Review: Sonic the Hedgehog movie

For Valentine’s Day, my wife and I saw Sonic the Hedgehog. Okay, that sounds like a terrible Valentine’s Day date, perhaps, but if you know my wife well, you know that she’s long loved the blue blur. I’m glad we went because she really liked the movie. However, I did not.

I didn’t hate it. It’s a middle-of-the-road, family-friendly comedy adventure. Ben Schwartz does a very good impression of Jaleel White’s Sonic, turned up to an obnoxious degree of hyperactivity, loneliness, and selfishness. James Marsden is Tom Wachowski, Sonic’s reluctant protector and partner, a small-town sheriff thrust into a larger-stakes scenario just as he prepares to leave that small-town life behind; he’s more charming here than he was as Cyclops. Jim Carrey is peak Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik, and most of the best moments in the film revolve around him. There are a few other solid supporting characters, including Tom’s supportive wife (Tika Sumpter) and his bumbling but good-natured deputy (Adam Pally), Robotnik’s long-suffering sidekick (Lee Majdoub), and the town’s lunatic hunter appropriately named Crazy Carl (Frank C. Turner). There aren’t really any bad performances. There aren’t really any slow moments (fast-paced is only appropriate for a Sonic film). There are plenty of jokes that fall flat, but just as many that landed a good laugh.

The story is remarkably bland and not much dependent upon Sonic as a character. In this version, Sonic grew up on an island that resembled Green Hills Zone. He was raised by a new character, an owl named Longclaw. His great speed represented an unusual power in the universe, and Longclaw wanted to hide it, but the reckless young speedster relished in racing about his home. Echidna hunters track him down and attempt to capture him. They mortally wound Longclaw, who supplies Sonic with a bag of dimension-hopping rings and tells him to keep jumping from planet to planet whenever he is discovered. The rings open portals to whatever place Sonic thinks about.

Time passes, and Sonic develops a quiet and comfortable life outside the small town of Green Hills, Montana. In a moment of exasperation and despair over his loneliness, he supercharges himself and unleashes a powerful EMP blast that knocks out power throughout the northwestern United States. The U.S. government deploys Robotnik, an unstable but brilliant scientist, to track down the source of the blast. Sonic prepares to run, but through a series of unfortunate events, he is tranquilized by Tom. As he passes out, he thinks of the city depicted on Tom’s shirt–San Francisco. Unfortunately, this activates a dropped ring, and his bag of rings falls in. Now he’s stuck on Earth unless he can get to San Francisco and track the bag down. When he awakens, he enlists Tom’s aid to escape Robotnik until he can fully recover, and then he ropes him into a road trip to San Francisco when he points out that no matter how fast he can run, he doesn’t know where he’s going.

Tom and Sonic form a friendship despite all obstacles in their way. The biggest obstacle is Sonic, who is truly very annoying. But Sonic and Tom do help each other to grow over the course of the film, and Sonic becomes slightly less annoying as he actually develops real connections with other people. Robotnik, on the other hand, becomes increasingly insane and destructive. The day is saved through the power of small town living and friendship.

It’s a pandering, soggy mess with plenty of moments that don’t make a whole lot of sense. It relies on excessive use of the frozen-time sequences popularized by depictions of Quicksilver or the Flash (and Sonic in fact is shown reading old Flash comics), yet it often treats Sonic as operating under normal human perceptions when that’s more convenient. But that said, it’s never awful. It doesn’t feel as fresh or imaginative as Detective Pikachu. But in a world full of truly awful video game movies, Sonic the Hedgehog is unique in being merely average.

It will probably make you laugh, though you probably won’t feel much else for this movie unless you’re a fan. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and my wife loved it precisely for the many, many references to the franchise’s nearly thirty years of history. I’ve played enough of the games and read enough of the comics and watched enough of the shows, and most importantly absorbed enough of the characters and lore through prolonged exposure to my wife, such that I often got a thrill of recognition at the various references made. References include:

  • The opening island and town both referencing the Green Hills Zone;
  • The ubiquitous use of rings and their distinctive sound effects, including a moment when Sonic falls from an explosion and collapses among rubble and bouncing rings, much like whenever he’s damaged in the games;
  • Sonic using attacks that include his classic spin dash and a variety of jump attacks;
  • A drawing by Crazy Carl that resembles the Sanic meme;
  • The echidna hunters at the start of the game resembling Knuckles and his tribe;
  • Robotnik having blueprints for other robotic vehicles that resemble some of his boss battle vehicles from the games, and a label in his breaker panel for “Badniks,” the name for his robotic army;
  • The basic plot of the game, with Sonic teleported to Earth, allying with a local, and being chased by the military/government and Robotnik, mirroring the basic plot of Sonic X;
  • Chase sequences in the latter half of the film referencing moments from various Sonic games, including a direct visual reference to the “City Escape” level of Sonic Adventure 2;
  • The mushroom planet Sonic intends to escape to from Earth appearing to be a nod to the Mushroom Hill Zone and perhaps more barren areas of some depictions of the planet Mobius; and
  • The credits beginning over a series of pixelated animations that reinterpret the events of the film in a way that mirrors gameplay of several of the original games.

I’m sure there are other references I forgot or didn’t even catch. As an example of a reference that I definitely didn’t get, but that my wife loved: there was a cowboy hat Sonic wore that was reminiscent of a hat associated with some versions of Knuckles.

References alone don’t make a movie good, though. At best, for a recognized property, they can be a nice sort of seasoning on top. But in this case, while I enjoyed picking up on references, I found many of them to be little more than reminders of what a Sonic movie could have been. There are so many different storylines, each with their own lore, and so many characters that could have been used. Instead, we take Sonic out of his element. While Sonic mostly feels right, and Carrey’s Robotnik seems just about perfect, it’s disappointing that none of the many other characters in the Sonic ‘verse were used. I think most people who became or remained fans of Sonic in the post-3D era are fans at least in part because of the elaborate characters with their colorful designs and distinctive personalities. The shifting relationships between characters, and the core dynamics that remain the same between the central figures, keep things compelling, at least on a soap opera-type level. And we get none of that here.

The movie was fine. I don’t regret seeing it, yet I don’t have any desire to see it again. But there is something that does excite me. If you care about spoilers for this movie, this is the time to stop reading. There were two mid-credits scenes. One involved Robotnik eking out an existence on the mushroom planet, further descended into madness and more closely resembling his video game counterpart. But the one I got excited for was the second: Tails appears! Tails! When Tails showed up, I actually growled, “YES!” He looks like the perfect boy that he is. And his voice and dialogue, however brief, were perfect as well–eager, optimistic, and determined. (The voice should be perfect, given that it’s apparently Colleen Villard, who voices Tails in more recent games and in the Sonic Boom series.) He’s using some sort of electronic device to track Sonic, he’s determined to save the day, and he’s also really fast (I especially loved that component–he’s often depicted as using a plane or some other technology to keep up with Sonic, but his original incarnation in the game tailed right along with the hedgehog, and I’ve long taunted my wife with “Tails is faster” based on our experiences with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 multiplayer.) Sure, I didn’t care for this movie. But I’d love to see a sequel in which Tails and Sonic team up. Even better, I hope that they return to Sonic’s home world–and maybe they’ll have the chance to meet with some of his other classic allies. I’m not looking for a Sonic Cinematic Universe, and I don’t want it, but I would like another big-screen story or two that realizes the potential of Sonic’s many supporting characters.

