Tag Archives: Writing

Mass Effect Andromeda: The Pathfinder

One of the most jarring elements of Andromeda’s dialogue was how everyone called you Pathfinder all the time. It was ridiculous, as if they’d written the script before coming up with Ryder’s name, so they just used the title and never bothered to search-replace that shit afterward. This would have been halfway acceptable in the Dragon Age canon, because at least in the more rigid formality of a medieval caste system being referred to by title was more common. Yet even with a built in excuse, Dragon Age: Inquisition still didn’t refer to you as Inquisitor nearly as much as Mass Effect: Andromeda called you Pathfinder. It’s true that Shepard is called Commander, but that at least makes sense in the rigid hierarchy of the military and even then it’s not as overused as the Pathfinder moniker. So what the hell, guys? What’s with the title?

I admit I can’t even fathom why anyone thought this was a good idea, but I sure as hell can rip it apart and show you why it’s wrong.

The Pathfinder

Isn’t that god damn special…

Pathfinder_briefing_logo.png

Being constantly referred to as “Pathfinder” was one of the most distracting elements of the game. For one the Andromeda Initiative is a civilian project, if there’s some kind of weird military hierarchy in place it’s never really elaborated on. Plus even if I could get past the idea that everyone in the Andromeda Initiative calls the Pathfinder by their title (which I can’t), I could never get past the fact that even the damn Angara refer to you by that title.

I think the new writing team behind Andromeda should have gone back and played Dragon Age: Origins before writing the dialogue. The character in Dragon Age: Origins has no name and yet the dialogue was written in such a way that it was never a problem. A few characters do refer to you as Warden, notably Loghain himself, but most of the time the dialogue simply finds a way around having to identify you by name.

Which is how conversations work, if you think about it. How often do people actually refer to you by your name when you’re talking to them? Unless you’re greeting or saying goodbye to someone, or trying to get someone’s attention, most of the time our names don’t come up in conversations we have with friends.

Unfortunately the writers of Mass Effect: Andromeda are apparently unfamiliar with how normal humans communicate with one another. Still, even if they couldn’t get around that, they could have at least used the very name they came up with: Ryder. There’s absolutely no excuse why I get referred to as Pathfinder more than Ryder.

Of course even worse than all of that, is how the Pathfinder is treated by the people he meets.

“Wait… you’re the pathfinder! Oh my god, I can’t believe it’s you!” – Pretty much everyone you meet.

Oh you can’t believe it’s me? Here, in the very outpost I founded by painstakingly making sure this planet is fit for human habitation? Really? What the hell is wrong with you?

The Best and Brightest
The best and the brightest of the Andromeda Initiative.

In the best case scenarios, the people you meet often treat you like a child meeting Mickey Mouse on their first trip to Disneyland. In the worst case scenarios, you’re treated like the second coming of Christ and the NPCs would fall to their knees in adoring rapture if someone at Bioware could have been bothered to animate that. Even Shepard, who legitimately saves the galaxy three god damn times in a row isn’t treated with the reverence the Pathfinder receives.

On the Nexus I ran into several “concerned citizens”, nameless NPCs that show up to complain about some decision you made in a threadbare attempt to make choices seem important. Instead of lively debates with these people, or being heckled and threatened by them if I disagreed, all these encounters ended with some variation of “well, you’re the pathfinder, you must know what you’re doing.”

Even worse is how much the administrative arm of the Andromeda Initiative defers to the Pathfinder. I realize that none of the characters were meant to be in charge of the Andromeda Initiative, and were elevated due to the deaths of their superiors, but come on, they’re not helpless either.

Tann.png
Especially this guy.

Director Tann is clearly made out to be a stereotypical bureaucrat who, while wanting to do good, is also deeply concerned about retaining his influence and power. Then the moment you show up it’s WHOOP here’s a ship, a crew, and a blank check to do whatever the hell you want. Ostensibly the reasoning is that Ryder is at least willing to do “something” about the situation. I could have swallowed that excuse if the narrative had shown us even an inkling that Ryder was qualified to do anything.

At some point the narrative needed to specifically tell us why Ryder is so god damn special. The Pathfinders are supposed to be highly trained specialists, the best of the best. The Turian pathfinder is former Blackwatch and his replacement is an ex-Spectre, the Salarian Pathfinder is a Dalatrass, and the Asari Pathfinder is a Matriarch and her replacement a legendary Asari Commando. Even Alec Ryder was former N7, an alumnus of the same program that gave us Commander Shepard.

Ryder on the other hand… was a glorified toll booth operator. Seriously, the game actually goes out of its way to point this out by having Ryder tell several people all he did in the Milky Way was guard a Mass Effect Relay. Why on Earth is this guy responsible for the survival of the human race?

God save us
When the apocalypse comes, it will fall to this man’s grandchildren to lead us to a new home.

Turns out the only reason Ryder is even on the Pathfinder team at all is good old fashioned nepotism. Ryder has no special skills, no advanced training, not even any applicable life experience to justify Ryder becoming a Pathfinder or even being on the team. But Daddy apparently wanted his kids on board, so to hell with it, his favored child gets to inherit the Pathfinder title like we’re a space-borne feudal kingdom. There are tons of stories where the hero can be a Joe Everyman forced into a situation beyond his skill level.

Unfortunately the narrative isn’t telling one of those stories.

Had Mass Effect: Andromeda told the story an in over his head Ryder struggling to fill his father’s shoes, then many of these problems would be moot. In fact that could have been a fun story, and one that would have made far more sense. Suvi Anwar has dual doctorates in both astrophysics and molecular biology. Two skills that would actually be helpful in the search for a new home, and all she contributes to the narrative is being a love interest for female Ryders.

I think Kallo speaks for all of us.

Yet instead of having to rely on your incredibly credentialed crew, everyone relies on you instead: the new guy with no discernible skills, education, or personality…

Ryder succeeds because the plot demands he succeeds, and that’s why the hero worship he receives from everybody is totally unearned. That’s why being called the Pathfinder was so awful, because all it did was remind us about how the narrative failed to make Ryder a hero.

In short: The Pathfinder is a fraud and it sucks to be kept being reminded of that fact.

More on Mass Effect: Andromeda

All That Matters is the Ending: Mass Effect Andromeda

Mass Effect Andromeda: The Importance of Family

Wrex versus Drack: Nuanced versus Obvious Writing 

Advertisements

Mass Effect Andromeda: The Importance of Family

I was intrigued about the idea of having a family join you in Andromeda, in fact it gave me hope for the game because I thought it was a borderline genius idea. What better way to ground the game’s stakes than to include a family? Ryder’s family could have been the motivation players needed to want to build a new home. Remember how much we all wanted Tali to build that house on her homeworld? We could not only have had that again, but we could have helped build it ourselves.

