Monthly Archives: July 2013

Where’s My Dang Black Widow Movie?

Comic-Con was last week. As in, the, Comic-Con. And we got news, like how Avengers 2 is actually Age of Ultron and how we’re having a team up between Superman and Batman and how there’s gonna be a friggin’ Star Wars and Phineas & Ferb crossover. They also screened a new Marvel short, one that focuses on Agent Carter from Captain America, who you’ll remember as his love interest. Also, Black Widow will be having a large role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Cool, women are having a growing presence in the Marvel-verse. And yet, to my annoyance, there’s no friggin’ Black Widow movie planned. Understand, this isn’t some hyper-feminist rant about how there needs to be more women in everything. This is me asking why, when we have such a fascinating character, she doesn’t get her own spin-off film.

When it comes to wanting an action movie with a woman in the lead, there’s the difference between wanting it because you want a movie with a woman in the lead, and wanting one because there’s a good character. Yes, there is a dearth of action movies/blockbusters with women as the leads; but the solution isn’t to throw more women on screen, but to write more interesting stories about interesting women. Let’s talk about Salt. Frankly, I didn’t really like it. Her story just never enthralled me, it felt bland. Sure, we had Angelina Jolie running around doing Bourne-y stuff, but so what? Jason Bourne with boobs does not inherently a good movie make.

Compare The Hunger Games’ Katniss. Katniss clearly has a goal and motivations. We know what she wants, and, rather than pulling a Bella Swan, she goes to great lengths to achieve them. Most importantly, she’s an interesting character. She lives in an interesting world, finds herself in interesting circumstances, and makes interesting choices. And, unlike in Salt, the choices make sense and create a cohesive plot. Furthermore, Katniss isn’t some boring perfect character; she has her share of flaws and issues to work through. Why is this important? It adds layers to her and helps us get invested.

Look, I enjoy badass women in fiction. Let’s take Buffy as a prime example: She fights vampires. But she’s finely layered, within her fighting spirit there’s a vulnerability to her. She’s a fascinating character who’s not a teenage girl for the sake of being a teenage girl. Like Katniss, she’s a teenage girl because it makes for an interesting character.

Black Widow was a cool supporting-character in Iron Man 2, but it was in The Avengers when we really saw just how friggin’ awesome she was. She doesn’t have superpowers or a suit of armor, but she still fights bad guys and holds her own. Furthermore, rather than awkwardly trying to avoid it, The Avengers has Black Widow using others’ perception of her as a woman to her advantage. She keeps pace with the likes of The Hulk and Captain America, all the while being absolutely vital to the plot. And not someone else’s plot or development, The Plot and her own arc. Ever notice that after The Avengers people referred to her as Black Widow rather than as Scarlett Johansson? The character is more interesting than the woman playing her.

I want Marvel to take the gamble and dare to feature Black Widow in her own solo film (fine, have Hawkeye as a deuteragonist). Not just because she’s a woman — that’s a lame and patronizing reason — but because she’s a layered, complex superhero who deserves to have a story written about her.

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Dialogue in Fight Choreography

Did you see Man of Tai Chi? Don’t bother; the acting’s questionable, plot is tenuous at best, and the dialogue is stilted. And that’s just the surface. The one thing that makes the movie remotely remarkable is its choreography: more so than in many other movies, the fight scenes seem to convey not only the growth of the protagonist but a sort of dialogue between the characters as well.

Let me explain (and I will spoil everything because there’s no need to see the movie besides this). Tiger (yes, that is the main character’s name) is a naive practitioner of Tai Chi. His first fight or two are in tournaments where he’s primarily defensive and uses his opponents’ strength against themselves. After he’s recruited as a prizefighter by Donaka and becomes more accustomed to it, his fighting style shifts to a more aggressive form. So great. There’s character development. Big deal.

Where Man of Tai Chi gets really interesting is during the more important fights, that is Tiger versus his mentor and Tiger versus Donaka. The way each combatant fights speaks in lieu of meaningful conversation or much in the way of substance. In the former fight we see just how far Tiger has fallen: he’s gone over to the kung fu dark side and he attacks his mentor who deflects every blow as Tiger grows more and more frustrated. It’s this fight (especially in comparison to an earlier training scene) that informs us of their shifting relationship. Where before Tiger was content to be bested, now he vainly tries to overpower his master. When Tiger mirrors his master’s stance in the final showdown against Donaka, we see that he’s come back to the light side. That and the fact that he’s fighting the villain/his prior employer, obviously.

