Tag Archives: Movies

Mixed Results

I really liked the movie Balto as a kid. And for a kid, it makes sense. It’s about a talking dog, and there’s a goose and a couple polar bears in it too. Plus it’s a story about the outsider getting a chance to prove they belong by doing an Epic Heroic Thing and earning their place.’

Also, it’s a story about being mixed.

Like me.

I’m mixed, biracial, half-Asian; whatever the term du jour is. Which is something I mention every now and then on this blog, because it’s part of who I am and thus how I interpret the world around me and, with it, the narratives that the world creates. In other worlds: I tell you this because it directly impact the way I see stories.

And this is important, because Balto is half-dog, half-wolf, which is a major part of his identity in the story. He doesn’t fit in with the dogs because of his wolfness, but he can’t exactly run out and join a pack of wolves. He doesn’t belong to either group. Over the course of the movie he (spoiler) proves himself to his peers and, more importantly, realizes that his being half-wolf is a good thing, not a drawback. The plot progresses and he gets to save the day.

We don’t see a lot of mixed-race narratives, period. TV Tropes has precious few examples, and many of them are either informed traits or their entire story.. Sure, we’ll see interracial relationships play out (Hello, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!), but anytime the product of one of those shows up, if the question of identity is addressed, chances are it becomes their whole thing. Growing up, Balto was the only story I knew that had a character who was explicitly mixed and dealt with that. As a bonus, it also wasn’t the only thing he had going on; he still got to do the hero thing.

It’s quite unfortunate, then, that I didn’t see much of Star Trek until I was eighteen, but even then just the Abrams film. But that’s a movie about Spock’s journey as a character, one that’s inherently related to his own status as being half-Vulcan, half-Human. Again, the importance here is that though the story deals with Spock’s identity, it is not the extent of his arc. He still has a story of learning humility and teamwork and saving the day and all that, one aspect of which is, of course, struggling with his identity.

I wanna stress just how rare this is. When stories come up with biracial characters that touch on their identity, that’s usually the be all and end all of their story. Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life has Sarah Jane, a half-white, half-black girl who passes white and so uses that to her advantage. Her story is one of someone rejecting one identity in favor of another and thus all but abandoning her mother in pursuit of hedonism. Yes, it’s a story about someone who’s mixed, but it’s about being mixed. Most of the time, when someone who’s mixed shows up in fiction and has a role, that’s their story. It’s about coming to terms with their identity, or realizing that they should embrace both halves and what have you. There’s no conjunction; they don’t come to terms with their identity and save the world, they don’t get to embrace both halves and make the big jump to fund their step-dad’s conveniently priced surgery.

This is why Balto mattered to me so damn much as a kid. I got to see someone in a movie dealing with some of the crap I dealt with. I got to see someone do all that and still save the day. It’s about being different, but still getting the normal treatment. Differently normal, if you will. I do think stories about mixed people being mixed are important, but equally important are stories where  they – we – get to deal with the stuff and still be the hero. I want stories about mixed people that aren’t just about being mixed; I’m more than just someone who’s half-white, half-Asian.

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But What About The Men??? 2: Sexy Lamps

Back at a con panel in 2013, Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer of Captain Marvel, Bitch Planet, etc) coined the Sexy Lamp Test. Its rubric is that if you can take a female character out of a story and replace her with a sexy lamp and your plot still works, then “you’re a [beeping] hack.” Like all tests used to judge stories (ie: Bechdel), it’s not perfect – mostly because it’s a little too vague. But it still provides a good starting point to examine fiction.

Like I love The Dark Knight, but Rachel in the movie is very much a sexy lamp. She doesn’t do anything that affects the plot in a major way. She’s there for Bruce and Harvey to pine over and then to be ‘fridged and give Batman some angst. Still a great movie, but there are issues with how the film handles women.

Conversely, Star Wars aces it. You can’t replace Leia with a lamp that goes along for the ride, she does way too much – her first appearance is giving the Death Star plans to Artoo and setting the movie’s plot in motion. Throughout the film she does stuff, she has agency, she makes things happen.

You with me so far? Because here’s where we’re gonna talk about Wonder Woman. And dudes.

