All the Games

After a couple fits and starts, I finished Broken Age. This could warrant a full review, but everything I would want to say can be summarized as follows: excellent characterization, lovely plot that finishes a bit too abruptly, lots of cute little jokes, absolutely beautiful, BUT the gameplay is often frustrating in the worst traditions of adventure games. Two of those points bear emphasizing. One: the art is absolutely gorgeous! A series of screenshots are below, to hopefully support that claim. Two: the gameplay can be so infuriating!

So much of the time is wandering around the map, collecting random items from the environment, from dialogue choices, and from puzzles, then figuring out where the items might ultimately come into play. There’s a lot of backtracking and trading of random crap for other random crap. Sometimes it seems logical, or even obvious; sometimes, the use of an item for a given situation can seem clever. But most of the time, it just seemed arbitrary. The world and the characters were so quirky, lovely, and charming; the plot had some fun twists and pivots and re-connections; but the impact of those elements was lessened as I trudged back and forth in the most point-and-clickiest way possible. You ever find yourself faced with a frustratingly opaque game challenge requiring a specific solution, while you want to scream another, more apparent option? That’s so much of this game for me. Especially when there are so many characters to talk with, it was frustrating to see that being able to propose obvious solutions or to ask obvious questions was just stripped out. In short, the game felt…artificially difficult (or at least its second half did). In the last act, I frequently consulted a guide, increasingly impatient with the bizarro limitations put into place. If you played a lot of classic point-and-click adventure games, though, you might have a more positive experience.

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Besides Broken Age, I also played a couple of weird little indie projects that released to a lot of acclaim but basically passed me by until now.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch is zany and fun, with a surprisingly heartfelt and endearing story under the wacky Saturday-morning-cartoon premise. It’s a fairly short but worthwhile experience.

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Then there’s The Stanley Parable. This was fun, but I lost interest fairly quickly without exploring most of the branching paths and endings. I spent most of my short time with it forcing endings through disobedience. The narration was charming, but I thought the game a bit too clever for its own good (and really, exploring “choice” in a video game and in life has been done more subtly elsewhere, hasn’t it?).

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I also jumped back into Hotline Miami a little bit recently. This game’s just perfect at setting a mood. The jarring, twitchy controls. The bizarre cuts between levels. The splashy blood. The bright colors. The pounding music. The game honestly makes me feel a little ill and a little disassociated after a while, like I’m getting into the head of a psychopath–or as close as I’d want to be, anyway. Gamification of the violence drives home that disturbing feeling, too. It’s a surreal experience, and the gameplay and music provide a powerfully addictive combination. I’ve played the story once or twice, and I’ve also played individual levels on occasion. But I don’t think it’s a game that I could ever 100%–I’d have to spend too much time getting really good at really disturbing shit.

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Moving out of indie games, I’ve returned to Jurassic World: Evolution, as well. A recent update included a new challenge mode. So far, I’ve fiddled around with the easy mode, taking my time, having fun, then realizing in a panic that while I would probably eventually get to 5 stars, I was definitely not going to meet the par time. This could prove to be a quite challenging mode, especially working all the way up to Jurassic difficulty while meeting the par times, and it may or may not be enough to keep me in the game for a while (if only to try to return my status to 100% completion).

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Finally, I’ve been playing ever more of Star Wars: Battlefront II. The 2005 edition, of course. It’s just so fun and easy to hop into even if I don’t have a lot of time to play.

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And that’s all for games. The final post, on television, will follow tomorrow.

Review: Disenchantment Part One

I watched Disenchantment over the weekend. Ten roughly half-hour episodes spaced over a couple days didn’t quite feel like a “binge.” So it’s easy to digest, and not a huge time commitment. With that in mind, I can safely recommend it. But so far, ten episodes in, it’s mostly just OK.

