City of Heroes/Villains: A Homecoming

[Quick Note: I have several partially formed blog posts I’ve been kicking around for months now. Unfortunately, I’m on less solid ground these days to give this blog the attention it deserves. My hope is that this situation will shift in the coming months. Please bear with me; there’s more to come!]

3593cbcd35958e2603d80f2bcd74f2bb

The Freedom Phalanx

The End No One Wanted:

November 30th of 2012 was not a good night. I went over to a friend’s house to say good-bye to one of my favorite games of all time: City of Heroes/Villains. The community had held out hope that the beloved MMO would find a home, or at least some way to keep running. In a move that many (myself included) found particularly callous, NCSoft decided to kill the game, despite its popularity with die-hard fans. The servers were due to shut down at midnight.

I logged in, ran around for a little while, and finally picked a spot to bid farewell to not only one of my favorite characters but also the game itself (more on that below). I remember leaving my friend’s house, getting into my car, and bawling my eyes out in the cold—and I wasn’t even a regularly active player at the time. I know there are many things to cry about in this world, and a game is not usually one of them, but the tears came all the same. All the memories, all the colorful characters (affectionately called “toons”), the rich worldbuilding, the stories, the battles won and lost, all gone. Just tossed in the dustbin.

city-of-villains-002

Curses!!!

For years afterward, whenever the game would come up in conversation, I would feel a twinge of pain. I had lost a part of myself that night, and I thought it was forever. I had a  bank of in-game screenshots from way back in 2006, and they had somehow survived more than one computer crash. Whenever I would feel nostalgic, I would revisit them with a bittersweet smile, reflecting on the time I had spent in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles.

A Homecoming No One Expected:

logo.png.d482cf8e9dee512cbce2eacefb1c0e4e

But then…

Earlier this year, I started hearing rumors of an active server somewhere on the web. Then in-game screenshots popped up in my social feed here and there. I didn’t think much of it. There have been many false starts over the years, and just like occasional rumors of a Firefly Season 2 in the works, I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

In late June, however, one of my friends (the same friend whose house I was in that night) found the Homecoming message boards. It took a little bit of finagling, but she got on to the Homecoming server and recreated her signature Corrupter toon, the incomparable Darqueen. Not long after, she came over and walked me through how to make an account. Within minutes a blue banner popped up bearing the word “Loading…” in the City of Heroes font. Then this music started to play, and I felt the old fire rekindle in my heart.

2006-05-04 18:49:46

This screenshot was taken in 2006.

screenshot_190706-13-07-09

This one was taken 13 years later.

I spent the next couple of days recreating the Hero and Villain toons closest to my heart. Those screenshots I mentioned? Those became invaluable for reincarnating my long-lost characters. I felt like a digital sculptor making sure I had exactly the right face, the correct color of hair or costume. The game gives you a featureless lump of digital clay to work with during character creation, and so I set about examining my old screenshots in detail to bring these toons back exactly as they had been before.

And when I started playing, I knew why the moniker “Homecoming” was entirely apt. Flying through the bright skies of Paragon City, or negotiating the dangerous back alleys of the Rogue Isles again is glorious.

It’s like coming home.

Why It Was/Is So Great:

fc7e9fc89a82f3c37912cb5dff11bb2a

For those of you who’ve played the game, this part might be superfluous. You already know why it was so great. But for those of you who may have never heard of it, or only heard of it in passing, let me tell you why the game was able to evoke such sadness in those who lost it, and why its return has been so uplifting.

The World:

CoH/V really did make you feel like you had stepped into the pages of a comic book world, a literal dream come true for a geek like me. The writers and developers had the herculean task of coming up with an entirely new superhero continuity, along with a new pantheon of colorful heroes and villains to populate it. This was a world that was neither Marvel nor DC, but one which obviously took a strong influence from both.

On the blue side you have the Freedom Phalanx, protecting Paragon City. Their star-spangled leader, Statesman, is not unlike a blending of Superman and Captain America, complete with a propensity for inspirational leadership and defending the helpless. Joining him are Positron, a brilliant scientist who constructed an incredible suit of power armor, and Manticore, a billionaire who stalks the night as an expert archer, and many others.

city-of-heroes-hd-wallpapers-32893-8828477

An actual clash of titans in progress.

On the red side you have Lord Recluse, the opposite face of the coin from Statesman, who controls the organization of Arachnos (basically Cobra from G.I. Joe if they were at all competent). Ghost Widow, a former assassin turned necromantic spirit, joins the rogues gallery along with Captain Mako, a mutated man-shark, and Black Scorpion, a deranged cyborg.

If anything, this world leans a bit more towards DC than Marvel with its monolithic characters, but there are enough differences and new elements to make this continuity uniquely its own. The lore for the game is also many levels deep. If you like to sink your teeth into a setting, and the stories that have taken place there, the mythology of CoH/V has all of that in spades. This is the world you step into when you don the mask, and I really can’t say enough good things about it.

Be Who You Want to Be:

61wTJt0jneL.SX522_

I’ve only ever fallen in love with an MMO once. I tried a number of them, but only this one could keep my interest for very long. A lot of that stems from CoH/V’s extremely robust character generator. It was so good that it ruined other games for me in that respect. CharGen for every other game I’ve played, online or otherwise, has always seemed lackluster by comparison.

poster_vertical

Oh, that’s not good…

CoH/V accomplishes this by adhering to a simple principle: What you look like has no bearing on your stats. In a lot of games, including WoW, your character is essentially a dress dummy for equipment. You might find a look you really dig and then level out of it. You might piece together a gear set that is statistically superior…but looks ridiculous.

In CoH/V you can look like an absolute badass at Level 1 if you want, and your ability to further modify your appearance is truly staggering. Want to match the color of your super powers to a specific costume? Done. Want to be 8-feet tall and wear full plate-mail right out of the gate? Done. There are so many options, and so many combinations, it really gives players the ability to bring their characters to life in a way that no game has accomplished before or since. In fact, if I were a comic book artist, this would be the ideal tool for getting a character’s look down quickly without ever putting pen to paper.

An Enduring Experience:

Going Rogue

This game came out in 2004, and was subsequently revamped a few times to improve its graphics. The last time this happened was somewhere around 2009 or 2010. Of course the graphics can’t compare to the photorealism and ultra detail of games we have now in 2019. But as I’ve said before, graphics aren’t everything. Anthem looks stunningly beautiful, and it’s…well, yeah, you know the rest.

To me, a game that is still fun to play, even after the graphics are hopelessly outdated, is still a good game. Two of my favorites, to this day, are Heroes of Might & Magic III (1999) and Lord of Realms II (1996). The game play, the story, and how engaged I am in what’s going on are all factors that can make or break a game for me. Star Wars: Battlefront, for instance, was gorgeous, but I was bored after about an hour.

City Scape

To CoH/V’s credit, the developers created a visual style that closely resembles comic books. It holds up remarkably well. While the powers and leveling mechanics get more complex over time, it starts out with game play that is elegant in its simplicity. Anyone can pick up it up quickly. Plus, there are so many power sets, and combinations of power sets that you could easily play the game for years still not explore them all.

And that’s just the base game. The Homecoming Team has already created new content for the game, and it is excellent. It’s made by fans for fans, and it shows. All of which is to say that, even though CoH/V isn’t quite old enough to be considered retro, this is a game that has some serious longevity. If it remains available, I foresee that I’ll be revisiting it again and again for many years to come. If it is something you are at all interested in, you should definitely check it out.

Final Thoughts:

Hero_side_icon

In a lot of ways, 2019 is a year of endings for the Geekosphere. Game of Thrones. Big Bang Theory. The MCU ended its first major arc and now Spider-Man is out, moving forward. ThinkGeek no longer exists. The Tick ended with Season 2. We can also see the end of other fan staples on the horizon with Supernatural, Agents of SHIELD, Arrow, Man in the High Castle, Gotham, My Little Pony, The Good Place, and many more.

Often when we lose something in the geek and nerd arena, we don’t get it back. But sometimes, just sometimes, we get a resurgence of something we thought was gone. City of Heroes/Villains is that for me. It’s getting the movie Serenity when Firefly had been cancelled after only half a season. This is seeing Captain Pike walk onto the stunningly gorgeous bridge of the Enterprise on Star Trek: Discovery, or getting to play the original NES Final Fantasy and Metroid with my son.