Steve Trevor is The Male Character in Wonder Woman. Sure, we’ve the villain and the other soldiers, but Steve Trevor is The Guy. He buddies up with Diana early on in the film and they go out and Do Things. Given that Diana is the protagonist of this movie, Steve becomes, quite naturally, the deuteragonist of the film and fulfills what in any other movie would be the ‘girlfriend role.’

This is one of Wonder Woman’s acts of brilliance: the film flips the roles. Steve is the one who buoys Diana’s force of character, he’s her tie to the real world, and he’s the one whose main role is to support her and her arc. Like I said, he’s the girlfriend.

Consider Peggy Carter in the first Captain America. Though this was later remedied in her tv show, she doesn’t really affect the plot much in the movie. She supports Steve Rogers and helps out here and there, but at the end of the day doesn’t really change the plot much more than a talking sexy lamp would. Oh, she’s still a really great character, but the plot doesn’t position her in such a way that she does stuff. This is one thing the Sexy Lamp Test exposes: cool characters who don’t actually have much agency or effect on the plot. Like Boba Fett, who outside of going to Cloud City offscreen, has no more narrative impact than a lamp in dope armor. Except Peggy is actually one of the main characters of The First Avenger.

Steve Trevor of Wonder Woman, however, does quite a bit in the movie; considerably more than your typical ‘superhero girlfriend.’ Without spoiling too much of the film, it’s his actions – particularly one he does of his own volition and not under orders – that set most of the plot in action, and in the final act he gets to make a Big Choice that changes the course of the climax.

A sexy lamp Steve Trevor is not. And maybe that can be chalked up to good writing, but I’m gonna blame it on Steve being a guy. Imagine this; it’s the climax of the film and the main male character does nothing. Maybe he drives a car so the main female character can go save the day, but elsewise he watches. It’s basically unheard of, and uncommon at best (look at how much Peeta and Gale get to do in the climaxes of The Hunger Games movies). But it happens all the time for female characters. It’s what Peggy does in The First Avenger. It’s what Pepper does in Iron Man 2. Sexy lamp or not, it’s easy to cast aside the supporting female character, the ‘girlfriend role,’ at the climax. But Steve Trevor still gets to Do Stuff, and Important Stuff Of His Own Accord at that.

For all its subversions of norms, Wonder Woman doesn’t neuter the agency of its male lead. Which, woo, equality! But at the same time, it shows how unfair the treatment of women in blockbusters – especially superhero films – is. We’ve got the first female-led superhero in over a decade and we still have a dude who goes around saving some of the day. Oh, it’s still Diana’s movie; but Steve gets an arc just about any other female character would kill for in just about any other film. Even in a movie about Wonder Woman, the dude still gets special treatment.

Which in this case means fair treatment.

And therein lies the problem.

 

For the first But What About The Men???, go here.

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Creative Exchange (and Video Games)

Video games borrow a lot from movies. Snake, on the original box art for Metal Gear, is played by Michael Biehn. Or at least someone who looks just like him. Contra’s box makes it look like you’ll be playing John Matrix and John Rambo taking on the Xenomorph from Alien.

But then there’s Halo, which drew much of its aesthetic wholesale from Aliens. Look at their portrayal of marines in space: the video game’s UNSC Marines sport body armor and helmets almost identical to the Marines in James Cameron’s sequel. Even Halo’s venerable Sergeant Johnson is very much inspired by a sergeant from Aliens. Both forces are fighting against a creepy, parasitic alien that starts out as a small thing that attaches itself to a host.

As much as Halo uses elements of Aliens, however, it never feels like its copying it for lack of better ideas. The game’s plot adds concepts like the genocidal Covenant trying to wipe out humanity, Cortana the glowing blue AI who helps you along your journey, and the mysterious titular Halo ring. Halo also wears its inspiration on its sleeve, making no attempt to cover it up. There’s an affection to its homages and you can tell that Bungie really liked the movie.

Which is kinda how it goes with video games. Gameplay-wise, Halo introduced and popularized several mechanics we now take for granted. In Halo, damage taken isn’t permanent pending a health pickup, rather you have shields that recharge over time. This encouraged players to experiment more, to take more risks – if you got shot too much you could just run off and wait for your shields to recharge before trying again. It changed the way shooters were played, because now almost every shooter has rechargeable health. Halo justified it through your character’s shields, but later games like Uncharted or Call of Duty make no effort to give a narrative explanation. It’s just become the way games are.