For those who are unaware: Disenchantment is the new Netflix-original series from Matt Groening. It has justly drawn ample comparison to Groening’s Futurama: it’s of course an animated parody of a particular type of genre fiction; the character models are similar; there’s a fair amount of cartoonish violence; many of the voice actors are Groening veterans; and the core cast is familiarly divided between a reckless warrior-woman leader (Princess Bean, who wants purpose and meaning beyond being married off in a political alliance), an ignorant and lovelorn dope (Elfo the Elf, whose purpose on leaving his tightly regulated society quickly becomes earning Bean’s affections), and a Bad Influence. The Bad Influence in this show–the demon Luci–is perhaps the most different, in a subtle but important way: where Bender typically was willing to show fondness for friends but could sacrifice them at a moment’s notice, Luci is more adamant that he despises everyone and is explicitly there to corrupt them but regularly goes out of his way to save his new pals. By the end of the first season, there’s even some evidence that he might be overriding his prime directive as a dark influencer bonded to Bean, but that’s about all I can say without major spoilers. In other words, while he starts off cruel and malevolent, he often reminds me of ultimately benevolent bonded spirits like Mushu in Mulan or Calcifer in Howl’s Moving Castle.

Despite the simultaneous release of the ten episodes, Disenchantment nonetheless feels like a show that was attempting to find itself and adapt to an audience throughout its run. For the first seven episodes, the show refuses to commit itself to serialized or episodic storytelling; there’s a broad background story, and events in earlier episodes typically inform future events, but death doesn’t seem to stick, and some events (like a renewed war mid-season) just get reset to the baseline level for narrative convenience after the fact without any acknowledgment of how or why things were reset. Disenchantment is prepared to laugh in the face of any such criticism, or any attempt to really unspool its continuity; in the episode “Castle Party Massacre,” a city-dweller challenges a newly arrived “land viking” by complaining, “Well, I’m sorry; things get confusing in a world with occasional magic and curses, and while I am a fan of such worlds, I just feel some more clearly set-out rules for what can and cannot happen would help–,” but he is unable to finish the thought because the land viking has already killed him.

It’s cute and cheeky, the backgrounds are beautiful and detailed, the voice acting is consistently good, and there are a lot of fun background gags and references to medieval fantasy stories, but the show challenges any effort to take it too seriously or to expect consistency. Despite this, the final three episodes radically shift to a grand dramatic narrative that ends with several mysteries, some surprises, and virtually every character in shockingly different circumstances. Despite the collossal stakes, I found myself intrigued but not invested, and I think that comes down to the light absurdity and casual tone of the bulk of the season as well as the comically broad interaction between the primary characters. They were all selfish and spoiled in a world full of horrors for most; I just couldn’t care about their petty complaints, even though I laughed at many of the jokes and generally enjoyed the stories being told. Even the central will-they-won’t-they romance between Bean and Elfo was too forced (and commented on directly as a joke), and I couldn’t see why these two characters without any chemistry or common ground should be together at all, especially since the romantic feelings appear to be entirely one-sided except for when Bean is seeking attention or intoxicated. Then there’s my usual complaint about serial fantasy installments: the opening arcs typically feel like unnecessary prologues. Here, there’s very little needed world-building, so it feels especially pointless. If the phrase “medieval fantasy” means anything at all to you, you already know enough to understand the tired tropes that get parodied, occasionally subverted, and often used seemingly without irony in the show. I’m more excited about what Disenchantment promises to be in the future, but it wasted so much time to get there.

While watching ten half-hour episodes isn’t the biggest television commitment out there, you could probably get away with watching the first episode and then the last three without missing anything vital.

Arena, Part XIV: Exiting the Labyrinth

It may be hard–even nearly impossible–to believe, but I’ve at last returned to Arena. I never really intended to be away for that long. Days turned to weeks and then months. In the back of my mind, I always felt compelled to return, but I always found something else to do when I had enough free time to get back to it.

I returned to find myself completely lost in the middle of Labyrinthian. Before long, I’d adjusted settings back to how I liked them, and I was plowing through all sorts of monsters and getting more and more lost and genuinely having fun.

Arena can be a tedious experience. There are a lot of narrow streets in towns, and there are a lot of narrow halls in dungeons. Responsiveness to your player actions isn’t great. The visuals and sound effects and music quickly become repetitious–as do the random fetch quests and the general experiences to be found in any particular dungeon. The open world outside of cities and dungeons stretches on endlessly and pointlessly. Arena is tedious because it tried to offer a world of possibilities but then didn’t have all that much to do. It was ahead of its time, with ideas about first-person open-world gaming that couldn’t be matched in implementation yet. So you could do a lot but it all boils down to the same sort of experiences repeated over and over. This can be freeing or frustrating, and I keep swinging back and forth between the two mental states.

I always have a lot of fun after a break from the game, though, because I’m coming back to it fresher. The game can’t feel so tedious if taken in little chunks with distance in between.