The return of this game is nothing short of reclaiming a little lost piece of my life, and to return to a place I love. For opening up the way to the Rogue Isles and Paragon City again, I would like to give the Homecoming Team a heartfelt thank you. Please keep the fires lit.

If you are interested in checking it out for yourself, follow this link to get set up:

https://forums.homecomingservers.com/forum/53-getting-started/

My universal chat handle is @Nights-Watchman. If you are on the Indomitable server, hit me up.

A Villain’s End: An Epilogue

Arachnos2

On the night in question, Night-Watchman left his comrades for the last time. Despite his villainous ways, he had come to think of them as his family, the only one he had ever really had. They wished to face their end in battle, but Night-Watchman was through fighting. It was time to take his final bow.

For a magical assassin in the service of Arachnos, he had found himself cast in a hero’s role more than once. He had saved the world no less than three times, joined the crusade against the alien invasion of the Rikti, and fought against dark gods and unspeakable horrors that might have consumed reality as he knew it.

Yet despite his many victories, the innumerable close-calls, the momentary triumphs and defeats, he now faced the true end of the world. Worst of all, the cause of this doom was not something he could not fight against, not an enemy he could bring low. Staring down his own extinction, the elite operative was suddenly something he had never been before: powerless.

He passed through the pillar of ice and flame, donned his ancient armor once more, and traveled to the Roman island of Cimerora. There, upon a narrow peninsula, he landed next to the sybil, Sister Airlia, the very image of his own beloved patron, Ghost Widow. Side by side, they stared out into the wine-dark seas in silence until the sun set on them.

And there he died.

screenshot_190822-14-04-55

I recreated this moment as close to the original as possible.

But it was not the end…

Siren’s blared all around him in the Zig. The prison meant to hold super-powered criminals had been breached, and the prisoners were already in a full-scale riot. He was back at the very beginning. Things were different now, though; he was weak, weaker than he could recall being in many years, but he was alive. Somehow.

He had been reborn—to live again, to fight again.

This time the world would be his for the taking.

screenshot_190711-18-05-37

Bwhahahahahaha!


Fanboy Movie Review #13 — Captain Marvel

[Note: I do not consider myself a movie critic. What follows is just one fanboy’s opinion based off of a single viewing of the film. Oh, and there are SPOILERS ahead, so take heed.]

Captain Marvel, the latest feature film from Marvel, debuted three weeks ago. Sure, there have been other comic book movies featuring a female lead, even one set in the Marvel universe, but this is the first time we’ve had one in the MCU proper. It’s also a sort of prequel that’s largely set in the late ’80s and mid-’90s.

Title Card

Yaaaas Queen!

One thing real quick.

Yes, it’s tempting to compare this movie to 2017’s Wonder Woman, since both are female superhero adventure films, and speak directly to things like the perception of womens’ roles, inspirational female empowerment, and breaking societal molds. Still, they are two different movies, emerging from two different continuities. Wonder Woman was a gem that came out of nowhere from the chaotic mess that is the DCEU. In contrast, the MCU has far more entries and is much more consistent in terms of tone, direction, and writing.

5ba97cbf7449999e94cc290b70eb0533

Perhaps one day when Disney owns everything we’ll  finally get this mighty team up. 

Truth be told, I had always hoped that Marvel would get to this point first (*cough* Black Widow *cough*), but I am glad that Wonder Woman came out first. For one, it gave DC a much-needed win, but it also allowed Captain Marvel to do its own thing, since it also had to be more aligned with Marvel’s metaplot and serve as the set up for Avengers 4.

First Impressions: Carol Danvers is a fantastic character in the comics. She’s a military officer, a leader, a fearless combatant, and practically a one-woman army. When it comes to the upper tier of powerful heroes, she is easily up there with Thor, the Silver Surfer, and the Hulk. And considering the poor state of the Avengers at the end of Infinity War, they desperately need new allies. Adding Captain Marvel to the battleline is one helluva reinforcement. The MCU has a pretty slick track record for transitioning heroes from the page to the screen, so count me in.

What I LIKED:

giphy

Over 9,000!!!

THAT STAN LEE TRIBUTE! I thought there might be a Stan Lee tribute in this movie since Captain Marvel is the first release since he passed away. I was not prepared for this. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. The Mallrats cameo was also very touching. Excelsior…

The Captain Herself – There was a lot of talk about how wooden Brie Larson is in this role. I disagree. She might be poker-faced, but that’s perfectly in keeping with the character she’s playing. She’s a soldier, a fighter pilot, and essentially a member of Kree special forces. She’s a storm contained in human form, but one who decides where and when to focus that power. That level of stillness (almost Zen) and determination in the face of the enemy is exactly what I would expect. I think her performance is much more nuanced than is being recognized.

Captain-marvel

I see you. 

Nick Fury – What movie can’t be made better with the addition of Samuel L. Jackson, huh? What I like about this is that he is playing a proto-Fury, a less experienced, less hard-edged version of himself. He’s not at the top of his game yet, and while he is moving up the ranks of SHIELD, he’s not the master spy we see in later films. I love being able to look into this period of the character’s life. That leads me to my next point.

Agent Friggin’ Coulson – Coulson was the common thread that brought together a diverse array of heroes into the Avengers, and his death cemented their resolve. I was overjoyed when he returned in Agents of SHIELD, even though he is remains the ‘unsung’ hero of the continuity. Seeing him as the new guy at SHIELD was great. It goes a long way to explain why Coulson is so loyal to Director Fury later on. Of course, I wish he had a larger role, but I was glad to see him at all. Thanks, Phil.

Talos – Ben Mendelsohn is a fantastic actor. He’s played the villain in a few high-profile films in the last few years, from Nolan Sorento in Ready Player One, to Orson Krennic in Rogue One. When he shows up on screen, I sort of expect him to be evil, which is why his casting for the role of Talos is so inspired. It’s a meta bait-and-switch to find out that, no, Talos is actually a sympathetic character who is fighting to ensure the safety of his family. Brilliant. If Ben’s game for it, I would love to see Talos appear in future installments.

Captain-Marvel-Pulp-Fiction-1

“Mind if I have a drink of your tasty beverage to wash this down?”

GOOSE – I love the running joke that everyone in the know is instantly terrified when they find out Goose is a Flerken. The big reveal that Goose is hyper lethal when he wants to be is a great moment of the film. The only downside is that I think they played the Goose card a bit too much in the last part of the movie.

Carol “Avenger” Danvers – I’ve heard that some folks didn’t care for the reveal of how the Avengers Initiative got its name. I thought it was a nice touch, especially since the alternate name “Protector” was more accurate for the idea Fury had, but was bland. Giving Carol the credit for naming the program is a nice way to include her in the growing mythology of the movies. Maybe that’s just me.

mon

Perhaps we’ll get a Photon/Pulsar on screen in the future, or even a second Captain Marvel. 

Lieutenant Trouble – Actress Akira Akbar plays a young Monica Rambeau, a character who grows up (in the comics) to take the mantle of Captain Marvel for a time. Her mother’s callsign of “Photon” was also fun, as Monica takes that as her superhero name later on. Since we are fast-forwarding back to the present in Endgame, perhaps we will get to see Monica grown upon Carol’s return, perhaps even following her mother’s example and joining the military.

Where’s Fury? –  That post credit sequence was intense. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one to explain the situation to her. Yikes.

What I DIDN’T Like:

giphy3

Good thing she was right. 

The “Light Speed Engine” – The central MacGuffin of the film, which also serves to give Captain Marvel her powers, doesn’t fit. We are told time and time again that it will end the war. How? When you have the ability to travel from the Kree capital to Earth by opening a single hexagonal wormhole, an engine that goes the speed of light would be unimaginably slower. It would take you 4 years and some change to reach Proxima Centauri. Reaching another galaxy would take millions of years, relatively speaking. So how would that affect the course of the war? If there was a piece of dialogue to explain this, I didn’t catch it.

Pacing – The first part of the film starts off slow, and could have used some tightening up. I will give them credit for framing a large part of the early exposition as Talos and company scanning through Carol’s memories. “No, no, let me drive.”

giphy (2)

Wait…wut?

Nick Fury’s Eye – If I recall correctly, the Ultimates Nick Fury lost his eye in a duel with Wolverine, thus the three visible scars across his ruined eye. Since Marvel Studios didn’t have the rights to the X-Men when the character first appeared at the end of Iron Man, we were left with the mystery of how the world’s foremost super-spy lost an eye. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Fury tells Cap, “The last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye.” Now we know it was Goose, who paws at his eye for no apparent reason. This is the MCU equivalent of finding out that Han Solo’s last name comes from some guy at starport customs. It’s underwhelming, and Fury himself doesn’t seem too upset about it. Almost any other explanation would have been better than this one. Ugh.

