Saturday, August 27, 2016

My Level-Headed Attempt At Explaining Why Harry Potter And The Cursed Child Is More Disappointing Than Any Of My Own Cursed Children I May Have Complicated, Distant Familial Relationships With In The Future

By now, those who have long awaited its release have likely read Cursed Child. And by now, overwhelming disappointment has clouded those people’s judgment of a beloved book series and movie franchise. And by now, the apologists have also come to the fore, attempting to defend it, either on the grounds that a play is meant to be seen and not read (much like children themselves, I think), or that it’s really not as bad as people think and to give it a chance.

It sucks that the first piece of theatre I’ve gotten to write about in a while is such a drag-fest, and not a fabulous drag-fest like at LIPS or something, but instead a total drag of a time. But like my title notes, I am attempting to explain this reasonably. I don’t think the negative feedback from those who have read it is entirely misdirected or misguided. I also don’t take anything from those who have found enjoyment in it. For some, simply getting to be back in the world of Harry Potter is enough, and revisiting the characters in some way and form is magic sufficient. But I do think those who were expecting more, who had higher expectations for the result are justified in their disappointment. I agree that something with the depth of Potter should have received a higher threshold of standards.

Three main things work against Harry Potter And The Cursed Child:

- The scenes are short, lack progression, and don’t accumulate value. 
                   Something I find most unfortunate is that I see a lot of criticism leveled at Cursed Child and even some defending it are arguing, “It’s a play!” and this is completely inaccurate. If a story, even in script-form, seems thin and stagnant, that’s not a criticism of plays as opposed to novels. Certainly, a script is far stripped down from the robustness of a novel, but the dynamics of scenes should never be sacrificed. In fact, they should be even more substantial, because that’s all a play has. Those passages in between lines of dialogue in a novel, where we are privy to the inner thoughts of a character, that all has to be conveyed in only dialogue and the abilities of the actor on stage. A script needs to convey as much of that as possible to the actor. Certainly, there is always room for interpretation, but a scene always has a point, and the characters in the scene are supposed to be looking to gain something. So again, reading it may not fully immerse you while reading it as a book would, but don’t mistake that for playwriting. That’s still bad playwriting. That’s poor scene-building.
                     The basis of drama is a two-person scene. It’s the most straightforward setup in the world. In Cursed Child specifically, the scenes are practically designed to keep our two main characters in conflict, Harry and his son Albus, apart. The two characters don’t grow and change in relation to each other. One could argue that the distance of the relationship is reflected in the make-up of the scenes, which would be fine, but it does nothing to inform their relationship: Albus learns nothing of his father, Harry gains no insight in how to reach his son, nor do the secondary interactions sow mistrust of each other, Albus simply begins to resent his father more, Harry simply begins to distrust his son. But we’ll come back to characters.
                    As a result of the brevity of these scenes, it makes sense that nothing progresses throughout them. No character “wins” the scene, no characters leave a scene better or worse off because of the action or dialogue that took place during the scene. Now, short scenes are not inherently a problem. The problem here is that in addition to the scenes being short, they also achieve nothing for the characters within. They seem to cut off before deeper conversations emerge, before moments of revelation happen to our characters. Very symptomatic of that therefore, is the scenes should accumulate value but they don’t. Things that happen in previous scenes do not directly have bearing on later scenes. Harry and Albus do not eventually mend their relationships directly from the events of the play. If they did, the pivotal emotional breakthrough would have happened during the gang’s final confrontation with the main villain. Instead, it happens in a wrap-up scene post adventure. Harry and Voldemort apparently cannot kill each other with their given wands because of twin wand cores. Even if you take this as complete bullshit, it at least gives a reason to the proceedings. It also inherently ties Harry and Voldemort to this plot specifically. It can be nobody else because they alone share wand twins. Albus ends up coming in a clutch during the final battle because... he's the smallest and could fit in a grate? So. Nothing to inform us of the relationship, nothing to tie them to the proceedings of the plot around them. So again, I just have to reiterate that plays are not inherently thin in immersion. The problem here is the problem with any story that disappoints: it is still simply bad writing.

- The characters lack motivation or intention for anything they do.
                    So now we have to address the deeper problem than things not happening, because those “things” are perpetrated by characters who don’t know what they’re doing. I think this could easily be the main issue of the play. A character has to be sympathetic, we have to at least be understanding of the decisions they are making, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them. The problem with so many characters in this piece is that they are doing things for absolutely no reason. Albus’s plan to avoid going to Hogwarts comes completely out of nowhere. From one conversation he overhears he latches on to a very specific event from his father’s past and decides that can fix everything. At this point, we’re still unclear just what he’s trying to prove. I think it’s that he thinks fixing a mistake made by his father will somehow distinguish him from the famous Potter, except that it’s 1) a plan that further intertwines him to his father’s legacy rather than distinguishing him from it, 2) the death of Cedric Diggory was not Harry’s fault, and 3) it’s overall a piss-poor plan full of too many variables that they cannot account for. Even if you buy into the idea that Delphi manipulates the entire thing, it is then her plan that makes absolutely no sense.
                      I am absolutely willing to believe in large, complicated plans coming together in film or any medium simply because the group is that good and their timing is impeccable. But the work has to be there. There is no reason that Delphi decides to target Amos Diggory. There is no reason that Amos yelling at Harry should be enough to motivate Albus to fix his father’s mistake. Delphi would also have to have known that Albus felt this way about his father, despite only meeting him briefly the very night she accompanies Amos to the Potter house, presumably to carry out this plan in the first place. And this is all the characters. Albus doesn’t give me enough reason to be behind him for his plan. I don’t understand why Harry flies off the rails about a curse, as if he’s the only one in this world who believes in curses. I don’t understand why McGonagall bends to Harry’s irrational wishes under threat of… what, exactly, I don’t know. Malfoy doesn’t give me a reason that he’s chumming around with the trio, and similarly Ron remains largely absent from the proceedings for no real reason.
                        Aristotle’s elements of tragedy, which get extended to all drama, has a loose hierarchy, listing plot at the top, character second. But honestly, character is tops for me. As long as the characters are characters I care about or are at the very least interesting. Characters doing nothing but talking, as long as they have opinions informed by their background and mutual histories is more interesting to me than boring, uninteresting characters doing something, because that makes me not care about what they’re doing. So a bad plot can easily be saved by good characters, but bad characters will make the plot bad, regardless of how good it was in theory. Cursed Child suffers already from a convoluted, bad plot. But the characters, with motivations unclear or nonexistent, make it infinitely worse. All of them are plot devices moving from one required beat to another simply to fulfill the requirements of a plot that feels predetermined, separate from the characters.
I think that’s one of the effective things that sets apart the Harry Potter books. The plots aren’t simply happening to the characters. They are as much intrinsic to the plot as the plot is to them. If you took out these characters from the play and just replaced them with generic names, it doesn’t change anything. The plot operates independently of the characters and that’s not good, because again, what the characters do and why they do it makes us care about their progress.
                        What would a real story about Harry Potter and his friends be about 19 years later? I don’t know for sure, but what about Harry’s struggles of remaining relevant, or living up to the reputation he possessed at half his age? What about the progression of the marriage of Ron and Hermione, two characters who seem to have so little in common except that they care deeply for each other? Potter’s relationship to his child is not an inherently bad idea, nor are the specifics of this plot, but it feels forced upon these characters, without getting at the heart of what makes it unique. Why is Harry finding himself unable to relate to Albus? Why does Albus resent Harry so much, despite the fact that it seems Harry has sunken into irrelevance long before Albus came around? What more reason is there for Delphi to try and meet her father, and why does she believe this is the best plan of action? Again, the characters move as dictated by the plot points set before them, not the other way around, which makes for flat, undefined at best, and inconsistent at worst characters.
                  And speaking of the characters, who are some of these people?
                  I would say almost everyone is hilariously out of character in this story. What makes it especially sad is that it’s arguably the strongest selling point for a follow-up story based on a beloved franchise. We’d like to see where these characters have developed and grown in the past 19 years since we last saw them. And the answers are disappointing. Harry, despite already having raised two children, is impossibly incapable as a father to his third child. Ginny does no better, offering no help or insight. Ron is reduced to comic relief, it seems they took a cue from movie Ron rather than book Ron. The strong women of the books are similarly reduced to piles of irrationality, with Hermione ineffective as Minister, and McGonagall bending to Harry’s will as Headmistress. Draco sulks with guilt instead of grief over his wife’s death and similar to Harry has no parenting skills. He also shortsells his two schoolyears friends Crabbe and Goyle in an offhanded comment where he confesses he would have much preferred being friends with the power trio of Hogwarts. Dumbledore has an extremely puzzling cameo that’s completely out of line with his character from the books and even the movies. This could perhaps be explained away by a line McGonagall says to Harry, that paintings are not the full person, they are memories and fragments. But even then, a character that was constantly a voice of reason offers wild and unfounded advice to a still-influential Harry, who even after having had 19 years of reflection on how Dumbledore acted, still holds him in as high regard. Even Cedric Diggory, who only appears for a scene, has his memory tainted with a weird exchange between him and Albus and Scorpius.
                     It’s less indicative of growth and transformation and rings more like a sitcom that has persisted too long, and the characters have become exaggerated, broad caricatures of themselves, shells and shreds of what they used to be. Ron was always a little dopey, here he’s the clown. Hermione could get frazzled, so she’s a shipwreck here, and Harry seems solely based on his most hormonal self from Order Of The Phoenix. And personally, I find Dumbledore and McGonagall to just be straight character assassinations.

