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Pushing Plausibility

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Feb 18 2017 · 25 views

Essays, Not Rants! 257: Pushing Plausibility

Comic books are weird. Especially superhero comics, what with alternate realities, time travel, dying but not really dying, planet-eating-monsters-turned-life-bringers, and telepathic cosmonaut dogs. Like I said, weird.

Comic book movies, however, are typically more tame. Let’s go back a decade or so; the major blockbusters based on properties from the big two, Marvel and The House That Batman Built (DC), had been, mostly, normal-ish. We had Batman and Superman running around, who are so ingrained in popular consciousness they’re basically normal. Same with Peter Parker and the X-Men, as well as an outing with the Fantastic Four. It’s relatively grounded stuff, Superman’s an alien, Batman’s a rich ninja, the X-Men are mutants which makes sense. The Fantastic Four got space powers, and Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. Everything’s SCIENCE!’d away into plausibility. Green Goblin gets a suit instead of being an actual goblin-esque thing, and the then-recent Batman Begins gave Scarecrow fear toxins and made Ra’s al Ghul also a ninja. Y’know, grounded and realistic like.

Then Marvel started making their own movies. Which started with Iron Man, about a guy who builds a high tech armor in a cave with a box of scraps. Still reasonable, yeah? The Incredible Hulk came out the same year and had green rage monster through science, so, relatively normal. Same with Iron Man 2 which brought about some AI and more armor and stuff, but still grounded.

Concurrently, we had Nolan’s The Dark Knight which took its reconstruction of the Batman mythos to new heights. What would be the effects of a bat-dressed vigilante in the modern world? How could that work? The Dark Knight makes it work tremendously, creating a cool, albeit grim take on a character that positioned the superhero film more as a thriller than outright saving the world. Which, given that superhero/comic book films can ascribe to whatever genre they darn well please, made sense enough. If anything, though, The Dark Knight said that realistic superhero movies could work. And it was really really good.

But back to Marvel Studios. After Iron Man 2 they released Captain America and Thor. The former had a super serum’d super soldier fighting World War II against a dude with a red skull for a face and various other ridiculous war machines. Pulpy fare for sure, like Sky Captain except better. Thor, however, had Norse gods. Which, given that this was supposed to take place in the same world where Tony Stark and his box of scraps existed, was a little outlandish.

‘cuz Thor’s magical. Not, like, Harry Potter magic (that’d be weird!), but Lord of The Rings magical. The filmmakers (and Marvel Studios) let us into it gently, though; Thor and friends are alien-ish people and there’s some handwaving involving sufficiently advanced technology seeming like magic. Thus by the time The Avengers introduced us to portals and aliens and mind controlling staves, things were with the realm of possibilities. The Marvel world was shown to be weird, so exploding people in Iron Man 3 and Dark Elf spaceships in The Dark World made sense in a way.

Guardians of The Galaxy made it weirder, pushing a space opera story into the world, but that took place on the periphery. For now, anyway.

So along comes Doctor Strange, eight years after Iron Man. And now there’s magic. Like magic magic. Harry Potter magic with spells and stuff.

But we’re willing to believe that this takes place in the same world where Tony Stark built a suit of armor because over the past several years, Marvel has slowly been opening up their world. In 2008, Iron Man and The Dark Knight were relatively similar, both were creating ‘realistic’ versions of comic book characters. Tony Stark’s armor and arc reactor were plausible enough inventions that seemed just a few minutes into the future; Batman using sonar from cell phones was a creepy enough extension of contemporary tech. But while Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy continued its form of reconstruction by further grounding Batman, Marvel Studios threw off the training wheels and got weird – but slowly, such that by the time Doctor Strange rolled around magic wasn’t too farfetched.

Point is, now things can get weird. Next year we’ve a movie coming out involving Thanos fighting the Avengers and the Guardians, which is the ridiculous culmination of ten-odd years of storytelling through a variety of films that have progressively embraced more and more offbeat and weird things such that a super-powerful alien with a glove of doom fighting a team that includes a sorcerer, talking tree, African king, and archer isn’t that weird. Which makes total sense for a movie based on a comic book.

Y’know that saying abut slowly boiling a pot so that the frog doesn’t jump out? That seems to have been Marvel Studios’ MO with its films, slowly bringing the weird so that by the time things have gone totally bonkers we’re totally on board. There’s an element of restraint there (eg: saving the Thor and Hulk buddy movie) that makes the payoff that much better. So yeah, bring the weird, and make Cosmo a member of the Guardians already.




