Tag Archives: adaptation

Adaptation By Someone Else

One game that got some press at last week’s E3, the game industry’s annual event where games are announced and/or demo’d, was the upcoming Total War: Three Kingdoms. Apparently it was announced back in January, but I hadn’t heard of it until now.

And I am intrigued.

The Total War series are strategy games that unlike, say, StarCraft or Red Alert, tend to focus on real wars, be they Roman, Napoleonic, or set in Feudal Japan. They’ve been on the periphery of my awareness, as games that are cool — and I do like my strategy games — but I’ll probably never check out. But they’re making one set in the Three Kingdoms!

Three Kingdoms, for the uninitiated, refers to a classic period in Chinese history during the fall of the Han dynasty where the realm was split between, well, three warring kingdoms. The stories were more-or-less codified in Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of Three Kingdoms, an epic that romanticizes the period in a big way. The book, and the surrounding history, has been the source for countless works in China (and neighboring East Asian countries), be they in film, television, or video games.

So Total War: Three Kingdoms has my attention for turning its attention towards a source you usually don’t see in western media. Despite being incredibly prolific in Asia, you’re not really likely to encounter Romance of Three Kingdoms or anything based on it unless you’re actively looking for it. To see a Western strategy game focus on stories that I heard growing up is really, really neat.

But it also raises some questions.

There’s already been a ridiculous amount of games (and media) based on and around Romance of Three Kingdoms. Dynasty Warriors has been around for over twenty years and we’ve had movies like Red Cliff. What difference does it make that some other group is telling the story? And why is my gut response “oh, cool!”?

Maybe it’s because it’s exciting to see something considered kinda niche be put a little bit closer to the mainstream. These are stories I know about because I grew up in a culture around them (Zhuge Liang was a fixture in bedtime stories) and took a class to study the book in college, but most of my other peers (here, in New York) aren’t terribly aware of them. A western developer making a game about it is sorta uplifting the stories from their corner and into a spotlight.

Which then raises the question of why it seems like it’s being uplifted. Is Romance of Three Kingdoms just being big in Asia not good enough? Why does it getting attention from the West make it seem like more of a big deal? We tend to categorize stories and genres; drama is taken more serious than an action movie, live action taken more serious than animation, and so on. The Three Kingdoms period taking front-and-center in a western video game makes it seem like it’s finally being ‘taken serious,’ but it’s already been taken serious for years (heck, generations), in other parts of the world.

I think this might be something that’s more self-reflective than anything. My excitement at seeing this has to force me to ask myself why do I feel this way about this. ‘cuz all the reactions I write about here are my own, and I have to wonder why I’m so quick to discount Dynasty Warriors or other works based around the Three Kingdoms. It’s a sort of latent colonial thinking, where something from a non-Western group is not as good, or as cool, as something done by a Western group.

None of this, of course, should be seen as a negative take on Total War: Three Kingdoms or the fact that I may actually get this game (I get to field Liu Bei as a hero? Awesome). I still think it’s really cool to see it in the spotlight like this, but I still have to ask myself: why am I excited about it now?

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Letting Lara Down

I was pretty excited for the Tomb Raider movie that came out a couple weeks ago. I’m a huge fan of the game it was based on, the Tomb Raider reboot that came out in 2013. The game was an origin story for Lara Croft, one that gameplay-wise took cues from the Uncharted series it had partially inspired but then been eclipsed by. One thing I really liked about the game was how it made Lara less of a sex object. Gone were the catsuits, short shorts, and crop tops; in were the khakis and tank top (it mayn’t sound like much on paper, but the difference is marked). In addition, the game turned Lara into a survivor; shipwrecked on a mysterious island, she hunts for food, searches for her friends, fights bad guys, and uncovers a mystery. If the movie could capture that then we were in for a ride.

And, well, it kinda does, but more than anything the adaptation really plays down its women. Which is as frustrating as it is odd.

Heads up, we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of plot here, so spoilers abound as we dig around.

