Tag Archives: narratives

Where Do We Go From Here? (Or Infinity War Part Two)

This post is going to be about what just might happen in the next Avengers movie. And about what happened in Infinity War too, so if you’re not a fan of spoilers, this is your warning.

I lost my voice when I saw the Infinity War’s stinger the first time. Seeing Captain Marvel’s symbol appear on Nick Fury’s space pager elicited quite the roar/scream from me for quite the obvious reason; she’s long been my favorite superhero and finally, finally getting a movie so even getting a hint of her is Really Exciting. It also essentially confirms that, yes, Captain Marvel’s gonna be in the next Avengers and I cannot wait.

Because Captain Marvel, or Carol Danvers, has the epithet of “Earth’s Mightiest Hero” in the comics and is one of the strongest superheroes. 2013’s Infinity event’s climax saw Captain Marvel and Thor duking it out with Thanos in a really epic fight. So bringing her in for round two against Thano (which is the most likely direction the sequel’s going) makes total sense. Now that the Avengers have lost and they’re on the off-foot, they’re gonna need all the help they can get.

Of course, it’s not gonna be that easy, because where’s the fun in that? The whole nature of narrative is needing twists, turns, and obstacles to keep things interesting. Nathan went to the store is a dull story. Nathan went to the store but they were out of milk is a better story. Nathan went to the store but they were out of milk but there was a mysterious man in a sombrero who offered to sell him milk out of the back of a car is an interesting story. Infinity War Part Two or whatever it’s gonna be called will need some of those buts.

As easy as getting the Time Stone off the Gauntlet and rewinding things so all the dusted Avengers come back to life would be, it’s not interesting. We know that Spider-Man and Black Panther and the others aren’t gone for good, in no small part because there are sequels to their movies coming out and, uh, they need to be in said sequels by virtue of the fact that the actors are in them. So they’re coming back. And Thanos needs to get his ass kicked because, well, he’s the bad guy and we need our triumphant moment of the heroes winning. But we also need catharsis, and so that happy ending needs to be earned.

I figure the remaining of Avengers are gonna have to do some sort of rescue mission to get the others back so they can fight Thanos. Whether that means heisting the Soul Stone and making some sort of sacrifice to bring back everyone who’s presumably trapped in there, I don’t know. If the climax is gonna be all the Avengers and Guardians and everyone else in a big showdown with Thanos, which it should be (because we didn’t quite get that Epic Team Up in Infinity War), there’s a lot of work to get there, no matter what it is exactly will happen.

For starters, Cap and Iron Man are both at their nadirs. Everything they tried was for naught. To get to the point where they’re up for a rematch against Thanos (whatever form that might take) they’re going to not only need to be dragged back into the fight, but also to make amends. Given how disillusioned they are at the movie’s end, it’s gonna take some work.

Enter Carol Danvers. In the comics, she’s always idolized Captain America as someone who she wants to be; she wants to be that sort of hero. But she and Iron Man have always had a bit of a connection; both tend to be foolhardy asshats, and both struggled with alcoholism (Tony was Carol’s sponsor when she got sober). Come Infinity War Part Two Carol could be the third point of the triangle that has Tony and Steve. She’s the potential to be a foil for both of them; someone who believes in what Steve can be and represents but also with the snark of Tony. She’s the Kirk to Tony’s Bones and Steve’s Spock. The dichotic relationship between Steve and Tony is now fleshed out into a Freudian idea of an ego, id, and superego. So not only do the Avengers get a hell of a heavy hitter, but the dynamic of the ostensible leaders is going to be upset in enough of a way that will give Tony and Steve (and the others) enough of a kick in the pants to rally against Thanos.

I’ve been hyped for a Captain Marvel movie since it was frickin’ announced. It’s taken a frustratingly long time to get here, but, given the when she’s being introduced and all that could be done with her, I really can’t wait.

Unless all this turns out to be bunk, in which case, hey, my failure will be preserved right here on the internet for all time!

