Category Archives: Silly Me

Behind the Scenes: 5 Storytelling Factors to Keep in Mind

My recent quarantine with Covid has been a springboard to catch up on several streaming shows that are within my wheelhouse, including (but not limited to) Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ms. Marvel, and Stranger Things 4. That much media in so short a time made certain things stand out to me in sharp relief, so I thought I would share them here. What follows will contain spoilers for the aforementioned shows, so consider yourself warned. 

Also, I want to be clear that while I may be discussing some of the missteps of these shows, that doesn’t mean that I’m dunking on them, the actors, the crew, or anyone involved in the production. This is up to and including the writers. There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to productions of this size, a lot of compromises that have to be made for time and budget. My purpose here is not merely to point out some of the underlying flaws. No, I want the shows coming on the major streaming services to be better. Many of them are already watchable, but there’s always room for improvement.

As I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog, writing is cheap. Before the camera rolls or the digital artists jump in to work their magic, you have a script. Just words on a page. It surprises me sometimes what actually makes it through to the screen when a little bit of logic or a slightly different presentation could make a world of difference.

With that in mind, here are five ‘under the hood’ considerations writers should think about when constructing their narratives:

1.) Moving pieces around the board

Unless your entire story takes places in a single location, your characters have places to be. How long does it take them to get there? What challenges, if any, do they have to overcome to arrive at their destination? Even if all of this takes place off the screen or page, it’s worth thinking this through. This is especially important if there are other events occurring during this time that need to eventually synch up.

End of episode 5.

In science fiction, it might be as easy as hopping in a ship or stepping onto a transporter pad. Still, you should have an idea of how long the trip takes, as well as how events might have changed in the meantime.

For fantasy, where the fastest mode of travel available might be a sailing ship, you might consider how long the characters are at sea. That could affect the relationship they have with each other and give you space to further develop their interrelations.

Beginning of episode 6.

Example: At the end of episode 5 of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ex-Grand Inquisitor Reva is seen stabbed through the abdomen with a lightsaber, abandoned by her forces on a junk world, and left for dead. At the opening of episode 6, however, she’s on Tatooine, seemingly fully healed and back to normal.

We might give this a pass, assuming in our minds that several days have passed since her duel with Vader. If that were the case, there are still some things we don’t see and are never mentioned. How did she heal herself of what was (presumably) a mortal wound with no resources at the ready? Once she did that, where did she find a ship with the range to get her off planet? The time in hyperspace is shown later to take almost no time at all, so I’m not counting that.

However, the show undercuts this by continuing the transport chase with Obi-Wan, Leia, and the rest of the Path in space. Unless the transport has some serious shields, it shouldn’t be able to withstand the onslaught of an Imperial Star Destroyer for very long. So, this tells us that not much time at all has passed since Reva’s stabbing.

2.) What options are available to solve a problem? Why do they choose that one?

In just about any situation, the characters may have several options to deal with a given obstacle or problem. They could try to use brute force, employ misdirection, kitbash some solution on the spot MacGyver style, or any number of a million possibilities.

Wait, you’re going to do what?

So, why do they go with the option that plays out in the narrative? This can be particularly tricky when you’re dealing with people who have military training, those who are trained to shrewdly assess a situation and come up with a solution that produces a specific end result.

This is not to say that all decisions your characters make will be done with calm, rational precision.  Decisions are often made out of emotion, instinct, or conditioning. While the audience may not think to question why a character undertakes a certain course of action, these decisions are something that deserves the writer’s attention. The larger, more important the decision, the more the writer should weigh whether it makes sense in the context of what they’ve established.

Looks like the ship could hold a fair few people.

Example: Let’s head back to Obi-Wan Kenobi, episode 6. He’s on a ship with a busted hyperdrive and likely doesn’t have the time to make repairs before the ship is destroyed (although that point gets a bit muddled along the way). He does, however, have access to a pretty decent-sized shuttle that does have a functional hyperdrive. The shuttle looked big enough to hold a large percentage of the Path, at least enough to significantly reduce the number of people in harm’s way.

Instead of employing the shuttle to evacuate the kids and a good chunk of the people, Obi-Wan takes it to use as a diversion. It would have made more sense in that situation if Obi-Wan’s shuttle did not have a hyperdrive on it at all, so Obi-Wan takes Vader’s Lambda-class shuttle after their duel, which we know from Return of the Jedi has a hyperdrive.

3.) Why do they need to act right now? What is their time scale?

Have you ever been frustrated that a character spends no time developing a skill and is suddenly an expert with no explanation, not even the tried-and-true ’80s montage? Or, has a love story not quite worked because the characters have barely had time to know each other? Chances are that the scale of time wasn’t enough to make the payoff feel earned or plausible.

Beginning of episode 3.

The same goes for a villain who needs to act right now for some reason. What is the time scale they are working off of? Perhaps there’s some convergence of events or a limited window of opportunity that won’t come again anytime soon, or ever. Why doesn’t the villain just walk away, learn from their mistakes, and try again in five years?

Time is a factor in the travel that I mentioned above, but this aspect is less about the amount of time that passes for the characters and more what they do, or don’t do, with it.

End of episode 3.

Example: In episode 3 of Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan meets her Jinn extended family, the Clandestines. Their initial meeting is cordial and welcoming, and goes a long way towards explaining part of Kamala’s mysterious background. At that point, I thought the stage was set for Kamala to be buddies with them initially, then slowly start to realize that the Clandestines’ goals maybe weren’t as noble as they seemed at first.

Later in the same episode, however, Najma decides that Kamala has to help her achieve her goal of opening the portal to her home plane that night, during Kamala’s brother’s wedding. Besides the abrupt tonal shift of ‘you’re one of us’ to ‘we’ll kill you and your entire family if you don’t comply,’ there is zero explanation of why Najma couldn’t wait until the next day. Or next week, or next month.

All the Jinn appear to be long-lived, and they had been waiting around since at least Partition in 1947. So, what’s with the sudden urgency? Clearly, they could wait because Najma and her group are all arrested at the end of episode and don’t catch up to Kamala again until they’re all in Pakistan, presumably several days to a week later.   

4.) What knowledge do the characters have to act on? How do they know that?

Let’s say your characters are faced with a difficult decision. They don’t have time to debate it in committee. They need decisive action, and they need it now. What do they do? Perhaps more importantly, what do they know to do? What is the situation as they understand it in that moment? That will entirely shape the decision that they make.

Metal. Much respect.

This is especially important if you have several groups working in concert towards a larger goal, and something changes suddenly. There has to be some believable way for the characters at the point of contact to understand the broader scope of what is going on. With literary devices like telepathy, you can easily have one character reach out to another one, such as Luke contacting Leia as he hung from the bottom of Cloud City. But, Leia wouldn’t have known to do that otherwise.

Bottom line, unless there’s magic in your story, and it’s able to inform all parties involved, the characters shouldn’t magically know the right thing to do; they need to have some way of arriving at the correct decision that makes sense.

’86, baby. I think that will be his year.

Example: In Stranger Things 4, we get perhaps my favorite scene in the entire series: Eddie Munson on top of his trailer in the Upside-Down shredding out Metallica’s Master of Puppets. The scene is made even better with the knowledge that the actor playing Eddie, Joseph Quinn, was actually playing the guitar in that scene. Ultimately, Eddie sacrifices his life to keep the demobats distracted, to buy his friends more time. It is a great character moment, as well as a heartbreaking death scene between Eddie and Dustin.

There’s just one issue: Eddie had no knowledge of what was going on with Steve, Robin, and Nancy in the Creel House (who were all busy being strung up by tentacles at the time). Eddie is absolutely correct in his assessment that his friends need more time, but how did he arrive at that conclusion? Why would he have thought they needed more time? There’s nothing in that moment to tell him to stall for time, certainly at the cost of his own life. For a group that makes a point of showing that they have walkie-talkies to keep in contact, they don’t use them.

5.) What are the consequences of their actions?

This is a biggie for me, mainly because negative consequences so rarely seem to come back to haunt main characters. Obviously, you want to grant your characters as much agency as you can, so they need to make meaningful decisions. The result of these decisions should be a big part of the story you’re telling, and there should be repercussions. Without them, it can start to feel like nothing the characters do really matters.  

Target: Acquired.

Consequences don’t always have to be negative, however. Most of the time your characters are standing in triumph at the end of the story because of their actions. In fact, I have a special place in my heart for stories that show us how the heroes’ actions tangibly improve the lives of the people around them.

