Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Star Wars Episode VII: Unpopular Opinions

Those who know me or follow my blog know that I am kind of a Star Wars Prequel apologist.

Not everyone agrees with me, but that's fine, I'm used to it.

Then this happened and, like many of you, my initial reaction was NERD RAGE. For a moment, I felt the pull of the dark side. You know how Luke reacted when Vader threatened Leia? Yeah, that was me.

But then, like Luke, I realized that I had to be stronger. I would not fall like the fans before me.

In all seriousness, I don't think this is the worst idea in the world. Disney buying LucasFilm and announcing to produce the "Star Wars" franchise in perpetuity (potentially forever) does not inherently bother me, and I'll explain why.

When it comes to "Star Wars", I've never really cared about the plot. The plot has always been the weakest part of "Star Wars".

No, the greatest strength of "Star Wars" is its universe. The potential is nearly limitless. There's a reason why there's so much material in the Expanded Universe. When it comes to raw ideas, "Star Wars" has always had a knack for capturing the imagination with its myriad alien races, the mysterious nature of the Force and those who wield it, and technology that ranges from smooth and elegant to jagged and oily.

The story of the "Star Wars" films has never been some sacred artifact. This isn't like making a sequel to "Lord of the Rings" here.

If you immediately think that there's no way a "Star Wars" sequel can be good, then I don't want to know you. You have no imagination.

I think there's a lot of potential to tell new and interesting stories and draw from the popular Expanded Universe material, though I don't think you necessarily HAVE to. I mean, just look at the wealth of "Star Wars" fan films. Any "Star Wars" fan worth his salt has at least one thing they've always wanted to see or know more about. I for one have always wanted to see a story that doesn't vilify the dark side and explores the concept of a society of dark-side Force-sensitives who don't seek violence and domination.

That said, I do worry about a few things that could go wrong. But if they follow these two rules, I think they have a decent shot at making something good.

1) DO NOT RECAST THE MAIN CAST. It's no secret that Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford (and the rest) are getting on in years. That doesn't change the fact that they ARE those characters. Casting new people would be absolutely ridiculous. Nor should they do that weird "Tron: Legacy" thing of using CG to make them "appear" younger. That won't work. What they SHOULD do is set the next trilogy about 25 years after the end of Episode VI. Yeah, that means they skip the well-loved Timothy Zahn novels, but I don't want to see those novels turned into movies without the original cast. I want to see something new and I want to see the torch passed to NEW characters (preferably characters that aren't human).

2) DO NOT BLATANTLY IGNORE THE EXPANDED UNIVERSE. Obviously, not the ENTIRE Expanded Universe is considered canon, but most people do consider Timothy Zahn's "Thrawn Trilogy" to be pretty much acceptable. Fans accept it, other writers accept it... it's accepted. I think the best thing for everyone is if they just treat it like it happened. Contradictions are bound to come up, but as long as they operate from a place of respecting past work, I think they'll be on the right track.

I'm not saying the next "Star Wars" movie won't suck. I'm just saying there's no reason to assume it HAS to suck. This movie should have fan support, otherwise they'll just make it in spite of us. And I don't want that.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Cloud Atlas: Actual Review

Now that I've got the elephants in the room out of the way, I think I'm ready to talk about the film "Cloud Atlas".

There are few films that leave me absolutely speechless. Even movies that I love I typically have a number of tangible feelings that I tend to express while I leave the theater. This sometimes annoys my friends who generally like to "bask" rather than ruin the afterglow with critical thought. However, it does occasionally happen where I, too, prefer to bask rather than jump right into picking a work apart. Still, even in these cases, I do HAVE critical thoughts a-brewin', I'm just suppressing them in order to fully enjoy the moment. This was the case for "Looper".

"Cloud Atlas" was that rare film that truly left me speechless. Not a critical thought came to mind at any point for a very long time. It was just this overwhelming feeling of peace and joy and wonder. My mind was flying off into countless different directions, but none of them could be adequately described as amounting to anything other than, "Wow."

I really want to tell you how I feel about the film.

But, much like the film, I'm going to have to ask you all to be a bit patient with me, because in order to really help you understand why this film means so much to me, I have to explain the unique and challenging things about it without delving too deeply into the specifics. I do not intend to spoil much, mostly because I really don't have to. This isn't *that* sort of movie. Understanding what happens isn't the same as understanding the movie itself, but I do want you to understand the movie, at least in the broadest sense of it, before I get into my personal feelings on it.

The Structure

This film has 6 stories, but it's not like "Pulp Fiction" where the stories each have their own little arcs where they are more or less self-contained and compartmentalized with beginnings, middles, and ends. These stories tag out between one another at regular intervals from beginning to end, connected as a sort of stream of consciousness, with the fluidity of a game of "Marvel Vs. Capcom". It juggles.

The best way I could describe the structure is "ADHD", and not in a pejorative sense. As someone with ADHD, I can tell you that this movie's structure is pretty much exactly how my mind works. Like, I might be talking to someone about my cat, Niko, which then makes me think about the character he's named after from the "Circle of Magic" series, which will then make me thing about fantasy stories in general which will then make me think about etc. etc. etc. My mind is a jumble of tangentially connected threads and it is often a struggle to keep them tied together. I will put something on hold but then forget I did it and so it will sit there, possibly indefinitely. This film, thankfully, does not forget about the threads that it leaves hanging, though the viewer certainly might. Still, when people complain that the structure of this film is confusing or incoherent, I have little sympathy for them. Maybe their minds can only work linearly, and in a way I both envy and pity them. It must be nice to never lose track of your thoughts, but it must also be sad to feel so limited. In any case, if you ever wondered what it's like to have ADHD, this film is probably best way I could explain it to you.

Additionally, each story is literally a story within the universe of the film. The first story is a journal that is talked about or physically present in a number of the other stories of the film (possibly all of them, but I would have to see it again to be certain of that). The second story is told as a collection of letters that are found and examined by the character in the third story, whose adventures are turned into a mystery novel by a young friend of hers, who then submits the story to a publisher who is the primary character of the fourth story, whose actions are turned into a film which partially inspires the actions of the characters in the fifth story, whose life and words are recorded, deified, and chronicled as religious texts by the primitive peoples of the sixth story, which is told as a more traditional "story around a campfire" by one of the characters at the film's beginning and end. It is interesting to note that each story represents a different story structure in itself. First person, second person, third person, non-fiction, historical fiction, fiction with a factual basis, written, verbal, visual... And on top of that, each story contains its own specific genre.

As if that weren't already enough, another noteworthy piece is that while each story is in some way present in each of the other stories, including the ones that precede it, the stories are not narratively connected in any substantial way. The actions in one story do not directly influence the actions within another story, at least not in any obvious way. Each story is more or less self-contained and doesn't require the other stories in order to make sense or be fulfilling.

The film is also based on a book, and one might expect that the book is structured similarly, but it is not. It is actually structured in a more traditional way, with each story told one at a time.

So the question that might be on your minds is "Why?" Why would they decide to tell these stories all at once as a series of mini-tangents?

Well, because film in general does not lend itself well to several self-contained stories. Yes, it works in "Pulp Fiction", but that's because there's an underlying meta-narrative that unfolds. It feels like one big story rather than a bunch of smaller stories. "Cloud Atlas" is certainly not that. Each story has its own arc and each arc is completed within each story. If they had constructed the movie in the same way the book is structured, it would have been incredibly trying.

As an example, some of you might have seen the film "Grindhouse". If you haven't it was originally presented as a double-feature. While the two films were tied together by a similar aesthetic and the same universe, they each were their own self-contained films. While I absolutely loved "Grindhouse", my biggest problem was that while it felt like a singular "experience", it did not feel like a singular "film", and I admit, it does try my patience to have to sit through two different films back-to-back.

Books, on the other hand, have the luxury of relatively infinite patience on the part of the reader. The reader can take breaks in between stories, flip back and forth between them to find thematic connections, and develop their own sense of rhythm.

If they had structured "Cloud Atlas" in this way, it would have been absolutely terrible. The fact is, when we go to a film, we expect a certain kind of experience. Establish the story, present the conflict, action develops, climax is reached, story is completed. If you force an audience to go through this entire arc more than once, it is asking a lot. If you do it to them SIX times, you might as well give up.

So they layered all of the stories on top of each other. This accomplishes two things. First, it allows the audience to have a singular emotional connection for all of the stories together. Second, it allows the film to visually draw the parallels and points of intersection between the stories in a very literal sense by cutting between them.

By structuring it in this manner, it allows the audience to feel the movie as "one" experience. None of the stories launch into their conflicts before all of the other stories have been fully established, and because the stories are connected thematically and emotionally, it never feels like the movie is grinding to a halt so it can get all of its pieces in order. It is masterfully edited and written. Truly, this was the only way this film was even possible.

The Themes

Another question that might arise might be, "Why do all of these stories need to be told together?" This is indeed a valid question.

After all, this sort of structure has been used before. The first major one that comes to mind is "Love Actually", which had several interweaving but largely disconnected love stories all playing out in the same emotional arc. However, one of the main reasons it worked there was because they all had the same genre and temporal setting to anchor the meta-narrative to.

"Cloud Atlas" is not anchored. At all. Unlike "Love Actually", there is no common time frame, there is no specific genre, there is no specific tone or style. So why tell these seemingly mismatched stories all together?

Well, because all of the stories are essentially the same story.

When people talk about this film, they say that the central theme is "freedom", and I might be inclined to agree, but I think it's talking about a very specific kind of freedom. A sort of spiritual freedom. The ability to define oneself. The paradox that while our physical forms matter very little, they are also sacred because they are defined by us.

That theme is reflected, not only within the content of the stories, but by the stories themselves. This film is in some ways a fractal or a synecdoche where the whole can be seen as referencing a part and a part can be seen in reference to the whole. There are very small aspects of this film with very big underlying messages and very broad interpretations of this film that also speak to the same messages.

OK, that was really obtuse, so let me try and get a little more specific.

Each of the six stories in "Cloud Atlas" are essentially the same story. An individual is a part of a system that benefits from the strong provoking the weak. Sometimes they themselves are benefiting from that system, but it does not always matter. One character betrays another usually in relation to the system of exploitation inherent in that particular setting, but always specifically for their own personal gain. This betrayal spurs the individual character to stand up for the weak (which may or may not be themselves) and learn the value of doing so.

If this sounds familiar, it's because it is a story we've all heard a million times before, and the writers are aware of that. It is why they are able to weave these stories together as one continuous arc, in spite of their great variation.

So now you might be wondering, "If all of the stories are essentially the same, why tell more than one?"

