Monthly Archives: April 2015

How Do You Make An Avengers?

Avengers: Age of Ultron comes out here in the States in a few days, which makes me realize that we now live in a time where time can be measured in Avengers movies. Which makes me think about three years ago when I was eagerly waiting for the first one to come out.

It’s important to look at just how sharply The Avengers affected the current blockbuster landscape. The idea of a bunch of characters from separate films coming together in one movie was a very novel idea, outside of maybe Alien vs Predator. Now, ever since The Avengers made approximately all the money, DC’s been working fast as they can to establish their pantheon of superheroes. Amazing Spider-Man 2 spent much of its time trying to set up as many plot points for there to be a variety of spin offs. There’s even been an attempt to revive Universal’s horror movies with the intention of having Dracula, et al team up. Ever since The Avengers proved that it works, there’s been a big push to establish these so-called shared universes.

Of course, that’s missing that one of the things that made The Avengers work was that it wasn’t rushed. Marvel Studios spent five movies and four years building up their characters and their world. By the time The Avengers came out, audiences were at the very least aware of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America through good old pop-cultural osmosis. That done, they still took time to set up each character — including lesser known characters like Black Widow.

Furthermore, Marvel Studios hired a writer/director with a reputation for being able to handle ensemble casts. Joss Whedon’s only other movie at the time, Serenity, was able to reestablish the crew of the titular ship for people who both had and hadn’t seen the show. He had a similar task in The Avengers: establish six heroes, their boss, a couple minor characters, and a villain while also weaving together a coherent plot. The Avengers worked, due in no small part to Whedon’s writing.

The other thing about the shared universe concept is that it’s different from your typical movie production. There are grand story arcs that each film has to navigate around and fit in alongside. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is being run more like a television show than a typical movie series. Kevin Feige, executive producer on all Marvel Studios films, is effectively the showrunner of the series. He’s come up with the big ideas and found writers and directors to do each ‘episode.’ Once again, getting Joss Whedon onboard for the first two Avengers films made sense, most of his experience has been within the constraints of television. The Dark World was directed by someone who’d worked on Game of Thrones, and the Russo brothers, who did The Winter Soldier, directed for Arrested Development and Community. It’s also the Russo brothers who’ll be directing Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, showing again Feige’s predisposition to those used to working in television. But this is still a novel form of filmmaking, and it’s one that Marvel’s making work.

I’m as excited to see Age of Ultron as I was to see The Avengers three years ago. Of course, I’m approaching this movie from a different perspective than I did the last year. And I don’t just mean someone who now actually reads comics, either. I’ve spent the greater part of the last three years at university studying storytelling and narrative. All this to say, I’m really impressed with how Marvel’s been handling their universe. It takes a lot of work and there are a host of missteps they could have taken.

So come Thursday evening I’ll be sitting in an IMAX theater in Kips Bay. I want the movie to be good, because I want to see Marvel keep expanding their movie world. That and I can’t wait for the Captain Marvel movie.

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Chewie, We’re Home

Every so often on this blog, I am liable to nerd the crap out. ‘cuz as a general rule, I like liking things. Also, I’m a huge nerd, and when what was basically the first thing I was a nerd about does something cool, I”m gonna be there. So let’s talk about The Force Awakens. Again. Though this time it’s less recapping and more analysis.

Based on the trailer, and also what was said at Celebration, it’s really sounding like Daisy Ridley’s character Rey is going to be the protagonist of The Force Awakens, which I’m obviously excited by. It also seems like they’re building her up along with John Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron as the ‘new’ Luke, Leia, and Han (or Anakin, Padme, and Obi Wan).

It’s cool, since one of the Holy Trilogy’s greatest strengths was its core characters. We knew Luke was our protagonist, and Han and Leia the deuteragonists. Luke had the biggest arc in each movie and was the most dynamic character while the other two had their own smaller ones and supported Luke’s along the way. There was a cohesion there that gave us a throughline through each film. So unlike Anakin, Obi Wan, and Padme who hardly ever had key moments together, the new one seems ready to establish this trinity of characters from the outset. Furthermore, one of the Prequels’ bigger narrative issues was the lack of a true protagonist. The character who should have had the biggest arc in the latter two — Anakin — ended up not doing much for big chunks of the film (while Obi Wan discovers a nascent rebellion, Anakin… falls in love with Padmé. While Obi Wan goes after a Separatist commander, Anakin… sits around on Coruscant). It’s hard to support a protagonist who’s not doing much.

