t take someone dying to remember the love.
Now that he’s gone, I realize how much he loved me and everything he did for me.
He was one of my biggest fans, right next to my mom, and he always wanted to read my stories. Even when I was twelve years old and writing terrible fantasy stories, just god awful stuff and he loved it. He praised my imagination and encouraged me to keep writing. In his final years he’d always ask what I was working on, and I told him about all the half-finished stories I was always saying I was working on. Even stories that were nothing more than an outline in my head, I’d tell him that I was working on it.
“I’d like to read it when you’re finished.” He’d say.
But I had plenty of time. There was no need to rush.
Now he’ll never read the stories I’ll write. Never see my name in print. He’ll never read my blog again.
So I loved the new Star Wars. A lot of people didn’t, however. I understand why, and honestly I gave The Force Awakens a pass on several flaws simply because it was well-paced adventure story that recaptured the magic of Star Wars. That said, I am going to be expecting more from the second film in the new trilogy, because as popular as A New Hope was, it was The Empire Strikes Back that cemented Star Wars’ position as a cultural icon.
If the next movie wants to succeed, here’s three thing it can’t do.
(Note: Spoilers for The Force Awakens to follow, and this article is referring to Episode VIII not the Rogue One spin-off.)
3. Load the Movie with Cameos
I mentioned that the monster VS bounty hunter chase scene in The Force Awakens seemed completely out of place. Well I recently found out that one of the Bounty Hunter teams that shows up hunting Han Solo were from the cast of The Raid. That’s when I realized there are way too many cameos in this movie. I have no problem with a cameo so long as it blends seamlessly with the rest of the film, but most of the cameos in The Force Awakens don’t. There are seams. Big, ugly, rippable seams.
The Raid was a terrific movie, I loved it, but that doesn’t mean you can just throw the actors from that into Star Wars and somehow expect it to improve the film. If the scene had incorporated the actor’s amazing talents, like having the bounty hunters be incredibly good at close-quarters combat, then maybe it could have worked because at least then you could introduce them again in the next movie. As it is though, they show up, have like two lines of dialogue, and then run from the giant monsters. Then they report Han Solo has the droid to the First Order, but that information didn’t need to be conveyed because we later see spies at Maz’s tavern relay the same information. As it is, the scene only served to slow down the film.
However the prize for worst cameo is a tie, and it goes to these two:
These two appear as Admiral Statura and the stupidly named Snap Wexley. Now they’ve both worked with J.J. Abrams before, and they’re both good actors. But I felt they just didn’t fit into the scene they were shoehorned into.
I mean Admiral “IT’S A TRAP!” Ackbar was in the room, the most badass piece of calamari to ever escape a sushi restaurant, and they didn’t let him deliver the briefing? Instead they let these two do some technobabble that builds absolutely no excitement for the coming battle. Admiral Ackbar’s solemn voice added weight to the briefing about the second Death Star, something that would have been gladly received in the briefing for Starkiller.
Now I get it, it’s Star Wars. If J.J. Abrams was a personal friend of mine, I’d be begging him to give me a bit part in the new movie. Hell, if I had the necessary guile and insanity, I’d kidnap his family to be a small part of the next Star Wars movie. But as the director helming the new Star Wars, J.J. Abrams needs to say no to these people. He needs to let me murder his family rather than give me a role in the next movie.
That said, I hope JB-007 makes another appearance.
2. Skip over the details
I touched on the fact that The Force Awakens often glazes over the details, and how that was fine because it was a callback to the original movie. However if Disney wants to create the same incredible universe that the original universe did, they’re going to have to do what Empire did: flesh out the mythos and lore of the universe. Honestly I don’t care if the next movie explains how the First Order built Starkiller base, and actually I hope they don’t because any explanation will probably sound stupid. I do, however, want to know more about the First Order, why there is (or rather was) a peace treaty between them and the Republic, and how much space they control.
The Empire Strikes Back conveys a ton of information about the Star Wars universe without ever having to stop to explain it in a long drawn out expositional conversation. The Executor Super Star Destroyer as Vader’s command ship, cements the technological superiority of the Empire over the Rebellion, as do their AT-AT walkers. The probe droids sent out at the beginning of the film give the audience a grasp of how vast the universe is, and the difficulty of locating the rebels. Admiral Ozzel tries to convince Vader that the base on Hoth might be pirates or smugglers, subconsciously letting the the audience know that this universe is teeming with life beyond just the Rebellion and the Empire.
Then of course there’s the bounty hunters, which introduced us to Boba Fett. He was hilariously inept as a bounty hunter, but the way he was introduced sold him as a capable and dangerous villain. The hierarchy of the Empire is also revealed, whereas in A New Hope it was kind of nebulous. In the original movie Darth Vader seemed subordinate to Grand Moff Tarkin. The Empire Strikes Back reveals him to be the highest ranking person, second only to the Emperor. And when the Emperor commands Vader to communicate with him, Vader immediately obeys; abandoning his dogged pursuit of the Millennium Falcon. Vader’s demeanor, and the Emperor’s dialogue about disturbances in the Force, reveal the Emperor to be a powerful enemy.
Point is, a lot of small details were sprinkled throughout the film, ultimately helping to cement Star Wars in the public consciousness and sparking people’s imagination. It’s that kind of detail that needs to be liberally sprinkled across the next movie. Let us learn through osmosis how this new universe works, how powerful the New Republic is compared to the First Order. What is Leia’s position in the Republic? Where did Snoke come from, and what are his abilities?
If the next movie keeps the details as nebulous and vague as The Force Awakens did, then I can’t see them sustaining an interesting world in the long-term. Note: I’m not saying to go crazy like The Extended Universe eventually did. Just some background to flesh out this new universe.
1. Make it all about Skywalker(s)
Now I know Luke’s lineage was a huge factor in the original trilogy, but if Disney wants to make Star Wars movies from here to eternity, it’s going to need to leave behind the whole ‘chosen lineage’ aspect behind. There’s a lot of speculation around Rey’s lineage, but I’m really, really hoping she doesn’t turn out to be a Skywalker.
Because it’s boring. It’s been done before, and nothing in the story requires her to be a Skywalker. If Rey ends up being yet another Skywalker, then basically we’re saying that the entire universe revolves around one family and that will kill Star Wars faster than a vengeful George Lucas reacquiring the rights. If it continues down that road, eventually Star Wars is going to end up looking like World War I, in that all the leaders are related to each other.
I’m not saying Luke can’t play a part, obviously. He needs to train Rey and I’m looking forward to seeing him actually do something in the next film. I’m not saying that the Skywalkers can’t still play important roles in the universe.
I’m just saying they can’t be the only thing holding the universe together.
Yes, I admit it could be an incredibly poignant story if Rey ends up being a long lost sister or cousin to Kylo Ren. But at the same time, come on… we can craft an amazing story without having to rely on the family angle again. We really don’t need to go down this road again.
The sixth episode of Game of Thrones premiered on Sunday, putting us past the midway point and doing a lot to repair the damage that was inflicted by some extremely questionable writing last year. The showrunners even went so far as to put an apology in the show, in the form a meta-apology from Petyr Baelish, admitting that Sansa’s wedding last year was a ridiculous misstep for both the story and the show at large.
Beyond apologies though, this season of Game of Thrones has been delivering the kind of writing that made me fall in love with the books and the show in the first place. This is quite possibly the best season we’ve had since Season 3.
They’ve been doing a hell of a lot right in this season, but there are three major steps they’ve taken to rectify and improve the quality of Game of Thrones.
1. Killing off Extraneous Characters
When the first episode premiered I was disappointed by the death of Alexander Siddig’s character (a character seen so infrequently I can’t remember his name) because I’m a huge fan of the actor. It also seemed like a continuation of the sloppy writing, and sloppy everything else, that marred the entire Sand Teen storyline. However, after several remarkably murderous episodes, I can see why characters are dropping like flies.
The showrunners of Game of Thrones are doing exactly what I said they needed to do in my review of the first episode. As I pointed out, the main threat has been revealed and the writers behind Game of Thrones need to start quickly wrapping up extraneous storylines. Which means murdering the shit out of anyone who doesn’t move that story forward.
Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t like how either Roose Bolton or Osha died. The death of Roose Bolton in particular has huge ramifications for Ramsay’s storyline and deserved more attention, but Game of Thrones ran out of time. Last year, instead of Sansa’s rape and escape, it should have focused on Ramsay planning to kill his father, but it didn’t and now we just need to move on. Plus, Ramsay has always been a rabid dog who doesn’t think ahead, so just straight out stabbing his father in the gut isn’t completely out of character for him.
Yes, I’m upset Osha was killed too, she was a fascinating character. However, based on the fact the actress looked like she might be pregnant, there’s a good chance that there was a limited window of availability to shoot her scene. So it make sense that she was rather quickly dispatched in a way that didn’t require a drawn out fight scene.
As much as I love stories, storytelling has to take a backseat to reality when it comes to the people who create our stories. Plus Hodor’s amazing death scene more than makes up for the fact that Osha’s and Roose’s were a bit rushed.
2. The Story is Moving Forward
I feel like for the past two seasons the story has been stuck, unable to move forward. Several characters have been on a hamster-wheel, Jamie, Arya and Daenerys in particular. Jaime’s character has been absolutely static, which is tragic because his was one of the most interesting arcs in the book. Arya has been messing around with the Faceless assassins, but aside from murdering a King’s Guard, her character hasn’t grown or changed since leaving Westeros. Daenarys has been stuck in Meereen trying to battle of the Sons of the Harpy, but Meereen has always just been a pit stop on Dany’s quest to conquer Westeros, and a lot of her efforts to pacify the city has seemed like wasted effort.
Last season when Dany’s storyline ended with her once again being abducted by the Dothraki I complained that it was just a boring rehash of her first season. That was true, we didn’t see anything in the last few episodes that we didn’t see in the first season. But I have to give Game of Thrones credit, they at least wrapped this up quickly. I was afraid they were going to spend the entire season slowly building up to Dany gaining control of the Mongol Dothraki horde, but they basically wrapped up the whole thing in a single episode. Her character’s arc is also starting to look quite interesting, since she’s beginning to look less and less like the heroic savior of Westeros, and more like her insane father.
I think we were all excited to see Arya turn into a peerless assassin and return to Westeros in a murderous rage to kill all the characters we hate. Then she got stuck there doing nothing for the better part of three years, and we were all ready for her to move on. I’m glad that she’s not only moved on but also rejected the Faceless. Arya’s strong personality is the best part of her character and watching her turn into an emotionless automaton of death would have been tragic. Ultimately this storyline took way too long to reach this conclusion, this was a coming-of-age story for Arya and her learning of, and rejecting, the teachings of the Faceless shouldn’t have taken this long. But at least we’re finally past it, and I’m looking forward to seeing how she escapes the Faceless, or doesn’t as the case may be.
Jaime Lannister’s storyline has been without a doubt the biggest wasted opportunity of the entire show. In the books, his storyline was one of the most interesting and redemptive arcs in the entire Song of Ice and Fire saga. Early in the show he was well on his way to achieving that arc with his budding romance with Brienne and the reveal that the infamous “kingslayer” slew an insane king to save a city. Then for some bizarre reason the show runners made Jaime rape Cersei at their son’s funeral and his entire arc went off the rails. This season though, after being cleverly outmaneuvered by the High Sparrow, he seems to be back on track. Hopefully his coming siege of Riverrun will also see him reject Cersei and become the good man that’s been struggling to get free of his sister’s grasp.
And the greatest thing of all? It seems like the stupid Dorne storyline has been completely dropped, which can do nothing but help the overall quality of the coming seasons.
Political Intrigue and the White Walkers
The political intrigue of Westeros is one of the defining aspects of the show. George RR Martin’s use of feudal governments to create a compelling drama is downright genius. However after Tyrion’s trial, all the intrigue and plots just disappeared, aside from the horribly constructed Dorne plot. The High Sparrow has largely just been sitting around looking innocent while taking on the role of an inquisitor. We haven’t seen any kind of political manuevering on his part or any attempts by the Lannisters to counter them, aside from sitting around complaining on how awful he is. That has all changed this season.
The High Sparrow is now showing his political acumen, skillfully manipulating the witless boy king into publicly admitting that the gods (and by proxy, High Sparrow) are on even footing with the Crown, greatly weakening the monarchy. The Lannisters and the Tyrells actually tried to counter the Sparrows growing influence, even if it did blow up in their face. And I’m pretty sure Margaery Tyrell is playing the long-con with the High Sparrow, and will probably end up usurping both the Sparrows and the Lannisters. Obviously this is another plotline that’s going to need to be resolved so we can move onto the main event, but until Dany has gotten to Westeros, the religious conflict brewing in King’s Landing looks to be an exciting diversion.
Undoubtedly the best part of the last two episodes has been the White Walkers finally taking center stage. For the majority of the series they’ve been lurking on the outskirts of the story, showing up to remind us of their presence and power, before sinking back into the shadows. After last season’s Hardhome episode though, that’s no longer an option, and I’m glad to see the writers are putting them front and center. Again, I was afraid the entire season would be wasted on Bran reliving past events with the Three-Eyed Raven, but Bran alerting the Night King to his presence was one of the best moments in the show.
I’ll admit I’m a little disappointed at the reveal of The White Walker’s origins, I did hope for something a bit more than Frankenstein’s monster. However, we still don’t know how the Night King came to control the White Walkers, or how their weapons are forged, or why Dragon Glass can both create and destroy them. There are still so many questions, the answers to which I hope add more complexity and depth to them beyond weaponized monsters gone amok.
Last season was a mess, but I’m glad to see our collective patience has paid off and that we are well on our to way to finding out who finally wins the Game of Thrones.
I’ve always enjoyed Captain America’s movies more than any other in the Marvel cinematic universe. While I also enjoy the other Marvel movies, aside from Thor which I’ve never been able to get into, the Captain America movies have been consistently top quality in my opinion. Of all the heroes, I find the Captain the most relatable and human member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Yet in spite of all that, I was afraid Captain America: Civil War would be disappointing. Mainly because I was afraid of three things happening:
The Civil War would be sparked by something horribly contrived and be neatly resolved by the end.
None of the heroes would actually be harmed in the movie.
That it was going to be an Avengers-lite movie and Captain America’s role would become secondary in his own movie.
Fortunately though I was wrong on all fronts. The Sokovia Accords, and the incident that sparks its inception, seemed like a realistic reaction to superheroes (though you can argue whether that’s a good or bad thing in a series dedicated to superheroes.) There are consequences to the fights, and they escalate in a way that builds the narrative. And despite the huge lineup of heroes, the movie remains centered around Captain America.
In short, Captain America: Civil War continues the proud tradition of being the best films in the series and has an excellent narrative that will have interesting effects on future Marvel films. It’s a fun movie that takes a look a look at the human side of Marvel’s biggest superheroes.
[For the sake of simplicity I’m referring to all the characters by their superhero name, except for Bucky because I like that name better than Winter Soldier.]
Captain America: Civil War
A Storytelling Review
The beginning of Captain America: Civil War was the worst part of the movie, mostly because I had no idea what was going on. Captain America, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and Falcon are tracking down a criminal attempting to steal a biological weapon. The problem being that I had no idea who this criminal was, though it was made obvious he had some history with the Captain. It’s the first noticeable sign of strain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was only a matter of time before the weight of carrying so many stories eventually began to show. I only found out who this criminal was (Brock Rumlow, AKA Crossbones) after searching IMDB for the purposes of this article, so now I remember he was the goon who tried to capture the Captain in the elevator at SHIELD headquarters in Winter Soldier. If you’re familiar with the comic books you’ll probably have an easier time recognizing him thanks to the crossbones on his uniform, but for those like me that only know superheroes through the film franchises, you’ll likely feel a bit lost as well.
