Monthly Archives: September 2013

Let’s Talk About Agents of SHIELD

Did you watch it this week? Because you really should have.

See, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (henceforth referred to without the periods), is a spin-off of a movie. A movie series, mind you. And it doesn’t focus any of the protagonists from said movie series. The deck is kinda stacked against it. With all that it’d be easy for the show to wallow as just something to sorta tide us over while we wait for the next big Marvel movie. Alternately, it could be a half-hearted show just meant to cash in on the Avengers craze. Instead, SHIELD is a fully formed show that exists within the same world as The Avengers but, rather than being dependent on it, is able to stand on its own and tell a great story.

Of course, we have to talk about its ties to The Avengers and the others. We’re clearly in the same world; we see action figures of the Avengers in a store window and an ad for Stark Industries on the side of a bus. But when all the fun’s to be had by genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropists why are we following around such ordinary non-superpowered people? That seems to be show’s central question: at the climax of the episode, the hunted Mike talks about normality and gods, about wanting to be more than normal. The tension comes from relatively normal people being thrust into abnormal situations, that line between normal and super. And instead of sitting around waiting for Iron Man and Hawkeye to come save the day, we’re following the agents of SHIELD (hey, that’s the name of the show!).

Who, by the way, are terrific characters, owing in no small part to the very smart, very tight script. Skye, for example, at first seems to be the usual super-capable, antiestablishment, rebel-hacker. But we quickly learn that she’s a bit of a fangirl (cosplaying outside Stark Tower? One of us!) and isn’t as confident or one note as she appears. Every character feels distinct and unique rather than just a bunch of bland faces around Coulson. Even Fitz and Simmons, the two scientist types, feel different from another and yet complimentary. And Coulson gets even more development than he did in the movies; he grows into not just the leader of the team but into a father figure and moral center.

Of course, as much as we’re told about these characters we still want to learn more about them. Why doesn’t Melinda May want to go back into the field when she’s so clearly capable? And what really did happen to Coulson? We get all these tidbits, knowing full well there’s more just waiting for us to find out. They seem interesting, there’s so much more about them we want to know. Now that our interest has been piqued, we’re going to watch every week to get to know them better.

Along with that, each character feels needed. It’d be plenty easy to just dismiss Fitz and Simmons as the sciencey ones who do science when the plot needs a science to move the plot on while the heroes set about with their thrilling heroics. Yet there’s a certain badassery to the way their roles are portrayed. In SHIELD, it’s cool to be the scientists. It’s like Firefly or Chuck the way that everyone in the team has their role and purpose. Everyone feels real, everyone feels needed.

Agents of SHIELD has me very, very excited. Everything from the Extremis tie-in to Shepherd Book Ron Glass as a doctor has me giddy. I haven’t been this excited about tv show in years. We’re getting more stories in the world of Iron Man and Captain America, only it’s not about them. It’s about the agents policing that world.

Man. I can’t wait till Tuesday.

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Of Board Games

Board games are still a thing. And card games and other such games that don’t require a TV, computer, or phone. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Now, I love video games. The Last of Us is a work of art and there are feel things in life that can compete with mixing alcohol and Super Smash Brothers. That’s just how things are and it’d be blind to ignore it. Video games are excellent, and are here to stay. So how long is it till digital gaming eclipses old fashioned Monopoly and Risk?

Let’s get this said first: Monopoly is a terrible game: usually. It’s almost entirely based on luck, has what’s usually an arbitrary end time, and, most frustratingly, can get boring. It’s easy for your attention to wane as the game slogs on and nothing seems to come of it. Sure, you can talk to each other, but, well, why bother? Just let the game end already so we can do something else.

But that’s Monopoly. Some games are more entertaining, like Munchkins. It’s all the fun of a tabletop rpg, only without, well, the role-playing. It’s backstabbing, looting, monster killing, and very funny cards. Unlike Monopoly, it encourages much more player interaction (much of which is conniving against each other). There’s also a measure of fudging the rules a little, something you can’t do in a digital game. Of course, sometime the pacing can go south and you tire, but it’s usually a fun game; especially if the cards are right and group’s up for it.