 - And finally, the plot is messy and convoluted.
                       And of course, even despite truncated scenes of no substance and paper thin characters, the plot we’re left with is still not anything to write home about. I know other people have said it, but it does read a lot like fan fiction, and fan fiction has its place, certainly. Revisiting existing plot points with a twist can be a fun what-if exercise. That’s the basis of the story here. Albus and Scorpius venture through the Triwizard Tournament events of Goblet Of Fire to keep Cedric Diggory alive. To what end? They set about their plan through the use of a bootleg Time Turner. Let’s put aside the fact that right at the end of the story, Draco Malfoy reveals he had a fully functional Time Turner all along. Put that aside. We know how messy time travel plots can be and how quickly they can unravel. There’s a reason Prisoner of Azkaban is the only time travel story of the original seven books and a reasoning behind Rowling then retroactively destroying every Time Turner in existence to avoid the mess of implications their existence entails. The issue I have with this particular time travel plot is that it prevents any character growth for almost everyone involved. They’re simply playing parts at different points in time, and in some cases, in different timelines. So the interesting implications of Scorpius’ character in the darkest timeline, where he is heralded as a hero of purebloods, is never explored and this character development is irrelevant anyway because it’s in a timeline that doesn’t count. It also alters nothing inherently about the “real” Scorpius, the one we’ve been following throughout the play thus far. With the way the scenes move and end, insightful conversations and meaningful moments are taken away from us because the scene is over. We have to get to the next part.
                    The inability of the plot to exhibit character growth is exacerbated by the fact that the play still strictly adheres to the timeline of a Hogwarts school year. So our two biggest characters and our main conflict, Harry and Albus, are separated except for sporadic scenes, often taking place the night before Albus goes off for another year to school. Was there are any attempt between the two to mend things during the three months of summer? Apparently not. Something cannot be designated a plothole simply because it happens offstage or offscreen. But a huge problem is that according to the action of the play, nothing happens offstage. The characters exist only in their scenes and remain in stasis while off. There’s nothing wrong with things happening offstage that the audience doesn’t see. It implies that there is life happening in the world of the play outside of what we can see, that there is a larger world outside of the confines of the story. But each scene only builds from the previous scene, which in some cases take place a year apart. That’s incredibly poor planning on the plot. And to reiterate the motivations of the characters, because they seem to lack consistent motivations, the plot itself lacks coherent momentum. Suddenly, we are in the past, and Delphi decides to simply abandon Albus and Scorpius, I guess believing that since they have no clue as to where they are or what Delphi’s intentions are, there is nothing they can do. I still think it’s a hilarious oversight for the daughter of the Dark Lord, who also managed to flawlessly bring this harebrained plan together, anticipating every single choice and idiocy along the way.

Are there good things in the play? The biggest redeeming quality is Scorpius Malfoy. About a quarter of the way in, he gets older and suddenly becomes this excellent, fully realized character. Besides being literally the only one of those in the play, he is a genuinely good character: smart, insecure, funny, and loyal. He’s a little bit uncool, but also quietly confident. I found myself loving Scorpius like I did characters in the original books. Other than that, there is one moment of drama I also was genuinely moved by. During the aforementioned scene where Malfoy confesses to not liking Crabbe and Goyle much, and being jealous of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Ginny lets the façade fall and confesses the same. Harry is taken aback by this, but Ginny admits that she was also constantly jealous of the close-knit bond of the trio, and it’s a marvelous bit of character development, arguably the most she’s had in eight stories she’s been a part of. That’s wonderful, and should be what the play is serving in general: insight into more sidelined characters, opportunity to develop character dynamics further. What’s so disappointing mostly is that there is so much opportunity squandered and with source material as strong as the seven Harry Potter novels, there really is no reason to come up with such a lackluster plot helmed by poorly written characters.

Obviously, simply reading a script is not a full experience of the play. It has to be seen to be fully enjoyed and critiqued. But that doesn’t mean analysis and criticism of a script by itself is without warrant. I went to school for theatre, we took classes where we analyzed many scripts without ever seeing them. The script can still be judged on the merits of clarity of story, conveyance of character motivation, and quality of lines. Again, not everything can be fully judged, because sometimes things depend on how actors portray characters and deliver lines, or things can be interpreted differently based on staging or a more realized context. Cursed Child lacks these things, the qualities that make a script good. A script that forces those reading it to ask the questions, “What is my character doing?” “Why is my character doing these things?” “How am I supposed to make this moment work as an actor?” but not in an exploratory ‘getting into character’ kind of way, rather in a “Please someone explain to me what’s going on” kind of way, then the scriptwriter has failed to properly convey intentions of the story.

At the conclusion of the story, we’re left with Harry and Albus, their conflict resolved, their relationship on the mend, Harry revises a line he had once said to Albus in the epilogue. “You’re named after two very great men, with very big flaws. And those flaws made them better men.” Really, Harry? Dumbledore’s arrogance and disregard for life and safety and Snape’s unrequited pining and love for a woman that did not love him made them better? No, Harry. It is how Dumbledore continuously sought to be better and threw himself into the fray first to overcome his arrogance, and how Snape chose to protect the one remaining thing on Earth that reminded him of her despite also being reminded by that thing of his childhood tormentors and even going undercover to deceived the most powerful Dark Wizard of all time, for love. Simply, it is not their flaws that made them great. It is how those men chose to confront their flaws and not allow them to define their characters that made them great. Essentially, they are great men despite those flaws. This sums up Cursed Child for me: continuously missing the point.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Stranger Things Is Both Nothing What I Expected It To Be, And Everything I Expected To Be.

                To start with, my original intent was to watch only the first half of episodes of the new Netflix miniseries Stranger Things. It was the latest thing that everyone was talking about, and my track record with things that come to me pre-hyped is not great, so I was committing to watching only four because I fully expected to be bored by two. Bored is perhaps the wrong state of mind, more likely that I would have more complaints that praises by the end of two episodes.
               But I am very happy to say that is not the case. It’s actually become my almost-opposite experience with Sense8. The latter was not hyped, but I thought was extremely promising due to its creative and cast, started off okay, then kept losing steam even as its first season mysteries unraveled. I was worried about my high expectations as I started. I also really hate accessibility descriptions for movies and shows like, “It’s this meets this!” because that’s either a whole set of expectations that the show now has to meet for me, or if I don’t like the things used in the description, then I’m writing off the show almost immediately. And there were all sorts of reactions I had to how people were describing Stranger Things to me. Stephen King was a constant. I have to admit something. I’m not a huge fan of Stephen King. A lot of his stuff just doesn’t resonate with me. My favorite novel of his is Duma Key, and it feels like no one ever knows what I’m talking about except his die-hard fans. I love the Kubrick Shining, and I know King hates it because it has next to nothing to do with his novel (AND EVERYTHING TO DO WITH THE MOON LANDING GUYS!) and that’s just more my speed, I feel. Carrie is the other one I really love. Everything else falls into the category of being just fine to me.

                So to tell me Stranger Things is Stephen King (which I’m not a fan of) meets Twin Peaks (which I’m a HUGE fan of) meets Spielberg (whom I’m FINE with) I am at best confused about how to feel. Here’s the thing, Stranger Things doesn’t really strike me as any of these things. It certainly pays homage and lays tribute to these inspirations: a lot of King references, many Spielberg trademarks, a couple good Twin Peaks shout-outs, along with The Goonies, Alien, and some John Carpenter, and of course, Dungeons & Dragons. So it goes without saying that the series is decidedly 80s, and it captures that spirit and tone amazingly. And I mean, just by that list of things, if you’re going to base your story in an era, that’s a great one to be a part of! That’s the most basic thing that bind so much of those 80s films together: youth, very often kids, come together and while also combating social norms and coming of age adversities, they come face-to-face with otherworldly encounters or fantastical adventures. So it’s based in a tried and true foundation, a formula that works and continues to work. Which is why I’m having trouble discerning if it’s a good series on its own, or it’s good because it’s so steeped in the mythos that inspired it.