TROS and the questions that were answered

I finally saw The Rise of Skywalker for the second, and presumably last, time in theaters with my wife. It was her first time. She wasn’t a big fan of it (for the record, her favorite of the sequel trilogy was The Last Jedi). I found that I still rather enjoyed it. I’d started to dread watching it again because I recognized so many weaknesses in the story, and I had read so many critical reactions that I found I agreed with. I felt there was no way that I’d be able to enjoy it as much as the first time, if at all. Thankfully, I was wrong on this count.

This very well could be the dumbest main Star Wars film, but it’s full of emotion, a resounding score, and amazing visuals. I wish the trilogy had ended on a stronger note, but it is what it is, and while the story has many flaws, there are a lot of interesting plot threads that can be expanded in future stories. There is a lot condensed into this movie, even as relatively long as it is, and there are plenty of additions to the characters and larger mythology that can be mined for years to come. No Star Wars film is perfect, and the original final chapter in the Star Wars saga, Return of the Jedi, sure had its share of problems. So yeah, TROS can be dumb, and I’ll still incorporate it into my larger appreciation for Star Wars over time (even as I simultaneously become more interested in considering Star Wars in three categories: George Lucas’s vision as told in the first six films and The Clone Wars; the parallel universe created through licensing under Lucas’s rule, which at times influenced his own design and story choices; and the new parallel universe that covers much of the same ground with new stories and claims to provide a “canon” continuation to the original saga under Disney).

I started a post that was attempting to address questions left from The Last Jedi that The Rise of Skywalker answered. Whether one likes the answers provided or not, TROS did at least feel like a response to its predecessor, even if it feels more connected to The Force Awakens. That attempted post was heavy with spoilers, though, and I felt like it would be good to have at least one more view before moving forward. After finally getting that second viewing, I feel ready to share this post, now that the movie’s been out for so long that anyone concerned with spoilers should have seen it already. If you haven’t seen the movie yet for some reason, please beware of the massive spoilers that will follow.

The questions I’m responding to are those I specifically discussed in a previous post before the release of Episode IX. Since I’d raised those questions in particular, it seemed worthwhile to see how TROS dealt with them.

1. What is the fate of Kylo Ren? Will he be redeemed? Killed? Imprisoned? Could you even safely imprison a powerful Force user? And what would redemption look like for such a monster if it doesn’t end in death?

Well, this is sort of the center of the plot of TROS. We learn that he is redeeemed and killed. I guess we don’t know what redemption without death could look like. Ben’s ending works well enough, and his final sacrifice to restore Rey to life is truly a selfless act that is at least on par with Anakin’s own final sacrifice for his son. I think it would have been more interesting to see a version of Ben who has to work to atone for his past actions in some way, but that’s a lot to ask for one already bloated last chapter.

I’ve resumed my rewatch of The Clone Wars with the approach of its new season, and I’ve realized my question about imprisoning a Force user has been answered quite thoroughly in the new canon. We had the Citadel specifically for imprisoning Jedi, and a battalion of clones successfully imprisoned Pong Krell. For that matter, Obi-Wan was successfully imprisoned in Attack of the Clones, and it was only a screwy staged execution and subsequent rescue mission that spared him. Ben seems to be on a unique level of power, but it seems theoretically possible to imprison any Force user.
2. What will Rey do with the legacy of the Jedi? Will she establish a new Jedi Order or something else? Will any of her compatriots be revealed to have Force powers as well?

One of my favorite things about TROS was that Finn was revealed to be Force-sensitive. I guess not everyone registered that on viewing, but it seemed quite evident to me, and I remember reacting excitedly to moments demonstrating his Force sensitivity. His conversation with Jannah did everything but explicitly say, “I feel the Force.” I also read that conversation as indicating Force-sensitivity in Jannah and some or all of her comrades. And on second viewing, I felt the movie may have been hinting at Force potential in Poe (especially given his apparently impossible abilities with hyperspace-skipping). This suggests to me that the broad awakening of Force abilities and inspiration of a new generation of Force users thanks to the actions of Luke and Rey that was suggested in The Last Jedi has been preserved and expanded upon. I think much like the Jedi Exile in KOTOR II, Rey seems to draw unaware Force users to her, awakening their powers as their bonds with each other are strengthened.

Rey has become a Jedi and embraced the legacy of the Jedi. We don’t know, though, if she will actually train others. Her legacy is still up in the air, maybe to be explored further in canon another day.
3. How will this trilogy’s romantic entanglements be resolved? There are quite a few implicit and explicit love triangles. Will Rey end up with Finn, or Kylo, or no one at all? How will Finn navigate his relationship with Rey and with Rose? And does Poe finally come out as gay?

Rey ends up with no one at all, but she seems the closest to romance with Ben, unfortunately. I think the kiss is ambiguous, but it’s certainly there. Of course, they kiss and then he dies, so on the one hand that frees her up again, but on the other hand that could be deeply traumatizing for her. It’s crucial to me that the kiss is between Rey and Ben, not Rey and Kylo–he’s happy and light and good, having cast off his Kylo Ren persona entirely and sacrificed a lot to get there. Still, Ben and Kylo are the same person. Ben never really died, just like Anakin never really died when he became Vader. They have their excuses and dramatic metaphors, but at the end of the day, they chose to do evil. And they continued to do evil at every opportunity. Sure, they found redemption in a loved one at the end, but that doesn’t erase everything they’d done.

Finn doesn’t navigate his relationships at all. (How could he explore a relationship with Rose when J.J. and Terrio barely allow her onscreen?) He’s given a new female companion he spends his time with, who just so happens to be a female black former stormtrooper. That seems a bit too neat, and while they don’t become romantically involved, it feels a little convenient that Finn is paired off with another woman and Poe is as well, as if to suggest that they have heterosexual options and thus need not end up with each other, while also clearing the deck for an uncomplicated Reylo climax. I’m uncomfortable with the racial, sexual, and gender politics in this decision. Jannah is a cool character but underused, and she largely appears in support of and alongside Finn. I don’t think that’s a particularly well-thought-through decision.

More frustratingly, Poe is bonded to Zorii Bliss. Poe didn’t need a new romance story. Poe didn’t even need a new background, for that matter! His subplot and backstory feel incredibly arbitrary, like J.J. and Terrio decided to insert answers to questions that were never asked because they felt Poe wasn’t interesting enough. The inclusion of his history as a spice runner feels like a desperate bid to make him even more like Han Solo–and on this second viewing, I was all too aware of the reactions from fans who were troubled by giving one of the few Latino actors in Star Wars a character with a background as a drug smuggler. On top of this, Poe already had a backstory that was deeply associated with the Resistance and with the inter-generational legacy of the Rebel Alliance in non-film media, so this felt out of left field.

