Monthly Archives: April 2012

Why The Avengers Will Be Awesome

In a little less than a week, a movie I’ve been waiting a long time for will finally be released. No, not The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (though that looks like fun), but The Avengers. Understand, I’ve been waiting for this movie since the stinger attached to Iron Man four years ago. I saw each of the ‘prior’ movies (except The Incredible Hulk) opening weekend (or, in the case of Iron Man 2, three times over opening weekend). Essentially, I’ve been really looking forward to this movie. Of course, one of the biggest fears of me and others like me is that the movie’s gonna suck.

That won’t be the case.

Why?

I’m so glad you asked.

See, right off the bat you have the whole fanboy thing. After Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America each got their own movie they’re being put in one. One film. Together. Not since Alien VS Predator have we had a crossover like this. Unlike AVP, though, this crossover has been intended since the inception (and will actually be good). But people! We’re getting Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America in one friggin’ movie!

But while it’s great for a movie to run on the Rule of Cool, The Avengers is going to be so much more than that. See, the conflict isn’t just them against the world. It’s internal as much as it’s external. The drama will stem not just from “will they be able to save the world?” but the added question of “can they even get along?” We’re watching not just to watch these guys save the day; we want to see them overcome themselves. Because no matter how big an external threat, if we can’t get invested in the core of the characters it’s not worth it.

On that note, Scarlett Johansson’s in this movie. Not complaining. In fact, I’m the opposite of complaining.

Seriously though, the writer and director of the movie is Joss Whedon. If there’s one thing he proved when he did Serenity was that he knows how to balance several characters; developing each of them and giving them their own special moment. In other words: a true ensemble movie. Whedon’s proven himself to be an excellent writer/director more than capable of handling strong characters interacting and conflicting without anyone being sidelined. And this guy can alternate between funny and serious with ease; a vital element of a film like this.

To carry a good script, though, you need capable actors. This, too, won’t be an issue. In each of their films, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, and Tom Hiddleston have proven themselves to be able to work that tone of dramatic comedy; being able to deliver gags on cue but also hit the emotional notes. They’ve also proven that the know the characters and we’ve accepted them as them. All clear on that front. Mark Ruffalo’s a bit of a wild card, seeing as this is first time as Banner. Jeremy Renner too, due to his rather small role in Thor. But hey, we’ll see. And, again, we have Scarlett Johansson who also happens to be a great actress. Bases covered, man.

Characters and all aside, the external conflict’s pretty serious too. We’ve got Loki commanding some army from space/another realm or something threatening to, well, do something terrible to Earth. This really necessitates our main characters coming together to battle this threat. It’s still dire enough that there’s something actually on the line here. We need these heroes, the Avengers, to save the world. No one else can do this but them. Hence, you know, the whole teaming up thing. Duh.

And hey, Scarlett Johansson’s in it.

What I’m saying, if I’m saying anything at all, is that The Avengers has all the right ingredients for an amazing movies. Great conflicts, fantastic actors, the right people behind the camera. Barring an unmitigated cinematic disaster, there’s no way this movie can suck. At least, I hope not.

In any case, at 11:59pm on May 3rd you’ll find me sitting in the cinema waiting to watch what will most definitely be an awesome movie.

I really can’t wait.

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You Are Noble Six

In my last entry I (somewhat) briefly touched on the notion of video game immersion and storytelling. I said that the biggest advantage of telling a story through a video game was that the player would gain investment in the story due to having that “hey, I’m the hero!” moment. I wanna elaborate on that, explain just how some games do it – and how they’re so much better for it.

Mass Effect is an easy go-to example. Right off the bat you’re asked to give Shepard a first name and design his (or her) appearance. The game recreates a sense of a classic tabletop RPG with its open world and your ability to make choices. Ah, yes, choices. That’s one of Mass Effect’s strong points of immersion: you choose what Shepard does. And your choices have consequences. I killed off a race at the cost of not having their help later on. I sided with one of my crew mates (and love interest) and the cost of another crew member’s loyalty. My story is my own, it’s how I made it, it’s how I chose it to happen. Mostly, anyway.

Another strength is the sheer immensity of the world. I’ve spent far too much time scrolling through the Codex reading up on the history of the universe. And there’s a lot in there, from histories of each of the alien races to a breakdown of humanity’s role in the galaxy to the science behind the mass effect drives that allows for faster-than-light travel. The world is incredibly fleshed out and it’s so easy to get lost in it.

Another route is the one Bungie took with the core Halo Trilogy. The protagonist, Master Chief John 117 (known just by his rank in the games) receives little actual characterization. We do, however, learn stuff about him through the people around him; the way they react to him and the way they treat him. Enemy grunts run away from you screaming “demon!” while allies cheer at your arrival. You find out who you are by your reputation.