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Reframing a Narrative

So it’s been some time (a week-ish) since Black Panther came out and the mental nerding out has sufficiently subsided that I can have some actual Rational Thoughts about the movie beyond “wow it’s so cool and Okoye is everything.” And, go figure, it’s coming down to a lotta thoughts about representation.

And how representation is happening.

But first, a detour to Star Wars. My favorite movie series seems to have enacted a moratorium on white guys as new protagonists. Which is dope, and means that we now have folks like Daisy Ridley and Diego Luna being main characters in Star Wars. And John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Donny Yen, Riz Amed, and, look, I could go on. But you get the point.

Now, Star Wars is fundamentally a fantasy (a space fantasy) that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away and so its world is decidedly removed from reality, albeit one inspired by a mishmash of Western and Japanese myths with a healthy helping of 1970s haircuts. You’ve got samurai-monk Jedi Knights running around alongside fighter pilots fresh outta World War II. Part of the fun of seeing women and people of color get the spotlight in Star Wars is seeing them in these archetypes; a woman gets to be the Jedi Knight and a Latino’s the hotshot pilot! Star Wars is the story of the everyman, and opening the series up to diversity means that we get to change the image of said everyman. Also, it means there’s room for folk who look like me in the world, and that’s really cool.

Black Panther is also a fantasy, but it’s one set on Earth (this Earth). Wakanda may be a fictional nation, but its culture is one that draws on real-life African countries. Which makes sense: if you’re gonna have a high-tech futuristic nation set in Africa, you darn well oughta get inspiration from real-life African countries.

And the movie is so much better for it.

By thrusting African aesthetics into the forefront, Black Panther is making a statement about what’s cool. Ndebele Neck Rings aren’t just something you’ll see inside the pages of National Geographic, within the context of the film they’re a fashion accessory that’s part of the Dora Milaje’s uniform. Basotho Blankets look great in general, but in the movie they’re warrior gear that can generate a forcefield. These bits of tradition can be infused with a helping of sci-fi, these looks can be cool and not just as seen on the Discovery Channel.

Narratives are important; they inform how we see the world and help us process things. For centuries now, the narrative surrounding Africa has been one of a poor and primitive continent, one on the receiving end of a “white man’s burden” whether through colonial subjugation or questioning if they know it’s Christmas. It’s a woefully outdated, untrue narrative (and a harmful one that I feel dirty just typing out), but it’s hard to undo a story so firmly ingrained in the popular consciousness.

Black Panther doesn’t just show black characters as kickass heroes, it presents a sci-fi image of an Africa untouched by colonialism that’s flourishing, replete with its tribal trappings. Zulu headdresses and Mursi Lip Plates  aren’t seen as primitive or savage, they’re regal, majestic, and epic.

I’ve written about Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk before, where she stresses the importance of different narratives, about how stories in fiction can be validating. When the only stories we get about Africa (be they through fiction, news, or leaked presidential minutes) focus on it as a war-torn and underdeveloped continent, we start to form certain assumptions about the people who live there and their culture. Black Panther tells us, no matter how subliminally, that these people are as sophisticated as folks anywhere else, that their traditional clothes are rich beyond serving as something for you to gawk at.

Look, one story alone can’t wholly change a centuries-old narrative. But the representation in Black Panther is certainly a step in the right direction. I want to see more colorful science fiction (and stories in general), ones that don’t just pay lip service to non-western cultures but dig into them for both inspiration and representation. I hope there’s more. And I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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Normalizing The Different

It’s easy to dislike folks you don’t know. They’re different. They look weird. You have no horse in their race. They’re those people. The Unknowable Other.

But it’s hard to keep up this mindset, that of the Them, the Other, after you’ve met said other. When you take the time to recognize them as a person, put a face to that Other, it’s much harder to not like them. Suddenly, they become an Us, rather than Them.

Meeting people, however, is hard. Especially people outside our relatively well-defined social spheres. Small towns are small, countries have borders, there’s a limit to the people you see every day.

