Monthly Archives: January 2015

The New Western

The superhero genre – since it’s become a genre unto itself and not a subset of science-fiction or action – is really taking off, in case you haven’t noticed. Between Marvel Studios putting out two movies a year, DC’s big plans to do big things, and the companies Marvel sold characters to over the years trying to make good on their investments. It’s big.

Some articles I’ve read online have likened the superhero genre to the western. It sounds a touch farfetched at first; the western’s about cowboys and lawless towns, superhero flicks are about people in costumes and their derring-do.

But the western is also in some ways a morality play. You’ve got the good cowboy and the bad one, the white hat and black hat. Good versus evil. Same with the superhero genre. Dark and brooding as Batman is, he’s fighting for good. The X-Men want acceptance and coexistence, as opposed to the Brotherhood’s want to dominate. Robert McKee’s description of the western; “a mythical golden age for allegories of good versus evil,” works equally well for the superhero.

The western was immensely popular for a period of time, with some of the earliest movies ever made showing shades of the genre. These films, particularly the ones most remembered (which I’ve found out are considered revisionist westerns, as they deconstructed a lot of tropes of the westerns that came before), feature elements that can be reliably found across the board. You’ve got the desolate town on the edge of civilization and the duel at high noon, for example. There’re the themes of lawfulness and lawlessness and doing wrong to do the right thing. Conventions are expected.

Likewise, the superhero genre, now reliably bringing in millions of dollars at the box-office, is arguably the closest thing we’ve got to a sure thing. Until recently, the structure and set up of superhero movies were reliably similar to one another. You had the hero getting powers, the hero figuring out what to do with his (because face it, just about every lead in a superhero film has been male) newfound powers, rises to the mantle of his responsibility, then goes to fight the villain who’s often a byproduct of his own call to heroism. Usually, if we’re watching a superhero movie, be it Batman Begins or Iron Man, we know what we’re getting into – and we’re watching it for that.

There’s the argument that the western afforded greater flexibility. Simpler sets and lower budgets meant just about anyone could take a stab at it. With a great range of voices involved, the western offered diverse takes on the themes of the genre which allowed it to grow into the esteem it holds today. The western could be about someone audiences had never heard about and would still be engrossing.

But superhero movies need massive budgets for intricate special effects and they need the comic book source to do well. They’re tied to studios and the money they afford, strangling out creativity and voices in favor of rolling in the dough. Hence the formula.

…right?

See, here’s where I think the superhero genre’s moved forwards, maybe even more so than the western. And I’m not talking about the smaller, independent ones like Chronicle; I mean Marvel’s tentpoles and the like. Over the past few years, we’ve seen superhero films going past what we’re expecting from them. The Winter Soldier was more like a spy thriller than your usual superhero set up; The Dark Knight was a crime movie; and Thor has heavy shades of fantasy. They remain expensive, but the movies show thematic and stylistic variance.

Guardians of the Galaxy may be most emblematic of superhero movies going forwards. For starters, Star-Lord and the others were hardly household names when the film was announced. The majority of the film’s audience wasn’t going to the movie because of the recognition of the name. Then Guardians hardly followed the typical superhero plot, eschewing it instead for the space opera. So here’s a superhero movie that feels very much unlike a superhero movie, yet still is one. Why?

At its core, Guardians has that central theme of a superhero film: good versus evil, where the hero has to overcome their flaws to defeat the villain. At the end of the day, that’s the kernel of the genre. Unlike the western, however, superhero films have a lot more flexibility setting-wise with how to explore it.

So here we are, on the verge of several, several new superhero movies over the next few years, with a big concern being that we’re gonna grow tired of them really soon. But give the genres similarly to the western, the western’s staying power in its heyday, and the comparative flexibility of the superhero film; I’m thinking we’ll be alright.

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But What Is A Strong Female Protagonist?

I write a lot about strong female characters here, heck, it was my first post. It’s still something I really care about, seeing how often it pops up in my blog posts here. I’ve got a small list of characters I bring up often: Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Chloe Frazer, Katniss Everdeen, Zoë Washburne, etc.

Thing is, it’s easy to conflate the idea of a strong female characters with that of a woman who kicks ass. When we compare Katniss from The Hunger Games to Bella Swan from Twilight the former is clearly the stronger character. When asked why the easy answer is that she does stuff, herein taking charge and fighting. So does Captain Marvel. And Arya Stark.

