Monthly Archives: March 2013

I Got You

Did you see that new Iron Man 3 tv spot that dropped earlier this week? You should. Because this blog post is about it. If you haven’t seen it watch it here.

See that bit at the end? When Pepper has the suit on and saves Tony? That’s crucial. You see, Tony Stark saves people. He’s a hero. That’s his job. But sometimes even the savior needs saving.

Y’know what makes Tony Stark so special as a hero? He’s incredible vulnerable. He doesn’t have super-strength or a healing factor or amazing reflexes. Heck the guy has heart disease! It’s much of the rationale behind the armor (and apparently the plot of the third movie), he needs to protect himself from threats bigger than himself.

He hides this vulnerability, though, wrapping it up with sarcasm and glibness. He doesn’t want others to worry. We see this in Iron Man 2 when Tony’s arc reactor takes a turn for the worst. He draws into himself and lives recklessly until he finally pulls himself together and beats it. Yet through it all he doesn’t tell Pepper, the person closest to him, about it. He doesn’t want anyone else to worry over him or freak out. It’s his mix of pride and stubbornness that makes him want to do it on his own.

It’s a thread that weaves its way through all his movies. One of the most crucial moments in Iron Man comes near the climax, after Obadiah Stane takes Tony’s arc reactor. The man struggles to get to his garage where his other arc reactor is, but falls just short of it. Then Dummy, the robot who Tony’s been ragging on, picking on, and calling useless for entire movie, hands him the old arc reactor. Tony acknowledges it with a simple “good boy”. You have to realize that this is Tony admitting he can’t always do it himself. Later on in the climax he asks Rhodey to keep the skies clear and Pepper to help him finish off Stane. In 2 and The Avengers he does the same thing, trying his best to do it all alone. There’s a moment during the final battle of The Avengers when Tony defers to Captain America for strategy during the climax. This again shows his growth in the team, he knows he can’t do everything by himself. It gets mirrored again when Hulk catches him: he was saved.

All this has to do with that moment in the trailer where a suited up Pepper protects Tony from the falling debris. In that moment he’s being taken care of, he’s being saved by the person he usually saves.

There’s even more to it though. Presumably Tony orders the suit to go after Pepper (I say presumably because in that teaser Tony ordering the armor to fly is from a different scene) as the mansion’s crumbling around them. He does this at his own expense, he has the suit protect her not him. Tony’s no longer the selfish git he used to be. Remember in The Avengers when he’s arguing with Captain America? Steve calls him out on being self-serving, on always trying to find a way out. That moment of him opting to just save Pepper as opposed to suiting up himself and fighting out shows just how far he’s come.

“I got you,” Pepper tells Tony upon saving him. It’s a weird turn for him, but not unwelcome. Tony, who’s usually sticking it out alone, now has someone saving him. He’s not alone anymore. In another trailer we see him and Rhodey getting ready for what I’m going to assume is the final battle. He’s grown out of his prideful independence and learned to rely on others.

But he still protects them. “I got you first,” after all.

 

By the way, Iron Man 3 comes out in 33 days. This won’t be the last post on Iron Man 3. My apologies. Actually, no, I don’t apologize.

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Earn Your Ending

Did you see Warm Bodies? Because you really should. It’s a great movie (and has zombies). And I mean a really great movie. We’re talking that sucker gets added to my BluRay collection the day it comes out.

Of course, the comparisons to Zombieland are inevitable and rightly so: both have the same ‘genre’ and tone: zombie films with a level of comedy and romance. It’s their themes, however, that set them apart. Warm Bodies is overflowing with heart. See, Warm Bodies decides to set aside the dark and somber mood oft considered a prerequisite for a zombie film and instead gives it a blast of life and hope.

Warm Bodies has a legitimately happy ending. Not like I Am Legend or Zombieland but a real happy ending. Even though things got dark, even though sometimes it looked almost hopeless and the world was coming down, they still got their happy ending. A real happy ending, not the “the world’s gone to hell but they have each other” ending, a proper happy ending.

It’s the same sort of ending you find in Paperman or The Princess Bride or Star Wars. That sense that there’s good in the world, that it can be found no matter what. But more than that it’s the sense that what’s wrong can be set right, that happy endings exist.

Sometimes the idealistic happy ending doesn’t work. I love Serenity, but that movie’s ending is more bittersweet than happy. It’s not bad: good stories don’t need happy endings. Sam said it best in the film adaption of The Two Towers when he tells Frodo about the stories that really mattered. They’ve got darkness and fear, but they’ve got heroes too, the ones who keep going even when things look bleak. But good wins and there’s hope. The Lord of the Rings embodies this so well. Aragorn and the rest are fighting a hopeless battle against the forces of Mordor, Frodo and Sam are struggling to get to Mount Doom. But the Ring gets destroyed and good wins.

What’s important is that the characters earn their ending. They can’t have it just given to them like in fairytales, they have to fight for it! The guy in Paperman could have given up and gone back to his life, Westley could have not rescued Buttercup. Mal could have aimed to behave. But they didn’t and we get the story, we get the ending that leaves us hopeful. We see them prevail, we seem them fight for it.