Nick Fury’s Retcon – It’s established in the early MCU that Nick Fury worked with Howard Stark. He even tells Tony in Iron Man 2 that he knew Howard better than his own son. Unless a senior member of the SHIELD’s steering committee, (who died a few years before the events of Captain Marvel, at the hands of the Winter Solider) took a very rookie agent under this wing, this doesn’t bear out. It also seems to contradict some of the back and forth between Fury and Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce in Winter Soldier. I have to wonder if anyone at Marvel Studios acts as a sort of ‘line editor’ for the movies just to get these little bits of continuity right. Yeah, yeah, I know—it’s a fanboy nitpick, but consistency is the glue of any great continuity. It’s making sure that if the aliens attacked on a Tuesday in one place, they aren’t referenced as attacking on Saturday somewhere else. 

“I’m Just A Girl” – I’m all for ’90s music, which this movie has in spades. I’m also down for Gwen Stefani and No Doubt…just maybe not during a serious combat sequence. I get the message the song is sending, and it’s good one. Still, I like to imagine that when Captain Marvel steps foot on the battlefield that it’s like the rush of an oncoming storm. Something like Carmina Burana should start playing, or something rousing. Pinar Toprak delivered a wonderful score, one with remarkable depth and subtlety. Why not let her drive home the importance of this fight with an inspirational battle theme that’s uniquely Carol’s? Having the fight play out to “I’m Just A Girl” made it seem gimmicky and cheapened the moment.

captain-marvel-jude-law-character-1200x628

A bit anticlimactic. 

“I Don’t Need To Prove Anything To You” – A funny moment in the film to be sure, but one that seemed like a cop out. Earlier in the story we see Carol and Yon-Rogg sparing. I thought this would be the Chekhov’s Gun for later in the movie when they square off again. I wanted to see Carol defeat her previous mentor by outclassing him, and not just because she used her powers. Again. The most telling moments in Black Panther were when T’Challa didn’t have his powers, and still had to fight for Wakanda. I know why it played out this way, but I think it was a missed opportunity to show that Carol could be a badass even without her powers.

The Science Guy – Poor unnamed Skrull “Science Guy.” I’m not sure why he was left behind in the first place. Surely Carol didn’t think that he could stand up under Yon-Rogg’s professional scrutiny (smoking out Skrull infiltrators is kinda his job). Krill Vye the Science Guy seemed nice, if maybe a little bumbling and out of his scope. Too bad his allies left him to die like that. Tragic.

Captain-Marvel-and-Thanos (1)

Round 1…FIGHT!

Unresolved Questions:

There’s the usual stuff about why Fury didn’t use the pager during the Chitauri Invasion, which was led by a renegade Asgardian deity, or when a maniacal AI decided to build a vibranium mass driver. But I suppose we already have the answer to that in a real life sense.

Apart from that, it appears that Captain Marvel’s powers are derived from the Tesseract/Space Stone itself. Is it possible that Thanos might be able to take her powers away since he controls the blue stone? Or might it be the other way around and grant her some measure of immunity from that stone in particular?

As a fan, the real question I’m asking is: How will Captain Marvel interact with the surviving Avengers once she’s returned to Earth? What role will she play in the events ahead, and in whatever victory is to come out of all that. She will be joining a team that already has an existing dynamic and established leader, so how will that work out? I’m looking forward to finding out.

giphy (1)

See you in Endgame, Avenger.

Conclusions:

It’s strange that we are 11 years into the MCU and they are still producing “origin story” movies. And yet, they have it down to a science because I think Captain Marvel definitely works. The vibe inside the theatre was electric, and I could see wide smiles on the many young girls in the audience. For those little ones who wanted a sterling example of superheroism up on the screen, they definitely found it.

The best part was the energy in the lobby as I left the theatre. There were bunches of people all standing around discussing it, laughing, and recapping their favorite moments and quotes. Not even Infinity War had that kind of effect. (Maybe that was because we were all in shocked silence.) At any rate, the movie has its share of flaws and missteps, but so has practically every movie that Marvel has every released. Ultimately, I think that Captain Marvel is a welcome addition to the MCU, and a fantastic character to add to the existing dramatis personae.

Thanos should be worried.

And that’s the way this fanboy sees it.


Magic and Its Effects on Fantasy Society

Have you ever been reading your favorite high-fantasy sword & sorcery epic and thought something along the lines of: “Wait, these people have been living in a medieval state of technology for thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years? What gives? Why haven’t they advanced in all that time?”

You would think that the Elves with their long lifespans and high education might eventually build airplanes to get around. Why don’t Dwarves, with their knowledge of engineering and access to so much mineral wealth, at some point build tanks to ride into battle? Why must everyone continue on as though it were 12th century indefinitely?

Winterfell-825x510

You have 8,000 years of recorded history, do you?

Part of this is just the trappings of the genre. We expect Elves in fantasy stories to fight with bows instead of gauss rifles. And it’s much more dramatic to have Gandalf riding into Helm’s Deep astride Shadowfax than on Kaneda’s motorcycle. (And before anyone brings ups Warhammer, Shadowrun, or the like, we’re talking high fantasy here.)

But there’s another answer to this question, and one that sits in plain sight: Magic. Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Great as that quote is, I don’t entirely agree. It might appear on the surface that magic and technology are the same literary trope, just repackaged to fit their respective genres. Certainly they do fulfill a similar function. They both allow characters to do extraordinary things that we can’t do in our world, and both serve to create magical MacGuffins, whether it’s the One Ring or the Genesis device.

Final_Fantasy_Wizards

Still one of my favorites after all this time.

Both are methods of achieving some of the same things, but the two are not the same. Technology is derived through science and observation of nature, whereas magic (as it is defined by fantasy) is supernatural. It’s a fine distinction, but one that manifests itself on society in very different ways when you run the permutations. Here are a few examples and thought experiments for you. For our purposes, wizardly magic and divine/priestly magic are lumped together.

1.) Health and Well-Being

dragonshards-healing

“Close one this time, Olaf. Be more careful tomorrow, yeah?”

A medieval society with magic will fare better (in the short term) than a medieval society without it. Duh, right? But the presence of magic potentially has an immediate, positive effect on the population. Let’s say that you have a small group of practitioners of magic in your kingdom who can heal wounds and/or cure any disease. Your population will immediately have an advantage over its muggle counterpart. If the bubonic plague strikes your realm, you have an instant answer to it. Not only could your healers eventually eradicate the disease completely (depending on how often they can perform this miraculous feat), but they could presumably cure themselves if contact with the plague victims means they contract the disease themselves. An outbreak that might annihilate a real medieval kingdom might be downgraded to more of an inconvenience if those resources are brought to bear early enough.

If you can magically heal wounds, that means that a farmer accidentally cutting himself on an old plow, or a soldier cut by a rusty blade might make a full recovery, where they might die of tetanus otherwise. Infant mortality would likewise go down, along with the instances of mothers dying in childbirth. If you can lay on hands or just a drink a magic potion to mitigate, or even reverse, bodily ailments and harm, you have just leaped well beyond the scope of the grim realities of the real 12th century. In fact, with that alone, your ability to see to the health and well-being of your people is far beyond we have in real life today, or likely to have for many centuries to come.

Sign_small_apothecary

“Honey, I’m stopping by the apothecary on the way home. We need anything?”

Consequently, your kingdom’s military could expect to lose fewer people in armed conflict as those who might die of mortals wounds might be spared and in time make a full recovery. Soldiers might then be willing to take more risks in battle that only the most fanatical or stalwart would in real life.

All these factors would mean that your kingdom would potentially have a larger population than its historical equivalent, with fewer lost to disease and war, and your people would likely be more healthy on the whole. Even small amounts of magical healing opens that up for you. The more healers you have, and the more robust their ability to perform their magic, the greater these advantages are realized.

2.) Stunted Development

fantasy-room-magical-library-castle-sunlight

Even if it won’t lead to splitting the atom, I still want it.

You don’t learn as much when you can wave a magic wand to fix a problem. That’s the downside to magic. In most interpretations of magic in fiction, the practitioner may not know how to fix the problem without magic’s intercession. The caster may need to know a lot about the powers they are channeling, maybe the alignment of the planets or ley lines, but the answer to the problem is not always required to fix what’s wrong.

