TMD's Creatively Named Blog
Othello really hits the ground running. The first time we see the titular character in Shakespeare’s play he’s on trial in a war room. Now, it’s important to note that this is his introduction, this is when we learn who he is.
The easiest way to clue the audience in would be to just give us an infodump. Have people go “This is Othello, the Moor, who’s a general, and married to Desdemona, a senator’s daughter” in some fashion. No, it’s certainly not the most elegant way to disperse information, but, well, it works.
Thing is, exposition is boring. Really boring. No one wants a huge lecture in their story, especially if it comes right at the top. Which presents a unique problem for Shakespeare in Othello, how can he bring the audience up to speed on an unusual situation without boring the audience five minutes into his play? Simple: He turns exposition into conflict.
Conflict occurs when there’s disagreement. They can argue, they can fight, they can spend all day undermining each other. Conflict is also usually quite interesting. Two people going “as you know, such-and-such is whatever” is boring; an argument over whether such-and-such is whatever, however, keeps the audience interested. Now there’s tension over the exposition: Is it true? Who’s right? What’s gonna happen when one of ‘em is proven wrong?
And that’s what the first act of Othello is. He’s put on an informal trial and forced to prove he is who he is. We don’t hear the story of how Desdemona fell in love with him just out of the blue, rather their story is the explanation and evidence for his elopement. It doesn’t feel forced or out of place, and it’s interesting. Othello’s reputation is on the line and we want to see what happens next.
Exposition has to be interesting. Having it happen in conflict raises the tension and makes us pay attention. Compare two characters getting to know each other over coffee versus an interrogation. This is something that Lost does very well. Not only are all the characters strangers (and thus all serve as audience surrogates as they learn things about each other), but the mystery island setting has everyone tense and suspicious of one another. Secret agendas, angles, and hidden pasts make getting to know the characters exciting by itself.
It’s helped along in earlier season by flashbacks which further flesh out the characters. Once again, these flashbacks, which are basically just exposition, are made interesting through conflict. Charlie’s Dad doesn’t tell him he’s irresponsible, we see Charlie being irresponsible and butting heads against people close to him which in turn affects how we see him in the present. There’s also an arc to the flashbacks which helps invest us in the proceedings.
This is, of course, something that Fantastic Four did fantastically wrong. So much of the movie felt like pure exposition with no conflict to push things along. Reed meets a pre-evil Doom and the two simply, well, coexist. There’s no clash of worldview or rivalry of genius, they’re just there. I’m not asking for a Shakespearean trial; a competition for Sue’s affections would be insulting, but at the very least would be more interesting that what was essentially a series of “I’m smart,” “So am I,” “Cool, let’s science,” “Yes, let’s science.”
Stories have to introduce their audience to a new world. Could be a world inhabited by friends who work at a breweryor where a Moor in an interracial marriage is on a Venetian war council; could also be a world where a kid is able to create an inter-dimensional teleporter. No matter what there's gonna be something the audience doesn't know and will have to learn (seriously, if you're doing an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood you're still gonna have to tell us why she's going to her grandmother's). Exposition happens. It always happens. The trick is to make it work, and not bore us with it. So let's keep Othello on trial.
I’m still reading a bunch and my current book, Extra Lives, is essentially critical theory on video games as literature. This divide between what makes something ‘art’ is something I’m kinda big on, so it’s a fascinating read. There’s one thing that Tom Bissell says which struck me: that because video games must be, by nature, fun, they’re seen as being less artistic or literary than other mediums.
Which, well, kinda has a point. When was the last time you went to an art museum and had fun? And not the sorta fun you get from the unintentional humor of some paintings, but actual ‘fun’ (which is really hard to describe, has few cross-lingual analogues, and was explored heavily by Huizinga, but bear with me). Chances are slim that unless you’ve seen a particular statue of a man punching a horse in Vienna, you haven’t, and even that monument to equine assault was probably intended as serious. See, ‘high’ art is meant to inspire ponderings, not for you to have plebeian fun. You stand there, think, say a couple ‘mmhmm’s for good measure, and move on to the next one.