If Bioware had put even an iota of effort into making us care about our family. Unfortunately they didn’t, instead Bioware just took it for granted that we would care about these strangers because they told us to.

Spoiler alert: No one cared.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

The Importance of Family

Ryder's Father

“My father is dead, I’m the new Pathfinder.” That’s how Ryder announces his father’s death to the members of the Nexus when he first meets them. An almost completely flat affect to the voice and no mournful look crosses Ryder’s face [although given the horrible animations, its possible that I just didn’t recognize the emotion on it] when he says it. Ryder talks about the death of his father like he’s talking about a lost piece of equipment, and his father has been dead for all of about ten minutes. Okay, maybe you can chalk that up to trauma, but there are so few opportunities to see the emotional toll of that loss, that ultimately it feels like Ryder doesn’t care. And if the player character doesn’t care, why the hell should we?

The sad part is that Alec Ryder was an interesting character, I thought the efforts that this guy went through to save his wife were pretty romantic. It exposed that underneath the gruff warrior facade he wore, was a man that loved so deeply that its loss was unfathomable to him. Or maybe it exposed that underneath his aloofness, was simply a man terrified of being alone. There were so many directions that Bioware could have gone.

Unfortunately for any of those stories to be explored, Alec Ryder would have had to survive the first 30 minutes of the game.

You can’t retroactively manufacture grief over a character’s loss. Of Mice and Men doesn’t start with the death of Lenny, Final Fantasy 7 doesn’t start with Aeris dying, and Harry Potter doesn’t begin with like 75% of its characters already dead.

Harry Potter death of Cedric
Seriously, shit gets dark in Harry Potter.

The audience has to be allowed to get to know the character, to grow to love that character, for their death to have any impact. We never got a chance to know Alec Ryder, never got a chance to actually interact with him. He barely has any lines, and he falls over dead before we even get through the prologue. Even worse the poor bastard doesn’t even get a funeral, apparently they just left his body to rot on a hell-blasted alien world.

The writers lazily tried to circumvent this emotional disconnect by saying Ryder’s father was emotionally distant and couldn’t express his feelings.

Bullshit.

You know who else had an emotionally distant father who didn’t know how express his feelings?

Me.

Yet a year after his deathI’m still recovering  from the emotional trauma of that loss.

It would have been one thing if we’d been presented with a choice to play as an emotionally detached sociopath, you want to roleplay that, roll with it. Problem is that we weren’t given a choice, Ryder doesn’t give a damn about his father dying no matter what dialogue option you choose. It’s impossible to make our Ryder break down in tears at his loss or rage at the unfairness of it all. He treats it with, well, the same casual indifference he treats his sister with.

Ryder's derp face
I don’t care how ugly she is, Ryder, she’s your sister and you’ll go back in there and talk with her damn it!

For the life of me I can’t even begin to understand the thought process that went into making a twin for Ryder. What was Bioware hoping to achieve here? Ryder’s twin has even less dialogue than Alec does, you only get two conversations with them, one of which while they’re still in a freaking coma. Then suddenly at the end of the game the twin is kidnapped, as if Bioware was hoping that would provide the stakes for the final battle. Unfortunately, since the twin is less characterized than most of the freaking NPCs you talk to, the danger of her being lobotomized by alien tech wasn’t all that motivating.

All I can do is theorize about what role the twin, and your family at large, were supposed to play in the game. Perhaps in the planning phases of Mass Effect: Andromeda the twin was supposed to play an integral role in the narrative, only for that role to be slashed down to insignificance due to budget and time constraints. For a while there I was expecting my Ryder to die a heroic death at the hands of the Kett, only to then take over the twin as my new character. On a narrative level that would have been bold, daring even, and could have done a lot for paving a new direction in the Mass Effect universe.

Obviously on a game play level it would probably suck, since I know I didn’t bother customizing my Ryder’s twin and would have been stuck with the default. Not to mention what to do with the skills you’ve earned.

Otherwise they could have at least made the twin a part of your crew, so that you could actually talk with them and learn who they are. Maybe then when the twin is abducted we’d actually give a damn that they’re in danger of dying. It would have been far better to cut all of the family stuff if Bioware wasn’t going to put any effort into it, because as it stands now it only highlights the failings of the writers.

We all have families, and even people who aren’t writers can tell the most weird, wonderful, and disturbing tales about their families. The fact that Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s writing team couldn’t even write a decent story about one of the most fundamental building blocks of human existence is, frankly, shocking. It’s as if this entire section of the game was written by aliens with no concept of family.

Family is an important part of everyone’s life. Even orphans who grew up alone will eventually find someone they call family, even if it’s not by blood. Including Ryder’s family, only to then pretend they don’t exist for most of the narrative, is inexcusable. If you’re a human living on Earth, I guarantee you have at least one good story about your family, and if you have that you have your foundation for telling fictional stories about family.

“Well, the story isn’t about Ryder’s family!” I can hear someone saying. Okay, fair enough, but just one question:

Then why are they in the story at all?

Ryder’s family doesn’t have any impact on the narrative. Ryder certainly doesn’t care about them. The only thing the twin contributes to the plot is to become a painfully contrived method for the Archon to actually use Remnant tech. You could replace that character with literally anybody else and nothing would change.

I don’t understand how this content managed to stay in, Bioware could easily have cut it out. Just make Alec the original Pathfinder, you’d barely have to touch any of his dialogue to pull it off either since the only time he acknowledges that you’re family is just before the shuttle ride. His secret diaries, the murder mystery of Garson, it would all still work fine with just minor tweaking. The family in Mass Effect: Andromeda just exposes how inept the writing is by its utter failure to tell a convincing story about family, and Bioware could have at least saved a little face by removing the half-assed attempt.

Still, I suppose there’s no undoing it now. Here’s hoping in the next installment, if there is one, that Ryder’s twin and mother have a bit more to do in the story than just lay there unconscious for 90% of it.

 

The Beginning Matters Too: Rogue One

When you start writing a story, it’s always important to keep in mind what kind of story you’re trying to tell. Rogue One struggled with this, and as a writer myself, it’s hard not to sympathize. On the one hand they wanted to tell a standard Star Wars adventure story about Jyn Erso and the search for her father, but on the other was a war story about the rebels who stole the plans to the Death Star. They’re both good stories, unfortunately trying to tell both of them at the same time just ended up cluttering up the first act.