Which brings me to Settlers of Catan, the veritable epitome of board games. If you’ve never played it go buy a copy, make friends, and play it. It’s a game that revolves around interaction. If you’re playing and you haven’t cut alliances, ganged up on someone, or manipulated the crap out of the person next to you, you’re playing it wrong. Essentially, it’s Game of Thrones.

But it’s not just the game that facilitates it, it’s the nature of being around a table. You can watch the despair in your opponents eyes as you cut off her burgeoning road or sit helplessly as the guy next to you laughs maniacally as he and someone you thought would be your ally corner you in your section of the map. More than that, it’s the fun of trying to talk your way out of someone choosing to take one of your cards (as opposed to the other guy who’s definitely winning I mean c’mon man look at that city he just built). The fun of being around a table together is when two of you are each trying to talk a third into making a decision that will supposedly be fore his benefit but’s really for one of yours. This interaction is the soul of the game, as vital to play as rolling the dice. Board games are inherently social games, and the best ones make full use of it.

Playing a game like Settlers digitally against an AI or with opponents miles away causes it to lose much of its human aspect. Furthermore, when rules are enforced by emotionless lines of code, concessions like undoing a move, trading on the sly, or showing your buddy your hand for a laugh are no longer possible. It’s just more fun around a table.

There’s that moment in a good board game where everyone is talking over each other. Maybe two people are each trying to convince a third to enter into a deal that will definitely benefit the player (but really the two are trying to screw each other over by proxy), another player’s laughing and the other two are trying to be advisers to the player being offered the deal. All this is happening at once, of course. Board games aren’t going anywhere.

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Formulaic Formulas

There are a lot of people who, when it comes to movies, say there’s a distinct formula to how everything works. Some people blanch at the thought, others say it’s blame for the derivative nature of, y’know, everything.

Well, there is a formula.

Sort of: there are these certain moments you can use to plot the course of a movie’s story. Just about every good story will hit these beats. They may not always be as pronounced as in another film, but they do happen.

Now, this isn’t bad. This isn’t the same plot, it’s the same moments. Campbell outlined this over sixty years ago where he outlined the Hero’s Journey in his Hero With a Thousand Faces. For my purposes (and as a way to prep for homework), I’m gonna be using what Viki King lists in her book How To Write a Movie in 21 Days mixed with what I learnt last semester.

Let’s look at Iron Man. Because I love the movie and I analyzed it for a midterm. As the movie opens we’re introduced to Tony Stark; genius, billionaire, playboy. We’re also introduced to a central theme: Tony’s irresponsibility. Now that we’ve got all that set up, it’s time for stuff to happen, like getting shrapnel in his chest. This changes his life, so what’s he gonna do about it? Tony opts to make his life count and builds the prototype Iron Man armor and breaks out, returns home, and shuts down Stark Industries’ weapons manufacturing; thereby crossing the point of no return.

Welcome to Act Two. This is where we spend time dealing more with Tony’s inner workings, figuring out who he is. He builds a new armor, continuously improving it, almost as a symbol of his working on himself. Of course, if this was all that happened in Act Two it’d get boring quick. So we force Tony to recommit to his goal. How? His weapons are still being given to the bad guys. He suits up and fights them, proving that yes: he is Iron Man, he’s done just sitting around. From here things only escalate. Obadiah Stane becomes more obvious in his villainy, leading up to where the worst possible thing happens: Tony loses his Arc Reactor and Stane goes after Pepper. This in turn leads us to the climax: Tony suits up with an underpowered Arc Reactor and fights Stane and wins. So concludes Act Two.

Now we’re tying up lose ends, Tony’s alright and, in a press conference, says that, yes, he is Iron Man. And the movie ends.