Besides a sense of stakes and tension, knowing the consequences of the characters’ actions is a great way to map out what happens in future stories or later in the one you’re writing. So, you’re not doing yourself a favor by ignoring them. Your story will feel more real and engaging if your characters don’t always get off the hook. Even if they’ve done the right thing, sometimes no good deed goes unpunished. 

Consequences BE GONE.

Example: In Stranger Things 4, Eleven loses it on her school rival, Angela. Eleven viciously attacks her bully with one of her roller-skates. This results in Angela being hurt badly and bleeding. Two police officers show up at her house the next day to take her into custody, pending assault charges.

When Dr. Owens, played by Paul Reiser, recruits Eleven in the diner, she asks about the incident. Owens hand-waves that and says that he will make that all go away. He certainly does. It’s never mentioned again. Unless it’s referenced in Season 5, which I seriously doubt, it’s a complete non-issue to the story.

Okay, that’s five. I don’t often write about writing itself, but I thought this was worth exploring. Do you have any narrative tropes, non-sequiturs, or leaps of logic that stick out like a sore thumb to you when you’re reading or watching movies and/or TV? If so, share them below in the comments.

Thanks for reading!


Fanboy Movie Review #15 — Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

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

Folks, this is a hard entry for me to write. I’m normally pretty glowing in my reviews of Marvel projects, and maybe a little more forgiving of their flaws, simply because the interconnected nature of the MCU is quite literally a dream come true.  

So, it’s going to be tough love today, unfortunately. It’s been a while since I’ve felt the MCU had a true misfire. Opinions vary on that score, of course, but even when the MCU is not at its best (Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, I’m looking in your direction), the movies have been watchable. I would have to rank this movie down in the lower tiers. Strap in, folks, here we go:   

First Impressions:

I like Doctor Strange, not just the movie from 2016, but the concept of the character and his role in the Marvel Universe. I thought he was fantastic in Infinity War and Endgame. The way he was used in No Way Home didn’t thrill me, but he’s a character that’s powerful enough that he can overwhelm a story if you’re not careful. I think there was a better way to handle his interactions with Spider-Man, but that was a minor issue in a movie I really loved.

I had heard that this movie experienced significant rewrites and reshoots, which started to make my spider-sense tingle, especially since the initial director backed out. But, I can’t blame the guy; Jon Watts directed all three of the MCU Spider-Man movies. He deserves a chance to step away.

Since the torch passed  to Sam Raimi, I wasn’t too concerned, as I really love him as a director. The Army of Darkness is one of those movies that I can quote from beginning to end, pretty much right up there with Big Trouble in Little China, The Princess Bride, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The first two Spider-Man movies with Tobey Maguire were also incredibly good. I, for one, was glad to see Raimi return to Marvel. At first…

Yeaaaaah!

What I liked:

All the Sam Raimi-isms — Like I said, I really enjoy Sam Raimi’s visual style. The monster cams, the extreme reaction shots, the (ahem) break-neck pace. By the end, some of the choices were starting to grate a little, but there is no denying that he directed this film. His stamp, for good or for ill, is indelibly marked all over the movie.  

Wanda believes she’s the protagonist — If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I really love literary villains. In one of my posts, I talk about how villains should always behave as though they are the central hero of their own story. Most villains don’t, and shouldn’t, think they are a villain, and behave accordingly. Thanos in Infinity War is a good example. Even though Wanda does some truly horrific deeds, she still doesn’t think she’s a monster. For most of the movie, anyway. More on that in a minute.   

High production values — This is a major Marvel release, and that means incredible visuals, great sound editing, and overall a polished product, at least from a technical perspective. In that way, it definitely delivers.

The acting — One of Marvel’s  strengths has been the casting and talent of the performers. I think every on-screen actor that appears here turns in a great performance, even if the material they are handed doesn’t give them much to work with. I think we’re lucky to have Benedict Wong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, and of course Elizabeth friggin’ Olsen. The amount of talent they have is astounding.

The Illuminati reveal — I did love this part of the movie, even if it didn’t really go anywhere in the end. We finally get to see Captain Carter in live action, along with Mr. Fantastic, and PROFESSOR X. Wow wow wow. Even though Inhumans wasn’t a good show, I like Anson Mount as an actor. I would love to see Black Bolt return in some capacity…though obviously not this version of him.  

Zombie Doctor Strange — This is peak Sam Raimi, right here. An undead Doctor Strange who forges a cloak out of damned souls….OH YEAH! (*said in the Yello voice from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off*) Extra points that Doctor Strange starts sorta talking like a pirate, which seems to be a thing when you’re either undead or a deadite. Love it.

Wow…

Wanda’s realization that she’s actually the antagonist — Wanda has a Falling Down moment at the climax of the film. She has somehow been able to justify everything she’s done up to that point. Seeing the children she hoped to mother completely terrified of her, to see them rally around the Wanda from that universe, it’s a cold splash of water to the face, allowing Wanda to come back to the forefront from being the Scarlet Witch. She realizes that she is the villain of the piece. Some top-shelf acting from Elizabeth Olsen (on both sides of that scene) really goes a long way.

Boy, that’s and understatement.

What I DIDN’T Like:

Where’s Kang in all this? Or Vision? — I thought that the breaking of the timeline in Loki would be a catalyst for this movie, but there is zero mention of him or any of his other incarnations. You might make a case that there’s a difference between alternate timelines and alternate universes, but I suspected that Kang would be the next Big Bad, to use a Buffy term. Worse though, is that Vision is mentioned once, but Wanda never attempts to seek out White Vision or even find a universe where the original vision is still alive. He’s treated, effectively, as though he doesn’t exist. Considering the end of Wandavision, that’s a really odd choice.

No? Nothing? Okay…

Is this the same Wanda from Wandavision? — Speaking of that show, the version of Wanda we see here doesn’t seem to be the same one from the end of Wandavision. I thought the whole interlude had taught her that she needed to learn to refine the use of her powers to avoid hurting more people. I also thought she had made her peace with the illusory nature of her boys and Vision. But here, she is hyperfixated on getting the boys back, even though they weren’t real in the first place. This leads me to my next point.

What is the deal with her kids? — It’s the same two boys from Wandavision, but in the Hex, they were supposed to be the kids she had with Vision. That was all an illusion. Since Vision is an android, we can make a pretty decent guess that he can’t actually father children with her. (I’m fairly certain that wasn’t a concern when Ultron built the body.) But in the multiverse, however, Wanda apparently does have these kids. So, are they magical conjurations as well? Or did she have them the usual way? If the latter, who’s the father? It’s such a central point to Wanda’s character, but there is no real explanation of who, or what, these kids actually are.

The dark side of the Bruce Campbell cameo — I love me some Bruce Campbell, but this…this gets darker the more you think about it. So, a pizza-ball street vendor asks for payment for something a punk kid steals, and in the altercation is about to spray mustard into some arrogant Doctor Strange cosplayer’s face. Mustard. Even if he had succeeded, it would have done zero harm. In return, Strange puts a curse on him to do physical harm to himself for several weeks. Besides just the physical trauma, it seems like it would be pretty hard to eat, drink, or sleep as your limbs act on their own accord. While we see him in the end stinger, in reality that man would be dead. The whole thing is played for laughs, and is completely unnecessary.

If chins could kill.

So, how long does it take to drain America’s powers? — There are a number of internal inconsistencies in this movie. I don’t want to go into all of them, but one of the biggest ones was this: At the beginning of the movie, Soon-To-Be-Zombie Strange has trapped a demon, one that’s about to escape in the next few seconds. He makes the choice to take America’s universe-hopping power for himself. He’s holding the demon with one hand, and draining her power with the other. The implication is that Strange believes he can take the power in the moments before the demon gets loose again.

At the climax of the movie, Strange and Wong trap Wanda in a spell sphere. She’s also about to break free, so Wong prompts Strange to take the power. Again, the idea is that Strange can do this before Wanda busts out and kills all of them. And yet, Wanda captures America and has her in her temple for potentially hours while Strange and Christine walk through the ruined universe to find Third-Eye Strange, fight him, set up the spell using the Darkhold, then get Zombie Strange to the temple, fight off the spirits of the damned, and then finally get over there to disrupt Wanda’s ritual.

Wanda can’t take the power from Strange? — The frustrating part about America being a living McGuffin (amongst the things), is that Strange taking her power is likely for nothing. It’s never mentioned anywhere in the movie, but if Wanda can drain the power from America, who’s to say that she couldn’t do exactly the same thing to Strange himself? Even if he crossed that threshold, and killed America for her power, Wanda could almost certainly turn around and take it from him on the spot. She soloed against Kamar-Taj, and barely broke a sweat against dozens of the most powerful wizards in the world. As much as I would like to give Strange the benefit of the doubt, the silver bullet they keep bringing up might not actually help them.