Enter literature. Books. Movies. Video games. Comics. Anything that tells a story.

Stories are about people of some sort. And there’s no reason they have to be about someone like you.

Take Ms. Marvel. It’s a superhero comic about Kamala Khan, a first generation Pakistani-American immigrant who fights bad guys. Amidst all the crime stopping, we get a peek into Kamala’s home life. She’s balancing high school, friends, family, and faith. She struggled with heartbreak, talks to her imam for advice, and breaks curfew. Her story is new, but at the same time familiar.

But then, when we see stories about her move to the US; and in her first day at school and get a snapshot of her first day of school; I see my own experiences as someone who moved to the US is given weight, acknowledged, and affirmed. It’s normal to be different, the book says. I’m not the only oddball, my weirdness is shared. It’s the story of someone moving to the US, maybe it’s your grandparents, maybe it’s you, maybe you were just the weird kid in high school. It may not have been your experience directly, but it’s translatable.

We live in a world of narratives, we interpret the world as a story. Normal is a narrative. Weird is a narrative. Us and Them is a narrative. When we have one narrative dominating – the ‘all-American hero’, who is coincidentally typically white, male, and straight is the default and the most normal – anything that deviates is by default outside of the norm. Kamala is Other. I, a biracial Asian-American immigrant am Other.

That is a narrative of import to me, of course. Which is not to discount stories about other people. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing makes the African Diaspora immediately personal. It’s easy to learn about it from a textbook and think about it in dictionary terms, but when given a face, it becomes more than that. The concept, one that I have the privilege to not have to think about, becomes unavoidable as I read about people – persons with names – who went through this. I hear stories about the people who went through it, who have made their lives in the aftermath.

And so the narrative can change; now Those People who I only knew about in the abstract become individuals with their own stories; recognizably human

Stories are important. Stories let us explore other people’s experiences. Stories let us see each other as we see ourselves. Stories make the foreign recognizable. Stories take Them, and make them Us.

It’s hard to dislike people once you’ve met them, once you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Good stories let us in to other people’s lives. Ms. Marvel offers a narrative where the Pakistani-American girl is just like everyone else, Homegoing gives a voice to people you hear about. Alongside all this, they lend weight to experiences, say that, hey, your experiences are valid. Your life is worthwhile.

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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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Experiencing Life

I really really liked 2013’s Tomb Raider. I wasn’t much of a Tomb Raider fan prior; Lara tended to be a little too sexualized for my tastes. Too much like if Indiana Jones had T&A than, well, an adventure story. The reboot, though, was more interested in Lara as a character than her figure. Plus, y’know, I’m a sucker for survivalist story on an island with crazy fanatics. Gameplay was a lotta fun too. So yeah, I really liked the game.

Hence my disappointment when it was announced that the follow up, Rise of The Tomb Raider (…with a questionable name), was going to be exclusive to the Xbox One for its first year of release. A PlayStation man myself, this meant I couldn’t play it until, well, recently.

All this to say, I’m finally playing Rise of The Tomb Raider.

And I am short.

Okay, so, in real life, as someone who hovers somewhere between 6’1 and 6’2, I’m considered tall. Over the years since reaching this height, I’ve gotten used to being tall. I’m the same height as Nolan North, who plays Nathan Drake in Uncharted, so there’s nothing unusual to me as I see me-as-Drake standing next to other people. It’s, y’know, normal.

But when me-as-Lara stands next to someone, sometimes I’m a head shorter. Which is unusual for me. Now, sure, I may be projecting a bit here – but that’s what fiction is, it’s a two-way street; you get what you put in. So me, I suddenly felt a little vulnerable, out there in the Siberian wilderness with the only people not shooting at me these probably-friendly men a bunch taller than me. Sure, I’m Lara Croft, a badass with a bow and guns, but, well, I’m smaller. And maybe this guy underestimates me? Which in turn makes me wonder how much height affects how we perceive and are perceived. Like I said, new experience.