Let’s talk Lara, since she is, after all, our protagonist. In the film, she’s a down-on-her-luck heiress who can’t receive her fortune because she refuses to sign the papers confirming her father is dead. She’s a courier struggling to make ends meet who only ends up going on her adventure when circumstances force her to her inheritance and the discovery of her dad’s research into the mythical island of Yamatai. There’s nothing quite bad here (except that pacing-wise this takes up a solid third of the movie); it’s honestly fairly typical as far as hero stories go and all that. But it really does the Lara of the 2013 video game a disservice.

Lara, in the game, is an archeological grad student; so right of the bat Lara is presented as being both intelligent and educated. She’s clued in on the myth of Yamatai by her college friend  Sam Nishimura, who herself is a descendant of the Yamatai people. Lara’s subsequent research convinces the Nishimura family to fund an expedition looking for Yamatai and to find the fate of its mysterious Sun-Queen, Himiko. In the game’s version of events Lara is given a lot more agency in the story. The expedition to Yamatai is of her own design, not something she takes on from her father. So not only is Lara an archeologist by trade, but she’s one competent enough to make an expedition happen. You could argue that the movie makes her more relatable, but Indiana Jones is a university professor and no one says he’s unrelatable.

Within the different backstories is a key difference: Sam. In the movie, Yamatai is something Lara investigates because of her father. The game positions it as something she’s into and found out about because of a (female) friend. Look, there’s nothing wrong with a young woman going on a quest to find her father (heck, it’s a trope I’m fond of), but the game’s plot both shows us a Lara with more agency and offers a version of events where Lara’s quest doesn’t revolve around a male character, rather displaying the friendship between two women.

And without Sam, we’re also without a lot of what makes Himiko interesting. In the movie, she’s a long-dead queen with a disease that, when infected, makes people disintegrate, and so was sequestered away on Yamatai. The Himiko of the game, however, was a supernatural queen who ruled Yamatai with an iron fist, transferring her soul into younger bodies to gain a sort of immortality. When a rogue successor took her own life rather than be a host, Himiko was trapped in her body and her kingdom declined. Along comes Sam centuries later, and Mathias (who’s the main antagonist in both versions) wants to offer her up as a new host. So it’s up to Lara to save the day. Once again, the game, by being a little more over the top, has a narrative with a lot more women doing stuff. Himiko isn’t Plague Victim Zero, she’s an immortal queen who was thwarted by a brave young woman. The present day sees Lara saving her best friend and putting to rest a vengeful, weather-controlling spirit. In the movie it’s Lara’s father who, once infected, blows up himself and Himiko’s remains. Lara still stops Mathias in the movie, but she’s given one less thing to do.

Look, the movie’s flaws are plenty and they mostly fall into the realm of plotting and structure. But the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise offered a new vision of Lara Croft and her mythos, one that featured a kickass Lara that was surrounded by other women of note. The film offers a perfectly fine Lara, but she’s a far cry from the one in the game. Like I said, it’s frustrating to see a movie take a narrative that’s so female driven and, well, take away its women’s agency. The source material was so rich; had so much going for it. And yet. Here we are. A decent enough strong female protagonist who could have been so much more.

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We Don’t Need No Adaptation

Your Name is an anime film about a couple teens that randomly wake up in each others bodies. One’s a guy at an elite school in Tokyo, the other a girl who lives in a more traditional, rural town. Naturally, hijinks ensure, and I’m left weepy in the cinema as the credits roll.

It’s very much a body swapping love story, but it’s one that holds extra depth due to its intense focus on longing. Much of the romance that blooms between Taki and Mitsuha is due to them knowing each other so well but being unable to really meet. It’s further accentuated by the anime’s gorgeous animation, with some fantastic visual touches that could only be done in an animated movie (seriously, even if you ignore the magnificently crafted narrative, Your Name is a visual wonderland).

Point is, I really like this movie, it is really good, and you should watch it.

It was also just announced that Paramount pictures was teaming up with J. J. Abrams to adapt it into a live action film.

Which is as pointless as it is frustrating.

Look, I’ve nothing against Abrams, he’s a fine director who’s made some of my more favorite films in recent memory (The Force Awakens, Star Trek, Super 8), but you can’t help but to wonder why this movie even needs to happen.

Well, you can: money. Your Name was a ridiculously successful hit in Japan, and, to quite an extent, overseas. It stands to good reason that by adapting it to a more ‘conventional’ medium (live action film) it will make Even More Money, which, well, cynically, is the goal of a lot of art.