But that’s art, like art art; what about, say, books? The divide is even more stark there. No one’s gonna argue against Ulysses as a literary masterpiece, but at the same time it’s hard to describe it as being truly ‘fun.’ Enjoyable, maybe, but much of that pleasure probably stems from a mixture of latent masochism and the sunk cost fallacy. That and, y’know, trying to sound intelligent. But besides Ulysses (which I legitimately love), there are other Great Works by, say, Hemingway or Melville that you’d be hard pressed to describe as being legitimately enjoyable in and of themselves, especially when compared to ‘lesser’ genres like science fiction and fantasy. Point is, the Great Works can’t bother with the frivolities of fun-ness.
You even see this in comics, arguably already a ‘lesser’ form. Watchmen is heralded as one of the best comics ever and is all doom and gloom. Compare it to Sex Criminals, which is much brighter, much funnier, and much cruder, but takes its story no less seriously. Though Criminals is held in some esteem (TIME named it comic of 2013), it’s seen as being nowhere near as literary or iconic as Watchmen, perhaps due to its adult subject matter and relative newness, but probably also because it’s so goofy. Never mind that it deals with depression, intimacy, and a host of other things, it’s too silly and too fun to be considered serious art.
Which brings me to games. If a game’s not fun, you’re not gonna play it; plain and simple. Games have to be enjoyable on some level to maintain player involvement. Thus gaming becomes a very visceral experience, whether it’s your curiosity that’s been piqued by Gone Home, the sheer beauty of Journey, or the exhilaration that comes from fighting Covenant in Halo. It’s experiential on a level that no other medium is, and thus has to make the audience want to experience it for the sake of the experience (as opposed to, say, the story or visuals).
And here is where video games run up against the brick wall of literary merit. Games are, like Sex Criminals, seen as being simply too fun to be real literature. No matter how serious they are, by virtue of being leisurely they can’t be art. The Last of Us is a gripping story about fatherhood, loss, survival, and so much more that the player is forced to experience rather than just observe. Even when it’s at its darkest and bleakest, it remains ‘fun’ to play in the sense that the game works. No, the violence of the game mayn’t be enjoyable per se, but it holds your attention and makes you want to keep going. But because The Last of Us is ultimately a piece of software that’s developed and patched rather than born out of pure artistry like, say, a book; it’s relegated to being mere diversion. And because of that, it can’t really be art.
Which is a bummer. Because I think art should be enjoyable on at least some level. That much of what makes comics, well, comics is that it’s illustrated shouldn’t be a detractor, just as in order for a video game to work it has to be on some level fun. Writing off games because of that would be like lambasting books because you’ve gotta turn the page, or disliking Aaron Sorkin’s work because you insist on watching it with the sound off. Let’s get off our high horses and be willing to afford fun mediums their due; games can have all the mindless glee of Michael Bay (Army of Two: Devil’s Cartel) and the melancholic tenderness of The Fault in Our Stars (The Last of Us: Left’Behind*).
‘cuz hey, let’s enjoy it.
*Writer’s note: The Last of Us: Left Behind is
But that’s a
You can learn a lot about storytelling from taking in great stories. Let The Last of Us teach you about immersive storytelling. Don Quixote effortlessly plays with the characters’ relation to the narrative. Learn how to have a bunch of different character arcs in motion from The Avengers.
Bad stories can also teach you a lot, especially bad movies. I’m not talking so-bad-it’s-good stuff like The Room where the movie fails so hard it creates an entirely new form of entertainment; I’m talking about ones that are just plain bad. Watch Twilight to learn how a passive main character makes for a boring book. If you lose sight of your protagonist’s arc you end up with the muddled mess that are the Hobbit movies. The Big Bang Theory shows you how to write punch-down humor at dated stereotypes.
And then there’s the new Fantastic Four.
Which teaches you how not to tell a story.
There’s a lot wrong with the movie. The grievous mishandling of Sue Storm. The oddly conspicuous absence of Ben and Jonny for chunks of the plot. The total lack of agency from everyone up to and including the protagonist. The utter abandonment of what could have been great themes. The fact that we don’t see the titular four in the same shot until over an hour into the movie. The arbitrariness of the supposedly-emotional beats. But it’s all rooted in a fundamental ignorance of storytelling.