Note: I realize that I got distracted in this thing and there’s a whole rant here about how The Dark Knight and Marvel Studios both reconstruct the superhero narrative but in different directions. Consider a pin put in that.


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No One Does Latitude Like Batman

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Feb 11 2017 · 51 views

Essays, Not Rants! 256: No One Does Latitude Like Batman

What comes to mind when you think ‘Batman?’ Is it the one from Bruce Timm in the 90s? Or is it Michael Keaton’s in Tim Burton’s movie? Chris Nolan’s gritty reconstruction of the mythos? The Arkham games’ sinister representation of the Joke and Batman conflict? Adam West’s campy take? Whatever it was Snyder was doing in Dawn of Justice? Or the brooding jerk voiced by Will Arnett in The LEGO Movie? Might it even be one from the comics?

I’ve never read a Batman comic (yes, yes, I know; there are a handful on my Read This Eventually list), but I’m plenty familiar enough with the mythos from growing up with the cartoon and original movies to playing the Arkham games and enjoying the Nolan movies. What’s curious is how downright different these Batmans (Batmen?) are. The tone of all those adaptations I listed in that first paragraph skewer wildly (can you imagine Batman in The Dark Knight offering to pay for something with a Bat Card?), but they’re all still recognizably Batman. How does he have so much latitude? Is it the cowl?

The LEGO Batman Movie just came out this weekend, which, aside from being absolutely delightful, offers a completely different take on Batman, which, oddly enough, incorporates every other version of Batman. We’ve off-the-cuff references to every cinematic Batman and a few deep cuts to the cartoons and comics. But this is a Batman who’ll also throw a temper-tantrum when told by Alfred to do something besides Batmanning (so, kinda like Nolan’s). But The LEGO Batman Movie doesn’t just coast by on laughs; it tells a full blown Batman story with a degree of resolution and pathos that Dawn of Justice wishes it had. Sure, this Batman likes to play epic guitar solos, but he’s still Batman.

There’s arguably no other modern character that has as many different interpretations as Batman. Who your favorite Batman is is a much more nuanced discussion that who your favorite Spider-Man is. Batman has been done so many different ways. The thing is, and I keep coming back to this, they’re all still Batman.

Not many other contemporary characters and properties lend themselves to this so well. Iron Man and Spider-Man don’t have nearly this latitude, at least not while keeping the alter egos of Tony Stark and Peter Parker (which, given that we’re discussing Batman as Bruce Wayne, we are). Even though Star Wars does lend itself to spoofs and parody quite well, but those riffs would remain in the territory of spoof and parody or keep the scale small (like the Star Wars Tales comics). No one does it like Batman.

Unless you go back further. Like, seriously further. How many versions of Sherlock Holmes have we seen? You’ve got Basil Rathbone’s version, but then more recently Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch have both offered up different versions of the same character are both very Sherlock-y. They’re smart British people who solve crimes smartly. Disparate as they may be, these takes on Holmes, created over a century after Doyle started writing about the detective, are are still Holmes (granted, in the intervening 100+ years you can call any detective Sherlock and be done with it, but bear with me here).

That may be why we can have so many Batmen (Batmans?) running around without any one being not Batman. I may think that Battfleck shooting and branding people in BvS is terribly off-brand, but he is a perfectly valid interpretation of Batman. Because Batman is an incredibly simple character. Heck, the platonic ideal of Batman is less a character and more a concept: Bruce Wayne, haunted by the death of his parents, fights crime (dressed as a bat). It’s incredibly succinct while still remarkably deep – you can interpret that effects of his parents’ death however you want. He can be a whiney loner, super pseudo-ninja, or a brooding vengeful vigilante.

Superman comes close, but doesn’t quite have that depth to him; a superpowered alien fights crime and stops wrong heroically is too broad. Iron Man is too specific, you need Tony Stark’s guilt and need for redemption alongside the spiffy suit; take away the former and he’s not really Tony Stark as Iron Man. Spider-Man has a lot of wiggle room – one look at the recent Spider-Verse comics show just how varied you can get with the idea of Spider-Man — but Peter Parker as Spider Man does what he does out of a sense of responsibility and guilt. You can’t really interpret his reaction to Uncle Ben any other way, and you can’t give him the same call to adventure without the death of a family member.