But back to Poe and Zorii. I was really bothered by Poe’s recurring attempts to get a kiss from Zorii. Even though they never do kiss, it felt like an unnecessarily defensive, hetero-normative reaction to FinnPoe. No, folks, not only is he not interested in Finn, he’s actually had an ex-girlfriend he wants to get back together with this whole time. Frankly, Oscar Isaac seems so half-hearted in his efforts that I’ve convinced myself that Poe and Zorii are in fact both gay, and that this is an inside joke between them. They’re just two old friends who know he’d never kiss her even if he could. While this works as a head canon, it’s incredibly disappointing that the filmmakers went in this hetero-romantic direction at all, especially when the only explicitly queer moment in this film (in any Star Wars film, for that matter) involves two background characters briefly kissing in the celebratory crowd at the end.

4. Now that the Supreme Leader has been replaced and Hux finds himself following a man he despises, does he stay loyal to Kylo? Does he lead a coup?

Hahaha! He does not stay loyal to Kylo. He also doesn’t lead a coup. He becomes a spy for the Resistance out of spite, and he gets shot dead like a dog.

5. Who was Snoke? Where did he come from? How did he influence Ben into becoming Kylo? And where did the First Order come from, for that matter?

Snoke is a clone, apparently. A clone of what/whom? I don’t know. Sounds like the comic series The Rise of Kylo Ren is addressing Snoke’s influence on Kylo, but I don’t know when or if we’ll learn more about what Palpatine was really doing with Snoke. And it seems that we still have an incomplete idea of what the First Order was or where it came from, let alone the newly revealed Final Order. Although Palpatine’s weird Sith cult activities and hidden Imperial military might fit in rather nicely with elements of the Aftermath trilogy, there are still a lot of questions.

6. Does Kylo really hear from Anakin Skywalker? Does he suffer from some form of psychosis? Has Anakin become corrupted in the afterlife even after his redemption? Is there someone else impersonating Anakin? Why didn’t any Force ghost appear to Kylo to intervene?

Turns out it was all Palpatine. Why did no Force ghost intervene, though? That’s unclear to me. In many ways, TROS didn’t give a fuck about the mythology of this universe.

Example 1: All the Jedi apparently live on in Rey. They speak to her and give her power in her final battle. But George Lucas had previously established over six films and The Clone Wars that most people, including Jedi, merely become one with the Force on death. Only those who lived selflessly could freely preserve their identities in death, not for personal benefit but so that they could instruct and guide others. Prior to the sequel trilogy, the only ones who preserved their identities after death were Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin, and while Anakin had a great sacrifice at the end, it’s always been something of a mystery as to how he achieved this feat. Qui-Gon didn’t even take his body into the Force. But now everyone’s back, for some reason.

Example 2: Before the sequel trilogy, Force ghosts seemed limited in their abilities. Obi-Wan could not help Luke in his fight against Vader, and he tells Luke as much. Obi-Wan often provides advice and information, but I don’t recall him actually acting on the physical world. The same with Yoda. The Clone Wars and Rebels provided interesting spirits and creatures that were specially in tune with the Force, but these were separate from the Force ghosts I’m talking about. The Last Jedi had Yoda striking the tree with lightning, but this was mystical and calling on a natural element; it’s not clear to me that that suggests he could have lifted an X-Wing or tossed a lightsaber. Luke has such a physical presence in TROS, and it becomes quite curious as to why Force ghosts wouldn’t more directly meddle in putting down evil.

Example 3: Anakin was supposed to restore balance to the Force, and while it was never certain what exactly that meant, it was generally agreed that he did do exactly that by the end of Return of the Jedi. And yet Palpatine wasn’t truly defeated, only deferred. I was more on board when we were dealing with a new awakening in the Force–Kylo rising in power within the Dark Side, and the Light answering with the rise of Rey. It feels like Anakin only inconvenienced the Dark Side for a few decades, in the end.

Example 4: The Sith had never before discovered the power to escape death. It was one of the ironies of Star Wars: if you’re selfish enough to do anything to survive death, you aren’t able to do so. We had Sith spirits in Legends, but even then they were typically bound to a particular physical element–perhaps a temple, a tomb, an amulet, or a weapon. They were not free. The Dark Side, at best, provided them an immortal prison. Now, it turns out that the Sith actually retain some form of immortality by inhabiting their successors. When a Sith disciple strikes down her master, she apparently inherits the spirits of all the previous Sith. This could be a cool thing–and it still bounds the Sith to one physical element–but it doesn’t sit easily with the existing mythology. Also, what is the trigger for this transfer? If Rey would be possessed whether she struck Palpatine down in a moment of anger or in ritual, why is there an exception if she gets Palpatine to destroy himself by deflecting his Force lightning back at him until he dies? How much was Palpatine lying about this? Perhaps he wanted her to kill him in the ritual tradition, and hate alone wouldn’t do it? But then again, wanting someone to strike him down in hate suggests that he would have actually been fine if Luke had killed him in Return of the Jedi, and that’s an interesting idea. Imagine that: Palpatine feels he’s in a win-win situation. No way the Rebellion can win, the Emperor thinks. That leaves three scenarios: (1) Luke is killed, and Vader has nothing left to cling to; (2) Luke kills Vader and turns to the Dark Side, thus becoming Palpatine’s student; or (3) Luke kills Palpatine and is possessed by all Sith, becoming a powerful, young new host body. Luke’s decision to stop fighting, and Vader’s decision to aid his son and defeat Palpatine, are unfathomably remote options for the Emperor. And it turns out he had contingency plans for if everything went wrong, anyway.

At the end of the day, while I find these new bits of lore difficult to reconcile, they are interesting. This is a movie that concludes a whole trilogy about legacy. Appropriately, some of the key new insights into the Force and Force practitioners relate to legacy. The Jedi are able to commune with those who precede them. The Sith literally embody previous Sith, spiritually consuming them. All Sith live within one body, the closest they can come to immortality, I guess. No wonder there can only be two Sith at any one time–and no wonder that the Sith are unique for Dark Siders.

Finally, while not playing light with the mythology, I have way too many questions left about how Palpatine came back. I have only read the first arc of Dark Empire, and that Legends comic seems more relevant than ever now. Certainly, Aftermath also hints at some of the Dark Side occult elements involved in resurrecting the dead. It’s not at all clear to me if this is somehow a reconstructed original body of Palpatine (and this seems unlikely, given how he died) or if it’s a greatly corrupted clone body. How will destroying this Palpatine prevent him from coming back? Are we really sure all Sith cultists were killed in that end battle? What about the Snoke clones in the canisters that were missing by the time Rey arrived? What connection does Snoke have to Palpatine? A lot of questions to presumably be answered some other day.