                A lot of reviews and recaps praise Stranger Things for its accuracy, if not for the exact timeline and chronology, then certainly for the feel and the atmosphere. The show looks, feels, and reads like an 80s era story. The kid protagonists are a believable and dynamic groups of friends as good as Stand By Me or The Goonies (one kid even has his own freak display like the Truffle Shuffle). The soundtrack is very John Carpenter in the incidental music, while the covers for 80s hits as well as the original tracks are used more than appropriately. But again, does that equal a good story? I don’t care much about adaptation in the way that some people do. I don’t care that Lord Of The Rings wasn’t exactly the book, I care that it was a good movie. Similarly, I don’t think The Hobbit is a bad set of films because it’s a bad adaptation, they’re just bad movies. Same with remakes. Same with genre pieces. Same with period pieces. So I truthfully don’t care how much of the 80s they got right or wrong, I care that it was a good story. How does Stranger Things do as a piece of entertainment?

                Fortunately, there is a whole lot to love about this show. It’s ultimately better, and my personal recommendation, that you just watch the whole thing at once. Considering how many episodes pick up right where the previous one left off and the overall structure, I think that’s the way it was meant to be enjoyed. Watched this way, the momentum builds properly and the pay-offs work properly. I think the plotting has plenty of turns and a good balance of questions and answers to keep you moving from one episode to the next. There aren’t twists, per se, and there’s no reveals that aren’t terribly surprising, which I think effectively moves it out of the true horror genre. But the conventions of horror that it does use are nonetheless effective. Also, if you know D&D, which is used ostensibly as the story’s framing device, you can more or less predict the beats, and judger the show more for how it gets you from point to point, rather than the points themselves.
                The writing is natural and solid, and it’s certainly all bolstered by a powerhouse cast. I’m always impressed by capable child actors, and there’s not a weak link in the bunch amongst the core main cast. Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, our three main adventurers, have a great chemistry. The girl who plays Nancy I find to be the strongest of the cast. Jonathan and Steve, while I wasn’t initially blown away by them, really came into their own by the end. And of course, Eleven is compelling, doing so much with so little. Winona Ryder and David Harbour are doing excellent, nuanced work as the put-upon Joyce Byers and the guilt-ridden, drug-addled Chief of Police.

                The most difficult part of any “face the monster” story is once the monster starts putting in full-time appearances. There’s diminishing returns to the final reveal of Signs. There’s a reduced impact for every monster whom we see parts of throughout and then they finally attack full-view. Our monster is sufficiently terrifying, and particularly unsettling, but I was rather surprised it was only one monster that terrorized them the whole time. I was so sure a twist was going to be an eventual second monster. Again, it’s a credit to the cast for keeping the monster unknowable and terrifying, particularly Eleven, as she encounters him in the upside down, and particularly Nancy who brings legitimate fear for pretty much the only time throughout the series as she encounters him in the woods of the other side.

                So overall, that’s my feelings for the show. It’s great. It’s absolutely solid. Writing-wise, acting-wise, there is no reason to not like this show. And any nagging feelings about continuity or inconsistency in terms of the plot are negligible on your viewing of it. Like any good Spielberg film, it’s the drama of the characters that carries us through. And we genuinely care about the characters and what they’re facing, both the extraordinary and the ordinary. You can ignore it for the sake of a great story being told. I do think that once you move past all the genre adaptation and homage, the plot’s a bit thin for an 8-part miniseries, but again, the characters are too strong and too well acted to ignore.

                My final thoughts though, I reserve for my singular problem with the show. And it’s a minor or major problem depending on your perspective. I find it complicated because of its context. Because of the conventions of the storytelling and the era, the person who ends up suffering the most in characterization is the centerpiece of our story, Eleven. She’s traumatized by her life previous to entering the story which leaves her mostly mute. What ends up happening is everyone projects their thoughts on her characterization onto her, from Lucas believing she’s a traitor, to Mike in the end saying she can live with them and be a part of the family. We never gain any sort of indication as to what Eleven herself actually wants. And what I mean by the storytelling conventions of the era, I mean that with the loss of her characterization, she gains powers. It makes her indispensable to the group of boys (who are more than capable except when it comes to fighting) and it makes her drive the plot forward, with Matthew Modine’s bad guy on a quest to get her back and most of the rest of cast attempting to keep her safe. It’s fine for what it is. She’s E.T. She’s Leeloo. But setting something firmly in an era doesn’t mean you have to stick to every convention and every trope of that era. And I think it’s almost irresponsible if you don’t. What makes Shaun Of The Dead, Scream, Cabin in the Woods, even the latest Trek movies so good is that they play with the established conventions of their respective genres. Eleven is Carrie. She’s Jean Grey. She’s the all-important female character with the mysterious past. But like these other characters, she’s never more than a convention of the plot, a tool of the other characters.

                The most glaring scene of this for me was a very touching, very intimate scene between her and Winona Ryder. It’s a well-performed scene, but something about it rings false to me. They’re about to put her in the sensory deprivation tank so she can reach the other world and hopefully track Ryder’s missing son Will down, the impetus for the entire plot of the series. At one point Ryder stops and thanks Eleven for doing this. Despite all the characters at this point being brought up to speed with the traumas and horrors she faced, the possible dangers and jeopardy that her life is put in because of the very same procedure they are about to perform (with more rudimentary equipment, no less) it never crosses Ryder’s mind to say, “You don’t have to do this,” because what’s more important to her is getting her son back, essentially at the expense of Eleven. And sure, the writing of the scene makes it so that Ryder’s character is her protector, her tether to the real world, but considering the implications of what she’s gone through, Ryder needs to be more than grateful to this complete stranger who is also a child.

                Equally tone deaf, like I said for me, is Mike’s promises to her of what she’ll get once they make it through the ordeal and if she can stay alive. But again, we have no clear indication as to what she really wants. They’ve stunted her and made her silent through her trauma, and they’ve removed any agency the character has over the situation. Her willing sacrifice at the end to dispose of the monster is her only moment of complete control, and it’s the expected sacrifice that this character type is allowed to make. I think with such a strong writing staff and cast they could’ve done a lot with Eleven to make her more than just this archetype. Again, I don’t mean Eleven’s bad. The girl playing her is a magnificent actor, but she truly is doing a lot with so little. But in the end, all we know is she wants Eggos. And that feels pretty thin compared to the rest of the cast who arguably didn’t give up nearly as much.

                And the only reason I see this as a problem, is because I firmly believe you can’t say they were trying to be completely pitch perfect with the era. I would believe you, if they hadn’t managed to pull off a complete subversion of another character archetype of that time: the jock idiot boyfriend. Nancy’s love interest throughout is Steve Harrington, who is played like Troy from The Goonies, like Ali’s ex- Johnny in The Karate Kid. He’s the horny older guy just trying to get into the most popular girl’s pants, never calls never cares, picks on the “reluctant hero” Jonathan Byers, and if this were a horror movie, would be killed in the final act, if not end up being the killer himself (a’la Scream).

                But every beat of that archetype is undone by the story. Nancy and Steve don’t have sex the night he sneaks into her room. He actually helps her study. When he starts to bully Jonathan and ruins his camera it’s for good reason: they found out Jonathan was secretly taking pictures of everyone at a party one night, including one where Nancy was undressing! When you think he’s gonna die in the finale, he doesn’t. When you think he’s gonna run in the finale, he jumps in as the hero. And in the end, he gets the girl. Do they have problems here and there? Of course. But the character blooms from the initial stereotype into a more realized character. To a lesser degree, Nancy, Jonathan, Joyce, and Hopper all experience growth as their initial archetype characters. But Steve is the most glaring to me. Why did we bother to redeem this male stereotype and not this female stereotype given the same opportunity? It really does feel like a wasted opportunity.

                I think in the ongoing argument about what makes a good female character, and what is a strong female protagonist, it’s important to recognize nuance and layers. Eleven is a fantastic device of the story, acted more than capably by a very talented actor. She is surrounded by equally talented actors who are playing far more fully realized characters. Like I said earlier in the post and what I said last night as I watched, the three core boys are smart and capable: they know how to work radios, they organize and play complicated D&D campaigns, they are organized, curious, they differ in opinion, and they think critically in times of crisis. Imagine what it would have meant to have these characters be girls. Or at least to have Eleven be as much in control of herself as they are. Or in other words, if screenwriters and filmmakers could make female protagonists as capable as they make child protagonists, we wouldn’t be having this silly argument at all.

                So last word? Watch Stranger Things. The abilities of the storytellers are unmatched, and the pay-off is sentimental but worth it. You are going to be able to ignore any of its shortcomings because of its thrift and momentum. There are things that can be improved and you’ll think about those later. And hopefully future filmmakers will also be thinking of those things, because there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

'Baltasse' - Magician Yann Frisch

Taking a bit of a break from writing this magical Sunday and I'm going to share one of my favorite magical routines.