Here’s the thing: Story is king. Yes, it’s a frustratingly patriarchal term (“story is everything” doesn’t sound quite as good), but the sentiment is there: story’s the most important thing. There are vital ingredients for story to ‘happen,’ which Fantastic Four just doesn’t have.
The first, is character.
For a story to happen, you need people with goals and fears and all that. The Lord of the Rings would hardly have worked if Frodo’s only characterization was that he was a Hobbit. Conversely, The Insider is so tense because of Wigand’s conflict between doing what’s right on a big scale (whistleblowing the tobacco industry) and keeping his family safe. Both of these devote time to building characters, giving us moments that highlight not just what they’re doing, but what they want and why.
Character down, we need conflict. Say John McLane asks Hans Gruber to let the hostages go and Gruber just says “yes.” There’s no story there. The protagonist needs obstacles in their way to keep the audience engaged and asking “how’re they gonna get past this?” These conflicts also allow chances for characters to show who they are (McLane really cares about his wife) and for them to make interesting choices (McLane chooses to soldier on even when the feds won’t help him). These conflicts, that happen because of character, get us as the audience invested and interested in what happens next. When they payoff comes, it’s earned and catharsis happens.
It’s honestly quite surprising how little character there is in Fantastic Four. No one has much of a goal — Johnny and Sue are literally kind of just there — and when we get hints of one they hardly affect, well, anything — Ben would like to be changed back so he works for the military until he decides he’s okay as he is. Reed’s characterization can be summed up as “very intelligent” and presumed antagonist Victor is “very intelligent and maybe a little anarchistic.” Characterization is never allowed out: nearly every conversation is pure exposition. There’s no banter, no subtext, no verbal conflict (Reed and Victor never disagree while working together, Johnny and Ben say maybe four lines directly to each other), it’s nothing but explanations about what’s going on.
That character is done in such broad strokes may be forgivable, were the characters given anything to do. But they aren’t. There’s never any conflict until Victor reappears and decides to be evil in the final thirty-odd minutes. In fact, Reed — the protagonist — only makes three clear decisions. First he decides to use his teleporter/transporter himself. Second, he decides to escape from the government base. Finally, he decides to fight Victor since, well, they’ve all been sucked into the other world and might as well. Only the first one is earned, and that’s only because we’ve spent the first half of the movie watching Reed work on the darn machine. To call Reed and the others boring is a disservice to boring characters: they do nothing, have no opinion on anything, and hardly react to the plot. He’s as bad as Bella Swan, and he’s the best character the movie has to offer.
We crave for stories. We want narrative to happen, characters to be introduced, conflict to break out, and resolution to give us closure. Fantastic Four does none of that.
No one changes.
It just is.
And that is terrible. Don’t do that.
Yes, this is sort of a follow up to to last week’s post, but in my defense I’ve been reading an anthropological book on inclusion/exclusion stuff. So bear with me.
We need more narratives, that’s a given. Meaning we need there to be more versions of what can happen to people, and what people can be. Because when there’s only one accepted narrative, the outsiders become othered. Having more narratives encompassing more people, more takes on people, let us see them as people and not just as stereotypes or what not. Frequently, changing the narratives means having to build new ones.
Narratives exist about people, whether we acknowledge them or not. In the years since 9/11, the prominent American narrative about Muslims has been that they’re violent extremists stuck in an old fashioned mindset. Which, y’know, isn’t true; but since it’s the only one most folks in the States hear it’s the one that’s accepted. Which is why these different narratives are so crucial. When a character like Kamala Khan — the new Ms. Marvel in the comics — comes along, who presents a different view of Muslim life; suddenly, bam, they become human, ordinary.