My play session on return felt productive, even though I didn’t really do anything to advance the story. I guess I advanced my story, and I was able to check off my own personal objectives.

My last check-in with the game was over six months ago (wow), so as a reminder, I’d planned to escape the dungeon of Labyrinthian and return to town to rest, restock potions, repair/replace equipment, and learn a new spell. I accomplished those simple objectives. It felt like a bigger deal because Labyrinthian is so winding, and I’d been away so long that I had no idea of the general direction to even start heading in to get out.

The enemies on my escape were varied but not too challenging. I ran into a wraith over a lava pit, but because I was at an elevation, I could snipe it with fire spells until it was defeated.

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I slew several spiders, goblins, wolves, and hell hounds with my trusty saber. I took out ghouls from range with magic and bow.

And I discovered another new enemy! As I was walking down a hall, this message appeared:

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Troll is regenerating? I didn’t even know that there was a troll around at all! Then, as I turned down another hallway, I heard a bloodthirsty saurian roar. I tried to get away, but the roar repeated, again and again. I hoped I could just run away, but I took a wrong turn and failed to make a jump to a higher passage. I was hit from behind and turned to defend myself. And there stood the troll!

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Much to my joy and relief, I was able to subdue the beast fairly easily. I do appreciate the increasing variety of monsters in the game, and I still love how you can tell what type of monsters you might be facing soon based on their unique calls.

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Eventually, I found a way to a green mark on my map–which I vaguely remembered indicated not just a door but an exit, either to another floor or to the outside world. The first exit I came across took me to the main floor. And once on the main floor, I was able to easily find my way back to the main entrance.

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I headed to the town of Dunpar Wall. In town, I went to an inn (the Haunted Wolf, a somewhat perplexing name) and tried to get a room for the night, but I was approached with a small fetch quest.

Since it wasn’t due until the following day, I still rented a room and slept until morning. Once done, I tracked down the Order of the Knights of Hope with the holy item.

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Since that took me near the Mages Guild and an equipment store, I went ahead and identified magic items and purchased potions at the Guild, then sold off all my gear and purchased fresh armor and a couple new weapons at the equipment store. While at the Guild, I also bought a couple new spells, including Lightning, so I feel a little more prepared to deal with any iron golems I might come across next time.

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Finally, I returned to the inn to complete the quest.

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While exploring Dunpar Wall, I found a homeless beggar who initially greeted me by saying he was too busy to talk. When I pushed him for more details, he answered:

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Is he delusional or sarcastic? Hard to say.

I also got some juicy (though vague) gossip from the bartender at the Haunted Wolf:

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And that same barkeep sold me a beverage with a pretty ridiculous name:

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It’s obviously just a fantasy-themed version of the gin and tonic! Gin by itself is already a juniper-flavored drink (we’ll learn in game five, of course, that juniper berries are found in Skyrim and used to flavor mead), it’s been enjoyed since the Middle Ages, and it’s associated with the Europeans! It would’ve been pretty appropriate to just have gin present, right? And djinn are genies, associated with Arabian folklore, so what’s this doing in a Nordic-influenced country? So many questions! And no answers (I suspect the answer truly is that whoever named the drinks was trying to be cute).

I’ve returned to the village gates. The next session will find me back in Labyrinthian. We’ll see when that happens…but this time around was fun, and I was glad to return to the game after all.

Review: A Wrinkle in Time

I never read A Wrinkle in Time. But I wanted to see Disney’s recent film adaptation because of the beautiful visuals and hints of trippy inter-dimensional travel.

The visuals definitely impress. Costume Designer Paco Delgado is listed prominently toward the start of the credits, and this is well-deserved: the various costumes of the Mmes. Whatsit, Who, and Which are absolutely beautiful, extravagant and popping with color. That color is almost matched by the vibrant environments, and while truly bizarre alien landscapes are disappointingly rare, those that appear are a treat. Most of the impressive visuals have less to do with an unusual scene and more to do with a changing one, as the powerful forces in this universe’s cosmology rework themselves and the world around them.