Jyn Erso’s story had some serious potential and I’m sad to think of what might have been. Seriously, both Mads Mikkelsen and Forest Whitaker gave some amazing performances, seeing both their characters more fully explored would have been a real treat. Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera in particular seemed like a fascinating character, and I wanted to know so much more about him, and his relationship with Jyn.

saw-gerrera
He was on screen for two minutes, but Forest Whitaker made Saw Gerrera feel alive.

“Did you come here to kill me? There’s not much of me left.”

You can hear how tired and afraid Saw Gerrera is in that line, and it made me want to know so much more about him. How long had he been fighting the Empire? How many battles had he only just barely survived to result in so many cybernetic prosthetics? How many times had he been betrayed that he saw treachery around every corner and in the eyes of Jyn Erso, who had become as a surrogate daughter to him?

In many ways it would have been easier had anyone other than Forest Whitaker played the role, because then it would just be some random side character I didn’t care about. It was Forest’s performance that sold it. As it is, who knows, maybe Whitaker will get his own spin-off movie.

In the end though, not enough time was spent with either Galen Erso or Saw Gerrera to appreciably deepen Jyn Erso’s character. It’s a shame too, had this beginning been pursued more fully, it could have added a whole new dynamic to the finale. If I had one problem with the ending of Rogue One it was the confrontation between Jyn and Director Krennic.

Ben_Mendelsohn_Rogue_One.png
They could have added so much more humanity to this character.

What should have been a climactic moment in Jyn Erso’s character arc… just ended up feeling flat. Krennic doesn’t even recognize her, and when he does, he doesn’t even have anything interesting to say. Yet had Krennic’s backstory with Jyn been more fully explored, this confrontation could have been the emotional crown to Jyn’s storyline.

Krennic was obviously fond of both Galen, his wife, and his daughter. At one time they must have been friends, until Galen found his conscience and realized what he was doing. In one brief flashback scene we see Jyn watching her father with Krennic, and they seemed like good friends, which got me thinking. What if, instead of being two strangers, Krennic and Jyn knew each other when they faced off on the communications array?

Imagine if Krennic had been like a favorite uncle to Jyn as a child, and her an adopted niece to Krennic? Suddenly that final confrontation would have emotional teeth. Jyn would be filled with hate over her father’s enslavement by Krennic, Krennic would be furious at Jyn dismantling his life’s work… yet that love they once shared would still be there. That would give Krennic a reason to not immediately blast Jyn when he sees her, because he wouldn’t be seeing the fiery leader of the Rebellion’s strike force, but the little girl he adored.

jyn-erso-young-girl
Now what? 

Still, could any of this gotten into the film without completely ruining the war story dynamic of the second and third acts? Yes, I believe any story can be told, but it would have been an incredible challenge and would have required more time to put into place.

As a result of the adventure story beginning, Rogue One ends up missing the first part of a good war story: the introduction to the characters. What was needed here was a beginning not unlike The Dirty Dozen, or even Inglourious Basterds, in which every character and their skillset is introduced. While Cassian’s entry successfully pulls that off, and is one of the best moments of the first act, everyone else is basically overlooked.

Had Rogue One cut the adventure story of Jyn Erso’s family, it would have gone a long way to making the beginning more structured. Yet at the same time, it would also have robbed us of Galen Erso and his sabotaging of the Death Star. As I said in my review, it was Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as Jyn’s father that gave the thermal exhaust port a new emotional weight. I can see the conundrum that the makers of Rogue One faced, and in the end I suspect they ran out of time to fix the problem properly and give both stories a chance to shine.

So yes, the beginning is a mess and there’s no getting around it now, but perhaps it did enough to the put the pieces in place for Rogue One‘s ending. Which as I already wrote, was one hell of an ending.

rogueone_logo-0-0
And if you missed my original review, you can find it right here.

All That Matters is the Ending: Rogue One

I loved Rogue OneLoved it. Yet even I must admit, I may have oversold it a bit when I tweeted after leaving the theater.

Okay, there might have been some slight exaggeration.

I loved it because Rogue One scratched an itch I’ve been suffering from since I first watched Star Wars when I was kid. In fact watching it felt like watching my own childhood imagination coming to life on the big screen. That’s why I was so blind to many of its flaws at first. This is also why I wait until subsequent viewings to write a review.

I understand now why so many people had a problem with The Force Awakens; large parts of it just didn’t seem sincere. It had been made, to an almost scientific degree, to appeal to a broad audience. The monster chase, the constant cameos, the almost shot-for-shot recreations of original Star Wars scenes… it added up to an experience that made it seem desperate for us to love it. Like the creators were sitting next to us, whispering “Isn’t this great? Isn’t this so Star Wars? Please like me,” the entire time we were watching. It was Star Wars though, and I was having fun, so I just nodded along.

bb-thumbs-up
This may have been scientifically created be adorable, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it.

Rogue One was clearly made with a specific story in mind, and while it’s clear that certain shots were cut in later to force it closer to The Force Awakens, it’s still a story that rings of authenticity rather than sheer commercialism. More than that, this a prequel that actually does what it’s supposed to: make the original movies even more enjoyable. It fixes a flaw that’s long been made fun of in A New Hope and gives it a new sense of dramatic weight that it lacked before.

This isn’t like any Star Wars story that’s come before. If you go in expecting a fun adventure story like A New Hope or The Force Awakens, you will be disappointed. Though it’s tonally closer The Empire Strikes Back, it succeeds in being even darker. This is not a happy story, but it doesn’t make the mistake of being joyless either. There is a lot of fun to be had here, and you’ll burst out laughing at times, but there is sadness and loss here too. This is a new kind of  Star Wars story.

Rogue One is Star Wars’ very first war story.

[This concludes the Spoiler Free version of the review, don’t scroll past the picture of Darth Vader if you don’t want spoilers. Just trust me, you’ll want to see this one for yourself. If you’ve already seen it and want to know why it was awesome, or perhaps you didn’t like it and want to know why I did, keep on reading.]

 

Darth Vader

All That Matters is the Ending:

Rogue One

rogueone_logo-0-0

This is going to be a new perspective for my All That Matters is the Ending series. All my previous entries have focused on bad endings that ruined otherwise good stories. This article is going to be about how a great ending saved a story from being terrible.

If my judgement of the movie had to rely solely on the beginning, I would say it was a worse film that Episode 1. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Rogue One‘s ending, and I’m going to cheat a little and include the second act, more than make up for the rocky start. Here’s how Rogue One‘s ending did everything a good ending is supposed to do.

