Monthly Archives: March 2015

Another Boyband Saving The World

So Final Fantasy XV is finally coming out ‘soon,’ with the demo dropping recently. The game’s been on my radar since the debut trailer for Final Fantasy Versus XIII (as it was called then) was released almost nine years ago and as a fan of the Final Fantasy series — mostly because I plain love a good JRPG (there’s something fun about Japanese melodrama and saving the world) — I’m quite eager to see how this game works and if it’s any good.

As we’ve slowly found out more about the game, however, I’m a little annoyed that the game essentially features what looks like a boyband as the main characters. It’s disappointing to see yet another male dominated video game, but certainly not a deal breaker, least at this stage. That said, I’m curious as to the reasoning behind them going in this direction. Fortunately, game director Hajime Tabata explained why:

“Speaking honestly, an all-male party feels almost more approachable for players. Even the presence of one female in the group will change their behaviour, so that they’ll act differently. So to give the most natural feeling, to make them feel sincere and honest, having them all the same gender made sense in that way,”

This is where things start to really bother me: I don’t see how having a more diverse cast would be less approachable. These days around half of gamers are women and if we want video games as a genre to grow up we’ve gotta get away from this girls-have-cooties mentality that’s permeated the industry for far too long.

It’s especially frustrating that it comes a part of Final Fantasy of all things. The series has usually been quite good at representation, with the games featuring multiple female party members who often had an important role in the story beyond being damseled. The latest major installment, XIII had a woman as protagonist, something I talked about in my first post here three years ago. Not every game needs a female protagonist, but that doesn’t excuse making the game about a boyband.

Now Tabata does have some good intentions. He wants to get into the private life of men and stuff I’ve read about the game has said that the game does feature its male characters openly showing affection to each other. Which is actually really cool (suck it, patriarchy!). An unironic, actually honest look at a bromance is possibly as rare as strong female protagonists. There’s a reason one of my favorite moments in the finale of  Agent Carter was Howard Stark admitting that he loved Steve Rogers and missed him. I am so down for more honest bromances in fiction.

But I do not believe that this has to be an either-or scenario. I think we can have a single story or game that features both male intimacy and strong female characters — especially since Final Fantasy games usually take well over thirty hours to complete. Final Fantasy XIII had a mixed cast, but had some great scenes between sisters Lightning and Serah. If it’s vitally important for there to be chunks of time with the guys alone, then why not split the party? Final Fantasy VIII did it sixteen years ago, why not do it again?

I realize that in some ways I’m splitting hairs here, and we still have an indeterminate time before launch during which, unlikely as it is, things may change for Final Fantasy XV. I’m probably going to play the game at some point too; this isn’t a boycott. But I love video games and representation matters as much as defying gender norms about men. In an ideal world, we could do both at once and I don’t see why Tabata’s game couldn’t be that ideal world.

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On Finales

So Parks and Recreation ended a few weeks ago bringing an end to a particularly great show that I got into far too late. The finale was especially wonderful, elegantly tying a bow on seven years of stories.

Rather than having some big hoorah, though, the episode has the former Parks Department take on an utterly inconsequential task (getting a swing in a park fixed) before going their separate ways. With the whole season serving as an effective wrap up to the current proceedings, there was no need for there to be a big artificially succinct Final Big Moment. Instead, Parks makes fixing the dumb swing matter by flashing forward with each character to see where they are in the future.

Parks is far from the first; How I Met Your Mother did it in their finale first year. I’ve talked about my many qualms with it narratively, but it was a structurally solid technique. We got some closure on characters and know what Ted ended up doing, even if it went against everything that’d been built up thus far. But Parks goes further and arguably does it better by going to several different spots in the future for each main character (and even some lesser ones). We find out many of the key points events happens to them in the years afterwards. Some of their bigger decisions are prefaced with vignettes showing off key character moments and their growth. At the end of it all there’s this strong sense of resolution.

If anything, Parks errs on telling us almost too much. It seems nearly as if we know everything that happens to these characters in the future. Little is left to the imagination, we know Andy and April have kids, we know Ron ends up happily in charge of a National Park, and we know that either Leslie or Ben became president. By the time the finale ends we’re left knowing that we’ve heard just about all the stories there is to tell about these people.