We see this particularly in areas which already have a history of relegating women to the back burner, like video games or the action adventure genre. Damsels meant to be saved by strong men, the voice of reason, or to be relegated to being a person of support. Thus being promoted to action hero seems like quite the step up.

So comes the masculinization of women, where women are placed in male roles and can do everything a man can. The new question that comes with this is whether they’re losing depth because they’re becoming less of a woman. After all, they’re pushing for violence, a ‘masculine’ way of problem solving, instead of finding non-violent means of conflict-resolution, like manipulation. But assuming a strong female character must be good in combat is a flawed idea. Women – people – don’t have to go around kicking ass to be a strong character.

Take Zoë and Inara from Firefly, both arguably strong female characters. The former, Serenity’s tough-as-nails first mate, is badass in the more masculine way. Inara, however, wielding diplomacy, is as strong without being masculinized. She’s strong on her own terms, kicking proverbial ass without having to carry a weapon.

So which portrayal is more feministic? Both masculinizing women and confining them to feminine traits run contrary to feminism since it genders a set of actions and traits. Is Zoë stronger since she’s nearly indistinguishable from a man? Or is it Inara, who fights in a more ‘feminine’ sphere.

So now what? Women are, surprise, people; people are, also surprise, different. And people do different things. To say that a man can succeed as a character in both action and drama genres but a woman only truly succeeds if she’s placed in a drama is a terrifyingly narrow view. If we want to advance the role of women in fiction, we can’t limit them to certain roles. We need women doing everything.

This is one of the reasons I love Game of Thrones. There’s a great deal of variety to the roles women play, and a lot of them are wonderfully well written. Ygritte the Wildling archer and Margaery the politicking queen-to-be are very different women and both great characters. Yet neither would work in the other’s roles; they’re strong on their own terms and in their own ways. You can’t discredit Margaery because she’s worming her way to the top of the political sphere because she’s not running around with a sword, likewise with Ygritte for being an archer rather than a politician. This show, known for the HBO-iness of its content, displays a great deal of nuance and variety with its women. Sure, some are problematic and shallow, but there remains the potential for a woman to be strong and badass, no matter her position.

To return to the comparison of Zoë and Inara in Firefly, we need to accept both as strong women because choosing one over the other would confine the ways in which a female character could be strong. Kaylee, the mechanic, though she’s neither forceful nor a fighter, can hold her own and adds necessary element to the crew. Even River, who more often than not seems to fulfill the role of damsel, is fully realized and not just a shadowy archetype.

There is a danger in making all female characters masculine, but the same could be said of making all female characters the same kind of anything; we need women portrayed in every field. Soldiers, spies, engineers, doctors, and so on. A truly inclusive media should be just that: inclusive.

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I’m Complaining About The LEGO Movie Snub Too

I’ve made it clear that I don’t really care for movie awards. Mostly because there’s a level of snobbery and predictability to them and also because, well, mostly because of the snobbery.

So naturally, like many people, I have great opinions on the stuff I don’t care about.

Like how this year’s acting nominations are blindingly whitewashed. Which, sure, happens, but is also incredibly indicative of culture as a whole and why movies like Big Hero 6 are important.

But something I found incredibly glaring – and also feel more qualified to talk about – is The LEGO Movie’s lack of a nomination in the animation department. It got Best Original Song and that’s it. This is a problem.

Now, I like the other nominations that I’ve seen (and have been meaning to find a way to watch Song of the Sea); Big Hero 6 is great, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is important, period, and The Boxtrolls is stop-motion which is always great to see. But The Lego Movie, as I’ll say again and again, is absolutely wonderful.

The LEGO Movie is an odd film to be sure. It’s something that could easily be a toy commercial, what with it being all about LEGO. There was a ready made audience for it, all the crew had to do was crap out a half-decent plot and go home to their paychecks. Only they didn’t. But The LEGO Movie isn’t just an animated with a great story, no they made a great story that plays with not only the fact that it’s a movie about LEGOs, but with the genre of adventure movies as a whole.