To that, The Force Awakens, thus far is making an effort to pay tribute to the Holy Trilogy. Besides character archetypes and dynamic, they seem geared to do this through visuals too. Sometimes this means replicating shots — the Falcon’s dodge in the derelict ship’s engine is straight out of Jedi, and the droid BB-8 looking around the corner is a dead ringer for Leia’s introduction in A New Hope. Then you’ve got the with grand epic shots and a world that reeks of an unknown history (crashed Star Destroyer!). There’s even stuff similar to the Prequels; the shot of the Stormtroopers turning round is not at all unlike the end of Attack of the Clones. There’s a rich visual history woven into the look of the new film that makes it feel Star Wars.

There’s new to it too, though. The snap-zoom as the Falcon is pursued by TIE Fighters is a very Abram’s Star Trek shot (which in turn is arguably influenced by the visual work of Firefly). They’re also taking full advantage of how far special effects have come in the past few decades and giving us starfighters flying through atmosphere, which is what we’ve all always wanted but didn’t really know until we saw it happen.

Look, I’m excited for this movie. Star Wars has been a part of my life literally as long as I can remember (no lie, one of my earliest memories is me discussing the ending of Empire with another kid in the first house I lived in — so I’d have to have been four at the oldest). It’s hard for hype not build when we see a new movie coming out by a team that’s proving themselves more and more capable with each teaser. They’re taking something old and making it new (more diversity, taking advantage of technology) while remaining true to itself (visual style, character archetypes), making a new Star Wars that feels fresh.

On a more personal note, there’s this mix of wonder and craft that satisfies both the kid who saw The Phantom Menace for his eighth birthday and the twenty-three-year-old who spends his weekends ranting about superheroes, feminism, and video games.

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A Manic Pixie Dream Problem

You know the story. Boy’s stuck in the doldrums of life. Girl shows up. Is quirky. Her quirkiness brings boy out of the normal world. They fall in love. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has done her job. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term to describe a female character archetype whose purpose is to bring a male character into a more interesting existence. Also they usually fall in love.

But this is a little broad. Is Wyldstyle from The LEGO Movie a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, then? For starters she’s Emmet’s love interest, should he be able win her away from Batman. Then her arrival brings Emmet out of normalcy into a life of adventure and she supports his transformation into the Chosen One. And she’s very different from anyone Emmet’s met, with her DJ-esque name, dyed hair, and rebellious nature. She seems to fit it to a T.

Thing is, Wyldstyle doesn’t only exist for Emmet. She has her own goal and arc. Wyldstyle wants to save the world, that Emmet is the Chosen one is more disappointment than cause for celebration. Over the course of the movie she learns to be vulnerable and to believe in herself.

Ramona, from Scott Pilgrim vs The World; however, is. Though a well-rounded character, her purpose in the plot is to be Scott’s prize and the catalyst for him to self-actualize (that is, realize that self-respect is necessary for love). Yes, she has baggage, but the movie doesn’t afford any runtime to developing it. And yes, she’s quirky: dyed hair, infinitely cooler than Scott, and is from New York. She’s that dream-girl who comes along and makes and makes the male character’s life better.

But Summer, from (500) Days of Summer, isn’t. Though Summer is someone a lot of people jump to when they think of this term (seeing as she’s quirky-ish and portrayed by Zooey Deschannel). The film, on the other hand, takes apart the notion of the dream girl. Tom expects Summer to ‘fix’ him and make his life better, but she doesn’t fit into who he expects her to be. Most notably, it’s only after they break up that Tom gets life together and gets out of his rut. Essentially, the movie breaks down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy, saying that someone else isn’t going to save you, you have to do it yourself.

I realize I’m using a lot of non-examples as a way of defining the term, but I owe that to my own unfamiliarity with a lot of the movies usually associated with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. So why even talk about it?

In the years since coining the term, Nathan Rabin has distanced himself from it. Way he saw it, the term had almost lost reason; it’d become a trope unto itself rather than a symptom of problematic portrayals of women. It became easy to just say that a character was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl rather than it fostering discussion.