7. Who are the Knights of Ren?

Kylo Ren’s boy band. “Ghouls.” That’s all. Disney wants us to make sure to read all the ancillary materials, I guess. Star Wars has always seemed larger and deeper because of the references to things that aren’t developed within the movies, but this seems a big thing to leave so blank, especially when they serve as (nameless, faceless) tertiary antagonists in the film.

8. Were there any other survivors of the destruction of Luke’s training temple?

I guess we still don’t know.

9. How is the Resistance rebuilt? What allies join the cause, and why didn’t they respond to Leia’s message?

Again: I guess we still don’t know. Lando assembles a People Power fleet. Maybe people were motivated by the story of Luke’s sacrifice and the survival of the Resistance. Maybe Leia’s message did get through but people couldn’t react in time. The film starts about a year after The Last Jedi, but the Resistance is still more or less in shambles until Lando brings in the cavalry.

10. What happens to Leia? How does she fit into the movie? It seems likely that she was intended to have a significant role, but how much can she really appear in the film with the untimely death of Carrie Fisher?

She appears almost enough for the plot that was ultimately provided for her character. She proves pivotal to the final reformation of Ben Solo. On second viewing, it’s more apparent how little she appears and how much the movie is molded around what available footage they had of Carrie Fisher. Harrison Ford comes back as a vivid hallucination/memory to provide the final push, and I wonder if they would have used Leia in that scene if Carrie had been available. Another bizarre mystery of the Force: why does her body remain until Ben also dies? For that matter, the Leia material offers another example of J.J.’s apparent disregard for the new unified canon: it’s hard for me to reconcile Leia’s training under Luke so soon after Return of the Jedi with her portrayal as someone who had never undergone Jedi training in Bloodline. For the record, I was fine with her display of Force abilities in The Last Jedi because training isn’t essential to use the Force. But having her training basically completed, and then giving up her saber and the Jedi path, doesn’t quite fit with what is suggested in Bloodline. (For that matter, how does she know Rey is a Palpatine? When does she learn this? When did Luke learn this? And if she knew some of Ben’s tragic fate, why did she make the choices she did in allowing him to train as a Jedi?) That said, it’s not explicitly contradictory, either…


As a bonus round, I’d just point out that Lando appeared as sort of a retired trader / elder statesman, but the subject of L3-37 and her final fate is left unresolved. Bummer.


So, those were the questions I had going into The Rise of Skywalker, and those were the answers I took away from it. They weren’t always the answers I wanted to see, some of the answers seemed like very poor options out of the many available choices, and sometimes there wasn’t an answer at all, but it’s still clear that TROS continues on from The Last Jedi, continuing to develop themes and character arcs from that film even while making some course corrections to apparently better align with J.J.’s original vision. It’s very Star Wars of the saga to end with answers that often prompted even more questions!

My Favorite Stories of the Decade

Well, this is over a month late, but I wanted to reflect a little on the media I’ve consumed over the past decade. It’s hard to think about this clearly; my memory doesn’t work linearly enough to easily track the different stories I’ve come across over the past ten years. It’s wild to me that I’ve been out of high school for so long that it’s been almost 13 years now, but at the same time, it feels like it’s been even longer than that. A lot of my tastes and opinions have evolved considerably since my late teens and early twenties, which feel sort of like a single, solid lump of time, even though we’re talking about a period as long as almost two decades ago and as recent as 6 or 7 years ago. Many of the stories that defined my early adult sensibilities were first encountered during that period. I didn’t even start reading comics until late into high school or early into college! These shifting memories are even more complicated because on many occasions, I’m not encountering a film or book or game until years, or even decades, after its release.

I haven’t had this blog long enough yet to say that I really have traditions, but I do like to post a start-of-the-year recap of my favorite games I’ve played in the past year. Since we’re entering a new decade (even though this blog hasn’t been around for nearly as long), it seemed like a fun opportunity to look back over a longer period. But this site is, if nothing else, an ongoing catalog of What I’m Into Now, and that’s bigger than just video games. If I’m writing about any single thing on this site, if I could encapsulate what my mission is here, it’s to record how I react to stories across various media.

So, for a look back over a decade, I wanted to do more than just my favorite games. What were my favorite stories across video games, books, films, and television shows? But I have to then consider how I’m narrowing that list. For my video game retrospectives, I normally include all games I’ve played within the review period. I could simply include all stories I’ve experienced for the decade, but that’s just too broad, and too susceptible to inaccuracy. When did I really first watch this movie, or play that video game? What if I’d read something in my childhood but rediscovered it as an adult and fell in love? Is it fair or useful to compare an established classic with a new, unproven work?

What I settled on was a data set that only included works published within the past decade, from the start of 2010 through the end of 2019. Whereas my year-end reflections encompass five games, a list of ten favorite stories seemed appropriate for a decade–ten stories for ten years. That number becomes more interesting if I actually make it only one story per year. I’ve only been writing this blog for a few years now, and I’ve thus written more about (and paid more attention to) stories I’ve encountered in those last few years, and therefore my list would naturally lean heavily toward the last few years of the decade. To counteract this, I’ve decided to include only one favorite for each year, although I’ve allowed myself some latitude with television and have still included some runners-up for particular years.

With those rules in mind, here’s my current list of favorite stories from the 2010’s. Whether that list would be the same in another month or year or decade remains to be seen…Regardless, let’s get to it, starting with 2019 and working our way back to the beginning of the decade.

2019: Kitbull (Rosana Sullivan)

This is such a touching story. Beautiful animation, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Some people might view it as a little too saccharine, but I am here for it. I like short fiction, and this is a cute and compelling short film that demonstrates how a minimalist story can communicate something much bigger than its individual moments.

2018: Christopher Robin (Marc Forster)

Look, I loved Winnie the Pooh as a kid. The characters have always held a special place in my heart, and I’ve never really let go of that. Christopher Robin is to Winnie the Pooh as Hook is to Peter Pan. The cynical view would be that this movie is a nostalgia grab. But I still found that the movie spoke to me, aided by excellent performances and lovable interpretations of the stuffed animals. This is the kind of movie I could contentedly watch again and again.

Runner-Up: BlacKkKlansman was funny, challenging, and different. It offers wacky performances and outlandish storytelling with sadly too many truths and connections to reality. Probably the better film of the two I’ve indicated for 2018, it’s also one that I’d be less likely to return to.