I like to talk a lot about how games are a nascent art form, what with Tennis for Two coming out a hair under sixty years ago, and Pong is barely forty-five years old. Since then we’ve seen games grow from basic pixel-ly lines to real-time rendered games that give CGI films a run for their money. Mechanics, too, keep changing. Consider the idea of a cover system, which allows for the player to hide behind something while still shooting. Wikipedia tells me Kill.Switch was the first to implement it, but games like Gears of War and Uncharted really brought it into popular consciousness. There’s an exchange of ideas in video games, one to an extent you don’t really see in other, more established, mediums.

We know what a movie is; there’s fiction, documentaries, and variations thereof. We know what a book is, what a comic is. But what exactly a video game constitutes is kinda left in the air. We’ve Halo, a sci-fi shooter, but That Dragon, Cancer is a game by two parents whose son had terminal cancer. You play a Call of Duty game by running around shooting people, the Sims is pointing and clicking at people and objects, meanwhile Johan Sebastian Joust is played by holding the controller and pushing each other around in real life. The special thing here is that games borrow ideas from each other no matter the genre. An action movie borrowing techniques from an arthouse piece is seen as being daring and cultured, but an early chapter in Uncharted 4’, “A Normal Life,” clearly draws on the exploratory narrative games like Gone Home. This isn’t just happy coincidence; Neil Druckmann, who wrote and directed Uncharted 4, tweeted about the game back when it came out. People who make games play games, like games. Even though there’s a massive variety of types of video games, there’s a cross-pollination amongst them that gives games influences from all over the place.

Look, I like video games a lot. I grew up playing them and find their evolution to be absolutely fascinating, in no small part to taking influences from all over the place. There doesn’t seem to be a ‘wrong’ place to get inspiration. There’s no one correct way to tell stories, so there’s something to be learnt no matter where you look. If video games continue this anything works mindset, I can’t wait to see where we are in ten, twenty, thirty years.

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Star Wars’ Newfound Dearth of White Guys

The Star Wars video game Battlefront 2, the follow-up to 2015’s Battlefront, was revealed a couple weeks ago, and the sequel seems to be righting a lot of the mistakes of the first game. It boasts more interesting combat, the return of classes, multiple eras in which you can play, and Jedi Rey as a playable character (which, right there makes me wanna preorder it). Unlike the first, which was basically online multiplayer only, there’s also going to be a proper narrative single-player mode, that follows an Imperial special forces commander from the destruction of the Second Death Star through the rise of the First Order – which sounds cool!

What’s interesting both as a shooter game and as part of the Star Wars franchise is that the protagonist is a woman named Iden Versio, as was revealed in the trailer when the commander removes her helmet, thus continuing Lucasfilm’s new trend of creating a character who isn’t a white guy every time they need a new protagonist.

We know this from the two new films that relaunched the series, with Rey, Finn, and Poe in The Force Awakens and Jyn and Cassian in Rogue One. But this new emphasis on diversity extends to a lot of the other Star Wars stories in the new canon. The first comic with a protagonist created for the new comics is this year’s Doctor Aphra, where the titular woman Indiana Jones-es around the galaxy. The tv show Rebels, which has been around since 2014, might star the vaguely-caucasian Ezra, but the other humans in the crew are the decidedly Asian-looking Mandalorian Sabine, and Kanan, whose ethnicity is open to interpretation but is played by part-hispanic actor Freddie Prinze, Jr. Point is, over the past couple years, Star Wars has been getting a lot less exclusively white and male.

So now we have Iden Versio, commander of Inferno Squadron, the protagonist of the New Big Star Wars Game and a character voiced by – and resembling – an Indian woman. Iden marks the extension of the trend towards diversity from other areas of the franchise into video games. Throughout the dozens of Star Wars video games released throughout the years, the protagonist has, with a handful of exceptions, always been a white guy. Even games like KoToR and Jedi Academy where you can customize character’s gender and skin tone; later books would canonize the protagonist as being a white guy (KOTOR II’s Jedi Exile is the exception to this). So we see Iden as a shift away from this precedent. Furthermore, it’s not only her appearance which sets her apart, but also her role as a military commander, not a Jedi – Star Wars is taking what’s usually seen as a male role (commando) and giving it to a woman. It’s a subversion of expectations, one that also says “Hey, women can be military leaders too!”