“…”

The lack of material for America Chavez — I think that Xochitl Gomez does a good job with a character that has almost no backstory, and no real character development. America is treated like a walking, talking McGuffin that’s occasionally snarky. What a waste of potential. I really hoped this would be a grand entrance for both the actress and the character into the MCU, but the character comes off as the bratty, streetwise trope that we’ve seen any number of times in other things. Also, she’s been to 73 universes and never heard of Spider-Man? What the—?

The Fall of Kamar-Taj — I understand the need to show that Wanda is now an Omega-level threat. I thought they established that quite well, but where it fell apart from me was when Wong orders “Fortify Your Minds!” I mean, Wanda’s powers were always about affecting people’s minds, of getting in their heads. If you have a way to ‘fortify your mind’ as a wizard, shouldn’t you have already done that? In game terms, maybe it’s best to cast mind blank before combat if that’s an option. Also, one guy running away is enough to open a hole in the shield? Ugh.

Wong is a pushover — Wong is the Sorcerer Supreme. He, more than anyone else, has an idea of what damage Wanda can do with the Darkhold. One of his wizards even sacrifices herself in a pretty brutal way to make sure Wanda is deprived of the Book of Vile Darkness. When captured, he tells Wanda that she can torture him all she wants, but he won’t tell her anything more. She threatens some of the other wizards, and he folds like a card table. There’s no attempt to resist, or any thought of Wanda trying to get into his head, perhaps even trying to convince him that its Strange asking for the book instead of her. For a character that we’ve seen that’s so great about being a moral compass for Strange, and a solid, reliable presence, this has plot contrivance written all over it. It doesn’t do the character justice.

They done did you wrong, Wong.

A multiverse of…three? — There’s a quick cutscene of Strange and America crashing through universal barriers, but other than that, we don’t get to see much of the multiverse. There’s our universe (kind of a given), the 838 universe with the Illuminati, and the destroyed universe where Third-Eye strange resides. I guess for a movie with ‘multiverse’ in the title, I was expecting more variety than just three.

The execution of Strange-838 — I understand that the conflict with Thanos played out differently in Universe-838, and that Strange was responsible for the destruction of a whole universe. While it was a sad scene to see Black Bolt simply say “I’m sorry” and kill his friend, it rankles me a bit that the Illuminati didn’t attempt to reform their friend, find a way to help him, or simply imprison him. They just execute him, and that’s that. I can’t speak for all the members of the Illuminati, but are you telling me that Captain Carter and Professor X in particular would have just been okay with that? No attempt at a redemption, just death? Superheroes should not be in the execution business.

And then they lied about it.

Fall of the Illuminati — Hoo boy. First, maybe don’t tell the bad guy the exact nature of Black Bolt’s powers. Second, for the world’s smartest man, what was he doing? Stretching his arm out to do…what? Punch her? Pat her on the shoulder? While Mr. Fantastic is busily getting spaghettified, and then promptly popped like a balloon, his (remaining) companions do nothing. And if Wanda can do that, why would she bother engaging Captain Carter in hand-to-hand combat at all? Why not a quick balloon-popping for everyone? Then, she drops a statue on Captain Marvel with the implication (the hand-falling gesture) that the hero is dead. Yeah, the Carol Danvers Captain Marvel flew through a concentrated barrage from Thanos’ ship without any hindrance whatsoever. A statue falling on her would be less than nothing.

Like I said, the Illuminati thread just sort of ends without accomplishing anything but slowing Wanda down temporarily, and really not even that. Xavier makes the most progress, in a scene that reminded me of him trying to lock away the Dark Phoenix in Jean Grey, but that fails, once again, with no tangible return or lasting results. I would have almost preferred that we scrub this section completely and get to spend more time with Wanda, Strange, and America. Those three characters could have used it.

 

Action economy, people. It’s a thing.

Doddering around the Book of Vishanti — I could tell immediately when we got to this part of the movie, from the musical cues, to the camera angles, that the Book of Vishanti would be a non-starter. And so it was. Instead of sprinting towards the book, knowing that one of the most powerful beings in existence is hot on their heels, intent on their destruction, they screw around, wasting what precious seconds they had. In game terms, you’ve got maybe three rounds before the boss gets there. You’ve got one round to get to the book, one round to find the spell you need, and one round to cast it. Sure enough, no sooner has Strange got the book in hand, it’s destroyed without being useful at all.

Since it’s clear that the Darkhold is the polar opposite of the Book of Vishanti, and the Darkhold exists throughout the multiverse, doesn’t it also stand to reason that the Book of Vishanti might also exist in other universes? That possibility is never explored, or even given a line mention. Once the good book is destroyed, it’s never mentioned again. That’s a lot of screen time invested in a McGuffin for it to have zero effect on the outcome.

Slow, dramatic walking as the world is about to end — The movie has a real issue with building up events as important, perhaps even all-important, and then promptly deflating them by having the characters react to them in a ho-hum fashion. The Book of Vishanti was one, but the interlude with Third-Eye Strange really takes the cake. Strange and Christine walk nonchalantly through the ruined universe (he has a repaired cape that allows him to fly at this point), find the Sanctum, and then slowly walk up the staircase. May I remind you that during this interlude, Wanda has America in her clutches, and no one is around to stop her. There is zero sense of urgency in any of this. I could just hear Sgt. Avery Johnson from Halo yelling, “Let’s move like we’ve got a purpose, Marines!”

Get. It. In. GEAR.

Doctor Strange checks out — Strange is not responsible for resolving the conflict in his own movie. In fact, as cool as Zombie Doctor Strange is, he doesn’t contribute much to the crux of the action. He hands that completely off to America with a just “go kick her ass” pep talk. America attempts to fight Wanda for three seconds before realizing she can’t win, then on her own decides to give Wanda what she wants. It’s a great twist, leading to one of the best moments of realization in the movie, but the whole thing is resolved without Strange really doing much. Again, what a weird way to go.

There’s no redemption for Wanda — I know a fair few Wanda Maximoff fans, and this was a hard one for them to watch. Wanda makes an incredible villain here. That chase scene through the tunnels really makes her seem like a cross between Carrie and the Terminator, but once she realizes what’s she’s become, she just ends it.

For the sake of the aforementioned fans, I hope that isn’t actually the end for Wanda. Otherwise, that is a great character that’s just tossed into the bin. If Marvel has a redemption arc for Wanda in mind, you certainly couldn’t tell if from this movie. She just drops a mountain on herself as the story just seems eager to be done with her rather than see her try to undo the harm that she’s done. Also, just like Captain Marvel, unless she intentionally willed herself to be vulnerable, dropping the temple on herself wouldn’t have killed her. It’s a frustrating way to handle her exit.

Unresolved Questions:

Too many to count. I’ve addressed a number of them in the entries above, but this movie really does leave me with so many more questions than answers, and not just about the story. How much studio interference was there? What concessions were made? What did the original story arc look like? What was left on the cutting room floor that might have made more sense than what we got in the end? I guess we’ll never know.

Conclusions:

It’s definitely exciting and visually appealing…but, too much of it is on the surface or winds up being a confused mess. There’s too much of “Wow, that was cool. Don’t think too hard about it.” That phrase might as well be the motto of the entire movie. Unfortunately, a second viewing only made the cracks stand out in even sharper relief.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an odd puzzle piece for the MCU. It doesn’t really fit with what was established in the movies and shows that led up to it, and it doesn’t seem to further the somewhat meandering Phase IV continuity moving forward. Heck, it doesn’t even seem to jive with itself half the time. I expected that this movie would leverage what Loki had set up with Kang, even if it was only a line mention. It didn’t, and that seems like a big missed opportunity.

Overall, I’m not sure if the MCU is served by this movie’s presence. Unless future installments refer back to the events here, such as a return of Wanda, I don’t think this one is required viewing. If you’re not a Sam Raimi fan, or if you have an aversion to horror in your superhero movie, it’s definitely a hard pass. Even if you are a fan of those things, it still might be worth skipping. I wish that weren’t the case, but here we are.

And that’s the way this fanboy sees it.


An Open Letter to the Cast of Avengers: Endgame from a Humble (and Grateful) Fanboy

Dear Cast of Avengers: Endgame

This next Tuesday, April 26th, marks three years since the release of the final installment of the Infinity Saga. At the time, I wasn’t sure if anything could truly cap off 11 years of the MCU, including 22 movies and one helluva setup with Infinity War. I should’ve known all of you would knock it out of the park.