So again, Batman has a latitude unlike anyone else. Less of a true character than an archetype, the flexibility of Batman and mythos has given rise to a variety of Batmens(?) that though wildly different all still make sense. Which means that even though The LEGO Batman Movie’s Batman is decidedly better than the one in Batman V Superman, both are still Batman. One just has a lot more life and depth to him, and is also the one made of plastic.


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Experiencing Life

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Feb 04 2017 · 96 views

Essays, Not Rants! 255: Experiencing Life

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

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

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

And I am short.

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

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

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

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

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

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



Live another life.


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Xenophobia, Science Fiction, and, eventually, Hope

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 28 2017 · 64 views

Essays, Not Rants! 254: Xenophobia, Science Fiction, and, eventually, Hope

I didn’t learn the term ‘xenophobia’ from the news, the radio, or a textbook. Didn’t come up in class or any place you’d expect. Rather, I learnt the word ‘xenophobia’ from the old Star Wars Expanded Universe books.

Was in the context of various political factions being distinctly anti-alien. Now, the xenophobia usually stemmed from the Empire and their staunch humans-first attitude and view of anyone who wasn’t as being intrinsically lesser, but some players in the New Republic also held xenophobic beliefs which made working together harder. Key thing was, these people were either villains or antagonists and their belief that someone who looked and thought differently was worth less than a person was wrong. The heroes, Luke, Leia, and even Han, weren’t about that; it was Emperor Palpatine and his ilk who pushed a xenophobic agenda. For a kid in his early teens recently immigrated to the US, it was a pretty clear distinction: good guys aren’t afraid of or mean to people because they’re different.

Now we all know that aliens and hyperdrives and Jedi are fictitious. But, xenophobia, as I would find out later, is a real term used by real people to describe real issues. The idea behind it, though — treating different people differently and meanly — was something I knew was unquestionably wrong because, well, Star Wars books. That and I was, y’know, a half-Singaporen cultural immigrant to South Carolina. But you get the idea.

I’m loathe to call Star Wars and science fiction in general ‘morality plays.’ Heck, I’m loathe to call any good fiction a ‘morality play’ because good fiction doesn’t preach at you. What science fiction does particularly well is, well, it says something without saying something. Diego Luna, in an interview with Vanity Fair, said that the wonderful thing about setting Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away was “…whenever you get too personal, you can say, "No, I'm not talking about you. This is a galaxy far, far away." But with this tool, you can actually make the most effective comments on the reality in which you're living.”* Learning that species isn’t a demarcation for the capacity to do good is good practice for knowing that skin color and country of origin don’t have any bearing on whether someone is ‘good.’

And that’s the thing about stories: they’re practice. See, folks smarter than me have been trying to figure out why humanity does this whole storytelling thing. One theory is that stories are practice for interactions, a sort of simulation. When we read, we experience it ourselves. It’s science, since there are studies that “…suggest when we experience fiction are neurons are firing much as they would if we were actually faced with Sophie’s choice or if we were taking a relaxing shower and a killer suddenly tore down the curtain” (pg 63 of The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, if you’re wondering). Stories are practice. They’re parables, where you can learn something by living something in a different way. As Gottschall says, “if you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story” (118).

Back to science fiction. Reading stories about the real world can be tough, because seeing the awful we know exists in real life existing again isn’t always the funnest thing. Science fiction (and fantasy, etc) are reality adjacent, and so have more leeway. Ursula K. LeGuin can explore classism and sexual identity without pointing a finger at anyone for being a bigot. It becomes a safe space to discuss complex topics and live experiences you wouldn’t ordinarily. Stories can change you, can impact you because, well, the nature of fiction is that it strives to put you in that place. A good book has you working with the writer to empathize and live the narrative first hand. You can’t read a good book and come out entirely unchanged.

And the fantasy of science fiction means that there is a quick gratification to that hope. You don’t have to wait years and years on the edge to know that good will triumph over evil, that diversity beats xenophobia; you just gotta reach the end of the book.


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AMERICA!

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 21 2017 · 73 views

Essays, Not Rants! 253: AMERICA!

If you follow this blog you’ve probably realized that my mostest favoritest trope is the rag-tag multicultural team. It’s why I’ll always hold Disney’s Atlantis in high esteem, it’s why I have such a huge soft spot for the Magnificent Seven remake and Rogue One. Pacific Rim, Halo: Reach, X-COM, you give me a multicultural/national team, you make me happy

Really happy.