But let’s ignore that for now.

If Your Name, a movie that came out barely a year ago in Japan, is being made into a live action western film, then there has to be some need for it, right? Your Name is a beautiful story, one that I can’t recommend strongly enough (as was insistently recommended to me and I then passed on). It’s something of a shame, then, that it’s an anime and thus will only fall into a niche audience of a) people who will watch an anime film, and 2) an anime film that’s relatively ‘realistic’ and not as pulpy as the medium is known for.

In which case, yes, by all means, let’s bring this story to a wider audience.

But why?

Why is it that a film like Your Name needs to be ‘uplifted’ by removing it from where it came? Is it because anime, as a medium, isn’t good enough? Sure seems that way. There’s this weird prejudices against certain medium as not being good enough. A movie can get discounted just because it’s an anime film, just as a story, no matter how moving, can be dismissed if it’s found in a video game. There’s an artistic pecking order, as it were, where certain genres are more artsy than others (drama more so than comedy), and in turn certain mediums are more artsy than others (books over comics). Adapting Your Name to a live action film would, in this mindset, make it more artistically pure. Which is a load of crap; mediums are a means of storytelling. There are some stories that only work in one way, (500) Days Of Summer wouldn’t really work as anything except a film and Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye would lose so much if it were anything but a comic book. It’s a matter of we, as an audience, getting over the fact that Your Name is an anime.

Because there are some things that cannot be adapted. Sure, you can make The Lord of The Rings into a twelve hour saga that’s incredible in its own right, but there’s no way to turn Joyce’s Ulysses into anything but its tome without losing so much of what makes it special. Similarly, Your Name is so rooted in not just its Japanese-ness, but in its anime-ness. Many of the visual touches are of the sort you can only do in animation. So much of what makes the film so magical will be lost with the ‘realism’ of live action, but any attempt to stylize reality (a la Scott Pilgrim) runs the risk of trampling over normal life-ness that makes the heightened reality of Your Name work. The film masterfully straddles an extraordinarily thin line, and it’s one that only works because it’s an anime, not in spite of.

If this adaptation really gets off the ground, then maybe the best course of action would be to just taking the very kernel of the idea (city boy and rural girl sometimes wake up in each others’ bodies and hijinks ensue) rather than trying to adapt it proper. Don’t gild the lily, let Your Name exist and excel in its own right with all of its idiosyncrasies.

And besides, adapting it means losing its dope soundtrack.

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What’s The Point of Movies?

I’m replaying Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (and it is wonderful) and I can’t help but to be reminded that there’s supposed to be a movie adaption of this game happening. Like, it’s been in development since 2010. Every now and then there’ll be some announcement (apparently Tom Holland is playing a young Nathan Drake now?), but then it fizzles out into the background. Kinda like how film adaption of The Last of Us went, there was a bunch of buzz, and now we’re three years later aaaand… nothing.

But video games are being made into movies. There was that Assassin’s Creed film last year that nobody saw and meanwhile Alicia Vikander looks pitch perfect in the upcoming reboot of the Tomb Raider movies (this time based on the reboot of the Tomb Raider video games). This isn’t a post about development hell. This is about adaptions.

A Thief’s End takes around fifteen hours to play through. Now, I bring up Thief’s End because it doesn’t have as much gameplay-and-story separation as, say, Halo. Exploration is part of the narrative in A Thief’s End, both for the dialogue between characters as it happens, and for it being part of the game’s central quest. Basically, it’s not filler. It’s a fifteen hour game and a  fifteen hour story.

Fifteen hours is, obviously, thirteen hours longer than your typical movie. It’s about the length of a full season of Star Wars Rebels, or the final season of LOST. It’s longer than the entire extended Lord of The Rings trilogy.

In other words, why bother compressing it into a two hour movie? What’s about movie do better than other forms of story? Let’s ignore the fact that big movies get budgets several orders of magnitude bigger than tv shows or whatever, why two hours and not more? Books give you hundreds of pages to explore character and plot, tv shows a couple dozen episodes a season, and video games hours and hours of gameplay. If you’re telling a story, these mediums offer you much more space to explore it. More time to hang out with characters and experience this fictional world.