We can run Iron Man 3 through a similar break down: Tony’s introduced as an insomniac, the big issue of the movie comes up shortly after (he feels vulnerable; is he Iron Man or is the armor Iron Man?). Then his world changes: the next Mandarin attack leaves Happy Hogan injured. So Tony issues a challenge and his mansion is destroyed, creating his point of no return. Act Two begins with a broken Tony who, over time, rebuilds himself. We soon reach the midpoint where Tony recommits to his goal: he goes to the Florida mansion to continue doing the hero thing. This is followed shortly after by the worst thing possible: Air Force One is attacked, Pepper captured, and Rhody’s armorless. Then the climax at the docks and the resolution at the cliff. See? Still works.

But what about a movie that’s not about fighting bad guys? Like (500) Days of Summer?

Tom’s normal world is introduced by the narrator and the theme is brought up shortly after (what is love?). Then we’re given the inciting incident: Tom and Summer meet. The point of no return comes when they sleep together. From there we build their relationship, culminating in the midpoint where they break up and Tom fights with himself about whether or not go after her. The worst possible thing is portrayed to Regina Spektor’s “Hero”: Tom find out she’s engaged. The climax is Tom looking for work and Summer getting married. The resolution? The talk on the bench and Tom meeting Autumn.

Movies need these beats; without the midpoint Act Two starts to sag and gets dull. Without the worst thing possible happening (even if it’s not earth shattering), the climax loses its potency. We need some semblance of normalcy for the protagonist to leave behind. It all has to happen in some form, scale, or another.

Anyway, with all that done, I now have a quartet of movies to watch and break down. See you next week.

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Commercial and Literary

There’s an interesting divide that tends to come up when discussing literature of any sort in an academic setting. That is, the divide between the commercial and the literary. What’s this mean exactly? Apparently when it comes to fiction and stuff there’s the stuff for ‘the masses’ and then the stuff that’s more for only people who would really understand it.

It’s the difference between Beasts of the Southern Wild and Pacific Rim. The latter is a movie that’s geared for just about anyone, the former is a borderline experimental movie with a tenuous grasp on a story. Maybe it’s its experimental nature of maybe it’s because it seems like you have to really really get it to understand it, but Beasts of the Southern Wild has been met with awards and Oscar nominations and the like. Pacific Rim on the other hand has gotten fanboys but will, of course, be absent from any considerations of it being a truly ‘great’ film. Why? Because Beasts is literary and Pacific Rim is commercial.

This is where I feel that things get weird. How do we define what’s entertainment and what’s art? On which side of the divide does a movie like Black Swan land? Or District 9? District 9 tackles the issues of race and prejudice with all the gusto of Invictus only masked in the slick veneer of excellent science fiction. Sure, District 9 was nominated, but there was little buzz afterwards (especially in comparison to The Hurt Locker). It was relegated to being ‘good science-fiction’ rather than a good movie. Because it’s got aliens and spaceships.

My problem with all this is that it’s such an arbitrary distinction. Maybe it’s because true art is incomprehensible, or maybe some people just like the ability to be snobs. Way I see it, literature is literature. The best way to judge something is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to achieve (for example, Pacific Rim told a phenomenal story about canceling the apocalypse; Hereafter failed to provide a half-interesting look at life and death). Even then, it’s unfair to say one film is better than another simply because it’s more arty, more literary than another. It’s that weird thing in the library where you have the fiction section here, but the literature section over there. Of course, that’s all genre; some fiction gets written off completely because it’s in a different medium.

Ah, video games. Not unlike science-fiction or movies about giant robots, video games as a whole are written off by most people by virtue of them being entertainment for kids. Never mind that there exists games like Spec Ops: The Line, Journey, or The Last of Us; all games that push and blur the ideas of games and stories, playing with their form and the stories that can be told. I’ve written about The Last of Us a few times, and it bears repeating just how great a story and game it is. Yet it won’t be considered literature (thought by all means it should be). Why? Because it’s a video game; childish entertainment. Hence: commercial, not literary; low art not high.

I fully realize I’m championing a lost cause. I know Pacific Rim and The Last of Us will never be considered in the same league as A Tale of Two Cities. It just seems to be such an injustice that this distinction exists and that it’s such an arbitrary one.

All said, I suppose it’d mean we would have to compare Sharknado with The Avengers, so there’s that.

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