But it’s not snobby about it. There’s no mockery from The LEGO Movie. Rather it, very much like The Princess Bride, wholeheartedly embraces it knowing and even poking at its flaws. And also like The Princess Bride, there’s no cynicism to it. The film doesn’t embrace the idea that a deconstruction must be brooding, nor does it laugh at the genre it plays, ruthlessly mocking it. RatherThe LEGO Movie is filled with an unbridled love and passion for not just the toy but the genre the story plays out in. It starts a deep consciousness of what makes adventure stories tick – the call to adventure, the idea of being a chosen one, the quest into the villain’s fortress, and so on — then the film turns it up to eleven. There’s no subtlety to its narrative structure, it know what it is and runs with it.

So there’s a great grasp of storytelling from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, same could be said about the folks behind The Boxtrolls and How To Train Your Dragon 2. What really setsThe LEGO Movie apart is its balance of a breakneck, almost psychedelic pace with its knowing of when to slow down. The film could be all fluff, all a great adventure with nothing deeper to it – and it seems that way with its bright visuals and hyperactivity – but they lay off the gas pedal at the climax. The movie is able to breathe and we’re held in this twist that has us rethinking the entire movie prior, but also lends a new deal of emotional weight to it.Yet it’s a beat that doesn’t feel out of place, it’s not something simply tacked on for the drama.

The LEGO Movie did something different. It’s a movie about originality that, for once, is actually very original. It merges Saturday morning cartoons’ visuals with a mastery of plotting and the ability to throw emotional post-modern curveballs. It’s rare that a movie – animated or not – even tries to do this, let alone pulls it off so spectacularly.

It’s all this that means The LEGO Movie should have gotten an Oscar nomination, it didn’t just tell an (animated) story well, it told it with more heart and gusto than a lot of stories do. But again, what makes this movie so great is that it marries its enthusiasm with impeccable craft. One without the other, or with any less of any of its parts, would be a lesser film. Seriously, everything about this movie is awesome. Would have been nice for there to be some recognition.

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You Should Really Watch Agent Carter

Peggy Carter was an unexpectedly great part of Captain America: The First Avenger. Beyond being a woman in an otherwise very male-dominated cast, she held her own and served an important role in the progression of the story’s arc. Then a One-Shot on Iron Man 3’s BluRay had her tackling sexism and bad guys in a post-World War II setting. All the while there was talk of a tv show happening, and then it was planned, and then this past Tuesday the first two episodes aired.

And they were fantastic. As in better than the entire first season of Agents of SHIELD and gives the second a good run for its money. I haven’t had this much fun in a long time.

A good deal of this is due to how well it captures the spirit of the Marvel movies proper, just in tv format. It makes sense too, the writers of The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier wrote the pilot and the second episode was directed by one of the brothers who did The Winter SoldierThere’s the now-familiar mix of high adventure with some quieter moments and the ability to get quite dark without getting oppressive.

But where Agent Carter really stands out against similar pulpy shows is in its feminist slant. Like Parks and Recreation, however, it’s not preachy or overly idealized; instead it feels grounded and almost natural. Peggy Carter’s outlook, like Leslie Knope’s, makes sense for the character. As part of Captain America’s crew, she was used to being judged by the merits of her work and being allowed to take part in missions; now in an office she’s been put into the position of a glorified secretary, her previous exploits dismissed as being because of her relationship with Captain America. She has an understandable frustration that colors her actions and immediately puts the audience in her corner as she navigates a male-dominated world.

Here it’d be easy to make her a character of retro-active wish-fulfillment, where she merrily wades true the sexism of the 1940s, men cowering before her and women idolizing her. Rather we see her navigate the system, using it to her advantage when she can while still resisting it along the way. The show presents Peggy as a person of two worlds, those stereotypically of women and men. Enjoyably, Peggy is shown to be a master of both.