Yet the fact I didn’t know who it was at the time didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the story, as this villain’s only real job in the narrative is to provide the inciting incident that sets off the story. When Crossbones realizes he’s lost he distracts Captain America by telling him about Bucky, the Winter Soldier, which throws off Captain America long enough for Crossbones to detonate an explosive vest he’s wearing. Fortunately the Scarlet Witch manages to contain the explosion with her telekinetic powers, saving Captain America. Unfortunately, she can’t contain the explosion long enough and as she’s trying to levitate Crossbones into the air, the vest explodes and takes out an entire floor of one of the nearby office buildings. Worse yet, the explosion kills missionaries from a highly reclusive nation called Wakanda, sparking international outrage as people blame the Avengers for their deaths.
Alone this incident seems pretty minor, and it seems like a gross overreaction to what was clearly an accident. Then the Secretary of State, played by the ever persuasive William Hurt, presents a rather compelling argument: the Avengers have been indirectly responsible for several near world-ending catastrophes, violating the national sovereignty of several nations (including the United States) in the process. Now I’ve got to give Marvel props for pursuing this storyline, because it’s a risky move, and it’s already sparked a lot of debate among fans and critics.
Can Marvel superheroes exist in a world where they have to obey laws? A lot of the appeal of superheroes is their ability to act outside the law. I mean does anybody really want to see Iron Man don his superpowered tank/suit and then read criminals their Miranda rights and then wait six months for the trial to start so he can give testimony. No, we want to watch Iron Man carry a nuke through an inter-dimensional rift. So I can see why some people are concerned with this turn in the narrative, because it could easily backfire. However if Civil War is any indication, I think Marvel is in safe hands and I applaud the writers for confronting ideas that are usually taken for granted in superhero stories.
I love the story possibilities presented and Civil War took full advantage of them. Iron Man agrees with the Secretary of State and thinks the Avengers need to have some constraints and be held accountable to someone. Captain America believes that the Avengers need to remain independent or risk being used by the government for political purposes, or worse, being stopped from helping people because of politics. What I love about this conflict is that both sides have merit and both characters have their reasons for believing in their convictions. I was afraid Iron Man or Captain America would be shoehorned into being a bad guy, and that they’d be forced to act against their character in order for the narrative to work.
Fortunately the exact opposite is true, and both Iron Man and Captain America’s beliefs are all extensions of their characters and the events in previous Marvel movies.
Ever since the The Avengers, Iron Man has been suffering from PTSD and while it was kind of addressed in Iron Man 3, it’s not a condition that can be cured by blowing up a bunch of Iron Man suits. More to the point, Iron Man wants someone to be accountable to because he doesn’t want to be in charge anymore. He’s the de facto leader of the Avengers, and that responsibility has been wearing him down. To be honest I didn’t like Age of Ultron, but I did like that Iron Man was confronted with his greatest fear: the death of his friends. He created Ultron, in part, so that he wouldn’t have to be the leader anymore and some larger entity could care for the safety of Earth. And when Ultron went rogue, Iron Man felt responsible for that too, crushing him beneath the psychological burden of guilt and fear. For all the power his Iron Man suit provides, his mind is still human.
Civil War, not content to sit on this previous character building, adds even more backstory by introducing us to Iron Man’s father. It shows us that Iron Man’s sarcastic rebelliousness against authority figures started with his attitude towards his father. His father died with the last words from his son being those of sarcastic indifference, a regret Iron Man holds to this day. So while Iron Man finds himself resenting authority figures, he’s also terrified of being without them.
With all this in mind it makes perfect sense that Iron Man, who once gave an Ayn Rand inspired speech in Iron Man 2, has come to see government oversight as the only way forward.
Meanwhile Captain America has his own reasons for his conviction in maintaining the independence of the Avengers. He began his life as a soldier fighting in World War 2 against a nation that used its military to perform the most horrific atrocities mankind has ever seen. Then later in The Winter Soldier, he uncovered a secret Hydra conspiracy to take over SHIELD and that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was that the United States government signed off on using the Helicarriers to effectively implement martial law without anyone ever knowing it. So he’s seen bureaucracy corrupt and destroy nations, and doesn’t want to become the unwitting weapon of an evil conspiracy, or be prevented from helping people because of some deadlocked oversight committee.
Captain America has always been the epitome of the individualist spirit, the belief that even a single person can make a difference. A belief that’s further reinforced by the death of his old girlfriend, and her eulogy which reminds Captain America of why he fights.
Still, Civil War‘s pacing is dead on and the Avengers don’t simply dissolve into a brawl the moment the Sokovia accords are presented. Instead, Captain America agrees to back out gracefully and leave the others to sign the accords if they choose. At the signing of the accords though, a bomb is set off, killing the king of Wakanda and implicating Bucky in the ensuing investigation.
Obviously Bucky has been framed but that knowledge doesn’t detract from the story because Civil War is wise enough to not present it as a mystery. Instead the writers at Marvel used it to set the stage and stakes of the ensuing battle.
Captain America breaks ranks, and a multitude of laws, in order to save Bucky from the police. During the fight they encounter Black Panther, who turns out to be T’Challa, the son of the assassinated Wakanda king. He appears with a suit made of the same material as Captain America’s shield, and while there’s a brief mention of how he got the suit, I’m honestly okay with Black Panther just showing up. At this point not every superhero needs their own movie dedicated to their origin story, and Black Panther’s desire for revenge is the perfect starting point for him. He slides effortlessly into the Marvel canon without derailing the pacing of Civil War.
After the fight Captain America, Falcon, Bucky, and Black Panther are taken into police custody. Once again, Captain America is given the chance to sign the accords, but this time it’s presented as an ultimatum: sign or go to jail. Which is exactly the wrong way to approach Captain America, since he’s one of those people who would go to jail for their convictions before sacrificing them.
While the Avengers argue over the Sokovia Accords, a man posing as a psychologist is brought in to evaluate Bucky. Using the keywords implanted into Bucky’s brain, the imposter learns the location of the laboratory where Bucky was created and escapes. Leaving Captain America and Bucky on the run again.
With the Avengers split in two, both sides start to gather allies. Captain America and Falcon get their gear returned to them by Sharon Carter, the granddaughter of Captain America’s former girlfriend. I want to take a brief moment here and say that I found Captain America’s new romance with the granddaughter of his former girlfriend both awkwardly shoehorned in, and incredibly creepy in a Woody Allen kind of way. It felt completely unnecessary to the story since we never see the two together again, but it’s a minor bump and doesn’t take long to get back into the real story.
Hawkeye frees Scarlet Witch, who was being held in “protective” custody by Vision (you know, the worst unstoppable and overpowered hero to come out of Age of Ultron) while Iron Man recruits Spider-Man to the cause.
I’ve got to say I love this new Spider-Man, the actor absolutely nails the performance and best of all, Civil War doesn’t rehash the Spider-Man’s tragic backstory. I desperately hope the new Marvel-Sony Spider-Man (lots of hyphens) movie keeps this as his introduction, because do any of us really need to see Uncle Ben die again? We all know the story now.
Meanwhile Captain America recruits Ant-Man to his cause. I never saw the Ant-Man movie, because it sounded like an utterly ridiculous premise, but his performance in this movie alone makes me want to see that movie now.
With each side assembled, Captain America and Iron Man confront each other at an airport.
I love how this scene was setup, because it perfectly reflected the character’s personalities in the fight. Iron Man is, let’s face it, arrogant and brash. So when he disables the helicopter Captain America is running towards, he lands with War Machine and begins sarcastically quipping about the people you meet at the airport. Iron Man or War Machine alone could beat Captain America, and together he doesn’t stand a chance.
I want to give Robert Downey Jr. a special mention here because his performance while he’s talking to Captain America is what really sells the emotion of this upcoming fight. You can see the stress etched on Iron Man’s face, and the desperation to end this gnawing at him as his sarcasm quickly gives way to anger and resentment. He almost looks on the verge of tears, at least it did in my opinion. Anyway, back to the fight.