3. The Characters Find Meaning (If Only at the End)

jyn_erso

The beginning of Rogue One is a mess, at one point jumping between like 8 different planets in the first ten minutes. The problem here is that Rogue One forgot it was telling a war story, and tried to start the film like a traditional Star Wars film by featuring the tragic story of Jyn Erso. The beginning of Rogue One demanded something more akin to the beginning of The Dirty Dozen or Inglourious Basterds, where all the main characters are given their own unique introduction. To be fair, they tried to provide this, it just… really didn’t work for most of the characters.

Cassian’s introduction is the only one where this works and I love the scene where he’s introduced, meeting a contact on a remote trading outpost. First of all, this scene made the Rebellion seem like an actual rebellion. Rebellions, or any martial conflict, rely on intelligence gathering, and Cassian’s meeting a contact served as the perfect introduction to not only the character, but the movie. Cassian being forced to kill his contact, and most likely friend as well, rather than allow him to be captured clearly marked Rogue One out as being a different kind of Star Wars story. A traditional adventure story in the vein of A New Hope or Return of the Jedi would have featured a gallant rescue.

diego-luna-as-cassian-andor
Diego Luna gave us a new kind of hero.

Unfortunately, the other characters don’t get the same treatment. That’s another article, and if you hated the beginning (or the entire movie), my next article will be your next stop. However the ending quickly does what the beginning failed to do.

I’m going to reach back into the mists of time and bring up my Mass Effect 3 review. When I complained that there was no sense of closure for the characters, some took that to mean that I simply didn’t want them to die, or that death wasn’t a proper resolution for a character. That’s not so, and Rogue One is the perfect example of the kind of resolution I had been hoping for in Mass Effect 3.

Rather than allowing them to die off camera in the horrific holocaust of post-Mass Effect 3 Earth, I wanted to see them go down fighting. Giving their all, even in the face of an unstoppable evil. That’s exactly what Rogue One gives its characters.

cbf377f173d3366806ce53576365a1cfcb5cc39d
To be honest, I don’t remember this character’s name, but I’ll sure as hell remember him.

Looking at this like a typical Star Wars story you would be completely justified in thinking these characters were all pretty shallow. However, if you look at it as war movie, you’ll see that each character gets about as much attention as they do in any war movie. I regard Saving Private Ryan as one of the finest movies ever made, but thinking back on the characters… I couldn’t name any of them besides the titular role. I sure as hell remember the Sniper though, and the translator, and Tom Hanks and his second in command.

That’s just how war stories are told, you don’t have time to get in depth with most of the characters without ruining the pacing, tone, or atmosphere.

Rogue One, like most great war movies, defines its characters by how they meet their end on the battlefield.

Tom Hanks Saving Private Ryan.jpg
When you think Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, this is the scene that came to mind right?

Whether it be K2’s valiant sacrifice at the vault to Donnie Yen’s calm walk across a burning battlefield, Rogue One nailed these characters and their final moments. Each character’s death also serves an important purpose to the battle itself, so rather than being death for its own sake, each character is fulfilling a purpose.

K2-S0 secures the vault to keep the imperials from pursuing Jyn and Cassian. Cassian buys time for Jyn to get to the relay. Donnie Yen’s character connects the landing pad to the communications array. The pilot connects the line to the shuttle and sends out the message to the rebels to bring down the shield. They’re all forging a link in a chain that ends with the Death Star plans being transmitted to the fleet overhead.

It’s that teamwork, that shared sacrifice to obtain their goal, that makes a great war film. Yet no only is Rogue One enjoyable in itself, it also makes the original Star Wars even better.

2. Rogue One makes A New Hope an Even Better Movie

Let’s all talk about that Thermal Exhaust Port shall we?

death-star-fatal-faw
You know the one I mean…

This has been a running joke since the day Star Wars premiered in 1977, and even though there was a great defense on why the Death Star needs an exhaust port, today it’s held up as the textbook example of lazy writing. Now though, after watching Rogue One, that thermal exhaust port takes on a whole new meaning.

Now it’s no longer the result of the Empire using subcontractors who cut corners, or whatever your favorite joke for the Thermal Exhaust Port is, it’s now a symbol of the Rebellion. It’s one man’s last act of defiance against an overpowering evil that had taken everything from him, even though he knew it would never redeem him of his crime of designing such a horrible weapon. It’s an impossible predicament to imagine, you know how to design a weapon of mass destruction:

Do you refuse to do it and be executed, knowing that they will go on without you?

Or do you agree to do it, and sabotage the weapon from the inside?

One the one hand, if you refuse you die knowing the blood of millions isn’t on your hands. Yet on the other, could you prevent those millions from dying?

Alderaanexplosion.jpg
It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation.

This has been a story I’ve been fascinated with since my father introduced me to the Heisenberg Version [warning: a long, sometimes boring, but fascinating historical text in that link]. In short, the Heisenberg Version refers to how Heisenberg characterized his working on the atomic bomb for Nazi Germany. Heisenberg’s claim is that he was like Galen Erso, doing his best to convince Nazi High Command that the Atom Bomb was a physical impossibility. He went so far as to deliberately falsify the mathematical formulas he presented so as to dissuade his crazy boss Hitler from pursuing such a devastating weapon.

I have no idea if this story is true, other historians say that this was simply Heisenberg’s way of covering his ass or saving face for making the mistake that the atomic bomb couldn’t happen. I’m not a historian, I just pilfer history for good stories, and true or not, The Heisenberg Version is one hell of a story.

[I wish my dad had been around to see this film, he would have loved debating this point.]

Though speaking of tragically lost fathers…

Galen’s last words to his daughter, after being reunited only moments earlier, made me choke up.

“There was so much I wanted to tell you.” – Galen Erso, Rogue One

It’s such an old, tired line. Maybe it was because I lost my father not too long ago, but that line hit me right between the lungs. Mostly though, it was Mads Mikkelson’s amazing performance.

galen-erso
If you knew Mads as Hannibal Lector, you won’t recognize him in Rogue One.

In fact all of the emotion that I now attach to that thermal exhaust port, is solely because of his delivering of only a handful of lines. I truly wish he’d been given a larger role because he owned that character, for those few moments he was Galen Erso. Yet, even as great as his performance was, he alone isn’t responsible for adding greatness. It is, as the title suggests, the ending that brings it home and not only brings new meaning to A New Hope but also redeems its atrocious first act.

1. The Ending Hits All the Right Emotional Notes

darth-vader-is-back
Darth Vader, the faceless enforcer of the Empire, is back people!