So you can understand my hesitance when the follow-up to Al Ewing’s very enjoyable New Avengers comics was U.S.Avengers. Here’s what could well be a rah-rah jingoistic comic, while New Avengers (volume 4, if you’re wondering) was this idiosyncratic book with giant mecha, a squirrel convincing a rat army to stop fighting for the bad guys, and mad science.

The first issue of U.S.Avengers is framed around the members of the team talking to the ‘camera’ about why they’re part of the team and, as they are a part of the remade AIM (American Ideas Mechanics) which is overseen by the US Government, about the whole being American thing. For Roberto da Costa, the leader of the team, this means talking about wanting to be American. Lemme make this clear, the first panel of the first issue of a comic book called U.S.Avengers is Roberto da Costa, someone born in Brazil, talking about his wanting to be an American. It culminates in him firmly declaring that he’s an American citizen, something that can’t be taken away.

So right off the bat we have, in a comic book called U.S.Avengers, the definition of American identity being one of an immigrant (who’s also not white, by the way).

But who else is on this team? We’ve got Toni Ho, genius Chinese-American who built her own version of the Iron Patriot which she pilots. Her girlfriend, Aikku, is also part of the team. A Finnish-Norwegian (say it with me:) immigrant, she finds the US different and slightly frightening, but takes comfort in Toni and the others and the space to find herself. And has her own super high-tech suit. We’re also introduced to Squirrel Girl, who stresses her Canadian/American dual citizenship; General Robert Maverick, the representative of the US Government who’s also Red Hulk; and Sam Guthrie, the guy from Kentucky whose interpretation of the American Dream is that of his blue-collar father, one where “there is no ‘them’ to help or hurt.” The first issue ends with an appearance by Captain America (which makes sense), only this is Captain America from an alternate future where she’s Danielle Cage, a bulletproof black woman.

This has been is a stupid amount of summarizing, but I hope you’re following my train of thought here. The image of the American put forth by U.S.Avengers isn’t one of a straight white dude; in the book Americans can be – and are – immigrants, people of color, women, and queer. This isn't something the book hints at, it's a blatant thesis statement put forth in the first issue.

I'm sure you've realized by now that this is important, but let me explain why. For much of American history, the image of an 'American' has been a straight white guy. Even today, especially today, the prevalent narrative of an American is a straight white guy whose family has been in the states for generations. It's that whole idea of a 'true' or 'real' American. U.S.Avengers offers a counternarrative; one that's, well, reflective of the actual US. We can talk all we want about shifting demographics and the changing face of a nation, but until the narrative shifts we're just blowing air. U.S.Avengers reflects that America, as Marvel has been doing as of late: Ms. Marvel is a naturalized Pakistani immigrant; Hulk is Korean-American, one Captain America is black.

So again, this is why diversity is important. If you're doing a story about the modern US then the characters ought to reflect the people who make up the country: a nation of immigrants not just from Europe. We need these stories, we need to see people who aren't straight white guys portrayed as American in fiction if we’re ever going to shift the default image of what an American is.



Elsewise we find ourselves in some ersatz 1950s America, and you don't really wanna go back to that, do you?


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Gaming Morality

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 14 2017 · 132 views

Essays, Not Rants! 252: Gaming Morality

So here's the basic concept of Dishonored 2: the empress has been deposed. You play as either said deposed empress (Emily) or her royal protector (Corvo) and carve a path of revenge against the usurper and her cabal of those who dishonored you (hence the title). Along the way you meet the Outsider who gives you a bunch of magical powers, ranging from teleporting and stopping time to linking enemies together (so if you kill one you kill 'em all!) to straight up stopping time.

Now, there are many ways to play Dishonored 2, something that's hyped up both in the promotional materials and the game itself. You can sneak through each mission, unseen by anyone, or run in obvious as a strobe light. You can assassinate each target or find another way to eliminate them. You can kill every enemy you come across or choke them into unconsciousness.

Like I said: options! So many ways to play the game!

Which is where the game's narrative gets in the way. Dishonored 2 has this thing called Chaos which is determined by how you dispatch targets and how many people you kill. Chaos determines your ending, and the way to get the good (or at least better) ending is through low Chaos. Essentially, the narrative encourages you to eschew violence (and some of those nifty powers). It makes sense, if you want the ending where Emily is a fair and just empress, wanton slaughter isn't becoming. It's this odd sort of ludonarrative dissonance where the game gives you these wonderful gameplay options the narrative then discourages you from using. Now, it does give replayability a boost which, given that I just finished my fourth playthrough(no powers, no stealth, high bodycount), does work.