Like I said, Lucasfilm has clearly taken a really strong line on diversity, promoting women and people of color in just about everything they’ve put out over the past couple years. The trade off is that white guys are being put on the back burner.

But if we want more representation in the Star Wars galaxy, that’s the way it has to be. Look, there are forty years of Star Wars stories, especially if you include the old Expanded Universe (I do), and for the vast majority of them, the central main character’s a white guy. Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, Corran Horn, Kyle Katarn, the list goes on. The spotlight is now being shifted in another direction in what appears to be an attempt on the part of Lucasfilm to even the tally by mandating that all new protagonists not have to be white guys and insisting that other people get featured It means that Rey gets to be the chosen one now. It means that the badass Imperial commander’s an Indian woman. It means, that the people making Star Wars are looking at characters, asking why not, and putting minorities in the lead. It’s a drastic departure from most of the franchise’s history to be sure, but it’s a strong step forward to bridging the gap — and has clearly not hurt the quality of the stories.

‘cuz look, making room at the table sometimes means having to give up a chair. If we want to see a more diverse world in media, it means having to actively curate that world, it means having to have stories that aren’t about white guys for a bit. And at the end of the day those forty years of stories are still there. Making Iden Versio the protagonist of Battlefront II doesn’t undo all those Kyle Katarn stories, Rey doesn’t invalidate Luke. It’s a big, big galaxy a long time ago far far away; there’s room for stories about all sorts of people. Just means that white guys might not be the main characters for a while.

Now, there is that Han Solo movie coming out next year. After that, though, I’m game for Star Wars not having a white guy in the lead for another thirty-six years.

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This Is You In This Story

There’s this thing with good stories where you have this gut response of “I wanna do that!” Video games thrive on immersion, by letting you enact what these characters do; meanwhile movies, tv, books, comics, etc let you vicariously experience events.

But what if you do get to be that character? Metal Gears Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Star Wars: The Force Awakens both explore that, by making the protagonist of each story very much a surrogate for the audience, but beyond just being a lens through which the audience can view the world, Raiden and Rey both exist in narratives where they very much are the embodiment of an audience member.

Raiden in MGS2 was very much deliberately envisioned as a pastiche of the player. Where the player played the first Metal Gear Solid, Raiden trained in VR simulations of the first game’s Shadow Moses Incident. This isn’t just backstory, it’s pointed out several times by Raiden’s support team – and outright criticized by Snake (MGS1’s protagonist) as being insufficient training. Raiden has no combat experience, he just assumes he’s gonna be awesome because he’s so good at his VR training. Over the course of the game, MGS2 proceeds to remind the player that they – and Raiden – are not Solid Snake, but rather someone playacting as him.

It’s a fascinating exploration of the relationship between player and game, one that criticizes the power fantasy many games employ by showing how futile it is to try and be a character you’ve played as in a video game. MGS2 deconstructs the relationship between player and game; you get to be the protagonist (or more the protagonist has many similarities to you as a gamer) but as it turns out, it kinda sucks. It’s only when Raiden stops trying to be Solid Snake that he’s able to strike out on his own path. That’s also right about where the game ends.

Similarly but not, The Force Awakens gives Rey a mindset like that of a viewer. Well, maybe a viewer closer to my age. Like me, Rey has grown up with the stories about the Rebel Alliance and the exploits of Luke Skywalker. She knows the same stories we do. Rey, however, exists on the fringe of all that; she puts on an X-Wing pilot’s helmet and dreams of flying, but doesn’t leave Jakku until her adventure begins. Again, that’s like a kid who grew up with Star Wars. Rey is, essentially, a fangirl. Like the viewer, like me.