Yann Frisch is a French sleight-of-hand magician. The video itself is from a talk show called Vivement Dimanche. The routine is called Baltasse (combining the language's words for 'ball' and 'cup') and won the amazing Frisch FISM's grand prix in close-up magic in 2012. (There's a video that exists of both the championship performance, as well as an earlier video from 2012 that went viral that same year). I like this one for its angle and proximity to the performer. You get to see a lot more of his facial expressions and there's some fun subtlety to his performance.

I mean, what can I say about the performance?
First, I love magic routines that have a story, and this one has a man plagued and driven insane by the appearance and disappearance of red balls, mostly out of his cup of water. And all he wants is a drink.
Second, I love that it's a variation of Cups & Balls, which is a classic magician's routine. A nod of respect to history and legacy.
Third, the addition of non-magical elements can be tricky, such as juggling. But this guy adds in those elements beautifully. I also like the comedy he manages: his stretching, his head-bonk on the table, his different reactions to the balls basically having a mind of their own, whether it's disappointment, confusion, or resignation.
Fourth, the guy is just frikkin' fast. Check out 2:08. Moving the ball from his mouth to thin air is incredible. His showmanship is impeccable, because this comes out of a rather cool sequence where he's made three and then four balls appear, then making them disappear one at a time. The build and pace of it is just effortless and makes for a cool moment.
Fifth, it's a fun routine. Magic doesn't need to strive to be high art, it can often become that on its own. But this routine tells a story, cleanly and quickly, it's funny and charming, and the big moments sell big.

Always loved magic. As I got older, I gained an appreciation for the showmanship of it all, rather than simply the impressiveness of the illusion. Magic sadly isn't real, but there are moments in a routine as solid as this that make you doubt, if only for a moment, whether that's true or not.

Til next time!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Pros And Cons Of "The Joker Is Jason Todd" Theory

Suicide Squad is imminent. Jared Leto’s Joker is figuring into the proceedings somehow, and even with the movie still a couple months away, what little we’ve seen has become extremely divisive in terms of how people are responding to his portrayal of the iconic super-villain. It’s symptomatic of the time we live in, as we’ve become completely inundated with the amount of information we’re privy to, Squad in particular being announced as a release two years ago, and every trailer being picked apart and analyzed to death, with no context or objectivity to the whole thing. And it’s not just Suicide Squad. Movies are being hyped sooner, every single little news story or rumor is inflated in its impact, everyone in every aspect of social media must give their input immediately, and everyone has to have an exact, polarized opinion – they either hate it as the worst thing ever, or love it as the best thing ever. There is, if any, very little middle ground.

                That’s an exaggeration, of course. There’s much in the middle ground, which is where I like to think my blog and many people lie. You just don’t hear as much from this reasoned middle ground, because the two extremes are quite literally shouting at each other, occasionally with death threats (fandoms have almost completely replaced religious sects in the ideologies department). Nevertheless, it remains true that people are quick to judge, and that all aspects of our culture, particularly our entertainment, are more than happy to feed the monster with teasers, addressing rumors, candid interviews, leaked information, just anything to build hype. The entire process of building to superhero movies for me has definitely become wearisome. The movies themselves remain great to outstanding, but it feels like I live more often these days in constant media blackout simply because I’m tired of hearing another seven reasons Jared Leto’s Joker is going to be the worst/best Joker, or someone making a stupid video about why they’re definitely not going to see a movie.

                Leto’s Joker in particular is especially corrosive. Maybe it’s because years later one of the strongest things to come out of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is Heath Ledger’s unbelievably unsettling performance, maybe it’s because Joker himself is so iconic and everyone just has a vastly different opinion on who and what he should be, or hell, and I’m among definitely among these, my most definitive Joker is Mark Hamill’s from the animated series and the Arkham series, and the movie portrayals have been so far removed from that that it’s almost like watching a completely different character. So I can’t tell you for sure what it is, but the reality is, we can’t have a DC movie-verse without Joker. Someone’s gotta do it. It just seems though, that from what little we’ve seen of Leto, some people are so heavily opposed to it that they’ve come up with alternate theories that basically amount to the actor not playing the Joker as we know him to be. I’ve heard protesting to the castings before, I remember the vitriol thrown Heath Ledger’s way before he even made an appearance in the teasers. (I was confident, I didn’t know he’d end up being so great.) People didn’t like Henry Cavill for Superman. They were angry about Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. But I have never seen anyone go to the lengths of proposing alternate theories for who their character might actually be. This is a recent phenomenon. The only other one I know, also  recent, and incredibly poorly thought out, was that Ben Affleck in Batman V. Superman was not Bruce Wayne/Batman, he was actually Deathstroke, taking over the Bat-mantle. That’s a layered movie beyond the grasp of Hollywood, but more importantly than that, it’s just dumb.

                Similarly, a theory has been posed that this Joker in Suicide Squad is someone who watched and idolized the real Joker because of the media’s constant coverage of his exploits and the subsequent seeming glorification of these grisly deeds. This one I actually don’t mind. It’s a fun theory, but again, I think too deep of a thinker for a Hollywood action film (ultimately unnecessary too). The one I’m not as drawn to though, is specifically cornering Jared Leto’s Joker as a deranged Jason Todd. In deference to my place in the middle ground, I’ve decided to analyze the pros and cons of the theory, instead of dismissing it outright. Maybe we’ll discover some insight. But first, important, who, you might ask, is Jason Todd?

                Oh boy.

                Batman took up his mantle in 1939. In an effort to appeal more to kids, kid sidekicks became a thing, and Robin was created for Batman just about a year later, in 1940. This Robin, Richard “Dick” Grayson, orphaned son of an acrobat family The Flying Graysons who were killed in an accident during a show of theirs, is the longest-tenured, most famous, and most linked to the role. Some remember Burt Ward’s “Holy mashed potatoes!” Robin from the 60s Adam West series. And for the most part he was the squeaky do-gooder until the 1970s where he grew up and branched off on his own, eventually becoming Nightwing, like Batman only with a sense of humor, and the greatest ass in comics. Jason Todd became Robin in the early 80s. At this point, he was exactly the same. In-universe, they altered him to look like Dick too. (Jason had red hair, dyed it black). So he was drawn exactly the same too. Then Crisis On Infinite Earths happened. The universe got rebooted, and a new origin for Jason was written, where he became the street kid who was angry, rebellious, eager for validation from Batman and eager to effectively replace and even surpass the precedent set by Dick Grayson. The new characterization proved to be so unpopular that in a storyline called Death In The Family, fans could vote on whether they wanted Jason to die or live. Being the cynical crowd we are, Jason was voted to die, and was beaten to death by The Joker. Jason was resurrected 20 years later, as The Red Hood, a violent, revenge-crazed villain, later turned anti-hero vigilante.

                And I’m sure everyone’s familiar with The Joker, but just in case you have never been on the internet or watched a movie, or understand any reference… The Joker has become one of, if not the, most closely associated villain of Batman’s rogues gallery, his most ever-present adversary, one of the most recognizable villains ever, and deadliest and most intimidating villains of the DC universe. The Joker has no apparent superpowers to speak of, although he does exhibit remarkable durability and is pretty skilled in hand-to-hand combat. In-continuity, he’s killed Jason Todd, crippled Barbara Gordon, and most recently had his face removed and returned a year later to reclaim and wear it like a mask. In the Adam West series, he was portrayed by the deliriously loony Cesar Romero. He was first brought to the big screen unforgettably by Jack Nicholson and later in 2008, some say definitively, by Heath Ledger. Mark Hamill is the most indelibly linked voice actor for his work on the original animated series in the 90s, and the Arkham video game series from ’09 and ’15. The laugh is always unmistakable and scary. The suit is impeccable. The green hair dye is a nightmare (I know, I’ve done it). Harley Quinn, initially a sidekick on the animated show, has become a full character in her own right.

                So now, the theory. The Joker we see in Suicide Squad is not the “real” Joker, it is Jason Todd. There’s a couple possibilities here, but let’s say it’s not a spirit-breaking experiment like what happens Arkham Knight. And let’s say something like the Dark Knight trilogy happened prior to the Squad movie. So in this continuity, Ledger’s Joker is responsible for the “killing” of Jason Todd. And let’s say for the purposes of this scenario, Ben Affleck’s Batman kills Ledger’s Joker. The real Joker is dead, Jason is presumed dead, Affleck’s Bruce Wayne retires the Batman. Then, a new Joker crops up, uniting disparate gangs throughout Gotham under his rule, still unhinged, but looking to be more brutal and deadly than he was before. It’s confusing, and definitely intimidating, the idea that your worst and greatest enemy, who also robbed you of your humanity and destroyed a young man’s innocence, is seemingly back from the dead. The question is does the theory of that same young man, so broken by his experience, assuming the mantle of the man whom many believed had killed him in the first place, only to seek vengeance against his former mentor who failed to save him?