I’ll let you in on a secret. Even though I loved my perfect Mass Effect 2 ending in which I save all my guys, my absolute favorite ending is the one where everyone dies. Dragon Age: Origins, sacrificing myself so that Alistair could be king (as terrible an idea as that sounded) was one of the high points. I’m a sucker for a good noble sacrifice, and Rogue One delivered them in spades.

I know some people probably rolled their eyes at each character’s heroic death, but I loved it, it’s exactly the kind of heroic death that Star Wars was made for. As dark as Star Wars sometimes gets, it’s still Star Wars and you don’t want to show disemboweled soldiers screaming for their mothers. So when I watched K2-S0 hold off an entire platoon of Stormtroopers, I wasn’t shaking my head about how unrealistic it is, I was smiling.

Repeating the whole staring at the grenade thing twice was a bit of misstep, I admit, but seeing Donnie Yen’s companion finally accept the Force to honor his friend hit me exactly where it should: the feels. And while my friend Hali wanted to see Jyn and Cassian kiss in their final moments, I thought it was fitting that these two simply hug as they faced their final moments together rather than force a romantic scene.

The heroic deaths do more than add resolution to the characters and their story however, it adds a new sense of dramatic weight to the A New Hope, and indeed, Star Wars as a whole.

One thing Star Wars movies have always been missing is a sense of loss. In A New Hope, only three fighters out of thirty make it back to base, but there’s no somber homecoming. Tonally, okay, that fits for A New Hope, but what about Return of the Jedi? Their had to be tens of thousands dead on the Rebellion’s side alone.

Cruiser Liberty Destroyed.png
Going off Wookiepedia, this ship alone has a crew of over 5000.

Now Return of the Jedi was originally supposed to have a more Pyrrhic victory feel at the end until George Lucas dumped a bunch of Ewoks in there for merchandising. Rogue One has the tone and feel that Return of the Jedi should have had. Yes we won, but look at the price we paid.

Even better, the “rebel spies” spoken of by Darth Vader are no longer a throwaway piece of exposition. They’re now the people who gave everything to make sure the Rebellion would survive, we can place names and faces to those spies.

Speaking of Darth Vader… guess who is back at the top of my favorite villain list!

darth-vader-is-back
Vader is bringing sexy back!

Rogue One leaves behind the whining and whinging Anakin the prequels forced on us, and shows us why we loved Darth Vader. As groan inducing as the choking pun was earlier in the film, his bloody return to power on the Rebel ship more than made up for it. If you watched Stars Wars straight through from episodes 1-4, the very first time you see Darth Vader is when he impotently screams “NOOOOOO!” and thus it completely neuters his introduction in A New Hope. Now, sticking Rogue One into the lineup, his ominous arrival on the scene has some teeth to it again. Seeing Darth Vader back as the faceless enforcer of the Empire’s will makes this whole movie worth it.

This scene isn’t just useless fan service either, at least in my opinion. Darth Vader has never been one to get his hands dirty unnecessarily, but in this case he’s trying to keep the rebels from escaping with the plans. He doesn’t have time to let his visually challenged Stormtroopers try and slug their way through, this demands an efficiency only he and his  lightsaber can provide.

Then later, when the rebel corvette is at the mercy of his Star Destroyer, well then he can take his time and pick it apart as his leisure.

this-is-a-consular-ship
“This is a consular ship!” “Trooper, didn’t we just watch them escape five minutes ago?” “Yes sir!” “That’s what I thought.”

I’ve read some pretty damning reviews of Rogue One, and I can see where they’re all coming from. In fact this review is so late because I was afraid of publishing so glowing of it, but try as I might, I just couldn’t bring myself to not like it. I am who I am, and I enjoy the stories I enjoy.

I loved this movieIf you didn’t, I get it, and I’ll be thoroughly savaging what went wrong with the beginning later for your amusement.

But I loved it, and if nothing else, I hope this explains why I did.

Westworld: A Storyteller’s Story

Normally I hold off on TV show reviews until its had a full season so I can review the entire season’s arc, but I’ve been enjoying Westworld so much that I just had to write something up about it. It has so many aspects to talk about. There are parallels between Westworld and video games, fascinating explorations about the nature of identity and consciousness, the difference between natural and artificial life… is there a difference at all? The list goes on. I might talk about all of them eventually, but the one thing I want to focus on is how Westworld tells such an amazing story while at the same time explaining exactly how they’re telling you the story.

Honestly, if you want to learn how to tell a good story, just listen to Anthony Hopkin’s talk about his characters and world. They should show this in creative writing 101. It’s exciting to see the mundane world of writing presented in such a unique way, and that’s why I’m going to spend the next 1500 words rambling on about how awesome it is.

I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a bare minimum, but there are still a couple, so reader beware. If you haven’t seen Westworld, I highly recommend it if you enjoy Scifi, Westerns, or just plain old good writing no matter what the genre.

Westworld:

A Storyteller’s Story

160819-westworld-s1-blast-07-1280.jpg

Westworld is a futuristic theme park unlike any that’s ever existed, one filled with artificial people that have been programmed to live out hundreds of branching storylines to create the illusion of a living world. It’s like a video game on a massive scale and taking place in real life (or at least that’s how it’s presented, though I have my doubts as to what’s really happening.) It’s a writer’s dream job, and yet a writer’s nightmare at the same time, given the level of complexity involved.

Unfortunately the lead writer of the Westworld narrative is an idiot; that is the narrative within the show’s setting and not the actual scriptwriters for the show, who I am convinced are probably geniuses. The head writer of the Westworld themepark wants to create a new story and how he pitches the story to Anthony Hopkins tells you exactly what kind of story it is.

“I have vivisection, self-cannabalism[…] this is the apex of what the park can provide. Horror, romance, titillation[…]”

His story has only one goal: to shock. He doesn’t talk about the characters, who they are or what their goals are, or the plot of his story beyond kill, kill, kill…and maybe some sex along the way.

The head writer of the narrative is what I imagine most screenwriters in Hollywood are like: he equates action, shock, violence, and gore with good writing. These are the people that write the sometimes entertaining, but often terrible and utterly forgettable crap that comes out: Independence Day Resurgence, every Terminator sequel after 2, every movie based on a board game, and all of Michael Bay’s movies. They write every game with a tacked-on single player, such as Call of Duty and Battlefront.

No.png
“No.” – Anthony Hopkins’ response to the new story. And my response to pretty much every story these days.

Yet, stories can be so much more. As Ed Harris’s Man in Black so eloquently put:

“…I think there’s deeper meaning, something hidden under all that, something the person who created it wanted to express. Something true.”