Take a scene about halfway through the first episode (which I’m going to spoil for you if you haven’t seen it yet [which you really should]). Having just returned from getting a bomb from a bad guy’s swing club, Peggy, in a fancy and decidedly feminine dress, now has to defuse it. She grabs a collection of household items and ingredients and takes it to the bathroom where she creates a mixture that she then puts into a perfume bottle. She uses a perfume bottle and kitchen supplies, as both things typically seen as ‘feminine,’ to defuse a bomb, an action comparatively very ‘masculine.’ Once done, Peggy reaches for the unused glass and bottle of bourbon she grabbed to pour herself a glass – something that would be called unladylike. Immediately after a villain breaks into her home and murders her roommate and fights Peggy. Peggy fights back and a vicious brawl ensues, which is, again, considered a much more ‘masculine’ thing. What’s really fun is that the fight takes place at home, a supposedly feminine sphere, and she uses elements of it – such as a fridge and stove top – to her advantage. The show plays with gender norms, mixing up the interplay of the feminine and masculine in the backdrop of the 1940s, against which the gender divide is heightened. After the fight, though, Peggy, in a stark contrast to the typical action movie hero, cries for her friend. However, it’s not seen as weak – we’ve just seen her defuse a bomb and throw a bad guy out her window! – rather it humanizes her, reminds us that she’s not all-powerful.

Of course, Agent Carter takes its liberty with the depiction of society of the time. Somethings probably wouldn’t fly and some others would be much harder. But rather the show uses its setting to play up the tension of its protagonist. These elements create a truly great show that works across the board, during both set pieces like infiltrating a factory and smaller moments like two women talking in a diner.
I recommend things a lot on this blog, but I cannot praise Agent Carter enough. Though were only in the very beginning, it’s a solid show that’s a crazy amount of fun. Give it a shot, trust me, you won’t regret it.

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Concerning Hobbits

I finally saw The Desolation of Smaug Thursday night, and with that out of the way saw Five Armies yesterday. So it’s time to talk about them as a whole, since the trilogy’s so interconnected you’d think they were supposed to just be two movies and not three.

But first, it has to be said that what the movies do well, they do well. Any scene with Smaug is wonderful; he looks great and Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a fantastic performance. The bits incorporated from the appendices, particularly the White Council’s assault on Dol Guldur, work well. Then there are a handful of scenes with Thorin, Bard, and the other major players that echo the drama of The Lord of the Rings. Lastly, Bilbo, of course, is terrific.

Which makes me wish we had more of him in his movie. There’s a protagonist shift during the trilogy and by Five Armies Thorin has taken over from Bilbo, who’s fighting a losing battle for the role of deuteragonist against Bard and — of all characters — Legolas. This causes a change in the narrative, from it being about a Hobbit stepping out into a larger world and instead one more heavily focused on politicking and warfare. In doing so the film loses a lot of the book’s heart.

Accentuating the divide is that many of the films’ additions do nothing don’t help. Much of the changes made to The Lord of the Rings added; Faramir’s temptation and Aragorn’s self-doubt accentuated the questions of choices and hope, for example. But in The Hobbit they bog the film down.

Tauriel is particularly frustrating. On the one hand, a female character is a welcome addition to the film, yet she’s a narratively unnecessary. A voice of dissent among the elves could easily be conveyed through Legolas (in his odd being of a main character rather than cameo), leaving her in the tired position of a love interest. This already troubling scenario is exacerbated by her being thrust into the center of a lackluster love shape that is sometimes, albeit inconsistently, a triangle. All this contributes to her feeling like a straggler, just there to add some romantic drama while engaging in ridiculous Jedi-esque combat alongside Legolas.

Some of these problems can be attributed to the decision to split the film into three parts, reshoots for which included adding in the love triangle. But most noticeable is the weirdness it gives the pacing. The meeting with Beorn is a short, but strong moment, one that would feel the right length were it part of a single film or even in a duology. But as part of a trilogy as inseparable as this (compare it to Rings, where each movie felt whole on its own), it feels like a blip that’s easily forgotten. This isn’t a major problem with a part like Beorn, but it’s when the same issue applies to Thorin’s growing greed that it becomes particularly painful. Not enough of the three films’ collective runtime is spent with Thorin’s madness. It feels so sudden given all the time it takes to reach it, and his redemption too comes too quickly. It feels like more time is spent on the battle (which is a short blip in the book) than Thorin’s personal conflict. Again, time is relative, and when a story stretches out as long as this, there needed to be more time given to moments like these. The story couldn’t breathe. Too much was happening too quickly, too much of which added nothing to the central narrative.

The Hobbit is not a complex book. Even when Gandalf’s adventures are added in, it’s still a straightforward enough story about adventure and avarice. The films are best when they keep to that, and worst when they stray. I’m looking forward to the inevitable fan-cut where it’s turned into a single film or duology; all the fat excised to leave the core of the story on full display.

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