Monthly Archives: February 2015

Manners Maketh A Genre

Spy movies are old hat. Well, least the slick James Bond ones are. Movies like Goldeneye have either been deconstructed by the Bourne movies (or even by more recent Bond flicks, to an extent) or lovingly lampooned by the likes of Chuck and Archer. Now, this isn’t bad (I love Chuck and Skyfall). Spies aren’t the sort to smoothly enter in a suit with a myriad of fancy gadgets, they’re gritty people in dark, realistic worlds. If you aim for a more lighthearted approach, chances are the genre’s used as the setting for another story, be it a workplace comedy or romance. There’s been a dearth of pure spy movies.

Enter Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman. Though it may seem like a deconstruction — it plays with and pokes at a couple tropes — ultimately, it’s a reconstruction. Now, Skyfall was to an extent a reconstruction in its own right as it defended the relevance of the government-run spy agency (as opposed to, say, rogues like Jason Bourne) in a very modern world, keeping as much of the spy-gadgetry we’d allow in a grounded film. Kingsman on the other hand, decides to amp things up a couple notches.

The throwbacks to classic gadgetry are present in Kingsman: the heroes have weaponized pens, hidden shoe-blades, bullet-proof umbrella shields, and hi-tech glasses. The agents dress in tailored suits and a great deal of emphasis is put on the way one carries oneself. And, of course, this is a slick movie with good guys being awesome and an evil madman trying to take over the world. It’s a straight up spy film.

Now, it’s not all spies-on-missions. The first half of the film focuses on Eggsy training to be one of the impeccable spies. But even though he’s not actively going after the villain, it still feels spy-ish as the candidates go through increasingly harder trials with more and more flair. It’s over-the-top, sure but it’s great fun to see this kid from the wrong side of  the London’s tracks grow into a super-spy.

I think what really makes Kingsman such a wonderful ode to its genre is its tone. Classic Bond had this strong sense of romantic adventure to it and many of its imitators followed in its steps. Kingsman returns to that spirit, though it does so older and wiser. The movie knows that a jet pack’s been done to death, so the film uses a mothballed high-altitude balloon from Reagan’s SDI. Similarly, the gadgetry feels appropriately futuristic for a more modern setting (see the AR glasses mentioned above). This keeps it from feeling too old-fashioned, but a technology update alone wouldn’t push it from good to great. The movie knows it’s a spy movie, as do its characters; Eggsy and the others are almost Chuck-ish in their knowledge and meta-commentary on spy tropes. This doesn’t diminish it, rather it keeps the film feeling decidedly present while still keeping a decades old tradition alive.

This is how you breathe new life into a genre. You take all of its flaws and preposterousness and roll with it, accepting its prior deconstruction and morphing it into something new — in other words: reconstruction. Pacific Rim created a world where Mecha made sense and where Kaiju were cool; Godzilla once more had the titular monster a force of nature while still making sense; Star Trek accepted Roddenberry’s idealism and made space opera cool again. Kingsman makes being a suave, well-dressed badass integral to being a super spy. Manners maketh man and all that.

Writing off a genre as being silly unless you take it apart bit by bit is foolish. But every now and then deconstruction needs to happen. Casino Royale had to show the ramifications of being a super spy so Skyfall could ultimately show why it’s still needed and so Kingsman could deliver its pulpy fun. It’s fun to see things deconstructed — it’s what makes The Cabin In The Woods such fun — but it’s not the only way to make an old genre new again. Look at Kingsman, Skyfall, Star Trek; you take the thing apart so you know how to put it back together better than before.

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Control in The Avengers

I’m working on an essay for school this weekend (seriously, when aren’t I?), and once again I find myself needing to practice analysis and stuff. And because this is me, I’m doing it about something fun.

Manipulation and control of people play big roles in The Avengers. Loki’s staff gives him the ability to outright control minds, the bloodied Captain America cards are Nick Fury’s subtler means to get the Avengers to team up. A lot of the film’s runtime has characters competing to be the one in charge, to be able to control the others.

This is probably most visible in the characters and dynamic of Natasha Romanov and Bruce Banner (or, y’know, Black Widow and the Hulk). When we first meet Natasha she seems powerless: she’s tied up and being interrogated by some Russian mobsters. We quickly find out that this is exactly where she wants to be as she reveals that she’s been using this to get information out of them before effortlessly beating them up. Natasha is used to being in control and around those she can manipulate or overpower, often by seeming like the one who isn’t in control at all.