Those are the authors who create A Tale Of Two Cities, War and Peace, Of Mice and Men. The screenwriter who writes Schindler’s ListInside Out, Gladiator. The screenwriters behind TV shows like Breaking Bad, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and now Westworld. 

These are the writers who understand that blood, guts, sex, and violence are spices to be used in a story and not the story itself. They’re the writers who can write a great story without ever using any of those spices. Who, like Anthony Hopkins, yearn to create something truly alive whether it be through a book, movie, or video game.

early-hosts-420-90
Or possibly sentient artificial life.

“Do you know why your backstory is so mysterious? Because we never bothered to give you one.” – Anthony Hopkins to Teddy

When the show begins Teddy is a cipher of a character in the Westworld theme park, as far as characterization is concerned Teddy might as well be a two-by-four on legs.

Sadly this is true in most shows, secondary characters like Teddy are glossed over with no thought given to their backstory. They lack depth, and because they lack depth they’re not so much characters as simply part of the environment; something for the main characters to interact with. I didn’t feel it was any kind of tragedy when Teddy died the first time, he had no backstory. I didn’t know him. It’s why in the theme park no one cared enough to follow his storyline.

Yet when Anthony Hopkins gives him a backstory, suddenly Teddy becomes alive, and the patrons who once ignored him completely now feel compelled to follow him. They want to hear his story, experience it. That’s what a good backstory can do for a character.

This is exactly what I was talking about in my review of Luke Cage. I never felt like Diamondback had a backstory. Sure, he tells us the cliched story of his father leaving the bastard for the true born son, but that’s pretty much it. Where was he during all those intervening years? How did he come to possess the Judas Bullets? How did he become a criminal kingpin? Why does he quote bible verses when his father the preacher betrayed him, why didn’t that make him reject religion entirely?

We had the same problem with Corypheus in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Who was Corypheus before he stepped into the Golden City? Did he have a wife and children? Was he always a cruel manipulator? What was life like for him before his fall? As far as the audience is concerned, Corypheus simply popped into existence for the sake of the story.

Corypheus_Closeup
Apparently one of the most power magisters in the Tevinter Imperium has no historical record.

The problem is not that the writers never spelled out these characters’ histories for the audience, the problem is that I don’t believe even the writers knew their backstory. They simply came up with a name, personality, and loosely defined motive for their character and let them loose in the story. If they’d known their own character’s history, then elements of their backstory would have naturally crept into the story. A good writer will have all their major characters have their own personal history.

It doesn’t have to be a meticulous history stretching from birth to current events. It just has to be enough to convince the audience that the character has been living in this world, and didn’t just pop into existence for the sake of the story. Teddy’s backstory is a great example, he doesn’t start his monologue talking about life as a little boy, he keeps to the important parts. He was once a soldier, he fought Indians (perhaps reluctantly), he had a superior officer who disappeared and went nuts, and he had a near death experience with that same officer.

Boom, suddenly Teddy has dimension to him. A past who shaped the person he’s become. Think about any great character that you’ve loved, and you’ll find that you know a lot about who that character was before the story began:

  • Walter White’s job as a chemistry teacher and the missed opportunity of starting a conglomerate.
  • Han Solo’s career as a smuggler, recently with a price on his head.
  • Captain America’s life as a scrawny kid who wanted to help people but couldn’t.

In every case there was always a backstory, a history that showed our favorite characters had lives before the story began, something to suggest these characters were more than they appeared. Without that, we’re left with hollow characters that don’t operate so much as people in a story than mere window dressing for the setting and plot.

cottonmouth
Annoying, laughing window dressing.

It’s that kind of background, that character building, that leads to genuine moments like this:

“Are we very old friends?” Dolores to Anthony Hopkins

Now I’ve seen and read so many stories that when I hear this line, my mind immediately begins filling in the response. You know the ones:

“Yes, very old friends.”
“We were once.”
“A long time ago.”

Those, and variations on those, are the expected responses. And yet Anthony Hopkins’ response was completely unexpected.

“No, Dolores, I wouldn’t say friends. I wouldn’t say friends at all.” Anthony Hopkins to Dolores

I was grinning like an idiot during that entire exchange for a couple of reasons. First of all because it deepens the mystery surrounding Dolores, Anthony Hopkins, and Arnold. Secondly because it suddenly makes Dolores and Anthony Hopkins’ relationship more complex. It was also the incredible way in which the great Anthony Hopkins delivers the line, a truly masterful performance by one of the best actors in the world.

I wouldn't say that at all Anthony Hopkins Westworld.png
My God man, he has so much talent it’s pouring out of his eyes!

But mostly, I was grinning because it surprised me. It took an old, tired line and gave it a new shine, and more than anything else, that’s what makes this a storyteller’s story. It shows you that even the most well-worn and tired stories can be told in new and exciting ways.

As much as I remind myself that there is nothing new under the sun, and that every story has been told, I still find myself struggling on occasion with worrying if a story is worth telling. Westworld is a reminder that every story may have been told, but originality and enjoyment doesn’t come from the story itself, it comes from the person telling the story. The unique perspective of the writer, or writers, is everything. Everything can been new when you see it through someone else’s eyes.

“I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.”

A girl not wanting to be the damsel is almost as old as the damsel in distress itself, but seeing it through Westworld’s eyes makes it feel brand new. It makes me feel like I’ve never seen anything like this before. Everything in this artificial world filled with both science fiction and western tropes as old as the genres themselves, feels brand new.

westworld2.png
“Look back and smile at perils past.” – Walter Scott, a 300-year-old Scottish novelist made to sound brand new from the mouth of Anthony Hopkins.

If you haven’t seen Westworld and you want to write a story, you should watch it. If you haven’t seen Westworld and you enjoy good stories, you should watch it. If you enjoy reading my blog, you should watch it since I have a feeling I’m going to spend quite a bit of time talking about it.  This is a story that’s taking us somewhere and, as Anthony Hopkins might put it:

“They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”

I’m sticking around to see if I get a glimpse of who I could be as writer, but this show is so good that I might see a glimpse of something even more profound. I hope you’ll join me in taking that glimpse.

 

Luke Cage: Invulnerable Skin, Vulnerable Story

We originally met Luke Cage in Jessica Jones where he was tending bar in Hell’s Kitchen, the man with unbreakable skin. Much like Superman this presents a problem for the writers: how do you generate any kind of danger when the character is invulnerable. Unlike Superman’s writers, who just said “fuck it, more punching”, Luke Cage’s writers tried to find a way around it. By building Luke Cage’s personal relationships, as well as his relationship with Harlem at large, they could generate tension by threatening his friends and home.