But Rey meets BB-8 and Finn, borrows the Millennium Falcon, and gets swept up in a grand adventure. Basically, Rey gets to live out the Star Wars fantasy: she gets to meet the heroes of the Rebellion and become a Jedi. Now, this is all heightened through Rey’s similar point of view to that of the viewer makes it that much more visceral. Rey is, essentially, us.

In MGS2, the narrative uses Raiden and the player’s commonality to savage the escapist fantasy of video games, steadily dressing down Raiden (and the player) until Raiden stops trying to be Snake and does his own thing. The game is able to talk directly to the player because Raiden is effectively a placeholder for the player. Meanwhile, The Force Awakens uses Rey to drive the series romanticism to new heights. Luke was the farmboy on Tatooine who dreamed of more; Rey’s that, but she’s also someone who idolizes Luke Skywalker and his adventures and now gets to take part in them.

Immersion is a part of good stories and it’s something that can be accomplished by a variety of means – just look at the effect of good prose. Stories can also leverage a protagonist who embodies the same point of view as the audience to add new facets to a narrative. It’s not just to immerse the audience more, though, sometimes they’re actually there to do stuff.

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On Deconstruction, Reconstruction, and Also Batman

A deconstruction takes something apart. Shrek shows how weird fairy tales are by pitting the story from the point of view of an ogre. Suddenly the princess promising herself to whoever rescues her is especially bizarre, as is the idea of there always being a noble prince. The point of a deconstruction is usually to display how tropes and conventions in some narratives don’t work so well when held up to some more stringent logic.

In the same vein, the Batman we meet in at the start of The LEGO Batman Movie (and arguably The LEGO Movie) is a deconstruction of the Batman we got used to in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. He’s all about darkness and not having parents, singular focused on his mission, and, as we discover, quite a pain in the ass. In essence, we see this singularly focused Batman played out to an amusing end: he’s stuck in a perpetual adolescence and cares for no one but himself (and his desire to fight crime). Of course he’s not well-adjusted, he doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t see daylight. It’s this deconstruction that gives rise to the plot of The LEGO Batman Movie, which lets the movie rebuild Batman into a hero – and leader of the Bat-family.

Thing is, The Dark Knight – and Batman Begins before it – aren’t quite deconstructions; at least not in the way it’s easy to assume they are. Yes, the movies do play out some of the complications of Bruce Wayne’s Batmanning: he has to go on the run, people try to copy him, Bruce Wayne ceases to be much of a person in favor of his alter-ego. And there is the whole darkness-no-parents vibe. Nonetheless, Batman is successful at what he does, and the films make the case that yes, a superhero does work. A dude dressing up as a bat to fight criminals is a patently ridiculous concept, but Christopher Nolan and his team reconstruct Batman into a character and vigilante that makes sense in a realistic center.

Take the scene in Batman Begins where Bruce and Alfred are putting together the Batsuit. They buy the components in bulk from different manufacturers, minimizing a paper trail. Even getting the Batmobile from Wayne Enterprises’ R&D department explains away where he gets those wonderful toys. As a reconstruction it acknowledges the flaws of the Batman narrative but works past them for a fuller, more shaded narrative. A true deconstruction would have played out the final climax with Two Face differently, perhaps having Batman refuse to take the fall or even having both of them be completely vilified. As it is, The Dark Knight lets Batman take his moniker and remain an idealized hero.

There are shades of deconstruction to The Dark Knight — take the Batman-inspired vigilante who gets himself killed — but it’s all in the service of ultimately reconstructing the idea – there needs to be a ‘superhero,’ so Batman will appear the villain so that Harvey Dent can be that person. So it’s easy to mistake the whole movie as an out-and-out Shrekian deconstruction.

Which is arguably what Zack Snyder and team did in Batman v Superman. While Man of Steel wavers, BvS tries its hardest to take apart both Batman and Superman – and superheroes in general. But it doesn’t do so for comedic effect (as in Kick-Ass) or to explore what we take for granted in the genre (see: Watchmen). Instead, it does… Well, nothing. It reads The Dark Knight as a deconstruction and attempts to imitate it, but since the former wasn’t really a deconstruction, the BvS is building with the blocks; it doesn’t take apart The Dark Knight (as LEGO’s Batman does), but tries to use Nolan’s film as a deconstruct-o-lens. The result is a lot of dimly lit scenes and people grunting and growling at each other about big ideas that don’t make much sense. We learn nothing new about Superman and Batman or the conventions that surround them that would warrant it being a deconstruction, nor does it recreate the mythos in a new way that would be a reconstruction. Rather it tells the story straight, just lathered in a murky layer of grit that can’t hide its (many) narrative flaws.