Let’s take our example above and look a little closer. If you can perform a ritual and Poof! an ailment goes away, you don’t necessarily need to develop the germ theory of disease, or realize that you need to wash your hands before treating a wound. You probably wouldn’t need to learn much about surgery, either, or anesthetic. If you can purify water with a wave of your hand, you don’t have to learn about proper filtration methods or bacterial water testing. And if you can cast a spell and take flight like a bird, or simply teleport to a destination, why would you go through all the trouble of designing and building an airplane?

ENV_WIZARDS-CHAMBER_V02B_130814_MAX_BERMAN

This one, too.

This is the trade-off with magic—you don’t necessarily have to learn about a problem or its root causes to solve it. In so doing, you greatly hinder your ability to increase your understanding of the world around you, as many of the stresses that force a society to advance are alleviated or eliminated altogether.

This stunted development is further fueled by the lack of people who can wield this problem-solving power. Rarely in fantasy are wizards or empowered priests as common as cobblers or farmers. No, wielders of magic are usually rare, and take years of study and devotion to achieve any mastery of power. Unless they imbue this power into objects, such as magic swords or invisibility rings that a layperson can use, the utility of this power will forever remain in the hands of a few, and rarely achieve any widespread usage. So, there might be an answer for many of society’s ills, but only as far as the wielders or rulers directing its power will allow.

3.) Warfare

249942

“Eat glowing crystal, foul beast!”

War adapts (eventually). Armed conflict is just as prevalent in fantasy worlds and stories as it was in the actual 12th century. When you add any level of magic to the mix, however, the people actually waging the war will have to change how they go about it.

Let’s say that magic on the battlefield is restricted to just magical weapons and armor. That still means that tactics would have to change if one side finds itself the have-nots in this situation. Perhaps surprise attacks become the norm to catch such magic-clad soldiers unaware, rendering their advantages null. Or perhaps feints and subterfuge have to be employed to trick empowered forces out of position, so that their magical advantage can’t be utilized at the point of conflict.

Now, let’s open it up a bit more and say that there are battlemages that can summon flame without flint or tinder. Tims, we’ll call them (for purely fanboy reasons). If a Tim can point a finger at a formation of pikemen or line of charging cavalry and reduce them to ash with a few spoken words, no one would assemble forces like that.

Timtheenchanter

“You know my name.”

Let’s remember just how incredibly expensive it is for a medieval lord to field an army. You need to equip them with weapons and armor, train them, and keep them fed and maintained, along with any number of horses and support animals. Even if individual knights are expected to pay their own way, whole campaigns have been abandoned because the leading lord’s coffers ran dry. And when you think of how much coin and effort it takes to bring a medieval army to the battlefield, no lord who isn’t crazy or desperate would be willing to put his troops in a nice, neat ‘fireball formation.’ A single Tim radically changes the calculus of war.

Even if both sides have a Tim of their own, that wizard had better watch his back. Almost certainly, there would be assassins sent after him on the eve of any conflict since his presence, or lack thereof, would prove decisive. Lords might choose to settle their differences with smaller scale engagements, or dueling champions, perhaps even a one-on-one bout between the Tims in question. The point being that once you start flinging spells in war, war itself changes.

Conclusions:

the-lord-of-the-rings-the-return-of-the-king

Breathtaking.

Let’s circle back to the question I raised at the beginning of this post. Why do fantasy societies eternally exist in the Middle Ages, or something similar? Why don’t we have Elven airplanes or Dwarven tanks? Besides the author just wishing it to remain that way, it’s my belief that magic is the chief reason. It accomplishes many of the same things as science and technology, and does so without industrialization, but the solutions it gives you are hollow and less accessible. Fantasy peasants will almost never enjoy the fruits of magic the way you and I can flip on a light switch, or turn on a heater.

And the advantages of magic are ultimately off-set by how it undermines learning and advancement. Society will rarely continue to look for an answer once it has found one. If a court wizard can reliably use magic to send messages to far off lands or holdings, there’s not much pressure to invent the telephone.

Ultimately, how different a fantasy society varies from its historical counterpart will depend on how magic is defined and how well all the interrelationships are maintained. The best fantasy stories and worlds are those that really seek to understand what it means to inject the power of magic into a Middle Ages-esque society, and reflect that in the story.

So that will just about wrap it up here, folks. If you have any thoughts on this topic, feel free to leave them in comments section. I may revisit this topic every once in a while, since even a long post can barely scratch the surface of the subject.

Thanks for reading!


I’m Thankful for Stan Lee

I’ve had to take a break this year. If you follow me on social media, you’ve probably noticed that I don’t post as often as I have in the past. Even on this blog, I’ve only posted once this year to cover Infinity War. Well, folks, we live now in a world without Stan Lee. I couldn’t, in good conscience, let that pass without comment.

o-stan-lee-marvel-comics-with-great-power-facebook

A True Believer. 

It’s taken a moment for me to organize my thoughts. Stan The Man left us almost a month ago at the time of this writing, and it wasn’t until Thanksgiving that I realized how I might frame my thank you, my tribute, and my thoughts on his life.

You see, at Thanksgiving I do actually try to acknowledge the things I’m thankful for, whether it’s my health, my family, or what have you. This year, I added Stan Lee. I’m wholly thankful for his works, his personal dynamism and legacy, and the influence he’s had on my life.

My Marvel Origin Story

My first exposure to superheroes was through cartoons. And while we’re mostly talking Marvel today, the consistent source of heroic adventures before I could read came in the form of the various incarnations of The Super Friends. The DC universe’s strength has always been in its monolithic heroes, the larger-than-life icons made flesh such as Wonder Woman or Superman. They are gods made manifest, they are ideals incarnate.

Yet, threaded throughout my cartoon-going experience were The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man, and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. The channels in my area didn’t show them with any regularity, which made them something of ‘found gems’ when did they come on. Here was the first time I heard Stan Lee’s voice as he narrated the episodes. That’s where classic Stan expressions such as “True Believer” and “Face Front” entered my vocabulary. It wasn’t every episode, but sometimes he signed off with his trademark, “This is Stan Lee saying ‘Excelsior!'”

stan lee cartoon

In contrast to DC, Stan gave us people with superhuman powers who felt more, well, human. They had problems we could relate to. They were flawed characters who could be full of self-doubt or anger. Something about my first blush with these characters told me, even as a kid, that I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg. It made me want to find out more.

My father also happened to be a Marvel guy, whose favorites included Spidey, Iron Man, and Thor. He actively encouraged me to read comics. Some of the first books I ever read on my own involved characters created by Stan Lee. Along the way I added The Uncanny X-Men, Daredevil  and Silver Surfer to the lineup of titles I would try to read. Being from rural Texas, however, there were only two main places I could get comics, and both of them were grocery stores. One put them on a magazine rack with all the titles facing forward, and the other was on a classic carousel rack. Neither store carried titles for very long, so I often just read what was available.

Thankfully for me, I had a cousin who collected comics. He wasn’t able to visit super often, but when he did he brought a bunch of his books with him. We would sit around for hours talking about heroes and villains, and often he was able to fill in the story gaps of those issues I had missed. He also introduced me to Marvel titles I had no access to, a short list being: The Defenders, Strikeforce Morituri, Secret Wars, The Infinity Gauntlet, Avengers, Damage Control, Alpha Flight, What The–?!, and one of my favorites of all time—What If.

il_570xN.1011775827_30qy

One of my favorite stories of all time. 

This was the first time I felt like I understood what a comic universe was all about, with hundreds or thousands of characters existing in a shared continuity. And in all of this, Stan Lee stood as the architect. Sure, he wasn’t alone in this; there were scores of other writers and iconic artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby who brought the characters to life, but even when Stan wasn’t the one who put pen to paper, you could still feel his presence resounding throughout every corner of the Marvel Universe. It was unlike anything I had experienced before, and I became invested in these characters and the setting. I still am, to this day.

The Generalissmo

Stan Lee is perhaps the most influential comic book writer in history. He helped to define not just a genre, but a medium. There aren’t a whole lot of writers who can claim to have steered an entire platform the way he did. Stan was a living icon. Those dark aviator glasses, the mustache, the grey at the temples, his catchphrases, and boundless positivity all made him instantly recognizable all over the world, and in virtually any format.