                It’s not a bad theory, at all. To start, let’s look at its strengths:
- It shows character development – Jason goes from a rebellious youth, to wanting to prove himself to someone who chose him, saw potential in him, and took a chance on him, to someone who is abandoned and left behind which brings him to his breaking point, he goes insane, taking on the role of his killer, only to return and seek closure for his mentor abandoning him. It’s a fantastic, poetic arc.

- It keeps the relationships familial – The best character development is based on the strength of the relationships between the characters. Having a former sidekick, who we see cared for and essentially adopted by Batman, succumb to the darkest of dark sides, is a tragedy in itself, and something that Batman in some way does have to live with, regardless of how responsible he was for everything.

- It somewhat explains different versions of the Joker – Well, it really only explains the transition from Heath Ledger to Jared Leto. There are strong traces of Ledger’s performance in Leto too (for instance, I think the voices are rather similar) which in-universe can suggest an “influence” of the former to the latter. But you can’t disregard other parts of “evidence” to fit your theory. So what about Jack Nicholson’s Joker? What about Batman himself also looking and acting differently in almost every movie? So this is a weak pro, but I’ll keep it here nonetheless.

- There are opportunities for interesting stories to be told – With Jason Todd as The Joker, there is a chance for Batman to bring Jason to redemption. There’s also a chance he’s dragged deeper into the darkness. There’s a story in there where he can dismantle the Bat-family, because of his intimate knowledge of them. So it presents marvelous storytelling opportunities, and that’s never a bad thing!

                One problem though with the last point, those were all the elements thrown into the game Arkham Knight, and all of this was accomplished without turning Jason Todd into the Joker. (Knight’s got other problems too, which we won’t get into here, namely that the reveal was played as a twist and it should have never been a twist.)

                On the other hand:
- It reduces the impact of the character of the Joker – The Joker is an agent of chaos and uncertainty. His character is an opposite of Batman’s in many, many ways. We see Batman’s origin explicitly. A couple details may change with each retelling, but the overall origin remains the same every time. We saw the birth and beginnings of the character. The Joker literally just shows up one day. In The Dark Knight, we get one of my favorite ideas of the Joker: that he himself keeps changing his origins. We then can’t accept anything for sure, not the origins presented in Joker, or The Killing Joke, or even this idea of Joe Chill. Basically, what I’m saying is that The Joker operates strongest when we don’t know his backstory, we don’t always understand his motivations outside of hurting people, of breaking Batman, of getting to see the world burn.

- It trivializes the death of Jason Todd – His eventual resurrection did this anyway, but bringing back the character to be Batman’s main adversary makes the death less impactful. For me, Jason Todd is Batman’s greatest failure. It’s a cool progression when you think of the Robins as a whole: Dick Grayson is his greatest success because he became better than Batman; Tim Drake is the eventual heir, because he had exactly what it would take to be Batman; Damian is his true son, his true heir, but he’ll never be Batman; Jason Todd represents the great failure. Jason was not entitled to anything, like Damian, he didn’t earn anything like Tim, and he wasn’t better than Dick Grayson. It became his greatest downfall, attempting to prove himself better than Dick. The choice of Jason and his subsequent loss affects Batman permanently for years. It changes how he takes on sidekicks, how he chooses to train them, how close he allows himself to get to people, and who he allows into his world in the first place. It closes him off from future prospects, it makes him double down on protecting his existing family, like Dick and Barbara. It motivates him in his quest, it serves as a renewal of his vows to his parents who by this point are long gone. As many storytelling opportunities it allows with a living Jason Todd, it serves more character development and allows for even more centered on the psyche of Batman if Jason stays dead.

- It humanizes the Joker – I admit it: I’m not a fan of Jason Todd. As you can tell from the previous paragraph, I preferred he’d stayed dead. I am a huge fan of the Joker. I think he’s a fascinating character and a huge part of that staying power I touched on in the first con. He’s such an all-encompassing character, flexible and moldable. Terrifying in his seeming lack of humanity. Some villains we like because we can relate to them in some way. Darth Vader. Lex Luthor. But the Joker also operates precisely because we don’t relate to him. And to give him Jason Todd’s story, to suddenly make him a man who feels wronged, to give him a personal motivation in his actions, humanizes the Joker, and whether we agree with him or not, we now can see his reasoning, we can see what is now motivating him. It’s still wrong, but it still makes him less interesting. The Joker works because we always have to ask, “Why is he doing this!?” but Jason gives us the answer. It’s why I don’t like origin stories for Joker in general.

                So there it is, a crash course into the lives of Jason Todd and The Joker. I’m confident Suicide Squad isn’t planning some big twist reveal of this. Otherwise, again, it operates with the same problems that Arkham Knight did. Knight wanted so badly for this to be the twist of their story, that Jason Todd was the villain all along, that they hid his identity, but then had to show his origin story throughout the proceedings, so we as the player knew who he was during the reveal. Otherwise, there’s no dramatic appeal. Likewise, there’s no dramatic appeal in this character we don’t know being a character we all know. That’s a, “Um… Okay.” moment if I’ve ever heard one.

                I’m looking forward to Leto’s Joker. It looks like a really fun, rather unsettling take on the character. Everyone in the trailers so far make me really excited to see. Can he capture the electricity and unnerving, disturbing aura of Heath Ledger? Probably not. But that’s no reason to dismiss him out of hand. There’s room enough in this world for many Jokers. I have every confidence that Leto will nonetheless be a spectacle to behold. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

My Love-Hate Relationship With The Legends Of Tomorrow

On the opposite end of the scale for me this season from The Flash was the debuting Legends of Tomorrow. The lofty promises and goals laid out at the beginning all made me very hopeful and excited for the series. As it wore on over its 16 episodes though, the series more and more left a lot to be desired. Some of this was forgiven by the eventual reveal of the last two episodes (which I will be spoiling here, since it’s relevant to the discussion of the show’s overall quality) but not everything. But we’ll get there.
A ragtag group of misfits must travel through time to stop an immortal genius from taking over the world in the future. Some of them are superpowered, some of them are villains, and they just can’t seem to get along or get it together! There is nothing better. Any pitch that starts with: a ragtag group of misfits needs no more explanation for me to get on board. But when it’s DC, and the immortal genius happens to be Vandal Savage, one of my all-time favorite villains ever, then you have got everything going for you! Six seasons and a movie, let’s do this!

Okay… I didn’t realize they were going to immediately interact with Vandal Savage so often. Nobody’s going to kill him? Oh, weird. Ah, I see, only Hawkgirl and Hawkman can kill him, because they’re… linked by an immortal curse of reincarnation? Wait a minute… That’s not Vandal Savage. That’s Hath-Set, an entirely separate villain, linked to the Hawks origins in ancient Egypt. Well, the Arrowverse has been doing this to varying degrees of success, so maybe it’s fine… Oh, Hawkman’s dead. So now it’s up to Hawkgirl. But we’re not going to send Hawkgirl into direct confrontation with Savage anymore? Kind of defeats the purpose of the mission, but okay… Hope this team comes up with a plan. Oh, they can’t find Savage anymore. Hope they start working as a team. Wow, they are all incapable. Well, now she’s incapable of killing him, because… love? Oh. Oh! Wait, it doesn’t matter anyway, guys. No one could have killed Savage even if they tried. Remember the Time Lords? OH! I mean the Time Masters? Yeah, turns out they were working with him the whole time. Also, they can manipulate time as they see fit. No one has been responsible for their own actions this whole time. Talk about sucks.

A paragraph-sized version of my growing frustration and confusion with the season. Week-to-week, it was an increasingly difficult show to watch. But could it have been better? Are there pieces of a successful show in there? Of course there are.

If you start here, this is the most basic premise of the season:
- A person petitions a governing body to allow him jurisdiction to bring in a war criminal. They deny him this, so he goes rogue.
- He assembles a team of somewhat qualified mercenaries who won’t be missed to aid him.
- The group, barely functioning as a unit, are overwhelmed in their initial struggles with trying to bring this criminal to justice.
- Many struggles along the way, loss of comrades, complications with interpersonal dynamics, our group of heroes gets split up, other agendas get brought to the forefront, our villain is continuously underestimated.
- In the final act, the group understands the meaning of working together, they overcome their differences, and initially bring our war criminal to the original governing body to face justice.
- Unfortunately, in a twist, the governing body is corrupt, having manipulated all the previous events, and allows the villain to carry on his activity as normal.
- The team works together to purge this corruption, and then, now being restored and stronger than ever, makes a coordinated last stand to bring the villain to his end. Happy ending.