Kamala Khan is, for the most part, a normal teenager (minus, y’know, superpowers). She goes to school, she struggles with crushes, she fights with her family. Kamala is instantly relatable; we’ve all been there, right? Then we see how what her faith expects of her; how she and her brother deal differently with their identities as immigrant children. Through Ms. Marvel, writer G. Willow Wilson is able to reconstruct the narrative of a muslim family into one that’s relatable, even if it’s not the one we’re most familiar with. Kamala and her family stop being the unknowable other and become friends, neighbors. G. Willow Wilson — herself a Muslim — thus takes the established Muslim narrative and gives us a new one. This is particularly important because the central narrative surrounding Muslims is so toxic. Ms. Marvel provides an alternative to the vitriol so prevalent, something vital not just for people at large, but for a young woman like Kamala trying to find her own place in the world.
Fiction has the great ability to affect the way we see people. It lets us into others’ heads, yeah, but it also shapes how we see them. When Star Trek came out in the Sixties, the crew had Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov; a Japanese man, Black woman, and Russian man. The US had been in a fierce war with the first, was embroiled in a Civil Rights debate regarding the second, and had just taken the third as the primary enemy of the time. Not only was Sulu different from the anti-Japanese propaganda that permeated the US barely two decades earlier, but he also ran counter to the general consensus that Asian men were effeminate and hapless; Sulu was capable, masculine, and heroic. Uhura was intelligent and an officer, at the same time African Americans were still fighting for the right to be treated as equal citizens. What made Star Trek so revolutionary was how it changed the narratives of ‘enemy’ and ‘other,’ however it’s still an issue that we’re grappling with today. Here was a story about ‘those people’ where they weren’t mysterious and scary, but rather fellow shipmates.
So are narratives stereotypes? Sort of. Stereotypes are informed by narratives, especially when there’s too much of just one. Changing them up is also a way of undoing stereotypes. Look at Terry in Brooklyn Nine-Nine; by all accounts he should be another big, stern, scary, black police sergeant. Instead, he’s the epitome of a family man who loves his wife and daughters even more than his muscle mass.
These sorts of issues can’t be solved by any one comic or tv show; it will take a bunch of time to build the new narratives and show a large shift in public opinion . But hey, it’s all one step to seeing people as people, no matter who they are.
Narratives are important. They don’t just affect how we interpret events happening around us, but influence the way we see the world. Stories tell us what to expect.
The question then is what narrative do we hear? Chances are, there’s an ‘accepted’ version of it all. Y’know the saying about history being written by the victors? That’s the thing about narratives: they tend to be established by whoever’s in power (usually meaning white, male, and wealthy). The problem is, that’s not everyone’s story.
There’s a great TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie about how there needs to be more narratives out there. She talks about how, growing up in Nigeria, she would read a lot of British books and thus, when she started writing her own stories, they were about traipsing about in the heather and drinking ginger beer and doing other things that were decidedly not typical of Nigeria. Because when people begin to accept one narrative and see themselves as the Other, there’s a hesitation to embracing that Other, even if it’s your story. The epiphany for Adichie was realizing that stories didn’t have to be about that; that she could tell a story about her own life. So she created narratives that were ‘different,’ but normal.
So we need more narratives. Different ones. Ones about different people, by different people.
It’s one of the big reasons I’ve really been loving Marvel’s recent work. I’m not talking about the MCU here — which tend to employ white dudes named Chris — but rather the comics. Marvel’s done quite the shake-up in their titles recently, adding a lot more women and people who aren’t white.
Sometimes it can be simple things. Silk features Cindy Moon, who was bitten by the same spider as Peter Parker, but instead of having an uncle Ben she was locked away in a bunker for ten years. Now out, she’s adjusting to the normal world while looking for her missing family. That Cindy’s both Asian and female isn’t overly important, but she does facilitate a new story. With that, she’s also a new face in comics that’s not another white guy.
These new stories can be really interesting. There was some outrage when Sam Wilson, who used to be Falcon, took over as Captain America from Steve Rogers. Some people said it was just a political correctness move, a plot to sell more comics because diversity. Thing is, Sam Wilson makes for a very interesting Captain America. Yes, he’s trying to live up to Steve’s reputation, but there’s the added depth from just who he is. The son of a Harlem preacher, Sam tries to father his father’s example best as he can while he, a black man, takes on Hydra — who still show shades of their Nazi roots. Sam as Cap is very different from Steve as Cap. There’s the story of a black man representing the US and taking over the mantle. It’s interesting, it’s new, and it represents someone else.
