Monthly Archives: May 2013

Arrested Protagonists

Pain and Gain is a movie with villain protagonists. Not like Dr. Horrible, more if a couple of the thugs from Taken had a movie about them. This creates a whole host of problems for the film. We shouldn’t like the three main characters, they’re based on real life people guilty of torture, theft, and murder who wind up in jail. The paradox is that we shouldn’t like them but we still need to be invested in the show. For better or worse (mostly worse), Pain and Gain wound up humanizing the protagonists far more than the lawful/good antagonists. Their first victim is such a jerk that you find yourself just waiting for him to be killed. Which is kinda messed up when you realize that it all really happened. In short: Pain and Gain simply couldn’t commit with the direction to take its three protagonists. Compare this to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog where they embrace the idea of a villain protagonist and run with it.


Pain and Gain has it particularly hard, given that the events happened barely twenty years ago and the inherently dark nature of it all. That said, the Austrian SS officer Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds is an example of a villain antagonist-sorta-protagonist who we embrace. Why? Because he’s charming, intelligent, and all-around devious enough that we want to see what he does, but it’s also exciting to wait for the good guys to figure out how to outsmart him. There’s a tension there that’s incredibly engrossing. Daniel, Paul, and Adrian from Pain and Gain were no Hans. Hans oozes charm and is such a magnificent human being we’re invested in him by default. Pain and Gain humanizes its characters through moments of comedy and stupidity, which yes, invests us, but it winds up being more sympathetic than the awe we have of Hans.


Arrested Development, on the other hand, shines with its unlucky, bumbling, and sometimes out-and-out dumb protagonists. It takes the show a couple episodes to really find its groove, but once it does it doesn’t stop. The Bluth family is nowhere near as magnificent as Hans Landa and they lack the villainy of the three from Pain and Gain. Rather, Arrested Development channels what can best be described as situational slapstick.


We don’t really want them to succeed all that much because watching them fail is simply so much fun. We want GOB to screw up his trick — sorry, illusion — because watching him make that huge mistake and the ensuing consequences drive the show. It’s the Bluths’ misfortune that attract us to the show, be it Buster’s inability to leave his mother or Tobias’ acting delusions. So the characters in Arrested Development are terrible people and we enjoy watching them fail. Easy?


It’s more than that, though. As much as we may enjoy watching them fail, the characters still wind up being likable. They aren’t quite so terrible that we wind up hating them. If we did, then why would we watch the show? The Bluths manage to walk that line between being terrible and likable. We don’t care much for them, but we like them well enough. It’s a paradox similar to the one that Pain and Gain tackled, but one that’s pulled off much better.The members of the Bluth family are far too flawed to ever get what they really want, but we love them all the same. This garners our investment and the show itself rewards viewer investment by setting up jokes or gags that either pop up consistently or won’t pay off for a few episodes. We don’t get dragged along watching the same thing over and over nor do we suffer the frustrating sympathy-confusion of Pain and Gain. It’s wonderful mix that makes the show so entertaining.


In less than twelve hours the fourth season of Arrested Development will finally be premiering on Netflix. It’s not quite enough time to watch the show in its entirety, but it’s something I really suggest you do.

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Breaking Point

Let’s talk about Into Darkness. It’s a sequel to a reboot and also has some shades of a remake. Those are all things that seldom bode well for a movie, but, Into Darkness pulls it off magnificently. It simply does everything right. The main thing I want to address is Into Darkness’ existence as a sequel. There’s no getting around that. Amusingly, the main criticism I see in reviews is just that: Into Darkness doesn’t feel as fresh or new as 2009’s Star Trek. I’d like to counter that by saying: hello, it’s a sequel.

Now, a year ago, I wrote a post about what makes a good sequel. In that post I quoted Joss Whedon’s thoughts on how to make a sequel that would top The Avengers: “By not trying to. By being smaller. More personal, more painful… By being the next thing that should happen to these characters, and not just a rehash of what seemed to work the first time.” This is exactly what Into Darkness does.

What was 2009’s Trek about? A vengeful threat from the future seeks to destroy Earth and it’s up to the crew of the Enterprise to band together to stop him. The stakes are massive (destruction of Earth) and it allows our characters to come into their own and form the crew their supposed to be. It firmly establishes the new universe, re-introduces the characters, and sets it up for their next adventure. Why don’t we make a chain of stars explode and rip apart several planets now?

