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Monday, December 5, 2016

Comparing and Contrasting Doctor Strange and Ant-Man

This may or may not be a controversial stance among superhero movie aficionados right now, I can’t really tell either way, but I’m gonna go ahead anyway: Doctor Strange is the best Marvel movie since Avengers: Age of Ultron, possibly even Guardians of the Galaxy.

Comparing big team-up movies like Civil War with ones focused on a solo hero like Doctor Strange or Ant-Man, so in examining what I think Doctor Strange does well, I’ll mostly stick to comparing other movies of its type. I also realize that I wasn’t as crazy about Civil War as some others, but that’s a whole other can of worms; maybe I’ll touch on it another day. For now, I want to focus on what I think Doctor Strange does well (and, relatedly, what I think Ant-Man could have done better).

There are a whole bunch of smaller reasons that I can get out of the way. I loved the visuals of Doctor Strange; the shots of alien other dimensions were captivating, but even the scenes on earth were interesting in a way that I can’t say Ant-Man matched. And I thought the cast in Strange was all-around better; Paul Rudd was fine as Scott Lang, his normal charming self, but it felt like a lower-tier level of charming considering the actor that didn’t quite capture my interest (it probably didn’t help that the last Paul Rudd performance I saw before Ant-Man was They Came Together, in which he’s the most goofy and likeable that I’ve seen him, so maybe it was just raised expectations). Benedict Cumberbatch disappeared into his role in a way that made me forget I was watching someone who wasn’t actually Stephen Strange (in spite of my initial reaction of “I will never get over hearing him speak without an English accent”). And I would rate the rest of the cast’s performances higher overall as well.

The writing probably did most of the work, though, for a variety of reasons. Doctor Strange kept it’s “unusual-ness” throughout, in a way that ­Ant-Man didn’t. The latter billed itself as something of a “superhero-heist movie”, and it…kind of was, I guess? Really, the “heist” bits were contained to one section in the second act (maybe two, if we’re counting Scott stealing the suit, but I’m not sure I would totally count that, given it was a small burglary and structured more like a standard action movie/problem solving piece), with the training for said heist coming in the form of a standard “superhero training” sequence. And upon reaching the goal of the heist…the rug was pulled out from under us and we got a standard act three superhero battle.

Doctor Strange didn’t commit at all to being much other than a superhero movie with magic, but it kept that focus on the mystic and unusual for the entire time, and the final set piece did much more to stand out. “Rewinding” the destruction in Hong Kong was clever and fun to watch, and completely skipping the final battle to deal with outwitting the villain to draw them into a bargain was unexpected and perfectly in character.

But there’s more to it. Doctor Strange was much more focused, almost to its detriment. It cut down on a lot of extraneous characters that cluttered the edge of Ant-Man to draw focus on Stephen, Mordo, and the Ancient One to a much tighter degree than the former did with it’s main trio. Not to say it’s perfect; I felt Strange could have done more with Wong, Kaecilius, and Christine Palmer*, but then, I don’t think it did much worse than ­Ant-Man did with its closest comparisons (Luis, Cross, and take your pick for the third). But that main trio is definitely stronger, and the part that I think makes the biggest difference between the two.

* And given how short the film felt, this is especially irritating; I could have done with another fifteen minutes of fleshing them out. Or even world-building, given how much there is to explain about the world of magic. None of that is technically super-critical, but it would have been nice. Although I suppose it’s preferable to be left wanting more over the opposite.
Stephen Strange is just a much more interesting character than Scott Lang. Maybe that’s why I felt Paul Rudd’s performance was less interesting, that he didn’t have as much to work with, but I’d definitely stand by saying the part was underwritten. There’s just no arc to Scott in the movie; he starts the movie a burglar with a big heart trying to do the right thing and stay out of prison for his daughter, and he ends it basically in the same place, except now he has superpowers, a girlfriend, a mentor, and a job. He’s even still a burglar! We see him break into as many places as a superhero as he did before becoming one.* And even when he went to prison, it was for hacking a company that was defrauding customers; he was basically already a superhero, he just needed the suit.

