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Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel’s my favorite superhero. Well, most of the time; every now and then Iron Man noses his back to first place. But that’s beside the point.

Carol Danvers first showed up on my radar in 2013’s Infinity event where she was one of the Avengers fighting bad guys in space. It all culminates with, of course, the Avengers back on Earth fighting Thanos. Captain Marvel’s one of the hardest hitters, and it’s positively epic to see her, Thor, and Hulk throwing down with Thanos. I promptly got a hold of all of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run and the rest is history.

It stands to reason that I was super psyched when they announced Captain Marvel would be getting a movie of her own. And that movie finally came out last week and folks, let me tell you, Captain Marvel is a wonderful joy of a movie.

Part of what makes Captain Marvel work is how well the filmmakers nailed Carol’s character. Carol’s brash and headstrong, the sort who’ll jump first and think later. She’s also a very warm person, someone who frequently tries to do what’s right. And she’s super powerful, what with the flight, super-strength, and ability to shoot photon-blasts.

Her super-powered nature gives her the same issue as writing Superman: How do you make a foe for someone who’s essentially invincible? Now, Carol has her limits, sure, but the real hook to her character comes from her flaws.

Carol is someone who likes to solve problems by punching things. The natural way to give her pause is to provide her with an opponent who can’t be defeated by just punching things. The Skrulls of the movie are shapeshifters, able to assume the guise of a friend or enemy. Since it’s hard to know who’s really the enemy, fighting isn’t the solution. Instead, Carol sets out to find out why the Skrulls are here of all places, a question that, curiously, seems to be deeply entwined with Carol herself.

It’s hard for me to really hash out just how a lot of this works without getting into the plot and spoilers, which, given how new the movie is, I’d rather avoid. So things might get vague here, my apologies. Suffice to say, this movie doesn’t really have a big bad the way that basically every other Marvel movie does. Sure, there are villains, but there isn’t someone who Carol has to punch into submission to win.

The goal of most arcs is to self-actualize, that is to realize one’s potential. In action-y movies that’s usually beating the bad guy, whose role is to be the shadow of the hero, the question of what they could have been were things different. Tony Stark goes up against Obadiah Stane, a someone who would use Stark’s technology for militarization and power. Captain America fights Red Skull, the result of the super-soldier serum used on the wrong person. Their stories are about getting to the point where they can beat that person. In doing so, the hero proves they aren’t like the villain.

Self-actualization can also come from a more quiet place, one that’s often the mark of internal conflicts. Iron Man 2 sees a Tony Stark who struggles with himself and his own mortality. Though Vanko’s the villain, Tony’s primary conflict is with himself and his self-destructive behavior. It’s only when he overcomes that that he’s able to build the Mark VI and fight the bad guy.

Carol’s arc is similar; as an amnesiac who’s known only her life on Hala as part of the Kree Starforce, Earth holds mysteries for her to uncover. She’s trying to figure out why this place is important to her and, with it, who she is. Her fight is with herself, who she thinks she is, who people say she is, and who she really is. She has to first reconcile all that before she can properly fight the bad guys.

Captain Marvel throws all this at our hero, with enough turns to keep her on an off-foot throughout the film. Her awesome powers are balanced with her very real flaws, and the movie successfully translates that character I love from the comics to the screen. Here’s a movie that makes the most powerful badass in the MCU still interesting and flawed without compromising her character. Cheers to that, go see it.

And I cannot wait to watch Captain Marvel throw down with Thanos.

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Top Nine Movies of 2018

Captain Marvel came out this weekend but I have other engagements and so cannot nerd out intelligently. Instead, please enjoy a curated selection of movies from the past year that I consider exceptional in one way or another.

As always, there are nine because there’s always space for one more.

9. Bumblebee

Look, I’m as surprised as you are. As much as I am a sucker for giant robots, the Transformers movies have hitherto all been cheap thrills with not much else going for them. Bumblebee, however, is a movie where all that’s got a whole lotta heart behind it. Its 80s set plot draws on John Hughes and The Iron Giant creating a surprising, warm, delight of a film.