        This formula works. It should be an effective story. The narrative’s all in place. Tightly-woven, well-paced. Well, that would be the first problem. If this were a two-hour movie, it would’ve worked. The first two bullet points are the opening act, we meet all the characters and the central conflict. Second act kicks off with the team leader, in this case Rip Hunter (played by Arthur Darvill, if only to further confuse the Gallifreyan time traveler thing) who is refused by the Time Masters, reveals his personal reasons for wanting to bring in Savage. This splinters the team somewhat, as it feels they were brought in under false pretenses. The third act reveal is the Time Masters working in tandem with Vandal Savage. Our finale is the team destroying the Oculus, which was revealed to be manipulating all of space and time, and the epic conclusion of a fight with Savage spanning three different periods of time. But this story had to be instead spread out over 16 hour-long episodes. That means two things: a lot of filler, and a lot of things ending up not making sense.

        The filler, you can mostly tolerate, because with any time travel plot, you get all the usual stuff: 60s/70s, cowboys, the techno-future, dystopia-future… I was sad we didn’t get dinosaurs though. Anyway, they used most of the filler time developing their characters and their relationships, and cool plots in their different time destinations. It was mostly fine, some of it solid.

         But the reveal that all the proceedings of the season were pre-determined by the Time Masters’ Oculus just cheapens everything: the conflict, the plot, the development, the obstacles, and the overcoming of those obstacles. Basically, we have just watched a show with no stakes. It is not a good twist this far into the game. Again, in a two-hour movie, with the tighter narrative, the twist works, because it’s sudden and unexpected, and you can build in clues to the eventual reveal. Ocean’s 12 has a late third act reveal that undoes much of what we’ve been watching thus far, but it pays off to understand the con. Something like The Prestige or Sixth Sense is enhanced by their late-act reveal, because it undoes what we’ve seen, but deepens the narrative. But in this drawn out, season-long mystery, it comes out of nowhere. People online have been saying you can see foreshadowing of it. And I guess you can, but not enough. The Time Masters are almost forgotten about entirely for much of the last third of the season practically until the reveal itself. So what you are watching up until then is two very frustrating things: a villain who is caught completely unaware and then gets away to fight again by sheer luck and because of the second thing – a team of heroes who are woefully, impossibly incompetent, and are undone by their own inability. Unlike the previous good examples, we are getting a reveal that does nothing to enhance the viewing. Because the reveal doesn’t make sense.

         Why then, if everything was under the control of the Masters the whole time, was a member of the team captured and turned into Chronos, a bounty hunter sent to kill them? Why was The Pilgrim, an even deadlier and more efficient bounty hunter, sent to kill their younger selves and remove them permanently from the timeline? Why did they allow the team to unite? Why did they allow Rip to embark on the journey at all, if everything was in fact, controlled by them from the beginning? If they wanted Savage to succeed in his plan to take over the world, why didn’t they simply remove the obstacles to begin with? On the outset, this sounds like I’m making a one of those completely reductive and frivolous plot hole arguments, where the story would be over in the first beat if this question were answered sensibly. “Why don’t the Fellowship fly the Eagles to Mount Doom?” Because then there’d be no story. But here, there is a story. And the reveal doesn’t help it. A better reveal perhaps would be as Rip brings Savage before the Masters Council, they set him free for the same reasons (Savage is the only one able to unite the world for when the Thanagarians invade Earth about a century later following his conquest) but then Savage kills the Council. This fixes one of many problems.

         One bigger problem though, is that Savage is a terrible villain. Like I said at the beginning, I was so excited for Vandal Savage to be the main antagonist of this first season. In the comics and even the cartoons he’s appeared in, he’s hyper-intelligent, super-strong, manipulative, charming, and intimidating. He’s one of the more successful curators of a defeat to the Justice League. He’s an immortal who has whispered in the ears of great kings, he has amassed great power and wealth over the millennia. Savage sank Atlantis. He was Vlad the Impaler, Jack the Ripper, advised Napoleon and Hitler, he’s behind Project Cadmus, he’s possessed the Spear of Destiny... my favorite accomplishment, he can tell you the vintage of wine by hearing it poured. None of this is the Savage we get to see in the show. He seems to manage to lead several cults throughout time, but we never get to see him be the brutal manipulator he can be, excepting “River of Time” where we see him slowly get into the heads of several of the heroes onboard the Waverider, and later in the same episode, when we see him single-handedly dismantle the team in physical combat.

         But like I said, throughout the rest of the series, we never see this badass threat that is Savage. We see him stumble and bumble into meeting the heroes (who he has re-remember every time) who, through their own stumbling and bumbling, botch every attempt to kill him or stop him. And yeah, the heroes are no better, unfortunately. Told repeatedly that they cannot interfere with time-fixed events, they repeatedly interfere with time-fixed events. Martin Stein helps cure a boy with an, at the time, incurable disease in the Wild West, everyone’s past selves are removed from the timeline to avoid assassination and hopefully the timeline just works itself out, and the team constantly has to correct mistakes they’ve made simply because they interfered. Even if the heroes aren’t their fully realized selves yet, and this is them learning how to be the heroes they’ll become, does that mean we have to start with them being completely unprepared and incapable? And there’s so many good heroes you’re starting with! Franz Drameh and Victor Garber as Jax and Martin Stein (combine to form Firestorm), Caity Lotz’s Sara Lance (The White Canary) from Arrow, Brandon Routh as Ray Palmer’s Atom, Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller as the criminal duo Heat Have (Rory) and Captain Cold (Snart), and Falk Hentschel and Ciara Renee’s Hawkman and Hawkgirl. It’s a more than capable cast, and they’re playing some of the most interesting characters of this entire TV universe that’s been created.

          The weakest characterization is Hawkgirl, which is unfortunate, because they’re relying solely on her to kill Vandal Savage, because she’s the only one able to do so after Hawkman dies, and because of the curse. And just when we think we’re starting to get a depth to her character, it becomes her love story with Routh’s Ray Palmer, a relationship which has many bumps along the way, not least of which is the fact that she and Hawkman are destined to be together in all their incarnations, so any relationship with any person outside of that will always end in heartbreak. I mean, poetic and romantic, but really rather unnecessary except to pad out this show. Contrast it with what felt like the less forced and actually rather charming budding romance between Sara and Miller’s Snart, which never comes to fruition though we do get some closure before Snart’s death, and it’s an even more glaring problem to me.

          Both these sides though, some people feel are explained by the reveal of the Oculus, being that everyone has no agency over their actions, they are simply following a predetermined script. So any faults, any oversight, any inconsistencies are overwritten by the now-ever-present idea in the background of the Oculus. But again, if you’re investing 16 weeks into this TV show that is an hour long, and the Oculus isn’t something that gets revealed until week 14 or 15, it does nothing but add to the cumulative frustration of having invested so much time and expecting so much.  What I had said in The Flash post is that everything is done with cumulative value. Every detour, every sidestep, has something to do with the end goal of making Barry Allen The Flash. His love story with Iris, his insistence on helping Earth 2, the fury and frustration he feels in the finale, or even during his time in the Speed Force, all of this leads to something, and it leads to a better character and a better story at the end of it all. What Legends did was pad runtimes of their episodes with sideplots that amounted to nothing, characterizations that ultimately meant nothing, all to build to a reveal that made almost no sense.

          So what would I have changed about the show? Well, the opening premise is good, the only thing I would change is just straight up removing Vandal Savage from the proceedings. I hate it. Just make him Hath-Set. Because of Rip Hunter’s dalliance in the past Hath-Set acquires time travel capabilities, essentially becoming immortal. The Time Masters believe it is too dangerous for Rip to attempt to stop Hath-Set, especially because he was sloppy as fuck assassinating him in the past already. Rip goes rogue, and his assemblage doesn’t include the two Hawks. Part of the season is them having to find them before Hath-Set does. Half their meetings are confrontations amidst the Hawks’ various incarnations. Then, the eventual future plot is more interesting: Rip and co. manage to recruit Hawkgirl (perhaps even by way of Cinnamon and Jonah Hex in the Wild West) and Hath-Set manages to find a Hawkman incarnation who doesn’t know he’s the reincarnated Hawkman yet, and so brainwashes him to be one of his closest lieutenants. You can keep the curse storyline, since that was inherent to the Hath-Set/Hawks dynamic anyway, which allows Hath-Set to essentially become immortal, imbibing the blood of his lieutenant. I would also remove the Oculus, as well as the insistence of adhering to a timeline. If in fact there are “fixed points” in history and time, then the timeline auto-corrects itself anyway, despite interference from time keepers. Therefore, the team can intervene as they see fit. I mean, it didn’t seem to matter in the actual show anyway, some episodes were greatly affected by timeline interference, some were not, and simply hand-waved by throwaway lines. So let’s just remove it! Give us a real time travel adventure! Some of the episodes can require reconnaissance and restraint, sure. The Cold War episode set in Russia would require more undercover work, but that’s not every episode. Let’s change it up. And then that gives real stakes to the Time Masters attempting to apprehend or kill the Legends. I would remove the Chronos sub-plot because again, it doesn’t make sense anyway. Just have the assassin be The Pilgrim the whole time. So The Pilgrim is moving in one direction through time, the Legends are attempting to follow Hath-Set in another, and this necessitates more liberal use of the Waverider’s jump ship, because a couple of the team have to constantly split off and stop The Pilgrim from killing their younger selves. The Pilgrim was a great character, wasted in its potential, and far more threatening than Chronos anyway. It all leads to the ending, where the Time Masters instead arrest Rip and co. but Hath-Set kills the Time Masters. Now no one is supervising time at all. Hath-Set is free to move about the universe entirely. Hawkman awakens and he kills Hath-Set. But because they’re in the future, and at the edge of time, it doesn’t do anything to the timeline. Then the finale plays out as it did on the show, except Snart sacrifices himself to jump the Waverider instead of blowing up the Oculus. The team takes out Hath-Set in three different time periods with one change: Rory kills Hath-Set in his fight with Snart’s gun. Poetic justice.