Iron Man is so confident in his victory that he unveils his new Spider-Man ally, using him to take Captain America’s shield. Iron Man lays all his cards on the table because he’s certain he’s got a winning hand. Captain America though, is a soldier and a veteran of countless battles, battles where he was often outmanned and outgunned. So instead of arraying his team in a big clump like Iron Man, he splits them up tactically to take advantage of Iron Man’s artless strategy of brute force. Ant-Man is hiding on Captain America’s shield, since he knows that would be the first thing Iron Man would try to take. Hawkeye is positioned to provide cover and free Captain America from any constraints. And Bucky and Falcon locate the jet the Avengers use so they can hijack it.
Iron Man takes the bait and his entire team disperses hunting down the members of Captain America’s team.
I know I don’t usually mention anything other than the writing, but I really want to give credit to the fight choreographer(s) who put this scene together. It would have been easy to pull a Snyder and just use a bunch of explosions and punches to keep our eyes happy before moving onto the next scene. Civil War doesn’t do that though. Instead the fight ebbs and flows naturally, and everyone’s characters fight like you’d expect them to.
It’s also made clear from the onset that everyone on both sides is actively holding back, aside from Black Panther who is consumed by rage at this point. Iron Man intentionally misses with his missiles, using them only to distract Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch. Meanwhile, Spider-Man, being a kid, has never been in a real fight. I think the best part of this fight is when Bucky tries to punch Spider-Man, who blocks it and says “Dude, you have a metal arm? That’s awesome!” because the look on Bucky’s face is priceless.
Theoretically the super strong and agile Spider-Man should be able to mop the floor with Falcon or Bucky or even Captain America. But he’s a kid, who has never fought a battle in his life, and so he finds himself outmaneuvered by the more experienced fighters. Which is what I mean when I say the characters fight in a way that you’d expect them to.
Another great thing about this fight is how well it flows not only narratively, but in terms of tone. One of my biggest gripes about the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe is that tonally it’s all over the map, going from a serious life or death struggle in one moment to hilarious hijinks the next.
The battle at the airport starts out with a light tone with plenty of humor provided by Spider-Man and Ant-Man. But as the battle progresses, the heroes get tired and injured, and tempers begin to flare. Slowly the action ramps up as they begin holding back less and less. The final act of the battle turns exceptionally dark. Tired and frustrated as Captain America and Bucky make their escape in the Avenger’s jet, War Machine asks Vision to shoot out the engines on Falcon’s wing suit. Vision misses and instead destroys the Arc Generator in War Machine’s suit, causing him to go into a free fall.
War Machine hits the ground hard and it’s pretty clear he’s not getting back up anytime soon.
Even though it was caused by friendly fire from Vision, Iron Man blames Captain America for War Machine’s injuries who has ended up paralyzed from the waist down. There’s no coming back from this moment, even when the Avengers get back together, this baggage is going to follow them. The tension is palpable, and when Black Widow confronts Iron Man about backing down, he looks just about ready to hit her. Iron Man goes to a very dark place, and I’m not sure how he’s going to get out of it.
For a few moments there, after Iron Man finds out that Bucky was framed, it seemed like he might admit he was wrong and let bygones be bygones. At least until the imposter doctor, a member of Sokovian Intelligence whose family was killed, shows Bucky killing his mom and dad.
The fight that follows is unlike any of the other fights I’ve seen in Marvel films. It’s brutal. Almost savage. All restraint that once held them back is gone, and Iron Man, Bucky and Captain America are now actively trying to kill one another. You can feel the raw emotions behind their blows, and it’s easily the most outstanding fight scene in Marvel films history.
Iron Man is eventually disabled, with Captain America holding himself back from taking a killing blow, and that’s how the movie ends. But the Civil War is far from resolved. That’s what excites me most about Captain America: Civil War, I have no idea how the Avengers come back from this. Bucky sends Iron Man a note at the end of the film promising to be there if needed, but Iron Man doesn’t seem entirely convinced. And I honestly hope it’s not that easy. To my eye the Avengers look irrevocably broken, and I’m excited to see how they resolve that.
The biggest mistake Marvel could make at this point is to resolve this in the first fifteen minutes of their next movie, as it would undermine all the terrific storytelling that was on display in this movie. I’m hoping, and judging by the Marvel’s release schedule I think I’m right, that healing the wounds the Avengers suffered in this movie will be slowly resolved over the course of several movies.
We’ll see what the future brings, but for now I’m incredibly hopeful going forward and I hope Marvel continues to produce quality movies like this. I recommend everyone see this movie if you’re a fan of any of the Marvel universe. It’s not going to make you cry, but it’s definitely an emotional rollercoaster that will make you feel the anger and frustration of both Iron Man and Captain America.
It’s been one hell of a year for me so far. As I wrote a while back, my father died back in January and it was one of the most disturbing experiences of my life. Watching someone go from healthy to withering away into a skeleton in the span of only three months was the most surreal thing I’ve ever seen. Then a month later I found out my grandma was in heart failure, and I went down with my mother to see her in New Mexico. And despite a bout of violent food poisoning, it was one of the best trips in my life. She was in great spirits and it was good to talk with her again, she was a wise woman. She died last week, a little less than a month later.
It hasn’t been all bad though, just as my father’s illness was starting to eat away at him, I met an amazing girl named Maggie who helped me get through it. She also has a daughter, and while I never saw myself as liking kids, I absolutely adore her. In addition, after five years of doing freelance writing, it’s finally beginning to pay off. While I’ve been interviewed by both Microsoft and AT&T, in terms of freelance clients I’ve always had to pitch my services to people. Now for the first time, clients are coming to me with work. I’m also hopeful that this year will be the year I finally nail the interview when I’m (hopefully) contacted by another recruiter. Video game writing would be my dream job, but I’d settle for anything that offers a stable salary and benefits. Living on an unstable income is stressful as hell, let me tell you.
The latest issue I’m facing is the death of my beloved computer, for six years its faithfully allowed me to give you reviews on games ranging from Dragon Age: Inquisitionto Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. This has proven to be something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I’ve gotten more work done and been more creative in my writing since my computer has broken. Probably due to the fact that I can no longer call playing video games for 10 hours a day “research.” On the other hand, however, this will mean no new reviews for any upcoming games.
Lacking any of the new consoles and now a PC to play games on, the unfortunate fact is that I won’t be gaming for quite a while. While this means I’m going to miss out on CDProjekt’s new DLC Blood and Wine for The Witcher 3, it also gives me the opportunity to finally write a book. Something I’ve been putting off for far too long.
This also doesn’t mean that my video game reviews will stop entirely, I have a huge backlog of old games I’ve been meaning to review but just never got around to: Dragon Age: Origins, Freespace 1 and 2, followup articles on Planescape: Torment and Life is Strange, and the Knights of the Old Republic series. I also have an Xbox 360 and a Playstation 2, so if there’s some really old retro games you’d like reviewed, I can do that.
My hope is that, eventually, concentrating on my writing will allow me to afford a new computer and my gaming reviews will continue. Until then, I have a goal to work towards and an incentive for accomplishing that goal (because I do love gaming, ever so much.) And of course if you have any requests for TV shows, movies, or books, you can still send those my way! I’m currently watching Better Call Saul season 1, so you can look forward to that review soon.
My lack of computer has already resulted in working on my website to make it more accessible. I’ve now added several pages under the On TV and Movies and On Games tabs at the top of your screen (at least they should be.) My articles on specific games and shows can now be found there and will be updated if/when I write new articles about them. A big thank you to one of my readers, Tara, for reminding me to get off my ass and fix those.
A big thanks to all my readers who have stuck with me through this writing slump I’ve been in and I look forward to providing you with, hopefully, more frequent content in the coming months!
So the first episode of Game of Throne’s sixth season aired on Sunday, and I’m sure you probably noticed that… not a lot happened. It was mostly playing catch-up and the story only advanced by inches.
This seems like a good time to talk about momentum in storytelling, because that’s one of the things Game of Thrones is struggling with. A good story is a lot like a train; starting off slow, but building up momentum until it can plow through anything, slowing down only when going uphill (building tension) or around a sharp corner (plot twists).