Goodbye Stan

And all the cameos. I’m sure that the next few Marvel movies will have the trademark Stan Lee cameo in them, and they will be all the more poignant now that he is no longer with us. We can be glad that we had such a dynamic persona at the forefront. I remember a time all too well when comics were really for kids, and usually only for boys. Thankfully now comics are open to everyone, and the more the merrier.  We can attribute that to Stan the Man—either directly or indirectly—in a hundred ways.

Beyond that, you can even feel his presence on the other side of the comic book fence, over in DC land. Less in the movies, but in the more personal TV shows on the CW, by far my favorite interpretation of that universe in recent years. In that telling, we have characters who must balance their superhero career with their personal lives, who suffer greatly for doing the right thing. Sound familiar? And yet, they always rise to the occasion, because they, too, live by the same creed that Stan Lee first gave us in Spider-Man. Say it with me now:

spiderman-quote-mini-poster.-pop-art.-with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility-4841-p

As true today as it ever was. 

So, not only was he the architect of the Marvel universe, but ‘those other guys,’ as he might put it, also feel his influence. Again, I don’t know of any other writer that has so influenced his medium. (If you can think of one, feel free to leave it in the comments.)

Founder of the Flame

I started writing this post before the Avengers: Endgame trailer came out. Now that’s it’s here, it got me to thinking. I had hoped that Stan would be with us when the sequel to Infinity War hit theatres. I do hope he got the inside scoop of what was going to happen, or saw some dailies, or something. He left us right when the heroes he brought to life were at their lowest point. They fought Thanos, and they lost.

Even though I think Endgame is going to be bittersweet, and we may lose one or more of our favorites by the end, it saddens me that Stan won’t get to see the Avengers stand triumphant at the culmination of 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since we know that Spider-Man and Black Panther are returning, we at least know that the surviving Avengers put things to rights in some regard.

main-qimg-315b23e893caa90f6eaf381155143ab1

Pretty much how I felt when I heard Stan was gone. 

I know that ‘superhero fatigue’ is something critics and pundits have been talking about for years now. Sure, superhero movies may eventually go out of fashion, become unprofitable, or slowly go the way of the Western, but for now I am as hyped for this movie as much as I have been for any other offering of the MCU, including the original Avengers film. That spark of excitement, that joy of seeing these characters brought to life, burns strong in my heart. It’s a bonfire, in fact.

Stan is the one who lit that torch. There are many who have been the keepers of that flame over the years, and many whose works have sustained it and fed it, but Stan Lee was the prime mover. I cannot overstate what an influence that fire has been on me, both in my own writing, as well as on me personally.

And the truth is, I am a better person because of his work, and the enduring legacy he leaves behind. I’m far from the only one. So, as one of his True Believers, let me simply say this: Thank you, Stan, and good-bye. It won’t be easy the next time I see the Marvel montage roll. But no matter how many of your characters I see on the screen, or in the pages of comics, you remain my hero.

gettyimages-469683940

‘Nuff said. 

And now this post ends the only way it really can…

excelsior


Fanboy Movie Review #12 — Avengers: Infinity War

[Note: I do not consider myself a movie critic. What follows is just one fanboy’s opinion based off of a single double triple viewing of the film. Oh, and there are SPOILERS ahead, so take heed.]

[No, really…I’m spoiling everything here. If you haven’t seen the movie, do not read this.]

Since November, I’ve had to take a break from this blog. I’ve had so many ideas, and even a few posts mostly fleshed out, but none that really gelled. I wanted to share my thoughts on The Last Jedi, Pacific Rim: Uprising and Black Panther. I’ll get to those in an abbreviated way soon, which is why we’ve skipped ahead to number twelve in our listing.

Avengers-Infinity-War-title-card-clean

This is going to end in tears, isn’t it? 

In any case, let’s talk about this magnificent supernova of heroism and sadness we call Avengers: Infinity War. Let’s do this.

First Impressions: This is the culmination of 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the most (arguably the most) ambitious movie continuities to date. It all started with the original Iron Man. And while some of the MCU’s offerings haven’t been as strong as others, all of them have been entertaining. Since it all connects here, you could characterize my initial stance on this film as: “By the great beard of Odin, and the dark glasses of Stan Lee, please don’t let this suck!” A surprise to no one, I loved this movie, even if it made some deep cuts that will not fully heal until this time next year, and maybe not even then.

Thanos

“Let her go, Grimace.”

What I LIKED:

  • THANOS! I was a little concerned that he would be yet another CGI villain. Nope, I understand where he’s coming from even if I don’t agree with him. In many ways, Infinity War is his story. He acts and behaves accordingly, he passes all of my rules of villainy, and walks perhaps a darker version of Campbell’s hero’s journey. Even the credits say that “Thanos will return in Avengers 4.” I think he stands up there with Loki, Killmonger, and Alexander Pierce as one of the best antagonists in the MCU. Also this is some of the best digitally rendered acting I’ve ever seen. Josh Brolin is brilliant in bringing the Mad Titan to life.
  • The Scope of the Story – There is a lot going on in this film. Thanos starts out with one Infinity Stone and gains the other five in one film. If that weren’t enough, the Avengers reassemble under Cap’s banner, Thor gets a new hammer (and eye), Bucky gets a new arm, Wanda and Vision get together, and then quite literally break up. I think under any other directors it would have been too much, but the Russo Brothers balance it all quite nicely with drama, humor, and some of the best action sequences we’ve seen thus far. So many of my favorite characters in place, teaming up, fighting together, or exchanging barbed quips with each other, is just glorious. Which leads me to my next point.
https_blogs-images.forbes.cominsertcoinfiles201804infinity-war-avengers

Whoah…

  • Not Everyone Gets Along – I like that Doctor Strange and Tony Stark don’t get along. They are both too alike, and used to being the smartest ‘go-to’ guy in the room. While they figure it out before their throw-down with Thanos, it was refreshing to see them grate on one another when their goals collide.
  • The Humor – I know I dinged Thor: Ragnarok a bit for this, but the gravitas of this story needed a little lightening up. Drax, Rocket, Bruce Banner, even Thor and Iron Man, and so many others. Even little moments like Rhodie punking Banner to bow before T’Challa. All nicely done. I never felt that the humor overpowered the moment, or undercut the drama.
_4780f2ea-28d9-11e8-933f-cd1ae5bb99b3

“Dude, you’re embarrassing me in front of the wizards.”

  • The Performances – The heroes faced some difficult choices. Seeing Star-Lord struggle to pull the trigger on Gamora, and her reactions. Same thing with Vision and Wanda in the final moments before the “Snapture.” (No, I cannot claim credit for that one.) The determination on Cap’s face as he struggles against Thanos’ might. The quiet defeat and anguish of Tony Stark in the aftermath of seeing Spider-Man crumble to dust in front of him. Loki’s final moments. I sometimes wonder if we realize how lucky we are to have this level of talent on the screen, portraying these characters.
  • The Soundtrack – Composed by the always great Alan Silvestri. I’m listening to it as I write this, and it’s breaking my heart all over again.
  • STORMBREAKER – Man, Thor gets quite an upgrade thanks to the timely appearance of a gigantic Peter Dinklage. I’m a big fan of Beta-Ray Bill in the comics, so it’s interesting to see his weapon become the Asgardian Kingsblade. And with an extra assist to Teenage Groot, who put down his Defender hand-held to really step up.
  • Wakanda – Even if we don’t get to see much of it, I’m glad we got to go back there so soon after Black Panther. Okoye, M’baku, and the ever-charming Shuri. Wakanda Forever! *crosses arms in an X*
Black Panther

YAAAAS!

  • The Black Order – They were all worthy opponents to our beloved heroes. And even though they were all CGI, there were moments where I truly felt they were real. Special props to the Ebony Maw for being such a powerful threat and for such wonderful physicality. “Rejoice, for even in death, you have all become children of Thanos.”
  • Return of the Red Skull – Last but not least, we find out where Johann Schmidt landed after being teleported away by the Tesseract. I don’t know if he’ll ever return, but I wonder if his experiences as guardian of the Soul Stone have changed his perceptions of the world.
Maw

“Rejoice, for even in the death you have become the Children of Thanos.”

What I DIDN’T Like:

[Just a note—this section is both the things that hurt a lot (but that I think were still great parts of the movie) as well as the things that I didn’t care for. So, it’s not all bad here.]