It’s a small thing, and something I didn’t dwell on since there were deer to hunt and tombs to raid, but that’s a thing about video games, isn’t it? You get to live lives you normally don’t.

In video games, I’ve carved a path of vengeance to reclaim my throne (Dishonored 2), been the customs agent for an ersatz Soviet nation (Papers Please), defended Earth from genocidal aliens (Mass Effect and/or Halo), and woken up from a one night stand trying to put together what happened last night and figure out who I woke up next to (One Night Stand). Sure, the main characters of these games may have been people not named Josh, but I was the one doing the things. They are my experiences. It’s me doing all that.

Tom Bissel, in Extra Lives, declares that the big thing video games have given him are experiences, “not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as real memories” (182). For Bissel, he references Grand Theft Auto IV and all the weird crap he got up to between missions (eg: causing a traffic jam and then tossing a grenade into the gridlock). For me, I have memories – real memories – of saving the world a few times over, pulling of a sick getaway after assassinating one of my usurpers, and, yes, feeling short and vulnerable. Video games, like a good book, let you live another life (or an extra life). I get to experience a whole new life. It’s why I love those weird indie games; games like This War of Mine where I scrounged for survival in a war zone as part of a band of survivors or Passage where I walked through a life from birth to death.

And so that’s the thing about fiction; particularly novels and video games which require you to be an active participant in the narrative. You step into a new life and experience it from a point of view unlike your own; be it a little girl in Maycomb, Alabama or a treasure hunter gallivanting across the world. Read a book. Play a video game. Learn about being someone other than yourself.

Live another life.

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But For Different Reasons

I first saw (500) Days of Summer when I was eighteen. Fresh outta high school, I was one of five people in the theater. I loved it, and would go on to watch it in theaters two more times when I moved to Singapore a month later, and then again when I bought it on BluRay. I loved it for its emotional honesty, for the way the film depicted Tom’s thought process on screen. But like Tom’s own relationship with The Graduate, my own love of (500) Days of Summer was based on a bit of a misreading.

See, I, for a variety of reasons, identified with Tom more than I should have. I thought Summer in the wrong and pitied him for pursuing a woman who didn’t feel the same way as him. I have a totally different read on the movie now, seven years later, but let’s stay here for a moment.

I misread the movie (because the wonderful thing about fiction is its give and take), and I liked it a lot. But the reasons I liked it were, in my ways, a little off. It doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have enjoyed it, just that what I brought to it and wanted from it (Tom and Summer should be together!), meant that what I got out of it was filtered through it (at least the devastation from Summer prompted Tom to get his crap together, and hey, there’s Autumn!). Thus my own catharsis through it is, well, different from how it works now.

Now, seven years later and hopefully a modicum wiser, I still love the movie. But, as you may have guessed from what I’ve already said, for very different reasons. Tom seems now less a hopeless romantic and more a selfish git who fancies himself one. He’s made sympathetic through the film’s storytelling, but Tom really isn’t a great guy. The takeaway from the film is instead a cautionary tale about expecting some sweeping love story to solve all your problems (it’s also a brilliant deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl).

So yeah. I still love the movie, albeit for a few different reasons. Which is really a testament to the film itself, that it’s able to make a sympathetic character out of someone as glaringly flawed as Tom; enough that a glowing positive interpretation of him is honestly quite valid.

You’re just missing the point.

Now, the point of any piece of fiction can be argued ad nauseam, and (500) Days of Summer itself remains open to a variety of opinions as to what is its point exactly, but to stop an understanding of the film at it being ‘just’ a love story with a downbeat ending. There’s more to it than that, and an arguably more complete catharsis can be found when you realize that it’s Tom’s willingness to fix himself and find happiness outside of a relationship that helps him get his life back on track. Or is it — since the button with Autumn casts Tom’s development into a measure of question.

