Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The New God of War Is Caught Between Realms

Can a videogame serve as an effective apology?

I'm not necessarily thinking in terms of, like, Ken Levine forgetting his wife's birthday and apologizing by creating a videogame that serves as a deconstruction of birthdays and the very nature of regret.

It's unfair and reductive to say that the new God of War, a distant sequel to the series of hack-and-slash action games that dominated the PS2 and PS3 about a decade ago, is simply an apology for those famously bloody games. It's a profoundly well-made game, a labor of great effort and passion, thoughtful and elegiac and deeply interested in important questions.

But it is, in many ways, an attempt to grapple with the complicated legacy of the original series (defined here as the three main games released for the PlayStation consoles, and not including the weirdo subtitled side games). The God of War series was a genuine phenomenon at the time the games were released - God of War is the 11th-best selling game in the history of the PS2, God of War 2 was the 14th-best seller and God of War 3 sold more than five million copies.

Still, for all the sales and all the acclaim, God of War had mostly faded from the critical conversation. There was a sense that the games represented a kind of evolutionary dead end - epic scale hack-and-slash action games that refined and perfected the form without leaving much room for future development. Dante's Inferno is what you get when you try and iterate from God of War, and that illustrates the point nicely.

But there was also a sense that God of War epitomized an immature, rather embarrassing era in gaming. The original three games weren't just bloody - they were gleefully vicious, glorifying in brutality and lingering on lovingly rendered images of over-the-top violence. And the obligatory sex mini-games in each entry were particularly effective at inducing eye rolling.

2018's simply titled God of War tries to avoid all of those sins. It makes a number of core gameplay changes to enhance the depth and breadth of the experience and works hard to create a mature, thoughtful narrative. Nothing in the game fails - every element is polished to a glimmering sheen and mostly works well enough. But too many of them feel awkwardly grafted on to a property with which they don't naturally fit, and you can see the seams. And those seams are enough to keep the game from reaching greatness.

Take, for example, the game's foray into open world exploration. The original games were essentially linear experiences, with some occasional opportunities for Kratos to wonder off on a hidden path and find some collectible or power up. But God of War takes Kratos out of his traditional Greek environment and plunks him - and his son Atreus - into the Scandinavian countryside, where there's much more room for side quests, collectible hunts, exploration and the usual open world flotsam.

There's no doubt this new landscape is gorgeously rendered, and there's a lot of pleasure in simply wandering around and admiring the scenery. But the open world element of God of War feels almost obligatory, as though you simply can't make a big, ambitious AAA game these day without open world exploration. For all the effort developer SIE Santa Monica Studio put into crafting the look of the open world, there was seemingly little thought as to how that world fit with the way the characters move.

The best open world games - for example, Batman: Arkham Knight - ensure the scope of their worlds doesn't exceed their characters' movement abilities. Arkham Knight, in fact, succeeds at turning the simple act of moving about the world into a genuine pleasure.

God of War, however, builds a big, gorgeous world, and then mostly expects the player to get around it at walking and rowing speeds. There are "mystic gateways" scattered throughout the game map that allow for fast travel, but their functionality is severely limited for the first 2/3 (or so) of the game. They're essentially one-way trains to a central hub -  for most of the game you can fast travel from Point A to the hub, but not from Point A to Point B, or even from the hub to Point B.

As a result, the player is left to spend a lot of time simply rowing around the giant lake the forms the heart of the open world. Again, this isn't actively unpleasant - there's some humor and character building in the conversations between Kratos and Atreus that take place on the boat, for example. But you're always aware of the time you're forced to invest in rowing across the lake, especially since those journeys are never interrupted or broken up by, say, surprise encounters with lurking enemies.

The open world is paired with an increasing emphasis on RPG elements like character and gear upgrades. These existed to some extent in the first three games - Kratos could upgrade his weapons and find power-ups that enhanced his health and magic capabilities, for example. But these upgrades were mainly found within the character's linear path - the new God of War fills out its much larger world with a much larger range of gear to find and tweak.

There's a lot of this stuff, but most of it fails to add anything truly substantive to the experience. At their worst, big, open-world RPGs degenerate into a quest for numbers - the player is less concerned with advancing a story or exploring the world than with finding a sword or piece of armor that has a slightly higher number in the "DAM" or "DEF" columns.