*And if you want to extend his arc to Civil War, he actually goes backwards; he’s totally willing to throw away the “stay out of prison for his daughter” part over…a guy he stole something from asking a favor.

This is a problem pretty specific to the movies; Nick Spencer’s recent take on Ant-Man has been one of my favorite runs in all of comics this year.* And as a serialized story, it can’t give Scott a character arc as easily as a one-shot, two hour movie. But Spencer does have Scott struggling with his flaws: he’s a mostly smart guy who’s a little to quick to run away from his issues instead of facing them, and a nice guy who cares about others but doesn’t always have the empathy to see things the way they do and sometimes unintentionally hurts them as a result. But he recognizes all of that and he’s working to improve.

*Maybe I’ll release a year-end best-of article? Who knows.
It’s tragic and compelling and keeps you rooting for a relatable guy trying his best who sometimes screws up in a complex world like ours (plus the added complexity of dealing with supervillains and all that). It’s just that the movie capture none of that. If anything, Hope and Hank and their relation are the emotional core of the movie, showing actual growth and reconnecting after years of shutting each other off for their own reasons, but they are the secondary plot while focus remains on Scott, since he’s the superhero.

Compare that with Doctor Strange; The Ancient One and Mordo are interesting characters as well in their own way, but writers Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill remembered to give Stephen something to do as well. He’s egotistical at the start, a doctor who has done incredible things, and when he loses that ability, realizes how he hadn’t been doing as much good as he liked to think, and had even been hurting others along the way.*

*I’ve seen some argue that it’s the same as Tony Stark’s growth in Iron Man, but I’d disagree. Tony is still an egomaniac in every movie, as that wasn’t the flaw he had to overcome in his first movie; it was his total self-centered indifference to everyone and everything else in the world, and his attempt to atone for the harm he had caused via weapons and such. Strange, in comparison, became a doctor to help people; part of his ego was pride in how much he had helped, and his growth is in realizing how small he is in the grand scheme of things, and how many more people he could have been helping. He has to totally set aside his ego, where Tony can work around his (and even use it to motivate himself). It’s an interesting take, especially from a director in Derrickson who is very public about his faith.
Once he’s learned to set aside that pride, it takes on a normal “superhero training” feel until after the second act, when Stephen has to reconcile this superhero-ing with his training as a doctor to avoid harm. It’s part of what makes the final “non-fight scene” so interesting; it’s him avoiding violence and reconciling those two sides of him, as well as a final confirmation of his initial growth, as he is willing to sacrifice himself totally, condemned to an eternity of repeating his death, in order to spare his entire dimension. He has totally set aside his ego. Compared to all of that, Scott Lang’s lack of any notable growth is especially frustrating.

All of the amazing visuals (definitely the best since Guardians) are fantastic and all, but it’s definitely Marvel’s tightest movie story-wise in a while (also the best since Guardians). I’m not sure that I’d quite put it in the company’s upper-tier, but it’s probably in the next level below that.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Arrival is a Fantastic Movie, and a Wonderful Adaptation of Story of Your Life

Arrival by director Denis Villeneuve might be my favorite movie of the year. It’s definitely in the discussion, and probably the frontrunner at this point (which is no small feat, given that it’s up against movies like Sing Street and Swiss Army Man*). And on the one hand, that shouldn’t seem like too much of a surprise. The novella that it’s based on, Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing.

*I meant to write about each of these earlier in the year and never got around to it. Maybe I’ll circle back around if I have time.

But it’s not always that simple. When the adaptation was first announced, I was incredibly skeptical that such a project would work. After all, when you look at the story, it has approximately zero or even negative overlap with what you would traditionally associate with a blockbuster movie.