BioShock is held up as a treatise exploring the relationship between player and game (rightfully so). The ending of the game you receive, however, is based on what you do about the Little Sisters. These creepy looking girls can be either saved or absorbed for ADAM, a resource you can use to improve your abilities. Now, saving the Little Sisters gets you some ADAM too, just at a different rate from absorption. When I played BioShock, I saved the first Little Sister, then, wanting to know what would happen and how much ADAM I'd receive, absorbed the next, then chose to save the rest. Upon finishing the game, my ending was noticeably downbeat - which confused me: I'd saved all those Little Sisters! Some research (googling) turned up that to get that good ending you had to save all of them, and absorbing even just one earned you a pretty harsh one (absorbing all garners you one more sorrowful). I was kinda annoyed, I'd only absorbed one! But then, I had still chosen to absorb one, so I suppose that does still make me a bit of a villain. So it makes sense.

Still harsh, though.

At the least, Dishonored 2 and BioShock don't punish you gameplay-wise for your moral choices. Knights of The Old Republic allows you to make light side and dark side choices throughout the game because it’s Star Wars so Jedi and all that. In the late game there are armor and such that you can equip if you lean far enough in either direction. If you've been making decisions in both directions, though, tough. In the second KOTOR also has a whole section you can only access as a light or dark sider. Playing a more nuanced game gets you nothing. Which I suppose works in the Star Wars context, but, playing as an amnesiac former Sith Lord (oh, spoiler) and a Jedi exiled from the Order, I figure a level of permissiveness ought to color the KOTOR games.

Mass Effect 2 (also done by Bioware, who did the first KOTOR) had a similar issue, where not leaning too strongly in a Paragon (saves the day nicely) or Renegade (saves the day meanly) fashion prevents you from taking certain dialogue options and getting certain outcomes later on. It discourages you from mixing up how you respond (also, taking too many Paragon actions makes your dope scars disappear, boo). Mass Effect 3 rectifies it somewhat by letting the player accumulate Reputation from taking Paragon and/or Renegade options rather than a more lukewarm approach. So instead the game rewards you for taking a strong stance either way.

Perhaps the problem with video game morality is its binary nature. You, for the most part, are either good or bad and the narrative typically plays out accordingly – sometimes rendering judgment. I find that open ended narratives work better as in Mass Effect, where the decisions of your actions aren’t always so black and white: choosing to destroy the data earned by illegal vivisection means you won’t be able to save a character later down the line. Morality in video games – and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ endings – is an interesting and still developing facet of gaming that’s arguably limited by tech and designers’ patience. I’m undoubtedly curious to see how video games handle this going forward – especially Bioware’s upcoming Mass Effect: Andromeda. The virtuality of gaming makes for a fun space to try things and see what happens, consequences are great, limiting gameplay less so.



Or maybe Dishonored 2 could use just a few more non-lethal power options.


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Who Is The Everyman

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 07 2017 · 67 views

Essays, Not Rants! 251: Who Is The Everyman?

I talk a lot about the concept of the everyman on this blog, though mostly about how they don't have to be white guys. And there's a reason it's such an important thing. Spider-Man shows you don't have to be rich and smart like Iron Man or an alien like Superman to be a superhero, you can just be a nebbish kid from Queens. It's the whole point of the everyman: anyone can be a hero. Especially you, because, after all, the everyman is meant to be you.

Star Wars, with Luke and Rey, takes full advantage of the everyman. The totally mundane farmboy and scavenger turn out to really be special heroes who help save the galaxy. The characters' motivations are built to be universal, certainly more so than the other characters around them. Han's a smuggler who wants to get a bounty off his head and Leia wants to save her planet and the galaxy – Luke just wants to get off of Tatooine. Finn wants to escape from the First Order he used to be a part of, Poe is on an important mission for the Resistance – Rey just wants to belong. They're universal wants, ones more translatable to ordinary life than paying off a crime lord. Again, Luke and Rey could be anyone, including you. And anyone, including you, could be the chosen one.

This is why it's so darn important for there to be diversity in the everyman. Rey is important because she shows that you don't have to be a dude to be a chosen one, to be special. Same with Ms. Marvel, where the superhero of New Jersey is Kamala Khan, saying that, hey, a Muslim girl can be an all-American superhero.