Because the term isn’t a way to demean women or to pigeonhole them, rather it should make writers and viewers conscious of women existing solely in relation to men. Though archetypes can be good, sometimes, like damsels in distress, they not only become emblematic of lazy writing, but also perpetuates a less-than-healthy view of reality (especially given how prevalent this one can be). That’s why I love using (500) Days of Summer as an example here, since though Summer very much fits the archetype, the film shows the consequences of the mindset.

In any case, it’s time to write better characters. Give a character depth, depth beyond “being quirky,” and give her life.

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Sorry Nate, There’s No Princess In This Castle

Let’s talk about damsels, because the idea of the damsel in distress goes way back and ‘cuz damseling female characters (especially in video games) kinda has to stop.

So what is a damsel in distress? Anita Sarkeesian succinctly describes it as “a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character…” This has been a staple of video games since very early on. In Super Mario Bros, Mario quests to save Princess Peach. This wasn’t necessarily bad, but it becomes a problem when the save-the-girl trope becomes systemic. It becomes old when I’m still saving Peach again nearly three decades later.

But let’s not focus on what games are doing wrong, since that’s plain depressing. Uncharted, in each of its three games, utilizes the damsel-in-distress trope, but in different ways each time. Given developer Naughty Dog’s near-legendary know-how of storytelling, it should come as no surprise that they know how to use and subvert this trope with great mastery.

The first game, Drake’s Fortune, seems to play the trope mostly straight. Reporter-of-sorts Elena, protagonist Nathan Drake’s sidekick/tagalong, gets captured early on in the story. The first chunk of the main story has Nate trekking to a castle to free Elena — only to get himself captured. It’s then Elena who busts him out, nicely turning the male-hero-rescues-imprisoned-female dynamic on its head. Elena does get captured again towards the end, and Nate sets out after her (and the treasure). It makes enough sense in context — and Elena is far from a helpless hostage, she fights her captors and effectively sets up the final confrontation of Nate and the villain. She’s damsel’d, yes, but she’s hardly helpless most of the time.

Elena shows up about halfway through Among Thieves, the second game; this time she meets Nate gun in hand, on her own (investigative) hunt for warlord Zoran Lazaravic. Not only does she not need saving: she’s now a fighter in her own right. This game doesn’t damsel her, and even getting caught in an explosion towards the end doesn’t make her the villain’s helpless captive.

But Among Thieves introduces a new character in Chloe, an old flame from Nate’s past who constantly  flips sides between good and bad. Nate, feeling like he’s dragged her into this mess, is eager to rescue her from Zoran’s camp. To do so, he fights his way along a train traveling through Nepal (that he got on with Elena’s help, which is also worth noting). But when he finds Chloe it turns out she doesn’t want to be saved: this ‘damsel’ has her own agenda. Nate — and by extension the player — may see Chloe as a damsel, but she’s hardly in distress. Here Naughty Dog subverts the players’ expectations that the damsel awaits the heroes with open arms. Instead, Chloe saves Nate’s ass when they reunite and then calls him out on his stupid heroics. Nate’s princess isn’t in another castle: Nate’s princess plain doesn’t exist.

So come the third game, Drake’s Deception, it’s almost expected that no female character gets damsel’d. And they don’t, at no point is Nate trying to save a captured woman. Instead, his best friend and father-figure Sully is captured. A good chunk of the second act has Nate trying to rescue Sully. Having an older man as the damsel rather than the typical attractive young-woman is a fun twist in and of itself. But Naughty Dog doesn’t let it end there. Nate’s unrelenting quest to rescue Sully gives us a glimpse into his own psyche. Sully being captured doesn’t just serve as an arbitrary goal for Nate; instead his capture forces Nate to confront his own inner demons, demons that only a smack on the head from a father-figure can cure him of. Dameseling a male character not only avoids unfortunate implications, but also lets us a see a more vulnerable Nate.

We need more video games like the Uncharted games. Hell, we need more stories like this. It’s wonderful to see women in an action-adventure genre who aren’t reduced to set dressing. Characters who, like Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, can hold their own and are fantastic in their own right. What Uncharted does is show that stories with strong plotting and motivation can be written without resorting to creating damsels in distress. It’s time to stop being lazy and to work on storytelling.

Postscript: Gameplay-wise, Chloe and Elena are useful allies in firefights, never becoming a burden. Furthermore, these games fantastic to play and not just for the narrative, they’re solid all around. Also Drake’s Deception is an example of what I was talking about last week, where we have a mixed cast but also bits of intimacy between Nate and Sully. See? It’s doable.

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