Game of Thrones‘s train has now slowed to a crawl and it has nothing but straight, flat track all the way to the ending. While it’s tempting to blame this all on the fact that Game of Thrones running out of book to use, this was actually a problem in the book series too. I even touched on this briefly years back when I read book 4, A Feast for Crows. At the time I thought maybe it was the killing of Cate Stark that made A Feast for Crows such a difficult slog to get through, but I realize now I was wrong. The real problem was the introduction of the Dorne plot, and every subsequent plot that followed.
Part of the genius of Game of Thrones, and its biggest draw, was George R. R. Martin’s use of the political stage of Westeros to create compelling drama. The first three books, and a majority of the show’s seasons, all centered around who would sit upon the Iron Throne. However, who sat on the Iron Throne was ultimately all just a subplot, a meticulously constructed distraction created to hold our attention while George R. R. Martin slowly built up the threat of the White Walkers. How humanity will stop them has always been the primary plot of the books, even though George R. R. Martin cleverly made it look like a low-key adventure subplot. Who ultimately gains the throne needs to be resolved for the audience to have satisfaction, there’s no doubt about that. Even subplots need resolution, but it’s never been the important question.
However, with the Hardhome episode, Game of Thrones needed to start quickly resolving things and ramping up the excitement for the final confrontation between the living and the dead. And so far, it’s not doing it. With the Dorne plot and the Iron Islands plot expected to be added this season, I can only see this getting worse.
Have you noticed how most of our characters have all suffered major setbacks that pretty much reset their stories?
Daenarys is once again a slave of the Dothraki.
Arya is blind and is going to have to learn to fight again.
Sansa is once again homeless and on the run with a few allies.
Queen Cersei, and the monarchy itself, is helpless in the face of the religious extremists.
I don’t even know where Jaime’s storyline is going now, he seems to have hit a dead end.
Jon Snow is dead and we’re all waiting around to see if he’s resurrected by the Red Woman or as a White Walker general.
And Tyrion is just kind of dicking around in Meereen, waiting for Daenarys to come back.
Essentially any progress we’ve made through the series has been reversed or paused in it’s tracks, and you can feel that while watching the show… there’s no sense of urgency in any of the characters. The White Walkers are now half-a-million strong at the very least, so what are they waiting for exactly?
Well they’re waiting for the same thing we are: for all the now pointless subplots to be resolved.
The existential threat to all life on Westeros has been revealed, the Hardhome episode revealed to the audience the true extent of the danger. And with half-a-million strong White Walker army ready to attack The Wall, it’s hard to care about Daenerys being kidnapped (as if we don’t all know that she’ll be rescued eventually, probably after taking over the entire Dothraki horde) or some Cersei wannabe at the ass end of the kingdom.
In order for the newest season to succeed it’s going to need to start consolidating everything. It should be working towards bringing Daenerys to Westeros, reintroducing us to Bran, and getting rid of the extraneous subplots like Dorne and Meereen. It has to start building the momentum and then keep that momentum going forward, instead of grinding the plot to a halt by throwing more contrived obstacles in the way of our characters.
All that said, I’m still looking forward to this season and I hope this season of Game of Thrones proves me wrong. All that said, let’s review what happened in the first episode.
Dorne: Home of the Teleporting Sand Teens
As I pointed out last season, the Dornish plot was the worst of the bunch (which was true of the books as well) and it’s only gotten worse this time around.
The death of Prince Trystane continues the infamous legacy of everything Dorne being the single worst part of Game of Thrones, and the prince’s death takes it to a whole new low. First of all it shows us a tragic waste of Alexander Siddig’s talents by killing off his character in a way that makes absolutely no sense (not to mention lacking any dramatic value). How did she manage to convince the palace guards to betray their king? Secondly, how the hell did the Sand Teens get aboard the ship Trystane was on?
When we left them last season, Myrcella, Trystane, Jaime, and Bron (where did he vanish to, anyway?) were all sailing home for King’s Landing. The Sand Teens [I know they’re the Sand Snakes, but honestly they’re so fucking annoying that Teens is way more appropriate] and their mother were standing on the docks watching them sail away. And then suddenly they’re on Trystane’s ship and kill him. How did they manage that, exactly? I know Game of Thrones has always played fast and loose in terms of geography and time, but that sudden jump in locations was ridiculous.
I’m hoping the sloppiness of the prince’s death is a sign that the writers of Game of Thrones now realize Dorne is just a quagmire of awfulness that’s bogging down the plot, and they’re trying to resolve it as quickly as possible so they can be done with it. Otherwise I’m afraid it’s a sign that they simply have no idea what to do now that they’ve run out of book to use as a template.
Theon’s slow transformation into Reek was one of the most powerful, and disturbing, parts of the show. However, once he became Reek, watching him continue to suffer got to be a bit redundant. Yes, we all understand that Ramsay Bolton is a monster, I think we got that message two seasons back. That’s why I had such a problem with Sansa’s Wedding, watching her and Reek continue to suffer offered nothing new to their characters or the plot at large.
However, I enjoyed watching Reek slowly regaining his sanity as Theon and his selfless ploy to try and protect Sansa. Of course the plan might have been slightly more effective had he lured the guards in a different direction several miles away rather than fifteen feet. That said, watching Podrick kick ass was one of the best parts of this episode. I’ve honestly grown a bit tired of Brienne at this point, where once she was a fascinating character (a female knight in a male dominated world), her character hasn’t really progressed or changed at all since she first took her oath to Catelyn Stark.
Also, what happened to the hounds during the battle? Must have teleported away using the same technology as the Sand Teens.
Arya has had one of the most satisfying character arcs in the entire series, going from a helpless little girl to a badass assassin in training. I think we were all looking forward to watching her return to Westeros and start killing off everyone we hated: Cersei, the Boltons, the Freys, and so on. To see the culmination of all her pain and suffering, her return to the Game of Thrones as one of the most powerful pieces on the board.
And then in the closing of last season, they made her go blind and reset her back to a helpless girl. This episode we see her begging on the steps and then get her ass kicked. So what?
I think we all know how this ends. She ends up learning to fight better blind than she ever did with sight, and whether she ends up regaining that sight or not is ultimately irrelevant. Basically she pulls a Daredevil, and while I love Netflix’s Daredevil, I ultimately find this subplot utterly stupid. We don’t need to see Arya helpless and crying again, we’ve already been through that. This sudden blindness isn’t going to result in anything other than time being wasted.
We’ve already seen Arya as a helpless street urchin trying to earn her way into the ranks of the Faceless Assassins. She’s already learned to go unnoticed, to listen to people on the street to learn vital information, and assume other identities. All of that training went into her assassination of the King’s Guard Meryn and it was awesome.
Now we all just have to wait for the training montage so Arya can get back to where she already was.
Daenerys Déjà Vu
And speaking of taking all our powerful female characters and turning them back into helpless victims, Daenery’s was taken from Queen of Meereen and The First Men back into a Dothraki slave. So we’re apparently back in the first season again. Admittedly instead of being raped this time, she manages to get them to back down and instead send her to some spinster’s home in Dothraki territory, but really…
I honestly don’t understand why this is even in the story, what purpose does it serve other than waste everyone’s time? She still has Meereen to pacify or abandon in favor of an invasion of Westeros. There was plenty of opportunity for good stories to pass the time while we’re waiting for the other plotlines to resolve. The only good reason I can think of is that Daenery’s will need additional manpower to handle the White Walkers, but then why burn her ships? She’d need even more to take the Dothraki.
So yeah, I’m thinking this is all a colossal waste of time. The only brightside might be watching Tyrion and Varys work their magic and pacify Meereen.
Castle Black: The Last Hope for Westeros
(In more ways than one)
The scenes at Castle Black are easily the best in the entire episode, because they’re the only ones where anything actually happens. Until Bran returns to the story, the events at Castle black are the only storyline capable of moving the plot forward. Yet these scenes are kept infuriatingly short, but I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens as the Night’s Watch prepares to descend into civil war. I also love the lingering shots on Jon’s body because there’s now this amazing sense of dread over seeing his dead body.
Because while on one hand Melisandre might be able to resurrect him, the longer time drags on, the more likely it becomes that Jon will rise to become one of the most powerful generals of the White Walker army.