Of course, the odds of any of the actual cast reading this are admittedly pretty slim, but writing this is cathartic for me after the emotional roller-coaster that is Avengers: Endgame that still lives rent-free in my head now in 2022.   

Ohhhhh Yeaaaaah! (*said in the Kool-Aid Man voice*)

First, the general stuff:

This goes out to not only the cast but the crew as well. It took a literal army of people to bring this movie to life. No matter what your role was on this film, on or off the screen, it’s clear that your passion for the work came shining through in a way that’s seldom seen. I’m sure there were a myriad of frustrations and obstacles that we, as the viewing audience, will never understand or even know existed. But you persevered, laboring to create something truly beautiful.

And what you have created is nothing less than a love letter to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As both a comics fanboy and movie enthusiast, I am humbled by the feature you collectively delivered. Truly. Humbled. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. You have no idea what your work means to me.

There are a few folks in particular I would like to address. Obviously, I can’t cover everyone involved in a production this size (this may lead me to write a Part 2 to this eventually), so let me simply say that every actor who made an on-screen appearance played their part to perfection. Every single one. The MCU has always had pretty inspired casting, and I can safely say that the acting here is phenomenal across the board. I love you all.

Okay, now the specifics:

Jon Favreau – Where would we be if you hadn’t directed the original Iron Man? For me and many of my friends, it’s been our collective dream to see an interconnected universe where these heroes could team up and interact with each other. You set that in motion, and I’m really happy (note the use of the word) that you have maintained a recurring character. I always look forward to seeing him, and wow-oh-wow did your scene with young Morgan strike home, post-funeral scene.  While it’s not strictly on topic, I have really enjoyed The Mandalorian and other Star Wars projects that you and Dave Filoni have created. I look forward to many more.

Alan Silvestri – I’ve been listening to your Endgame score while writing this letter. It’s so evocative. There’s pain, and despair, but there’s a slender thread of hope that runs through it. One of the hardest things about watching this movie was seeing all these characters I love in such pain, and you underscore it beautifully. Let me add that I’ve been a fan of your scores since Back to the Future. Your work regularly appears on my writing playlists. Your ability to inspire, or to break my heart, through music is astonishing. When your Avengers theme comes on, I feel like I can fly.

The Russo Brothers – You did the impossible. You brought a million disparate threads together, weaving them into a tapestry worthy of Odin’s great hall. Your contributions to the MCU in the past have been top-tier. Winter Soldier and Civil War are visual poetry. And now with Infinity War/Endgame, you have created the crown jewel of the Infinity Saga. You should be proud.

Tom Holland – I know that you weren’t in this film very much, but every moment with Spidey is absolute gold. You really twisted the knife in Infinity War with your “I don’t feel so good, Mr. Stark” line. I’m still not sure I’ve recovered from it. And then, the look on your face when the tables were turned at the end here — wow. Peter’s vulnerability is something that really shines through every time you’re in the role. Also, as I said in my No Way Home review, that was pretty much everything I could have ever asked for as a life-long Spider-Man fan.

YAAAAAAASSS!

Jeremy Renner – The first scene of this movie really allows you to shine. As a parent, it really struck home. The confusion, which quickly turns to fear, it was all there on your face. This was a Clint that was hard to watch because he was just so dead inside, and we as the audience were witness to the moment it happened. I think you are a fine actor, and I think that this is some of the best work I’ve ever seen from you. I was also very pleased by the Hawkeye Disney+ series. I hope that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Clint Barton.

Scarlett Johansson – What a legend. Thank you for being an integral part of the MCU since Iron Man 2. I know that death in the comics, and often in the movies, can be more of an inconvenience that anything else. That wasn’t the case with Nat’s death. It felt pretty permanent, and thus more real. I gotta say, Endgame had me crying about six different times, and I when saw Nat fall, I was bawling. No more red in her ledger. She made the hard call. It was incredibly harsh to watch, but what a way to go out.

Paul Rudd – I have to tell you that Scott’s reunion with Cassie was incredibly moving, and one of many places where the screen was suddenly blurry for, ahem, no well-explained reason. There are so many emotions playing across your face in that moment. I love that Ant-Man is the key to the Avengers’ eventual victory, and that you had so many great moments. You, sir, are a national treasure. I look forward to seeing you return in Quantummania.  

Mark Ruffalo – You took one of the most challenging characters to portray in maybe of all of Marvel, and you make it look effortless. I can’t even imagine the level of motion capture rigs and general weirdness it must take to turn in a Hulk performance. I loved seeing Professor Hulk in this, where Bruce had found a kind of balance with the dual sides of his nature. While Tony may have defeated Thanos in the end, it was the Hulk that undid the Blip. Half of the universe returned to life because of his direct actions. As accolades go, that one doesn’t suck.

Chris Hemsworth – Of all the Avengers, Thor is the one who internalized the failure to stop Thanos the most, taking him down a self-destructive path. I know that a lot of it gets played for laughs, thanks in part to your incredible comic timing, but those moments when we see Thor reflect on his role in events is moving. He’s always the hero who is exactly where he needs to be when it matters most, so for him to fail by a matter of seconds was gut wrenching. I noticed in the recent Thor: Love and Thunder teaser that Thor is trying to find his place in the universe after all of that. I am here for it.

5 Years Later

Chris Evans – Oh Captain, My Captain! I remember seeing Cap standing alone on the field facing Thanos, hurt, dirty, with a broken shield in hand. I knew that this would be the last movie where you played Steve Rogers, and I was painfully aware of how that confrontation played out in the Infinity Gauntlet comics. I remember sitting in the theatre thinking, “Oh god, this is where we lose him.” Even when it all seemed hopeless, when the Avengers were scattered, we see that Steve is ready to fight to the last.

But then…

Then we get perhaps my favorite moment in any MCU, set to this piece of music. There used to be these promotional posters that just said “Marvel Universe” on them. They were entirely covered with overlapping superhero art. There was one of those hanging up at the local comic shop (local being a relative term) when I was a kid. I used to stare in awe at it. Every single hero on that poster had a story, an origin, dreams, challenges, victories, and defeats.

Yeah, this one. I’m still in awe of it.

Seeing Cap lead the Avengers into battle one last time took me back to that poster, a reminder of my earliest interest in Marvel comics. Of course, finally hearing you say “Avengers, assemble!” was the cherry on top. Thank you for a great run as Captain America.

Robert Downey, Jr. – Here’s the thing about Iron Man for me: My love for the character is second generation. I got it from my Dad, who read Iron Man comics as a kid in the late ’60s. He encouraged me to read the comics, and love of the character is something we’ve bonded over. His birthday is in May. Since Marvel tends to kick their summer off around that time, practically every year I’ve had a movie to take him to around his birthday. In 2008, we saw the first Iron Man together in a little theatre in East Texas. When we saw Endgame together, it was in the same theatre. We ended our journey with Tony Stark in the same place it began. Just thought I’d share that.

You are a once-in-a-generation casting for this role. Others might have been able to do him justice, but you took the very real pain from your personal life and used it to bring Tony to life in a way that felt right, felt true. I am thankful for every second of every appearance of your Tony Stark. From the bottom of my fanboy heart, thank you.

Part of the journey is the end.

Truth is, I’m super selfish. If you had played him 100 times, I would want to see 101. I know that there comes a time for all things to end. And as heroic ends go, Tony’s is pretty hard to beat; he not only defeated Thanos, but saved the life of every living being in the universe. Every character we see from now on in an MCU film owes Tony a debt of gratitude. We’ve already seen the shadow that his absence casts, particularly over Peter Parker. I am curious to see how his legacy unfolds moving forward, especially as we get into shows like Armor Wars and Ironheart.

I’m sure that you’ve heard this a million times by now, but I sincerely mean it:

I love you 3000.

And really, that goes for everyone associated with this movie.

You are all my heroes.

Thanks for all your time and consideration.

Si vales, valeo.

– Matt Carson


Fred vs. Hannibal: Strange Headcanon #1

[Full disclosure: I wrote the bulk of this blog post a while back as a fun, tongue-in-cheek sort of writing prompt. As it deals with some themes of war, and we find ourselves watching in collective horror at what’s going on in Ukraine, I’m putting a mild trigger warning on this one.] 

So…

The pandemic has seen me return to a number of my favorite shows. Needing a little levity and excitement, I decided to pick up all five seasons of The A-Team. I have fond memories of seeing it as a kid, and let’s face it…you just can’t be unhappy when that iconic theme song is playing. It is simply the way of things.

