Tag Archives: stories

Bad Taste

I really like Iron Man 2. This is not a popular opinion; the movie is usually listed near the bottom of MCU movie rankings, especially when held up against its predecessor.

But I really like it all the same. I suppose there’s no accounting for bad taste.

Perhaps there’s some explanation for my deep affection for this much-maligned movie when the context with which I first saw the film is taken into account. The summer of 2010 saw my heart acting up with the symptoms of something potentially dire, but without any clear cause. This period of uncertainty was less than fun, to put it mildly, so a movie where the protagonist was dealing with his own chest-related issues struck a very personal cord. I’m fully aware of the film’s flaws, but my opinions of Iron Man 2 will forever be tied up with the circumstances when I first saw it.

I go on and on on this blog about how art is a two-way street, about how the viewer/reader/player affects the work almost as much as the creator. What one brings to the table inherently changes the final effect of the piece. My own medical issues, for example, have had drastic effects on my opinion of Iron Man 2.

In light of that, it’s hard to really provide a framework with which to declare a movie the best. Something I love may not work for you, and vice versa. I found Never Let Me Go to be profoundly moving, but I’m sure there’s someone out there who’d call it melodramatic schlock, just as there are people who loved 50/50 while I found it somewhat hollow. I still love (500) Days Of Summer, but what I like about has changed as I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser).

Take the ending to The Last of Us. Without getting too much into it (because even six years on, talking about the ending still feels taboo), Joel has decided that there’s something that Ellie shouldn’t do and he’s going to do whatever it takes to ensure no harm befalls the teenage girl who’s become like a daughter to him. It’s a rampage, against a faction we’d been led to believe were heroic, culminating in the player – as Joel – shooting an unarmed man. Naturally, its response has proven it divisive. In the ensuing discussion, however, it became clear that players who had children of their own were more likely to sympathize with Joel’s choice than non-parents. The player’s own personal life informs their response to the narrative.

So is it a bad ending? I certainly read some criticisms of it, just as I read praises. While I’d say that it is empirically good, I do have to wonder if describing something empirically is even possible. There’s little doubt that it’s well-crafted and, I’d say, well-earned. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it; and it doesn’t matter how good it is, if you don’t like it you don’t like it.

As I said, there’s no accounting for bad taste.

I think we’re too hard on people who like stuff that’s not considered good, that there are too many pleasures we consider guilty. I’m sure we’ve all stories in one form or another that seem childish or shallow now, but once upon a time meant the world to you. I will forever have a soft spot for Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” and John Betjemen’s “False Security” since they were among my introduction to poetry, and two I took a real shine to years and years ago. Henry V is my favorite Shakespeare play, not because of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech or really any merit of itself, but because it was the first of his plays that I really dig into sixteen-odd years ago. Pretentious as it is, I want to say that Ulysses by James Joyce is my favorite book, not out of an adoration for obtuse literature, but from the delight of classes spent examining the book and finding meaning and, with all of that, falling in love with the work. I’m sure had I read it under other circumstances I would have dismissed it as being overwrought nonsense.

Secondhand Lions has a middling score on Rotten Tomatoes, but I absolutely love the movie all the same. I know that Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel is far from a really great game, but it’s an absolute delight to play on the weekend with your brother and a couple beers. I don’t care what you think, Toto’s “Africa” is an absolutely stellar piece of music.

Maybe I’m too hard on people. I think Batman v Superman is an absolute mess, but y’know what, if you like it, good for you. We can talk until the sky falls about what’s a good piece of art and what’s not, but I think we’re kinda missing the forest for the trees. So long as the story made you feel something and isn’t hurting anyone else, where’s the harm in liking it? I enjoy watching bad movies, I love playing excellent games, and I’ll gladly go to bat for Iron Man 2.

After all, there really is no accounting for bad taste.

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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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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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*general internet frustrations*

Y’know, I had plenty of ideas about what this blog post was gonna be about. The casting choices in Dr. Strange verses Kubo and The Two Strings (with some Uncharted 4 thrown in) or maybe one about how Silk, a comic about an Asian woman with Spider-Man powers, is not a story about race but still tells a uniquely Asian story.

But then internet people had to be spoiled and cruel to Chelsea Cain because she dared write a feminist comic, to the point where she decided she’d rather leave Twitter than deal with that noise.

So this blog post is about those idiots.