8. Annihilation

When I watch a movie I want to feel something. Annihilation so throughly envelopes you in this feeling of uneasy sublimity that I left the cinema haunted. It’s a beautiful watch, but the beauty within is not always a pleasant one.

7. If Beale Streets Could Talk

In this film there is nothing more important than the situation its protagonists find themselves in. Gorgeous cinematography and a wonderful score lend themselves to making this specific, tragic  story feel epic and yet personal.

6. Set It Up

I am a sucker for good rom-coms and Set It Up is so charming and so cute it’s hard not to fall in love. I’m sure I could find some intelligent-sounding reason for why this movie is on this list, but screw it, I just really liked it.

5. Crazy Rich Asians

I have a maddeningly complex relationship with this movie, owing to a complex relationship with Singapore and a dislike of the book it’s based on. And yet there’s so much about this movie I really like, from the changes to the book that improve it considerably to its excellent choice of music. So here it is.

4. Black Panther

Dude. This movie is proof of the wonder that happens when we let the underrepresented give us their fantastical vision. Unapologetically afro-futuristic, Black Panther is a tour de force in every department. It feels so fresh and, of course, is super cool.

3. Sorry To Bother You

This movie is weird. Delightfully, freakishly weird. Boots Riley’s movie comments on race, capitalism, and so much more in a surreal world that feels a little too real for comfort. It’s fun, it’s nuts, it’s terrific.

2. Eighth Grade

Coming-of-age movies are usually gentle affairs, kid gets older, learns something about life, so on. Eight Grade is a brutally honest take on all that, telling a story where something that seems so small in hindsight becomes as important as a superhero showdown with Thanos. It’s honest and full of heart, and truly special.

1. Into The Spider-Verse

This movie is a triumph. It’s rare that a movie does something quite this outlandish, incorporating so much of one medium (here: comics) to tell its story. It speaks to a masterful vision that it all comes together so well, creating a story that looks like nothing else. And what a story; Spider-Verse fully embraces the everyman nature of the Spidey mythos and soars.

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Showing, Not Telling

There’s this saying in writing that you should show, not tell; that is instead of telling the audience about how John is smart, write a scene where we get to see that John is smart. That way the audience can see how smart John is and think to themselves “Wow, John is smart.” Idea is because the audience drew their own conclusion (rather than being told such) it’ll resonate more.

A similar rule of thumb applies to video games, except instead of just seeing something it’s better to be able to play it. Watching a character fight a boss is one thing, getting to actually fight that boss is fantastic. Over the years, there have been different attempts by different game designers to figure out how to let players play scenes. Half Life never took control away from the player, allowing them to look around outside the tram car as they made their way into Black Mesa (or muck around in a room as a scientist provided story information). A clunkier solution was the use of quick time events, interactive cutscenes where you’d essentially press a button for your character not to die and the scene to continue. At its worst, these QTEs interrupted the flow of the game/cutscene: throwing in reflex-based minigames when you least expect it, forcing you to do over these scenes again and again.

The rationale behind QTEs – letting the player remain involved in scenes that don’t quite work with the controls – is a good one. Kingdom Hearts II had a really neat solution: Reaction Commands. During some fights with some enemies, a prompt would appear where if you hit triangle you would trigger a special move. If you were fighting a Samurai Nobody, you could trigger a stand-off where Sora and his opponent face off in a samurai movie style duel. Other Reaction Commands have him using an enemy’s abilities against the other bad guys or allowing for some really cool moves in boss fights. It adds depth to combat and, importantly and let’s the player be the one who pulls off that really badass anime-esque move.

It’s been a while since that game came out, though, and in the meantime others have been figuring out how to let the player take a more active role. Uncharted 2 let the player still be in control during big set pieces, like maneuvering through a collapsing building, fighting bad guys, and then jumping through the breaking window into the building next door. It’s a fairly typical trope for an action movie, but what makes it so cool in Uncharted 2 is that you are the one who does it. It’s not a cutscene or even a qte, you’re in complete control of Drake as he scrambles around. The bar was raised and many games followed suit, finding ways to keep the player in control during big moments, further immersing the player into the game.

All this brings me (once more) to Kingdom Hearts III where a lot of the action is not just unplayable but actually takes place off screen.