Again, God of War doesn't quite fall into that trap, but it comes closer than you'd like. There's the usual rush that comes from your first big armor upgrade, and a couple enhancements genuinely help - you'll definitely want the Niflheim Mist Armor when trudging through Ivaldi's Workshop in Niflheim. But most of the time you'll find yourself shuffling through various combinations of chest armor, waist armor, gauntlets and enhancements in an attempt to make the numbers on the right side of the screen just a little higher.

In theory, these combinations favor different skills and can be tailored to your unique play style, but the reality is that your "unique play style" is probably the same as mine. Whether you slightly tweak your vitality, your attack power, your defense or your runic abilities, you're likely to approach combat challenges in more or less the same way.

Part of the reason so much of the seek-and-upgrade RPG elements here don't really matter is that God of War's combat never really encourages variety or creativity. God of War is clearly going for a more grounded combat system than the original three games, where combat was a gleeful, acrobatic affair full of spinning blades and flying bodies. The new God of War is more indebted to Dark Souls and other games where combat is a careful, strategic affair.

Except God of War doesn't quite have the courage to go full (or even half-) Dark Souls, and instead settles for a functional, mostly pleasing combat system that never really evolves after the opening battles. You can rack up as many experience points as you like, upgrade Kratos' skill set to include increasingly complicated combos and, in the final battles, you're still likely to get through combat by mashing the light attack button and tossing in the occasional heavy or runic attack.

So instead of the over-the-top fun of the original series or the intellectual pleasures of a more tactical game, God of War mostly ends up creating a simplistic, unchallenging combat system that never finds a niche.

There's no real ability to customize your approach or tactics - you can't build a stealthy Kratos or a long-range specialist Kratos or a tank Kratos. No matter how you invest your experience points or which armor set or enhancements you choose, your game is going to look the same as everybody else's. That's not, in and itself, a crippling flaw - not everything has to be infinitely customizable. But it's aggravating when the game goes out of its way to make you jump through all the RPG min/max hoops, then makes it clear that none of it really affects your experience in a meaningful way.

The same sense of not quite here and not quite there drains some of the force from the game's narrative and atmosphere. God of War clearly has a more complicated relationship with violence than the original games - it doesn't want to wallow in blood and guts, and it wants to interrogate Kratos' rage and aggression.

But God of War wants to have its violence and critique it too. Kratos is more of a reluctant killer than he was in the original series, but he's still slicing through armies of anonymous monsters and demons. And while God of War doesn't revel in over-the-top bloodshed in the manner of its forebears, it's still more than happy to capture decapitations and dismemberments in all their gory, meticulously detailed glory. .

The core of the game is the relationship between Kratos and Atreus. And to be clear, it's exceptionally effective. The dynamic is heartfelt, the product of great care and effort. Director Cory Barlog and the other writers here clearly poured everything they had into sketching out the father-son relationship in God of War, and both the diligence and execution are easy to appreciate.

And yet...for as skillfully crafted as this relationship is, it lacks a certain specificity. In this sense, God of War is hurt by the recent proliferation of videogame stories about fatherhood. Kratos could very easily be Joel from The Last of Us through most of the game - he's distant and struggles to express his feelings, spurns Atreus' attempts to connect, realizes the error of his ways and eventually grows closer to his son. Atreus, for his part, feels both generic and surprisingly modern - he's your standard-issue gregarious little kid, always asking questions and annoying his withholding father, all while quipping in a discordantly 21st century dialect.

Look, stories don't have to be unique to work. The classic storytelling tropes exist for a reason, and even imaginative writers borrow liberally from those who came before. So it's no great failing for God of War to till the village commons.

But still, it's slightly disappointing to see a character with such a striking legacy reduced to the role of Grouchy Dad. There's only a limited sense of how Kratos' specific history shapes his relationship with his son, and the game is oddly silent about Kratos (kinda sorta accidentally) killing his first wife and daughter in the backstory to the very first God of War, which is the sort of event that would seem relevant to current family dynamics.

In the end, God of War is easier to appreciate than it is to love. It has the feel of a genuine passion project for all involved, and yet the attempts to integrate so many of the most popular trends in videogame design that have emerged in the decade or so since God of War III hit consoles robs God of War of some of the uniqueness its pedigree suggests. It's a mish-mash of game elements - all crafted with skill, but without an apparent sense of how they fit together and form a whole.