Here’s the quick and dirty recap: the last issue of writer Chelsea Cain’s (and artist Kate Niemczyk) wonderful Mockingbird series (which I love) features Mockingbird herself, Bobbi Morse, on its cover proudly sporting a t-shirt that reads “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda.” It’s a great cover, adding a nice exclamation point to a book with an already decidedly feminist bent. Over the past week since the book’s release, however, The Internet hasn’t been too happy about it, and subsequently people on Twitter actively have been harassing her for it.

The sad truth is, this isn’t new, neither for comics nor nerd culture at large. Marvel as a whole gets a lot of crap for them “pushing social justice down readers’ throats” (that is, promoting diversity in their recent titles), and there was the horrible attacks on Leslie Jones for her role int he new Ghostbusters over the summer. Ultimately, it keeps coming down to the same thing: more people (especially women and minorities) want a more active, representative role in nerd culture and folks (especially straight white guys) don’t wanna share.

And look, I get it.

I really do.

I’m a lifelong nerd, well before it became cool to be one. I got picked on in real life for reading Star Wars books (and reading in general), being good at schoolwork, and spending my weekends playing video games. Online forums were my social sphere. It’s jarring to see a title and its hallmarks go from peripheral to mainstream. In recent years there’s been a steady merging of nerd culture into popular culture.

And I’ll admit, I bristle at it sometimes; I get protective of these stories: they’re mine! These newcomers just getting into Star Wars and superheroes didn’t have to deal with being weird; why do they get to choose to be called nerds? They’re your toys and you don’t like the neighbors coming over and making Darth Vader team up with the Power Rangers to fight the Decepticons. They’re our stories, we’ve claimed them as our own.

But they’re stories in contention are stories we like (hopefully) because they affected us deeply, why shouldn’t I want someone else to have that experience? Star Wars was for me a galaxy of possibility, where, y’know, things were great even if high school wasn’t. If making Rey and Finn the new face of the franchise opens the door for others to have that experience, I’m down. Mockingbird is a book where a woman can be the badass scientist-super-spy without being objectified (and instead the men are!). This summer’s Ghostbusters let women see themselves as the funny unhinged ghost hunters, like how the original let you do the same, my proverbial straight, white, male straw man.

But when every story used to cater to you, my straw man, it seems like you’re being alienated from the fandoms you sustained when more and more stories don’t. When Ms. Marvel is a Muslim, Pakistani immigrant and Iron Man is a black woman, it’s weird, as a longtime fan, to not see yourself reflected as the main character. But the point is, no one group has a monopoly on wanting to connect with stories — not everyone feeling ostracized is a straight white guy. As someone who is an immigrant, it’s exciting to see elements of my own story pop up in a comic book like Ms. Marvel. There has to be space for stories for everyone.

We need diversity. And I love Marvel for pushing it (and, y’know, reflecting the real world).

What we don’t need is this bullying bs that crops up over and over again. White guys aren’t the center of the world anymore; creators like Chelsea Cain can take a character who’s always been a supporting player and spin her into a hero in her own, feminist right. The stories, all of them, never belonged exclusively to any particular person or group of people, they’ve been ours this whole time. It’s time to share.

I wish I could end this post here.

But there’s the fact that Chelsea Cain is targeted because she’s a woman writing in the comics industry, an industry whose fans will protest and harass at any provocation. There’s no ignoring the repulsive sexism at work here (and, in Leslie Jones’ case, the racism too). It’s abhorrent and disgusting; things shouldn’t be this way. Harassing and attacking a woman just because she enters into a sphere usually dominated by straight white guys is childish. It’s stupid. It’s mean.

I don’t rant about feminism as much as I used to (haven’t you heard? This is the year of diversity at Essays, Not Rants!), but this is why feminism is important. It’s ‘cuz of bullshit like this.

When they announced the cover of Mockingbird #8 a few months ago, I quickly bought my own feminist agenda t-shirt (which I love). And my feminist agenda isn’t just putting more strong, well-written women in my stories and supporting others (and women) who do; it’s not putting up with this crap.

feministagenda

Chelsea Cain responded to this picture on Twitter. But I can’t show you that now because people are awful.

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Meaning Upon Meaning

Every movie monster in the book has some sort of sociocultural commentary associated with it. Zombies are the embodiment of a fear of conformist consumer culture, vampires are the elite rich who drain the life of the poor, werewolves are your neighbor’s double life, Godzilla is nuclear terror made real. A lot of fun can be found in figuring out what these all mean. Is Zombieland about the isolation that comes as a result of being the only people special in a world of copies? Or is it a celebration of life in a post-consumer society?