Indeed. Why tell more than one? The same could be said for stories in general. Over the cosmically brief time humanity has existed, we have produced billions of stories, most of which are essentially the same story when you dig deep enough. So why do we keep making them over and over again? Why have more than one movie? Why not just pick the best one and watch it over and over again?

And, even more interestingly, the same could be said of people. We all have things that make us unique, but if you dig deep enough we are all the same. We can be categorized and defined by labels for sex, race, gender, diseases, conditions, measurements, and generations, and yet we can still all be called the same singular species. Why not just pick the best human and clone it, disregarding all others?

Obviously, it's because those differences are what make each life worth living, even if they are also what can drive us apart. Racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia... these are all beliefs that stem from an obsession with the differences between us. "Cloud Atlas" confronts the audience with those differences and at once tells us that they are all meaningless and yet are the most important things about us. We shouldn't let our differences as people drive us apart because it's what's inside that counts, but our differences should still be celebrated and embraced and above all else, defended.

In regards to the stories themselves, this message carries over. Yes, all of the stories are essentially the same, but they are all also very much individual and obviously different. The futuristic sci-fi epic is the same story as the silly comedy of errors that takes place in the present day and involves elderly people attempting to escape an old folks home. The film wants us to understand that these stories are the same, but wants us to enjoy their individual characteristics as well.

It's about seeing our differences not as barriers but as points of connection.

This is the theme that carries through all of the characters, it is the theme of each of the stories, it is the theme for the film itself, it is the theme that presumably drives the creators of the film and, according to them, ought to drive us all.

While the main reason I compartmentalized the "yellowface" issue in its own post was because I felt it needed addressing on its own merits, I must mention it one more time while I am discussing the theme.

As deeply problematic as the use of yellowface is, the film seems aware of how problematic that is and uses our inherent baggage with it to influence the message presented within the film. There's a reason why the most deeply offensive decision to make Jim Sturgess appear "Korean" was used in probably the most tonally serious story of the film while the most socially acceptable decision to make Hugo Weaving appear as an old nurse is in the most lighthearted story of the film. The story that takes place in Neo Seoul is by far the most horrifying, and I feel that the use of yellowface is meant to repulse and jar us just as Hugo Weaving's cross-dressing is meant to make us laugh. We get the impression that the distinctly Western-looking oppressors of Neo Seoul are walking contradictions who reject their heritage, referring to the once-native language as "subspeak" and referring to themselves as "pureblood". Yellowface carries that baggage of racism that provokes a very strong reaction, and while many who felt that reaction ultimately did not enjoy the film, I don't doubt that they understood it.

Even in this one visual detail, we can see the theme of the film revealed. The sense of perversion that arises from an obsession with the physical form, the abuse of those differences to establish a system of exclusion and power, and the burning inherent desire to reject that system in celebration of those differences as well as the elements that unite us as one.

I Fucking Love This Movie

When I have given this film an actual numerical "score" for RottenTomatoes and Metacritic, both times I have given it a perfect score, but only because if I were to assign a numerical representation of how I feel about the movie, the highest possible value is the only one I can honestly ascribe to it.

Still, the problem with numerical values is that they aim to get a sort mathematical and statistical quantification for the consensus of a particular work's overall quality. By giving it a 10/10 or a 5/5, it can imply any number of things that may or may not be true. It might imply that I believe this film is "perfect", which in itself can have any number of meanings. It might imply that this movie is better than every other movie that I didn't give a perfect score. It might imply that I'm trying to offset the negative scores given to it by people who feel differently about it than I do.

I'm not sure any of those things are true, though it's also equally possible that they are ALL true. I don't know, but it doesn't really matter.

I do know that, in spite of my perfect scores, not everyone will enjoy this movie. In fact, I saw this film with two people, and one of them had such huge problems with it that it erupted in a very heated debated after a very long awkward silence.

And no, not everyone who dislikes this movie dislikes it for what I talked about in my previous post. There are plenty of people who just failed to connect with it out of no fault of their own.

But let's consider the nature of love for a moment. When you love a person, every part of that person is important to you. Every aspect -- physical, mental, and spiritual -- is vital to what makes that person what they are. Even the flaws do not come off as flaws to you. To you, that other person is amazing, if not perfect. They are your favorite person. If you were to score that person, you would not score them objectively.

Obviously, love is inherently subjective. Though the person we love is perfect in our eyes, they are not necessarily perfect in anyone else's. While being loved might make us feel better than we've ever felt, it does not actually speak to our objective quality as human beings. Being loved by a lot of people doesn't make you a better person.

So yes, I love this movie. It may possibly be my favorite movie, at least for now.

But my personal love for a film is not the only thing that makes me give it a perfect score. As I've said in the past, I love the sequels to "The Matrix", but I would not dream of giving them perfect scores, and that is because while I love them, they could have been better. They could have done a number of things differently and I would have enjoyed the films more.

And on a surface level, "Cloud Atlas" feels like a movie that was made specifically for me. I find it intellectually engaging, the structure matches up perfectly with my mental frequency, it has awesome sci-fi stuff, high concepts, actors I love, great visuals, great music, humor, suspense, romance, mystery, tragedy, comedy, chase scenes, pirates, ninjas, robots, clones, spirituality, examinations of race, class, and gender... A lot of these elements alone are the sort of things I go nuts for. In a way, it's not surprising that I love it so much, and often that kind of love will allow you to overlook or understate or even justify certain faults within the subject of your affection.

However, when it comes to "Cloud Atlas", a part of me DOES want to acknowledge the faults with it. The aspects that rub people the wrong way or just bore them entirely frustrate me because they prevent others from connecting with it in the same way I do, so of course a part of me would like them changed. But the deep truth is, none of those changes would improve MY enjoyment of the film. Yes, even in regards to the yellowface. I acknowledge that it is racist, hurtful, and provokes a very strong negative connotation that can be deeply offensive, but that deep and glaring flaw resonates powerfully within the film as a whole and the message it has and the relevance that it still has in our present culture is one aspect that makes the film even greater. Yes, they could have done it a different way and it wouldn't have been as offensive, and perhaps it would have been just as enjoyable and perhaps also provided opportunities for underutilized actors, but it would change the DNA of the film so completely that I hesitate to say that they should have. In a way, changing that approach simply for the sake of deep societal constructs would have been a betrayal of the central theme of the film, which is that we define our physical presence and we have the freedom to decide what that means for ourselves.

This film holds its audience in high regard. It assumes that we already know racism is bad. It's not here to tell us that. It wants us to understand the underlying conflict behind racism and other systems of oppression. Where it exists in life, where it exists in fiction, where it exists in culture, and most painful of all, where it exists within ourselves. In order to do that, it engages with the audience in a very open way.

That is why I can't find fault with the film as a whole. Even though it has faults, I must admit that I would prefer the film with the faults rather than without them. Maybe I'm just being selfish, but that's the truth.

So I think that is why I gave this film a perfect score. I love this film, warts and all, and I would not change a thing. I can't promise that you will love it or even that you won't absolutely hate it, but I know that I want everyone to experience this movie.

Go see this movie. Open yourself up to it. It might be risky, but that's a chance I want you to take, because if you experience anything close to what I experienced, you will be glad you did. And if you don't, then at least you were willing to take a leap and try something different, which is a worthy enough reason in and of itself.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cloud Atlas: On the Subject of Skin

I just saw "Cloud Atlas", and while I don't intend to review it just yet or really talk about the film itself, I do want to talk about the elephant in the room first.

Yes, in the movie, a number of Caucasian actors are made-up to "appear" Korean. This has stirred up a lot of anger and understandably so.

The most common response to this is that it's OK because they do it for everybody. Black people play white people, men play women, Asians play Mexicans, etc. The idea, they claim, is that the human shell does not matter. It is the soul that is important.

While I do agree with this sentiment, I do not believe it is a suitable defense. If this were indeed true, then they should have been able to cast a majority of Asian-American actors and actresses instead of Caucasian ones.

However, I think that saying "it doesn't matter" is not the true point. If that were the point, then they wouldn't have needed to keep casting the same actors as the same fundamental characters throughout the film.

No, the point is that it DOES matter, but that the physical form, like a cloud, is changeable while still retaining  its essence.

To help make my point, let's talk about another elephant in the room in regards to the directors.

The Wachowskis (known primarily for "The Matrix") are two siblings, Andy and Lana. Back when they made "The Matrix", they were known as the Wachowski Bros. They were very private people and for a long time it was rumored that the reason was that one of the brothers, Larry, was a transsexual  While PR people and producers would often deny it, eventually it was proven true  as Larry came out to the world as Lana while promoting this film.

I will confess, understanding transsexuality was difficult for me, but over time I believe that I am coming closer. And while I know that most people who go see "Cloud Atlas" won't see it knowing about Lana's personal history, when I saw actors changing form throughout the movie's six stories, I felt like that was Lana speaking to the audience.

It's not that the surface doesn't matter. If that were so, Lana would not have undergone surgery. It's that the surface is only a reflection of the times and circumstances of who we are. The idea that we can't or that we shouldn't change that is the sort of thing that Lana has likely faced while going through her transformation. And it's also the same sort of idea that is on all sides of racism, sexism, etc. The idea that making Hugo Weaving look like a woman is demeaning to him or the idea that making Halle Berry white is shameful or the idea that making Jim Sturgess Korean is taking an opportunity away from an actual Korean... these are all parts of what make the barriers that keep us apart stronger.

It's not about forgetting that these barriers exist. It is important to acknowledge that race and sex have meaning within the context of society. It is as much a source of pride and community as it can be a tool for hate and bigotry. But if we say that only Asians can play Asians, then that limits Asian actors as well. I'm not saying that it's not important for diverse people to have a greater presence in the media, but it is important that they can be present as any character, not just "Asian" characters.

The reason Jim Sturgess's Korean character could not have been played by an Asian actor, at least not while achieving the same result, is that the audience knows it's Jim Sturgess behind that makeup, and they know he is a white person. However, part of that story is his relationship with Sonmi-451, and like all other stories in this film, it is about two people of different races coming together. While they are both "Asian", in the story, Sonmi is genetically engineered. They are of different races, and by having Jim Sturgess play Hae-Joo, that message comes across visually.

Additionally, if he had been played by an Asian actor, it would have been an Asian actor in the first story, which would have been problematic for the visual message of that story as well since it was about abolitionism and Jim Sturgess' other character transcending the racism of that time.

The biggest problem with this film's portrayal of "skin" is that intent isn't enough to make a message. I believe that a lot of people who agree with the message of this film will feel that the approach of the film is harmful and offensive. And the truth is, if they feel that way, then that is in fact the case.

However, I don't think that's what's important. These people already believe in equality. The question, to me at least, is whether or not this film presents a negative message about race and sex to people who don't already understand it. I honestly believe that it doesn't. I honestly believe that it is impossible to take away a negative message about race and sex from this film without distorting it and completely ignoring half of it.