In order for an ending to provide the appropriate catharsis there needs to be a a something at stake. It doesn’t have to be life threatening: look at Paperman. If we hadn’t seen the guy’s dull job and his boredom with normalcy we wouldn’t have cared about him trying to win the girl. Knowing that he’s tired of life as is, knowing that he wants this break. Furthermore, if we hadn’t seen him fail and fail again we wouldn’t have wanted him to succeed as much. All this makes the happy ending worth it.

I first read Life of Pi seven years ago and now I’m reading it again for school. At the end of Part One, right as the family gets set to sail to America, author Yann Martel takes a break from Pi’s story to return to the metanarrative of Martel listening to Pi tell his story. Martel recounts him running into Pi’s son and shortly after seeing Pi holding his daughter with all the love a father can muster. At this point in the story we don’t know what happened to Pi, just that it was something terrible that haunts him to the present. But we get this glimpse of him with his young daughter and it’s here that Martel writes one of the most important lines in book:

“This story has a happy ending.”

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One Year

Holy crap. This is my fifty-second post. That means I’ve been keeping up this blog for one year. One post a week for a whole year

Dang.

I’m actually quite impressed I’ve managed to keep this up. My last attempt at a weekly blog wound up becoming bi-weekly, then monthly, then wheneverly. The fact that I’ve been keeping Essays, Not Rants! going for the past year with weekly posts of at 600-800ish words makes me want to give myself a self-five. Which I’ve done..

I’ll admit, it’s not the easiest thing. Sometimes it comes easy, sure. Posts about storytelling and Jesus or Cortana and video game feminism or analyzing The Avengers. Posts like those are fun and come remarkably easy. Sometimes I get those done in the middle of the week.

But my normal Saturday morning routine tends to be me going “crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapineedtowriteapost.” Then writing the thing and posting it. Sometimes they turn out alright. Sometimes less so. But I get the post out.

So this makes me think about how crazy it must be to write TV shows and other forms of serialized fiction. See, I just write posts. Sometimes my last ditch effort to find a topic is spending an hour exploring TV Tropes. But having to come up with around twenty-four stories each lasting from half an hour to a full hour? That’s impressive.

Granted, I’m the only one in this outfit, I do all the writing and all; TV shows have entire teams of writers. But my point remains: keeping stories going isn’t easy.

Because this is me, I’m going to bring up Lost. It’s overall an incredibly strong show with fantastic characters and a great narrative, but it’s not perfect. Some episodes (particularly the middle of season 3) felt draggy and filler-like. Granted, most of them had some redeeming qualities, but it’s easy to see how it lost its footing when it wasn’t sure how much longer it’d have to tell it’s story. The fault wasn’t so much in a lack of inspiration as a question of when the writers were going to have to begin tying things up for the major reveals and change of pacing that season 4 onwards would bring.

Chuck is another show that prevailed despite the question of whether it’d continue. Basically, we got several series finales. Not season finales (although we did get two of those in season 3), full series finales. See, Chuck was a show that was always just on the edge of being canceled but also a show that had a very clear narrative for each season. They had to tie up the story to do justice to the shows’ characters, else the story they were telling would have, well, been pointless.

To their credit, they pulled it off. Each finale felt like a proper finale and each continuation didn’t feel entirely forced. I have great respect for the team behind Chuck; they cared about their fans enough to make sure they got their proper ending. No matter how many times it ended.

Which brings me to How I Met Your Mother, another show on TV I enjoy. Currently in its eighth season, everything this season seems to be leading up to Ted finally meeting the mother in the season finale (then spend the next season letting us get to know her). Keep in mind: this is season eight. It’s taken eight years for the plot to advance to its natural end point, and those eight years were because it kept getting renewed for season after season. It’s not necessarily bad to get more episodes, it just harms the conciseness of the plot. Now, some of the stories within those years have been great, some have been dreary and left us itching for the arc to conclude. Good news is the show has for the most part been consistently funny and has had an almost fanatical adherence to continuity. It’s not a bad show, Ted just needs to hurry up and meet the mother.

Carrying a story on isn’t always easy. And I guess neither is keeping a blog going.

So thanks for reading guys, it’s been a heckuva year. Here’s to the next.

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Instant Tension: Just Add Guns!

Say three guys are discussing the proper pronunciation of the word milk. Then the argument heats up and they start yelling. Things are starting to get a little intense Now one of them pulls a gun on the others. Things just got real, man! Then the other guys pull out their guns! Just like that the tension in the story jumps through the roof and the argument about elocution is forgotten in favor of will these friends kill themselves over it.

Most stories (and hilarious Julian Smith videos) need tension to move them along or they’ll wind up boring. So the story needs a crisis, a threat or something. One of the easiest ways to do this is to add a gun. Instantly someone’s life is on the line! Drama! Suspense! Tension!