However, the next time we see her she’s recruiting Bruce Banner to the team. She’s in a  position where losing control of a situation could mean Banner hulking out and plastering the room with her. Her wariness of Bruce, which becomes more evident as the story progresses, stems from her inability to control him. Finding out it’s her job to get Bruce on their side is enough to make her stop in her tracks, when confronting Tony Stark — who isn’t a huge fan of hers after the events of Iron Man 2 — hardly elicits a reaction. She can even get Loki to reveal his plans to her — even if he does get under her skin — but she can’t talk down a Hulk.

Bruce Banner’s own arc similarly deals with the question of control. Central to his character is the ability to keep the Hulk in check. If he loses control of his emotions he hulks out and risks being an uncontrollable rage monster, which, as Natasha points out, he’s “…been more than a year without an incident. [She doesn’t] think [he wants to] break that streak.” Bruce is a man who by necessity must always be in control. Not only his internal conflict, but his interactions with others too is colored by this theme. Aboard the Helicarrier is a chamber designed to contain him should he suddenly pose a risk to the safety of those aboard. Even those who want him around want to keep him check, want to stay in power over him.

All this comes to a head at the midpoint. The team has fallen out, Loki’s people attack, and everything goes to hell. Banner is a victim of this chaos and the monster he’s been hiding is released in a fit of blind rage. Natasha is the one who first faces the Hulk and there the Avenger who’s power is founded on being in control is suddenly powerless to the one who is uncontrollable. For Natasha this is terrifying; she has no angle to control the Hulk. Banner, meanwhile, has been rendered helpless. The team’s low point sees both of them bereft of control.

By the time of the climax, however, things have been reversed. Natasha, after a heart-to-heart with Clint Barton, is coming to terms with not always having the upper hand. Bruce, meanwhile, has been assured of his latent heroism (the security guard tells him lack of hurting anyone was due to “good aim”), and returned to the team. As they face down what looks to be certain doom, Cap looks to Bruce and says:

Steve Rogers: Doctor Banner, now might be a good time for you to get angry.

Bruce Banner: That’s my secret, Captain: I’m always angry.

And then we know that Bruce has control over his Hulk and this time, when he transforms, it’s far less painful and far less wild than before. It’s not so much a curse as it is a blessing.

Now, control plays a role for the other Avengers too. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers both play opposite sides of a coin, first is impulsive, the other disciplined. Clint spends most of the movie under Loki’s thrall. Thor, perhaps, might be the one with little personal investment in control (though an argument could be made about his relationship with his brother being one that Loki uses to manipulate him). All this to say, control is obviously a major theme in The Avengers, but it’s in Natasha and Bruce that the conflict takes its clearest form.

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Not Another Peter Parker

I’ve had a relatively busy couple weeks, which means less time to see movies and play new games, so more yammering on about recent events (either that or wax on about Agent Carter again, but I’m waiting on that one.

So let’s talk about new news, comic book news. Namely, Spider-Man’s going to be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as opposed to standing alone. Which is cool, because we’ll finally get to see Spidey swinging on the big screen while Iron Man and Cap stare disapprovingly. But then, a new Peter Parker’s being cast, thereby throwing out Andrew Garfield and giving us what’ll be the third live-action Peter Parker in barely twenty years. In other words, we’ve got ourselves another Spider-Man reboot.

Another!?

I really enjoyed Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, more so than Tobey Maguire. He struck me as feeling more like a teenager, felt a bit more true to my idea of Pete. Then there’s the question as to why we even need a reboot in the first place. The original Amazing Spider-Man would have worked in fairly neatly with the MCU, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, though a narrative train-wreck, hit a key moment of the Spidey mythos that could really deepen future installments. But fine, an all-new Spider-Man. Again.

I think some of my disappointment/frustration on this part stems from the fact that we’re getting another Peter Parker. I do wish Marvel had been willing to really shake things up. Why not have Miles Morales as Spider-Man? Sure, they’d have to play around with his backstory some, but it’d be really interesting to have someone else in the suit (and also because I still want to see Donald Glover as Spider-Man, even if he’s steadily outgrowing the role). We’d get a really new Spider-Man with a new inner-life and a new arc. And a little diversity doesn’t hurt once in a while. Granted, Peter has his, well, Parker-ness – but that’s been done. I want things to move on. Heck, at this point, why not really upend things and throw Spider-Gwen in, or even Mayday Parker or, heck, anyone but Peter Parker.