The reason that casting a white person as a Korean is a problem is because there aren't a lot of Koreans in film, or even in this film which partially takes place in Korea. Yes, the person playing Sonmi-451 is Korean, but she's one of very few speaking actors who is Korean. This under-representation is a problem, so when a Korean character (particularly one that transcends stereotypes) is cast with a white actor, it feels like a wasted opportunity.

I think the issue is not the portrayal within the movie, it is the context of the world the movie is fitted to. The problem is with us and our world and the fact that the movie, which is very much anti-bigotry, does very little to remedy it.

For these reasons, if you believe that this film is racist, or at the very least offensive, I will not disagree with you or tell you you are wrong. However, I hope you will forgive the fact that I do not feel the same way and that it does not lessen my immense and overwhelming appreciation for this film.

EDIT: Having discussed it and thought about it more, I do want to make one more distinction.

Yes, the process of making the white actors "appear" Asian is inherently racist. This does not make the film racist. This does not make me racist for loving this movie. But the act itself IS racist and the fact that they used this practice for a movie that's very much ABOUT how racism is BAD is super-problematic. I really do wish that they had found a way around this that didn't diminish the power of the film. The use of the same actors for the same group of characters and the same "core" roles does give the movie a lot of power, but the fact that they use yellowface as a part of that is just awful and I absolutely wish they hadn't. So I guess I want to sum this up in two points:

1) This film is not racist and does have a good reason for using the same group of actors and actresses throughout the film.

2) Just because the film is not racist does not mean that its use of yellowface is also not racist. Yellowface is racist and will ALWAYS be racist no matter how it is used. This does not make the film bad, but its use of yellowface can and should be criticized and the people who do so should not be labeled as Social Justice Warriors or whatever.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Iron Man 3 - First Trailer Thoughts

OK, now that we know what we're talking about, let's not waste any time.

I think we're all in agreement that that trailer was excellent. So let me dig in a bit deeper into what I took away from it.

The Mandarin

So I'm not 100% sold on Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, at least not yet. There's too much unknown. I will say that his one voice-over line is very cool. I do like that he actually has ten rings (at least in that one shot), though I'm not sure if they plan to go all-out and make him a fucking techno-sorcerer. My biggest concern is that they make him too conventional. At SDCC in July, Shane Black confirmed that he would be called "the Mandarin", and I'm also curious on how they managed that considering how much support this film has been getting from Chinese investors. They might do what they did in the other "Iron Man" films and just call the bad guys by their real names, but the Mandarin has always been larger-than-life. I guess we'll see.

In any case, what I AM happy about is that it appears that for once, an Iron Man villain is taking the initiative and going on the offensive at the end of the First Act, rather than save the big confrontation for the Third Act. Whiplash SORT of went on the offensive in "Iron Man 2", but his attack didn't up the stakes like it should have. It didn't really affect Tony in any way other than give him some negative press, which didn't really matter all that much to him. None of the villains in the earlier Iron Man films were actually antagonists in the Hollywood Formula sense. They didn't really do anything to impede Tony Stark's goal. In the first movie he just wanted to find an outlet for his guilt and new-found sense of responsibility. All Iron Monger did was give him a Third Act climax. In the second movie, Tony needed to find a replacement for Palladium and learn to stop putting all of the weight of the world on his shoulders. That's one reason why "Iron Man 2" isn't a tight film in terms of its narrative... most of what happens has nothing to do with the central conflict.

In this film, it appears that the Mandarin will be directly attacking Tony Stark and forcing him into desperation, which makes for a much more interesting drama. The Mandarin is actually acting as an antagonist by presenting the core conflict and acting as the primary obstacle in that conflict.

Tony's Self-Assembling Armor

This has been talked about before, but now we finally see what it is leading to. Since the first film, Tony has been finding better and better ways to put the suit on. In the first film it was a whole process. In the second film, he could put it on with a suitcase. In Avengers he had a walking disassembly track and a mobile coffin-shaped suit that he could put on in mid-air.

In one shot, we see a part of the armor fly across the room and attach itself to Tony.

Anyone who has read the "Extremis" storyline will find this relatively familiar. When Tony injects himself with Extremis, he basically becomes able to telepathically move his suit. This doesn't just help him with the assembly process, it also makes him faster and more powerful. It also allows him to telepathically communicate with satellites and such as well, but let's not get too into it.

Still, I don't think we're dealing with Extremis here. At least not necessarily in this shot, and also possibly not to the extent we had it in the comics. In the comics, Extremis is a big deal and it nearly kills Tony. I don't think he would get access to Extremis in the First Act of the film, as it seems to imply here.

Also, in later scenes, we see the armor fully assembled without Tony inside it, attacking him and such.

There's a few ways this could be happening.

1) Tony has built in a sort of auto-pilot AI into the armor so that it can respond more quickly and not rely on his own reaction time. It also makes it so it can automatically assemble piece by piece anywhere at any time. Then it becomes self-aware and tries to fight him. For extra fun, what if the AI was Jarvis?

2) Tony just created some form of remote control over the armor and then it gets hacked into by the Mandarin or somebody, perhaps to kill him and/or steal the suit. He then has to use Extremis towards the end of the film to regain control of the suit.

3) Tony IS using Extremis and the armor is attacking him because he still hates himself for any number of valid reasons.

4) It's just a dream, in which case, that's such bullshit.


Gwyneth Paltrow has gone on the record saying that she doesn't know if she'll continue to keep coming back as Pepper Potts. That of course leaves us with a very important question... are they going to fridge her?

One reason why audiences were so taken with "Iron Man" was because of the unconventional ending where the hero decides to chuck the secret identity out the window. However, we tend to forget that heroes generally do that for a reason.

But it's important to remember that so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, none of the heroes have had "secret identities". It's no secret who Iron Man, Hulk, and Captain America are, and the only time they pretended Thor was anyone other than Thor was when they were sweet-talking Coulson into letting him go.

I don't think anyone realizes that secret identities really aren't a thing in this universe. At least... not yet.

It's pretty clear in this trailer that Tony is at the very least incredibly concerned for Pepper's safety and that Pepper will, in all likelihood, face some serious danger (she usually does).

So will they kill her off? It does make sense, particularly if Gwyneth is serious about ending her work in superhero films. 

But personally, I don't think they'll actually KILL her. Marvel is aware of how big its female fanbase is (particularly when compared to their comic book fanbase) and they probably know full well that killing her would piss off a LOT of fans and infuriate a LOT of feminists. Also, if you're familiar with the recent comic book canon, you'd know that Pepper was mortally wounded and then rebuilt a la "Six Million Dollar Man" into the superheroine Rescue. It is important to note that another character in this film, Eric Savin, is also a cyborg (at least in the comics). It would not be a stretch if Pepper is severely wounded, even presumed dead, and then comes back thanks to previously-established cyborg stuff courtesy of Savin.

Either way, something serious will probably happen to Pepper and it will probably make any future superheroes think twice about going public in the same way Tony Stark did.

Iron Patriot

We don't see much in the way of Rhodes as War Machine/Iron Patriot. I do agree with the consensus that re-imagining Iron Patriot in this way is inspired. In the light of what happened in New York, it wouldn't be surprising if the U.S. Military-owned Iron Man suit would be rebranded as a hybrid between Iron Man and Captain America. I think it's great, though that kind of raises more questions than it answers.

What Haven't We Seen and How Does It All Add Up?

There have been a lot of hints and rumors floating around during the filming and not everything has been revealed in this trailer. The previously mentioned Eric Savin has yet to make an appearance, we catch glimpses of Aldrich Killian and Maya Hansen (the creators of Extremis), we haven't seen A.I.M., we haven't seen Firepower...

That's a lot of stuff that we haven't seen, and I'm having a hard time imagining how it all pulls together, but here's what I'm thinking.

After what happened in New York, the whole world has collectively freaked out (think the end of "Watchmen"... the comic, not the movie). They decide to have some kind of scientific summit to discuss how to advance their technology so that mankind is better prepared in the event of another alien invasion. That would explain the presence of pretty much every character I mention above.

Of course, that doesn't really answer the question, "What does that have to do with Tony Stark's battle with the Mandarin?"

I don't honestly know, but here's my crazy idea.

Let's assume for the moment that the Mandarin is going to be as crazy-powerful as he is in the comics. Effectively an all-powerful techno-sorcerer with nigh-unlimited resources and an extremely powerful intellect.

Based on what we currently know, this is how I think the plot will shake out:

Act One: Tony and the world are still reeling from the Battle of New York. Tony is working on making his armor remote-controlled or whatever and there's a big world summit for weapons manufacturers. Rhodey tries to convince him to go, but he declines, stating that he doesn't make weapons anymore and Rhodey calls him selfish for keeping this technology for himself. At the summit, the various world powers, predominantly the U.S., China, and A.I.M., will present Iron Patriot, Coldblood, Firepower, and Radioactive Man as their answer to the Avengers in order to keep the world safe from future alien invasions. Then, the Mandarin shows up and schools them all. Meanwhile, Tony's suit goes rogue and as he fights it off. Eventually he disables it. He creates a new suit that is less volatile, but then it is stolen when the Mandarin hacks into it and gets it to leave Tony's place before the Mandarin sends helicopters to blow up the building, making sure that Tony can't come to stop him at the summit. With no other option, Tony suits up with the malfunctioning AI suit and barely manages to face off with the Mandarin, but since his suit is not cooperating, he loses and gets left for dead somewhere in the frozen tundra. Having sufficiently proven his might and technological superiority, the Mandarin states that he is the only one capable of protecting the world from another alien attack and that if they want his help, they must make him supreme ruler of the world or something. 

Act Two: Tony's colleagues and allies are wounded and worlds away. He has no home, no resources, and he's on the run. Pepper is probably in some kind of danger (let's say kidnapped). All of Tony's armor has been destroyed except for the suit that the Mandarin stole. The Mandarin, with A.I.M.'s assistance, starts mass-producing the armor. Meanwhile, Tony tries to repair the malfunctioning suit but still has no way to properly control it. He finds out about Extremis somehow and meets up with Killian and Hansen (or he already has Extremis somehow and begins to mess with it). The Mandarin finds out he's alive, but then kills Pepper to make Tony hit rock bottom. In desperation, Tony uses Extremis, which eventually works like in the comics. He then fixes up his suit. Meanwhile, Eric Savin saves Pepper, but it's left ambiguous as to what it means.