This isn’t anything new. The exponentially better film The Princess Bride has the famous duel between Inigo Montoya and The Man In Black. Yes, they talk throughout the fight, but there’s no dissonance between their swordplay and intentions. Each has garnered a measure of respect from the other and, if anything, the fight seems friendly. Neither are employing dirty tricks to gain the upper hand (thereby showing that killing the other is his priority) nor is one taunting or baiting the other. In light of the duel is it any wonder we readily accept both of these seemingly villainous characters as heroes by the end?

It’s this sort of communicative swordplay that made the duels in the original Star Wars films so captivating. Where the prequels had a lot of flash and epic scores, the classics had character. Look at the duel between Luke and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. Vader lets Luke take the offensive for much of it. Why? Because Vader’s plan rests on him imprisoning Luke rather than killing him. Like The Princess Bride, we’re told this beforehand but it’s reflected even stronger in the choreography. In The Phantom Menace, why do Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul end up in the exhaust shaft? Is Maul leading them there or is he being pushed back? Where’s the dialogue?

Now, Neo fighting a seemingly endless number of Agent Smiths or Gipsy Danger brawling a Kaiju aren’t duels in the same way as the other examples. Sure, there’s an understood dialogue to those fights, but it tends to be limited to deciding who’s better. Duels like in The Empire Strikes Back or The Princess Bride have a conversation to them. In the case of Man of Tai Chi the fight choreography carries more than anything said verbally. Still doesn’t redeem that movie, though.

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In Defense of Giant Robots

I grew up on Power Rangers, giant mecha anime, and Transformers. I built giant robots with my LEGO’s (and spaceships, natch). Of course, all this was just cartoons and imagination for the most part.

And now we have Pacific Rim.

It’s easy, heck, it’s natural to brush aside the movie as being simple childish nonsense. After all, giant robots are the stuff of anime and Power Rangers. The stuff you enjoyed as a kid. You’re an adult now. You have grown up tastes now. Like The Great Gatsby. You like movies that are ‘mature’ and ‘grounded’. Like how dismantling MI6 is so much better than a giant space laser or how Wayne Enterprises’ Applied Science division doesn’t give their suits of armor nipples. Giant robots are impractical, the physics doesn’t add up, and how the crap would you power something that enormous? Come back when it actually makes sense.

This movie takes all of that and merrily laughs at it. Pacific Rim is unashamedly a movie about giant robots beating the crap out of giant monsters. Like any good story, there are shades of deeper themes and ideas throughout, but its focus is purely on the childlike glee that comes from watching 300 foot tall robots doing battle with similarly sized monsters. If you’re me, it means you get to watch your childhood fantasies in a cinema.

There’s no attempt to firmly ground the story in reality like some movies do. They don’t discover some new element or power source to make the giant robots work. Creating them is summed up in the prologue as being the logical thing to do. Because of course. The monsters are referred to as Kaiju, harking back to old Japanese monster movies. The giant robots are called Jaegers and given appropriately awesome names like Striker Eureka or Cherno Alpha. The Jaeger Gipsy Danger has an elbow rocket. It’s made very clear that Pacific Rim knows exactly what sort of movie it is and it embraces it wholeheartedly.

It’s terribly easy to do this wrong. The first GI Joe movie, Rise of the Cobra, tried to serious-ify the lore. What we wound up with was a movie that was laughable in its attempts to be dark. It just didn’t work. Conversely, we have Batman and Robin, a movie that made Batman something of a punchline. Unlike Batman: The Animated Series which aired only a couple years prior, Batman and Robin decided that sense and logic could be left at the door. Both movies were trying to be something they weren’t. Batman can be funny, but a Batcard is a mockery; GI Joe is meant to be fun, not a dark thriller-esque film.

Pacific Rim does it right. From start to finish the movie runs on sheer fun. The protagonists face no crisis of faith regarding their roles and there’s no humanization of the Kaiju. All that’s not the point of the story; it’s an earnest story about good guys fighting bad guys, Jaegers hunting Kaiju, and giant robots beating the crap out of giant monsters. It’s simple, but it’s not stupid.