I’m gonna be talking about the ending here too, so there are spoilers beyond this point!

From the get go you’re told that Kairi and Axel are training to become Keyblade Wielders. Cool, but aside from one cutscene of them talking, we don’t actually see any of this happening until several hours later where we see them talking again before the climax. This is a small thing, but it’s emblematic of the game’s tendency to tell you about things more than showing you, much less, I dunno, getting to play as Kairi or Axel as they train. But maybe that’s me asking more of the game than it offered.

The ending, however, sees Xehanort defeated but a slain Kairi not rescued. So Sora sets off to rescue her, ignoring Mickey’s warning that misusing his Power of Waking could have dire consequences. And that’s it until, during the epilogue, we see Sora and Kairi sitting on a tree in the Destiny Islands…and he fades away.

The intended tragedy of Sora sacrificing himself to save Kairi doesn’t quite land, however; in no small part because we don’t actually get to see it happen. While there is certainly a measure of poetic understatement in how it’s portrayed on screen, we’re not given nearly enough lead up for it to really work. If we’re gonna make Kairi need to be rescued again, why don’t we get to actually rescue her? For it to just happen offscreen feels so anticlimactic and robs it of its emotional weight.

I have my issues with Kingdom Hearts III, particularly how its pacing feels so darn weird. That so much of the plot happens off screen, including a vital part of the epilogue, leaves the player (me) feeling really unfulfilled. Point is, show, don’t tell; and if you’re making a video game, let us play the important bits.

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Frickin’ Damsels

The original Kingdom Hearts follows a pretty typical story structure. Boy is childhood friends with Girl and Rival. Home gets destroyed, everyone gets separated. Boy sets out to find Girl and Rival. Girl is captured by bad guys, Rival turns to dark side. Boy rescues Girl, helps redeem Rival.

In the third game, Kingdom Hearts II (don’t ask about the numbering), the Girl, Kairi, winds up being captured by the bad guys again and the Boy, Sora, sets out to rescue her again. There are turns and twists, more Disney worlds, and stuff.

There’s nothing really ~fancy~ inherent in the broad strokes of the games’ stories, most of the fun comes from its aesthetic of mixing Final Fantasy tropes with Disney characters and worlds. They draw a lot from the Disney canon and Saving The Princess is a big part of that whole thing. Plus, rescuing Kairi isn’t the big climax or resolution of the first game. Even after she’s rescued there’s still Stuff To Do. It’s not an excuse for damseling her, by no means, but it’s something. She also gives Sora the Oathkeeper Keybalde (which is objectively the best Keyblade).

The good news is that even though she does wind up something of a damsel in Kingdom Hearts II, by the end of it she’s using her own Keyblade and fighting bad guys. That’s right, after all this time having Sora and Riku save her, now she can fight her own battles.

Anyway, thirteen real-world years go by, a bunch of other Kingdom Hearts games come out and I play a couple of them. And finally, Kingdom Hearts III, the tenth game in the series (please don’t ask about the numbering) came out last month. Something teased by the prior games is that it’s been leading up to a bunch of heroes fighting a bunch of villains, one of those fighting heroes being a Keyblade wielding Kairi. Which, dope. Let’s have the Boy, Girl, and Rival fighting together against the bad guy in the kind of anime showdown I’ve been awaiting for the past thirteen odd years.

Alright, here there be spoilers for Kingdom Hearts III, as I’m gonna be getting into plot details. I haven’t finished the game yet, but I’m getting real close to that final boss.

Kairi gets sidelined for a good chunk of the game, off training with another character. Cool, fine, but we only see her in a couple cutscenes, which is a bit of a bummer, but, fine, it’s fundamentally Sora’s story after all. When everyone shows up at the Keyblade Graveyard it’s finally time to rock and roll, and everyone’s fighting. After an initial defeat, it’s Kairi who rescues Sora after he’s saved everyone else, which is a delightful twist to have him be saved by her for a change. Look at how this game has grown, man!

Big showdown happens again, with Sora going to his allies in turn to assist them in fighting one of the villains. It’s while helping Kairi that the fight is interrupted with a cutscene — and Kairi gets captured by Xemnas who overpowers her by twisting her hand over her head.