  • Thanos’ Plan – Halving the population of the universe instantly would wind up killing more than just half, and more technologically advanced cultures would be hurt worse. Almost certainly millions or billions more would die due to accidents, or just critical systems being left suddenly unattended. Consider that on Earth, the population in the year 1900 was approximately 1.6 billion. One-hundred and eighteen years later, we are at 7.3 billion. Even if we went down to 3.65 billion, we would be back up to our current levels or beyond in a (relatively) short while. So Thanos is going to commit an unimaginable atrocity to buy us, what, 50-100 years? The more you drill down into his plan, the less sense it makes. HOWEVER, he is the “Mad Titan”, and even if no one wants the Snapture to happen but him, Thanos absolutely believes it is the morally right thing to do. That much is clear.
Yeah, not a great plan.

“Yeah, not a great plan.”

  • Seeing the Heroes Lose – In Civil War, we saw Tony lose to Cap in that Siberian Hydra base. I thought that was difficult. Seeing the Avengers fight so valiantly only to fail to stop Thanos really stings. Steve settling to the ground and saying, “Oh God.” Yeah, he’s realizing that they just lost. Ouch.
  • Dusted – Bucky, Falcon, Black Panther, Groot, Scarlet Witch, Star-Lord, Drax, Mantis, Doctor Strange, Agent Hill, Director Fury…and Spider-Man. Wow, did that last one hurt, especially because he’s so young. And then that extra little twist of the knife in the credits, seeing “Avengers: Infinity War” fade away. Salt on the wound, guys.
  • Star-Lord Jumping The Gun – I realize that Thanos was destined to beat the heroes, but I hate it when heroes are self-defeating. Star-Lord sabotages the group on Titan at the worst possible moment. This, after he stopped Drax from a similar situation of letting a need for revenge cloud his judgment. I know that foolishly acting out of emotion is Star-Lord’s thing, but why not try to get the Gauntlet off first and THEN kick Thanos’ purple butt?
  • Heimdall’s Choice – Okay, thought experiment for you: You’re an Asgardian, you’re severely wounded, and you have just enough power to summon the Bifrost one last time. You can only save one person, and you know it shouldn’t be you. Should your final, heroic act be to save the life of your king, who has long been the champion of Agard, the God of Trickery, or a big green guy you’ve only recently met and barely know? There’s no logic to Heimdall saving the Hulk over Thor, save for functionally getting the Hulk to Earth early in the story. It seems more than a little inelegant and out of character.
image

Dude…srsly?

  • Non ‘Snap’ Deaths – So, Heimdall, Loki, and Gamora. I think the first two are gone, even if our heroes undo what Thanos did. I think Gamora will be back, though I suspect someone may have to take her place in the Soul Stone if that’s how she returns. Still, seeing these three deaths was harsh.
  • A Year’s Wait – Infinity War is the first two-parter in the MCU. The way it leaves off, with the heroes defeated, demoralized, and in disarray, it’s going to be a looooooong wait until May of next year. And that leads me to my last point.
  • Contract Negotiation Time – I hope that the Infinity Survivors are able to restore the universe to a pre-snap condition. But with Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, and Robert Downey Jr. potentially leaving the MCU after the next film, I don’t look forward to seeing Cap, Thor, or Iron Man go down permanently. Let’s hope we get the characters retiring without dying, like Thor refounding Asgard, Stark becoming a father, and Steve passing the mantle of Captain America on to someone else, though right now his two successors are dust in the wind, dude.
Tony

“I’m sorry, Earth is closed today.”

Unresolved Questions (At This Point):

The biggest question, for me, is how do the Avengers undo the Snapture? And if they are able to bring people back, do all of them who turned to dust come back, or only some? What would a Spider-Man movie look like without Peter Parker? Are we talking Miles Morales? Same thing with Black Panther (Shuri?), and the Guardians of the Galaxy, who lost everyone except Rocket and I guess Nebula.

If the heroes bring the dusted back, are they also able to bring back Gamora, Loki, or Heimdall? Did Loki really die? It certainly seemed legit this time around, but Loki is the God of Trickery, so perhaps we shouldn’t count him out entirely. Did Doctor Strange have a plan? He certainly seemed to do an about-face on his duty to protect the Time Stone, and with the only stipulation that Thanos spare Tony Stark. Does that make Tony the turning point in the next film?

And what is the friggin’ NAME of the next Avengers film, already?! The Russo Brothers have said the name of the next movie is a kind of spoiler in and of itself. What is the ultimate fate of Thanos? Of the Infinity Stones? Will Adam Warlock burst out of this golden chrysalis on Sovereign and swoop in at the end? What will a post-Avengers 4 MCU look like?

Tony-Stark

The Butcher’s Bill

Since we lost so many characters in one movie (sixteen on-screen deaths), and there is so much to take in, here are the final statuses of our heroes when the credits roll.

First, the fallen:

– Heimdall

– Loki

– Gamora

– Vision

– Bucky

– Falcon

– Groot

– Scarlet Witch

– Black Panther

– Mantis

– Drax

– Star-Lord

– Spider-Man

– Doctor Strange

– Agent Maria Hill

– Director Nick Fury

Who’s left to fight:

[We know these characters survive the Snapture.]

– Iron Man (On Titan)

– Nebula (Also on Titan)

– Captain America

– Thor

– Bruce Banner

– Okoye

– M’Baku

– Black Widow

– Warmachine

– Rocket

[The ones we don’t see dusted, who could still be alive.]

– Shuri

– Pepper Potts

– Wong

– Ned

[The ones we don’t see at all, who could be potential reinforcements in the next movie.]

– Captain Marvel

– Ant-Man

– Wasp

– Hawkeye

– Lady Sif

– Valkyrie

– Korg & Miek

– Stakar Ogord’s (Sylvester Stallone’s) Ravager Crew

– Adam Warlock

DYa_zr8U0AAfCCw

“I’ve lived by life by those sentiments. They’re worth dying for.”

Conclusions:

Holy crap! On so many levels—HOLY CRAP! I went in with mid-level expectations since I didn’t want to buy into the hype and be disappointed. As with many movies that I care about, I just didn’t want it to suck. Not only did Avengers 3 not suck, I was blown away by it. The scope of it, the action sequences, the humor, all the character moments, Alan Silvestri’s score, the pain and loss—wow. Even with the metacontextual knowledge that T’Challa and Peter Parker will almost certainly be back in time for their sequels, the ending hit hard.

Infinity War is a major jewel in the MCU’s crown, standing up there with Winter Soldier and the first Avengers, and it’s going to be a long, long wait until May of next year.

And that’s the way this fanboy sees it.


Fanboy Review #8— Thor: Ragnarok

[Note: I do not consider myself a movie critic. What follows is just one fanboy’s opinion based off of a single viewing of the film. Oh, and there are SPOILERS ahead, so take heed.]

Marvel’s latest addition to their cinematic universe released recently, taking the world by storm (sorry, couldn’t resist). While ranking 11th amongst  Marvel releases, it is nevertheless doing better than either of the previous Thor movies. It’s ranked at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing. Let’s dive in.

Thor-Ragnarok-title-card

Stop…Hammer Time!

First Impressions: I found the first two Thor films entertaining, but nowhere near Marvel’s strongest offerings. For my part, it’s sort of a toss-up between Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World for worst movie in the MCU.  While I think that Chris Hemsworth plays Thor with just the right mix of power and humor, he wasn’t given much to work with in the first two installments. Director Taika Waititi has a fresh take on the character, so I’m in.

giphy

What he said.

What I LIKED:

  • THE SCORE! – When I got home from seeing this movie, I immediately downloaded the score by Mark Mothersbaugh. It’s so unexpected to have this strange, resonant sort of ’80s synth vibe going on. It’s like if Flash Gordon had taken place a decade later, mixed with the background of Stranger Things. It really adds something both delightful and different to the action sequences.
  • Thor and Loki – I loved seeing these two characters together again. Both Hemsworth and Hiddleston have fantastic comedic timing. We got to see that a little before, but here it’s all over the place. They feel more like brothers here, especially the way they try to get back at one another. I maintain that I would gladly see a Loki-centric movie. He remains one of the best villains, and best characters, the MCU has produced. Which leads me to my next point…
thor-ragnarok-3

Perhaps my favorite scene in the movie.