*cue that theme song*

Well, in one of the earlier episodes, Face, Murdock, B.A., and Hannibal are on a mission in South America. As it’s pretty warm there, we see George Peppard wear a bandana around his neck like an ascot as he merrily smokes cigars and fights the assorted baddies in that week’s episode. At that moment, I was struck by how much Hannibal looked like an older, extremely badass version of Fred Jones from Scooby-Doo.

He love it when a plan comes together.

And that got me to thinking: What if the two men were actually the same person?

What follows is the resulting story as my mind started making connections between the two.

_______________________________________________

The child that would come to be known as Fredrick Jones, Jr. was born in the autumn of 1932 in Crystal Cove, California. The son of the mayor, he never knew his mother who (supposedly) left when he was very young. A curious and intelligent child, Fred had a natural knack for mechanics, gimmickry, and gadgetry, particularly in the area of building traps. He was also fascinated by the True Crime comics of his day, leading him to take an interest in investigation and deductive reasoning. This would lead him to meet and befriend Norville “Shaggy” Rogers and his Great Dane, Scooby-Doo, the incredible genius Velma Dinkley, and the woman who would become the love of his life, Daphne Blake. 

Fred and Daphne in early 1950.

As he grew to be a teenager, he excelled at sports and athletics, turning into a handsome young man who was socially popular. Even with all the attention, he only had eyes for Daphne. The four of them would solve many mysteries and strange occurrences before founding Mystery Inc. officially. Upon earning his driver’s license in 1949, his father rewarded him with a bright teal Volkswagon minibus, one of the first ever sold in the United States. Shaggy would paint green flourishes over it sides, while Daphne and Velma added orange daisies. Together, they dubbed the van the “Mystery Machine.” The vehicle would come to symbolize their unique bond, and it would become their home for the next two years as they toured the country, investigating hundreds of supernatural phenomena and mysterious happenings.

The Mystery Machine.

In every instance where they meddled, they found it was someone merely attempting to frighten people with clever light shows, special effects and — most notably — personal disguises. While the majority of the disguises turned out to be rubber masks that could be easily pulled off, a fair few of them used makeup, wigs, and spirit gum in ingenious ways to give their appearance realistic and convincing details. Little by little, Fred learned from their disguise techniques, stowing them away to one day become a master of disguise himself.

During this time on the road, Velma kept a detailed journal of their adventures. Years later, a copy of this journal would wind up in the hands of executives at Hanna-Barbera, who would translate the colorful adventures contained within into an animated series named for Norville’s mystery-solving dog.

In early 1952, Mystery Inc. went their separate ways. Velma went to MIT on a full-ride scholarship for math and science. Daphne went to study architecture in places across Italy and France. Norville and his dog became nomads, continuing to seek out adventure and oversized hero sandwiches wherever the winds of fate might carry them. With a tear in his eye, Fred handed Norville the keys to the Mystery Machine to aid them in their travels, and said good-bye.

One of the last photos of them all together. (March, 1952.)

The breaking of their band was hard on Fred, but the loss of Daphne made the familiar sights of Crystal Cove too painful to bear. Wanting to get away from it all, he secretly created a false identity for himself and enlisted in the Army. Knowing that his father would not approve, Fred signed his papers with the most non-descript name he could think of, one that would be virtually impossible to track: John Smith. He would likewise wear gloves at almost all times to keep from being tracked by his fingerprints.

His exceptional physical abilities, combined with his innate leadership skills and cleverness, made him a natural choice for the Green Berets. Once in training, he drilled on a host of skills, including operating small arms, parachuting out of a plane, and outflanking and out-thinking an enemy in virtually any environment. In short order, he deployed to Korea in the final year of the war. The unorthodox methods he employed while in the field won him the nickname “Hannibal,” a nom de guerre he would carry for the rest of his life.

“John Smith” reports for duty. (September,1952.)

After leaving Korea, he was tapped for Officer Candidacy School (OCS), where he underwent his transformation from an enlisted soldier to an officer. Over the next few years, the Army would invest heavily in Hannibal’s education, heaping upon him extra training and learning opportunities. He excelled at every turn. He was among the first American ‘advisors’ to reach Vietnam in the late ’50s. While the fighting did not quite reach the fevered pitch that it would a decade later, Hannibal wearied of fighting.

By 1962, Hannibal’s term in the Army was almost up. He toyed with the idea of leaving the fighting behind and settling down. While on leave in the United States, he looked up Daphne, hoping to rekindle their old flame. He proposed on the spot. Unfortunately for Hannibal, she was already considering an engagement to Jack Harmon, a successful businessman. While Daphne still harbored feelings for Hannibal, she ultimately chose Jack over her old Mystery Inc. friend and lover. Hannibal was still an adventurer, still destined to travel the world, where as Daphne had dreams of starting a family.

Though brokenhearted, Hannibal knew that Jack was a good and decent man who would take care of Daphne. Hannibal and Jack parted ways as reluctant friends. With nothing left for him in the United States, Hannibal re-enlisted in the Army and once again shipped out to Vietnam. In 1965, Jack and Daphne welcomed a baby boy into their family, Fred “Kid” Harmon. Hannibal would visit them often when he returned to the States, where his namesake would recognize him as “Uncle John.”

“Kid” Harmon. (November, 1985.)

In Vietnam, Hannibal would continue to make a name for himself. While he remained fit and operational, his blonde hair slowly turned into a silvery gray, but his signature blue eyes remained bright, however. While never a hard drinker, the years of war and conflict did see him pick up the habit of smoking cigars, particularly Cuban panetelas.

Hannibal on leave in 1971.

Always one to surround himself with talented people, he came to build a new core team in the jungles of Vietnam, somewhat modeled after his experience with Mystery Inc. Shortly before the Tet Offensive kicked off in 1968, he recruited and befriended four other Green Berets: the handsome, fast-talking swindler, Templeton “Faceman” Peck, the half-crazed Huey pilot with an invisible dog, Captain H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock, and the tough-as-nails Sergeant Bosco Albert Baracus (or simply “B.A.”), who would prove to be the most capable fighter Hannibal would ever encounter.

While Hannibal hadn’t planned it that way, the four of them mirrored the structure of Mystery Inc. Hannibal was once again the leader, with Face as the resident convincer and influencer, and Murdock as an analogue to Norville’s zany antics. Oddly enough, B.A. was the genius of the group like Velma had been all those years before. Instead of a scientific genius, however, Mr. Bad Attitude himself was an absolute wizard when it came to vehicles and mechanics. The four of them together had a knack for kit-bashing what they needed for the mission out of the materials at hand, including elaborate traps, which Hannibal excelled at building. 

The four of them would come to form a crack commando unit tasked with the most difficult missions the Vietnamese theatre could throw at them. They were known as Alpha Team during their early exploits, a name which would later be shortened to the A-Team. They would become the most famous soldiers in Vietnam, though H.M. Murdock’s role as the team’s resident pilot would remain ambiguous, at least as far as the Army was aware.  

The A-Team attending a funeral in full uniform.

At various times, they would cross paths and run missions with the likes of fellow Green Beret, Michael Arthur Long, the ingenious bomb specialist, Angus “Bud” MacGyver, noted college athlete, James Crockett, and decorated Navy SEAL, Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV. There was even a friendly rivalry that developed between fellow helicopter pilots Murdock and Stringfellow “Stray Dog” Hawke.

In 1972, their commanding officer, Colonel Morrison, ordered them on a super secret mission to rob the Bank of Hanoi in an attempt to end the war. While they were successful in completing the mission, they returned to their base to find it utterly destroyed and Colonel Morrison killed. Without any evidence that they were ordered to rob the bank, it appeared to the Army that the A-Team had gone rogue. Upon reporting in to clear their names, they were arrested.

From Col. Decker’s casefile. Photographer unknown. This mission would alter the trajectory of their lives.

These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground, where they survived as soldiers of fortune. Glad to be back in his native California, Hannibal found that he had traded the steaming jungle terrain of Vietnam for the concrete jungle of modern-day LA. For the next 10 years, the four of them used their skills to fight for those in need, sometimes for pay, sometimes out of the necessity of the cause.

Still wanted by the government, and pursued by the tenacious Colonel Lynch, and others like him, Hannibal mounted a successful mission back to Vietnam in late 1982 to recover the gold taken on that fateful mission. Once in hand, they divvied up the money. H.M Murdock gave most of his away to various animal charities and checked himself into a military psychiatric ward to avoid suspicion. Face spent his reward on the finer things in life, but his pockets were soon emptied. Hannibal anonymously invested his earnings into his adopted nephew’s fledgling racing career.