The acting is also admirable. It is hard to imagine anyone other than Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey in their respective roles as the Mmes. Whatsit, Who, and Which. Storm Reid is able to deliver on the most emotional scenes as young protagonist Meg. And Deric McCabe steals almost every scene he’s in as Meg’s precocious, charming little brother, Charles Wallace; McCabe does many scenes light and sweet, but later in the film he also excels in a pouty, diabolic role, and he sounds convincingly wizened and erudite in his line delivery throughout. Additionally, Chris Pine is very charming as Meg’s lost father, Michael Peña shifts from goofy bro to sinister puppet with considerable charisma, and Zach Galifianakis is very Zach Galifianakis as a seer known as the Happy Medium. The only weak link in the main cast is Levi Miller, who plays Meg’s friend/romantic interest/fellow outcast Calvin; Miller is sweet but not given very much to do, other than gaze longingly on Meg.

Also worthy of mention, the music was mostly supportive of the emotional moment, except for one or two occasions where a particularly sappy pop song cut in.

The true failing of this movie is in plot. Having not read the book, I can’t say how much is a failing of director Ava DuVernay and screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell versus the source material by Madeleine L’Engle.

The film’s central conceit–that evil is not native to the human condition, that we can triumph over our baser impulses by developing and preserving love and hope–is probably misaligned with how many people think about the world, but if you can accept the message (which, I think, is a wonderful message for children’s entertainment), then it’s not any more ridiculous than the metaphysics of Star Wars. There’s even a short speech about jealousy and fear leading to anger and ultimately violence or even worse things.

I saw the film with my wife, and she rejected the idea of evil being a literally external force within the cosmology of even the film’s fictional universe. I get it; it’s a hard (though sweet) pill to swallow and doesn’t really square with reality. This made the entire experience for her more grating. I had similar reservations but was able to shove them to the back of my mind, mostly.

On top of this simplistic cosmology, we are fed a lot of spiritualist woo. Much of this woo is in the form of faddish quantum philosophy that could come straight from the mouth of Deepak Chopra–or Oprah, whose character gets many of the silliest affirmational lines.

I won’t say that there are obvious plot holes. Most of my questions were answered by sticking around, at least obliquely. But it felt after a while that the film kept deliberately withholding the bigger picture, inserting only enough information from time to time to fill in gaps that appeared. And I did have lingering questions:

  • If Meg’s father could just hop around the universe at his leisure until he was captured by the It (the dark, evil force in the film), why didn’t he just stop by home at some point to let everyone know what he was up to?
  • How does time work, exactly, if Meg’s father didn’t realize four years had passed but the protagonists return home to their mother at the end without any apparent lapse in time at all?
  • Did Meg’s neighborhood rival see everyone teleport back at the end, so that’s why she’s sort of shocked and friendlier–and if so, why isn’t she freaking out that people just warped into the backyard out of nowhere?
  • Why, exactly, did the Mmes. need Meg or Charles Wallace to locate their father, if a picture was enough for the Mmes. alone to figure out the rest? Until they went to the Happy Medium, what were the children vital for?
  • How did Charles Wallace come to know the Mmes., exactly, and why did they reach out to the youngest child (this can partly be answered, presumably, by his loving heart)?
  • Are Charles Wallace and Meg special in some way? Why do they get powers like Force push on the home planet of the It?
  • How does tessering, the inter-dimensional instantaneous travel, work exactly? What do the characters mean when they say they just need the right “frequency”? How can a human just access this frequency with their own mind, apparently just by thinking on it, and why can’t other humans readily do this without an advanced understanding of physics? On the subject of physics questions, why does the science-smart “Meg” never question the idea of what an “evil energy” is, exactly?

The ending of the film raised more questions, particularly in how the family could so readily accept a decision that Chris Pine’s character made in the third act. Love and hope and forgiveness represent our better traits, so maybe we are just to accept that Meg and Charles Wallace forgive their father for this pretty awful and selfish thing he did. But I can’t imagine that wouldn’t lead to some fraying.

The experience of watching this film was in many ways like Avatar: beautiful sci-fi visual spectacle, with an uninteresting and uninspired plot.

Having not read the book, I can’t say whether fans would warm to this film adaptation. But I suspect, given the book’s classic status, that the film fails to deliver on the promise of its source material.

Living in the franchise flow

My last post might have ended up sounding shockingly bitter or defeatist. Maybe it sounds like I’m engaging in an activity that I don’t even like anymore? But that’s simply not true.

I suppose pop culture fandom is a bit like an addiction. You could definitely keep consuming past the point of enjoyment. You might take deep reward from fandom, or you might merely remember at one point feeling a sense of reward, and after all you’re so invested that there’s no reason to quit.