There is room for a solid deconstruction of Batman, Superman ,and superheroes in general – I mean Alan Moore did it in Watchmen thirty-odd years ago. Sometimes it seems there’s a race to take apart beloved genres, and sometimes it works like in Game of Thrones, but there’s room for both, again, Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The trick is to do it for a reason, and not just because you want your story to be about darkness and not having parents.

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Okay, Seriously, What Is A Superhero Movie?

A couple weeks ago I was at The Strand looking for a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Because it’s on my personal reading list and I figured it’s as good a book as any to pick up at The Strand. Anyway, after scouring the A’s in the science fiction section, I was directed to check in general fiction. And there it was.

Which, alright, fine. I mean, it’s vaguely science fiction – though Atwood prefers describing it as speculative fiction which I’ve seen argued as being the same and/or different from general science fiction – in that it’s set in an indistinct future that’s the vague result of the progress of technology and climate issues circa the mid-80’s. But it’s no more science fiction than, say, The Dark Knight where the biggest diversions from reality are burn wounds, a futurist’s view of cellphone tech, and a loose interpretation of grappling hook physics. Though since one’s a superhero movie, one gets to be in Serious Fiction and the other, not (granted, one’s a book and the other’s a movie, but I digress).

So what is science fiction? And what’s a superhero movie? Which brings me to Logan, a movie that’s been called a great superhero movie in part because it’s so unlike every other superhero movie.

And in all honesty, Logan’s great. Really. It’s an interesting movie that meditates on its down time as much as on its brutal action sequences. It also just might be a better adaption of The Last Of Us than the Old Man Logan comics. And people are calling it a really good superhero story.

But is it a superhero story?

This is something I think about every now and then, and as superhero movies – usually meaning adaptions of DC or Marvel comics – become bigger and bigger tentpoles, the definition of it starts to be blurry.

Because Logan features very little superheroing tropes. There aren’t any fancy outfits and there’s very little romantic derring-do. It’s more drama than anything, one with a dosage of science fiction. So really, it’s more of a science fiction drama than a, quote-unquote, “superhero movie.”

It’s times like this where genre really starts to break down. Because, technically, Logan, Guardians of The Galaxy, and Iron Man are all in the same ‘genre.’ Even though Guardians is more like a Star Wars movie and Iron Man is as action adventure. But Logan is on top of those because it’s a ‘serious’ movie and un-superheroey

The thing about genre is that it creates a stratification of stories. Look at any given bookstore and all the ‘important’ books go in the fiction section, while much of the rest is classified as science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and young adult. The movies that win big awards are most always not-genre movies; saying ‘comedy’ or ‘action’ almost instantly disqualify you.

As someone who creates a lot ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me. As someone who likes a lot of ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me a lot. ‘cuz in the past decade we’ve seen superhero movies take on a host of forms, be they a thriller like The Dark Knight or a hijinky fantasy adventure like Thor. In the century-or-so since its inception, science fiction has been Star Wars and District 9; The Handmaid’s Tale and Ready Player One. We’ve seen good superhero movies, and we’ve seen Batman vs Superman. These run the gamut in their type of story, setting, and quality. Y’know, it’s starting to sound like they’re just stories.

Now, I’m complicit in this, I use the terms ‘science fiction’ and ‘superhero film’ with abandon. But when I say I like the former, I say I like the fun adventure that’s been a hallmark of Marvel Studio’s output. I love science fiction’s imagination and willingness to go to places unseen (as opposed to the onslaught of White People Problems that ‘drama’ tends to be code for [coughLaLaLandcough]). As fiction evolves and lines get blurred (is Gravity science fiction?), our old definitions of genre don’t work so well. So I will enjoy the most fictitious of science fictions and the most heroic of superhero movies, even if those movies don’t really fit the Platonic ideal as a superhero film.

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