That’s one thing I love about fiction is that there are as many meanings of it as there are people watching. You see this particularly science fiction and fantasy which, by virtue, often deal with some embodiment of the unknown/other, and thus can really explore the parable-ness of stories. But like I said, meanings. I see The Force Awakens as a story about identity and finding belonging (which makes it different from the original Star Wars despite hitting many of the same plot beats), Firefly is a story fundamentally about family, and Iron Man 2  is about embracing mortality. You could disagree and you’re more than welcome to because, again, the joy of fiction.

A good story has enough substance that you can watch/read/hear/play it multiple times and get different things from it over time. While discussing children’s books, CS Lewis wrote in Of Other Worlds: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty(…).” It’s how you can enjoy Prisoner of Azkaban as a kid for its magic and scary monsters, then years later love it for its wonderful take on depression; or how Justice League remains intriguing if you’re twelve or twenty-five.

(500) Days of Summer is perfectly enjoyable as a romcom where the male character is afforded the same amount of emotional intimacy and depth the female lead usually gets. Then you can also read it as a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope that was alive and well in 2009. Or as an exploration of how being selfish and only looking for what you want dooms a relationship. Are any of those wrong? Not necessarily (though if you see Tom or Summer as being an ideal, dreamy, romantic partner… you’re misreading it). Do any of those interpretations discount the other? Unless you’re googley over Tom or Summer, again, no. If I watch this movie again in five years will I find something new (and maybe stop using rhetorical questions)? Yeah, probably. I still love (500) Days of Summer, as much (or more) than I did when I first saw it seven(!) years ago, but the reasons I love it now are really different from when I watched it then.

I mentioned briefly that there could be a wrong reading (Tom and Summer are deeply flawed, deeply selfish characters, not dream lovers), which is true in a way. The LEGO Movie is the hero’s journey retold with LEGO bricks. But is it also anti-capitalism with its overthrow/redemption of an evil businessman? I’d argue not, because, really? But wrong doesn’t necessarily mean invalid, and if you read Tom as being a dream guy even though the writers have outright said he’s not meant to be one, fine, more power to you, you’re still wrong.

Stories are fluid and for a lot, the authors are decidedly dead. So it doesn’t really matter so much what the exact intention was exactly, so much as you connected. This doesn’t mean you can go around saying Gojira isn’t about the Japanese terror of nuclear weapons (because look at the context and everything), but it does allow for a range of interpretations of that. I know the The Force Awakens has belonging as a theme, because Maz mentions it to Rey, but the importance I place on it is all, well, me.

And at the end of the story, that’s the important bit.

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Of Zootopia

Stories are often a reflection of reality. Star Wars was a reflection of the existential threat posed by the Cold War. The Hurt Locker was, quite obviously, a discussion of the human cost of war. The Revenant reflected Leonardo DiCaprio’s all-consuming want for an Oscar.

And then there’s Zootopia. Which holds an unrelenting, condemning-yet-hopeful mirror to modern America. Which you wouldn’t exactly expect, because it’s a major Disney movie. Nonetheless, couched in this story of bunny cops is an incredible exploration of prejudice that your ‘deep’ friend on Facebook wishes they could have written as a status.

In Zootopia, anthropomorphic animals live in a city. But unlike any other story about anthropomorphic animals, the fact that they are animals is actually a big deal. A rabbit (like the protagonist) is tiny and water buffalos are massive. Foxes are predators, and sheep are prey. With these differences comes the logical divides and ostracizing; prey think predators are dangerous, and big animals discount the efforts of smaller ones.

The movie seems to have some very simple analogues. Judy is a rabbit and the first rabbit on Zootopia’s police force which leads to some dismissing her joining the team as just the diversity initiative paying off. So right off the bat the movie seems posed to position Judy as the Other. She, because she’s a rabbit, is bullied and downtrodden on by other animals. The arc for the story seems clear enough: Judy will have to overcome the prejudice against her species and prove that she’s as good a cop as anyone else. So like that Jackie Robinson movie no one saw, but with a bunny cop instead of a black baseball player.

The movie could have built the whole thing around that premise and we’d have gotten another movie about overcoming adversity and all that. Done deal. Nothing wrong there.

But Zootopia goes further.

When preparing to move to the titular city, Judy is warned by her parents to be careful of ‘those people,’ in particular foxes. She pushes back, but it’s made clear that  prey too hold prejudices against predators. Especially foxes who are in general seen as being sly and dishonest. The general consensus on foxes is that they’re, for the most part, a bunch of good-for-nothing louts. Something Judy’s pretty sure she disagrees with.