But I could quit if I wanted! I say this jokingly, of course; that phrase is the recognizable cliche of any addict ever. Yet there’s truth to it. I bashed pretty hard on Marvel films last night, but I don’t have the history with Marvel to feel any sense of personal identity bound up in its IP. I could walk away and never look back. But they’re still fun films!

Rather than a true addiction, it’s maybe more appropriate to look at my franchise fandoms as junk food. It’s way too easy to take in way too much of it, to keep consuming beyond any possible benefit. And just like junk food companies, these big studios are always trying to sell you on way more than you need, way more than you would otherwise want, way more than you should have. It all feels good–until you’re way past the point you should’ve stopped, and you feel a little bit sick. The metaphor is definitely not original to me, nor is the recommended treatment: moderation. Limit the junk food, and try to mostly eat healthy.

I admittedly don’t mostly eat healthy. Figuratively, or, uh, literally. But I try–both in the metaphor of media consumption and in my real-life dietary habits.

My big franchise fandom is, of course, Star Wars. But I’m more broadly a fan of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. And this of course means that there are plenty of original works out there without the burden of franchise. In the past few years, I’ve read plenty of Star Wars and revisited writers like Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft and George R.R. Martin, but I’m very glad to say that I’ve also read works from writers I hadn’t before, like Molly Glass and Victor Milan and Marie Brennan and Naomi Mitchison and Octavia Butler and even Carrie Fisher. I’ve also kept a steady stream of nonfiction works in my reading rotation, including a couple histories of Indiana, a few books on the paranormal, and a recent streak of true-crime books. I similarly try to keep my mix of films and games a combination of franchise favorites and new material.

I’m actually not trying to be prescriptive or judgmental. My own frustrations with franchise juggernauts, and my own efforts to counter my overexposure to the biggest commercial cash cows, are merely my own. I’m not an expert in, say, media studies or psychology. If you think that there could always be more Marvel movies, and you could never have enough, I’m not here to say that you’re wrong! It’s just my subjective experience.

What I’m trying to get at is that I get frustrated with my fandoms, and I recognize that these franchises are not healthy as one’s sole source of entertainment. But I still get a lot of enjoyment and engagement out of them, and I sometimes get a lot of inspiration or insight too. It’s just important to splice that with more enriching material. At least, it is for me.

Phase Three Fatigue

I accidentally caught up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe this weekend. That doesn’t include the entirety of the continuity of this extended universe, since I’ve seen very little of the television shows and don’t really care to change that.

Because I’m caught up, I think I will see Infinity War. But it’s less that I’m excited about the movie. I feel a sad, pathetic impulse to see it because, hey, why not? I’ve seen the other ones, and it’ll play at the Indiana State Museum IMAX. That’s enough of a reason, I suppose.

This Phase Three of the MCU is a bit of a wash for me. I’ve said before that I have superhero fatigue, and Marvel is the leading culprit. But these movies get talked about enough that it’s hard to ignore them–and whenever I do ignore them, that seems to be just when an actually worthwhile new film comes out. There were some really great films in this cycle, but I don’t feel rejuvenated or excited about the future of this franchise or of superhero films in general.

These movies, no matter what they do to their characters, feel safe and locked in stone. In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor tells Loki that “life is about growth and change. But you just seem to want to stay the same. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’ll always be the God of Mischief. But you could be more.” It’s as though Thor is commenting on the state of the superhero genre. With each new Marvel movie, we get more and more tricks but very little lasting change or impact to the characters or the world.

There are two interesting exceptions to this general static nature. The first is to Thor himself. He appears to permanently lose his hammer, and an eye, and ends up with a new look and a new focus and a new manifestation of his power. Ragnarok shifted the positions of all the characters, killing off some franchise figures rather quickly and even shuffling Odin off the board. For the moment, Loki even seems to have grown and rethought his motivations–though the Infinity War trailers do seem to suggest that his turn to Good is not very long-lasting. Even Asgard itself is “changed” quite dramatically by film’s end.

The other example is the actual state of the world, as evidenced by Spider-Man: Homecoming. We see the rise of a new breed of criminal, reacting to the fallout of the age of superheroes, taking advantage of the collateral damage left behind after the great battles of previous films. Homecoming, in many ways, is about how the third-act, depersonalized chaos of the previous films has had a profound impact on the people on the ground (to be honest, it’s covering a lot of the same thematic ground of Batman v. Superman, not to mention the street-level superhero approach of the live-action Marvel TV shows).