Which makes me wonder what we want out of a finale to a show. There’s something fun about an ending that implies the adventure continues: look at Serenity (effectively the finale to Firefly) which has since spawned a couple comics, or even Chuck which remains open-ended enough for more to happen. But an ending like Lost’s which firmly closes the door on anything else isn’t bad either. So what makes an ending satisfying?

I think closure is what really matters. The ending of Serenity left a few balls up in the air while still resolving some subplots, like Simon and Kaylee’s romance and what happened to River. But even though we knew Mal wasn’t quite out of the woods and that the crew as a whole were a little worse for the wear, we’ve got this sense of finality. This adventure is over; even if there’s more to come, for now the major issues are resolved.

What’s important is that the ending fits the story. Firefly’s works so well because the show has always been bittersweet. Lost is fundamentally mythic and Chuck was always about a romance and family. Parks’ fits because the show’s format has always been a little meta, so showing what happens ten to forty years down the line isn’t out of place. Lost couldn’t have Parks’ ending and it couldn’t be the other way round either.

It’s hard to get endings right. Don Quixote’s ending allowed for some guy to write a sequel, so when Cervantes wrote an actual sequel he had Don Quixote die at the end so no one would write another allowing him to have the final word on his knight errant. How I Met Your Mother undid (at least) a season’s worth of character development with its finale so even though we knew what happened to the characters we felt a little cheated out of our investment. Parks and Recreation had its cake and ate it too; we know that things work out for everyone in their own way, and we’re okay with that. We’re invited to fill in the blanks (is Leslie or Ben president?), but we’re told things are alright. And that’s good enough.

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Superheroes Are For The Birds

I’ve said too many times before that awards don’t always mean quality (especially when The Lego Movie gets ignored), but that doesn’t mean I still don’t have opinions. Especially when those opinions are about Birdman.

I really enjoyed Birdman. Its shot-as-if-it’s-one-take-ness got a little obtrusive at times and bordered on being gimmicky, but its strong plotting and performances helped bring it past that. It was interesting and a great movie; can’t really argue with that.

What I can argue with is with is its point-of-view. Birdman’s about a former superhero actor who’s trying to be taken seriously as a theater actor. The dichotomy there is clear: on the one hand you’ve got superhero movies, the ultimate pulpy-popcorn blockbuster, on the other is a Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver short story, about as high the performing arts can get. The genres are opposites, and one is clearly shown as being more artistically valued than the other.

Which makes Birdman’s relationship with the superhero genre so fascinating. It’s a movie about a genre but instead of parodying it, the film takes apart the culture surrounding the genre. There’s a question of why so many actors are in superhero films (even Jeremy Renner), but more importantly being known for a superhero film follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan around, a literal ghost of his past. Birdman could have worked differently — we could have had Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger escaping from being action heroes, for example — and the central plot and theming would remain much the same: the idea here is that if you want to make true art you have to escape from the pulp.

Adding on to this view is that pulp and genre movies are inherently lesser than ‘serious’ ones. Especially when the genre’s a popular one. In discussing the overall critical distaste for superhero films, James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy, said “What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care, and thought into them then people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films” (x). Way Gunn sees it, people figure that there’s a divide between real art and making money. Birdman, as an artsy movie, was made out of love whereas Guardians, the blockbuster, was made for a quick buck. Gunn vehemently disagrees, arguing that there’s still a great deal of love for the craft and storytelling even in an expensive, pulpy movie.

It’s storytelling, then, that should be paramount to defining art. Without its strong story Birdman would just be a movie about some washup idiosyncratically shot. What makes Guardians such a great movie is its commitment to plot and characters. Storytelling, not genre, should be the ultimate test of a movie.