2017: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)

2017 was absolutely the hardest year for me to isolate a single favorite. At the end, I’ve picked one, along with three runners-up. My favorite (for now) was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It might be my favorite video game of all time. It actually made me interested in Zelda. It had just enough characterization and backstory to keep me invested, but the story was so pared-down that you were often making up a narrative as you played through the game. More than any other Zelda game I’ve even attempted to play, this was the game that really showed the joys of exploration. That included exploring the world, but also exploring alternative options to combat and to puzzles. I just want more of this! I can’t wait for more news about the Breath of the Wild sequel.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson). I’m personally pleased that this list isn’t overrun with Star Wars stories. I picked The Last Jedi because it made some of the boldest choices since The Phantom Menace and The Empire Strikes Back before it. Each of these films took the franchise in a new direction and did new things with how these movies are made and what they mean, for better or worse. At the same time, no Star Wars is perfect. And for many, I just named the best and the worst of the franchise in comparison to The Last Jedi. Even setting aside the bigoted trolls, this film has resulted in a deep divide among fans and general moviegoers. For me, I love this movie and think it’s one of the better-made, more interesting Star Wars films, but it is a slower-paced movie with a clunky middle section, and as a result, I’ve always preferred The Force Awakens as a film to watch over and over again. After The Rise of Skywalker, I now feel that The Last Jedi was the pinnacle of the sequel trilogy. This isn’t some wildly experimental film, but it really highlights how safe J.J. Abrams played it with the other two movies.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View. This was a collection of short stories that retold various moments of A New Hope from the perspective of supporting characters. It helped fill in moments in the new canon, even while remaining a sort of canon-lite bit of storytelling given its dependence upon, well, subjective viewpoints. This had a lot of strong writing, too. “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction remains my single favorite bit of Star Wars writing ever.

Runner-Up: Kita Kita (written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo) is a weird, subversive, surprisingly sweet rom-com about two lonely Filipino expats living in Japan. The third act takes such a surprising twist that is initially absurd and ultimately sentimental, and it is that third act that makes the film. It’s a rom-com that stayed with me after watching, and I think it’s worth holding out as special for that reason alone.

2016: A Fox In Space (Matthew Gafford)

This fan production by Matthew Gafford attempts to retell the Star Fox story with a more “mature” perspective, plenty of humor, and an animation and sound design that echoes cartoons of decades past. So far, besides several in-production clips, only one episode has released. I don’t remember how I even found out about it. But I’m something of a Star Fox fan, and I’ve always thought that it would be fun to see an ongoing cartoon or comic that really mined the setting and characters while providing a more compelling narrative and a deeper lore. This fan pilot does that, whether or not we ever get a full second episode or beyond.

Runner-Up: Zootopia (written and directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore) is another movie that I can just watch again and again. It’s sweet and funny. It’s a little overly broad in its allegories about race and class, but it still has something to say for a younger audience (especially in that even a good person can hold prejudices they have to work to identify and overcome, and experiencing discrimination in one area does not mean that you can’t also benefit from privilege in other ways).

2015: Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)

I love Tom Hanks. I love Steven Spielberg. I love a good movie about an attorney working within or against the system to attempt to do good. I love spy stories, especially Cold War spy stories. How could I not love this movie? I hadn’t thought about it much recently, but my wife brought it up recently as one of her favorite movies of the past decade, and I found that I agreed.

2014: The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

Instead of a boring licensed-product kids’ movie, The Lego Movie was wild, raucous fun, loaded with a goofy, sardonic sense of humor and altogether too many references to the wide number of franchises that Lego has worked with. Lord and Miller are such a creative writing/directing team, and this movie has some tremendous voice acting performances. And The Lonely Island’s “Everything Is Awesome” is just such an ear worm, even while representing the bland consumerist society that we should work to shake ourselves free of. This is a movie layered in irony and contradiction; that a Warner Bros. production even attempts to interrogate some of the hypocrisies and fallacies of the very culture the studio and the Lego toyline are a part of is really something.

2013: A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan)

I think I somehow got this eBook free through some sort of promotion. Or maybe it was just heavily discounted. I didn’t seek it out, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. It won me over quickly, though. I was often chuckling at the witty language from the first few pages, and the story moved along at an exciting pace. This book is fantasy filtered through a contemporary reaction to Jane Austen and H. Rider Haggard. This book was so clever and original. I’ve never moved on to the later books in the series, but I’d always be happy to recommend this first book.

Runner-Up: Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro always makes interesting, unique genre films. Pacific Rim was such a fun movie, a joyous homage to the very Japanese staples of kaiju and mechas. Still, it’s a light, airy romp; it’s not much deeper than face value. I think it’s a lot of fun, and it stuck with me. That’s enough!

2012: Mass Effect 3 (BioWare)

On my first completion of Mass Effect 3, I thought the ending I chose was tragic but fitting. I chose Synthesis. It felt right, after all that I had come to learn about the relationship between synthetics and organics over the past three games. It felt like a satisfying conclusion to the evolving storylines and character relationships that had begun with humans shooting Evil Synthetics back in the original game. I liked that I still had a choice, but with the way I’d played Shepard, with how I’d interacted with so many synthetics and even bonded with a few, with how we’d brought peace between Geth and Quarians, this final decision felt like the right choice.

I liked the fusion of gameplay elements from the first two titles. I liked the exploration, the resource-gathering, the sense of a desperate fight against an overwhelming opponent. I liked fleeing from Reapers across the galaxy as I tried to reach out to new worlds.

I was shocked to realize that so many people hated Mass Effect 3, and that so many people hated it because of how it ended. Of course I’d love a happily ever after for Commander Shepard, but he became a part of everyone in the end; he became an epic hero to always be remembered. And that ending felt like an ending made for me; everyone played a slightly different character, with a different gender and appearance and background and set of personality traits. Their choices and experiences were all slightly different. We had to end it somehow, and the few choices available felt thoughtful. I saw the conclusion as beautiful and meaningful, more than Shep somehow managing to kick All The Reaper Ass would have been.

Regardless of how contentious the ending proved to be, this story was deeply affecting to me and felt like a satisfying conclusion to the saga.

2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks)

It’s kind of wild to realize that it’s been almost a whole decade since we last had a new main title game in The Elder Scrolls franchise. This might be my wife’s favorite RPG. For me, I appreciated the return to the weird that made me love Morrowind so much, that felt lacking in Oblivion.

The two factions in the great civil war that centers much of the game are both despicable, more flawed than honorable, and it’s easy to simply stand apart from them. Underneath the senseless violence that straddled a war of religion and a war of secession, there was a larger existential threat brewing that most people in the state of Skyrim were oblivious to or refused to care about. In a way, that works as a nice allegory for contemporary society and the impending existential threat of climate change.

I’ll be honest: I’ve never finished the main story. My wife has, but I couldn’t maintain interest. I spent dozens of hours in the game nonetheless, wandering the world, uncovering secrets, fighting monsters, taking on jobs, making friends. Once more like Morrowind over Oblivion, the game was at its most fun when you were making your own stories, not worrying about the main plot, and it didn’t try to keep shoving that main plot in your face like Oblivion did with its Oblivion Gates. Then again, I’ve played through the main stories of Morrowind and its expansions at least a couple times because they were so engaging and weird and ambiguous! Morrowind rewards textual interpretation, and I didn’t feel the same experimentation with ambiguity and competing narratives in Skyrim. And while Skyrim was weird, it wasn’t quite as original as Morrowind. The fourth title clung to The Lord of the Rings, and the fifth to Conan the Barbarian, but the third pulled from everything and in so doing made something that felt wholly original.

My feelings about Skyrim are complex, but I still lost myself in that world for hours and hours on end.