Act Three: Tony faces off against the Mandarin, but it's a tough battle. Eventually Iron Patriot shows up to help out. Then Rescue shows up and at first we aren't sure who it is, but it is quickly revealed to be Pepper, alive and well. They still aren't enough to take down the Mandarin until Tony uses Extremis to take control of the mass-produced Iron Man suits to act as his personal army. He ultimately wins, but the Mandarin lives to fight another day. Using Extremis to remote-control the armor, Tony makes it appear that he is retired as Iron Man since he does not want to put his loved ones in harm's way. Then we get some other thing that will lead into the next Marvel movie.

So that's my current guess. It's likely to change, but I do love my speculation.

Wrap It Up

So yeah, awesome first trailer. Can't wait for April.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Top 20 Best Internet Reviews (Pre-TBF)

One of the more curious things to come out of the Internet in recent years is the (for lack of a better term) genre of "criticism as entertainment".

The Internet obviously did not invent this genre. I'd say that it was actually probably pioneered by "Siskel & Ebert". Sure, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert didn't invent film criticism and they certainly didn't invent film criticism on television, but they were the first critics that people watched and listened to less to learn about upcoming films and whether or not they were any good, but more to see their reactions to said films. When people talk about "Siskel & Ebert" they tend to remember the times where the two of them were at odds with one another and argued incessantly. It became less about the movie and more about the critics presenting it.

I also think the biggest inspiration for what would become "Internet criticism" was the show "Mystery Science Theater 3000", which not only popularized the practice of riffing on bad movies in real time, but also adding a meta-narrative around the characters that are doing the riffing.

Anyway, in the past 5-10 years, Internet criticism first started getting its first big pioneers and it has evolved considerably since then.

Being an "all-purpose" nerd, I tend to follow a lot of Internet critics covering many different topics, most of which reside on the clusterfuck of a website that is ThatGuyWithTheGlasses.com, under the pseudo-official collective moniker of "Channel Awesome".

This year, Channel Awesome released their fourth anniversary video, "To Boldly Flee", which really marked the end of an era, primarily because it saw the official departure of Channel Awesome's first and most well-known character, the Nostalgia Critic.

Not only that, the landscape of Internet criticism seems to be changing. James Rolfe (the Angry Video Game Nerd) has been phasing out that character and he'll probably finish it with his eventual AVGN movie, Noah Antwiler (Spoony) broke off with Channel Awesome for a number of reasons, the Internet is changing both politically and socially, and not a lot of people are all too certain where all this is going to lead.

While there's a lot to be said about what Nostalgia Critic's retirement means for Internet criticism as a whole, I'd rather mark the end of an era by doing a Top 20 Countdown of what I consider to be the best Internet reviews from the era before "To Boldly Flee" as a sort of retrospective of where it started, how it changed, and where it may be headed.

The reason this is a Top 20 instead of a Top 10 is because this was a REALLY hard list to make and there were a fair number of reviews I wanted to mention that just weren't all that good when compared to some of the others, so I expanded it a bit.

I also had a few criteria when making this list:
- I could only pick scripted reviews. No anniversary specials (sorry TBF), no cultural essays (sorry Game Overthinker and Jim Sterling), no vlogs (sorry Counter Monkey). Also no countdowns... I want to avoid any "yo dawg" or "Inception" jokes.
- I couldn't pick a review simply because whatever is being reviewed is funny on its own. Nostalgia Chick's review of "Showgirls" is really funny, but it's mostly funny because of the movie, not because of Lindsay's criticism. The reviews I picked had to be examples where the critic stands out more than the material they are covering.
- I had to try to be as comprehensive as possible. Some reviews are included just because I didn't want to exclude a particular critic or subject or because it has specific significance that was worth mentioning.

OK, enough of that. LET'S DO THIS!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Presidential Debates: Why It Doesn't Matter Who's Right

The last Presidential debate was a couple nights ago. Well, the last one that really matters. The REAL last one is next Monday, but it's another formal debate and it's about foreign policy and typically most people have made up their minds by then and foreign policy doesn't really matter enough to most people to make a significant difference.

I don't want to make this post about my personal political views, because that's not really important. I'm not going to try to convince anybody that they should vote one way or another because I'm not really interested in doing that.

So when I say "Obama is pretty much definitely going to win the election", I don't want you to think that I'm boasting or trying to convince anyone (least of all myself). I'm genuinely pretty much certain that Obama won this election on Tuesday.

A lot of people might disagree with me for a number of reasons.

The first thing they might say is that in terms of polls, Romney has just today finally gotten ahead of Obama in the electoral vote projection (depending on who you ask). Well, that does suggest that the Vice Presidential debate didn't account for squat in terms of stopping Romney's momentum, so that's nice, but we really haven't seen how Tuesday's debate has affected polls yet.

The slightly more common thing that they will say is something like what Karl Rove said recently. That it doesn't matter that Romney lost the debate because he's still "winning the argument". In other words, he'll still win because the majority of Americans intuitively know that Romney is a better candidate than Obama since he's on the "right" side of the argument.

Let me counter that with pretty much the exact reason why I believe Obama has this election in the bag.

This election is almost identical to the 2004 election, just with the parties reversed.

I'm not the only one who's noticed this, so I won't go into too much detail, but let me cover the bullet points:
- Incumbent is severely hated by the opposing party's base. He is often called "the worst President in history" and during the primary, when asked who should be elected, the party base will tend to say, "Anyone but *incumbent*."
- Incumbent is not entirely well-loved by his own party. Those who voted for him wonder if he could have done much better.
- During the primary, the opposing party has a lot of potential nominees, but any time one of them takes the lead, they have some incredibly embarrassing gaffe that causes them to drop in the polls, resulting in the base nominating some middle-aged white guy who "looks Presidential" and is "electable" simply because he tells people what they want to hear and hasn't made an ass of himself yet. No one checks his record to see if he actually means a thing he says, they just like that he knows his talking points.
- As his running mate, the challenger picks a young, good-looking guy to counter the publicly-derided grumpy old man currently acting as Vice President.
- During the first debate, the challenger pivots to a surprisingly moderate stance that doesn't match his record, believing that the incumbent will accuse him of being extreme. Challenger proves correct and wins the first debate.
- Challenger gets a bump but is still technically behind in the polls by just a little bit.
- Vice Presidential debate is too close to call and doesn't seem to make a difference. The standing Vice President does better than most people expected he would.
- During the second debate, the incumbent gets more aggressive and accuses the challenger of being inconsistent while defending his own questionable record suggesting that it has worked better than we've been led to believe and it was just due to unforeseen circumstances that things have gotten so bad, and given more time it will prove to work out. Incumbent wins second debate.
- Supporters of challenger say that it doesn't matter if he "lost" the debate because he's still on the winning side of the argument.

That's about as far as we've gotten so far this year, but I'll tell you what happens next. The incumbent holds on to his narrow lead and the supporters of the challenger will say that the polls aren't entirely accurate and don't account for XYZ, leading to a surprise victory for the challenger. Then election day comes and they find that the polls were absolutely right and their challenger didn't even come close. Initially they will be in denial, maybe accuse the incumbent of ballot-stuffing, but it won't amount to anything. In time they will realize that it didn't matter that they were on the "winning side of the argument".

And that's what I want to talk about.

In 2004, the Democrats believed they had it easy. Bush was not a popular President. He got us into two awful wars, his negligence was believed to be a part of the reason that 9/11 was allowed to happen, the economy was not doing well despite his tax cuts, the surplus turned into deficit, and the political landscape was becoming divided, despite Bush saying he would be a uniter, not a divider. A popular documentary came out, "Fahrenheit 9/11", which riled up a lot of Democrats and gave them things to point at when claiming that Bush was the worst President in history. And on top of all this, Bush was one of the most gaffe-prone President's in history. He really did come off like an idiot most of the time.

The Democrats believed that they were in the right, and perhaps they were. By the end of Bush's second term, we found ourselves in economic peril and nothing seemed to be going well, so maybe the Democrats should have won (which probably helped get Obama elected four years ago).

Regardless, even if the Democrats were on the "right" side of the argument, they still lost.

Why? Because being on the "right" side of the argument is not enough.

Sure, it's enough for people like Karl Rove. But those people aren't watching the debates to be convinced. To them it's like watching a football game. They want to see their team win.

The problem is that Karl Rove believes that Romney won Tuesday's debate (or that it doesn't matter who "won", take your pick) because to him, Romney wins by default simply because he's "right". Romney didn't convince Karl Rove of anything, Karl Rove just likes what Romney is selling.

But the Patriots don't go to the Super Bowl just because they're a "better team". They go because they win games. Maybe they're more inclined to win a game because they're a "better team", but it doesn't guarantee them anything.

Likewise, maybe Romney has a better platform to run on. Maybe he has a better record. And yes, that should make it easier for him to win a debate. But he only wins the debate if he can convince the audience that he IS a better candidate. The winner is not predetermined.

The point of a debate is to convince people who haven't picked a team. They want to hear both arguments and the winner is usually the one that ends up being more persuasive to them. It doesn't matter who is objectively better (if such a thing can even be determined) because unless that comes through during the debate, it won't matter to a lot of undecided voters.

On Tuesday, Obama won the debate. His supporters feel less awful about re-electing him, Romney's supporters are in defense mode, and the people in between are thinking that they'd rather go with the devil they know than the guy with the "binders full of women" who seems to change his mind every other week about what he supports. You don't need polls to tell that Obama won because you can just tell by the climate. Democrats are making jokes and Republicans are trying to explain why not all hope is lost. That's pretty damning.

Romney came off a a guy who doesn't have his facts straight, a guy who is a different person depending on who he's talking to, and as a guy who is afraid to tell us something can't be done.

It doesn't matter if Romney really would be a better President at this juncture, because right now, it's hard to see what's so much better about him based on his public performance alone.

Sorry, Republicans, but you've probably lost.

I COULD be wrong, I suppose. Maybe since the 2004 election resulted in re-electing someone who, in hindsight, probably shouldn't have been re-elected, it will make some voters think twice about siding with "the devil they know". Maybe next week's debate will feature Obama doing something SERIOUSLY embarrassing and it will give Romney another bump. It is true, at this point if Romney gets another bump, he'll probably win. But Tuesday was his last big chance to get another bump and he lost it. The stakes on Monday aren't high enough to make this an easy turning point for him, but I guess it COULD be done. It's just not terribly likely.

You can probably find other ways for Romney to pull out one more comeback, but don't for a second think that he'll win just because he's "right" or because Obama is "the worst President in history". Because it wasn't enough for Kerry.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Looper" Review

Time travel is one of my personal favorite sci-fi plot devices. I love imagining the future, I love history explored in a modern context, and I love surprises. Time travel is often expected to deliver all or at least some of these things.

So obviously I was very much intrigued by "Looper", written and directed by Rian Johnson.