I think that’s why I love good pulpy movies. Sure, they may not always be serious, but a strong plot goes a long way. Superhero movies too can deal with deeper themes. Iron Man 3 looks at identity, questioning whether you’re defined by who you are or what you’ve done. The Winter Soldier discusses privacy and the relevance of old ideals in a modern world. Guardians is about not having to be particularly special to save the world and the importance of having other people. That we don’t always notice these deeper scenes is part of the beauty, the films aren’t heavy handed; rather they intertwine theme and the story. Pulpiness and a lack of seriousness doesn’t mean a lack of depth.

Point of all this to say, genres are to be used. Though a great film, Birdman perpetuates the annoying trend that real art’s gotta be angsty, that flair has no room for substance. It’s problematic, saying that one way of telling a story is better than another. Because at the end of the day, nobody wants everyone telling the same story the same way.

Writer’s note: I definitely think Birdman earned its Best Picture, but I think Richard Linklater deserved Best Director for Boyhood give how singular that movie is. But eh, who cares, it’s just a statue.

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Twisted Echoes

I’ve actually got a bunch of half-written posts I wanna post. Stuff on Birdman and the Oscars, or one on the Parks and Rec finale. However something came out, and, well, I can’t help myself.

I’m talking about the new Age of Ultron trailer.

There’s a lot to nerd out about. You’ve got the Vision teaser at the end, all the hints of the Avengers falling apart, Ultron being deliciously evil, and the glorious shot of the Avengers soaring into battle. I’m getting excited. Really excited.

There’s one moment in the trailer that’s particularly significant, and since I’m not above writing a rant essay on a small part of a trailer, we’re going to do so. About 1:36 into the trailer we have one of my favorite bits: Hulk and Iron Man’s Hulkbuster fighting against a building. Obviously, this is another geeky moment; the Hulkbuster has been a staple of the comics since the ‘90s, so seeing it on screen busting the Hulk is grand. But that’s not why it’s important.

Remember the end of The Avengers? After Iron Man has blown up the Chitauri ship he’s falling down to earth. Then Hulk bounds up and catches him, slowing their descent against a building. It’s the culmination of Bruce Banner’s arc, where the Hulk is usually a wild force of destruction now he’s saving someone. Furthermore he’s saving Tony Stark, the first one willing to befriend him not in spite of the Hulk but because of it too (see their first meeting and conversation in the lab).

Age of Ultron looks to be turning it on its head. Instead of going down a skyscraper, Iron Man and Hulk are going up one. Instead of Hulk catching Iron Man, Iron Man is propelling them upwards while Hulk attacks him. It’s visually reminiscent of the beat from The Avengers, only turned on its head into a twisted reflection.

Now, the reason for Iron Man and Hulk’s battle isn’t overly important (there’s a theory floating around that it’s a result of Scarlet Witch’s mind-altering powers). Rather, let’s focus on the visual significance. Beyond being a callback to the first film, we have two friends fighting. This, along with much of the rest of the trailer, brings up the idea of division among the team. It’s somewhat dialectical materialist in its approach; having been brought together by the first movie, now the opposite has to happen. Because a sequel can’t just rehash the first, it has to go deeper. We have a positive, let’s hit the negative of that now.

In a way, Age of Ultron is looking to deconstruct elements of the first movie. Joss Whedon’s said that one of the driving forces of the film is “the idea of heroes and whether or not that’s a useful concept.” So where the first film had Nick Fury straight up telling the World Security Council that, yes, we need heroes, Ultron turns this on it’s head and questions if they’re really necessary after all. The new film will probably take each stance (“We need heroes” / “we don’t need heroes”) and synthesize a new idea from the product. This bit of dialectical materialism, playing a defense against a rebuttal to come to a new consensus, serves to reconstruct the themes of the superhero films.

Back before the first Avengers was released, Whedon was asked how he’d try to top it with a sequel. He said he wouldn’t try to, rather he would by “being smaller. More personal, more painful. By being the next thing that should happen to these characters…” Now, he’s since admitted that Ultron’s gotten bigger than the first, but there remains the throughline he set forth three years ago. Age of Ultron is going deeper into these characters, figuring out what makes them tick, and pushing them to their breaking points. From a storytelling point of view, I am beyond pumped to see this movie.

That and, of course, this shot.

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