2010: Adventure Time (Frederator Studios, 2010-2018)

Adventure Time almost spanned the whole decade, but it started in 2010, so it’s standing in as my favorite for that year. It was quirky, irreverent, fantastic, bizarre, and funny, and it managed to tell so much story in so little time. Aimed at kids, but with interesting concepts (especially in the later seasons) and a strong focus on the complex emotional bonds and fluid relationships shared between the characters, and a tendency to reward attention to detail, it was just as fun for adults. Plus, it’s loaded with references to anime, old cartoons and video games, and Dungeons & Dragons. It refused to be just any one thing, and even by the end of the series, it juggled beauty and horror and an epic scope with sweet character moments and silly gags. It was great.

Now that I’ve reached all the way back to 2010, please let me know what your favorite stories of the past decade have been!

Retrospective: The Black Hole (1979)

One of my friends loves Disney’s 1979 sci-fi adventure, The Black Hole (directed by Gary Nelson, who is probably better remembered for his television work or the original film version of Freaky Friday), and he has encouraged me to watch it for a while now. I was interested by the premise, and with Disney+ making so much of the Disney back catalog available, I had no excuse not to watch it. It is the first of many Disney sci-fi and fantasy films from the seventies and eighties that I hope to watch over the coming months, and it was an interesting first choice indeed.

The premise is initially simple: the crew of a deep-space exploratory vessel discovers a long-lost research station somehow floating just above the event horizon of a black hole. After almost being pulled into the black hole’s gravity, they dock with the seemingly derelict station, and over the remainder of the film, they discover its secrets. But there’s so much weirdness layered on top of and woven between that simple premise. Please keep with me here–I’m going to get into a lot of the dumb and the bad at first, but it has its charms.

The movie starts off weird: the first two minutes and twenty-six seconds play the parade-style score over a black screen. We’re introduced to the (all-white) crew, with one blonde woman among the overwhelmingly male presence. This woman is a doctor, but most people refer to her by her first name, including the enigmatic surviving leader of the space station. She also possesses ESP, a concept that isn’t really developed much at all other than to provide a convenient plot device: she can communicate telepathically with the ship’s robot assistant. How does she possess such a power? Why is it treated as normal? How can you use telepathy with a robot? Why is the only woman, who is a doctor, largely characterized as someone who can feel deeply and sense the emotions of others?

The robot, on the other hand, is a purely Disney droid. He’s absolutely adorable. He’s bold and sassy and speaks in popular sayings and riddles. He acts like a vulnerable puppy at times but he always gets the job done when called on. IMDb informs me that V.I.N.C.E.N.T. is voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall, who does great work providing a warmth, earnestness, self-assurance, and dry wit to the little bot. As much as Vincent seems particularly engineered to be cute and likable, I can’t help but buy in completely. He was, in many ways, the heart and soul of the movie. He was probably the most heroic, and he was easily the most competent, all while poking big ol’ eyes out of his tortoise shell of a torso. And really, this seems exactly how you’d want to design a robot interacting closely with humans in an enclosed environment: overwhelmingly capable, but reassuring and cute, someone you’re bound to like and feel safe around. He’s the anti-HAL.

Much of the rest of the movie doesn’t make as much sense from a design or scientific perspective. The ship designs are cool enough but not especially memorable. The depiction of the black hole (and gravity, and anti-gravity, and exposure to vacuum, and comets, and so on) was wonky and certainly bad science even for the time. The ending in particular seemed to want to have a mind-bendingly bizarre conclusion like that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it falls flat, playing heaven-and-hell tropes far too literally without saying much. That we would have heaven and hell displayed was clear enough early on in the film, when characters would make melodramatic statements about how a black hole looks like hell itself or could contain the very mind of god.

You can feel Disney’s desire to cash in on the sci-fi space adventure genre. Star Wars premiered in 1977. Alien came out earlier in the same year as The Black Hole, and that year also saw a Buck Rogers reboot. Flash Gordon would release a year after Disney’s foray into the craze. Dune would come out in 1984. Sadly, The Black Hole feels like a movie chasing after the greatness of Star Wars and Alien, like the others. Its special effects are impressive for the time–but Star Wars and Alien look better. It has crisp, distinctive sound design, but it often likes to play with dated B-movie sound effects. John Barry’s score is somewhat generic and mundane, like a knock-off of a bombastic John Williams soundtrack or the older sci-fi serials that preceded them all, although when Barry’s score goes for an eerie refrain instead of more pomp and circumstance, it can be effective. At its worst, it makes action scenes feel even flatter than they would be without music, which is really saying something.

That said, I respect writers Jeb Rosebrook, Gerry Day, Bob Barbash, and Richard Landau for at least telling a new story. In a world awash with more Star Wars and Alien films, and plenty of other franchise staples, reboots, sequels, remakes, and adaptations, it’s refreshing to see something different. The story and the production both seem a bit unrefined, but this also gives the film quite a bit of quirkiness. And while the movie released into a post-Star Wars world, it feels more like it was an eighties movie designed to appear like a fifties or sixties scif-fi pulp adventure. It felt more like Lost in Space or Forbidden Planet or the original Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even though the story doesn’t betray the slightest hint of scientific awareness, with plenty of nonsense shoved in, it nonetheless focuses on a small team of characters who must face the unknown with logic, heart, and bravery. They aren’t going to start/end a war or get swept up in a religious crusade. The appearance of the costumes and set designs felt more of that earlier sci-fi era, as well.

It also did something I loved, something I believe I’ve talked about on this site in other contexts before: it mixed a big space sci-fi story with the intimate creepiness of a Gothic horror tale. That’s an element of the plot that I haven’t even really touched upon. But the secrets of this eccentric and isolated science station leader, his missing crew, and the robotic army he’s assembled slowly unravel through unescorted detours to observe hidden proceedings in remote rooms down abandoned halls, or in melodramatic yet polite conversations in an ornately appointed dining room. You can guess the abominable scheming of the villain in advance, especially if you recognize the tropes. That element of the film’s plot was almost as engaging as Vincent’s storyline, and more interesting. But I actually don’t want to get into further details here, because if you haven’t seen this movie yet, even decades after it came out, I think it will be more fun to find out on viewing it.

I don’t have much to say about the cast; the acting was serviceable, but I wouldn’t point to a stand-out performance, aside from Vincent and his charming older-model counterpart, B.O.B. (and wow, that’s apparently an uncredited Slim Pickens–no wonder I liked him). Other than that, whether an otherwise star actor or obscure talent, none of the performances were stellar (get it? space joke). Maximilian Schell portrays a megalomaniacal, amoral, and charismatic villain who veers toward desperation as his plans deteriorate. Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, and Yvette Mimieux are forgettable as the ship’s crew (yes, Anthony Perkins is forgettable here), but their scoundrel of a journalist attache, Harry Booth, is played with self-important bluster and a layer of sweaty sleaziness by Ernest Borgnine. No one’s acting is ever really bad–it’s just lackluster. But I suppose they did what they could with the script, which generally lacks much emotion or nuance and makes sometimes arbitrary character choices.