But too much of a good thing can be bad. It’s why you don’t eat a pound of bacon. Crazy Rich Asians has five-hundred pages to tell its story and ends up meandering around and having little plot, if any, until the last hundred-odd pages where it’s a rushed jumble of half-rate melodrama. There’s a film adaption coming, and maybe compressing it into two hours will do it some good.

‘cuz that’s what happens when you set a limit on the time to tell your story: you gotta focus on the important stuff. The film adaption of The Princess Bride dispenses with a lot of the satire and sideplots in favor of a great love story and the relationship between a kid and his grandfather. Movies, good ones, have to zero in on what really matters to a story. Fundamentally, Guardians of The Galaxy Vol 2 is about family, and by only have two hours, the movie is able to home in on it. Every character confronts the notion of family in one way or another. Even thought the movie’s plot does waffle a bit, it knows full well what it’s about. The runtime of a film forces a cohesiveness to the story, if it’s, y’know, done well.

A Thief’s End isn’t a great example of a game-to-movie adaption, since the structure is so wonderfully tight (seriously, I’m taking notes). There’s not as much narrative fluff to trim as, say, the new Tomb Raider or even Mass Effect. The abounded film adaption of Halo could have done interesting stuff by zeroing in on Chief and Cortana’s relationship set against the fight against the Covenant and the Flood. Movies feel whole, more complete than a tv show (which, by nature, needs to have room for one more episode) or video games (which tend to be longer because, dude, they cost sixty bucks).

I don’t think A Thief’s End should be directly adapted into a movie, and the only reason I have any want for Uncharted to become a movie at all is so non-gamers like my parents can fall in love with these characters. But I don’t think a cinematic adaption’s gonna ‘elevate’ it more than it is. Movies do some things great, but so do video games (and tv, and books, and comics, and plays…). Maybe we should let some games just be games, and let movies do their thing.

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Feels Like It

Ever played Star Wars? No, not Force Unlesahed or Rogue Squadron, we’re talking the Star Wars game, the original 1983 arcade game from Atari. It’s not the most complex game out there. In lieu of sprites the game uses crude vector graphics to give you an outline of TIE Fighters (that shoot fireballs), laser turrets, and the classic trench run. Using the yoke you fly through space, attack TIE Fighters and dodge obstacles. Like the Millennium Falcon, the game may not look like much but it’s got it where it counts. Star Wars the game feels like Star Wars the movie. You get to fly a freaking X-Wing, zipping around the Death Star and firing lasers. It controls smooth and, yes, you can also fire a proton torpedo into the exhaust port.

his ‘feel,’ that an adaption must capture the spirit of whatever it’s adapting, is terribly important. A movie-from-a-book has to provoke the feeling of the book, as does a sequel. The Hunger Games needs to carry over the books’ feeling of desperate insurrection, Star Wars Episode VII has to have that sense of wonder and high adventure the Holy Trilogy had.

It’s equally important in video games, which adapt reality (or semi-reality, or fantasy, or abstract ideas) into an interactive medium. While developing Super Mario 64, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to make sure that just controlling Mario was fun, regardless of the environment. Game feel, as this is called, is crucial to gaming. Pac-Man has to respond to quick changes in the joystick and the car you’re driving should move like one too. If it doesn’t, it breaks the connection between the player and the game. That’s game feel which, important as it is, isn’t quite what I’m talking about.

When you’re playing a game, particularly one adapting an established work, gameplay has to reflect that work. Like I said before, flying that X-Wing in the arcade feels like how you’d imagine flying an X-Wing would. If a game about flying an X-Wing wouldn’t let you fire proton torpedoes or make those wonderful sound effects, it wouldn’t be as good.