But most of the heroes are still just reacting to a string of events, not truly evolving or being marked, physically or emotionally, in lasting ways. In Phase Two, we saw a lot of growth for Iron Man and Captain America, as they questioned alliances and as Tony Stark in particular was affected by his experiences in The Avengers. While this led to some explosive interpersonal conflict in Civil War, we see the characters as the archetypes they’ve always been. Tony in particular seems to always bounce back into the roguish scoundrel whenever convenient–for all his paternal efforts in Homecoming, he still feels a little removed, distant, selfish. As much as we are supposed to believe that Peter Parker learns an important lesson about responsibility and maturity, I would say that Homecoming really highlights Tony’s failures at honest communication and mentorship.

And while Tom Holland is an excellent Peter Parker / Spider-Man, the existence of yet another Spider-Man film where Peter must balance personal life versus super-heroics is mostly yawn-inspiring. At least it wasn’t an origin story, and Holland is better in the role than Garfield and might exceed Maguire’s early performances in the role. But a Spider-Man film seems bound by particular narrative expectations, and there was little fresh here (the most memorable moments, as is so often the case in a Marvel film, were the many gags and one-liners).

Doctor Strange was even more by-the-numbers: yet another origin story, incredibly boring in comparison to the similarly done-before beats of Ant-Man but lacking the humor and charm. Where we could have had a weird film that examines spiritualism and the occult and truly challenges perception, we have pretty light shows and special effects tricks that haven’t been cool since Inception.

Thor: Ragnarok was hilarious and self-aware and had some awesome nods to metal and fantasy; Black Panther I’ve written glowingly about before. But Ragnarok‘s flaw is that it is so dependent upon the net of the existing continuity–while willing to burn down expectations and kill off previously important characters, it didn’t really do anything so narratively risky as to disrupt Thor and Loki’s ability to bounce from project to project, and it required at least passing knowledge of events in Dark World and Age of Ultron to fully process what was happening. In other words, Ragnarok was not so much a standalone film as a really funny link in one chain of this sprawling franchise.

Shockingly, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 seemed to have the most original storytelling vision, focusing on developing Star-Lord’s crew. But I also found that more original story more flawed, a little looser and maybe too slow. More experimentation invites more risk, after all. But this film was neither too experimental nor too risky. (This mini-review could be used almost verbatim for The Last Jedi‘s place in the Star Wars franchise, as well).

In sum, it’s all fine. It’s fine and forgettable, and the franchise is sure to continue making millions of dollars. There is pathos and humor and action in each film, all measured out in more-or-less the right portions per the old recipe, a formula only modestly revised since that first Iron Man a decade ago. But I think anything these films might actually have to say is crushed under the weight of franchise perpetuity and creation by committee.

The most unpleasant thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the constant reminder that most of our pop culture loves are slickly designed to continue to sell, not stories in and of themselves with intrinsic value but instead utilizing extrinsically valuable intellectual property to continue to push out product that apparently plenty of people still find desire for. It’s not just Marvel, but Star Wars and classic monster movies and classic sci-fi television (ironically including the plucky, post-scarcity utopia of Star Trek) and anything else that can be rebooted or resurrected or impersonated.

Maybe what really kills me about this is that I’m detached from Marvel. I don’t have the childhood nostalgia. I didn’t really get into comic books until college, and I didn’t stay invested for very long. And my college years paralleled the start of the MCU. So I can see the trappings of this franchise juggernaut more clear-eyed than if I were personally invested. And so I can see how much that franchise development resembles the development of the Star Wars franchise, especially post-Lucas. And as much as I’ve loved (most) of this new era of Star Wars, it’s too easy to see as more of the same, with the same bloat and continuity creep and constant churn of product. And where I could otherwise blithely ignore the rotted element of my own fandom, I’m forced to stare it in the face in the mirror image of Disney’s other adopted child.

Part of me wants to insist on drawing a line. Value the works of original creators, and keep looking for new original content by new creators telling new and meaningful stories for our time. Stop investing in a product merely because of nostalgic familiarity and safe name-recognition. Stop with Marvel and DC and Star Wars and Star Trek and Harry Potter and James Bond and all the rest of the bullshit.

But the ugly side of me, the side that sighs and shrugs and continues to “invest” in the next film and the next one and the one after (as though I’m gaining any equity in doing so), will win out. It’s too tiring to keep watching and it’s too tiring to quit. After all, I might as well keep up on the current pop culture conversations. After all, there’s Infinity War to watch. And these franchises sure feel infinite.