Okay.

So.

Kairi, Keyblade wielder, is overpowered that easily? And then she’s turned into a damsel again!? It’s frustrating how straight this is played, Kairi makes no attempt to fight back against Xemnas, instead struggling helplessly. Sora, of course, is pissed and here we go again, a male character motivated by the endangerment of his sometimes love interest.

Great.

Oh, but wait, it gets better.

Sora defeats Xemnas and the other villains and is now staring down the Big Bad Xehanort. He taunts Sora, summoning an unconscious Kairi, and decides that Sora needs some motivation.

So he kills Kairi.

Explicitly to give Sora some motivation. The villain (and narrative) effectively fridges Kairi for the plot.

Look, I love Kingdom Hearts but it’s 2019, can we please stop treating female characters like this? We’ve done the damsel in distress over and over again, can we just, not? Can’t there be some other motivation for Sora to really wanna defeat Xehanort besides him offing Kairi? It’s lazy, and frustrating, especially when the story’s already made her a fighter. It seems like the game undercuts her growth at every turn, reducing her again and again to being just a plot point for Sora to be motivated by or to rescue. As other major games have been making great strides in how they handle female characters, it’s such a shame to see Kingdom Hearts regress to old habits. It’s just plain lazy.

I haven’t finished the game yet, and maybe, just maybe I’m judging the game prematurely; maybe just maybe they’ll find a way to redeem Kairi’s character. But somehow, I doubt it; at the end of it all, Kairi’s just another damsel. Again.

And to top it all off, I didn’t even get Oathkeeper out of it.

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Final Bosses

A mainstay staple of video games is the final boss. After a number of levels (or dungeons, chapters, what have you) you finally fight the Biggest Baddest Boss, the defeat of which leads to  winning the game and the ultimate resolution. It’s the climax of the game, both from a gameplay perspective and narrative one: everything has led to this.

It’s important that the Final Boss feels like a Final Boss, though. I love Uncharted 3, but one issue the game has is that it’s final boss, a showdown with Talbot, doesn’t quite land. Talbot hasn’t really been Nate’s nemesis, so the fight, though big, doesn’t really feel like That Big Moment. Comparatively, Rafe in Uncharted 4 spends much of the game as a foil for Nate, so fighting him is not just a culmination of the game, but also feels in many ways like Nate fighting his own inner demons.

The Mega Man games, though a series that varies wildly on narrative quality, is a stellar example of mythic storytelling. This extends to its grasp of the Final Boss. After beating the eight (or so) regular bosses and going through the multiple levels of Wiley’s fortress, Mega Man has to reface the eight (or so) prior bosses one after another before finally fighting Wiley. But because you, the player, have already beaten these guys, you know their patterns and their weaknesses and will have a much easier time beating them than long before. In the lead up to the final fight you can see how much you’ve grown; now that you can beat Heat Man easily you’re definitely ready to take on Wiley. Before facing that Final Boss it’s important to remember all that came before and how now, more than ever before, you’re ready for this culmination.

And guess what! The Final Boss principle applies to stories as much as they do to games. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious, the Final Boss in Empire Strikes Back is Darth Vader, whom Luke must face to complete his arc in that story. That one plays out not too much unlike how it would in a video game: it’s a hero against a villain, the hero hoping his training pays off. But it doesn’t have to be a conflict like that. Hot Rod has a Final Boss, and it’s not Rod finally kicking his step-father’s ass. It’s him attempting that massive jump over the busses: it’s his moment, it’s what the movie has led to, it’s what allows him to self-actualize.

Of course, Final Bosses aren’t always so obviously so; just about any good story should have one. Eighth Grade doesn’t have much in the way of villains for Kayla to fight, but there still is a Final Boss. In a nice touch, Kayla’s Final Boss turns out to not be another girl or even the guy that tried to take advantage of her: it’s herself, from the past. When Kayla opens a time capsule she’d left herself a couple years ago she’s forced to reckon with who she thought she’d be by now. Despite not seeming like a particularly big moment it’s a profound one for Kayla that leads to a quiet resolution with her father and a renewed lease on life. It’s the opponent that Kayla must overcome to succeed. We know it’s her Final Boss because we’ve spent the past hour-plus with her, and we know how much this means to her.