A game that does this really well is Spider-Man that came out for the PS1 in 2000. Sure, it’s not the most graphically advanced (or even feature rich) game by today’s standards, but it feels like Spider-Man. You can swing around levels, stick to the ceiling and climb along the walls. Spidey doles out wisecracks and quips along the way as you beat up thugs and villains like Mysterio and Rhino. For all intents and purposes, you are Spider-Man. And thus the game is an absolute joy to play. Newer Spider-Man games, for all their open world New Yorks, longer playtimes, and additional features, can get bogged down in trying to find a special gimmick when, really, being Spider-Man is the biggest feature the game needs, so long as it feels like a Spider-Man game through gameplay and story.

he game LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is another great example of a game that gets it right. There’s an open world New York City to explore between missions that, well, isn’t exactly accurate (the Empire State Building is not that close to the Brooklyn Bridge!), but hey, it seems like it well enough. More importantly, the super heroes feel like the super heroes.

Let’s start with Iron Man. In the Mark VI, Tony can fly around (and double tapping X speeds him up with a spiffy sonic boom effect). Fighting mooks has him firing repulsors or punching aided by his repulsors. Alternately he can fire a charged blast from his chest or aim at a bunch of targets and he’ll fire rockets (y’know, like in that scene). This wonderful. Playing as Iron Man feels like Iron Man. Just flying around New York and destroying street lamps with your rockets is a pleasure.

The team behind LEGO Marvel Superheroes show that they love the source material throughout the game. Fighting as Black Widow can trigger finishing moves ripped straight from the films. Playable characters include all of the Sinister Six, Ms Marvel, Deadpool, and even Howard the Duck. The game is interactive fanservice, and it is wonderful. Playing the game evokes the same sense that the movies, comics, or even the culture around the Marvel property does.

Games like this are great because they capture the escapism that makes the concept so great. The Arkham series lets you beat up thugs and supervillains with the smooth, restrained brutality you’d expect from Batman. Halo allows you to be an unstoppable supersoldier. Burnout Paradise gives you the thrill of racing through a city. Basically, what I’m saying is if a game’s gonna let you fly an X-Wing or be a superhero, it had darn well better let you.

Further Reading: Henry Jenkins’ article on Narrative Architecture, particularly the section Evocative Spaces beginning on page 5. I may not completely agree with him, but he makes valid points that had a bearing of influence on this essay.

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Why The Last of Us Should and Shouldn’t Be a Movie

Big news broke on Thursday: The Last of Us is becoming a live action movie. Now, you have to understand, I love The Last of Us. I wrote a final paper on it (see notes here), I wrote about its characters and convictions, and I wrote on how it’s a grownup video game.

I’ve said before that The Last of Us is an incredible game that deserves to be seen in a more literary light. And now it is, it’s being made into a movie so more people can experience it.

At least that’s Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper’s idea. Honestly, I have to agree. The Last of Us is a phenomenal piece of storytelling period. Video games remain something of a niche market; one sometimes deemed inaccessible. For good reason too: movies don’t require viewers to buy a $300 piece of equipment to watch them and then force them to complete challenges to see what happens next. A cinematic adaptation of The Last of Us would nullify this and allow anyone to experience Joel and Ellie’s story.

Thing is, The Last of Us is an incredibly visceral story, due in no small part to the fact that you’re playing as Joel. The tension in battles with the Infected and other people and the relief of those long quiet moments in between are all heightened because it’s you fighting the Infected and you initiating conversations with Ellie about football mascots. This is what gaming does best; making you feel truly involved in the action. A film wouldn’t be able to capture the same kind of rush of the battle and emotional bond with the characters.

With that, casting presents another obstacle. Voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are intrinsically inseparable from Joel and Ellie. Their performances are incredible, bringing life to fantastic characters. Whoever plays them in the movie would have to be wonderfully cast, else much of their dynamic — that blend of tension and affection — would be lost. And it’s the bond between Joel and Ellie —not the Infected or the American wastes— that makes The Last of Us.

But then, Neil Druckmann, writer and Creative Director of the game, is confirmed to be writing the film. Druckmann has more than proved himself a competent writer with The Last of Us and Left Behind. And who better to write a film adaptation than the original writer? He knows what’s at the heart of the game and how to keep it in a film.

I have hope for this, mostly because Druckmann is writing but also because Bruce Straley, The Last of Us’ Game Director, is producing the film with Naughty Dog’s co-presidents and Sam Raimi. The creative core of the game is on the film too.