Things I’m Into Right Now

For this evening’s post, a short recap of Things I’m Into Right Now.

First, I’m still playing Skyward Sword. I’ve held Arena on pause for a while now, but I feel more like I owe something to finishing up that game. I don’t really feel like I owe anything to Skyward Sword. Visuals are sometimes pretty, and sometimes fall short. Game’s quirky, though sometimes the characters are more annoying than silly. Plot’s falling into some generic Legendary Hero bullshit, which I guess it has to as a Zelda game, but it’s not anything to keep me around. Game path still feels really railroaded, and while it seems there are a lot of things I could be doing, a lot of arbitrary Secret Places in each zone and a lot of dumb item collection things like bug catching, very little actually seems interesting or fun to do. And oh my god, the motion controls are killing me. Things that should be intuitive are difficult to replicate. Trying to get my sword to arc a repetitive circle is a nightmare that usually translates to Link spastically jerking about–and that’s a required task to get through several sealed doors. I’m now through the Faron region and, having held off the demon Lord Ghirahim, I’ve finished my first true dungeon in the game.

Second, I’ve intermittently been playing Sonic Mania. It’s another game I don’t feel driven to complete, but it’s a fun diversion at times. You can play it a lot or a little. It feels like the original side-scrolling Sonic titles in the best possible way. It’s fun, it’s light, it’s challenging–sometimes, for me, very challenging–yet seldom frustrating. Bright colors, imaginative reinterpretations of old levels, and a sense of smooth direction over the course of every level to keep encouraging just one more level of play make for good times.

While it’s not really a Thing I’m Into Right Now, I’ve been excited to see the return of many songbirds this week, especially several red-winged blackbirds. Robins come so early, but it really feels like spring when I start to see (and hear) those red-winged blackbirds! And we still have two days until the spring equinox. On the subject of birds, anyone have any idea as to an identification of the birds up-top? Larger version of the image below:

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Also, I’m on a bit of a 1930’s true crime kick right now. I recently finished John Toland’s The Dillinger Days, which was fascinating mostly because I’d known very little at all about those 1930’s bank-robbing and kidnapping gangs. Toland’s book is well-researched, and it was written in the 1960’s so benefited from interviews with many of the surviving actors. Apparently some of the information’s now viewed as inaccurate, but I enjoyed the book. Toland did a good job of keeping criminals and cops alike as human, resisting the impulse to romanticize or villainize anyone (it’s hard to say I really liked anyone, though, what with the criminals murdering innocents and kidnapping people and often being sort of stupid and cruel, while the cops were often willing to shoot first and ask questions later and seemed a little too zealous in stopping the Bad Guys without due process concerns, except for a few who were often just outright corrupt).

Relatedly, I’m reading Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend by Deirdre Bair. I’d never read a biography of Capone before, and this was a very interesting one to start with. Bair has extensively interviewed family members and shares a more personal, intimate take on the famed gangster, often relating family stories and breaking down which ones are false and which ones have grains of truth. She also references other existent biographies. If you wanted a just-the-facts narrative focusing on Capone’s criminal operations and efforts to take him down, it seems like you might want another biography. But this one is beautifully written and thoughtful and engaging–the writing alone truly makes this book worth it.

Finally, I watched the 2011 biopic J. Edgar earlier today (directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Dustin Lance Black, who’s credited with writing a few other biopics; and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, with an excellent supporting cast including a single-scene appearance by Adam Driver as an overly earnest gas station attendant). The original FBI director is such a ridiculous, legally empowered super-villain, and yet the film managed to portray him sympathetically by (1) presenting him as a true-believer law enforcement reformer who bought into his own myth, and by (2) spending significant screen time carefully building up the allegedly romantic relationship between Hoover and Tolson. Hoover’s fear of his own sexuality and his deep (yet apparently platonic) love for Tolson are elements that may or may not be true, but without them it would be hard to salvage a likeable man out of this. Tolson also conveniently serves as a very soft conscience, who challenges Hoover at his most disgusting and grandiose, though he unfortunately always backs down to the director. We are left without hard answers about who Hoover was–just one particularly artful interpretation. Aside from the pretty bad Old Person makeup for later-in-life Hoover and Tolson, this film was quite good.

And now, sadly, it’s time for my weekend to end.