The Enigmatic Rian Johnson

Rian Johnson's career path was somewhat difficult to pin down until now. His first film was "Brick", which is very difficult to describe. Imagine if you took a John Hughes movie and turned it into a film noir without a hint of irony. And it's that lack of irony that makes Rian Johnson very unique.

Another writer/director with a similar kind of style is Wes Anderson, but everything Wes Anderson does is deep fried in irony.

It's difficult to explain, but I guess imagine that filmmakers are like kids with LEGO bricks. Sometimes you have all-purpose pieces, and then other times you have pieces that clearly came from the "Star Wars" LEGO sets. Wes Anderson would take those franchise-specific LEGO pieces and put them in stark contrast with the rest of his fairly normal all-purpose world. Like a Gargoyle in the middle of a normal family's kitchen. He does it in a way to draw attention to the absurdity of it. To give his world personality through the atmosphere (since the characters certainly aren't going to do it).

Rian Johnson, on the other hand, will use those franchise-specific LEGO pieces, but he will down-play them or find a way to incorporate them so that it almost makes a weird amount of sense.

Another writer/director famous for this kind of approach is Quentin Tarantino, who also unironically incorporates old-school film tropes with a sense of passion and nostalgia, but once again, Rian Johnson differs by not making his work self-indulgent.

Don't get me wrong, I love Quentin Tarantino, but he IS very self-indulgent.

But anyway, I saw "Brick" and I liked it, but I had a hard time knowing what to make of it. It almost felt like it took itself too seriously, but in a way that worked because film noir does that.

His next major film, "The Brothers Bloom" didn't interest me at all until I saw it. My younger brother kind of forced it on me. But I'm glad he did, because it was a very good movie, though once again I came away not really sure how to quantify the experience other than "It was good."

So anyway, "Looper".

Unsurprisingly, "Looper" ended and I was left with pretty much the same indescribable feeling I got from "Brick" and "Brothers Bloom". And before anyone accuses me of going in expecting that, I actually forgot who Rian Johnson was until I looked him up after I saw the movie, wondering if I had seen anything this guy did before. That's when everything kind of clicked for me.

What I Expected

I went into this movie knowing very little other than what I saw in the initial teaser (what a "looper" was, that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was in it, and that Bruce Willis was playing his older self) and that it was considered a really good movie.

If you don't know the premise, it's basically that "loopers" are assassins hired by gangsters from the future who send people they want dead into the past to be killed and disposed of. When the looper is done, they send the future version of the looper himself to be killed to complete the loop. If they fail to do it, it can cause serious damage to the future. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a looper, Bruce Willis plays his older self who escapes his execution, and wackiness ensues.

I like time travel, I like Bruce Willis, I've grown to really like Joseph Gordon-Levitt who is gradually becoming one of my all-time favorite actors, and I liked the sort of low-tech feel I got from the trailer.

I should also say that when it comes to time travel, I usually go in with a certain amount of baggage.

Time travel stories tend to have a lot of common tropes and themes. Dealing with or avoiding paradoxes, people meeting their relatives without knowing it, characters turning out to actually be other characters from the future, seemingly insignificant plot details become major ones, everything tying together to hammer home this sense of "destiny" as well as deliver a major Hollywood Formula climax... you get the picture.

We all have these sorts of expectations regarding time travel. Generally, when time travel becomes a factor, it takes precedence in the plot. I myself am even guilty of this, and it kind of makes sense. With time travel around, why would you care about anything else?

I also briefly mentioned the Hollywood Formula again. If you haven't read one of my earlier articles on the subject in regards to the initial trailer for "Wreck-It Ralph", check it out so you know what I'm talking about. Just a quick recap though: Protagonist, antagonist, deuteragonist (relationship character), all conflicts resolve in the climax for maximum emotional impact.

What I Got

So the first thing that surprised me was the inclusion of the TK's in the story. This idea of 10% of the population suddenly being able to use low-level telekinesis seemed kind of huge, and I was kind of surprised that the movie didn't mention it before.

I was also surprised that the movie takes place in the future. I mean, granted, only like 20-30 years in the future from what I could gather, but it seemed kind of unnecessary, really.

So already the movie was taking a different shape than I expected. Then the movie starts dropping a lot of characters on us.

As a movie tends to progress, I unconsciously start to put familiar pieces together in order to get more involved with it. Try and figure out the shape of it. So I start loading up the Hollywood Formula in my mind.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (playing Joe) is obviously the protagonist. His concrete goal is to close his loop by killing Bruce Willis (Old Joe), then retire and live out his life the way he wants to. Old Joe is the antagonist because he's preventing Joe from achieving his goal, and the only way Joe can achieve his goal is by confronting Old Joe. So this was the shape the movie was taking. It was hard to pin down who the deuteragonist was, but I figured I would figure it out eventually.

I was wrong.

The shape of the movie kind of transforms part of the way through. I don't want to spoil anything major just yet, but basically Joe stops trying to actively seek out Old Joe and instead figures out what Old Joe is after and waits to prevent him from accomplishing it. So they kind of reverse roles.

It was around that point that I realized the movie doesn't really have a conventional structure. I've talked before about how not having a conventional structure is dangerous because it can really hurt the pacing or emotional impact of a story. Just as writers have rules of sentence structure and grammar, and those rules can be ignored, but first you must understand them and why they exist.

The plot structure of "Looper" is not something I would recommend for any film, but it works for "Looper". It's kind of like designer clothing. It works for the person it was made for and literally no one else.

The odd structure of "Looper" works because even if the movie shifts tone and focus a lot throughout the movie, sometimes getting quieter and more introspective when it feels like it should be getting bigger and louder, it never feels boring. We're always engrossed and interested to see what happens next.

Now, one thing that I always look out for in time travel movies is for characters to start mentioning family members. And that actually happens quite a bit in this movie. People will talk about their parents, grandparents, estranged parents, adopted parents, kids, you name it. It pops up all over the place. And in a time travel movie, this is usually done to set up some kind of twist where the relative turns out to be someone unexpected.

So with all the talk of relatives in this movie, I was expecting that sort of plot twist at some point in the film.

Never happens. Not even a hint of it. Not once.

Honestly, only one character has a particularly significant twist and it has absolutely nothing to do with time travel.

So when the credits rolled, I felt uneasy. Like I missed something.

Like Rian Johnson's other work, I left "Looper" without words to really describe it.

"And Then I Woke Up"

After an hour or so of thinking about it at home, I realized that the feeling I was left with reminded me most of "No Country For Old Men".

If you haven't seen that movie (and you don't mind spoilers), it starts out as a pretty typical crime film. The main character stumbles upon a big sack of money and he's on the run from a psychotic hitman, who is also on the run from an old-school lawman. Near the climax of the film (or where the climax should be), the main character is threatened by the hitman over the phone and he basically tells the hitman that he is not afraid of him. In basically any other movie, this would resolve in a big showdown. Instead, the main character is killed offscreen by some random gang members who were after the money. Then the movie just kind of wallows in disappointment which culminates in an introspective moment from the lawman who describes a haunting dream he had about his father. That's when the movie ends.

A lot of people hate that ending, and I was one of them the first time I watched it. Then my younger brother told me to watch it again. I watched it again immediately.

When I rewatched it, I realized that my preconceptions about what the movie was colored my expectations of the movie's ending. I had mentally narrowed down what the movie could be and ruled out what I thought it couldn't be. So when the movie went some place completely different, I assumed it was because it was a bad movie. But actually it was because I thought I was watching one kind of movie when I was really watching a completely different kind of movie.

That's pretty much the case with "Looper".

Like I said, I love time travel stories and I got into time travel stories with certain expectations. But "Looper" doesn't really go down that road. In fact, it really plays fast and loose with time travel. It's kind of the anti-"Primer" in that the mechanics of time travel don't matter at all.

Here's an example. It's established early on that if a looper and his future counterpart are both in the same point in time, any damage you inflict on the looper will affect the counterpart, but not retroactively. If you cut off a finger, the counterpart will lose a finger and act as though it just happened, not like it had always been that way.

OK, fine, I can play fast and loose with that. "Doctor Who" does that all the time. My favorite Christmas special, "A Christmas Carol" uses this idea of real-time updates.

But at the big climax of the movie, Joe could solve his problems by shooting his own hand off, and yet he doesn't.

Additionally, it's never really adequately explained why loopers are expected to kill their own future selves. Given that there are occasions where they find out that the time has come and they hesitate, wouldn't it make more sense to have loopers close out other loopers loops?

While these sorts of inconsistencies SHOULD bother me, they actually don't. That's because the movie isn't about the mechanics of time travel or what they mean. It's about the characters and what their decisions mean.

In that regard, Joe deciding to shoot off his hand might work mechanically, but it doesn't really work narratively.

This movie uses time travel as a plot device to bring about important character-defining moments, and that's it. Beyond that, time travel is not explored in a new or interesting way, we never really explore the concept of "destiny" or "causality", at least not in a typical fashion, and there's never a moment where time travel brings about some major shock.

In fact, telekinesis probably matters more to the actual plot than time travel does.

OK, We Get It, So Did You Like It or What?

"Looper" is probably one of my favorite movies of the year so far. I want to watch it again, but not for the same reasons that I would watch "Avengers" again and again, but more for the same reason I watched "No Country For Old Men" a second time. I feel like if I saw it again, I would have a vastly different experience, since I would be able to discard my preconceptions about how a time travel story should be told and can enjoy this refreshingly unique take.

I love that this movie finds new ways of using some of the most commonly used sci-fi plot devices but acts like it's no big deal. And not because it's too cool for that kind of self-indulgence, no. It doesn't act like these aspects are all that important because it knows that that's not what the audience connects with. We might think those aspects are cool in the moment, but what keeps us thinking about the movie afterward are the decisions the characters make.

I can't deny that if the movie was smarter about the plot devices then some of those character decisions might have had more impact, but they also would have felt inevitable. That's one of the problems with time travel. You tend to force yourself into corners where there's generally only one way your plot can shake out. The way writers tend to make this work is by concealing information. If we don't see the full picture, we can't spot the inevitable destiny of the characters.

In "Looper", by playing fast and loose with the "rules" of time travel, the characters are making decisions based on factors other than "destiny". In a way, their decisions are explicitly designed to SPITE destiny.

Typically, a time travel movie has an underlying message about time travel. Time travel is dangerous because you risk mucking with the chain of events that led to time travel in the first place. Time travel is pointless because anything you change will have to lead to the same destiny in order to maintain a stable time loop. Time travel is selfish because it represents a denial of responsibility.

"Looper" kind of denies all of these common messages.

In "Looper", time travel never causes any serious harm other than what it does to individual people. Time travelers can and do make changes that affect their lives without necessarily nullifying them. Time travel is not a means of denying responsibility but actually a way of assuming responsibility.