I discussed a lot of the weirdness and faults of the movie above, but I hope I also highlighted its charms and eccentricities. It was a fun family space adventure. It’s definitely a product of its era, and yet it reached back to pull themes and ideas from times that preceded it. It’s serious and goofy and engaging. It wants to be metaphysically intriguing, though it doesn’t have much to say. I never got bored with it.

To my friend who recommended it: thank you for the suggestion; even though I didn’t love it like you do, I did have a fun time!

The Rise of Skywalker, on first impressions

My first impression of the final chapter in the Skywalker Saga can be simply summarized:

 

I could rest on that. Just a few additional thoughts for the moment, though:

  • This actually felt like a satisfying conclusion to the sequel trilogy. It directly addressed a surprising number of the questions I wanted answered following The Last Jedi.
  • Critics are right. J.J. Abrams plays this film incredibly safe and attempts to appease as many fans as possible. I could see some people being angry about various elements of the film. I can imagine that most people will find something to like and will grudgingly accept some of the events in the film that feel like compromises between warring camps of fandom and ideologies about what Star Wars is. Turns out, though, in catering to fans, there’s a lot of fan service, and while I’m normally frustrated by fan service, I’m also (as it turns out) a pretty big Star Wars fan, and boy was I serviced by this film.
  • Most disappointingly, this film is cowardly in its LGBTQ representation. When I write more spoilery things, I’ll get into this more. If I were queer and hoping for representation, I might even be angry. The small concession to representation here is almost condescendingly small even as the filmmakers seem determined to walk back some other implicitly queer elements of the previous films.
  • Despite playing it safe in terms of filmmaking and storytelling, the movie does manage to introduce some cool new things to the canon Star Wars mythology–and to recycle some of the weirder Legends content in interesting ways.
  • There was a lot of great droid content in this film, and C-3PO actually gets to be significant again.
  • I’m feeling kind of smug about correctly predicting one plot point (at least, in a very broad sense).

Opinions will vary wildly, and people will surely have some strong reactions to this closing chapter. That’s okay; I’ve been a part of this fandom for long enough to be used to that with every new Star Wars property, especially the films. But even with my points of criticism and concern above, I still had a blast watching this. And I already want to watch it again!

Questions for TROS

In my excitement and anticipation for The Rise of Skywalker, I’ve read a lot of reviews today. And those reviews have largely made me nervous about the outcome. But I’m going to try to reserve judgment until after I’ve seen it. And honestly, I end up liking just about every new Star Wars thing because it’s STAR WARS! Over on Eleven-ThirtyEight, editor Mike Cooper published an essay today explaining his feelings for Star Wars that resonates with me strongly. I can’t recommend reading that enough.

What I thought I’d do is write out what I want to see answered or addressed in The Rise of Skywalker. It’s not speculation, and I’m not going to try to preemptively respond to concerns raised in the reviews. It might be a little silly, now that Episode IX is being marketed as the culmination of the entire saga, but my questions mostly emerge from the state of the galaxy at the end of The Last Jedi.

  1. What is the fate of Kylo Ren? Will he be redeemed? Killed? Imprisoned? Could you even safely imprison a powerful Force user? And what would redemption look like for such a monster if it doesn’t end in death?
  2. What will Rey do with the legacy of the Jedi? Will she establish a new Jedi Order or something else? Will any of her compatriots be revealed to have Force powers as well?
  3. How will this trilogy’s romantic entanglements be resolved? There are quite a few implicit and explicit love triangles. Will Rey end up with Finn, or Kylo (I sure hope not!), or no one at all? How will Finn navigate his relationship with Rey and with Rose? And does Poe finally come out as gay? (Poe is gay. I’m convinced of that. Unfortunately, I doubt that will ever be confirmed in a canon source.)
  4. Now that the Supreme Leader has been replaced and Hux finds himself following a man he despises, does he stay loyal to Kylo? Does he lead a coup?
  5. Who was Snoke? Where did he come from? How did he influence Ben into becoming Kylo? And where did the First Order come from, for that matter?
  6. Does Kylo really hear from Anakin Skywalker? Does he suffer from some form of psychosis? Has Anakin become corrupted in the afterlife even after his redemption? Is there someone else impersonating Anakin? Why didn’t any Force ghost appear to Kylo to intervene?
  7. Who are the Knights of Ren?
  8. Were there any other survivors of the destruction of Luke’s training temple?
  9. How is the Resistance rebuilt? What allies join the cause, and why didn’t they respond to Leia’s message?
  10. What happens to Leia? How does she fit into the movie? It seems likely that she was intended to have a significant role, but how much can she really appear in the film with the untimely death of Carrie Fisher?

We’ll see what answers J.J. Abrams and company provide. And that leaves me with a final question: what if we saw an Episode IX written and directed by Rian Johnson, or someone new entirely, instead of the director known for making safe, slick stories reliant upon nostalgia?

When the Joker gets serious

I saw Joker a few weeks back, and while it was a hard film to watch, it was an interesting film, especially when read as an homage to eighties-era Scorsese films. And of course Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck, the disturbed and isolated man who would become this version of the Joker, is fascinating. The combination of his delivery, the intensity and brutality and concreteness of the moments of violence on-screen, and the disconcerting music made watching it a rather distressing and memorable experience. It’s a good film, and there’s a lot to chew on about mental illness, societal responsibility, and the politicization of individual disaffection and violence. I don’t think it offers clear answers to these larger implicated questions; everything is complex, disturbed, and somewhat peripheral to Fleck’s awareness, and it is through Fleck, a very unreliable narrator, that we perceive his world.

Screenshot 2019-11-24 at 10.58.45 PM.png

I’ve been meaning to say something, anything, about this film since watching it. But it’s been hard for me. Sam was very deeply affected by the movie, by its tone and its sounds and Fleck’s pathetic isolation and silent misery, his eagerness for approval even when perpetually faced with dejection. A particular moment hit us hard: when we see his notebook of stand-up material, with the page that reads, to paraphrase, that the worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to act like you don’t. Sam’s mental health struggles are nothing like Fleck’s, but there are enough connections to be made in the broad strokes that she could, as a naturally empathetic person who tends to believe the worst about herself, see elements of her own life and mental illness in his experiences. She actually had to walk out of the theater within the first half. While Fleck’s condition might not look, in particular, like anyone else’s, his experience is nonetheless grounded in that of those suffering with severe mental illnesses. And it is impressive that Joker makes us, whether we want to or not, sympathize (or even empathize) with this man until we reach a point where we cannot any longer. He crosses a line, many lines in fact, lashing out violently, going further than necessary, delighting in that violence, embracing the darkness and chaos, finding humor and delight in the suffering of others. We can sympathize with him until he shows us that he has no sympathy or compassion himself, that he has been twisted into something tragically evil. Still, Fleck is a man who needs help, and the system fails him at every critical step throughout the film.