And that's what makes the cast make up of Rogue One so important. Unlike Luke and Rey, these folks aren't particularly special. No one's a Jedi or super skilled smuggler. Jyn, Cassian, Chîrrut, and the others are, in the vein of Peter Parker and Kamala Khan, fairly ordinary people who suddenly find themselves in the right place at the right time and step up. They’re meant to be normal people, like you and me. So they look like normal people, like you or me.

There’s the rub. What do normal people look like? What do we look like? For me, that’s half-Asian/half-White, and based on the majority of (western) media out there, one of those halves is what heroes look like. The other half is usually a villain or, if not a token, then usually a stoic wise, old master. Not a swashbuckling hero or a kickbutt mercenary. That’s the other half.

(In case you haven’t realized, it’s the white half that’s portrayed heroically and the Asian less so).

The diversity in Rogue One, however, flips that on its head – and in frickin’ Star Wars, one of my favorite stories! The heroes of the film come from all sorts of (real world) backgrounds, with a white woman as the lead and a Latino guy as deuteragonist. The others on the core team are a couple Chinese guys, a Pakistani-British guy, and Alan Tudyk as a droid. None of these characters are meant to be particularly special, not even the sense of being super well-trained or anything.

They’re normal people.

Who step up to be heroes.

And some of them happen to look like me.

Of course you don’t have to look like someone to emphasize with them. It’s why I see myself in the crew of Serenity in Firefly or wanna be Rey because she’s the best. It’s why I’m sure you can still wanna be Cassian Andor even though he's Latino and you might not be. But who we see as heroes affect our perception of reality. If the only time we see Asian characters are as wise, old master, then that’s all we see them as. If the everyman is universal, then everyone should get to see themselves as the everyman.


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2016 In Review

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 31 2016 · 44 views

Essays, Not Rants! 250: 2016 In Review

Year’s over, so this means I’m looking at the rants essays from this past year. Here we go!

Five Most Popular/Viewed Posts

#5: *general internet frustrations*

Mockingbird became my favorite comic this year for a variety of reasons (feminist, funny, fantastic). But when the final issue was published people got mad. This is about that and why we can’t have nice things, and why Mockingbird and the fallout remain important in the larger dialogue of fiction and fandom.

#4: A (Civil) War of Flaws

I really liked Civil War, in particular for how well done and earned I thought the conflict was. This is primarily because it was born out of character flaws, something that’s terribly important in developing good conflict. Makes it engaging and, rightly, tragic.

#3: Where Josh Explains Why You Should Fund His Movie

I made a thesis film this year! And it’s finally almost done! I’m mad proud of it still and really can’t wait to have it done (just need a few sound effects, mixing, and a score!). It was also a lot of me putting my money where my mouth is, what with diversity and all that, as this post goes into (also, we ended up within budget! Woo!).

#2: The Beauty of Pokémon Go

If you’re wondering, I still play Pokémon Go (I finally got a Blastoise yesterday!). I really think the community and hype that sprung up around it when it was released was truly beautiful. The blurring of the line between gaming and reality is fascinating, and Go illustrates just how it can build a community.

#1: Of Zootopia

Man. Zootopia was – is – important. It’s about bigotry and ignorance and forgiveness and prejudice. It was relevant at the beginning of the year and is, frustratingly, even more relevant at the end of 2016. This movie shows how effective stories are at conveying truths while saying so much about, frankly, racial tensions is magnificent.

Josh’s Pick of Three

#3: To Tell The Truth

I love the idea of storytelling as lies that tell the truth. This is me exploring that while somehow managing to tie in poetry, theatre, and television. It’s fun, and, well, this is pretty much what I studied at university.

#2: The Give And Take of Books

Since graduating, I’ve made an effort to read more (the past six months have consisted of: Ready Player One, The Windup Girl, Pawn’s Gambit, Homegoing, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, Scoundrals, and Life Moves Pretty Fast). Homegoing was particularly wonderful and it ended on a personal note. This post is about books and the way we interact with them. It’s what makes books so important.

#1: Letting Different People Be Different, Visible Diversity, and Something Something Diversity Something Star Wars

Between Rogue One and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, its been a great year to see people who look kinda like me on the big screen (Kubo and The Two Strings doesn’t count for a variety of reasons that I will rant about later). Diversity’s important, it’s always been important, and I will never not be excited about the fact that there are now Asian protagonists in the Star Wars world. Crazy Ex also does away with stereotyping and, y’know, it’s important that we let people just be people.

And that’s it for 2016. Thanks for sticking with this blog even when the post is just a ramble about science fiction. 2017’s coming up, expect more rants essays about diversity, Marvel movies and Star Wars, feminism, and whatever I want, really.