By breaking the rules, "Looper" can talk about different aspects of the human condition that time travel usually avoids.

I hesitate to call this approach "refreshing" because there's nothing refreshing about throwing out the rule book. It's unnerving. A change of pace tends to be refreshing when they bring up the rule book in a silly or genre-savvy kind of way. This movie doesn't do that. It just does its own thing.

So I do really like this movie a lot, but it's not the sort of movie that fills me with joy or satisfaction, which is odd because time travel is usually designed for that sort of thing. But not all movies should do that. And that's not to say "Looper" is not fun. It is a lot of fun. It is at times very funny. It is a very entertaining movie.

But Rian Johnson is not looking to leave you with a feeling of warm fuzziness. And most of his movies don't. Rian Johnson wants you to take this movie with you for the rest of your life, and I think it absolutely succeeds in that.

I don't think it's a perfect film because perfect films can give you that sense of completion while paradoxically resonating with you and fostering a deep obsession with it. "Looper" achieves that second part, but doesn't quite nail the first part, and while the second part is VASTLY more important, the first part is what might keep this from becoming a major genre classic like "Star Wars" or "The Matrix" or "The Princess Bride".

Regardless, I think Rian Johnson is definitely a talent that I should pay more attention to. I think "Looper" is his best film to date, but I absolutely think he can do better. And if he does, I think it will be a truly unforgettable film.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

PAX Crunch

I went to PAX East this year. It was my first PAX and I had a really good time.

A Brief History of PAX

For those who don't know, PAX stands for Penny Arcade Expo. It was basically started out as a pretty normal gaming expo, though it was obviously run by the guys who do the "Penny Arcade" comic and also included tabletop gaming rather than just focus on video games. Even so, there were plenty of gaming expos and conventions, and there still are, so it wasn't all that big for the first couple years. However, in 2007, there was a bit of a power vacuum.

You see, in 2006, the most popular gaming expo in quite possibly the world, E3, had a serious problem that got a LOT of coverage. Specifically, Nintendo's new system (later called the Wii) attracted a lot of attention, resulting in a massive line that required attendees to wait several hours to get a chance to use it. Some would wait for hours and then leave empty handed.

I should note that this is partially speculation on my part, but basically, I'm thinking that a lot of the gaming media got really cheesed off. They were there for their jobs and it's difficult to cover a lot of different games and platforms when you have to spend an entire day just to try out one system. And to make matters worse, the system in question was the talk of the town and if they DIDN'T get a chance to try it, they would disappoint their editors and readers.

So for the 2007 show, E3 changed to being a press-only event. They figured non-press gamers could just get coverage from the attending press and the G4 channel.

The gamer backlash at the time was huge, but E3 didn't backpedal until a few years later, so the damage had been done. While E3 still exists to this day and is still definitely a big deal and attracts a big audience, that audience has dropped and continues to drop.

The reason is because while E3 was finding itself, PAX ate their lunch. In 2007 while E3 was shrinking, PAX was growing. In a way, E3's dedication to the press and the companies reaffirmed PAX's dedication to the gamers themselves.

They moved to a bigger location, attendance grew exponentially, and by the time E3 started welcoming regular gamers again, the gamers had already found a new love.

Then in 2010, they expanded to have a PAX on the East Coast, aptly named PAX East.

So now that we're done with the history lesson, back to my story.

Go Westin

I went to PAX East 2012 this year (nicknamed PAX Easter since it took place on Easter Weekend).

However, the experience wasn't... perfect. Some of the panels were too early, traffic was nuts, parking was expensive and difficult unless you took advantage of valet, and the shuttles were slow and crowded.

As such, I decided to make a concerted effort to get into the Westin for next year's PAX East. Since the Westin is directly attached to the convention center, staying there would basically get rid of all the problems I had this year.

I knew this would not be easy. I did some investigation and found that in 2011, the hotel announcement first showed up in the Penny Arcade forums and the Westin sold out within 24 hours. So I started camping out the Penny Arcade forums.

Yesterday, my diligence paid off. Within about 2 minutes of the hotel page going live, I managed to snag a room at the Westin for myself, my brother, and two of my friends.

The Westin (and the Seaport which is another hotel within close proximity that is highly sought after) were sold out of two-bed rooms for the full weekend within minutes. They were completely out of two-bed rooms within a few hours. By the end of the day, they were out of everything.

Later that day, they also released Registration.

Now, I wasn't as crazy about jumping on this since last year I didn't get my 3-day passes until December. Granted, they sold out not long after that, but still, it took them two months.

This year, they sold out around 5PM today. Yeesh.

Carrying Capacity

While I'm personally in pretty good shape for the show at this point, I know that a lot of people were pissed that they couldn't book the Westin for the full weekend or perhaps even at all simply because of bad timing. Even people who were checking the forums got screwed over simply because they weren't fast enough.

There was also a debacle earlier this year regarding PAX Prime (the original one) where the 3-day passes sold out with hours and the rest of the 1-day passes sold out within a week.

While obviously PAX East isn't having QUITE as big a problem as that, selling out of 3-day passes in two days when the previous year took two MONTHS is a pretty notable uptick.

The problem is, PAX has grown beyond its carrying capacity. It was growing exponentially until they started selling out and couldn't move to a bigger convention hall.

And it's not like these events take place in small convention halls. Both can carry somewhere between 70,000-100,000 attendees. They don't even bother to count how many attendees they have anymore. And maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think there's a bigger convention hall in Boston other than the BCEC, and even if there were, they're committed to the BCEC for the next few years.

They have started to open up new PAX's, starting with PAX Australia next year. Maybe as that trend continues, there will be enough of the burden spread out that it will relieve the pressure on the existing PAX's, but considering how a lot of die-hard fans like to go to BOTH of the current PAXs, I don't know how much this will actually help.

Scalp the Scalpers

The people who complain about not getting badges (and to a lesser extent, decent hotels) have two primary reasons for their displeasure. The first is scalpers.

They believe that the main reason they don't get badges for PAX is because scalpers jump in and buy them up by the hundreds so that they can sell them via eBay at exorbitant prices.

This is probably true to an extent, however I don't think it's really THAT big a problem. Badges are restricted to 5 per mailing address, so while scalpers do exist, the process of purchasing several badge bundles is time-consuming and requires a lot of work to pull off without being obvious and leaving tons of digital fingerprints.

Additionally, it was revealed (though I can't seem to find the source) that the average number of badges sold per person for PAX Prime was less than 2, so the majority of the purchases were for just 1, which a scalper would not do.

So yes, scalpers probably didn't help, but they weren't the biggest source of the problem and anything that Penny Arcade can do to stop them would only inconvenience everyone else.

Countdown to Clusterfuck

As I said earlier, I found out about the hotels (and also registration) through the forums. This is standard practice. The forum admins will alert the community first and then it will go up on Twitter shortly thereafter. It isn't posted on the main Penny Arcade page for a much longer time.

So one of the major complaints from the people who didn't get badges was that there should be an announcement for when these things go on sale. That way they can clear their schedules and prepare their budgets for the release.

While I agree that the initial release for forum members seems a little elitist, it's really not. Anyone can view the forums, you don't even have to join, and you can't get e-mail notifications for new or updated posts anyway, so there's no advantage to being a member. You still have to be watchful and ready.

As for why they don't announce it first? Well, I should think that's fairly obvious.

I mean, do you REALLY think having an announced date and time will make it EASIER to get a hotel and a badge? If anything, it will just make it significantly harder.

Even with just the forum members (and those connected to them through social media) booking hotels, the service was slower than death at first. If there was an open announcement, the server would be crushed, there would be a severe risk of overbooking, and supply would run out even faster. This is probably the WORST way to handle this problem. It might SEEM more fair, but all it does is discriminate against people with slower Internet connections and potentially cause problems that will sell more badges and rooms than are actually available.

But really, these are just complaints that spring from frustration with a supply that simply cannot match the ever-growing demand.

What Can We Do?

So if you get screwed for PAX East 2013, don't give up hope completely. You might still be able to snag a decent hotel room if you go directly through the hotel's website, you just won't get the discount. And you can also use the other hotels if you don't mind a short commute every morning. As for badges, well, you CAN buy badges from scalpers on eBay, but buyer beware and make sure you can spot a counterfeit.

Also, while 3-day badges ran out today, you can still buy single-day badges for each day. It's about $35 more expensive, but it's probably cheaper than the markup from a scalper and the single-day badges probably won't run out for at least another week.

And yeah, try harder next year to avoid the situation. When October rolls around in 2013, start checking out the forums every morning. When you find out that hotels/registration go live, don't assume that everything will sell out at about the same rate as the previous year. Don't put it off until later just because you think you have more time.

What Can Penny Arcade Do?

So here's a better question. What can Penny Arcade do about this supply/demand problem? They can't change venues (and it probably wouldn't help anyway), they can't cram more people into these venues, and they can't really stop the scalper problem in a way that would actually make a real difference.

Well, I'm starting to wonder if PAX is going to need to change its form to really make a significant difference, and I have a few crazy ideas that might help a little.

PAX Festival

So right now PAX takes place over three days. What if it took place over six? Make it a big festival.

Now, there are a lot of problems with this, but in a way, those problems are exactly what would make this alleviate the problems.

First of all, hotels and badges are expensive. Assuming badge prices stay about the same, a six-day badge would cost around $140-$175, and a 4-person room would cost around $1200-$1500. Also, not everyone can take off an entire week for work.

In other words, most people wouldn't be able to attend the entire festival. And in a way, that's the point.

If you can't make it to the Friday-Sunday events, you can still make it for Tuesday-Thursday, which would probably have a lower demand.

Personally, I'm not SUPER fond of this idea, but the idea of a week-long PAX sounds wicked cool, even if I couldn't attend all of it.

PAX Expansion

So PAX Prime and PAX East can't take place at different venues, and it probably wouldn't help anyway. Fine.

Why not have it take place at more than one convention center?

PAX already has shuttle systems for bringing attendees to and from their hotels, why not use that shuttle system to ferry people to another nearby convention hall with other events occurring?

Obviously, timing is a factor. If you have one panel at one center and another at the other center, you'll probably need a few hours to account for travel time and the giant lines.

The other big problem is that even if there are two convention halls, there's no way they can guarantee that the attendees will evenly distribute between them. It's possible that they could separate the two venues as two different expos. Maybe have the expo hall in one and the tabletop/BYOC gaming tables in the other.

Doing it this way would not only allow them to sell more badges, it would alleviate some of the pressure on the popular hotels. If the convention center with the expo hall was closer to Hotel A and the convention center with the BYOC table was closer to Hotel B, then people with different priorities would favor different hotels.

