Monthly Archives: November 2012

Protagonists and Such

Call him the main character, the lead, the hero, the player character; most every good story has a protagonist. He (or she) is the person we follow. Either because they provide the viewpoint and let us into the world or because they’re out on a grand quest. A lot of stories rise and fall based on the protagonist (or lack thereof).

The lack of a protagonist in The Phantom Menace is one of its shortcomings. Obi-Wan would make a great one, only he winds up playing second fiddle to…well, everyone for much of the film (and sits out all of Tatooine). What about Anakin? He doesn’t get introduced until Tatooine and has no character arc (what’s his motivation?) beyond being the kid who wins the podrace and blows up the droid control ship. Heck, he hardly does jack on Coruscant.

Padme, then! Only she doesn’t do much of anything (besides the senate thing) and her duplicity as to who’s actually her and who’s a handmaiden hamper our getting into her as a main character.

Fine! Qui-Gon! He’s awesome, he gets the plot moving, he can be the protagonist, right? Only no. He plays the mentor archetype, the one who guides the protagonist along. Qui-Gon is a static character who guides the plot, but has no personal investment. Plus, at the climax, the duel with Darth Maul is (sad to say) completely irrelevant to the plot.

Basically: there’s no protagonist in The Phantom Menace, no one for us to root for besides the umbrella of “the good guys”. It hampers our investment in the story. It worked for The Empire Strikes Back because we already had our investment in Luke and Han from A New Hope, but in the latter Luke was unquestionably our viewpoint character and protagonist. Menace has no such luck.

Not to say having a clear protagonist means we’ve got a good story on our hands. Let’s look at Twilight (having read a crappy book makes for good examples). Bella is unquestionably the protagonist, but she lacks anything that makes us care. She has no motivation past getting Edward to fall in love with her. She’s boring and has little characterization/use besides being an avatar for the reader. If the protagonist has no proper characterization, arc, or motivation it becomes hard to get invested.

Look, a work doesn’t have to be high art to have a protagonist. Rod, from Hot Rod, is an example of a great protagonist. Does he have characterization? He’s a delusional, hubristic wannabe stuntman, so yes. His arc is to get the girl and save his stepfather’s life so he can kick his ass. Why? Because he wants his stepfather to respect him. Yes, Hot Rod is a (hilarious) stupid film, but there’s a clear protagonist. It works! The Princess Bride has Westley and Buttercup as protagonists and Fezzik and Inigo as deuteragonists. Escape from New York has Snake Plisskin, Final Fantasy VII has Cloud, Chuck has Chuck.

But what about ensembles? Shows like Firefly, How I Met Your Mother, and Lost; who’s the actual protagonist? That’s the beauty of tv, supporting characters can all get their spot in the limelight. An episode like “Ariel” has Simon as one of the primary protagonists, or “The Constant” has Desmond as its protagonist. Several protagonists are far easier in an episodic serial.

Now the big question. The Avengers. It’s got seven main characters (Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Loki). Who’s the protagonist?

They all are. Each one has their character arc and/or motivations (Loki wants to go home, Iron Man grows into a hero, Hawkeye wants to make up for what he did, etc). With or without the prior movies, each protagonist is set up in The Avengers and winds up as a realized character. You can call any one of them the lead (well, maybe not Hawkeye [it’s workable, but definitely a bit of a stretch]), and the movie still works. You can have multiple protagonists, so long as they’re actually protagonists and not a cast of supporting characters.

It feels like it’s the obvious thing. Stories need not just a protagonist, but a good one. Motivations, characterization, an arc and all that. A good protagonist can help even a mediocre plot. Somewhat, anyway. Y’kinda need the whole lot to tell a good story.

But you already knew that.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! Each story has a clear protagonist!

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Red Pills

So y’know how there’ll be this story but there’s this one break from reality? The one thing that makes this world just a little different from the normal one?  It’s pretty much the foundation of the story; the one pill that the audience has to swallow to make the whole story digestible.

If we can believe that ‘reality’ is really just a virtual construct and the real real world is a dystopian post-apocalyptic wasteland ruled by machines, The Matrix makes perfect sense. Since the world is virtual, running on walls and dodging bullets seems natural. Like Neo, we’ve gotta swallow that red pill and enter this world.

Or Harry Potter where  there’s a secret society of wizards and witches and other magical people living right under our Muggle noses. If we can believe that, then the Ministry of Magic, Centaurs, and all the rest fit right in.

An audience’s willing suspension of disbelief is vital to a story. If they don’t buy it, they won’t invest. A lack of investment means they won’t care about it. And that’s terrible.