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them…

Yet, the part that made Hannibal’s heart soar was when B.A. spent his reward on a black and gray 1983 GMC Vandura with red turbine wheels, a spoiler, and slanting racing stripes down the sides. B.A. had supercharged the engine, reinforced the frame with bulletproof panels, and installed secret compartments, including weapon storage and even a full photographic and printing suite.

B.A. had prepared for them a mobile command center, a home away from home, a vehicle that would be emblematic of their loyalty to one another. Once again, the man from Crystal Cove, who had worn many names in his lifetime, and helped countless people, slipped into the seat of a van with his closest friends to seek out adventure in the great unknown.

Photo from shortly before their nationally televised court-martial.
(August, 1986.)

_______________________________________________

There you have it, folks. If you write fan fiction of either property, feel free to take this information and do with it what you will.

This was an interesting thought experiment for me that I really enjoyed writing. Would you like me to do others in a Strange Headcanon series? Would you like to continue the timeline of this particular thread? If so, leave me a like or a comment to let me know.

Take care, and thanks for reading!


Alive and Kicking

[No, not the Simple Minds song of the same name, but you’re welcome to listen to it as you read ahead. Go ahead, here’s the link.]

Howdy, folks! Wow, the last year has been quite a roller-coaster ride. I wanted to take a moment to let you know what’s going on with me and a little of my plans for where Sector M goes next.

It’s nice to add captions again.

So, I had to take most of the last year off of a lot of my side projects (like this blog) to be able to concentrate on my own health, the health of my family, and to settle into a new job unlike any I have had before. Definitely not an easy task when that’s all happening during a pandemic. The year 2020 definitely took its toll, and most of 2021 has followed suit. But, I am happy to report that all of my crew are present and healthy at the time of this writing.

My new job, while great in many respects, has taken up a lot of the mental bandwidth that I was using to run table-top RPGs, write blogs, create board games, and a dozen other projects I had going on in the background. It’s starting to even out, however. Slowly the lights in my mind are starting to come back on.

This *might* be a clue. Maybe. Possibly.

So, what have you been up to all this time?

While many of my side projects came to a halt, I am happy to report that I have made some modest progress on my books, which I’m happy to share here:

1.) I am actively querying the first volume in my military sci-fi/space opera series. For those who have gone through this, querying is not a process for the faint of spirit or weak of heart. Any positive energy, thoughts, or karma you’d like to send my way will be graciously accepted. 

 2.) I’m in the process of editing my 5th novel (fantasy). It’s going a lot slower than I would like, but I am making some progress. While many authors dread editing and revising, I find it refreshing. Filing down the rough edges and putting in the time to make the book better than it was sets my little fanboy heart  all aglow.

3.) I finished the first draft of my 6th novel (also fantasy) in July. First drafts are always a flaming dumpster fire, and this one feels a bit more flaming dumpster fire-y than most. Still, it was an experiment that succeeded far better than I thought it could. It might be a while before I get to walk in that world again, but I’m eager to return to the setting and the characters in the future. I’m already missing it.

4.) I started my 7th novel on Halloween of this year. Also an experiment, this is the first time I’ve written something so complex in the cyberpunk genre.  It’s certainly one of the more ambitious projects I’ve tried to take on. While many of my books have potential sequels and mark the first of a series, this one is meant to be a one-and-done. We’ll see if that holds up as I get more into it and get to know the cast of characters.

A little Optimus. You know, just ‘cuz.

What’s the future of Sector M?

I am working on the next State of the Sector address, which I intend to publish the first week of January. Here’s a little of what we’re going to cover:

New Blog Schedule: I am hoping to get back to releasing blog posts on a regular basis. Right now I’m aiming for at least once a month, possibly more. I was recently able to visit a few museums that deserve their own posts. Plus, I’ll be writing about a bunch of other geeky/author-y stuff to boot.

Merch Store Updates:  I plan to migrate my existing merch store over to a new platform. I hope to have some new designs ready to coincide with the launch. [Update: the new store is now live here.]

Patreon Revamp:  This will involve a ramps-down reconstruction of the Sector M Patreon with new tiers, exclusive content and swag, hangouts, and a bunch of other goodies.

That’s just for starters. I have some other initiatives in mind for 2022, but like anything it all comes down to time, availability, and money to get them off the ground. Thankfully, I have some fantastic people backing me up on these.

The gears have been turning slowly during this pandemic, but they have been turning. It is my hope that this new year will be conducive to getting back up to speed. If you’re reading this, I want to thank you for your support and interest in what I do. It means the universe to me. Several universes, in fact. 🙂

So, again in the words of Simple Minds, don’t you forget about me. Until next time, I’ll see you around the Sector!

Si vales, valeo.

-MC


On Defeating Chaos

Before the pandemic struck, we added an NES Classic to the household. This pint-sized replica of the original NES is pre-loaded with 30 vintage games. While I still have my original NES in a closet, along with many of the games I had back in the day, it was great to have them all right there in a single menu with absolutely no need to blow on the cartridge to get it to work.

You know what I’m talking about.

NES Classic

Who thought *that* length of controller cord was a good idea?

There are some games on there, like Balloon Fight and Kirby’s Adventure, that I never got to play when I was a kid simply because we never bought a copy. One of the games in it was one I did have as a kid, but lost along the way: Final Fantasy.

My first impressions of video game RPGs were shaped by Final Fantasy and the original Dragon Warrior. While I finished Dragon Warrior within a few months of its release (that green dragon in the tunnel still haunts me), I never got the chance to see Final Fantasy through to the end. At least, not with my own characters. I was present when a friend beat the game at his house.

And so their journey begins…

Incoming explanation, Captain…

My parents divorced when I was 11. Less than two years later, my mother had remarried, and her new husband was…not the most stable of sorts. When she split with him, it was spectacular. A lot of my stuff disappeared into the ethers, including all the games I wasn’t able to retrieve before everything went down. I lost a pretty cool compound bow in the deal, too.

At that point, I had tried (and failed) numerous times to finish the game and defeat the final boss, Chaos. My characters weren’t quite high enough level to get it done, however. I also didn’t know the importance of Ribbons in granting massive elemental protection.

For those reading this who may not know about the game, here’s a brief summation: You put together a party of four adventurers. These “Light Warriors” are tasked with defeating the Four Fiends, which correspond to the four classic elements. Here’s the rogues gallery:

Lich

Lich, the Fiend of Earth

Kary

Kary, the Fiend of Fire

Release the...

Kraken, the Fiend of Water

Takesis

Tiamat, the Fiend of Air

Each time you defeat one of the Fiends, you bring light back to one of the four elemental orbs. Once all four orbs are relit, you travel back 2,000 years into the past and have to face the Four Fiends again (where they are much stronger). After you fight your way through the past-incarnations of these four bosses, only then can you square off against Chaos.

In my previous attempts, I got to Chaos. This resulted in a TPK (total party kill). I was in the process of leveling up my characters to try again when the split happened, and I lost the game cartridge, and with it all my characters and progress. That was that.

Since the character names were limited to just four letters, I remember them well. Allow me to introduce you:

Sir Galahad the Pure

WOLF, the Fighter

Sir Lancelot the Brave

SAKI, the Thief

Sir Robin, the not-quite-as-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot

STAR, the White Mage

Sir Not-appearing-in-this-film

ORB, the Black Mage

With the NES Classic up and running, the party was remade and once again on their way. It’s remarkable how much I remembered about my original playthrough. A few of the details were worn with time, but for the most part, I was right back at it. This time, however, my young son was right there with me. He was intrigued by the idea of elemental bosses. Soon he began brainstorming stories of his own where both the villains and heroes had elemental powers.

When I defeated one of the Four Fiends, I found that I had my own adorable cheering section that would jump up and down, yelling “We did it! We did it!” His enthusiasm and curiosity about the game world turned what was a fun trip down nostalgia lane into something greater: a memory we made together. Folks, it did my gamer heart good.

Now you're playing with power!

Remember this guy? I sure do.

He stayed with me through all the tedium that happens in a game like this. Final Fantasy notoriously lacked healing magic and restorative items. The only thing you can do to augment your White Mage’s healing is to buy heal potions.

Unfortunately, there’s just one such healing item the game, and there’s no way to buy more than one at a time. So, you’re left with spamming the ‘A’ button at a potion shop until you hit your capacity at 99.

At last, we had defeated each of the Four Fiends both in the present and then in the past. Only a few screens later, we faced Chaos himself, who is actually the first boss you fight in the game, Garland, caught in a time-loop. Chaos fills up the entire enemy portion of the combat screen.

Chaos himself

BOSS FIGHT!