I mean, it’s a hard science fiction story that’s mainly about how linguists would handle a first contact situation, with long passages of exposition informing the reader about the mechanics of the process and an inverse amount of action. Meanwhile, it’s structurally non-linear with a major emotional twist that hinges on the medium being prose; the second that it would be displayed visually, it would give itself away. If any of that screams “$50 million blockbuster” to you, you’re lying to yourself.

And yet, they pulled it off. It may be the best adaptation of an already-incredible source material since…shoot, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World maybe? And much like Scott Pilgrim, it’s perfect in part because it realizes the key to making a great movie from a great book (/short story/series of graphic novels, in these cases) is not to make it a 1:1 adaptation of the source material, but instead to understand the different constraints of the different mediums and make changes to preserve the feel of the original in a way that works better for the screen.

What I’d like to do here is just dig in a little deeper to those changes, and pull apart what they are and why they were made. And I’m going to try and do it in a way that doesn’t spoil either Arrival or Story of Your Life because, seriously, they’re fantastic and everyone should check them out. However, if you have only seen the former or read the latter, that should be fine. The film is a faithful adaptation, know that the basic story beats are the same, and you already know where the other is headed*. Hopefully, I will be a good enough writer to explain the situation, whether you experience one, both, or neither.

*I mention this because I was concerned that the short story would be made unrecognizable to work as a movie script, but this was thankfully not the case.

First, to fit in with the demands for of modern blockbusters, Arrival needed the addition of some form of “excitement”. The original short story was much more exploratory in nature, with the conflict being driven more from a question of whether the aliens could be communicated with. Thankfully, screenwriter Eric Heisserer resisted the temptation to make that addition “action scenes”, like I feared might be the case based on advertisements. Instead, he expands the role of the military to add tension with the main characters over a difference in approach over how to deal with the aliens, a good way to underscore the themes of the piece without feeling out of place.

But the most masterful translation might be the successful preservation of the original story’s twist. As mentioned, in Story of Your Life, Chiang is able to conceal a major surprise by virtue of not having to visually portray something. It can shock you with the “what” of the story (what is going on, essentially). Villenueve and Heisserer thankfully decided they needed to find some way to translate this emotional gut-punch. But how does one do that?

Similar to the first problem, by extrapolating from the text. The book explained the “how” of the problem (how the language works, how language and perception overlap) so that it could shock you with the “what” (what it ultimately means. With that option out of the question, they instead lay all their cards on the table from the start. With that “what” out of the way, they manage the same emotion gut-punch that Ted Chiang pulled off instead using the “how” of the story; namely, how all the events fit together. They mimic the story’s non-linear style to obscure all of the implications of the events, while also developing their own connections to deepen the meaning of the reveal. And these new connective ideas, while not necessary in the original (one of them even explicitly changes a fundamental aspect of the original in fact, while the other is totally absent), do add a lot to the story, especially with regards to its theme of interconnectedness.

I’m simultaneously worried that I both didn’t explain myself well enough and gave away too much and any further explanation would certainly give everything away, so that’s probably a good sign to stop for the time being. They key take away from this should be that everyone should check out Arrival, as well as Story of Your Life even if they weren’t both fantastic on their own, comparing the two is highly instructive.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

"Orphan Black" and Genre

In my ongoing attempt to catch up to several years ago in pop culture, I’ve finally begun watching Orphan Black. As of the halfway point of my watch, it’s an amazing series, and I wanted to write something about it to reflect on my love for it, even if it was brief.

And there are a million things I could write about. There’s the brilliant acting of Tatiana Maslany, who can effortlessly play a variety of distinct and interesting characters with such skill that you can not only identify them by body language alone, you can identify when it's one character impersonating another. There’s the incredible supporting cast, taking well-written parts and turning them into an entire immersive world. There’s the brilliant cinematography and soundtrack, which are brilliant in setting an unsettling yet magnetic scene.

But I wanted to focus on just one aspect, to keep it more focused. Specifically, I want to look at the transition from season one to season two, and how the writers do a great job of transitioning the genre to accommodate the growing show. 