Cheers.


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In Which Josh Rambles Aimlessly About Science Fiction on Christmas Eve

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 24 2016 · 82 views

Essays, Not Rants! 249: In Which Josh Rambles Aimlessly About Science Fiction on Christmas Eve

I liked the idea of Passengers when I first heard about it: On an extra-solar space mission Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence wake up from cryogenic sleep and have to deal with being alone together. It’s like Lost In Translation… in space! And I’m a sucker for a riff on Lost In Translation (Monsters: Lost In Translation… with aliens!). But then I saw the trailer. And look! Explosions! Peril! It’s not just about two people being people with each other.

Bummer.

But then reveals started coming in and it turns out that Pratt’s character wakes up Lawrence’s deliberately: because he’s studied her file and wants to fall in love with her. And he doesn’t tell her the whole waking-her-up-and-ruining-her-plans-without-her-consent-because-he’s-lonely thing and it’s portrayed as, get this, romantic.

So, y’know, my disinterest has now soured to disgust. Woo, another movie where the female character's agency and goals are subservient to the male character's want for a warm body.

And it’s all a rotten shame, since the way I first understood the pitch had such promise. How much more isolated can you get than in the middle of space? Lost In Translation used the foreignness of Japan to heighten the isolation of its protagonists – the story wouldn't work as well in, say, Cleveland. Now replace Tokyo with deep space and you've got yourself a whole 'nother level of existential questioning.

It's science fiction, and science fiction (and other 'genre' stories) is equipped to tell stories that 'normal' fiction can't. Roaming a spaceship meant to house hundreds by yourself isn't something that could happen in real life (yet), but science fiction can explore that heightened sense of solitude and isolation. Replacing alone in the crowd for a week with alone among the stars while your shipmates sleep for decades allows a story to really look at, say, humanity's desire for connection and all the drama that comes with it. Fiction is, by nature, a stylized and heightened form of reality; science fiction ratchets that up a few notches.

In addition, the fiction of its world makes its story universal, in that because it hasn't happened, it could happen to anyone (which doesn't excuse the lack of diversity sadly prevalent in science fiction). As no one's blown up a Death Star before, blowing up the Death Star isn't a 'white' narrative. (And because it isn't a 'white' narrative, all the more reason for it to not just feature white actors!) Look at Rogue One. Being a Star Wars story, it takes place in a galaxy far far away free of this one’s messy history with race. So why can’t the rebels be Chinese and Latino? More than ever, is there the leeway for the everyman to not be a white guy, and Rogue One pulls it off magnificently. Suddenly the Rebellion comes alive in a way it never did in the Original Trilogy; there’s room at the space-table for everyone. A story we always hoped was universal really is. You don’t have to look like Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford to be a hero.

With that universality established, now we get to dive back into that heightened reality! It’s the Rebels against the evil Empire! But this is a world where anyone can be a Rebel, and where the Empire really is an unstoppable evil. Compare Rogue One to Saving Private Ryan or Fury, at least in concept. Both Ryan and Fury are World War II movies about Americans against the ostensibly-always-pure-evil Nazi Germany. There are insurmountable odds and crazy missions in all three of the stories, but in Ryan and Fury you’ve gotta be American to see yourself as the hero. Rogue One and Star Wars in general has a leeway you don’t find there.

Even war video games set in contemporary setting have a similar issue, with the Modern Warfare series usually being about American and British soldiers fighting vaguely Russian and Middle-Eastern soldiers/extremists. They’re stories about a certain group of people, during a certain part of time, fighting a certain group of people. Compare that to Halo: Reach which features an international band of soldiers fighting aliens. The villains are drawn in strokes as broad as in Ryan or Modern Warfare, but this time you don’t have to be an American to be the good guy. You get to be Noble Six alongside a team whose voice cast include those of Nigerian, Israeli, Haitian, and South Asian heritage. Anyone can be the hero because the villains aren’t even human. Even though the Halo world may be marked with some shades of gray in its morality, the extreme dichotomy of humanity=good, Covenant=evil lets it be a war story that isn’t reliant on an entire people group being evil.

