Category Archives: Silly Me

The Allure (and Curse) of Prequels

The concept of a prequel as a literary device has been around in one form or another for quite a long time in almost every medium. When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, the idea of going back and telling the story of the Clone Wars was something that hadn’t been done before on that kind of cinematic scale. More than 20 years later, the Star Wars universe is still dipping into that well, and will likely continue showcasing stories that take place before A New Hope for the foreseeable future. 

Star Wars certainly isn’t alone in wanting to delve into the stories that take place before the original setting of the intellectual property. A short list of heavy-hitters appearing this year alone on TV includes (but is certainly not limited to) the following:

  • Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
  • House of the Dragon
  • Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi
  • (And just this week) Andor

Before I get into the particulars, let me say this: This post is not about the casting, fan backlash, or creative decisions involved with any of these shows. I have the greatest respect for the actors, crew, and digital artists who bring these shows to life. If you’re here expecting some sort of fanboy outrage at one or more of those groups, feel free to hit that “eject” button now and punch out. Byyyyeee.

Still with me? Excellent. What I hope to do with this blog is to take a look at the viability of prequels as a framework for telling  stories, exploring three things that make prequels attractive as well as three more that make them less appealing than an original story. With that in mind, let’s dive in.

The Allure

Nostalgia

The most obvious answer is that a prequel hopes to capture the magic that the property had before, tapping into the good will and warm fuzzies that we may harbor from previous iterations of said property. Depending on how subtle or overt this previous connection is handled, you might wind up with fun call-backs, but it runs the risk of becoming heavy handed with member berries. 

For the most part, I’m fairly forgiving of when the fan service gets too fan service-y. Even when this happens, it’s hard to deny that the feelings that are evoked when you see parallels play out. In the right hands, they can be profound. The best prequels are able to successfully excavate those little nuggets of emotion we have tied up with the original and shine new light on them.

Nostalgia is often a distortion of past events, though, filtered through the lens of a yearning for a past that may or may not have really existed except in our minds. While it can be a two-edged sword, it can also be a powerful reminder of what we love, reigniting our passion and enthusiasm in the present. 

More Time in the Setting

Stories taking place in settings we love are always finite. There are only so many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, only so many Lord of the Rings movies. Once a setting has achieved that sort of critical mass in the hearts and minds of fans, it’s natural to want to go back to that place if given the chance. After all, we have friends there, favorite spots, and (in general) we know what we’re getting ourselves into. It’s a known quantity, and one we already like.

Settings with rich backgrounds are often the most fertile soil for prequels. If you’re a lore nerd like I am, who just loves to sink your teeth into the backstory and worldbuilding, this is a chance to see it brought to life. The mentor figure of a previous story might now take center stage as the protagonist of the prequel. Characters who are bitter enemies might be friends in this telling. Maybe you get to witness legendary events play out that were only ever talked about, or receive additional context to the original story.

Like the voyages of the original Constitution-class Enterprise? Well, here’s more of that. Remember the thrill of Game of Thrones? Let’s have another foray into Westeros, shall we? And so on.

A Safe Bet

Prequels don’t have the risk that new, completely original stories carry. There’s a built-in audience, likely one that’s hungry to see more of whatever it is. This makes prequel stories something comfortable for both the producers and consumers of media. If you liked this, you’ll surely love that.

It’s the same mindset that brings us sequels, but there’s an innate guardrail backed into prequels: You know where the characters are going. You don’t have to worry about coming up with the next big story arc, and you already have the end point established. You’re just filling in the gaps and adding additional layers to a story that’s already been told. 

The Curse

Spectacle Creep

The issue with going back before the ‘main’ timelines is that the temptation to make the prequel story bigger, grander, and more impressive often blows the originals out of the water. Consider the lightsaber duels in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. They are orders of magnitude more complex and fast-paced than the ones we see in the original trilogy.

The ever-increasing want to pile spectacle on top of spectacle, to outdo what audiences have experienced before, can be momentarily thrilling in the moment, but it always has the effect of making the source material seem far more mundane. This is especially noticeable when you watch the releases in that universe’s chronological order. Thus, prequels often have the side-effect of downgrading or side-lining the originals.   

Continuity Nightmare

By its very nature, a prequel does not exist in a void. It comes before something. It’s no easy feat to balance the needs of the prequel story with the constraints placed on it by the stories that released before it. It’s a delicate balance to walk. Lean too much into what’s been established and you risk severely limiting the scope of your story. Throw canon to the wind and the prequel story may not fit within the greater framework that exists in the minds of fans.