  • HELA! – I’m used to Cate Blanchett in dramatic roles, which is why it’s a surprise she’s so funny as the Goddess of Death (yeah, not one I would have seen coming). To date, she is the most powerful villain we’ve seen on screen in the MCU. Without the Infinity Gauntlet, I doubt Thanos would stand a chance against her (more on that below). Wow, when she cuts loose on the Army of Asgard, it’s like Sauron and Neo in the levels of sheer badassery.
eqmzNWk

0_0″

  • Heimdall – Have I said lately much I love Edris Elba? His Heimdall makes me wish there was a whole other full-length movie of what he’s doing in the background. They say a few times that Asgard is a people, not a place. If that’s true, Heimdall is the true savior of Asgard. It looks like there are only a few hundred survivors in the aftermath, and Heimdall, fighting on his own, gathered them all to the Yggdrasil sanctuary AND kept Hela from getting his sword, so she was effectively bottled up in Asgard. LOVE. IT.
image

No comment necessary.

  • The Grandmaster – Jeff Goldblum perfectly fits in with the type of offbeat humor Thor: Ragnarok exudes. I’m always happy to see an appearance by one of the Elders of the Universe. It reminds me of reading Silver Surfer as a kid. And through him there’s a nod to the Contest of Champions, and a look at Gladiator and Beta Ray Bill as his former champions.
  • The Visuals – Much like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Doctor Strange, this movie is stunning to look at. The art direction, the set, and costume design are all fantastic. They give Thor a brand new look, new armor, short hair and (later) one eye, and it all sort of works. Waititi cites Jack Kirby as his inspiration for the look and feel of the film, and he NAILS it.
  • Hulk as a Big Toddler – We see far more of the Hulk in this movie than in anything previous. Before, it was mostly when there was fighting, but here we see him outside of combat. He’s like a big toddler with a limited vocabulary, and one prone to misunderstanding and tantrums. It’s a little odd to see the Hulk in some of his calmer moments, but that’s an insight into Banner’s Mr. Hyde we just haven’t seen before. Well done.
  • Korg & Company – Even though we never saw them in the arena, the colorful group of gladiators was pretty funny and cool. I particularly like Korg. He looks like he would have a deep, raspy voice, but actually speaks with a higher pitched, cockney accent. I think he had some of the best lines, even one that maybe should have been rethought (see below.)
8e9997ec45002a1c70d6db7d78fc9695

Wait, Hela is *Odin’s* daughter?

What I DIDN’T Like:

  • THE FRIGGIN’ WARRIORS THREE, MAN! – There is one thing I absolutely HATED about this movie, and it’s how Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun the Grim went out. I really like those characters, and they were supposed to be elite warriors of Asgard. Volstagg and Fandral were put down by Hela. Hogun got a few hits in, but then was instantly killed in a way that DOES NOT sit well with me. I understand establishing Hela as a dire threat (and mission accomplished there), but give them heroic deaths, yeah? They were shown the same kind of disregard, bordering on contempt, as Jimmy Olsen in Batman V. Superman. NOPE. I’m just glad Lady Sif was nowhere to be found.

The-Warriors-Three

  • The Quinjet – Perhaps there’s an explanation I’m not aware of, but this seems like a big continuity error that goes beyond simple retconning. Hulk is obviously on the Quinjet the Avengers used to defend Sokovia, as it still has Tony Stark’s clothes in it. Isn’t this the Quinjet that they found ditched in the Pacific Ocean, near Fiji? Now it’s on Sakaar? And what was an airplane even doing in space in the first place? Who’s in charge of keeping facts straight at Marvel?
  • Odin’s Departure – It seems rushed and weird. And could they not shoot on location for some reason? The shot of Thor, Loki, and Odin looking out at the ocean in Norway is some of the worst greenscreening I’ve seen in a while. Nothing about that looked real. Good thing Doctor Strange pointed them in the right direction, huh? A few more minutes of conversation and Odin would have slipped off without saying goodbye. But, I am at least glad that Anthony Hopkins got to reprise his role as Odin.
  • Doctor Strange – We got a bit of a bait-and-switch with the stinger scene in last year’s Doctor Strange, where he meets Thor. It’s quite a bit different when we see it here. While the post-credits version seemed like Strange wants to help Thor, it’s clear that here he’s really just trying to get Thor and Loki off of the Earth ASAP. Aside from pointing the two to Odin in Norway and sending them there, a character as cool as Cumberbatch’s Strange doesn’t contribute much to the story. I had hoped he would stick around to help them out with their first obstacle, trade a few barbed exchanges with Loki, and then remain behind when Thor and Loki returned to Asgard. Guess Strange isn’t going to be happy that they’re coming back (or trying to), huh?
doctor-strange-thor-ragnarok

Hang on…how many Asgardians are coming here?

  • Banner’s Choice – There are many missed opportunities in this movie. It’s clear that Banner might be committing a form of suicide if he turns into Hulk again. When he sees the Asgardian survivors besieged from both sides while trapped on the Bifrost bridge, there should have been a moment where we see Banner make the choice. Mark Ruffalo is such a good actor that all it would have required is about five seconds for him to sell the finality of this choice with his eyes. No dialogue required. The scene is kinda there, but had no weight to it. It was glossed over in favor of a humorous moment, which reminds me…
  • Humor Overstaying Its Welcome- Let me be clear: I thought the humor here was really good. And it was a different blend of humor than the Whedonesque style we normally get. But, I think it overstayed its welcome in places. It felt jarring when the movie was put on pause to deliver a joke. The most egregious of these is when Asgard explodes. It’s the punchline to a joke, and has zero dramatic weight to it. This was their home. This should have all the punch-to-the-feels of Kirk watching the Enterprise burn up in the Genesis planet’s atmosphere. There’s none of that here. Once again, a missed opportunity.
Screenshot_49

Remember when our eons-old home was destroyed right before our very eyes? Yeah that was HILARIOUS.

  • The Executioner – I like Karl Urban as an actor, and I thought he did a good job with what he had, but the character is super predictable. He joins Hela, but never does anything too irredeemable, then (big surprise) turns on Hela at the last minute, has his moment of glory, and then dies. What a waste of potential. Ugh.
  • The Hand Waving of Jane Foster – I get it; Natalie Portman doesn’t want to be in the MCU anymore. They’ve been making excuses for her continued absence since the first Avengers. Now they just write her out of the picture by a simple breakup? And this is common knowledge?
  • The First Stinger – I had to read an interview with Kevin Feige to know that the ship that showed up in the stinger was the Sanctuary II, Thanos’ new ship. Some context, please? That could have been anyone. If you want us to feel something about it, we need some sort of hint that it’s Thanos. Throw us a bone here, people.
Marvel-Phase-3-Thanos-Infinity-Gauntlet-Tease

Can’t. Wait.

Unresolved Questions (At This Point):

Is Hela really dead? She is the goddess of death, so I’m going to take a wild guess and say that she’s going to return. (Perhaps death is more of an inconvenience to her.) And will she be the incarnation of death that Thanos tries to woo when he gets the Infinity Gauntlet? Goth Cate Blanchett? Can’t say I blame him. Wow.

Will Mjolnir ever be reforged? If so, will that be the way they hand off the character to another actor or actress? They could go the route of the Odinson in the comics, which would allow the Hemsworth Thor to retire and rule Asgard in place of Odin. Might that open the door for Lady Thor or Beta Ray Bill to come in to fill that role as Midgard’s champion? Who shall be worthy?

What about Lady Sif? I know the real reason she’s not here is because of Jaimie Alexander’s RL scheduling conflicts, but since she (Lady Sif) wasn’t present for Ragnarok (and the culling of Thor’s companions), maybe she’s still out there somewhere, and can rejoin her people at a later time.

How does Thor get from the starship at the end of the movie to the meet-up with the Guardians of the Galaxy in Infinity War?  What does that mean for the handful of Asgardian survivors? Will Asgard be refounded on Earth, perhaps in Norway, or even Oklahoma, per the comics?

Loki almost certainly grabbed the Tesseract while in the vault, so does he (once again) betray his fellow Asgardians by giving it to Thanos? Or does that go down some other way?

Hela-with-team-in-Thor-Ragnarok-smaller

Boss fight.

Conclusions:

I liked this movie quite a bit. There are really great moments in it, and the comedy usually works, even if it’s at the expense of the drama at times. As I said before, I found the other two Thor movies entertaining, but not the best the MCU has produced. Thor needed a different take for the third installment, and I think this movie delivers on just that. It’s unfortunate that we may not see Chris Hemsworth in his own movie again, just as the Thor franchise seems to have found a combination that works. I do hope that Taika Waititi has the chance to helm another Marvel blockbuster, because I think he worked wonders with this one.