I haven’t seen Batman versus Superman, and honestly I probably won’t until it’s on Netflix or someone literally pays me to see it, but I have seen Man of Steel and read enough reviews to see that it’s essentially the same thing only somehow worse. Still, this is less of a review, and more a critique of Zach Snyder’s storytelling abilities. He simply doesn’t know how to tell a good story.
Zach Snyder says he’s trying to bring superheroes into the 21st century, or “grow up” as he puts it. But having superheroes kill indiscriminately isn’t mature, it’s lazy. Any ten-year-old will look at his action figures and dream up a scenario where all the hero does is kill the bad guys. Audiences can choose from literally thousands of movies where all the heroes do is kill their way to a happy ending. If you’re making a movie about immortal superheroes, you have to have something at stake other than mortal danger to the characters. Batman is fucking Batman, we all know he’s not going to die, and Superman is literally a god. Having them not kill people is the only way to generate any kind of drama.
Now let’s take the finale from The Dark Knight, when the Joker has posed his own henchmen as hostages while strapping guns to the actual hostages, hoping to fool the police into slaughtering innocent people. Now sure, Batman could have gone in with a machine gun strapped to each arm and started mowing down the Joker’s henchmen. But that would have been boring because there’d be absolutely nothing at stake, Batman certainly isn’t going to die and he’s not going to shoot innocents by accident because that would be an entirely different movie. The fact that Batman has to peacefully subdue the Joker’s goons, save the hostages from police snipers, and clue the SWAT teams into the deception all at the same time is what generates the drama in that scene. And it worked perfectly, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.
But let’s bring a non-superhero movie into the mix, just to illustrate heroism outside of that genre: Terminator 2. After John Connor meets the Terminator, he orders him not to kill anyone and it’s this limitation that generates most of the emotion in the movie. When they attack Cyberdyne headquarters, the Terminator could have just mowed down every police officer he saw, but again, that would have been meaningless. We’d get absolutely no dramatic value from that. Instead, we get to watch as he pauses to allow police officers to see where he’s aiming and find cover. The Terminator doesn’t win because he killed his enemies, he won because he didn’t.
It’s the lack of this kind of drama that made Man of Steel and Batman V Superman so meaningless and hollow. There’s no sense of drama, no stakes, just a constant barrage of noise and light.
In Man of Steel there was no tension in the final fight between Zod and Superman, because watching two immortal beings punching each other is an inherently boring idea. And yet there could have been so much tension had Zach Snyder actually kept to Superman’s guiding principle of doing good and helping people. There’s one scene in particular, where Zod throws a tanker truck at him and Superman just casually hops over it, allowing it to annihilate the building behind him. It’s completely devoid of emotion or meaning as is, but imagine if Superman had thrown himself into it. Realizing that there were people behind him, he would take the hit for them because he can take the hit.
That’s a hero.
Imagine the battle with Zod, only instead of Superman casually throwing him through buildings and racking up more collateral damage than most modern wars, Superman holds back. Sure, Superman can punch Zod through a building, but what if Superman chose to let Zod hit him instead, rather than risk any innocent people.
Then it’s no longer an even playing field, because Superman is now at a disadvantage. Zod can unleash with all his might but Superman has to defeat Zod while at the same time restraining himself so as not to endanger the people around him. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call drama. That would have been a movie worth watching, and it might have even moved a few to tears when Superman finally has to take Zod’s life, after doing everything he could to save everybody including the very man he was fighting.
But instead all we got was wanton destruction with no meaning.
Batman v Superman, completely missing the point of why people hated Man of Steel, goes even further by removing any and all stakes from the action. Clunky exposition is inserted into the film to tell the audience that the heroes are in sparsely populated or abandoned areas of the city. Just huge swathes of an enormous city are just completely empty. So we’re left with two nigh invincible gods and Batman.
Yes, Batman saves Martha and Superman saves Lois. Big deal, Superman literally flies at the speed of a bullet and Batman just John McClane’s his way to save Martha. There was nothing to challenge the limits of Batman or Superman’s abilities. Challenge that could have been provided by Batman saving while not killing.
Now I can already hear people hurriedly rushing to comment about how Christopher Nolan’s (or any variation) Batman totally killed people because no human could survive situation X or Y, and the only reason they didn’t die is because the writers didn’t want them to.
To which I say: Duh.
That’s literally how storytelling works. The writer setups a world, establishes rules for it, and then works to create a compelling story in that world while working within the rules. Even as close as Nolan’s Batman franchise flirts with reality, it’s still a comic book movie, with giant tanks rolling down streets without the entire national guard being called out to find it. When Batman punches a man in the head and knocks him out, he’s just knocked out, not dead from a brain hemorrhage as would most likely happen in real life.
Just like when Tom Cruise gets knocked down by an explosion in Mission Impossible, he’s just knocked down, not suffocating because his lungs collapsed from the concussion wave. Or how any action hero can take a shot to the shoulder and be fine, rather than bleeding to death from a severed axillary artery or have his arm hang limp at his side because the bullet severed a critical tendon.
Zach Snyder’s DC Comics world doesn’t have any of the rules that a comic book movie about invincible gods needs to have. The characters are immortal (and no Superman isn’t really dead, so don’t even start) and they can do whatever they want. So why should I be emotionally invested in anything happening on the screen? Because of Superman’s love for Lois Lane? Hardly any screen time was dedicated to actually showing their relationship, we’re just left to assume it’s a great love. Because Batman is tired and sad? There was some possibility there, but instead of giving us something cool to justify that weary Batman, they just replayed the same origin story we all know by heart.
Dark, gritty violence isn’t original. It isn’t mature. It’s just boring. People have been killing people since long before we were standing upright. If you want to show me something really unique, show me someone using all their power to not kill someone.
It’s been a rough couple of months here. My father was diagnosed with kidney cancer back in October and by November he was no longer able to move on his own. He went into hospice care and died on January 14th, hanging on until after both Christmas and my mom’s birthday. He hung on for much longer than the doctor’s thought he would. At some point I’d like to write something about him here, but for now I thought I would at least post the obituary I wrote for him here, so you all know I’m still around.
Nigel Stevenson departed on his next great adventure when he died at 4:40am on January 14th, 2016. I hope that when my dad passed from this world he found himself at the helm of a ship sailing on a boundless silver sea with a golden horizon stretching into infinity, ready to explore an undiscovered dimension of existence.
Insatiable curiosity was an aspect of Nigel’s character that dominated his life. In his youth Nigel walked through the Valley of the Kings and climbed the Great Pyramids of Giza. He went behind the Iron Curtain to explore the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and when the Berlin Wall came down, Nigel was there to take a piece with him as a trophy. Later in Nigel’s life he began sailing the Puget Sound, a shimmering blue paradise that he grew to love with all his heart. Some of Nigel’s happiest moments occurred when he was on the water, whether it was watching the sun set over the horizon while moored on Blakely Island or being surprised by a pod of Orcas while out for a leisurely cruise.
And my father won’t be alone on that ship. Alongside him will be the many beloved pets who travelled alongside him in life, for my dad had an amazing affinity for animals. Beloved cats like his Archimedes and Cicero will guide him, and his faithful dogs Elmo and Quincy will be there to man the rudder, working alongside a crew of dozens of different animals that my father loved over the course of his life. My father was a great lover of antiquity, all things Greek and Roman, and as part of his wishes I placed two coins over his eyes for the ferryman to carry him across the River Styx. Another ancient Greek tradition was to celebrate a man’s life by partaking in all the activities he loved in life.
So in keeping with that great tradition his wife of thirty years, Julie, as well as I, would like to invite you to Normana Hall to feast at their monthly pancake breakfast. For twenty-five years my father took us to the pancake breakfast, and it was a beloved tradition, because the other thing my father loved to do was eat good food. And the pancake breakfast serves the best Swedish pancakes outside of Sweden itself. Even at the very end when his cancer was at its very worst, he still wanted a few bites of those delicious pancakes.
So come, join Nigel’s family and feast while we remember the life of an extraordinary man and to toast his voyage into the unknown that awaits us all.
I’ll be back soon with articles about XCom 2, as well as follow ups to my articles on Star Wars and Life is Strange that I never got around to completing.