This is personally why I think that prequels can be a hard sell for long-running fandoms — it’s too easy to cause contradictions and lore breaks. Sure, not everyone cares about that. Most casual viewers probably don’t, but invariably there are fans who are invested in the universe that do want to see continuity maintained. Prequels are often the bane of those kinds of fans.

Now I know that, more often than not, these types of fans are dismissed out of hand as whiny manbabies, like a Youtube comment section come to life. But, I would argue that many of the fans that object to major breaks in a universe’s continuity just want all parts of the thing they love to work in concert, forming  a cohesive whole, rather than having elements that work in opposition to that. Major breaks in continuity can make that a bridge too far to span.

Lack of Stakes

Perhaps the worst curse of prequels is that we know that nothing will really change. Yeah, maybe we get a little extra insight into what leads up to the originals, but we know the story can only resolve in a certain way. We already know who lives and who dies.

That means that established characters that are alive and kicking in the future are effectively untouchable in the present. There are no stakes when the outcome is already known. When there are no stakes to a story, it can make everything in it feel brittle and unearned. It doesn’t matter how outnumbered, outgunned, or impossibly the odds are against them, we know that the heroes will make it through. It drains most, if not all, of the dramatic tension from the story as we already know the protagonists will win. Prequels are where the plot armor is thickest, and it shows.  

Final Thoughts

For one reason or another, we live in an age of prequels. In the case of both the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones universes, it’s because the main stories have already been told, and it’s too soon for any sort of reboot. With Star Trek and Star Wars, they seem to both have an allergy to advancing their own timelines (with some exceptions), and would much rather set their stories in eras that have historically proven popular.

Combine that with the powerful urge for studios to create some sort of interrelated cinematic universe, and it’s a safe bet that the stream of inevitable prequel releases is just getting started.  

Still, there are some places even within those offerings  where new, original stories can thrive, ones that aren’t as beholden to other source material that have more space to grow. (Mandalorian, I’m looking at you.) While my instinct is usually to leave backstory as just that, I’m usually willing to give prequels stories a shot. Sometimes they land, and sometimes they don’t. After all, a story well told is a story worth your time, regardless of how much baggage it might carry from what has gone before.

So, I put it to you, dear reader, what are your thoughts on prequels? Do you like them, love them, despise them, or are you just sort of ‘meh’ on them? Let me know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!


Westeros has a Firewood Problem

This topic has been on my mind for years now. I had originally intended to release this blog post later in the year as winter set in (for reasons that will be obvious in a moment), but since House of the Dragon premiers this weekend, now seemed as good a time as any.

Or, as GRRM calls it, “Hot D.”

There’s a part of the worldbuilding of Westeros that I want to examine. Before we get into that, let me first say that George R.R. Martin’s series is one of my favorite fantasy worlds of all time. It’s full of wonderfully flawed characters, historical parallels, and rich backstory. One of the things that sets it apart from many other fantasy worlds is the concept that the seasons can last much longer than in our world. The winters in Westeros are famously years long and apocalyptically cold.   

It’s the topic of winters that I want to delve into here.

There are precedents in actual history for seasons lasting beyond their usual cycle, such as the Year Without a Summer in 1816. In Westeros, however, winters can last for up to six or seven years at a time, possibly longer. For the purposes of this discussion we’re not going to worry about saving up the requisite amount of food as we have many examples from history on methods to avoid potential famine over long periods of time. The main thing we are going to look at (as the title suggests) is the question of firewood.

Tyrion and Dany at Dragonstone.

The Westerosi, like their medieval counterparts, don’t have many ways to heat their homes. There are no radiators or electric heaters to rely upon, so to survive the cold, cruel winters, they would have to burn fuel to keep themselves warm and cook their food. In real life, it was an arduous enough task to cut enough firewood to last a winter season that spanned only three to five months. Virtually every moment not spent on some of other critical task had to be devoted to cutting firewood, just to make sure you had enough.

Now imagine having to stockpile firewood for a winter that can last for years. If the winters are as bad as Old Nan suggests, you won’t be able to cut down trees after winter has come due to the risk of exposure and sickness. Since you have no way of knowing just how long winter will be, you had better assume it’s going to go the full seven years. If you cut enough for three years, and winter lasts four, you’re dead.

Truly, when you play the game of firewood, you either have enough or you die; there is no middle ground.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Not a Starbucks cup in sight.

How much firewood are we talking? 

Let’s say that you’re a peasant living somewhere in Westeros, possibly in a sturdy cottage or farmhouse. You likely have only one hearth or fireplace. You might even have a fire pit, which is likely closer to what actual medieval peasants used to use less wood as they brave the harsh winters of Northern Europe. Whatever form your heat source takes, you’ll need to keep the fire going all the time. Letting it go out overnight could result in you waking up a frozen peasant-sicle. 