It’s when a Final Boss isn’t particularly clear that a story’s pacing begins to feel wonky. Alita: Battle Angel is a really fun movie that I really enjoyed, but couldn’t help but feel let down by the ending because it turns out I hadn’t realized Alita was fighting the movie’s final boss when she was; something that’s complicated by us not really knowing what it is Alita wants. Luke Skywalker and Mega Man want to defeat Darth Vader and Dr. Wiley, so we know who their bosses are. Rod Kimble wants to be a stuntman, and so accomplishing that is his Final Boss. Kayla struggles with being comfortable as herself, and so she is her own Final Boss.

For Alita it’s not clear if the big motorball game is the titular character’s Final Boss, or if it’s the giant cyborg who’s been plaguing her throughout. Or the guy pulling the cyborg’s strings. Or the guy pulling that guy’s strings. If Alita is a story about identity (and it certainly feels like one) shouldn’t her Final Boss involve her declaring who she is? That the movie’s Final Boss happened without me realizing (and honestly, I’m still not sure who or what it was) leads to a feeling of hanging threads with the story. ‘cuz man, I wanted to see Alita and the Final Boss square off!

Final Bosses and climaxes are similar enough ideas, but I think I like the term Final Boss because it’s clear that that encounter is with the ultimate obstacle. It’s what the hero has to overcome to ‘win,’ to self-actualize. It can be a big fight or a personal reflection, but most importantly, we gotta know what it is when it happens.

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KH3: GOTY 2008ish

As I continue to play Kingdom Hearts III while balancing all these newfound adult responsibilities that have sprung up since Kingdom Hearts II came out thirteen years ago, I’m struck over and over again by how much of a flashback the game is. Not just in the way that it makes me feel like a teenager again, but in how it embodies a game design ethos that’s been eschewed by a more contemporary zeitgeist.

For example: Invisible walls.

Virtual game spaces are limited by nature —there’s only so much world you can code. Figuring out how to demarcate that boundary has been a near-constant tension in game design. Mario cannot go backwards once the screen has advanced, if Mega Man tries to go beyond the edges of the map it’s a bottomless pit and he dies. Classic Pokémon has its hedges and fences that prevent you from wandering off the map. As games progressed into a more proper 3D space, limiting the play area became harder. There was only so much mileage you could get out of high walls and bottomless pits when you’re trying to make these massive, immersive spaces. Invisible walls were one solution; here’s a foot-high fence but try to jump over it and you’ll be unable to proceed. It’s an understandable device, but over time level designers have found more elegant solutions, be it by hiding those invisible walls in a thicket of trees, creating a level so intricate that the player cannot easily find the edge, or using a narrative intervention where the player’s character decides to turn around (and if you don’t you die!).

Kingdom Hearts III is having none of that and is all about those straight-up invisible walls. Not even the sort where they make it look there’s a ~magical~ barrier; nah, these are actual invisible walls that prevent you from jumping on to that rock over there that you could probably almost definitely reach. It’s almost charming in its bluntness, in how no attempt is made to disguise it. It’s positively old fashioned, particularly jarring against the game’s very contemporary graphics.

This probably factors into the nostalgic factor of the game, but there are so many things that make Kingdom Hearts III feel like a much older game. Where many modern games have been trying to find ways to keep players in control as much as possible, Kingdom Hearts III goes all in on its massive combat finishers and the like — these things are long enough for me to put the controller down and take a hefty sip of my beer! And also limited combos in an action game? The Arkham games and more recently Spider-Man let you whale on opponents endlessly, but Kingdom Hearts III still rocks the upgradeable three-hit-combo. When you’re used to being able to chain together hits, blocks, and dodges it’s weird to have to operate within a paradigm that requires a more measured approach that somehow also means mashing ‘X’ a lot.