I’m so grateful to have some of the greatest readers of any blog anywhere. XUfan2012 sent me a real Christmas miracle: tickets to a good Star Wars movie. Yes, a good movie that redeems the Star Wars franchise and turns it back into the fun loving adventure that made the original trilogy so magical.
(On a serious note, I want to thank XUfan2012 for his generosity. I told him I hadn’t seen the new Star Wars due to my father being in the hospital and he sent me a great gift in response. I’m lucky to have so many dedicated and generous readers.)
This is Star Wars as it should be: fun, packed with amazing action scenes, and featuring memorable characters. In some ways it falls short of the original trilogy, especially when compared to The Empire Strikes Back, but in other ways it actually exceeds its predecessors. And compared to the prequels… it doesn’t even compare. In fact, this movie is so good that I’ve almost forgotten that the prequels exist.
For the first time since Episode I came out, I’m actually excited about Star Wars. Everything that I liked about the trailer holds absolutely true in the full movie. So that’s my spoiler free review. It’s everything you could want from a Star Wars movie. Unlike the Prequels, The Force Awakens knows its supposed to be fun, and you’ll have a ton of fun watching it.
Major spoilers to follow. Turn back now if you haven’t seen the movie.
Seriously, don’t scroll past this point.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
A Storytelling Review
I think one of the reasons I was so wary of this new entry into the Star Wars canon, was the title. The Force Awakens? What, did it fall asleep? That seemed unlikely, but it turns out I was reading it wrong. It’s not the Force waking up, its the Force awakening the characters in the story. It awakens Rey to her abilities, Finn to new possibilities, and most importantly, it awakens us to what Star Wars is all about: the adventure.
The movie begins, as Star Wars always does, with a title crawl. It quickly tells us that a new enemy has arisen from the ashes of the Empire, the First Order. Opposing them is a plucky band of resistance fighters, secretly backed by the Republic which has been reborn after the fall of the Empire. One of the resistance’s greatest fighter pilots is going to meet an old ally, who has information as to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker who has been missing for years. This brings up my only big complaint about the movie: this is a lot of information to convey in only three paragraphs.
Why is it the Resistance fighting the First Order and not the Republic itself? How long has the First Order been around? How powerful are they? Can they match the Republic’s fleet and resources? Or are they a relatively small band of extremists? In A New Hope everything you needed to know about the Empire and the Rebellion was conveyed brilliantly by the size and technology disparity between the tiny Blockade Runner and the immense Star Destroyer. Meanwhile in this movie I never really had a firm grasp of how large or powerful the First Order was.
But while this bothers me to an extent, I also understand why these facts about this new universe are left nebulous. First of all this is the flagship movie of a new colossal film franchise and it’s entirely possible that even the writers and creative types at Disney haven’t quite nailed down the details yet. Secondly, given the metric ton of plot clues and foreshadowing in this movie, I can all but guarantee that the rise of the First Order will eventually be turned into its own movie.
But thirdly, and most importantly, by sparing us the expositional dialogue that would have been required to convey 30 years of Star Wars history, the movie maintains a consistent pace. When you see squads of Stormtroopers and resistance fighters start blasting each other in the opening moments of the film, your brain will register the only two facts you really need to know:
First Order Bad; Resistance Good.
It’s important to remember this is Star Wars, not Game of Thrones, there are no shades of grey here. And considering it was the focus on the political elements of Star Wars that gave the prequels their dull, plodding pace we should all be grateful this information was left on the cutting room floor.
It’s in these opening moments, after the resistance has been soundly beaten, that we meet two of the important players in this movie. The first is Kylo Ren. At first his appearance might put you off, because unlike the hulking cyborg that was Darth Vader, Kylo Ren is a slender man. Yet he makes an effective entrance as he stops a blaster bolt in mid-flight and holds it there while he savagely cuts the head off of poor old Max von Sydow. I think we all went into this movie expecting Kylo Ren to be the new Darth Vader, but instead The Force Awakens went in a different direction.
Darth Vader was powerful and imposing, he used his powers with cold and brutal efficiency. Kylo Ren is more like Anakin Skywalker as he should have been portrayed: powerful, ambitious, but emotionally unstable. Kylo is constantly struggling to control himself, but that control shatters with every setback he suffers. He wants so badly to be Darth Vader that he goes so far as to wear a mask that alters his voice just to emulate his idol, but he also knows that deep down he’ll never be Darth Vader. It’s this inner conflict, his inability to measure up to an impossible legacy, that leads Kylo to being constantly plagued by his insecurities. No he’s not Darth Vader 2.0, but if you set aside that expectation, you’ll find he’s a fitting villain for this new story.
In many ways this is a very meta, self-aware story point because it mirrors what the new Star Wars team must have gone through making this movie. How do you make a new Star Wars villain that can possibly match the gravitas of Darth Vader? You can’t, and you’d be foolish to try. So it’s a rather brilliant move on the part of the writers to not only acknowledge this fact, but then also use that idea to create a flawed and fascinating new villain.
In fact, the struggle with identity and self reliance is a major theme throughout the movie. Take Finn for example, a stormtrooper we meet after the initial battle is over and Kylo Ren orders the execution of the prisoners. Finn watches in horror, unable to follow the order to fire his weapon, as the civilians and captured resistance fighters are slaughtered. Taken as a child, he was raised to fight and kill as a stormtrooper. He was meant to follow orders. But when Finn defects and helps Poe Dameron escape, the only existence he’s ever known is lost. In fact Finn isn’t even his name, it was given to him by Poe.
That’s why, when he meets Rey, a young scavenger who has befriended BB-8, he latches onto the identity of a resistance fighter. Meanwhile Rey thinks he’s a resistance fighter because of her own personal history. Living in near total isolation and scavenging parts from the crashed ships in the desert, Rey has been waiting for her mysterious family to return. Her own sense of identity is totally wrapped up in the idea that her family will return for her one day, despite the fact that it’s probably been close to twenty years since they left her. Despite living in dystopia-level poverty on a barren planet, she wants to return almost immediately in case her family comes back.
Both forced outside of the world they knew, Finn and Rey becoming incredibly endearing when they’re forced to flee ahead of the First Order. In the Millenium Falcon.
As they’re preparing to take off, Rey in the cockpit and Finn in the gunner’s seat, both say to themselves “I can do this. I can do this.”
It’s a great moment in the film that really endears them to us, because we see just how unsure of themselves they are. Who’s really ready for an adventure when it comes calling? Not a god damn soul, that’s who, and I’d be verbally reassuring myself if I were suddenly thrown into a crazy situation (and/or crying continously.) Obviously because this is Star Wars, both Finn and Rey pull off amazing feats of gunnery and piloting on their first time out. Their celebration after destroying the Tie Fighters was just so damn genuine that I couldn’t help but celebrate with them. The movie does an exceptional job making you feel like you’re experiencing the adventure right alongside Finn and Rey.
Which makes it twice as magical when the Millenium Falcon is recaptured… by Han Solo and Chewbacca. Hearing Han say “Chewie… we’re home” was the moment we all thought “my god… Star Wars is really back!” It was like watching a dead friend suddenly coming back from to life. I think after the prequels we were all afraid Star Wars was gone forever… but it’s back.
And here’s one of the ways in which the new movies exceed the originals: the characters feel more human. Chewbacca in particular. In the original films he was just comic relief, he never once contributed anything other than a couple laughs, and he never even used his crossbow blaster. In the Force Awakens, Chewie feels like a fully realized character here. He still has some funny moments of course, but just as often his interactions with Rey reveal the wise and kind soul hidden under that mammoth mountain of fur.
It’s at this point that Han explains Luke Skywalker’s disappearance. Turns out Kylo Ren is actually the son of Han and Leia, and Luke tried to train him in the ways of the force. Of course as teenagers are wont to do, Kylo has a bit of an emotional crisis and goes all emo on him. Again this highlights the running theme of identity in the story. Luke, after ending the Empire by acknowledging his own dark side, probably assumed he was destined to create a new Jedi order. One based on a new philosophy that didn’t repeat the mistakes of the Jedi. And then Luke fails on his very first attempt, creating the very evil he defeated forty years earlier. No longer having a clear path in front of him, Luke does what most of us do in that situation, we look for a new path.