And that’s the way this fanboy sees it.


Tropes I Can Do Without: Incompetent Antagonists

So, I’m breaking my rule here just a bit. My goal for this year was to write about those thing I love more than the things I dislike. But today is Halloween, and this one in particular has been weighing on my mind of late. I’m going to talk about a sci-fi/fantasy trope that I would REALLY like to see go away: incompetent antagonists.

FreddyWise

Trick! This post has nothing to do with either of them! Both of them are pretty cool as is. 

See if this sounds familiar…a plucky band of heroes is just so darn good. And clever! The bad guys, by contrast, might have cool tech and uniforms, but they are largely idiots, or exceedingly arrogant (or both). Because the heroes have the ‘heart’ of 100 Rocky Balboas, they are able to snatch victory out of the lazy, slackened jaws of defeat. Hooray! Everyone goes home.

Based on this, I’m proud to introduce Carson’s First Law of Villainy: The level of satisfaction the audience experiences from the heroes’ victory is directly proportional to the competence of their opposition.

Or, in other words, the greater the threat, the greater the payoff.  If it seems nigh-impossible for the heroes to succeed, the more of a “YAAAS” moment you get when the they finally—somehow— pull it off. Villains are key to this. You can have a weak villain and still have a fun, engaging story (Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m looking at you in most cases), but the writer does his heroes a disservice if the opposition they face is weak or ineffectual.

Let’s look at some examples. Think of a bad guy or set of bad guys. This can be from books, movies, comic books, really anywhere. Why were they memorable? Why were they a threat to the protagonist, and what lengths did the hero or heroes have to go to defeat them? For me, one figure immediately springs to mind.

This guy.

Darth-Vader_6bda9114

Come to the Dark Side…we have cookies!

Darth Vader.

Not, Anakin Skywalker. No, the Dark Lord of the Sith as he was portrayed in Episodes 4, 5, and 6. He’s powerful, in control, and a dire threat to anyone who get in his way. Every time the heroes cross paths with him, they pay for it. Obi-Wan goes down, he cuts off Luke’s Hand, and Han gets encased in carbonite.

He’s always one step ahead, and going up against him directly seems like a suicide mission. So, when Luke does finally defeat him, it shows how far the character has come. The Luke who whined about going into Tosche Station to pick up power converters couldn’t have faced Vader and lived. It had to be the Luke who wore all black, who single-handedly stormed Jabba’s barge like a boss to do that. In essence, Luke had to grow into Vader’s looming threat. As I’ve said before, it’s the presence of the wolf, not its absence, that makes the deer fast.

star-wars-return-of-the-jedi

And the winner for Most Improved goes to…

Of course, Grand Moff Tarkin does refuse to evacuate the station out of sheer arrogance, but that’s the difference between the two characters. Tarkin was certainly competent in other ways, but ultimately fell prey to this classic movie trope: His belief in his own superiority sews the seeds of his downfall.  In the end, however, I think the original Star Wars trilogy does a good job of establishing the Empire as a legitimate danger to make its defeat feel like an accomplishment.  (Stormtroopers who can’t hit the broad side of a barn, notwithstanding.)

Let’s look at a really bad example. I must preface this by saying that I’m big fan of this author’s work, and have been so for 20 years or more. But lately, the bad guys are bad at what they do. Really bad. Let’s talk about Shadow of Freedom, by David Webber, a novel in one of the spin-offs of his Honor Harrington universe.

Shadow_of_Freedom_(cover)

Despite being front and center on the cover, Honor Harrington never appears directly. 

I posted my review on Goodreads, but here’s the part that pertains to this topic. The bad guys are some of the worst I’ve ever read. There are multiple sets of them, and they are all idiotic, arrogant, AND their tech is way inferior to the good guys. In short, they are cockroaches being run over by a semi. They can’t even really fight back. They either flee or they die, without presenting even the slightest bit of threat or challenge.

If it only happened once in the book, that would be one thing, but it happens over and over again. And this isn’t the only Honor Harrington book where this is the case, I’m sorry to say. I want to see the protagonists struggle to achieve their goal, to really fight for it, sacrifice for it. There’s none of that here, because the bad guys are disposable, stupid, and pose no real danger.

Commando-1985

Yeah, pretty much like that. 

That brings me to Carson’s Second Law of Villainy: The audience should, in some way, empathize with the antagonist enough to—almost—wish them to succeed in place of the protagonist.

This is stepping outside the speculative realms, but think about Hans Gruber from the original Die Hard movie, played by the incomparable Alan Rickman. He is a cold-blooded killer, a terrorist, and a worthy adversary of Bruce Willis’ John McClane. Even though we hope McClane is able to triumph over Gruber, the moment that Gruber’s team opens the vault is genuinely exciting. For an instant, you almost feel elated that they have accomplished their goal, even though they’ve done some horrible things to get there. You temporarily suspend your wish for McClane’s victory in favor of Gruber. It’s only for a moment, but it’s there.

slider-hans_gruber

The man himself. 

Even this can be traced to Gruber’s innate competence. He knows what he’s doing. He has it together. He has a thought-out master plan and the will and resolve to see it through. That he is very good at what he does contributes to the menace he represents to McClane. If Gruber and company were a bunch of bumbling idiots, McClane’s triumph wouldn’t have been nearly so resounding.

Another example of this is Gus Fring from Breaking Bad, in my opinion one of the greatest TV villains of all time, and Giancarlo Esposito’s masterwork. (Spoiler Alert) Even though Gus represents deadly peril to our protagonists, Walter and Jesse, it’s pretty satisfying to see him take down the Juarez Cartel. Again, we’ve seen this guy literally slit a guy’s throat in cold blood just to make a point, but in this moment we are glad that Gus has won the day. And he did this through superior planning, a deep knowledge of his targets and their foibles, and a driving determination to avenge his dead friend, Max. Again, competence.

Breaking Bad (Season 4)

Is today the day, Hector? 

It’s these instances of success where we can’t help but cheer, even though we know we shouldn’t. And it’s these moments that lead me to Carson’s Third Law of Villainy: Antagonists should believe and behave as though they are the protagonists in their own story.

Perhaps the most chilling thing about some of the worst people who have ever lived in real life is that they thought they were the good guys. They all thought they were the hero in their own story. A well-rounded antagonist should likewise believe this. They aren’t just there to be a convenient obstacle, to wait around to be defeated or killed, they have goals and dreams like anyone, albeit twisted by our standards. In their view, the hero is the actual villain of the piece.

One of the most unsettling examples of this is the movie Falling Down. I’ve heard it said that you can tell the protagonist of a story by looking for the one in the most pain. Not so with this movie. Even though the story revolves around William Foster (Michael Douglas), he is really the antagonist. We see that he’s in pain, and that he’s fed up with the world, but when Robert Duvall’s Sgt. Prendergast confronts him at the end of the movie, Foster says “I’m the bad guy? How’d that happen?”

MSDFADO EC034

His glasses aren’t the only thing that’s cracked. 

And, just to throw a curve ball into the mix, let’s talk about the Operative (Chiwetal Ejiofor) in Serenity. He certainly passes the competency test. He’s articulate and extremely dangerous, and also strangely empathic towards his victims.

He passes the first two laws of villainy with flying colors, but not the third. That is perhaps the only failing in an otherwise command performance. The Operative knows that he’s a monster, that what he’s doing is wrong, and yet he does it anyway. That’s the only part of this character that doesn’t ring true to me, especially when Shepherd Book says that men like the Operative  ‘believe hard’ and ‘never ask why.’ The Operative knows he’s a villain, which in my estimation, makes him less of one.

6a00d8345295c269e201bb0998189d970d-800wi

Perhaps there is nothing left to see. 

Well, there you have it, Carson’s Three Laws of Villainy, and how the use of them can prevent a milquetoast antagonist. Villains fuel the story’s conflict, and what is a good story without conflict?

So if you’re writer of any sort of fiction, do us a favor and make your villain as compelling as your hero. Make your protagonist rise to the challenge. And if you can, have your villain go out with a bit of style or panache.  (That’s more of a personal request, however.)

Truth is, we all deserve better bad guys in our stories. Villains aren’t good, but by the horned helmet of Loki, they should at least be good at it!

693e5f0bdd2942ed5c9b1d7923fb939f603663ad875b1940cb773d9560b00b9d

Burdened with glorious purpose, indeed.