To accomplish this, you’ll need fuel in the form of wood. There are other forms of fuel, but firewood is going to be your most reliable and most abundant. Also, I don’t know of many defined peat bogs (peat being another source of fuel) found in the North, where the hammer of winter falls the hardest. You could burn animal dung, but they require additional food stores, so again, wood is likely going to be your mainstay.

Balon Greyjoy’s sanctum at Pyke.

According to sources I found (listed below), heating a 1,000 square foot house needs about 3 cords of wood for a three-month winter, effectively one cord per month per 1,000 square feet. Luckily for our hypothetical peasant, their home is likely smaller than that size, so it requires less fuel to heat. For ease of measurement, let’s say the home in question is half that square footage, so 500 square feet. Assuming the ceiling is 10-feet high, the example cottage would be around 5,000 cubic feet.

We’ll assume that the history of extremely long winters has made insulation and heat retention for this peasant’s house roughly equivalent to the modern standard. That’s a big leap, sure, but I’m giving the people of Westeros the benefit of the doubt here.

This image makes me sad.

So, how much is a cord of wood? A single cord of firewood is usually defined as a stack that’s 4 feet wide, 4 feet tall, and 8 feet long. That winds up being 128 cubic feet of wood.

Seven years equals 84 months. According to the example above, it would take 84 cords of wood for a modern 1,000 square foot house to keep a fire going for that long, so it would take around 42 cords of wood at the very least to heat the Westerosi peasant’s house. Doing the math, that’s a stack of wood 168 feet wide, 168 feet tall, and 336 feet long, or 9,483,264 cubic feet.  

One of the few bright spots in Season 8.

To give you an idea of just how much that is, imagine that you covered every inch of a modern football field with firewood (including at least one end zone) and stacked it all up to a height of 168 feet. That’s taller than the Statue of Liberty.   

See the problem?

All of that is to fuel a single fireplace continuously for seven years, to say nothing of if you have a larger home with more than one fireplace. Even if fire pits might allow you to cut less wood than it would take to keep a regular fireplace going, the extreme length of time you have to maintain it makes it a herculean feat to cut that much firewood.  

Otto and Alicent Hightower from Hot D.

Blisters and Magnification:

With modern logging equipment, or just a functional chainsaw, a single person could conceivably cut that much wood during the seven years of the Long Summer, but the folk of Westeros don’t have that luxury. They would certainly have a wood-cutting axe handy, and if they are very lucky, they might also have a splitting wedge and/or maul to make things easier.

Regardless of the equipment available, the daunting task of cutting that much wood must be done by hand. The amount of effort it would take to cut, transport, split, season, and store that amount of wood so it won’t rot is staggering. Talk about calluses!

Faces by firelight.

Perhaps larger keeps and holdfasts would have whole teams of lumberjacks with big cross cut saws to fell the timbers faster, but having a larger home, with more than one fireplace, only magnifies this problem.

It’s hard to get a read on just how many hearths and fireplaces some of the major holdings in the series possess. We can safely cross Winterfell off the list here, since it has the hot spring flowing through its walls (or did until Ramsay Bolton messed it all up in the books. Spoilers, sorry!). 

The only solid number we have comes from Harrenhal. Its rather inaccurately named Hall of the Hundred Hearths has only about 35 of them. That’s in one room.  Admittedly, this fortress was built to a colossal scale, but it’s safe to say that large holdings like Highgarden, Casterly Rock, and the Red Keep might have dozens of fireplaces that they keep going, from the main hall to the private quarters of the noble families.

The King in the North!

That doesn’t even take into account things like wood for torches to light the halls, braziers for watch fires, fuel for the forge, or any extra wood used in the kitchens for cooking and food preparation. Even a lord or castellan that is extremely frugal with the available stores of wood would surely be using many times that of our hypothetical peasant in a cottage.

How are there any forests left standing in Westeros if that’s the case?

Inventing a Solution:

George R. R. Martin is a smart author, and he’s tackled problems like this before. Ravens, for example. I’m speculating here, but I imagine that he looked at how massive Westeros was, and how far flung the centers of power actually are on the map. They were once seven independent kingdoms after all. There aren’t many usable roads connecting them, and a lack of an inland sea really limits how fast ships can get to places. Without a means of fast, reliable travel overland or by sea, it would be almost impossible to effectively administrate a kingdom of that size using any historical medieval methods. Without some channel for communications, the Seven Kingdoms would have likely collapsed under its own geopolitical weight.