Now hold on, you (like me), may be thinking. The simple analogy of Zootopia is starting to break down. If the rabbits are the people-group who are oppressed, why then do they hold their own biases against foxes? And shouldn’t Idris Elba’s water buffalo get along with Judy since they’re both prey?

Zootopia is so much more complex than it lets on. Within the movie, everyone has prejudices. Judy’s own relationship with Nick the fox sees her trying to prove that he’s decent, then having her fears come true, and then getting to know him for who he is and not just as a fox. And that all happens within the first half-hour. See, the movie crafts a world where it can overtly discuss, well, racism, without necessarily pointing fingers at anyone.

I can’t overstate how amazing it is to see Zootopia tackle this topic head on with such nuance. This is a movie where the hero’s loss of faith isn’t losing a friend, being fired, or what have you, but when Judy is forced to realize her own innate prejudices. What comes next is the realization that someone can be a good person and still be prejudiced, but also that people can change.

Thats the beauty of stories. They’re trojan horses that sneak profundity in where you least expect it. Zootopia’s got incredible world building and is beautifully animated, but it uses it all to tell a beautiful narrative about overcoming your own prejudices. It’s magnificently done; we need more stories like this.

And holy crap, this is a kid’s movie!

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Verified Fiction

I’m an African prince. Well, sort of. More my Dad is a Chief in Ghana. Long story short, when we were there (while living on the ship) a local chief decided to make my Dad a Chief too. Far as thirteen-year-old Josh saw, he was given an ornate bracelet and, by the nature of him being my father, I became an African prince.

Don’t believe me? It’s fine, but hey, makes for a fun story huh?

I mentioned last week that my Dad told me a lot of stories growing up. Like I said before, some were Star Wars in nature, others dealt with superheroes, but among my brother and my favorites were stories of Zhuge Liang, a Chinese strategist who always had the smartest solutions. Sort of like King Solomon of the Bible, only, well, Chinese.

Anyway, my Dad would tell these great stories. I don’t remember any details, just that Zhuge Liang was really smart and sometimes his adventures had him winding up in present day or going on adventures with Star Wars characters. Some other stories he’d tell my brother and I were from when he was younger; adventures with his brothers or stories of when he’d lived on a ship in his twenties. Point is, they were great stories. Like that whole African prince thing; they’re cool and fun, something to tell others down the line.

Which, like many things in my life, makes me think of a movie. In this case it’s Secondhand Lions. Heads up, I’ll be discussing the ending of said movie, so: ten-year-old spoilers.

In Secondhand Lions, Walter is sent to spend the summer with his elderly grand-uncles Hub and Garth. Little is known by Walter, his mother, or the community about the brothers; just that they spent a long time overseas and are probably sitting on pile of wealth. There are theories as to what they did, one of the most popular being that they were bank robbers. According to Garth’s stories to Walter, they spent the years in Africa, fighting for the French Foreign Legion during World War I and later their own adventures including a notable escapade with a sheik before finally returning to the States.

Now, the central tension in the movie is the issue of whether the stories are true. When asked point blank, Hub tells Walter that it’s not so much the veracity that matters but that the meaning is true. That is, though a story mayn’t be true, ideals like honor and love are.

We don’t quite get an answer through the film’s climax — in fact we get a story in favor of the bank robber theory. It’s only at the very end, set years later, that Walter meets a man whose grandfather — an old wealthy sheik — told him stories about two wild Americans who opposed him. For both men it’s a moment of realization that there were actually some truth to those stories.

I’m taking a class this semester called Historic Epics of China and Japan, for which I’m currently reading Romance of The Three Kingdoms. I’ve heard of this book before, mostly that it’s a cultural touchstone. Part way through the book, though, a major character was introduced: Zhuge Liang.

Yeah, the same guy my Dad told me stories about when I was a kid is a key player in a book I’m reading at university. There’s something exciting about this, in a way not unlike Walter meeting the sheik’s grandson: it’s a sudden realization that hey, those stories my Dad told me were actually rooted in Chinese culture. There’s a sudden added truth to those half-remembered stories I grew up with. That and Three Kingdoms is a great piece of literature.

We live in a world of stories. Not just those we watch/read/play, but ones we hear from and tell each other. With that, it’s always to find out that some of those more outlandish ones are actually quite true.

A couple years ago I was reading TIME when an article caught my eye: it was about foreign chiefs in Ghana. I read it, amused at the fact that hey, my Dad might not be the only one. Then I looked closely at the picture in the article, real close. On the chief’s wrist is a bracelet, one not unlike the one my Dad has.

Well whadaya know.

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