So how do audiences swallow this pill?

Well, a little bit of grounding helps a lot. Iron Man establishes Tony Stark as being a genius within the first fifteen-odd minutes of the film. With that in mind, it’s not hard to believe that he could build an Arc Reactor and a suit of powered armor in a cave with a box of scraps. It’s been established that he’s outrageously intelligent, so we buy it. When we see his garage/workshop we see that he has a couple of robot assistants with a limited amount of AI. Though this (and Jarvis, and his holographic workspace) is well beyond 2008 technology, we accept it because not only of how intelligent Tony is, but with the lack of focus he gives it. It’s simply there, it’s part of his world. Since it’s normal for him, it’s normal for us.

There is a limit, of course. In Iron Man 2 they filmed a scene where the Tony and Pepper’s jet flew in the upper atmosphere, where gravity no longer affected them. It’s no big deal for them. Ultimately, Jon Favreau and crew chose to cut the scene as it wound up being just too much. Introducing the idea of a jet essentially going into space would have been one piece of tech too much in a movie with AI and powered armor. It would have shattered the suspension of disbelief. There’s a limit to how much you can give the audience.

The Mass Effect games’ fantastic technology is all explained by the titular mass effect. It’s a fairly basic concept (currents applied to the mysterious Element Zero will either increase or decrease an object’s mass) that allows for faster than light travel, artificial gravity, and all that. Add some mysterious ancient technology and bam! Humanity joins the galactic community and gets caught up to speed with the other races.

It’s not another world (like Star Wars) or flung way in the future (Halo, Firefly, or Star Trek), but it’s believable because of the simple technological conceit they present. Furthermore, the idea of mass effects is not only exhaustively fleshed out in the game’s databank (encyclopedia) but is internally consistent. It has its limits: mass effect fields can do a lot but they aren’t magic. All this keeps it believable.

So we have movies with basic conceits: cursed treasure exists in Pirates of the Caribbean, the zombie apocalypse finally happened in Zombieland, Back to the Future asks you to believe that if you hit 88 miles per hour you will see some serious …stuff, in Up we believe a house can fly. It’s that doorway into the world.

Of course, like all things, it’s not set in stone. Sometimes you can just say the Earth was demolished for a hyperspace bypass and if you make it fun enough we’ll play along. Because sometimes the only rules you really need is the rule of of fun; so you can have Scott Pilgrim do battle with the psychic-powered vegan or Westley and Buttercup fight a Rodent of Unusual Size. These movies are fun, serious logic need not apply.

Unless, y’know, you break one of the rules you’ve already set up in your world. Then bam goes our suspension of disbelief.

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But Strong In Will

An argument presented by a sorta-antagonist in Skyfall is that espionage and spying is a relic of the Cold War, of a time when thinking on one’s feet was the most valuable skill. Now, in the world of computers and the Internet where one can shut down an economy without leaving their bedroom, there is no use for agents on the field.

In response, M gives a speech about the relevance of MI6, about how even though technology may march on there will always be a need for boots on the ground. Quoting Tennyson, she extols the necessity of patriotic idealists like James Bond out in the field striving, seeking, finding, and refusing to yield.

It’s all pretty words and a meta answer to a question that’s been floating around in the back of our minds for a while now. In a time when spy/action/thriller movies have steadily gotten darker with stronger takes on violence and the ramifications of their actions, is there still space for an adventure that’s more fun than not?

The Avengers arguably proved it for the superhero movie (as I detailed before), so what of James Bond? Fifty years from Dr. No, is he still relevant?

It’s easy to see why not. James Bond has always been rife with gadgets: exploding pens, ejector seats, laser watches and the like. These tropes have been parodied and played with to the point where it’s really hard to take the concept seriously unless it’s done tongue-in-cheek (and even then it has to be done really well). Spy-cars are spoofed, over-the-top villains and schemes are mocked. These days, that’s just not how you make a movie.

Just compare Taken and Goldeneye. Both arguably fall under the same genre (men singlehandedly going after the bad guy leaving a path of destruction in their wake). But where Goldeneye has Bond driving a tank through St. Petersburg, Taken has Mills travelling much more subtly by foot or car. Mills doesn’t bother with one-liners and is relentless (and quite cruel) in the pursuit of his taken daughter. Bond, on the other hand, positively gushes charm and suavity. It’s old fashioned and romantic, and that’s not how the world works anymore.

Which, pretty much, is one of the central arguments presented to Bond in Skyfall. He’s called a man of the past, an anachronism of an age gone by who has no use in the modern world. Even Q implies that computers have rendered him obsolete.