It’s sad that so much of the conversation around The Joker was focused on whether he emulated or idolized disturbed, extremist white men like contemporary “incels.” If incels choose to idolize him, they are very clearly missing the point. He is not a hero. But this is reflected within the narrative events of the movie. Fleck is disturbed and violent; he’s not an icon of the oppressed or impoverished or disaffected. And yet we see people rallying around him, taking on his clown identity as though wearing Guy Fawkes masks. They misinterpret his illness as inspiration, all evidence to the contrary. Fleck cannot understand the political ramifications of his actions; he cannot accurately interpret why people are choosing to use his likeness. He sees himself as apolitical–this isn’t quite true, but his actions are devoid of a political purpose, and the political is broader than his individual situation, which serves as a single anecdote to showcase the failings of Gotham (a very obvious New York stand-in here) in its care for its most vulnerable members. Even the mob-like activism that forms around Fleck seems unclear about what exactly it is for. They definitely don’t want a Mayor Wayne, and they think that rich people suck. We don’t see any solutions, except for anarchic violence. And that violence seems to mostly come from white men. White men unhappy with the perceived elite, lashing out any way they want, with the goal of causing pain and terror, tearing down rather than building up. On the one hand, we have the unconcerned wealthy, represented in the white male mayoral candidate of Thomas Wayne, and on the other we have other white men who would choose to blow everything up when they feel slighted. It feels as much a moment of the eighties in which the film is set as it does a moment for our modern era.

I want to make a hard pivot here to the Telltale Batman games. Joker prompted me to give the first five-episode game another try, this time on the Switch. I plowed through it over about a week, playing roughly an episode a night. Then I moved on to The Enemy Within, again moving at the rate of about an episode a night. These games really shine in their narrative, their characterizations, their willingness to do fresh and wildly divergent things with established Batman lore as contained within their pocket-universe continuity, and their ability to give the impression that your choices really matter and that those choices often cause as much harm as good. But for this post, I bring them up because they also portrayed mental illness in a mostly sympathetic way. It’s interesting, though hardly original, to reflect on just how many Batman villains suffer from a mental illness, and how those mental illnesses often are totally distinct, even as the villains (and Batman himself) might just get labeled “psychopaths.” In the Telltale games, you have some choice in how you play your Batman and thus how you respond to others, but it’s hard not to see, for instance, how much Harvey Dent suffers with his compulsions. He’s driven by a series of very traumatic events that finally drive him to a psychotic break and a spree of violence.  I tended to play my Batman as merciful and focused on justice, so my Bruce Wayne often empathized with his foes, acknowledging their suffering, pleading with them to seek help.

I don’t know if a harder, crueler Batman wouldn’t have provided as many moments to view the villains compassionately. But my Bruce never gave up on Harvey. And in The Enemy Within, he never gave up on John Doe, the nascent Joker. In Telltale’s Batman games, John Doe is a known entity in Arkham Asylum. He’s intelligent, charismatic, and eager to please his heroes. But he mocks and subverts authority figures (at first, just behind their backs) and delights in violence. Over the course of the games, especially the sequel, you have the option to influence how John Doe develops; you in effect determine what sort of Joker he will be. He has three key role models: Batman, Bruce Wayne, and Harley Quinn. If you show him trust and respect, he will reciprocate. And he quickly learns that Batman and Bruce Wayne are one and the same, but he doesn’t let on right away. Because I quickly grew attached to this outcast, so lost on release from the mental institution and so eager to find connection, I was determined to try to help him find a path of stability. The two main outcomes are either a cruel, unhinged villain or an excessively violent vigilante. Either way, he eventually becomes so violent and destabilized that Batman must defeat him. At the end of my experience, a vigilante Joker finally went too far, feeling betrayed by Batman and gruesomely killing several law enforcement agents. Batman and the Joker had a brutal fight. In the end, when Joker was finally subdued, I still chose to reinforce to him, when he asked, that we had been friends. The worst thing for the Joker was that he had to return to Arkham, back to the beginning, which seemed to be a denial of his development as a person, at least in his mind. But because I had treated him as a friend, the final scene of the game depicts Bruce, as Bruce, visiting an obviously delighted Joker in his cell.

FB_IMG_1574646038478

The games did so many interesting things with new and established characters, but I just wanted to focus on their depiction of the Joker here. It was impressive that the game could clearly show that he was doing vile things, for which incarceration and (probably permanent) removal from the public was appropriate, while still showing that he was struggling with a variety of mental illnesses that propelled him down his path. Joker should not have been out on the street, unsupported and unattended to. As a result, he did horrible things. He was still a human, regardless.

Of course, most people with mental illness are never going to be violent. And there are many types of mental illnesses, most not creating a profile of the “criminally insane.” But there are some people out there with severe mental illnesses, who could hurt themselves or others, and the existing mental health and justice systems just aren’t adequately helping to avoid disaster. Arthur Fleck and John Doe are not representative of someone suffering from bipolar disorder or anxiety. But it was refreshing to see these properties seriously wrangle with the troubled mental states of the Joker and other Batman characters, rather than taking it for granted that they were reducible to terms like “evil” or generically “psychotic.” Think of other big-screen depictions of the Joker: Nicholson’s prankster-gangster, Ledger’s chaotic force rejecting any single narrative or any ability to understand him, or Leto’s abusive and animalistic thug. Even though Leto’s Joker has a defined background as a mental patient who escaped via manipulating and dominating a psychologist, his mental state is of no concern to the events of Suicide Squad. He’s melodramatic and high-octane, a caricature. Nicholson and Ledger are foils and obstacles to Batman. Nicholson’s version creates Batman by killing his parents; Batman creates the Joker by knocking the murderer into a vat of chemicals. Joker emerges fully formed as a lunatic with a deadly sense of humor. And Ledger’s Joker defies characterization; as masterful as Ledger is in the role, his version of the character is more a philosophical conundrum, a challenge to Batman’s attempt to restore justice and order to Gotham. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” and we are not allowed to understand such a man.

Works like Joker and the Telltale Batman games show us humanity in a deranged villain. We don’t need to defend his actions or provide excuses for his behavior; we don’t need to take his side (and we shouldn’t). But we should examine how our society allows these personalities to form, allows violence and bloodshed to be unleashed before we think to even get involved. And what of the many more who never become violent, who perhaps languish in poverty or homelessness, ignored by us all? The Joker forces us to see him, just as select offenders involved in sensational crimes force us to see them. But we so often choose to ignore the suffering of others, so long as they never redirect that suffering toward us.

Further Reading

Hoskins, “Justices sharply split on insanity defense case,” The Indiana Lawyer, 23 Dec 2010.

Mental illness and violence,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Health Publishing – Harvard Medical School, Jan 2011.

Odendahl, “Indiana’s struggle with insanity defense mirrors coming SCOTUS case,” The Indiana Lawyer, 5 Sep 2019.

Raphelson, “How The Loss Of U.S. Psychiatric Hospitals Led To A Mental Health Crisis,” NPR, 30 Nov 2017.