I find that this is something true of a lot of stories. Pacific Rim is plenty enjoyable for getting to watch giant robots and giant monsters beat the crap outta each other, but its commentary takes it to another layer, just like how Godzilla is all the more enriching in light of the stances it takes on nuclear weapons or the environment (depending on if it’s the original Gojira or Gareth Edwards’ recent outing). There aren’t really ‘wrong’ ways of loving a story,* there are just different reasons for it. I figure part of really appreciating fiction is being willing to let your understanding and appreciation of a story evolve. Who knows, it may get even better.

*For simplicity’s sake, I’m ignoring flat-out misinterpretations like a white-supremacist/Aryan interpretation of The Lord of The Rings, something Tolkien himself decried. There’s a certain amount of latitude to finding meaning, but there’s also a point where sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Maybe that’s another rant for another day/

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Letting Different People Be Different

One of the many (many, many) things I love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that the hunky guy Rebecca is pining for is an Asian guy (named Josh, but that parts not important right now). It’s incredibly refreshing — when was the last time you saw an Asian male as a romantic lead, let alone an object of sexual desire by a white woman in fiction? But that leads me to another one of the things I love about the show: it’s not a big deal. No one cares that Josh’s Asian. Even when Rebecca has Thanksgiving with him and his Filipino family, there’s none of that usual other-ing that happens when you see character entering into a space that’s foreign to them. That’s also great.

But part-and-parcel of Josh’s Asian-ness being a non-issue is that he gets to take on a character archetype Asians never get to have — he’s a bro! He’s an idiot. A lovable idiot, yes, but an idiot still. Why’s this matter? ‘cuz when you have an Asian guy in fiction, chances on he’s going to be the smart guy or the dork or, y’know, both. There’s a very specific space in fiction that Asian characters are allowed to inhabit, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend throws that to the wind. It goes on: a middle-aged man is bisexual, the professional psychiatrist is a black woman, the underachieving stoner next door is a brown girl.

I saw The Magnificent Seven this week (#AsianCowboy) and though it’s a flawed movie, it’s still terrifically entertaining and, on another level, absolutely wonderful. The latter of which I’m blaming on how it handles its diverse cast. Race is hardly touched on in the film, which, y’know it doesn’t have to. But instead every member of the titular seven gets to be a rough-and-tumble jackass of a cowboy. Billy Rocks the #AsianCowboy goes toe-to-toe with the Mexican and Chris Pratt, while Red Harvest the Native American makes fun of their food. Every character gets to give as good as they get. There’s no token minority put on a pedestal, everyone has an edge.

Which applies to the action bits too; everyone gets to have their cool bits, with Billy Rocks winning a shootout and throwing knives while saving Ethan Hawke. He’s not the Asian journeyman on a mission, he’s a cowboy (with a knife speciality). Again, this is an Asian character in a role usually off-limits to people that look like him (or, well, me) getting to do things associated with the role that usually doesn’t happen. This doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with, say, Shanghai Noon, where Jackie Chan plays an Imperial Guard on a mission in the old west who’s more martial artist than cowboy. The problem comes when every single narrative about an Asian in that time period is that narrative. So getting to see an Asian character be the quintessential American cowboy — dude, that’s dope.

When Alan Yang won an Emmy for an episode of Master of None, he gave a great speech pointing out how despite there being the same number of Italian- and Asia-Americans in the US. the former group has some of the most celebrated stories in fiction, while Asians have, well, Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles. The narrative of Asian-ness is shockingly limited, despite how long they/we’ve been a part of Western culture. In other words: the roles Asians are allowed in fiction is usually one of a handful of archetypes. Diversity and inclusion means changing that, means letting Asians be the dumb bro or the badass cowboy, means letting the lead of a tv show about being in your 30’s be an Indian guy, it means letting you ragtag band of space rebels have Asian actors, it means making your superhero a first-generation Pakistani immigrant or a half-Asian kid. Let different people be a part of different narratives.

Of course, this is a selfish want — I wanna see more people who look like me in fiction doing everything. But then, don’t you wanna see more people who look like yourself in fiction?

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