They were my dream team. If only…

So, GRRM invented a means to send messages quickly over great distances. Enter the Maesters and their incredible knowledge of ravenry (or rookery). Like trained carrier pigeons, you attach a note to one of their feet and off they go to a predetermined place. It’s not clear how fast these birds are, but I would imagine that a Prince of Dorne might have a decent idea of what was going on in the North within a week or two, as opposed to many months to a year.

GRRM famously dislikes fan fiction set in his universe, so let’s simply look at this as a mental exercise. Let’s apply the same kind of practical problem solving he used with ravens to the firewood problem. What follows is my solution to the problem. If you have a solution of your own, or if there is a solution presented in the books that I have missed, I would love to hear it in comments below.

Far away, in a storage facility in San Francisco, Bran wargs into a rat to set Ant-Man free.

Enter the Winter Oak. This tree is a cousin to the Weirwood tree, sharing some of its physical properties, but distinctly lacking in its metaphysical ones. Like the Weirwood, it maintains its bloom throughout all seasons, needing little in the way of sunlight, but more importantly, the wood of the Winter Oak does not rot. It can be stored for years on end without degradation from either outside conditions or damage from vermin. That alone would make it invaluable to Westeros, but we don’t stop there. Here are a few more characteristics that help alleviate the firewood problem:

  • The Winter Oak burns many times longer than regular oak, maple, or hickory due in part to the special red sap it secretes. It is not appreciably heavier to carry or harder to cut. Stocking this wood allows you to greatly reduce the fuel you need to get through the winter by several orders of magnitude.  
  • This tree produces thousands of seed pods that are a particularly attractive food source to burrowing animals. The animals eat the pods and fertilize the seeds in their feces underground. This allows new trees to find fertile ground and start growing even with several feet of snow on the ground. New crops of trees are then ready to go as soon as the spring comes. Some particularly hardy specimens even start shooting up during the height of winter.
  • The tree is common enough that wood from it is plentiful all around the Seven Kingdoms. The Winter Oak tree does not require a particular type of soil to grow, so it can be sown just about anywhere plants grow.
  • This tree grows quickly. Not as fast as bamboo, but considerably faster than other trees. This makes them perfect for ‘farming’ multiple times during the spring/summer/autumn seasons. Because they can grow during the winter, the brave or foolish (or both) may attempt to gather them in the winter, too.
  • The Winter Oak will naturally find a balance with the trees around it, including others of its kind. It doesn’t have to compete over sunlight as much, but does require lots of nutrients from the soil. So, it does not grow as aggressively or pervasively as kudzu.  

In summary, you have a tree that reduces the amount of wood you need, stores well for long periods of time, replaces itself quickly, and is common enough that all of the Seven Kingdoms have ample access to it.

Now, if there any dendrologists or arborists reading this, I’m sure you are shaking your head or blinking in disbelief. But I ask you, is a tree that does all that any less believable than one that can see through time while harboring an ancient hive mind? The Winter Oak still makes life in Westeros a struggle for survival, as it should be, but makes living there a bit more viable.

Knighted.

Final Thoughts:

While The Song of Ice and Fire is a work of fantasy, it’s a type of fantasy that is firmly grounded in historical realism. A worldbuilder’s job is to construct universes which possess the ring of truth. When you decide to change something major, you have to keep in mind what else changes with it.

If everyone in the world could suddenly teleport by just using their mind, it doesn’t just save on commute times to work. There will be many permutations and effects that will need to be addressed to give the world a realistic sense of place. (An excellent example of this is Alfred Bester’s novel, The Stars My Destination.) Merely saying “it’s magic!” and leaving it at that is not a valid way of getting around problems, or downplaying their importance, even in fantasy worlds that are far less rooted in reality.

Now, does this tiny wrinkle diminish my enjoyment of GRRM’s books? Absolutely not. I don’t read his works for complicated explanations of the seasons. No, I’m all about compelling grey characters that almost  leap off the page, descriptions of feasts that make my stomach rumble, and as GRRM puts it, “the human heart in conflict with itself.” *chef’s kiss.*

So, bundle up everyone. It may be hot outside now, but Winter is Coming.

Sources:

https://modernhomesteading.ca/blog/firewood-basics-five-lessons-for-heating-with-a-wood-stove

https://www.familyhandyman.com/article/how-much-firewood-for-winter/

https://homeguides.sfgate.com/how-much-firewood-do-i-need-for-the-winter-13420440.html


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.)

Jin Sakai

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.

Lord Shimura

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.

Ghost of Tsushima_20200720022004

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.

tzv88p9js6d51

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.

unnamed

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.)

1988_Mitsubishi_Starion_Turbo_2.0_Front_(1)

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.

90399549_498525647507029_188842127092875264_n

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.

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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]