This can be done right, of course. Look at Lost, especially in the earlier seasons when there were only a handful of guns. We got great drama from the fight for possession to their occasional use and threatening. The conservation of guns allows the actual use of them to provide great tension. Guns mean that life was seriously at stake and there were consequences. But the show didn’t always need guns. “The Constant”, arguably the best episode, is a terrific, tense episode that doesn’t have anyone firing a gun.

Some stories require guns. Video games like Uncharted or Mass Effect are about guys with guns saving the day. Chuck is about spies doing spyish work with guns. Take away James Bond’s gun and we get, well, not James Bond. You can’t rave against guns in these stories since they’re essential to the plot.

But let’s take out guns. Can a story keep that level of tension without a firearm?

Ender’s Game is a magnificent book, that should go without saying. One of the things that makes it so good is the state of constant excitement and tension. And besides the practice ones used in the Battle Room, there aren’t any guns. Rather, the tension comes from our wondering how Ender’s going to carry on.

The larger narrative external to the central one in Ender’s Game is a war between mankind and the alien buggers. But the one we follow is Ender’s personal struggle as he’s thrust into a new environment where he must use his wits to get ahead. We’re invested in the kid’s struggle, we want to see how far he can be pushed and how he’ll continue to think his way out. There are the occasional life-or-death moments, but for the most part the tension is intellectual.

Sometimes the thing at stake isn’t the character’s life but humanity. Silver Linings Playbook uses this sort of tension. Pat, Tiffany, and the other characters’ lives are never at the risk of ending, but rather we’re wondering if their lives will continue. As we watch Pat over the course of the movie we’re cheering for him, hoping that he’ll be able to get past his inner demons and come out on top. In a story like this we don’t need the external threat of death to spur things along. Sometimes the internal conflict is more than enough.

Other times a blend makes things work. Iron Man 2 has a few external conflicts in it (Monaco and the climax), but the central plot centers around Tony Stark’s struggle with his humanity and the consequences of doing the superhero schtick. The tension is a lot like that in Silver Linings Playbook: Will Tony be able to fix himself? It’s a blend that works.

Look, stories need tension, that’s just a fact of life. The question is always how to go about with that tension. Internal, external, guns waving around everywhere; the key thing, of course, is to do it well.

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Art or Not

Here at NYU I hear a lot of things about movies and art and stuff. With the Oscars being last week and half of my classes being primarily film related, I heard plenty (like how Beasts of the Southern Wild was everything an indie film needed to be […so?]). But one thing that really stuck out to me was the opinion that Argo shouldn’t have won since Argo was more Summer blockbuster fare as opposed to Best Picture fare.

Yeah, I know, I touched on this last week. This time, well, we have to go deeper.

I don’t understand this disconnect. Well, no. I kinda do, but I don’t agree with the disconnect. Argo isn’t any less Best Picturey than any other movies on the list.

Did Argo not deserve Best Picture because it was funny? Other nominees had their moments of humor and past winners were funny too. Even Lincoln solicited the occasional chuckle. Still, what is it that bars a comedy from winning an award? Sure, a lot of them can be crude and really base, but on occasion you’ll have a comedy that’s just clever. But these won’t win because of the perception that comedy is not art.The Hangover, bawdy as it is, has a brilliant script; firing its Chekhov’s guns and playing off it’s excellent foreshadowing. But due to it being a comedy it’s not award worthy.

Then is Argo undeserving because it’s thrilling? Argo was exciting from start to finish. But so were Gladiator, Braveheart, and The Return of the King. Those movies were even more action focused that Argo, but also had the same great technical achievements as the new winner. Just because Argo has its characters taking action rather than spending half the runtime ruminating doesn’t mean it’s any less than another movie. The illusion that art has to be angsty and eclectic is just that: an illusion. There is room for awesome and badassery in a Best Picture.

Could the disdain for Argo be because it deals with the titular science-fiction movie? I’m being facetious here, but seriously: what is that bars science fiction from being ‘Best Picture’ material? Sure, a lot of science fiction is crap and much of the pulp novels from which they originated are absolute drivel. But it’s been decades since those pulps and in the meantime we’ve had movies like District 9 and Inception that show us the allegorical and exploratory power of science fiction. So why is it that these movies keep getting passed over for the real awards?

I don’t buy into the idea that one movie can be better than another simply due to genre or subject matter. Just because Argo could pass as a summer blockbuster doesn’t disqualify it from its Best Picture win. Art can be entertaining. Halo 4 has some incredible emotional (and technical) moments that rival and beats many films, but it gets discarded because it’s a video game (and a science fiction one at that [a science fiction shooter). The Dark Knight, despite proving that a superhero movie could be dramatic and weighty, wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture.

There needs to be a shift in the perception of art. A movie that’s an excellent mix of direction, acting, music, writing, and editing not earning a nomination simply because it’s not ‘arty’ enough just doesn’t sit right.

And yeah, I’m still kinda bummed The Avengers only got one nomination.

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