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Of The End

Reaching the end of a good story is always a bittersweet affair. There’s no doubt a sense of joy in the catharsis of resolution, that sense that the story has been completed and all is well. In a good story, its ending will pay off all that came before. But an ending means it’s over; the story and characters that you’ve spent several hours with are done. You don’t get to be a part of their lives and adventures anymore.

It’s certainly kinda weird: these characters are fictional, this world, no matter how similar to our own, is an artifice. Yet there’s such a want to spend more time there. I want to spend more time with the Pevensies in Narnia, I wanna join Luke Skywalker for more of his adventures, I’m really happy that Nathan and Elena got their happy ending, but man, I would love to have another story.

These stories are decidedly done. Uncharted 2 comes to a close and so too does Nate’s adventures in Nepal. Sure, the series counties in its sequels, but there won’t be more of Nathan Drake exploring the Himalayas with Elena and a chronically side-switching Chloe. That moment, that particular dynamic is unique to this story.

Maybe there are stories to be told. There are a couple years between Avengers and Age of Ultron, presumably filled with stories as the Avengers hunt after Hydra. But there’s not gonna be a big movie about that time, featuring the original six doing their thing. That time is past, those stories are told.

Now there is space for those stories to be told; consider the books, games, and comics of the old Star Wars Expanded Universe. They filled the gaps between the movies, introduced new characters, and expanded the world to a ridiculous degree. But even the best books aren’t the same as getting to see and hear Luke, Han, and Leia traipse around the Death Star. Stories lose part of their jazz when translated into a different medium. Maybe it’s the change in budget or creative team; in any case, it’s just not quite the same. Could be good, really good, it just won’t really be the same.

Could the continued Avengers films have maintained the status quo and told more stories of the six saving the day together? Sure. But we’ve already heard that story – it’s the climax of the first movie. There’s little to be gained when retreading old ground, it’s far more interesting to push these characters in wholly new directions. A Thief’s End sees Nathan Drake going on yet another adventure, but this one isn’t after another mystic artifact or following an adventure of Francis Drake. There are the familiar thrills and witticisms — it wouldn’t be Uncharted without ‘em, but Nate’s on a different journey yet again. It’s not the same story as the one before.

It’s frustrating, sometimes. I love the third season of Chuck, and I wish the show could just stay there forever. But at the same time, I’m so glad the series has the chance to grow and for characters to change and so on. It’s one of my favorite shows perhaps because it had the space for that change and progression. I’m sure that had it stayed as its season three self for the entire time it would be tiring and lose what makes it so special. It’s precisely because it doesn’t last that it’s so special.

To all this, Avengers: Endgame is the, uh, end, of the MCU as we know it (give or take a Spider-Man movie coming out in a couple months). It’s quite the feat to resolve ten years of storytelling, but somehow the movie actually does. With that, it’s done. There’ll probably be another Avengers movie, but it ain’t gonna be one too familiar (for a whole variety of reasons), just as no sequel is quite like the original. The old ones can be revisited, yes, and replayed, reread, and rewatched; but they’re over, the story had to end.

Maybe that ephemerality is what makes stories so special. Just because something doesn’t last forever doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

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It’s The Endgame

It’s wild to think that when I started this blog seven years ago The Avengers was only just about to come out. There’s been a regular deluge of movies since taking place in The Marvel Cinematic Universe and it’s all coming to a head this weekend with the release of Avengers: Endgame. It’s hard to overstate just what Marvel Studios has managed to pull off here; 21 interconnected films with crisscrossing characters and story elements.

I still remember when Iron Man first came out. I was in high school and really wanted to see it opening day, but I was taking the SAT the next day and the plan was to watch it after that exam. Iron Man had always been one of my favorite superheroes, owing in no small part to a particularly wonderful cartoon I watched as a child. In any case, the movie was fantastic, a kickass superhero movie with a warm, human core. And then the post-credits stinger rolls around and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury tells Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative.

As someone who grew up with the superhero osmosis in the ’90s, I knew that these Marvel characters teamed up. Captain America had shown up to fight Red Skull in a Spider-Man cartoon; Daredevil and The Human Torch were both in a Spider-Man video game (Spider-Man got all the good stuff in the ’90s). That’s, of course, not counting the comic collections I’d flip through at Barnes and Noble. So naturally, the idea of the Avengers meant something to me and it meant something very cool.