Into Darkness’ stakes are less direct. The whole of Earth isn’t quite currently at risk, but we do know the sweeping consequences if they fail their mission. Rather, the villain John Harrison and his actions cause tension and conflict among the Enterprise’s crew (particularly Kirk and Spock) and forces them into a corner, forces them to face the thing they fear most. Kirk is faced with the most difficult no-win challenge of his life. Spock is forced to face a scenario absent of a logical solution. These characters are forced to their breaking point, situations which, as Kirk says, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do”. What’s so important about this scenario? Well, as Kirk goes on to say: “I only know what I can do.” This desperation marks much of the film. Where once we had our protagonists scrambling around trying to save the world, Into Darkness sees them trying to save each other and, at their core, themselves. It’s personal, it’s painful, and it’s precisely where the story needed to go.

2009’s Star Trek saw the assembly of the crew, Into Darkness forces them into a stronger, more unified whole. We need to see the Enterprise’s trial by fire for them to become the crew from The Original Series. This is their moment to become who they are.

Another thing that Into Darkness succeeds at is its reconciliation of the ‘first’ film and any future films with the classics. This movie, more than the prior, looks at Gene Roddenberry’s idealistic view of the future and translates its core tensions to work in a modern setting. It’s worth noting that in modern science fiction interplanetary organizations tend to be militaristic: Halo’s UNSC for example, far from the exploratory nature of Starfleet. The idea of pure exploration isn’t as cool anymore, is it? Into Darkness, more so than its predecessor, takes apart our own expectations and Starfleet itself, rebuilding it and proving that, yes, Roddenberry was right. Into Darkness is Roddenberry’s vision rebuilt.

Into Darkness is a phenomenal film. It follows up 2009’s movie by not trying to go bigger, but instead to go deeper. It draws on ideas from prior movies and episodes to create a new adventure that really gets into the heart of the characters. It dares to push them to their breaking point and forces them to find a way out. This is what sequels should do. The end result is a fantastic film that effortlessly blends old ideas in a new world.

Go see this movie.

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Becoming Iron Man

I hate spoilers. I really do; I swore off social media for the two days in between the Lost finale and when I could watch it. That said, this post deals with an aspect of the ending of Iron Man 3. It’s not one of the huge twists, but it’s a little surprise. It’s been a week since it came out so I feel alright writing about it.

S’yeah. Spoilers.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Well, first spoiler, Tony survives. But the main one I’ll be addressing is that he decides to get the shrapnel out of his chest once and for all, negating his need for an Arc Reactor. This takes place in the resolution, after the climatic battle with The Mandarin. Although it seems to come almost out of left field, Tony getting ‘healed’ is the culmination of his growth over the series.

But hang on, if getting the shrapnel out was that easy, why didn’t he just get it out at the end of the first film? Because he chose not to. See, the cave in Afghanistan was Tony’s rebirth. In it he was forced to come face to face with his wrongs; namely that the weapons he created were being used to fight those he made the weapons for. It was during this time that Yensin, a fellow captive in the cave, implanted Tony with an electromagnet to keep the shrapnel at bay as he lacked the resources to perform adequate surgery.  Tony then created the original Arc Reactor to power the magnet and the first Iron Man suit. This was his rebirth, from that moment on Tony was Iron Man. When he returns home he builds a new Arc Reactor rather than finding a topnotch cardiologist to remove the shrapnel. Why? Because this is who he is.

The mentality persists into the second film. Despite the palladium in his chest slowly killing him, removing the shrapnel and negating the need for the Arc Reactor isn’t an option. Why? Because it’s part of him, as he says “the suit and I are one.” He’s Iron Man, and so he has to live with it. Does Tony want to die? No. But Tony can’t go back to his life before the cave; Tony’s the atoner. He acts in the hope that Iron Man might somehow set right Tony Stark’s wrongs. To remove the shrapnel and the Arc Reactor would be, in his mind, to renege on what he promised himself to do when he left the cave. It’s not just part of him, it is him.

Iron Man 3 tackles this idea; who is Tony Stark and who is Iron Man? If his armor doesn’t work and he’s left without it, is he still a superhero? Tony has to work through these questions in the movie, he has to find a real answer to Captain America’s challenge in The Avengers: “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

Tony has to learn to be Iron Man without the Iron Man armor. He spends much of the second act without his armor or the resources to build one. Back to basics, Tony is once again in the cave from the first film. Though in the first film he emerges from the cave clad in the Iron Man armor, in Iron Man 3 he emerges from the cave without a new suit of armor, just a few gadgets (he gets the Mk 42 back later). But the transformation is done, Tony no longer relies on the suit to be a hero.