          What I said about The Pilgrim, a lot of wasted potential, for me sums up the entire first season. There were so many great characters, and such a marvelous opportunity, and it all felt thrown away for a rubbish twist. It looks like the creative team may have learned from their mistakes, and the teaser for the second season seems to be promising a lot. Outside interviews with the team also seem to suggest that they’re throwing more caution to the wind and going far more balls-to-the-wall for the second season, which seemingly is going to include the Justice Society, itself very exciting. The prospect of a new villain, a shake-up of the team, and more ambitious storylines that hold their own are all very good things to look forward to. I hope Legends can deliver, because I’ll be watching next season and I want it to be a successful show. I hope Routh’s Ray Palmer and Caity Lotz’s Sara Lance in particular return, because they were my favorites. Victor Garber as Martin Stein was a welcome addition to the proceedings this season (and he was such a good actor that it was mind-blowing he was doing a superhero show on the CW) and I also hope he returns. It was also a show that gave us a fantastic Jonah Hex, who I really want to be on the next team, because that guy was outstanding. I’m looking forward to season 2, but after this first season, I go into it cautiously optimistic.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

In Praise Of CW's THE FLASH

                I’ve grown up with the Justice League as “my heroes.” When I was a kid, I imitated the Power Rangers, the X-Men, Pokémon… But the Justice League, and indeed the DC heroes, were the stories and sagas I had to go and seek myself. Everything else, they were on TV everyday of my childhood. Superman, I sought out and bought a VHS anthology of the old Max Fleisher cartoons and a cassette recording of the Bud Collyer radio show. I had a recording of that episode where George Reeves’ Superman visits I Love Lucy. Batman, I had to stay up late to catch reruns of the 1960s Adam West series, or wait ‘til my parents had gone to bed so I could watch Batman Returns without getting in trouble. That animated series, along with Superman’s, and the Justice League’s later, became the standard-bearer for how I interpreted these heroes. Wonder Woman and everyone beneath the Trinity were even more difficult to find. But I did. I found their comics. And I loved them. They were all these normal people, who had been gifted with god-like abilities, and they used them for good.

People, older people, seem to think there was a point in our history where we were less cynical. If there was a time like that, it wasn’t during my childhood. Even during that decade of immortality that was the 1990s, I was surrounded by friends and classmates who thought every villain would just kick any pansy-ass hero’s ass, who found the villains to be cooler and glorified Darth Vader, Jason, or Shredder, who wanted anti-heroes to be just as bad as the bad guys, and thought heroes were too damn boring. As a wrestling fan, I knew the prevailing attitude: the heels were awesome, the faces were dorks. It’s the attitude that gave all the DC heroes (and the larger comic book world, but these folks in particular) their grittiness and psychological hang-ups: an inundation of cynicism, pessimism, but especially disappointment. People had been let down by their heroes in real life. So people wanted their hero stories to be more “realistic”, and to them, realism meant heroes weren’t realistic. No one was good for goodness’ sake.

                Which is why to me, the heroes of the Justice League have remained relevant. Because as the world has for real gotten darker, scarier, and harder and harder to comprehend politically, socially, and universally, there’s been an unexpected demand for our heroes to be brighter, bigger, and better than us. But they always were that. We chose to make them something else. They just needed us to believe in them again. We still want to relate to them, but we want them to be the best in us again.

Like I said, clinging to a belief in heroes is difficult, because so many in our real world disappoint us, because nothing can be so black and white and clear cut in reality as a battle of good and evil is. But comics, mythology, is not clear cut. Comics are messy, confused, poignant, melodramatic, sad, uplifting, enlightening, relevant, reactive. Sometimes, our mythology reflects the times as they are. And other times, they have to be escapist. And escapist is when comics and their characters get to be their best. They don’t always have to be completely removed from our own reality, but there needs to be a touch of optimism and a purposeful striving to be better in the writing of our myths. It’s that optimism that distinguishes them from the real world.

Fantasy and fiction are not just our chance to create a different world, but a world that we ourselves would like to see, a better world than we have in our lives at present. And our real world feels bogged down by natural disasters, by humans at their worst and monstrous, by powerful evils who control the world and wish to keep themselves on top, by powerless leaders who are corrupt, by a dying planet, by more and more news that sounds more and more hopeless everyday, not to mention an infinite amount of data being poured into the internet by people complaining, calling each other out on pointless shit, by belittling each other, and by harping on the slightest flaw in any person who dares to try and be better than they are. Every motivation is questionable. Every agenda is political. Every action is judged and scrutinized.

It’s why a show as unabashedly optimistic as The Flash continues to amaze me, two years running. Last night was Season 2’s finale and, with no spoilers, the show has managed to avoid any sort of second season slump. It managed to dig deeper, go bigger, and make us believe.

When I think of each of the heroes of the Justice League, there’s a few words I think of that boil down their essence to me, and why I am captivated by them. Superman: hope. Batman: loyalty, vengeance. Aquaman: destiny, honor. Martian Manhunter: tragedy, legacy. Wonder Woman: compassion. Often portrayed as a warrior, she understands the most important lesson of fighting: fight only when you must. Diplomacy, logic, science, reason, must first prevail. Failing those things, we fight. And that’s unfortunate for everyone else, because that’s what Wonder Woman is best at. Green Lantern, particularly Hal Jordan, is service. “Space cop” is sometimes used to jokingly refer to the Lanterns, but Jordan has taken an oath to serve and protect, and he upholds those values. I always find it fascinating the Lantern and Flash dichotomy, because Hal can be described, “right place, right time.” Abin Sur, a dying Lantern, crash lands nearby Hal, and gifts him the Green Ring of Willpower. The Flash, Barry Allen, is “wrong place, wrong time.” Struck by lightning and a cocktail of chemicals, he becomes The Fastest Man Alive. Hal becomes a hero seemingly because he has no choice. Barry becomes a hero because he does.

The show and the recent comics have given Barry more of a personal motivation behind becoming The Flash, which is the death of his mother, Nora. But for me, Flash has never needed this. Prior to this, he is the only one in the League who becomes what he is because he chooses to. He was initially driven neither by circumstance (Manhunter, Lantern, Green Arrow) or necessity (Batman, Cyborg), or destiny (Superman, Aquaman, Shazam) or lineage (Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl), Barry gets to choose to become a hero. That is a powerful idea. It also gives him a distinguishing characteristic amongst his League compatriots.

                But the other big aspect for me about The Flash is the obligation of family. Read deep enough into the comics and practically everyone related to The Flash is a fellow speedster, or at the very least a do-gooder. And they are also a family. There aren’t too many other places in the DC Universe where a family is emphasized. The Shazam family is one, and the Bat-Family, as it’s referred to, are certainly an important non-traditional family but that’s not their main function. The Flash and his family, the Allens and the Wests, have all sorts of squabbles and dynamics: the kids growing up, obligations to each other and to life, living up to others’ legacies, feeling a sense of connectedness that defies any expanse of existence. And to place at the center of this entire universe the death of one boy’s mother, makes Barry’s choice deeper. I initially wasn’t keen on the idea of this backstory, but the show has made it important, enhanced Barry’s decision rather than reducing its impact. Nora’s death was of course a major arc of the first season, but “The Runaway Dinosaur” just a couple weeks ago helped us understand Barry’s processing of grief and loss, and allowed him to come to terms with allowing that death to affect him. Again, the emphasis of a family learning about each other and understanding their relationships and impacts on each other becomes especially powerful (and difficult) when one of those people can no longer grow and learn and teach from the relationship. Batman’s parents, who were also lost and was the incentive to Bruce Wayne creating his superhero identity, quickly become non-entities, brought up occasionally as reminders, but lacking major influences in Bruce’s life. Barry however, never feels far from that night where he lost Nora.