Like several shows in recent memory, Orphan Black is a mythology-intensive science-fiction drama, highly dependent on a mystery built around its sci-fi hook. However, in many shows like this*, there’s a central issue: when you build a season around a central mystery, you’re going to have to answer it. Once you do that, how do you move on? How can you create that excitement again?

*I’m gonna try not to single out Heroes, but it really is representative of most of these issues, so feel free to substitute that in if you need a specific example.

In an interesting maneuver, series creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett decide to not try. Season 1 is a mystery thriller through-and-through, even frequently crossing into the police procedural genre as Sarah Manning tries to investigate the various mysteries. The show explodes out of the gate, with the first scene setting up the central question that will drive the rest of the season. From there, it's starts to play like a murder mystery; who is committing the string of murders, a general "what's the motive", and related questions.

By season two, all of those general questions are answered, so rather than come up with a new mystery to propel the show forward, it takes a different approach. Determining the murder and motives in season one served to build up the show's mythology, so they shift to exploring that instead. There's no obvious central question driving the plot forward, like the "Who was Beth Childs?" or "Who is the killer?" or "Who is or isn't a spy?" that drove the first season. Instead, it's a much more abstract "What's going on?", or "What is everyone's end game?" It gives the season the feel of a conspiracy thriller.

And once you notice that, you begin to notice all the other shifts that subtly occurred to make that work. For instance, Sarah is still the main focus of the show. However, the rest of the clones start to take over more and more prominent roles in the storyline.  Alison’s impending mental collapse finally comes to pass; Cosima gets her own conflict that centers on her and not how it affects Sarah; and it’s no coincidence that Helena alone deals with the Proletheans, the shadowy cult that had been plaguing all of the clones for the entire show, for the entire back half of the season. The other characters stories are finally no longer leaning on Sarah’s.

As a result of this, it feels like the writers are laying all of their cards on the table, to put it one way. Most mysteries don’t linger. In season one, we spent episodes wondering who was murdering the clones, what they wanted, who they worked for, what happened to Beth Childs, and so on. In season two, it’s rare for any “mystery” to last more than an episode. We find out a character thought dead is alive, and they turn up by the end of next episode. We see Sarah go to a mysterious stranger from her past for help, and know what his deal is within a scene or two. Siobhán disappears mysteriously in the first episode, and by the end of the episode, we’ve ruled out the predominant theory about it; by the next episode, we know more or less everything about it (as well as just about everything she knows about the circumstances as well).

The questions, compared to those in the first season, feel tangential, and more towards fleshing out our existing understanding of the status quo rather than building it up from scratch. The tension doesn’t come from finding out what’s going on, it comes from watching something happen and seeing how the characters, both good and bad, respond to it while trying to out-maneuver the other side in real time. For instance, in the last example I gave, we find out get a look into Siobhán’s actions that Sarah doesn't, so we know her motivations (well, we have a decent idea at least); the tension comes from Sarah’s uncertainties on the matter and whether she can piece everything together. Watching these interactions, and seeing the Clone Club try and stay ahead of the big, scary Dyad corporation or the Prolethean cult, or whatever other parties are out there, is what gives it a lot of the “conspiracy thriller” vibe.

I look forward to seeing if they continue with this new approach in my watch of season 3, or if they decide to branch out in a different direction yet again. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Strategy for Adapting a Live-Action Pokémon Movie

Rumors have been swirling around Nintendo wanting to adapt their franchises to movies, and one of the first franchises attached to this news was none other than Pokémon. I’m not sure what to think of this news yet; it’s exciting to see something that were such a large part of both my formative years and my life as a whole getting a big adaptation, but there’s so much room for things to grow horribly wrong. And unlike, say, comic book movies, which have sort of always just been a part of my life since I was young, this will mark totally new ground.

So, since the news broke, I’ve been thinking: what could a Pokémon movie look like? How can you adapt something like that to a movie? And almost as importantly, what exactly is it that made me like Pokémon? Because that last question especially will be important in adapting the work into a new medium for a larger audience.