Though it was a tough battle, our Light Warriors prevailed on the first attempt. This time I had access to online playthroughs and game guides to help me choose the best weapons, armor and spells to equip my characters. (I had no idea back in the day that some spells and protections simply didn’t work because of bugs that had never been addressed.) Also, our characters were beyond 30th level, where I think I had barely hit 23rd back in the day.

But most importantly, my son and I were in this together. He was right there with me the whole time, offering suggestions and strategies. I built my defenses, made sure everyone stayed healed up, and made liberal use of FAST to supercharge my fighters.

When Chaos finally went down, the screen rumbled as he slowly disappeared. Then we got the epilogue talking about how the time-loop has been broken. No one but the Light Warriors can remember anything about the whole affair since the Four Fiends were never able to assert their power in the present. Garland is somehow back and never turns to evil.

The important thing is this: Chaos is gone, and the land is at peace.

And, you know, that got me to thinking. There are many who question the validity of fantasy as a genre, some even in my own family. They don’t see how fictional narratives add anything substantive to our lives since they aren’t ‘real.’

I heartily disagree. Big surprise, right? This quote by Neil Gaiman sums up my thoughts on the subject quite nicely:

Neil's quote

Yeah, what he said.

Well, folks, there’s an awful lot of chaos in the world today. It seems more than we can bear at times. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed, saddened, or hollow as events unfold around you. Believe me when I say that I’m right there with you. But even through adversity, we can prevail.

So, keep your loved ones by your side, and always remember: No matter what, chaos can be defeated.

May the ORBS always shine.

_____________________________________________________

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My latest book, STRANGE REPORTS FROM SECTOR M, is available on Amazon in both hard copy and e-book format.


On Catharsis and the Ghost of Tsushima

One act of kindness can make all the difference.

This year has been one of loss and uncertainty for many of us. In the last eight months I have lost three people close to me, all pillars of my world. One of them was my grandfather. As you might imagine, I was devastated.

At the time that he passed, I threw my grief into the proverbial drawer and slammed it shut. Not the healthiest approach, I’ll admit, but one I felt was necessary at the time. In the weeks following his funeral, I became withdrawn and depressed. I found myself stuck in a cycle of what-ifs and what-might-have-beens.

Then, out of the blue, a friend of mine reached out to me. “Have you played Ghost of Tsushima yet?”

ghost-of-tsushima-desktop-wallpaper011

I had seen the trailers. It looked like a dream game, but it was a PlayStation 4 exclusive. I didn’t own that game system. I had to put Ghost of Tsushima on the list with Horizon Zero Dawn, Marvel’s Spider-Man, God of War and a bunch of other fantastic games that were out of reach.

When I told my friend that I didn’t have a PS4, he replied. “I’ll hook you up.” I thanked him, thinking that he was going to send me a copy of the game for when I finally did get the system. A few days later, a brand-new PS4 showed up on my doorstep along with a copy of Ghost of Tsushima and Marvel’s Spider-Man. I was floored by his generosity.

dvd_yo

Toshiro Mifune set the bar pretty high for on-screen samurai.

My friend knew that I have a life-long interest in Japanese culture and samurai history, that I had been involved in martial arts at an early age (both my parents were teachers), and that I have a particular fondness for Akira Kurosawa films.

That is how the Ghost of Tsushima came into my life. One act of kindness.

[What follows contains major spoilers for Ghost of Tsushima, so turn back if you don’t want to know major plot points and/or how it ends.]

Everything about this game hit the mark for me, right from the start. The story, the cinematic cut scenes, the haunting soundtrack, the combat system, and most especially the breathtaking visuals — all spot on. This is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played.

Landscape

In it, you step into the role of Lord Jin Sakai, a Kamakura-era samurai fighting against the Mongol invasion of the island of Tsushima in 1274. In the opening moments of the game, Jin and his beloved uncle, Lord Shimura, make a desperate charge to prevent the Mongols from taking Komoda beach. It’s hopeless, but they fight on against all odds. One by one the samurai around them fall, until only Jin and Lord Shimura are left standing. The Mongol leader, Khotun Khan, takes Lord Shimura captive and believes he’s killed Jin in single combat. (That’s a gross oversimplification, of course, but I don’t want to give everything away.)

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Lord Jin Sakai.

Saving Lord Shimura thus becomes your first major goal in the game. To achieve this, Jin has to employ tactics and methods that his uncle believes are not honorable, such as stealth and assassination. This marks Jin’s transformation into ‘The Ghost,’ a figure that strikes terror into the hearts of the invaders.

The relationship between these two characters is at the heart of this story. When Jin’s father is killed, Lord Shimura raises his young nephew as his own son. We get to see how their relationship grows over time. One of the combat tutorials is cleverly presented as a flashback to Lord Shimura’s lessons with the sword. These scenes show us what they mean to each other, even up to the very end. Lord Shimura represents the pure samurai ideal. He is a monolithic presence in Jin’s life. To go a little D&D here, he is the shining paladin that Jin aspires to be.

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Lord Shimura.

Some of the best digital acting I’ve ever seen is between Jin and Lord Shimura. You can see the gleam of pride in the older man’s eyes. One of the most touching moments in the game is when Lord Shimura tells Jin that he has petitioned the Shogun to make Jin his legally adopted son and heir. He will cease to be Jin Sakai and instead become Jin Shimura, the eventual jito (territorial steward) and leader of Tsushima.

Unfortunately, it’s never quite that simple in a story like this one. Jin’s role as the Ghost eventually brings the two of them into direct conflict. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch these two fall out. They both love and respect each other, but the course of events has put them at odds. Lord Shimura believes that Jin has lost his way; Jin believes that Lord Shimura’s inflexible code cannot answer the realities they face.

The Ghost

The Ghost.

This is where real life crossed over with my experience in the game. What I just described is similar to the relationship I had with my grandfather (though, admittedly, there were far fewer Mongols involved). He was this larger-than-life figure when I was growing up, like a force of nature or a rock star. He was a cowboy as well, and those who follow the genre know how well Westerns translate into samurai stories, and vice versa.

I never fit into that mold. I tried to, I wanted to at times, but it wasn’t for me. As I grew older, we disagreed more and more about almost everything. You name it, we debated it. Sometimes things could, and did, get heated. We never came to blows, thankfully, and neither of us could stay mad at the other. Even if we saw things from vastly different points of view, I will always remember the times he helped me when things got rough, when I thought I couldn’t go on.

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So, at the time that I crossed swords with Lord Shimura at the end of the game, I had no idea that I was subconsciously working through the complicated relationship my grandfather and I shared. So much of it feels unresolved between us, both the good and the bad. It’s clear now that this lack of closure had become a major impediment to coping with the grief I had bottled up inside.

At the end of the duel, you have the choice to either spare Lord Shimura’s life or grant him a warrior’s death. While so much of what I’ve learned told me to honor Lord Shimura’s last request, I found in that moment that I couldn’t do it.

This is where we part

This is where we part.

After everything the two had gone through together, for the bond that they shared, and because Jin’s name (仁) can be found as one of the virtues of bushido to mean mercy or compassion, I chose life.

How could I not?

As Jin walked off into the distance to the sound of “The Way of the Ghost,” something in the soulful sadness and beauty of Clare Uchima’s performance moved me, and my long-absent catharsis came at last. To give full credit to Sucker Punch games, I would have been greatly moved by that ending even without the underlying metacontextual ties to my real life.

It took me several days of soul-searching to understand why that moment in the game had affected me so strongly. Then it hit me: Ghost of Tsushima, to me, is a story about letting go of the past while still honoring it, about becoming who you really are rather than who you were expected to be. That’s exactly where I was emotionally.

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I saw myself and my struggle mirrored in the story, if just for a moment. And seeing it play out before me like that gave me just the jolt I needed to break the cycle and start working through it. Like Jin, I may never have the full closure I seek, but in the end maybe that’s not necessary to accept the loss and continue living.

Life is strange like that. Sometimes it takes playing as a fictional samurai to teach you something about yourself. I won’t lie here, folks, opening up the floodgates has not been easy. Some days are easier than others, and I still have a long way to go in the grieving process.

Quiet Time

Just…breathe.

I’m a big believer in the healing power of art. In the past, books, music, and fandom have seen me through times of emotional hardship and loss. This time it was a video game. It’s often debated whether or not video games should be considered an art form. For all that it accomplishes, for all that it means to those who play it, I’d say that Ghost of Tsushima is the most compelling evidence yet for a definitive yes to that question.

And to think, on my previous trajectory, I would never have had the chance to see the world through the eyes of Jin Sakai and, in turn, learn to say goodbye to one of the brightest stars in my sky.