There are things they’ll have to do for it to work One would be keeping the extreme violence and consistent swearing that built game’s tone (and thereby earning a hard R-rating). A second would be casting two leads who would be able to match Baker and Johnson’s nuance and chemistry. Most importantly, Druckmann and team will have to adapt The Last of Us not as a game but as a story. We don’t need scenes of Joel crouching down and listening or incessant crafting; what we need are those quiet moments of conversation between the two protagonists.

Do I think The Last of Us needed to be made into a movie? No. It’s one of the best video games of not just its generation but of all times. It used its medium to great effect, telling a story unlike any other.

But now that it is do I want it to be a good one? Of course. Stripped of the experience of the game it remains a phenomenal story one that, rightly, deserves a wider non-gaming audience.

One thing’s for sure, though, they need Gustavo Santaolalla’s score.

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Heart of a Child

I grew up in the 90’s with a steady diet of Lego, Jedi, superhero cartoons, mecha anime, Power Rangers, and Ninja Turtles. All this was peppered in with bedtime stories from my Dad, some of which were about the Chinese strategist Zhuge Liang, others were about Han Solo and Luke Skywalker going on adventures, and still others about Superman and Batman teaming up to fight bad guys.

There are side effects that come with this; the firm belief that giant robots are awesome, for example. Others are the ingrained image of a mulleted Tony Stark at an anvil, or memories of Captain America and Iron Man showing up on Spider Man’s cartoon. But then, those are all cartoons and stuff, puerile parts of childhood.

Only not.

A lot of the stuff I grew up with is being tapped and turned into cinematic fare these days. Sure, there’ve been Batman and Superman movies since well before I was born, but a movie about Iron Man? And Captain America? And one where they team up with the Hulk and Thor? In a movie? Eight year old Josh would be giddy at the idea (as twenty-two year old Josh still is).

Here’s the thing, I’m not eight anymore. How does a movie work to appeal to me now? Characters like Batman and Spider Man have had several incarnations in various media for various audiences. Adam West’s Batman differs sharply from the one in Justice League who in turn differs from Arkham Asylum’s. Sure, there’s the same character but differences in tone and style. There are many different ways to interpret characters and genres these days.

Especially Batman. Christopher Nolan approached the Caped Crusader from a much more mature point of view than we’d really seen on screen at the point. He deconstructs the idea of a superhero throughout the Dark Knight Trilogy. This is how Batman would work in a ‘real’ world: masks bought in bulk to avoid suspicion, for example. Gone is the romanticism of being a superhero.

Nolan’s Gotham is awash in a gray world of corrupt cops, sold-out lawyers, and mob rule. Batman himself is not entirely in the clear and, as he Commissioner Gordon puts it at the end of The Dark Knight, isn’t the hero Gotham needs. This is Batman for a more grown up, more adult world, a blurry world where right and wrong aren’t quite distinct.

Then on the other end of the spectrum we have Pacific Rim. The movie has, as director Guillermo del Toro put it, the heart of a 12-year-old and the craft of a 48-year-old. The movie is brimming with the hope and excitement you had when you were 12. There’s little attempt to ‘grow up’ the mecha genre, at least as far as growing up means how everything must be brooding, dark, and deathly serious. Sure, characters die and sacrifices are made, but it’s a clear view of Good and Evil; it’s that idealistic dichotomy.

Pacific Rim, like The Avengers, is a reconstruction of its genres. The Avengers acknowledges the problems of having a team of six superhero egos, but factors overcoming it into a plot. Pacific Rim makes Kaiju terrifying and Jaegers awesome, crafting a movie’s world where it not only works but is acceptable. These are movies that have grown up but remember the romanticism of being younger.

There is, however, yet another point on the spectrum: The Lego Movie. This movie doesn’t give a crap about growing up. There’s no playing at re/deconstruction; instead it takes it’s idea — a movie about Legos — and runs with it. It’s a movie about being a kid, about those times when you built a spaceship and ran around your room making laser noises and chanting “spaceship!” over and over again. If anything, The Lego Movie is an ode to childhood in the purest sense. It doesn’t just have the heart of a child, it’s about being a child.

Is one way of doing it better than the other? Nah. I love the grittiness of The Dark Knight as much as I love the colorful cacophony of The Lego Movie. I was ten once and these movies, with all their different interpretations, remind me of what it was like.

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