Then there’s the animation. Major AAA game studios are all about that motion capture these days: they get actors to actually act out the scenes and then animate based on that. It’s what gives the beautiful cutscenes that Naughty Dog is known for. Kingdom Hearts III makes no attempt at that verisimilitude. Sora, Donald, and Goofy will stand around in cutscenes in their default stance, gesture as part of their dialogue/action, and then return back to their default immediately after. This was par for the course around the time Kingdom Hearts II came out in 2005, but it’s been a while, man. Once again, it’s almost charming to see how much this game harkens back to an earlier time; if anything it’s a marker of how far the ethos of game designed has evolved over the years.

I still don’t know if Kingdom Hearts III is an objectively good game. But what I do know is that I’m having an absolute blast playing it and, had this game been released closer to its predecessor, it’d definitely be a contender for Game of The Year… but, like, in 2008.

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Thirteen Or So Years Later

I think it was my cousin who turned me in to Kingdom Hearts, years ago, via a ROM of Chain of Memories. It was a novel game, mixing as it did Disney worlds with a Final Fantasy mentality. I played the original PS2 game later and shortly after rented the third game, Kingdom Hearts II from Blockbuster (remember those?) and subsequently bought it. This was all back around the summer of 2006.

This past Tuesday, the tenth non-remake game in the series came out: Kingdom Hearts III (the numbering system is weird, man). I’ve frequently made the joke that I’ve gotten old waiting for the game to come out, a gag which culminated in a recent Instagram post. It’s been a long time since Kingdom Hearts II and it to finally be holding — and playing — this game feels almost surreal.

I’m not talking about the plot here. Though III is the third numbered sequel and tenth game, all those spin-offs, interquels, and prequels have all been integral to the overarching story. But never mind the scope, length, or complexity of those games; here at last is a big one meant for the PS4 (and XBox One) and meant to be played on a tv. This is Kingdom Hearts freaking III. Not 2.8, not 358/2 Days, and not 3D: Dream Drop Distance, it’s frickin’ III.

So like I said, it’s surreal to finally be playing a proverbial white whale of video games. I’m playing Kingdom Hearts again, man. I did buy and play the remakes for the PS3, so it’s not like I haven’t touched this world in the last dozen-odd years. The sense of the surreal doesn’t stem from an unfamiliarity to it all — I’m quite used to seeing Mickey Mouse discussing the darkness in people’s hearts. It’s that here’s a new game, so long after the last one and yet so familiar. I’m playing this game in my apartment in Queens, and yet in some ways I feel like I’m a teenager back in South Carolina on summer vacation. For all its shiny graphics and the bells and whistles afforded as a major contemporary game, much of Kingdom Hearts feels like an older game; it very much plays like its predecessors.

It’s a good sequel in that it feels like a continuation. But through it all, I’m terribly curious about why this game, at once very new and yet more familiar than just about any sequel I’ve played resonates so strongly. What is it about it that tinges it with such nostalgia?

Part of it, I reckon, is because it’s a video game. Games are, by their nature, interactive and thus there is a level of projection to their immersion. I’m the one who rescued Kairi and teamed up with Donald Duck and Goofy to beat Ansem. Returning to an old series will of course bring back those memories. The other thing is that no other game quite has mechanics like the core Kingdom Hearts games. Sure, I spent a lot of time playing Halo when I was younger, but replaying it or embarking on its sequels reminds me of how great a first-person shooter it is. There’s no other game that plays quite the same as these, even director Tetsuya Nomura and Square Enix’s other Final Fantasy games aren’t quite similar.

Then of course there’s how singular this game is. Where else are ya gonna get Donald Duck, Jack Sparrow, and a kid with anime hair fighting monsters? The nostalgia towards Kingdom Hearts no doubt builds off of childhood memories of Disney stories, retold now in the over-the-top melodrama expected of a quality JRPG. I’ve shot space aliens in Halo, Mass Effect, and a plethora of Star Wars games; I’ve gone treasure hunting and spelunking in Uncharted, Tomb Raider, and Assassin’s Creed. But there’s really no other game quite like Kingdom Hearts.

I’m only five-or-so hours into the game. Unlike the Josh of thirteen years ago, I have a job and other adult responsibilities to attend to. But the game’s a lotta fun. It doesn’t matter too much how ‘good’ it is (and I’m not so sure it’s really that good for a game released in 2019), it’s a new big Kingdom Hearts game and it’s about time.

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