Perhaps the most interesting new face is Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel. Kamila is fourteen, a total fangirl, and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants to New Jersey. She’s a lot like Peter Parker of old, a teenager thrust into superheroing and wrestling with all that means. Alongside that is her own personal life. Ms. Marvel is in many ways a story about identity: it’s Kamala as Inhuman, Muslim, an immigrant daughter, and a teenager. Each attribute affects her adventures; she finds solace at Attilan with the other Inhumans, but lessons from her Imam help her grapple with the heaviness of being a superhero. Kamala’s story is unlike many others in fiction in general, let alone comics. Importantly, her narratives says that anyone can be a superhero.
So yeah, narratives are important. Diversifying a cast lets more and different stories be told. And all this is hardly touching on the topic of representation, which is important too. Let’s not have just one narrative in fiction, like Adichie says, let’s bring more in and create more normals. Let’s tell more stories.
So y’know that new Fantastic Four movie coming out next week? It caused a bit of uproar when casting was announced since Michael B. Jordan’s playing Johnny Storm, a character who, in the comics, has been white. This is further complicated by the fact that his sister, Susan Storm, is being played by Kate Mara, who is rather obviously white.
This ‘race lift’ given to Johnny Storm has caused quite the hullabaloo. In an apparent case of trying provide a quick and superficial overcorrection a lack of diversity in super hero films they went and changed Johnny’s race, rather than having a different superhero join up. Making things even more convoluted is that his sister’s white, meaning either one’s adopted, their parents remarried, or are a very rare quirk of mixed-race parents.
Which, y’know, is fine. Representation is a big deal; it’s always great to see different sorts of people on screen. Marvel’s comics have been taking great strides to diversify their heroes, Ms. Marvel’s a Pakistani-American teenager, we’ve Spider-People of all a variety of race and genders, Sam Wilson took over as Captain America; it’s cool for the movies to follow suit (even if Fantastic Four isn’t part of the MCU).
The issue is that it’s just Johnny who got his race changed. And it has to be Johnny; not Reed ‘cuz he’s the main character, not Ben because he spends most of the movie rocky, and especially not Sue because she’s the love interest. Johnny being black — and only Johnny — belies a much more systemic problem in pop-culture in general. And it’s not the tendency for casts to have a token minority (though that is an issue too).
There are a few things central to the Fantastic Four’s mythos: they get their powers from a scientific project, Doctor Doom is their greatest foe, Ben and Jonny are somewhere between rivals and friends, and Reed and Susan are lovers.
And that last one is where things would get hairy if the siblings were both now black.
There’s going to be a romance between Reed and Sue, because of course there will be. But a mixed race couple simply isn’t something that you usually have in a movie; especially if it’s between a white man and a black woman. Fantastic Four wanted to make someone a minority but also keep the romance subplot.
Which really bugs me. Because the whole Johnny-is-black-but-not-his-sister-Sue thing smacks of a fear of having a mixed couple in a major movie. It’s something I find really frustrating. Look, I’m biased; I’m the son of a couple who got married when interracial marriages had less public approval than same-sex marriage did in 2011. It’s one of those things that I want to be more present in pop-culture because it’s something very present in my life. It’s 2015; c’mon, let’s get with the times already. The President of the United States is the product of a mixed-race relationship!
Seeing a movie bend-over-backwards narratively to ensure that the white protagonist’s love interest isn’t black is incredibly frustrating. It’s not director Josh Trank’s fault, or even that of studio Fox: it’s systemic.
At the end of the day, I think I’m disappointed more than anything else. There was a chance here to, even in a small way, shake things up a little bit. ‘cuz I’m cautiously eager to see this movie, and I’m glad that they’ve taken steps to make Susan Storm’s powers more practical/offensive than in the last film. I also really liked Trank’s work on Chronicle. I guess I just wish if they were gonna switch a character’s race, they took the next logical step and did the same thing for his sister.
grew up on a ship
at New York University
frequently found writing in a coffee shop, behind a camera, or mixing alcohol and video games