As good as it is to see Han and Chewie and their wistful reminiscing on the glory days of yore, there is a small hitch in the story here. And I’m not referring to the speed with which Han finds the Millenium Falcon, sure that’s awfully convenient but again it also maintains the pacing. Which is why the next section which features a bunch of bounty hunters and a monster chase so odd, because you could cut this entire section and not lose a thing to the story. It felt like and a weird little tangent that didn’t go anywhere.
Fortunately the story doesn’t take long to get back on track, and we meet Maz. This tiny yellow female Yoda forces this group of adventurers to make hard choices, and this is where our main heroes Refuse the Call to adventure. Finn is convinced the First Order can’t be stopped, and he doesn’t want to be a soldier, he doesn’t want to fight. Rey finds Luke’s lightsaber (though why it’s blue and not green I have no idea) and has a flashback to some disturbing images (and I’ll conjecture about these in a later post.) Maz describes the force to Rey, and because she never once mentions the word midichlorians, it’s a great callback the mysticism of the Force and why this franchise is such a magical experience.
Unfortunately the First Order strikes while they’re all separated. Han and Chewie kick complete ass, while Finn goes Mano A Mano with a stormtrooper wielding some kind of huge stun baton. This seems like a missed opportunity to use Phasma. I was excited that Gwendoline Christie was in this new movie and was looking forward to seeing her kick ass as an elite stormtrooper. Unfortunately she only has like 5 lines and literally does nothing in this movie, and I get the nagging feeling she was only including to market action figures of her character. It seems Finn could have been fighting her just as easily, giving her something to do and showcasing her badass abilities.
But regardless, the best sequence is undoubtedly watching the resistance X-Wings skimming over the water. The sight of those gorgeously rendered ships combined with their excited pilots and the swelling of epic Star Wars music was easily the most memorable shot in the entire movie. Unfortunately Rey is also captured at this point and taken to Starkiller Base, leaving Finn, Han and Chewie to save her.
Except she rescues herself well before they get there. Watching Rey stare down Kylo Ren and then turning his mind probing abilities back on him is one of the defining moments for both characters. Rey embraces her burgeoning powers and Kylo Ren is confronted by his greatest fear: that his power is weak and his control of the force is rudimentary at best. Kylo sees in her everything he wants to be, a naturally talented force user, and I think he sees something else as well but I’ll leave that to my later conjecture post.
As Rey makes good her escape by mind tricking a Stormtrooper, the movie begins building towards its climax. A plucky band of of X-Wings begin making their run on the one vulnerable point on the giant Deathball while Han, Chewie and Finn run into Rey. Now I understand a lot of the criticisms here, the attack on the Deathball really does do a bit too much the same as A New Hope, but I enjoyed it. It was a big, fun action scene that was clear and fun to watch unlike the unwatchable mess every prequel battle turned into.
And the aerial battle is really just a sideshow as the real climax takes place inside the giant vulnerability machine. Han and Chewie begin placing explosives along the inside of the vulnerability generator when Han sees his son. I felt a chill when Han called out Kylo’s real name.
They named him after Ben Kenobi! I thought that was a great callback to the great old man whose performance helped give The Force, and Star Wars as a whole, its magic. In many ways I wish the rest of the scene had as much emotional impact as that one word did. Unfortunately I felt like this scene telegraphed its intention a bit too loudly.
I understand the visual metaphor of Kylo standing on the edge of a literal precipice, caught between a dark infinite chasm and the lighted section Han steps out from, but it proves a bit heavy handed. I mean we already knew this confrontation was coming, we didn’t quite need such an ominous stage for it. That said I really enjoyed watching Harrison Ford’s performance here. When the inevitable happens and Kylo Ren impales him on his lightsaber, Han looks confused for a moment. Then he just reaches out and touches Kylo’s face, and smiles. It was a much needed touch of subtlety to the scene that gave it an appropriate emotional punch. Then Han plummets into the darkness. I suspect that’s why the filmmakers chose this location, so the camera wouldn’t have to show Han’s lifeless body on the floor to the kids in the audience.
Now this is where I was expecting to find that Han had kept and armed one of the explosive charges on his person. I thought perhaps that was why he’d carefully waited for Kylo to be in the middle of the bridge when he announced himself. It just seemed like that would so Han Solo, to have a backup plan. If he couldn’t redeem his son, he would make sure Kylo couldn’t hurt anyone else. Then Kylo would have Force Jumped off the bridge as it began to collapse, because we obviously can’t kill him yet.
But regardless, Han Solo is finally dead and the film builds up to the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the lightsaber fight.
I was incredibly happy about how visceral and brutal this scene was. Gone was the ridiculously over-choreographed ballet of the prequels, no excessive back-flipping and pirouettes, no lightly tapping lightsabers together so the actors can rush to keep up the lightning fast pace. No, it’s just Finn and Kylo brutally hacking at each other.
I’ve read the criticisms that say that Finn shouldn’t have been able to hold Kylo off for so long, but I disagree. I think a lot of people are thinking that Kylo is this incredibly badass Dark Jedi, again because I think people were expecting a Vader 2.0. The Force Awakens doesn’t have a badass villain though, and while you can argue whether that’s a good or bad thing, I feel the filmmakers didn’t set out to make Kylo a badass. In fact they spent quite a bit of time establishing that he’s basically an emotionally unstable kid rebelling against his parents.
He couldn’t finish Finn faster because, as Yoda warned Luke against decades earlier, Kylo chose the “quick and easy path.” He’s relying almost entirely on pure emotion, hate, to win his battles. I got the impression that he never finished his training with Luke, and Snoke is obviously holding back, hence why his control over the Force and his saber technique are so raw and unfocused.
Which is why when he finally dispatches Finn, Rey is able to overpower him. Again I’ve read criticisms of people saying Rey is totally untrained and shouldn’t have been able to win, but I think those people forget about Rey’s staff that she uses on Jakku. She uses it to disarm and disable three men trying to steal her droid, and later puts Finn on his ass with it. She knows how to handle herself in a close quarters combat. I’m sure the lightsaber is a totally different animal from a staff, but to say she’s totally untrained is untrue.
They also seem to forget that at first Kylo wins handily, but once he provokes her emotionally, Rey does what Luke did at the end of Return of the Jedi: she taps into her dark side. Armed with that additional strength she’s able to use her anger and grief to slice some important things from Rey’s body (I honestly couldn’t tell what.)
Kylo escapes to live another day as do our heroes. When they return R2-D2 awakes and reveals the location of Luke Skywalker, which doesn’t make a lot of sense but I’m hoping it’ll be explained in the next movie. The fate of Finn is left somewhat up in the air, he seems to be in a coma in the final scenes. And Rey leaves to find Luke.
Which brings me to my final criticism of the movie. Rey making her way up the weird little island thing to find Luke seemed really out of place. Like The Force Awakens was just intentionally killing time at this point, but I have no idea why that would be. Seems like these minutes might have served better at some kind of funeral for Han Solo, but whatever. Then Rey points the lightsaber at Luke and Luke just kind of stares at her like he’s stoned off his ass.
I’m kind of unsure as to what effect JJ Abrams was shooting for here, but it didn’t work. At least not for me.
The Force Awakens has plenty of strange moments, I didn’t even cover them all here. Despite the flaws though, this is still a great Star Wars movie. It’s well written, it tugs on the heartstrings when it needs to, and most importantly, it’s fun to watch. Fun, you remember, it was that thing that was missing from the Prequels? Yeah, it’s finally back.
Maybe it’s because I never really hopped onto the hype train, but I didn’t go into this movie expecting anything other than a fun adventure film. I also didn’t expect it to outshine the originals. All I really wanted it to be was better than the prequels, and it was. And for that, we should all be thankful.
All that said I will be expecting more of the second movie, because while I had a great time at The Force Awakens, I also see the potential for some much more. Here’s hoping that in 2017, we get exactly that.