Iron Man 3 is based on the Extremis comic-arc which concludes with Tony injecting himself with a modified version of the Extremis virus, which basically allows him to control the armor with his thoughts. In his words, it’s so he can become Iron Man inside and out. Though Tony doesn’t go through the same process in the film, the end result is figuratively the same. Whereas in Extremis Tony essentially merges with his suit, in Iron Man 3 Tony learns that he doesn’t need a suit to be Iron Man, that even without it he can still be the hero he became.

So Tony finally gets the shrapnel out his chest because his identity as Iron Man is no longer reliant on his injury. He’s gone past that; now he knows that if you strip everything away, Tony Stark still is Iron Man.

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Where It Needs To Go

So here’s the deal you make when you tell a story. Actions have consequences. I don’t mean of the physical variety (you destroy a support, the roof caves in), no, I mean emotional consequences. Sometimes you have to deal with those.

Well, sometimes you don’t. Look at romances like Star Wars or other more light hearted fare. Han gets frozen in carbonite, Leia’s planet gets destroyed, and Luke blows up the Death Star and everyone on it. But the movies opted not to deal with emotional repercussions, and it’s fine since it didn’t keep with the theme. The Star Wars movies are inherently fun and relatively light hearted, angst and baggage need not apply.

It’s hard, though, to get in to it. Exploring emotional trauma is difficult. It’s easier to go the route of “good guys win, everything’s great now!” Of course, if the good guys don’t win, hey, half the work’s done.

More or less, anyway. Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds fought for the Independents who were soundly defeated in the Unification War. It left him with a great loss of faith and a desire to be unfeeling. Everything that happened haunts him throughout the TV show and into the film. He doesn’t want to get close to people, but he won’t let anyone harm his crew. Mal isn’t the Mal we see in flashbacks, the loss cut deeply into him and shook him to the core. It’s all hallmarks of him being haunted by the events prior.

Which, finally, brings me to Iron Man 3. As a series, the films have done a good job of dealing with emotional consequences. Iron Man 2 serves up the question of what would Tony do if the thing keeping him alive started to kill him? The answer was a reckless lust for life which we see play out and, at times, leave him a hungover wreck. That movie dealt all that, letting us move past that and into The Avengers where Tony decided to be truly selfless, a massive leap forward in his character.

So what now? So where does Iron Man 3 go with a Tony Stark who’s not a selfish playboy? With the Avengers he helped saved the world, so the next story would be Tony saving the world again, right? No. Iron Man 3 asks how can Tony come back from what happened in New York. This is where the story needed to go. Not doing so would be a disservice to the character. It had to explore what a character like Tony would do in light of acting completely out of character and volunteering his life. What are the ramifications? We find out that he’s not okay. He’s broken, he’s been awake for days on ends building suit after suit, keeping himself occupied while trying to protect himself – and those he loves. The man feels vulnerable, he’s just a man in an iron suit in a world where there are supersoldiers, aliens, ‘gods’, and a Hulk. Without the Iron Man armor, Tony realizes he’s just Tony. He suffers an anxiety attack at the mention of New York and can’t sign a little girl’s drawing of him saving the day without scribbling a speech bubble above Iron Man saying “Erin help me”. These aren’t spoilers, by the way, this is where we meet Tony as the film begins. This has become his normal. We get to see him fight out of it.

This is what makes Tony’s character so interesting. He’s haunted by his past. The whole reason he’s Iron Man is because he’s seeking redemption for the harm he caused. Tony isn’t a cut and dry character. He’s vulnerable, far from the ‘invincible’ used to describe his armor. Iron Man 3 dares to peel back the armor and get at the man inside. We’ve established the superhero, we’ve sent him to hell and back, now let’s watch him try and stand. It’s a daring move, one that can go the path of creating a character too caught up in his own angst or one that has barely enough. Yet Iron Man 3 nails it.

I love Iron Man. He’s been one of my favorite superheroes since I was a small kid. Why? I remember explaining it once when I was around 7 or 8; because underneath all that armor, Tony’s just a regular guy. Iron Man 3 delves into that and it’s all the better for it. Go see it; it might be my favorite not-The-Avengers Marvel movie yet.

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