Think again of how absolutely unheard of the idea of a superhero team-up movie was ten years ago. The Spider-Man and X-Men movies existed in different spaces, and Batman and Superman teamed up, but only in the cartoons. Movies crossing over was limited to the likes of Alien vs Predator. Iron Man teaming up with the Hulk and who-knows-who-else was such a cool, idiosyncratic idea.

There’ve been plenty of articles on the internet about how singular an achievement the MCU is, and as much as I’d like to, I don’t think I can write as good an article in a single afternoon. Leastways I don’t have much new to bring to the discussion that hasn’t already been said a dozen times.

On the other hand, there is the whole idea that Endgame is very much going to be the end of an era. Sure, Spider-Man: Far From Home is coming out afterwards, and there are a bunch of movies in development like a Black Panther sequel and the announced Shang-Chi movie that are yet to be given release dates. But the Avengers as we’ve known them for the past ten years is very much coming to a resolution. This may well be the last time we see characters like Iron Man and Captain America on screen for a long time, and it’s up to this movie to give a fitting farewell.

I’m curious, naturally, as to what form it’s gonna take. There’s a lot of stuff we know, of course. There’s gonna be an inevitable rematch with Thanos, and I’m willing to put money on a big team up with every single Avenger, especially given that Infinity War didn’t feature that moment. Seriously, there has to be a call-back to that iconic shot in The Avengers. But there is the big question of how it’s all gonna look when the dust settles. Will Tony and Steve pass on the mantle of leadership to Captain Marvel? Is someone else going to take up Cap’s shield at the end? What comes next?

Pulling all that off is going to be the real trick of Endgame, but if there’s one thing producer Kevin Feige has proven during his showrunning of the beast that is the MCU is that he’s warranted our trust. In light of that, I cannot wait until Thursday night.

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Thursday Nights

I don’t know if you heard, but getting tickets for Avengers: Endgame was quite the trip. AMC Theaters’ website full-on crashed and they shut down their (also overloaded app). Other websites, like Fandango were showing errors if you tried to access showings for an AMC. As someone with that fancy-shmancy A-List subscription, this was a real pain (I ended up going to the theater in person to buy my tickets).

This isn’t the first time there’s been a mad dash for movie tickets. I had similar (though not quite as intense) issues when getting tickets for Rogue One and The Last Jedi. Midnight and Thursday night showings have always been a bit of a Big Deal, but these website-crashing hypes are a little more recent.

Now, it’d be easy to lambast companies like AMC for failing to account the wild demand for a movie like Endgame. But with it, there’s also the question of just how this urgency to catch a movie as soon as possible became the thing it is.

Now sure, there are the huge fans that have been waiting for the movie. There’s no denying that opening nights are fun, the crowd is excited and the atmosphere is electric. Yelling and cheering when something cool happens is a neat experience that you don’t get in many other showings. No doubt that that’s something special.

But I’d wager it goes further than that. Most of these website-crashing movies are sequels or at the very least the continuation of a franchise. There’s the want to find out what happens next, and with that, to not have it spoiled.

And, man, is it easy for stuff to be spoiled these days. I remember when the series finale of Lost aired years and years ago; I swore off Facebook, Twitter, and my beloved TVTropes until I had the chance to watch it, lest I find out how it ends. The internet has only gotten bigger in the last nine years and with it, the potential for spoilers. Even if you avoid social media and anything marked with spoilers, there are hosts of articles on the internet with leading titles along the lines of “That Character’s Shocking Return Explained” or somesuch that even if it doesn’t outright spoil the ending, at least hints at something.

Then there are the memes. My god, the meeeeeemes. Seizing on the pop-culture zeitgeist of the moment, these image macros waste no time in having fun. When The Last Jedi came out it didn’t take long at all for Ben Swolo — that is, the scene with a shirtless Kylo Ren — to gain traction. A quick check of Know Your Meme shows that BuzzFeed had a listicle of reactions by December 15th (the day the movie came out) and the name Ben Swolo was popularized by the 20th.