A cool touch Bungie kept in the trilogy is that you never see Chief’s face. Why? Because you are Master Chief. You are the one tasked with saving Earth and finishing the fight. The battle isn’t World War II, it’s not some hypothetical US-Russian conflict, this fight is to save the Earth. It’s universally relatable. The Covenant wants to wipe out humanity. You’re gonna stop them. That hook instantly brings you into the conflict.

Bungie took their brand of immersion one step further with their final entry in the Halo series (and my favorite game): Reach. The first thing you do in Reach is design your Spartan. You pick out his (or her) armor pieces, what sort of helmet he wears, his amor’s coloring, and his emblem. The first scene of the game is of the desolated planet Reach, culminating in the shot of your helmet discarded in the devastation, a crack through the center of its faceplate. The title fades in and fades out to the helmet sitting new and whole in your hands. You – as Noble Six – turn it over and put it on.

The fall of Reach is central to the Halo mythos. From the first game we’ve had references to the disaster and what an impact it left on the UNSC forces. We know how this ends, we know we won’t win, we know we’ll lose the battle. So how does Bungie make us care about a game where we know the ending?

Simple: make it personal. Your Spartan super-soldier was custom designed by you. If you play online you’re the same Spartan you play in the campaign. You start to identify yourself as him. You see Reach through Six’s eyes, from the initial strike on a relay to the razing of New Alexandria until the Covenant glasses the planet from orbit. During the campaign you’ll see Noble Six standing with his squad mates as they discuss plans to save Reach. Near his clavicle you see your emblem there. That’s your emblem, that’s you.

You’re the hero.

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The Magnitude of Medium

As I hope you’ve noticed over my past few entries, I like stories. I read them, I watch them, I play them, I, um, listen? to them. In any case, here’s something I’ve noticed: the medium of a story is, in the hands of a deft writer/creator, an incredibly powerful tool.

Let’s start with books. Everyone’s (hopefully) read a book or two dozen. If not, then, well, I’m not sure what to say to you. Anyway. Books tend to be long affairs. Within them you can weave long and intricate plots and introduce dozens of characters. You have the space and you have the time to make your plot as convoluted as you want. Then there’s the beast known as internal dialogue.

One of the beauties of The Hunger Games is Suzanne Collins’ description of Katniss’ mind. Pages are devoted to the protagonist’s analysis of everything going on. Furthermore, we’re able to explore her psyche and past, getting to know just what makes her tick. This wouldn’t work in a movie, video game, or tv show. It could probably work in a comic, but nowhere near as in-depth. It’s one of many things unique to the format of books.

Now, another way to tell a long rambling story the ends with a very enigmatic ending would be television. Like books, serialized shows have time. An excellent example of a story that could only be told through serials is Lost. You may hate the ending. You may (like me) love the ending. That’s not the point here. Fundamentally, Lost is a show about characters. Everyone’s fleshed out through extensive flashbacks explaining just who they are and why they do what they do. None of their actions are out of character because we’ve had the time to learn what makes them them. This wouldn’t have worked to the same effect in a book (it’s a lot easier to watch a flashback than to listen to over a dozen characters have volumes of internal dialogue with no obvious bearing on the plot [also: no score by Michael Giacchino]). Alternately, a film simply does not have the time to so thoroughly flesh out so many characters.

Comedies probably fare the best with the serialized format. Shows like Community and How I Met Your Mother give you seasons to become (again) familiar with the characters and join their group. Those characters combined with season-spanning running jokes you’ll find that good tv comedies really use their format. The tv show starts to geel more like hanging out with old friends.

There’s another medium for storytelling that’s on the rise. Well, relative rise, anyway. Video Games. Yes, I know, we get a lot of really dumb shoot-’em-ups where the plot is about half as thin as Commando. But games like Halo, Mass Effect, and Uncharted are quickly proving that video games can tell a darn good story without having to be a role playing game (yanno, like Final Fantasy). In Uncharted the story telling has all the strengths of a good movie: strong characters, an engaging plot, and epic set pieces. But more than that, Uncharted lets you play as Nathan Drake. You get to be the hero, guiding him along the way. All the adventuring? That’s you in control. As the ship capsizes around you or the ruins crumble out from under your feet, you’re still in control, it’s you. You’re the hero.