Unfortunately this attempt is let down by rather flat and uninteresting characters, and too much focus on a single barbershop rather than the neighborhood at large. So then they said “fuck it, let’s add some alien bullets that we can shoot at Luke Cage” and called it a day.

I still enjoyed Luke Cage, and compared to your average TV show it’s still a good bit of entertainment, but when compared to the first season of Daredevil and Jessica Jones it falls short… by quite a distance.

Luke Cage:

A Storytelling Review

maxresdefault

Luke Cage starts off slowly with Luke laying low, working as an assistant in a barbershop in Harlem working for a man named Pops. Now I thought Pops had the potential to be a truly unique character. Whereas I thought Pops was merely a reference to his age and paternal attitude, it’s revealed that it’s a nickname based off the sound his fists made when hitting someone and that he was once a feared gangster in the neighborhood. That’s a pretty dark backstory for someone I originally took for the “kindly old man who dies” trope. Yet Luke Cage tragically glosses over what could have been a unique character, and leaves many unanswered questions. Why did he leave the gangster life? How did he come to own the barbershop? What’s with the swear jar?

This glossing over of important characterizations is one of the crippling problems with Luke Cage, because it happens with pretty much every character not named Luke. In fact, even Luke has a hard time feeling real.

The result of not spending enough time on establishing the characters is that none of it really makes an emotional impact on the audience. I knew Pops was going to die the moment I saw him, it was practically tattooed on his forehead, but that doesn’t mean his death should have been so… meaningless. Yes his death serves as the catalyst for Luke Cage’s revenge, but for me, I didn’t feel anything for Pop’s death and I should have. I should have been angry or sad, preferably both, I should have been thirsting for vengeance.

Everything I felt when Fisk strangled Ben Urich with his bare hands in the first season of Daredevil.

Ben-Urich-Office-Fisk-Threat.jpg
Pictured: A much better mentor character than Pops.

But if the protagonists and supporting cast felt shallow, they were the Marianas Trench of characters compared to the tide pools of the villains.

Perhaps I’ve become spoiled by amazing villains like Fisk and Kilgrave, but the villains of Luke Cage are some of the most boring you’ll ever encounter. Cottonmouth had some potential to be a sympathetic villain with the reveal of his past, becoming a murderer at the insistence of his crazy aunt/adoptive mother. A musician trapped in the life of a thug could make for a damn compelling story, but unfortunately they don’t reveal Cottonmouth’s history until midway through the season and he’s killed off shortly afterward.

Worse yet, his musical talent isn’t shown very often. He plays the piano a few times, but really if he’s such a talented musician, Luke Cage should have spent more time showing it to us. A couple of scenes where Cottonmouth plays a beautiful piece of music on the piano and giving his henchmen orders would have gone a long way. Juxtapose the beauty of his musical talent against the ugliness of his vicious, gangster personality. Instead they tell us about his musical talents instead of showing it, with his Uncle painstakingly spouting exposition about how Cottonmouth could go to Juliard. Unfortunately Cottonmouth dies almost immediately afterward.

cottonmouth
Sorry, did I say unfortunately, I meant thankfully. Dude is seriously annoying.

I understand what they were shooting for here, they wanted us to feel sympathy for Cottonmouth just before his end.

In most stories we’re rooting for the villain to get his comeuppance. Yet one of the best ways to emotionally toy with your audience is to humanize the villain, or even redeem the villain, so that when the end comes there’s a tragic angle to it. This was done with Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, Inspector Javier in Les Miserable, and countless others. It’s an old trick and an effective one. In fact Luke Cage tries to pull this twice, once with Cottonmouth and once with a corrupt cop.

The trouble in this case is that Cottonmouth just isn’t characterized well enough to feel much sympathy for him, the show waits way too long to reveal his tragic backstory and though it’s hinted and foreshadowed extensively, that’s not enough to redeem him. Throughout the show I had a hard time understanding Cottonmouth’s motivations for… well much of anything. While obviously a villain is there to solely provide the protagonist with an obstacle, I should never actually feel that that’s the case. I should feel like Cottonmouth has other goals and objectives outside the story. That would have made him feel more real.

luke-cage-property-damage
This card door had more stakes in the story than Cottonmouth.

But instead of that they gave us someone who’s only defining characteristic is his extremely awkward laugh, a laugh that tells us he’s trying to channel the Joker way too hard.

What made Fisk a great villain wasn’t just because he had a unique way of speaking that made for some truly spine-chilling speeches; Fisk was a great villain because he was treated as a character first and villain second. Fisk was passionate, and I count his love affair with Vanessa as one of finest romances I’ve ever seen; Fisk was righteous, or at least thought of himself as such, he wanted to deliver people from poverty and help the city he truly loved; Fisk was ruthless, he was so convinced of his own righteousness he was willing to do anything to accomplish his goals. We saw the humanity in Fisk and that made him feel real.

And if you haven’t seen this speech, you definitely need it in your life.

By contrast, Cottonmouth feels more like a prop than a character, an inanimate obstacle to be overcome rather than a character to be dealt with.

Unfortunately as weak as Cottonmouth is as a character, he feels like a character from Breaking Bad compared to Diamondback. Diamondback is a complete cipher. He’s not introduced until the tail end of the show and when he does he’s over the top, even when compared to Cottonmouth’s over the top performance and that’s saying something. Throughout the show Diamondback is made out to be this powerful criminal kingpin, someone on the level of Fisk or at least near to that level. Everyone fears him. And yet we never actually see anything resembling a powerbase for Diamondback.

With Fisk, great pains were taken to show his organization’s strength; his political allies, his legal shelter companies, and his illegal operations. Diamondback gets none of that. In fact when he finally arrives in person, the first thing he does is take over Cottonmouth’s operation just so he can shore up his goon-count to take on Luke Cage. He then hides in warehouses owned by Cottonmouth because he apparently doesn’t own any of his own safehouses in the neighborhood he supposedly runs.

diamondback
He even steals the man’s wardrobe.

This is especially problematic when Diamondback starts pulling out advanced technology, presumably straight from his ass. How does he have access to this technology? Where did he get the funds to purchase them? The Judas Bullet, the only bullet that can harm Luke Cage, is made out to be this incredibly expensive item. The price of just one Judas Bullet makes Cottonmouth do a double take, and yet Diamondback fires these things off like they come in big boxes at the local Walmart. Later he arms the local police with Judas Bullets, albeit a cheaper version, and he seemingly does this in a matter of hours. How did he do that? Does he have a massive industrial base where he can manufacture weapons on demand?