The makers of Skyfall — and Bond himself — beg to differ. Not only do they claim that there is still a place for action-spies like James Bond, but they still find that there is a place for the typical tropes of the spy/thriller film. No, Q doesn’t walk Bond through a crazy lab with all sorts of fancy gadgets, but he’s still given his gizmos (a radio and a special PPK) and plays the role of command/advisor throughout the film. No, it’s not an exploding pen (which Q points out himself), but it’s still cool.

And cool is where James Bond really thrives. Sure, there’s no bungie jumping off of dams here, but there is running and jumping up under an elevator to catch a ride, or jumping into a newly-opened hole in a train and cuff adjustment. It’s cool and, yeah, still a little over the top, but still Bond-ish.

This is what Skyfall set out to do: establish James Bond’s relevance in the modern era. The result is a sort of gritty romanticism. We have our Bond Girls and a tricked-out Aston Martin. There’s a crazy villain and monologuing. But there’s also a stronger focus on Bond’s character and history than before, making the conflict far more personal for him. He’s also less invincible than before, suffering from an old wound. We’re getting to know the man behind the legend; now he’s human.

But he’s still James Bond.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! Just because!.

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And I Feel Fine

I live in New York City. Also, last week New York City and much of the US’ East Coast was hit by a hurricane. Power went out, plumbing failed in the higher floors of NYU’s dorms (that is: mine), and classes were cancelled.

Of course, I find this all terribly exciting: this sort of event is what pop-culture has been training me for for years!

See, we love post-apocalyptic scenarios. What could be cooler than banding together with a group of friends and fighting your way through zombies/nature/killer tomatoes/zombies/triffids/aliens? It’s become the new unspoken American dream. Never mind that chances are you’d be one of the zombies/unnamed dead, you want to do this.

Understand the specifics here. I’m referring to movies that take place after the end, not during. So movies like 2012, or Cloverfield, or The Day After Tomorrow, or heck, most any Roland Emmerich movie need not apply. Neither am I talking about the really tragic/serious post-apocalyptic movie. This isn’t The Book of Eli or The Matrix. Or ones where civilization has come back (The Chrysladids or The Hunger Games). This is where the world has ended and, well, people are surviving.

One thing eerily familiar about an emptyish NYC was those images from I Am Legend (which actually is a really tragic/serious post-apocalyptic movie…I know, hush). Granted, there was significantly more life in my NYC than in Robert Neville’s, but the idea of emptiness remains. Neville’s Manhattan is empty and deserted and he, as the survivor, has full run of the place. And really, who wouldn’t want to hunt (deer) in Times Square or play golf off of the Intrepid? Solitude and vampiric zombies aside, it’s a fun life. Well, maybe fun is a bit of a strong word, but it certainly has a few perks

Unless you’re Tallahassee in Zombieland, in which case the whole dang apocalypse is a  gleeful rush. After the zombie outbreak, Tallahassee found his true calling: zombie killing. And really, in this world where many of our pastimes include shooting stuff (virtually, anyway), it would be fun to be able to do that in real life too, no? This isn’t psychotic (necessarily), it’s just another hobby you can pursue after the end of the world.

The skittish Columbus gets in on it too. By the end of Zombieland he’s developed into something more of a hero. Why/how? The end of the world (and potential fun and games and adventure within) gave him the opportunity. Sure, it mayn’t have been his precise dream, but it’s something that would never have happened ordinarily.

So what am I getting at? Post-apocalyptic scenarios are wish fulfillment. There’s a reason zombie movies are so popular: it’s that chance to be a hero and fight your way out of something! The dull structure of normalcy has crumbled and you can finally use your wits to survive until help comes (if it does, anyway). You can jaywalk down main streets and go speeding around suburbs; it’s anarchy and you and your ragtag band of survivors are the only ones who aren’t shambling around looking for brains.

Like a lot of people, I love a good post-apocalyptic story. John Wyndham was one of my favorite authors growing up, Zombieland was one of the first movies I added to my nascent BluRay collection. Because hey, it’s a pleasant little fantasy. Sure, it’s naive to think that you’ll be the survivor, but in that slim chance that you are, it’ll be fun. Besides the whole trying-not-to-die-and-just-wanting-a-darn-shower thing.

The power’s been restored to most of Manhattan now. Classes start again on Monday and life returns to normal. Traffic lights work again and all that. The momentary post-apocalyptic scenario’s over. It was fun. But until the end of the world as we know it where zombies/nature/killer tomatoes/zombies/triffids/aliens walk the earth (if at all), I guess we’ll have to keep these daydreams to books, movies, and tv.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit!

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