What’s especially bothersome, is that because of Spider-Man’s inclusion on the Marvel slate, Black Panther, Inhumans, and – most importantly – Captain Marvel have all had their release dates pushed back (And Thor: Ragnarok, but that’s not important at the moment). We’ve just had Marvel turn a bunch of no-name superheroes into megastars, and Ant-Man, another lesser-known hero, has a movie due out in a few months. It’s disappointing to see them take such a safe bet.

Now, yes, Spidey in the MCU is really cool. If they use him right, he can bring a new point of view to the series; he’s usually the kid, he’s a bit naive, and he’s not as mature as the other heroes of the MCU. Like Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel who’s arguably the new Peter Parker of the comics. A movie about her would be a welcome addition.

But hey. Kevin Feige’s involved and he’s proven that he knows what he’s doing and Spider-Man brings with him characters like Jessica Drew and Venom, so that’s cool. I’m bummed that the new movie will be pushing back fresh faces and I do wish that if we had to have a new Spider-Man that it’d be someone else after under the cowl. But the movie’s not out yet, so who knows, maybe it’ll be really good.

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Keeping Pace

I rant write a lot about genres and mediums. Discussing what’s considered art, or why science fiction is important. As I’ve said, a lot stories get dismissed simply because they take place in space or in the pages of a comic book.

Which is a bummer.

Especially considering the novel used to be held up as a lesser form. See, poetry used to be seen as being superior to the novel. Allen Tate, critic and generally important writer, thought that it was until Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary that the medium of the novel caught up. Not surpassed, mind you, caught up. It took a staggering amount of time, given that the novel came into being in 1008 or 1605 (depending on if you see The Tale of Genji or Don Quixote as the birth of the novel) and Madame Bovary wasn’t written until 1856. Way Tate sees it, most things written before then failed to measure up to the perfection of poetry. That means Gulliver’s Travels and Pride and Prejudice may have been good, but as a medium as a whole weren’t nearly good as a poem. The medium just wasn’t elevated enough.

These days novels are seen as being pretty darn artistic. Movies – the medium, if not all genres – too have grown up and are held up as another Paragon of Good Culture. These mediums are important, y’hear; a serious movie or book matters. Least that’s how it is now, anyway.

Right now, video games are to film as novels were to poetry in the days of Tate. Games are slowly catching up to film with regards to not just narrative, but also with technical prowess. Though supposedly still ignored by mainstream critics, gaming has been steadily getting better and better, with games like The Last of Us mining great emotional depths, BioShock: Infinite reconciling mechanics and story, and Papers Please showing off the potential of immersion. They’re becoming a medium, an art form, unto themselves. They are set apart from existing artistic mediums by the potential for audience involvement, like projection and empathy. Games are doing big things.

What’s interesting is that gaming started out so, well, basic. Spacewar! and Pong were hardly intended as the forerunners of gaming as we know it. They’ve long been seen as hobbies and ‘just’ games, like playing pretend or model making. So there’s a weird sort of pubescence that video games are going through as they go not from a pulpy form of storytelling, but from hobby to art form.

This is where comes the push back, because gaming is suddenly forced to confront the same literary criticism that other mediums are held up to. For so long gaming has been seen as simple amusement, that there’s almost a sort of culture shock as more critical lenses are applied to it. You don’t have to look hard on the internet to hear the cries of gamers who want games to be left out of this sort of scrutiny.

Literary criticism is incredibly important, especially in a nascent medium like video games. This can mean asking hard questions, like why are so many games about white men? Why are we usually fighting faceless, vaguely brown enemies? What is it with video games and portraying women as helpless sex objects? Seriously, what’s with all the white guys? There needs to be a discussion over topics like these and there needs to be a change in the way games handle these topics.

And in response, some games are becoming more self-aware. The new Tomb Raider eschews Lara’s previous sexualization for a characterization more befitting being a ‘female Indiana Jones’ and Spec Ops: The Line brutally destroyed the tropes of the military shooter. Moving things even further, Thomas Was Alone and Gone Home are modern games that don’t have you fighting enemies to progress, yet remain compelling games.

We need more of this. For games to really stand alongside film and books as not just legitimate, but accepted forms of storytelling there needs to be a conversation. It can’t just be independent developers making games that aren’t about violence and movies without white male protagonists shouldn’t be the exception. We’ve got a new medium here, one with great and new potential, it’s time we start treating it seriously.

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