Infinity War also saw its share of memes, one of the most famous being parodies of the dusting that happens at the end of the movie. Keep in mind that this is a Major Plot Point at the end, when Thanos succeeds at killing half the universe, including many Avengers, with a snap of his fingers. It’s a really Big Deal. According to, once again, Know Your Meme, memes of various characters commenting that they don’t feel so good were online by April 29th; the Sunday after the movie’s release. Barely took a few days for the movie’s big ending to be a meme.

I’m not sure how I feel about all this. The mad dash to get tickets is a pain, but I also wanna see movies right when they come out (especially ones I really care about). Yet I remain of the opinion that spoilers don’t really spoil (though I enjoy a good surprise as much as the next person), so really, much of the fun of the opening night comes from that feeling of community and being able to make a big deal about it with friends (I bought out an entire row of the theater for The Last Jedi). So maybe I’m a part of the problem.

All that said, when Star Wars Episode IX comes out later this year, I’m gonna get tickets to the Thursday night I just hope the infrastructure is ready by then.

But seriously, don’t tell me anything about what happens in these movies.

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Adaptational Change

There’s a delightful twist late in Captain Marvel that adds a nice layer of added depth to the narrative. It’s one that I didn’t see coming, but a friend who’s less familiar with the comics thought it was well telegraphed. The reason I didn’t expect it is arguably because of how used I am to the way things are in the Marvel comics. Turning things on its head is a concept so wild as to be unthinkable, and it’s something that the movie can uniquely do since it’s adapting a prior work.

Adaptations are weird beasts. We’ve all seen movies that failed to do the book justice, just as there are movies that take a book’s source material and improve on it. There’s a natural tension since what works well in one medium won’t necessarily work well in another. Oftentimes, the best adaptations aren’t the ones that try to recreate the source material but instead use it as a base to build something new. Aragorn is a cool character in the books, but Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings gives him a much more complex arc that’s far more dynamic to watch on screen. Because sure, reading about Aragorn as a man ready to be king who’s preparing for his return makes for a compelling read, but it could play dull on screen. Giving him self-doubt and swinging his arc so that it’s about his accepting of the mantle as he grows from Strider the Ranger to King Elessar makes for a real interesting watch. The heart of it is the same: Aragorn will be king, but it’s been developed to work better for the chosen medium.

Now, superhero movies as adaptations are a little odd, mostly because they seldom adapt one particular narrative. For the most part, these characters have massive mythologies unto themselves. This vast mythos allows storytellers a whole lotta room with which to craft a narrative. The Dark Knight isn’t a retelling of any specific Batman story, instead, it takes elements from the Batman mythos to create a new, compelling story. Arguably, one aspect of why The Dark Knight works so well is its distillation of its characters into their core archetypes: The Joker is chaos personified, so to oppose him Batman is the embodiment of order. Two-Face comes to exist between the two, in some ways offering a vision of a fallen Batman. There’s no question that these characters are who they purport to be, It’s a totally new story; unconcerned with retelling a specific comic book arc it’s able to do its own thing with these larger than life characters.

Carol Danvers, like so many other superheroes, has decades of adventures to inspire Captain Marvel. I’ve read just about all of the Captain Marvel comics with Carol holding the mantle and so in the lead up to the movie I was really curious as to what story they’d tell. Would they adapt “The Enemy Within?” Would it be a more spacey like DeConnick’s second volume? Or were they going to incorporate something from Carol’s time as Ms. Marvel (which I tried to read but really couldn’t get past the high-cut leotard she was in most of the time)? More importantly, were they gonna get her character right?

They do, not be recreating a particular arc or anything, but by keeping her her. Even though there are a bunch of changes from the comics regarding her backstory, she’s still her. More than anything, that’s what I wanted from the movie. As much as I wanted to see Carol hang out with Jessica Drew, Kit Renner, and Tracy Burke, it’s far more important for her to be that determined, headstrong, badass woman from the comics. A twist that simply wouldn’t work in the comics works in the movie because, as an adaptation, it’s allowed to take those liberties and we go along with it because the character at its core feels so right.

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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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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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