I understand that no matter what, it's going to inconvenience people, but people are already getting inconvenienced and that number will only keep growing until PAX expands somehow.

The Future of PAX

Penny Arcade has often talked about how they one day expect to no longer be the ones organizing or running PAX. That it will take on a life of its own and be organized and controlled by the community itself.

I don't know how likely that is, but it's a pretty crazy thing to imagine. In the not too distant future, multiple convention centers and many streets are reserved for the Great PAX East Festival. The Protomen will play at the Hatch Shell and the attendees will all pack together on the Oval, followed by a fireworks display as Mike, Jerry, Robert, and their families watch from afar knowing that the Enforcers and their democratically elected PAX Monarch have everything under control.

How much longer after that until they riot and turn the center of Boston into a sovereign nation of the gamers, by the gamers, for the gamers?

What madness hath we wrought?

In all seriousness, though, I find it difficult to imagine that PAX will get much bigger unless something changes in some big way. They can't just find different ways to sell the same tickets. And if PAX stops growing, it will never evolve in the way that Penny Arcade seems to hope it will.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Power and Superpower

It's no secret that I love comic books and the superheroes contained within. But the nature of superheroism has a lot of complex facets that most casual fans take for granted. While I have a lot of thoughts on the nature of heroism in general and superheroism specifically, I'm going to try to keep this rant focused on the nature of power, as well as empowerment.

Alleyway Heroism

90% of popular superheroes have a common M.O.. They prowl the streets in costume, ever vigilant for criminal activity, stopping it in its tracks. There's a reason why most superhero movies involve some kind of alley fight scene. It's iconic. The formula is simple and we've seen it a thousand times. Actually, if you think about it, it's hard to name specific examples, but it's so iconic that it FEELS like we've seen it a thousand times. There's a dark alley. There's a young/elderly/otherwise defenseless individual who is about to be victimized by a criminal. Just as things are about to get ugly, our hero steps in and saves the day. They are thanked by the would-be-victim, and they depart just as the police arrive to apprehend the incapacitated villain. This scene is iconic because it's really the reason why superheroes became popular in the first place. In the Golden Age, characters like Superman were figures that made the powerless feel more powerful. Seeing criminals get what was coming to them was engaging and encouraging. It doesn't matter that Superman isn't real. It feels good to fantasize about what you could do with all that power, particularly in a time where the world was a very frightening and desperate place. Batman, who is one of the few superheroes from the Golden Age that is still around with the majority of his origin story in tact, was a victim in an alley himself. No one came to save his parents when they were gunned down in Crime Alley, so he trained to become such a person. The underlying problem of this scene is that while it does make us feel good, it is still largely a fantasy. We all know that in the real world, this iconic scene is not common. Thousands of innocent people are targeted by criminals every day all over the world. And while some do have happy endings, far too many do not. So while it is not surprising that we as a culture still have a place for what I think of as "Alleyway Heroism", it is also clear that we have become somewhat cynical of it the more we relate to the would-be-victim rather than the superhero. When a superhero movie involves Alleyway Heroism, it's considered cheesy, cliche, or generic. This has also been largely true of comic books ever since the Silver Age. You notice that while you may get a slice of Alleyway Heroism in a given movie or comic, usually during a character's origin story, the majority of superhero stories revolve around a superhero and a supervillain. A clash of the titans rather than a hero stopping generic thugs and gangs. This is partially because a supervillain generally poses a greater challenge than a random group of criminals, and thus makes for a more interesting conflict, but really it mostly speaks to the fact that we know deep down that Alleyway Heroism isn't compelling enough on its own. The main reason Alleyway Heroism is even still around is because it works well for establishing good intentions. We see Spider-Man protecting a kid who is being mugged, so we instinctively root for him when he fights the Green Goblin. In other words, all Alleyway Heroism is good for is shallow wish-fulfillment and making the protagonist more likable. However, one really major exception to this is in one of my favorite superhero films, "The Dark Knight." I've spoken about this before, so I won't get too much into the film as a whole, but the main reason "The Dark Knight" succeeds while "The Dark Knight Rises" didn't is because "The Dark Knight" wasn't about Batman vs. Supervillain. It was about Batman vs. Organized Crime. The Joker was an agent of chaos that drove the plot and turned Harvey Dent into the antagonist, but Batman did not defeat the Joker in that movie. He defeated the mob. The Joker was defeated by the people of Gotham. When they refused to destroy each other in the boat scene, the Joker lost. A lot of people credit Heath Ledger's performance for making that film resonate with audiences, but personally, I give a lot of credit to that scene. It was completely unlike anything we ever saw before and it reached us in a way Alleyway Heroism and generic one-on-one battles never can.

Lois Lane Syndrome

What made the boat scene unique was not just that the would-be-victims defied the villain. No, that we actually see all the time. It's one way that writers try to make Alleyway Heroism more palatable, particularly when the victims in question are women. Comic books and related media are often accused (justifiably) of sexism, chauvinism, and even misogyny largely because of their tendency to victimize women. Since the audience of comic books and related media is PERCEIVED to be largely heterosexual single young men, it is assumed that putting a woman in danger will provoke a more visceral response from them. That they'll instinctively want the character that we know nothing about to be rescued and then fall in love with the rescuer simply because of her gender and her vulnerable situation (and probably also because all comic book women are built like supermodels). Obviously, this tends to make a lot of people very unhappy, and for good reason. It suggests that women are more likely than men to be defenseless victims who are unable to help themselves. It turns women into plot devices that exist either as a prize to be won or as motivation for the character. Of course most writers of comic books and related media are aware of this interpretation, and so their most common solution is to show the would-be-victim acting bravely and defiantly before their inevitable rescue. I'll call this "Lois Lane Syndrome". That is, when any would-be-victim (regardless of gender) in an Alleyway Heroism type of situation stands up to the villain despite being outmatched. Lois Lane, as everyone knows, was Superman's primary love interest for about half a century. When she is not known as Superman's girlfriend, however, she's primarily known as "the one Superman always saves." Even so, as far as damsels in distress go, Lois is generally notable (at least in most of her modern incarnations) because she rarely ever actually cries for help. She tends to get involved in a dangerous situation because of her own agency and journalistic curiosity (which I love), and when the shit hits the fan she does her best to get herself out of it (also cool)... but when she is about to get killed or seriously injured, Superman swoops in to save her. This is seen as an improvement over the typical Alleyway Heroism scene because at least in this case, the would-be-victim is standing up for herself. The result hasn't changed, but at least she gets to keep her dignity! See? Sexism is over! Seriously though, Lois Lane Syndrome is generally just a way to dress up the same old trope without coming off as quite as exploitative. Nothing has really changed except the attitude. Yes, this makes the situation less distasteful on the surface, since at least the would-be-victim is given some degree of agency, but ultimately they are still powerless and they are still saved by a fantasy. That's not to say that would-be-victims shouldn't stand up for themselves. On the contrary, nobody should think that they shouldn't at least attempt to get out of a dangerous situation themselves. But this doesn't change the fact that in the Alleyway Heroism scene, they will inevitably fail in order to give the hero a reason to show up and save the day. While Lois Lane is admirable for trying, she still needs Superman. Worse yet, this suggests that if the would-be-victim DOESN'T stand up for him/herself, that makes him/her weak or undeserving of rescue. Another way they tend to "improve" on the sexist implications of this trope is by reversing the roles. The woman has the power fantasy and the man is the would-be-victim. While this at least spreads the empowerment fantasies around a bit more, it doesn't change the core problem. In fact, it might accentuate it. Just as Alleyway Heroism suggests that victims are only saved in power fantasies, the role reversal suggests that the only time women AREN'T the victims is in a power fantasy. How many women in comic books and related media can you name that weren't victimized at some point their lives and either failed to stop it, were saved at the last moment by a third party, or saved themselves by using some kind of superhuman boon that a normal person wouldn't have? I can name maybe one or two if I really stop to consider it, but it really shouldn't be this hard. So really, all this says is that the only way a woman won't become a victim is if she has more power than a typical woman would have. So yeah, still not much of an improvement, is it? Anyway, the point is that defiance alone is not enough to empower a would-be-victim in your typical Alleyway Heroism situation. Going back to my example, you might look at the boat scene from "The Dark Knight" and say that it's no different from that scene from "The Avengers" where that old German guy (who speaks perfect English) stands up to Loki and says "Not to men like you." They're both defiantly refusing to do what the villain says, so what's the difference? The difference is that if Captain America didn't show up, the German guy would have been killed, but if Batman didn't show up, the people on the boats STILL would have defeated the Joker. Yes, the Joker would have just blown them up anyway (maybe), but he still would have failed to make his point. The people refused to kill each other. Even if they did get killed by the Joker, that wouldn't grant him victory. It would have just been him being a sore loser. Their refusal to blow each other up was more than just showing that the would-be-victims aren't spineless worms. It was about showing the value of ALL human life despite the Joker's attempt to prove the opposite. They refused to let the villain use them as a way to get what he wants. In "The Avengers", the German guy is not empowered. He is brave, but he has no power. His defiance does nothing except make his life worth saving (once again implying that if he DIDN'T, he wouldn't have deserved to be saved). But in "The Dark Knight", the people on the boat find power by believing in something greater than themselves. This is what "The Dark Knight" is ultimately about. Inspiring hope in the innocent and fear in the guilty so that the power shifts.

Empowerment and the Anti-Hero

So with all that said, I want to share a video that many of you might have already seen. It is called "Dirty Laundry." I don't want to say much beyond that for those who haven't seen it, except I will issue a... CONTENT WARNING: This video contains extreme violence and implied off-screen rape. Additionally, my discussion of the video refers to these violent acts and explores the related context. If you wish to avoid this content but keep reading, please skip to where I say "END CONTENT WARNING". I promise you won't be lost.