With that in mind, I’d like to propose my hypothetical list of dos and don’ts for adapting Pokémon to the silver screen.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Music Monday: Summer Playlist

I had a lot of fun making a playlist for the last Music Monday, so I want to try it again. This time, in celebration of the Memorial Day weekend, I want to focus on Summer Songs. And I’m not referring to how people will label certain pop songs “the song of the summer”, I’m talking about songs that feel explicitly summery (although there can be overlap, depending on the song I guess, although I don’t include any of that overlap here). I have no idea if other people think of songs as “Summer Songs”, but I definitely do. And for whatever reason, none of the other seasons get that sort of label in my head.

My most basic definition has been a sort of tautological “songs that sound good during summer”, something you would listen to sitting by the pool, or driving around with the windows down on a hot day, or just enjoying warm evenings.

I’ve just tried reverse engineer what qualities make me think that, but there hasn’t been any one factor that’s consistent among them.*  There have been a few qualities I’ve noticed though, including things like strong basslines; a light and almost airy feel (although not all are explicitly; explicit references to summer, heat, relaxing/wasting time, and youth; high synth or guitar parts, mostly as rhythm instruments but sometimes with lead riffs; and big, easy-to-sing-along-to choruses as well as frequent use of non-words (like “ohs”, for example) to the same end.

*Other than “I have memories of listening to them over the summer”, but that’s a big chicken-and-egg question. Did I listen to them over the summer because I thought they sounded summery? Or did I decide they sounded summery because I remember listening to them over the summer? Not all of them came out during the summer, for what it’s worth, so I think that leads me to think it’s the first, but I can’t be sure either way.

Now that I got that way-too-academic breakdown, here’s the playlist:

Monday, May 2, 2016

Music Monday: Pick-Me-Up Playlist

I wanted to try something different for this Music Monday. I’ve been wanting to write about music for a while, but no song has inspired me enough to write a could hundred words on it. In any case, it was kind of a gray, cold, rainy, and all-around miserable weekend, and I needed something to cheer me up, so I started listening to some music to perk up my mood. I just kept going with songs until I decided to just make a playlist and share it, with some words about that. Maybe by just chipping in a few words about each one, I’ll feel more inspired. Either way, it’ll let me share music I love, which is always a plus.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Some Thoughts on X-Men, Both New and Astonishing

In my continuing quest to read old comics that I probably should have read years ago, I recently wrapped up my reading of Grant Morrison’s early-2000s run on New X-Men. This was preceded by my run-though of Joss Whedon’s stretch on Astonishing X-Men, which originally immediately followed Morrison’s work*, and the combined effect left me wanting to talk about them.

*Yeah, I kind of read them backwards, but it wasn’t really that much of a problem.

I don’t want to straight-up compare them and say which one is better, as they’re both fantastic works in their own right, and I love them in very different ways (I’ll try and explain that in a bit). Some comparison between them is inevitable, though.  In any case, the most succinct way I would compare them is: I like the scope of Morrison’s ideas more, but I think Whedon better reached the potential of his ideas.

The best starting place I can think of in this comparison is in characters the two introduced. Actually, both writers introduced numerous of characters; let’s narrow the scope to just the heroes (this discussion will have spoilers for a decade-plus-old set of comics, so fair warning):

Friday, February 26, 2016

Runaways vs. Runaways: Comparing the Newest Run to the Original

I’ve talked about it here before, but I just want to say it outright: Runaways is easily one of my favorite comics of all-time. I might even go as far as to say it’s #1 on my list, if I put more meticulous thought into those sorts of things.

Although, in the interest of full accuracy, series creator Brian K. Vaughn’s run was the part I’m referring to when I speak that highly of it. Joss Whedon’s follow-up story is close enough in quality that I don’t mind much. Everything after Whedon is where it gets rough, which is why I was a little hesitant when Marvel announced they’d be bringing the series back in 2015 under a new writer, Noelle Stevenson. The main series was essentially batting .500 on writers.