Despite what Revenge of The Fallen might have made you think, giant robots aren’t drivel. Pacific Rim never feels childish. Guillermo del Toro and team give the movie its due; the plot may be thin but it’s cohesive, the Kaiju do have a goal, characters have motivations. As del Toro himself said, “It has the craft of a 48-year-old and the heart of a 12-year-old.” Yes, giant robots are freaking awesome and that’d be all there was to it, except that this movie does it so well. Described as a love letter to mecha and Kaiju stories, Pacific Rim is all the defense the idea of giant robots needs.

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Violence and Video Games

Violent video games are a hot topic, or at least they really were six months ago. Well, here’s the thing: video games aren’t violent. Angry bears are violent. Video games aren’t. That said, there is violence in video games. The thing is, the portrayal of violence in video games is as varied as in books of film.

Can video games glorify violence? Sure. Look at Army of Two: Devil’s Cartel. You play as two mercenary-commandos sent into a cartel-run town in Mexico to escort/rescue/defend a mayoral candidate. Like any action movie with a similar pitch, Devil’s Cartel is light on the thought and heavy on the guns and explosions as you blow limbs off cartel members. Is it violent? Yes. Is it fun? Yes. Is it clearly fictional? Yes. Despite some tidbits in early loading screens, the game is completely detached from any semblance of real-life cartel warfare. It’s a video game; the characters even call out some of the more ridiculous aspects of the game. Like The Expendables or one of the GI: Joe movies: it’s over the top and meant purely for entertainment. Being unable to distinct differentiate a game like this from reality is a problem that lies not with the game itself.

But video games with violence aren’t all senseless and flashy with blood flying everywhere. There are games out there that attempt to address or at least justify the violence in the game. It could be Elizabeth calling Booker out on his ease of killing in BioShock Infinite or Snake forced to walk a ghostly river populated by everyone he’s/you’ve killed thus far in Metal Gear Solid 3. They’re often just in passing as the game’s focus lies elsewhere.

At first blush, Spec Ops: The Line seems like your standard military shooter. Captain Walker and his squad are sent into Dubai months after its been ravaged by a massive sandstorm in search of John Konrad and the 33rd Battalion. Then you realize it’s been called Heart of Darkness: The Video Game and it starts to set in. Sure, in early combat you’re shooting faceless middle-eastern men like many other shooters. Then you meet members of the 33rd. And you find out they’ve gone rogue. And now you’re shooting American soldiers.

It’d be a ballsy move in any form, but in a genre and medium where more often than not you’re Sergeant American gunning down terrorists, nazis, or soviets, seeing the familiar American ACU in your reticule is especially jarring. Spec Ops: The Line revels in this discomfort and uses it again and again. Sneaking around a building you see two soldiers at the foot of the stairs, one asking the other for a stick of gum. Not only are they not wearing balaclavas or any kind of face mask, they’re speaking English — with an American accent. You have to kill them. The game does not give you a choice.

The Line has a feature where any explosion causes the game to briefly switch into slow-motion. In most games it’d be a cool little gimmick where the player gets to delight in their destruction. The Line isn’t much different: you get to watch your target — more often than not a familiar American soldier — get blown apart or lose his legs by the grenade. Then suddenly you’re reminded of wounded veterans and any sense of empowerment quickly dissolves. At another point you might, out of reflex, shoot someone running towards you only to realize immediately after your target was an innocent woman running to safety. You will encounter soldiers and civilians burned alive by white phosphorus. You will become a monster. You’re not playing a hero here; you’re doing horrible, terrible things. The game doesn’t let you forget it either. There is little glory in the violence of this game.

Similarly, The Last of Us will never let you glibly take a life. Whether if its you as Joel sneaking up on a sobbing Infected — are you executing her or putting her out of her misery?— or Ellie swearing as you blow a man’s head off with a shotgun, The Last of Us will not let you forget the consequences of your actions. You will wound a man and fire the killing blow just as he begs for his life and exclaims he has a family. You see the effects of violence on the relatively naive Ellie and as it chips away what little that’s left of Joel’s soul. The Last of Us is the only action game I’ve played where I’ve wished I could continue the game without having to shoot anyone else.

Games like Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us force players to think about the violence they deal out. There is violence in video games, and the violence can be gruesome. But it’s not always mindless. There are games out there that give violence its due diligence and those that revel in it, just as there are movies or books that do. To write off video games as a whole because of their violence is a thoughtless disservice to the medium.

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