Because if he does, that absolutely needed to be elaborated on! Instead the show asks us to take it at face value, and I’ve come to expect better from Marvel TV shows.

Perhaps the worst part is the reveal of Diamondback’s backstory; he’s Luke Cage’s half-brother. None of this was foreshadowed, Luke barely even mentions his father and he never refers to having a good friend as a young boy. It comes seemingly out of nowhere and because of that it lacks any emotional resonance, and in fact makes the whole thing seem trite. And because I couldn’t really bring myself to care about any of this, their final battle really felt like an anticlimax to me.

Celebrity Sightings in New York City - May 23, 2016
The most boring fist fight since Superman and Zod, though fortunately it’s shorter.

Of course most of these problems can be traced back to one fundamental flaw: trying to frontload too many future plotlines into the show. This problem began to pop up in Jessica Jones, with some random cop Kilgrave mind controls turning out to be some secret super soldier. He was obviously being set up to appear as a villain in the future and that was made blatantly obvious by the way the show’s pacing came to a lurching halt every time he showed up. Then of course there was the foreshadowing of an evil corporation who may or may not be responsible for giving Jessica Jones superpowers.

In Jessica Jones these problems were distracting, in Luke Cage it’s crippling. First of all, rather than simply telling us why Luke Cage is in prison and maybe add some actual depth to him, they coyly dance around it. They spend quite a while showing us the illegal medical experiments at the private prison where Luke is kept; no doubt this was for planting seeds establishing a big overarching nemesis that will run across all of Marvel’s Netflix series. Then there’s the doctor that helps Luke escape prison and who eventually becomes his lover, they only hint at her death and late in the show we find out she was complicit in the illegal research being conducted. The origin of the Judice bullets are another story thread that will probably link back to the same evil corporation. Then there’s the growing suspicion and resentment towards superheroes. The list goes on and on.

The first season of Luke Cage spent so much time setting up future plotlines that it forgot to tell a decent story to string it all together. Nothing in the above list is elaborated upon, nothing meaningful related to the audience, no payoff. It’s all just “to be continued” and with so many story threads trailing off into nothing… we’re left feeling unsatisfied.

luke-cage-in-bed
That’s what she said! (I’ll show myself out)

Rather than use the first season of Luke Cage to introduce a dozen different plots, it should have focused on the truly important story: Luke Cage becoming the protector of Harlem.

Because the best parts of Luke Cage are when he’s using his powers to help random people.

I found him helping the Asian couple keep their restaurant far more satisfying than the entire final fight with Diamondback, and stopping the robbery at the corner store made him feel more like a hero than any of the convoluted plots to take down Cottonmouth. If Luke Cage had tightened its focus on helping the neighborhood, coming to accept his role as its protector, and had him go head to head with Cottonmouth alone, we would have had a much better show. Unfortunately as it is, Luke Cage spreads its focus too thinly for any of the storylines to have any real impact.

There’s a lot of potential here, it could go on to be a show just as good as the first season of Daredevil.

But if Marvel continues using these characters as mere launchpads from which to launch yet more TV shows and franchises, then the foundational characters will simply wither and crumble away, and the whole Cinematic Universe will come crashing down.

jenga-1
And with all the plots Marvel is stacking on top of each other, it won’t take much for it to come down.

 

Life is Strange: The Vortex

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a year since my original review of Life is StrangeI 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

The Vortex

20160920060355_1

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.

20160919223832_1.jpg
The vortex club is a bigger problem than the tornado.

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.

20160918064639_1
Like this old woman, left homeless on the street, Arcadia Bay is dying. Perhaps the tornado was simply finishing what the people in Arcadia Bay started.

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.

20160920004606_1
A vortex of ants near a dead bird. She’s not exactly being subtle here!

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?

20160920035401_1.jpg
From the horse’s mouth.

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.

20160920060808_1

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.

 

3 Things the Next Star Wars Movie Can’t Do

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

Plot Armor Bounty Hunter
That armor is a neon sign screaming “BOSS FIGHT”… and yet we never actually get to see her in action.

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.

Film Review Taken 2
Or he could send Liam Neeson after me. I’m good with either scenario. (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Magali Bragard)

That said, I hope JB-007 makes another appearance.

2. Skip over the details

StarkillerBase_0

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.

Bossk.png
And some of that life is just ugly as sin.

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)

Older-Luke-Skywalker-Star-Wars-Force-Awakens

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.

Why?

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.

Han Solo Dies
They’ve already killed off the one non-Skywalker character that affected the story, the last thing we need is more Skywalkers Skywalkering it up in here.

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.

Game of Redemption: 3 Things This Season Has Done Right

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.

Petyr Baelish
Little Finger continues to give the most satisfying speeches in the show.

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

Osha
We salute your (unfortunately necessary) sacrifice.

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.

Ramsay Bolton Snow
And since Ramsay’s usefulness to the story has run out, I’m pretty sure the mad dog is going to be put down fairly soon.

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

game-of-thrones-dorne
The dead weight of this stupid storyline has been thrown off.

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.

Burning the Khals.png
“Burn Them All.” – The Targaryen family creed, apparently.

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.

Sand Snakes.jpg
If we see these characters again, I hope its only so we can watch them die horribly.

Political Intrigue and the White Walkers

Smirking High Sparrow
I’m looking forward to seeing his smirk being wiped off, preferably with a sword.

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.

Night King and Bran
At least until the main event begins…

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.

Captain America: Civil War

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:

  1. The Civil War would be sparked by something horribly contrived and be neatly resolved by the end.
  2. None of the heroes would actually be harmed in the movie.
  3. 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 ReviewMarvel-Civil-War-alternate-poster.jpg

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.

l33LM2wU
Though it really seems like they should be blaming the guy with the explosive vest instead. 

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.

Age-of-Ultron-concept-art-by-Philippe-Gaulier_ Avengers_Sokovia_09
Turns out wiping out an entire city actually has consequences.

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.

capciv24
Though I’m pretty sure this guy is going to turn evil at some point. 

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.

adeb4800-50ad-0132-0b45-0eae5eefacd9
Dude just can’t catch a break. 

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.

CivilWarBucky.jpg
Nope, not even one break.

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.

MV5BMTQ3NjIwMzk5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY0MjY1ODE@._V1_CR0,60,640,360_AL_UX477_CR0,0,477,268_AL_

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.

captain-america-civil-war-concept-art-poster
Fortunately it’s not a straight up brawl like the concept art depicted.

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.

217968_109
A quick wit is no match for experience.

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.

472058_074
A line has been crossed.

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.

Captain_America_Civil_War_2511_620_347_100

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.

Because this is a Civil War.