And then they announced that the return would be a part of the Battleworlds* stories, and that most of the cast would be unrelated to the original group. Could it recapture that original Runaways charm when it was a bunch of newbies dealing with a Dr. Doom-led Sky High-like institution instead of kids on the lam from supervillain parents? Could the characters recapture the likability of Nico, Victor, and the rest of the group**?

*For those not in the know, this was part of Marvel’s Secret Wars even. Long story short, the Marvel multiverse went through a weird “cosmic reshuffling”-type of event, with the end result being the company gave writers free reign to make stories up using whatever alternate universe characters or settings they could imagine.

**It seems we won’t be getting any more of the original team, either, which is a shame. But even worse is how most of the cast is under-utilized at the moment. Right now, I believe it’s basically just Nico on A-Force in the larger Marvel Universe. Victor showing up as a glorified cameo in the first issue of Nick Spencer’s Ant-Man: Second Chance Man is one of the greatest disappointments I’ve had, and in what is otherwise a great story. Maybe the inevitable next Young Avengers reboot could take some of them on?

I initially didn’t think I’d read it, but good word of mouth and my curiosity led to me picking up the trade paperback. Noelle Stevenson absolutely nails the tone, and even with the new cast, setting, and entire universe, it feels like a natural extension of the original story. There were even times where I forgot as I was reading it that it wasn’t related to the previous Runaways stories. It’s easy to get caught up in Stevenson’s brisk, fun pacing and artist Sanford Greene’s inviting stylized look.

This feels like the platonic idea of the concept of a spiritual successor. Stevenson does a great job of recapturing the youthful energy and rebellious spirit of the original with a similarly memorable cast, all while pushing her premise in unique ways. In fact, it feels like in every way that Stevenson could zig the way the original did, she zagged. Whereas the original Runaways were united in their home life, these ones are bound together by the other major setting for young-adult-based fiction, school. Where the originals were tightly bound and close together, this one is immediately split, with members staying behind or splitting up. Where the original group had treachery below the surface, this one makes it obvious right away.

The best distinction, though, comes with the choice of antagonist. The new version eschews the original’s kids vs. parents aesthetic not just by setting the conflict in a school, but by then making Valeria von Doom, Dr. Doom’s supergenius six-year-old, the acting headmaster and foil to the team. The villains are all just like the heroes, going through their own growth parallel to the heroes.

There are some differences between the two, and in the end, the original is still the best. Stevenson resists the short-hand of making the new team correspond directly to the old team, which is admirable and makes for a more interesting lead, but also means that she needs to set up even more characters*, as well as the much-stranger alternate universe the story takes place in. None of the characters quite get the focus the original sextet (or their later add-ons), and although they are still just as fun to watch bounce off each other, it still doesn’t feel like enough. Most of this can be blamed on the constraints of the larger event it took place in; the new team got four issues to the original’s eighteen (before its renewal). The new series needs one whole issue of setting everything up before it can get to the shocking twist in the second that forces the team in motion, something the original series could pull right away since it was on a fundamentally more recognizable Earth.

*There is some short-hand involved in Stevenson’s characterizations: all of the characters are versions of existing Marvel characters. But given that the main cast is a dozen-strong, that’s definitely understandable.

And really, that’s probably the greatest tragedy of the new series. I know I complained earlier about how the original Runaways would probably never get another series, but this team’s universe literally doesn’t exist anymore. Their story wrapped up (on a “the adventure continues!” sort of note, so sort of open-ended), but it felt like an amazing appetizer to a meal that won’t ever be arriving. There’s a great imaginativeness at play here that I wish could have been explored more, and I hope that Marvel can one day find some way to bring it back (although I wouldn’t hold my breath on that). All the same, I’ll take the brief brilliance in Volume 4 here over the drawn-out-but-wildly-inconsistent (at best) volume 3.