                All this makes Flash and company ripe for a family-friendly comedy/drama on The CW, where things can get sweet and saccharine and sad real fast. But something curious that I think people are starting to realize, is that a show with heart and optimism doesn’t have to be without its darkness, and it doesn’t have to be completely devoid of tragedy and dilemma, but it can also do those things without diving into melodrama and terrible soap opera performances. A show that is optimistic doesn’t mean it’s all fluff and meaningless, likewise it doesn’t have to get so dark that we are now in the gritty/grim-dark extremism and sadism of the 90s. But I don’t deny that it doesn’t sound crazy: a TV show about a superhero, adapted from comic books, is a compelling show, well-written, well-performed, and genuinely thrilling as well as touching.

                But The Flash has managed to do all this. Where I think Arrow is a mixed bag of quality and inconsistency, where Jessica Jones has a superhero who is trying hard to not be a superhero and the show reflects that, where Gotham is an utter (sometimes fun) mess, Legends Of Tomorrow is incredibly camp and falls on the lighter fare of the spectrum, where Daredevil is incredibly, unforgivably brutal, and where Supergirl can occasionally verge too far into soap opera territory, The Flash manages to balance everything beautifully, while shying away from nothing that make superheroes and comics great. There are moments of comedy and snark, deftly acted scenes of pathos, fully realized, consistent characters who straddle the line of realistically relatable and fantastically fictional, fight scenes of good versus evil, brainstorm scenes of goofy plans and science talk, couples’ mounting romantic tensions, families getting to know each other and avoiding disappointing each other while sometimes fighting out of love, occasionally too-on-the-nose dialogue, wackadoo plot necessities… like The Speed Force.

                Practically the first big storyline is Barry learning, understanding, and entering The Speed Force. Even in this rant, I can’t fully begin to explain to you The Speed Force. It’s such a batshit insane plot device, so delightfully comic books, that I never thought they would ever attempt it on the show. But there it was, staring at me right in the face in the first season. There was Barry Allen, traveling through time, having the multiverse revealed to him, seeing glimpses of the alternate, infinite Earths.

It felt like the initial Avengers movies were shying away from anything too crazy and only now getting to something truly other-worldly like Doctor Strange, or even previous to this, in the X-Men movies when they finally introduced Juggernaut and they said, “He’s a mutant! Forget the Jewel of Cyttorak! We can’t get into aliens and all that! WHO SAID KREE SKRULL WAR!” and even Phoenix was, misguidedly, a latent sort of “mega-evolution” that was kept locked away in Jean Grey’s mind all along, instead of its likewise otherworldly origins, it feels like the team behind The Flash just went, “FUCK IT! PUT IT ALL IN!” and we immediately had so much on the table: Speed Force, Gorilla Grodd, King Shark, Earth 2, Supergirl, time travel, doppelgängers.

                And what’s most impressive, is that it still works as a TV show, not simply a comics adaptation. Of all the shows, it feels the easiest to put in front of a non-comics fan and have them genuinely enjoy it. Anecdotally, that’s been the reaction I’ve gotten from people I’ve introduced the show to. My favorite, a girl I worked with, had to suffer practically daily almost all of us in the office talk endlessly about comic books, TV shows, and movies. But when Flash went up on Netflix, she binged it… and fell in love with everyone and everything. When you make the characters just relatable enough, but you keep what makes comics special and distinct, you get something truly beautiful and effective.

   Perhaps we’ve also grown more accepting of what can be done on television and what characters will pass for drama: we have the two Winchesters on Supernatural, vampires on all kinds of shows like Vampire Diaries, ghosts, aliens, and mind-fucks like Lost or post-apocalypse shows like The 100. I came of age when drama was almost exclusively realistic. Yes, centered on places ripe for drama: The West Wing, The Sopranos, House, but still people and problems we could relate to and understand. It’s inherently more difficult to ask audiences to buy into characters that are not human. But if you can give them enough human qualities, if you can make them relatable enough, we will embrace them. Look at what Wall-E does with no dialogue. Or any of the Pixar movies, really. And look at the unbridled success of the Avengers, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, now. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, Natasha Romanoff, Thor… all incredibly gifted and truly special, but by emphasizing the humanity of those characters just enough, we suddenly have compelling characters that we embrace. At the center of it all, there have to be characters that we care about.

                And it seems silly to say, but the characters are the heart of this show. I love all these characters. We just have it in our minds how a character should be. I definitely have an image of what Barry Allen is, who he is. But Grant Gustin suddenly makes him a person that I can understand, laugh with, admire. He brings it to another level. He’s different from what I imagine him to be from the comics, but it’s a good different. It’s him embodying the archetype of The Flash for me. It’s like I’m meeting the guy that The Flash of the comics is based on, the man behind the legend.

When I first started reading Flash comics, Barry and Iris were already together. So I love Iris. I wasn’t immediately in love with Candice Patton, but she has won me over this season, as she has begun to take more immediate agency in the proceedings. I wasn’t sure about Keiynan Lonsdale as Wally either, and some of his initial episodes were iffy for me, but he has since won me over as well. He’s smart, he’s determined, and he’s going to make an awesome speedster when they finally pull the trigger. One guy I of course loved immediately was Jesse L. Martin’s Joe West, but that’s because Jesse L. Martin is absolutely the best, always. He’s the best detective from Law & Order (I will fight anyone who says otherwise, especially if you think it’s Benjamin Bratt). He’s the best part of the Rent movie. And he’s stellar on this show. Everyone has these complicated double roles they all have to play, and Joe’s is this confident father figure to Iris and Barry, but with Wally he has this other role as so unsure, but he’s trying to make the best of it.

                Carlos Valdes was the one I was most nervous for. Vibe has never been my favorite character in the comics, portrayed rather inconsistently, as he’s been kind of the runt of whatever team he’s placed on. But Carlos has given the character a lot of heart while maintaining his role on the show as the pop culture wisecracker. He’s come into his own as well. Again, thinking about that duel role, Cisco is smart and gifted, but with his superpowers, he is still learning them and understanding them, and he goes from fish in water to fish out of water so fast and flawlessly.

                The most striking part for me is how good the cast is as a unit, how they work together and how fascinating it is to watch them shift pairings and dynamics constantly. Every episode asks for different combinations of people working together on different things and in different capacities, and each person gets a chance to shine. They make every moment work, because they’ve given us real characters to get behind. There is a quiet moment during “Invincible” just last week, where everyone is together, and it feels right. It’s not forced, it’s not clichéd. They are having dinner, and they are at peace. It’s a “quiet before the storm moment” to be sure, but it doesn’t reduce the impact of how special it feels. By contrast, the gang all sitting and eating Chinese food at the end of a Supergirl episode a while back just doesn’t bring with it the same sense of home.

    On top of this, the show has managed to introduce a lot of twists and turns, some of them interesting, some of them are still loose ends, a lot have been batshit insane, but I haven’t a complaint among them. They’ve all done their job as plot devices of raising the stakes, adding depth to characters, layering the plot, or laying the tracks for a future event, or, and as is often the case on the show, all at once. The characters continue to exercise agency over events and deal with consequences as they arise. It never feels like thin avatars working through plot formulas. They are people working through life. And life in the Flash universe is crazy. Also, it’s not to say that everything’s perfect. Certainly, there were a couple episodes that functioned as filler between the bigger episodes. Occasionally, a character is far too earnest so as to become melodramatic. But the good so far outweighs the bad that these moments are fleeting.

                It’s a lot like Barry Allen’s Flash himself, who moves so fast that he sees and comprehends all of time simultaneously: all elements occur in every moment, and he realizes the scariest, greatest part: life is still constantly in motion, growing, changing, never stopping. Again, no spoilers for the finale, “The Race Of His Life”, but it is like all those things, all those plot devices happening at once: we get deeper characterization, layout for season 3, wrap-up of this solid season, and higher stakes for our characters. The last three episodes have been emotionally taxing for everyone, and we’re not allowed to dwell on any one moment before the next one is hitting us in the face. Barry is told to run, because he has to keep up, and we, like Barry, have to enjoy the moments while we can. Barry and his family on the show are teaching us to enjoy those moments, because there are so many, and they will be so many different things for us. They will make us laugh, make us cry, make us fall in love, make us angry, surprise us by our inability, surprise us by our rising to the occasion, disappoint us, enrich us. We have to slow it all down in our minds, process each part, love the time we’re given, find our meaning and our significance, and remember the most important stuff, because before we know it, that moment, like so many others, is in the rearview mirror.

I’m grateful to The Flash, because in two seasons it has managed to teach us what superheroes can be, and what they can mean. Society has changed, experiences have changed, but our heroes represent our values, and those haven’t really changed. We’ve wanted them to wear different masks and create different meanings for us, but really, what they represent for us hasn’t changed. And to have a show on the air adapted from a medium that until recently was not seen as important or impactful, with characters that are earnest with no agenda, quirky without being ironic and detached, and heroic without being burdened while still presenting an internal struggle, a world that is so much our own but at the same time distinctly fantastical, and at the heart of it all is a family of love, that is really phenomenal. And as far as TV Rants go, I cannot recommend CW’s The Flash enough.