One act of kindness, folks. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

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My latest book, STRANGE REPORTS FROM SECTOR M, is available on Amazon in both hard copy and e-book format.


At the Intersection of Transformers and Life

Folks, I usually try to keep the details of my personal life off this blog. Today, I’m breaking that rule to some degree. The Sector M blog has always been about the things I enjoy, whether thought experiments, ruminations on movies, books, and games, or musings on toy and cartoon properties from the ’80s. I’m sure there are more than a few out there who might admonish me, a grown man, for ‘wasting my time’ with all this childish nonsense.

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My first ever glimpse of Optimus Prime.

What they may not realize is just how deeply I care about these things. They are a part of me. Once, I tried to deny them, but I was miserable. When I unabashedly embraced my inner geek, only then did I thrive. Those who don’t understand the fascination with fandom miss out on a key detail: I’m a fan because my life has intersected with each of these things in the past, often just when I needed it.

Star Trek taught me to be hopeful and optimistic for the future. Marvel comics showed me that there could be beauty in being different. Batman took personal tragedy and turned it into something  positive. Robotech was the first to show me that in any armed conflict, people die. And so on, and so on, I could go on all day. But the one that resonated with me the most was Transformers, which is no surprise if you’ve followed this blog. My office is filled with the toys, new and old. I’m thankful to still have many of the originals I had as a kid.

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I have something to say about pretty much everything here.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I’m sorry to say that I lost someone very dear to me a month ago at the time of this writing. It was completely unexpected, and I’m still reeling from the loss. This post is a tribute to her. My godmother famously hated funerals or memorials of any kind. I mean, no one likes funerals, but she had a particular hatred of them. In accordance with her wishes, I will not name her here, but I will use the nickname she preferred. She referred to herself as a Nanny bird, or simply “Nanny.”

Despite the name, she was much more than babysitter. My godparents were more like an extra set of beloved grandparents when I was growing up. Nanny herself was an interesting lady. She drove a white Chrysler Conquest sports car with leather bucket seats. (It was one of the first cars that would speak to let you know “Your door is ajar.”) She was tall with high cheekbones and a long Helen Mirren nose that she attributed to her Spanish heritage. (Her brother, in fact, looked like you could put him in a morion helmet and breastplate and he would have blended in perfectly with a group of conquistadors.)

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I always thought it looked like a Transformer.

She loved abstract art, jewelry, and bright colors, especially teals, purple, and yellow. Her favorite perfume was Giorgio that came in the yellow and white striped box. Later, she was a SCUBA instructor, an emergency medical responder, and a volunteer fire-fighter. More than all that, she loved everyone around her fiercely, and woe betide anyone who hurt someone under her protective aegis.

My godparents certainly did their best to spoil me rotten. My parents at the time weren’t in a position to buy me many toys, but my godparents were a different story. In fact, Nanny was the one who bought me my very first Transformer, and I still have him.

This guy.

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He still transforms, too.

This would have been in the autumn of 1984. We were in the old Walmart in Athens, Texas. I remember that we were on our way to the checkout when I spotted him. He wasn’t in the toy isle. Instead, he was on one of those miscellaneous shelves near the front (possibly where they were going to set up for Halloween). Someone had picked him up and then changed their mind. That choice set a trajectory for me as a kid. It was the combination of red and blue that caught my eye. The packaging design, with its action mural and stand-out metallic logo, was just really cool.

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This is where it all began.

I was already into GoBots at the time, but I found them somewhat lacking. Their names were often uninteresting (a tank was named “Tank,” and a helicopter was “Cop-Tur,” and so on) and their reason for being was not really developed. When I picked up Gears that day, I flipped him over and found his “tech specs” on the back of the package.

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This guy didn’t sound like a traditional robot. He didn’t like people, he was cranky, a pessimist, and a pain in the neck. Yet, he did this to cheer his fellow Autobots up. I was intrigued at the notion of robots with distinct personalities, with like and dislikes. They were robots who were like people. This was the spark that lit my imagination. Gears himself was no more complex in design than the simplest of GoBots, but he was part of a story that felt like it had substance.

I asked Nanny if I could have him, and she agreed. I think he was less than $4 at the time. So, she was there with me at the earliest dawning of my fandom. Gears was just the first of many. Bumblebee (both the yellow and red versions), Cliffjumper, Huffer, and a number of others in that original G1 line were soon to follow. Nanny thought they were neat in the way they could fold up to become a vehicle or into “metal man.” When the cartoons started on TV, she meticulously recorded them for me on VHS before they were ever available to buy.

Kmart

Years ago this building was a K-Mart. This was my other major outlet for toys, particular the Robots in Disguise.

That’s where I first heard Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime voice. With most other toy lines, I tended to like the villains more than the heroes. Transformers was different. The Autobots were noble, brave, and courageous. No one personified those high ideals more than Prime himself, and I had the opportunity to watch my favorite episodes play out at will thanks to Nanny’s wizard ability to program a VCR. For a kid who often had trouble relating to others and was painfully shy, Transformers was all about the power of teamwork and standing up for what was right. It found me at just the right time.

As a quick aside, my mother was the one who bought me my Optimus Prime. It was expensive for the time, and she asked my godparents not to get him for me (which they were willing to do). I had a bit of trouble in school back then, and my mom told me that if I improved my grades, the Autobot supreme commander was mine. Six weeks later, I turned in a report card with an “A” in every subject. On the way to the store to get him, Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” played on the radio. (There’s your earworm for today.) It’s funny what you remember, huh?

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This was my Holy Grail as a kid.

Anyway, as my Transformers interest grew, Nanny helped me build my collection. My godfather would scour the Toy R’ Us stores in Dallas for the stuff we couldn’t find in Athens or the surrounding area. All told, about 80% or more of the Transformers I ever had as a kid came from the two of them.

By 1985, the new series of Transformers hit shelves. Soon the Insecticons,  Jetfire (Skyfire in the cartoon), Omega Supreme, and the Constructicons joined the others in my collection. I remember the day that she took me into Daniel’s pharmacy in Athens, a store that had an unusually well-stocked toy aisle.

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It’s the Factory Connection building now.

Even though it was technically out of bounds to get so many at one time, she bought me all six of the Constructicons in their individual packaging. As I was opening them all up in the car, Hook’s legs broke off in my hand. The silver plastic they used back then would often break like that. Nanny marched back in and exchanged it for another one. As I opened that one up, the same thing happened. So, she did it again, and just like Swamp Castle of Monty Python fame, the third one proved to be fine. Sadly, only one of those original six figures has survived to the present. It’s Mixmaster, the concrete mixer truck. He is on a shelf in my office right now, once again reprising his role as Devastator’s left leg.

She was also the one who took me to the see Transformers: The Movie in August of 1986, which I wrote about here. So, Nanny was the one who had to deal with a crying kid when Prime, the very embodiment of what I loved about Transformers, died right before my eyes. (I also mentioned her as being the spark for my interest in Greek culture here.)

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A moment in time.

Fast-forward to present day. Now I run a tabletop RPG based on Transformers, in a system that I kit-bashed from at least two other games. It’s been running for almost ten years now. Besides writing speculative fiction, that game might be the single geekiest endeavor I’m a part of. (And, boy, is that saying something!)

My memories of the toys and cartoons have always been inextricably linked to Nanny. She was an active participant in enabling and building my most favorite of fandoms. And when I started making up stories about the characters, my first forays into storytelling, she would sit patiently for hours as I would tell them, and ask leading questions so I would have to delve deeper into what I had created. I will always remember that.

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But now she has left us, and there is large hole left in my heart and in my life. So much of who I am today can be traced back to her. I miss her with every keystroke I write here, folks. I’m to the stage where I will have periods of normalcy punctuated by spikes of grief that come out of nowhere. I won’t lie, it sucketh mightily.

And yet, here I sit in the Museum of Matt with so many reminders of her standing in silent vigil around me. I originally thought all those bots, all those memories, would make it harder to write this account, but I was wrong; they are physical reminders of the positive effect she had, and continues to have, on me. I’m grateful for that.

So never let anyone tell you your love for a particular fandom is silly or stupid. Our time on this planet is all too brief, so hold onto those things you love. Take it from me, okay?

‘Til All Are One!

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[P.S. – I started writing this post before COVID-19 really exploded here in the U.S. My family and I are practicing social/physical distancing, and I hope you are, too. Please be safe out there and wash your hands, okay? Much love from Sector M.  -MC]


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!]

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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.

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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:

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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.

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This screenshot was taken in 2006.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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:

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.