And again, Rogue One. The Empire isn’t a real country or people group, it’s a fictional villainous government with analogues to real-life regimes. But in Star Wars, the good guys can win, they can really win! Yes, it may come at a cost, but it’s one against an Evil with a capital E. That latitude, for the baddies to be really bad and for the victories to be victorious, let’s a movie like Rogue One have a sense of the epic and hope that just doesn’t happen in reality. There’s a room for the ‘realness’ of realistic fiction, but so is there for the romanticism of science fiction like Star Wars and, yes, Halo.

I love science fiction. Always have. I will vehemently defend it even as I criticize the genre for its faults (ie: being overrun with white guys named John). Same goes for escapist fiction; there’s enough awful going on in the world that some days (a lot of days) I wanna read a book about Han Solo and Lando Calrissian pulling an Oceans Eleven style heist (Timothy Zahn’s Scoundrels is wonderful, by the way). As I say a lot here, there’s a time and place for fiction to be ‘real,’ but sometimes lies about reality can be truer than the truth.




Thanks for sticking with me if you’ve read it this far. This rant started somewhere and ended up somewhere very different, and it’s Christmas Eve and I’m too tired to make it the two essays it should be. So this has been Josh Rambling Aimlessly About Science Fiction. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas everyone, go watch Rogue One instead of Passengers.


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Prequels Can Work

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 17 2016 · 119 views

Essays, Not Rants! 248: Prequels Can Work

Prequels, by their nature, face an uphill battle in that we know how they are going to end. We know that Logan is gonna lose his memories in X-Men: Origins, we know that Sully and Mike are gonna be best friends (but only one of them a scarer) in Monsters University, and we know that Anakin is gonna become Darth Vader. By explicitly being movies of the stories that came before, we enter into them knowing where they end up, and, well, already being spoiled.

But, if spoilers don't necessarily spoil, then this factor shouldn't necessarily make prequels less enjoyable. Monsters University is still plenty fun, mostly because we want to see how we get to where Mike and Sully are in Monsters, Inc. That the film starts with them in such different spots from where they are in the original. The journey to the familiar is where the excitement of the movie lies. Thing is, it’s easy there for it to quickly become just the retreading of what’s been done before or, at worst, a slow march to the inevitable. Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side in Revenge of The Sith doesn’t feel like a character choice so much as a plot point hit because it had to happen.

Revenge of The Sith could have – should have – explored why Anakin opted for the Dark Side. What was it that drove a promising young Jedi to become a Sith lord? But rather than exploring any of that, the movie just trucked along about the ending of the Clone Wars, an Emperor rising to power, and an arbitrary turn to the Dark Side. Essentially, Sith doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know. There’s little depth added to the events of the originals, we end up exactly where we started with little change in the narrative status quo – A New Hope has the precise same impact whether or not you’ve seen Sith.

And this is where I talk about Rogue One.

We know the Rebels steal the Death Star plans. The question is how.

So the easy thing to do would have been to have just followed the heist of the plans and let that be that. Rebel spies steal plans. Done is done. Instead, Rogue One contextualizes A New Hope.

For all its grandeur, the original Star Wars showed only a relatively small sliver of the galaxy (a backwater planet, the Death Star, and a Rebel Base) populated by farmers and outlaws, Imperial villains, and a handful of mostly-Rebel pilots. We begin in media res, with all the wheels already well in motion so we can focus on a farmboy from the middle of nowhere. Rogue One expands the scope of the story, showing more of the Alliance part of the Rebel Alliance and further emphasizing the threat of the Empire come A New Hope.

But the movie doesn’t over explain. The Phantom Menace felt the need to explain the mystical Force as microscopic organisms and C-3PO as a kid’s side project. Instead of feeling the need to, say, explain why the Death Star plans are on tape, Rogue One opts instead to fill in some plot holes and expand on things mentioned in the original movies (again: Alliance), but never seems beholden to what came before.

So Rogue One does what a prequel can do best, does what a prequel should do. It tells its own story that feels complete in and of itself, but in turn also adds a layer to the movie that already exists. A New Hope doesn’t feel any different knowing that it’s Hayden Christensen’s Anakin and all that under the helmet, but the final showdown against the Death Star takes on another level of meaning knowing what led to it.



Prequels get a bad rap because, well, a lot of them are bad. But Rogue One is inarguably a prequel (with a sequel already directed by George Lucas), and it’s one that does what those sort of stories can do. I’ve more rants essays to write about this movie, but for now, one thing that this movie does is prove that, hey, prequels can be really good.






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josh

twenty-five


grew up on a ship


studied Narrative (Re)Construction

at New York University


frequently found writing in a coffee shop, behind a camera, or mixing alcohol and video games

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