OK, so, that was pretty intense, wasn't it? Anyway, what makes this short film interesting to me is how it plays on our expectations regarding Alleyway Heroism. At the beginning of the video, we expect Frank to intervene and rescue the woman who is about to be assaulted. The woman displays Lois Lane Syndrome, standing up to the asshole and resisting his advances, but she can't stop him alone. So naturally, we expect Frank to step in and save her. He doesn't. He does his laundry. At first, we as an audience assume that this is because he's about to do something bad-ass. That it's a fake-out. He's just waiting until the last minute. No way would he let something like that happen. And yet he does. I don't know about the rest of you, but I REALLY hated him in that moment. I figured that at that point, there was nothing he could do to redeem himself. Then it gets worse. The gang starts mugging a little kid who, again, displays Lois Lane Syndrome and defies the gang. Again, Frank does nothing. While this is going on, he speaks with the clerk played by Ron Perlman, who talks about the desire to intervene. How it probably won't work out and even if they succeed, more villains will take their place. That's when Frank finally intervenes just as the young boy is about to be killed. He kills all of the gang members, leaving only the leader alive, albeit maimed. He then asks about the difference between justice and punishment before covering the villain in alcohol and leaving a lighter by his feet. At that moment, the villain is left at the mercy of the survivor, who chooses to light him on fire. Now before I end the content warning, I just want to say that with regards to the inclusion of rape, I can understand the knee-jerk apprehension that some of you might have. I felt it myself. All too often, rape is used as a factor to motivate the hero into action. If it's a male hero, it's to defend the woman's honor. If it's a female hero, it's meant to "empower" her by having her overcome her "weakness" (i.e. having a vagina). However, in this short film, rape is not used in that manner. The rape does not motivate Frank to action. And though the survivor is empowered at the end, it is not because her rape made her "tougher". All the rape does is make the villain deserving of a righteous death at the hands of the survivor. I do agree that rape is used WAY too often, and this in turn adds to the presence of rape culture in our society and I do believe that if a writer can get the same point across with something other than rape (attempted or otherwise) then using rape is excessive and sensationalist and disrespectful. It's no excuse to say that it's the most common form of assault subjected to women and that it's just "realistic" to include it. Unless you have something really important to say about real life and that rape is an important aspect of what you are trying to say, it's unnecessary. But when I consider the ending of this short where the survivor lights the villain on fire, there's a reason why it's the woman and not the kid who does it. While the kid was hurt and beaten, him killing the villain would have come off as wrathful or excessive. But when the woman does it, it feels right because she wasn't just hurt physically. She was violated and degraded. Those wounds don't heal and no matter what those of us who are lucky enough never to experience it would like to think, it cannot be turned into strength. There are few crimes where the survivor is justified in killing the perpetrator after the fact. There are few crimes that we consider worse than death and therefore deserving of it as punishment. And it's not a matter of vengeance or even justice. It's a matter of self-defense. Killing the bastard so that he can't do it again and so no one else will dare try it. Taking the power back. It's for this reason that I can forgive this short film for incorporating rape. I suppose they could have ended the short film without killing the villain and then the survivor wouldn't need a reason to do it, but then the ending can go one of two ways. Either the survivors decide that the villain has been punished enough and let him live out the rest of his crippled life, in which case they basically did nothing that demonstrates their power, or they DO kill the guy, in which case it comes off as excessive and somewhat reprehensible since all the guy would have done to them was rough them up a bit. In this case, the short film only works if the guy deserves death and if the victim of the crime is able to do it. If you can think of a crime worse than murder that doesn't somehow degrade or incapacitate the victim, then I'd be happy to hear it, but I certainly can't think of one. All I can think of that fits the requirements of this short film's theme are rape and torture, and torture isn't really much of an improvement in terms of unpleasantness. I mean, at least it wouldn't come off as potentially sexist, I suppose, but that doesn't make it any less problematic. I suppose the film could have just not existed at all ("the only way to win is not to play") but I don't think completely avoiding the subject of rape or torture accomplishes anything. The problem isn't acknowledging that these things exist, it's in treating them casually. If we just say that women can never be survivors of rape or attempted rape in fiction, it doesn't change what happens in reality. Rape won't go anywhere if you just stop mentioning it. But we do have to stop acting like survivors of rape are weak and powerless or that their trauma is something they ought to rise above and find strength in. And even having women in fiction successfully defend against rape isn't necessarily helpful either, because then it sends the message that if you can't stop yourself from becoming a victim, you are weak. That's why I think the portrayal in "Dirty Laundry" is forgivable. Because the woman is made a survivor of rape, but she is not shown as weak because she couldn't prevent it and she is not made stronger because it happened. She is powerful because in the end, she stands up to the villain and tells him that he doesn't deserve to live for what he did to her. The onus is put on the villain, not the survivor. The survivor is not a weaker person for not being able to stop it or for not becoming a hard-assed no-nonsense "strong independent woman" as a result of it. There is no way she SHOULD have handled it, and by extension, no way any survivor of any crime SHOULD handle it. The film tells us that she did nothing wrong, which is exactly what needs to be said more often. She did nothing wrong, but the villain did, and he deserves to die for it. END CONTENT WARNING So what makes this scene unique? Well, two things. First of all, Frank Castle (the Punisher), does not save the victims of the ruthless gang from the pain of the crimes being perpetrated upon them. He does not ride in as a champion of justice and stop the tyranny of evil in its tracks. Obviously, he certainly COULD do that, but that's not what his character is about. In a way, trying to make the Punisher more conventional would be even worse and entirely pointless. One of the larger complaints with anti-heroes like the Punisher is that they encourage violent vigilante justice, which is less palatable than non-lethal heroic justice. And this is understandable. If you put the Punisher in the same situations as Spider-Man with the only difference being that he kills the villains rather then leave them to the police, then all it does is send the message that villains are not worthy of compassion and that we have the right to judge them ourselves simply because we have power. This is a reprehensible point of view. But "Dirty Laundry" not only portrays the anti-hero in a more narratively distinctive way, it shows why the anti-hero exists in the first place. The anti-hero exists because people are often left unfulfilled by Alleyway Heroism. There's nothing empowering about waiting for someone to save you when you're about to become a victim. We're meant to identify with the hero, but we know deep down we're more similar to the victims, who we instinctively perceive as weak. So we started inventing heroes that were more about seizing power in a more "realistic" way (i.e. lots of guns). While it's nice to have ideals about justice and second chances, when you're in an alley and someone has pulled a knife on you and you KNOW that Spider-Man isn't going to show up, you suddenly don't care so much about whether or not that person with the knife is a good person deep down. You just want to pull out a gun and show him what happens when you fuck with the social contract. It's about taking back the power. That's what the bulk of these anti-heroes represent. Seizing power from those who would use it to victimize, and often that means threatening and utilizing lethal force. And yes, lots of guns. To put it simply, it sometimes feels more practical to stop waiting for Spider-Man and just shoot the bastard like Frank Castle would do. And even if Spider-Man DID show up, we may resent the fact that Spider-Man just allows the criminal to go through the revolving door of the corrupt justice system and go right back to finding more victims later. Rather than feel like the world is an awful place because bad things happen to innocent people and other innocent people won't lift a finger to stop it, we're told that if life gives you lemons, throw a hand grenade. In a way, that's what this short film is saying. The reason Punisher doesn't rescue the survivors until they have already suffered at the hands of the gang is because if he wasn't there, they wouldn't have been rescued. Like Ron Perlman's character says, even if he stopped them, more would just take their place. Saving the victims today doesn't give them the strength to fight back tomorrow, and it certainly doesn't take away any pain they might have felt from previous attacks that are implied to have happened while Frank wasn't around. Justice is sadly only a sometimes thing. It's handled on a case-by-case basis. But punishment? Punishment is about shifting power. It's about sending a message. Teaching a lesson. Punishment can outlast lifetimes. That's what Frank does at the end. He doesn't want to give those survivors justice. Justice won't make their lives easier once he leaves. If he killed the gang right away, it wouldn't have empowered them even if he gave them the same chance to set the leader on fire. If the crime was never committed, then it isn't true punishment. Killing a guy for what he MIGHT have done comes off as extreme, which is why most heroes don't kill. Killing a guy for what he DID is cosmic balance. And if Frank had stopped the crime before it happened, it wouldn't say anything about the strength of the would-be-victims. They would have just felt lucky that an ex-marine happened to be around at the right moment. In other words, it would have been just a more violent and grotesque version of Alleyway Heroism. But when he gives the victims the chance to punish the one responsible, that changes everything. Suddenly, they have the power. Rather than judge the villain himself, Frank passes that decision onto the survivors. When the woman burns the villain, she is making a statement. The next time someone thinks about screwing with that neighborhood, they'll remember that the last guy that ran that turf got burned alive by the woman he assaulted. SHE did it. Not some other guy. That other guy was doing his laundry at the time. She's the one who burned the guy alive because of what he did to her. He was evil. She was innocent. He got what he deserved. She deserved better. No one will mess with her again. In that respect, "Dirty Laundry" is basically a metaphor for the anti-hero and the concept of empowerment in general. It's not about saving people. It's not even about standing up for other people or even for yourself. It's about punishing the wicked without implying that the innocent survivors and bystanders (like Ron Perlman's character) are weak for "letting it happen". If heroes are meant to inspire you to care about something bigger than yourself, anti-heroes are about inspiring you to stop thinking less of yourself and to start thinking less of the villains instead. I don't know if I entirely agree with the anti-hero philosophy, particularly since it's rarely handled with that degree of sobriety. More often than not, it's just a different flavor of power fantasy, but less about empowering vague concepts like truth and justice and more about advocating extreme measures and the concept of "might is right". But I do feel that there is a necessity for heroes that are aimed at empowering the innocent and punishing the guilty rather than simply saving the victims and stopping the villains.

The Place of Traditional Heroism

That being said, I certainly don't think that an anti-hero can empower readers in a way that a more traditional hero can't. In fact, anti-heroes are limiting because they often operate on the assumption that criminals are pure evil and always deserve death. But as we do not live in a society where criminals are always (or even often) put to death, it stands to reason that we as a society value inherent human decency as well as our ideals. That's why we still need more traditional heroes. They may not be as "realistic", but not every problem can be solved with a gun. And a gun is not the only source of power. But just as anti-heroes can lose their meaning when they are solely about violent wish-fulfillment and seeing bad people get what they deserve, heroes lose their meaning when they do nothing but save the world and stop bad guys. Take Superman for example. A lot of people assume that Superman is boring because he is the most powerful superhero in existence. Well, yes, that does make him boring if his ability to defeat villains is his primary source of narrative conflict. And when all Superman does is fight bad guys, yeah, it's really boring. However, Superman CAN be interesting because as a being of nigh-unlimited power, he is an excellent device for exploring the nature of power itself. Superman does everything he can to keep his power in check. Act as the defender rather than the attacker. When he loses his grip on that ideal, he becomes just as awful as the villains he fights. So what does this tell us? Even with all of Superman's power, that power still comes second to his principles. What we believe in is more important than the power we have or lack. Superman isn't just about power and what you can do with it, but what you can't or shouldn't do with power alone. Superman's true strength is not his flight or invulnerability, but what he represents. While none of us will be able to fly shoot lasers out of our eyes, we can all aspire to Superman's resolve. So the Punisher tells us that what we fail to do does not make us weak and that power can come from anyone at any time, and Superman tells us that power is not enough without a respect for it, because that's what separates the heroes from the villains. I'd say that these two concepts work well in harmony, wouldn't you?