Where video games really come out on top is immersion. In Mass Effect, Bioware created a sprawling, breathing science-fiction world with volumes of research behind it. Cool. But then you have Shepard. Well, no, sorry, you are Shepard. If you’re like me that means you spent… much more time than you should’ve on the character creation scene attempting to give Shepard a passing resemblance to yourself. Within the story you get to make choices. Do you kill this person or let him live? Do you renege on a deal and gain an allegiance at the cost of another? You actions have consequences, bringing you deeper and deeper into the world. In no other format can you gain that level of immersion.

There are others I could get into, of course. Movies, comics, webcomics, oral tradition, short stories, epic poems, all-too-short-British-tv-shows-starring-Benedict-Cumberbatch-and-Martin-Freeman-that-really-need-a-new-season-sooner-rather than later, and so on and so forth. But I think (or at least hope) I’ve made my point. Stories can be told in countless ways. The trick is to make sure you’re not only telling it the right way but using the medium to its fullest potential.

‘cuz c’mon. If it’s a good story it deserves to be told right.

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Why Science Fiction Is Not A Genre

Walk into any book store and you’ll find them sorted into categories. You’ve got your Fiction, Children’s, Military History, Home and Garden, Romance, Young Adult, the odd shelf titled ‘Young Adult Paranormal Romance’, and, of course, Science Fiction and Fantasy. It’s fairly obvious where books go, works of Fiction goes in fiction, kids’ books go in Children’s, non-fiction goes with its topic, and so on.

Now, a work of fiction, whether it’s set in 1950’s New York City, medieval England, or present day Rio De Janeiro, is classified as Fiction. But add a spaceship or another planet and it’s suddenly Science Fiction. Doesn’t matter if it’s a Space Opera or a gritty post-apocalyptic war, they all go on the same shelf. Wanna add an elf to your modern day crime drama? Same problem. Fantasy is fantasy, no matter the subject matter.

Why’s this the case? Dracula features a vampire and yet it’s put in Fiction. Animal Farm has talking animals that run a farm and it’s in Fiction. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a weird dystopian novel with tropes straight out of science-fiction but it gets classified along with ‘proper literature’.

I realize my examples up there are all works that have been accepted as classics due to literary significance. So what about The Lord of The Rings? It’s got immense literary significance (reinvented the conventions associated with fantasy) and a truly epic plot with universal themes transcending its own story. So it gets put on the Fantasy shelf, and rightly so, because its setting is the archetypical fantasy world. Yet it’ll never be formally classified as ‘proper literature’.

The same idea extends to film. Super 8 is a movie about a bunch of kids making a movie. Throughout the plot they solidify their relationships with parents and each other; it’s about growing up. There’s also an alien in there, but it’s a plot device, not the point. But there’s an alien so it’s science fiction. Monsters has aliens too but it’s more like Lost in Translation than War of the Worlds. Once again, the titular monsters are a plot device, they exist to move the protagonists’ and the plot along. They’re not antagonists or even characters in the least. You could replace them with another trope and the plot would still work just as fine.
But because it’s an alien, it’s science fiction and thus not eligible for any ‘real’ awards. Super 8 and Monsters weren’t even considered for an Oscar because they’re science fiction and, ergo, not art.

My point is: the use of certain tropes doesn’t disqualify a work from being art. District 9 deconstructed much of what was accepted of a typical alien inversion. It was different and asked question normally never asked. Ender’s Game took the idea of the young hero and took it apart, adding the grief and trauma one would expect from such an event. They got their accolades from the science fiction community but beyond that, not much at all. Timothy’s Zahn’s work in the Star Wars Expanded Universe justified the movies and codified the universe. But because it could be written off as glorified Star Wars fan-fiction, no one outside the Star Wars fandom gives a crap.

When it comes down to it, science fiction is a setting not a genre. Genres are romances and comedies, tragedies and dramas. A setting is a spaceship or downtown Chicago. The only real difference between science fiction and ‘regular’ fiction is setting. You have humorous science fiction (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), character focused drama (Firefly), and sweeping adventures of pure romance (Star Wars, natch). There are post-apocalyptic adventures and galactic tragedies. To lump all of them together under one category due to similar setting would be like categorizing a Jeffery Archer book, The Great Gatsby, and The Bourne Identity under the same genre because they’re all set in the 20th Century. A story having binary suns should not detract from its merit as a work of fiction. If it still engages and it still carries its themes then it’s literature all the same, right?

In any case, I still like science fiction. I like space. I like adventure.
And I’m willing to accept the stigma of being a science fiction fan if it means I get spaceships.

Writer’s Note: Granted, science fiction and fantasy have more than their share of crap which unfortunately stereotypes the ‘genre’ as a whole. But within all that there are some brilliant gems. And shine they do.

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