God of War, then, is both ambitious and a safe play, a game that tries to say and do so much while staying firmly within established boundaries. That it manages to mostly pull off that off is impressive. But it's impossible to shake the impression that God of War could have achieved more if it had committed to something instead of trying to incorporate everything.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Ignore the Sneering - Infinity's War Ending is as Mind Blowing as You Think it is

(WARNING: As you probably guessed, this post contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War)

I cried.

Not as much as some folks, to be sure. But I definitely cried during the ending of Avengers: Infinity War, an ending which saw Thanos acquire the final Infinity Stones, best the Avengers, snap his fingers and wipe out half the life in the universe. As part of that unprecedented loss of life, many of our beloved heroes died, fading away in a cloud of dust, including Star Lord, Groot, Drax, Mantis, Scarlet Witch, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Falcon, Bucky Barnes and Black Panther (who was probably a bit bitter about the ingrates killing him off three months after he made Marvel a billion goddamned dollars).

It was Spider-Man who broke me, if you're curious. Tom Holland's (apparently improvised) "I don't wanna go, Mr. Stark," while collapsing in Tony Stark's arms was as heartbreaking as it was shocking, and showed just how well Holland is able to inhabit his character's youth and vulnerability.

Maybe it was Scarlet Witch's look of forlorn acceptance that did it for you. Maybe it was Groot reaching out to Rocket as he faded away. Or maybe it was the loss of Black Panther. There were plenty of choices. Regardless, audiences across the country made clear that they were experiencing a genuine emotional reaction to a devastating ending they never saw coming.

To which critics have overwhelmingly responded: you're wrong.

Yes, the weeks since Infinity War's release have witnessed the creation of an entirely new thinkpiece sub-genre: the "here's why Infinity War's ending is no big deal" explainer. Here's Slate. Here's Vox. Here's The AV Club. Here's The Ringer (a publication that basically turned into The Marvel Post for a week or two after the movie debuted).

I could go on, of course, but that would simply belabor the point. Google is available if you want to find more of these pieces. There are a lot of them, but they basically make the same argument: what appears to be a shocking ending in which beloved characters fade from existence in front of our eyes is actually meaningless.

Let's face it, the critics argue: these characters are coming back. There's a Time Stone, after all - Thanos uses it to essentially rewind the movie, resurrect Vision and pluck the Mind Stone from his head (and if you saw a big Avengers movie taking a plot point from Michael Haneke's Funny Games, well, you're quite the prophet). The surviving heroes can do the same thing in Avengers 4 to reverse Thanos' success.

We know a lot of the actors playing these dead characters have lengthy contracts with Marvel. And we know Marvel has plans for may of the dusted characters - a Black Panther sequel has already been announced (Marvel having decided it really likes money), Spider-Man has just returned to the MCU fold and Sony is definitely not going to let its co-producing partner kill off the iconic hero, James Gunn has been talking about Guardians of the Galaxy 3 and so on. As a result, the critics say, there are no stakes here. This is all just temporary.

Here's the thing: they're (likely) correct. And here's the more important thing: it doesn't matter.

Look, are the dead characters coming back in Avengers 4? Almost certainly, yes. Some might not (Loki is likely dead, dead, dead), but the big name heroes...yes, they're probably due for some resurrections. That could be done well or it could be done poorly, though I think Marvel has earned enough audience goodwill to bet on the former.

But the idea that any of this is a surprise, or that it qualifies as insight, is absurd. Marvel obsessives have a better understanding of Robert Downey Jr's contract than they do their own mortgages. The fans providing Infinity War with the largest opening weekend ever understand Marvel's future plans better than most critics do.

The fact that audiences, in the stunning final moments of Infinity War, just don't care about any of that is a reflection of the movie's power, not a flaw. A movie is not merely a receptacle for world-weary analysis - it is an emotional experience. Art can spark a nuanced conversation or a critical insight, yes, and I would never suggest that those are illegitimate. But art can also speak to us on a more visceral, emotional level. It can bypass our objections, our preconceptions, our cynicism. It can move us and inspire us in spite of our understanding of modern franchise conventions.

And that's what Infinity War achieved with its ending, with the stunningly quiet desolation of those last few minutes, when the surviving heroes are faced with the loss of their friends and the enormity of their failure. It made the audience feel those things as well, and the emotional reaction Infinity War is able to elicit counts, regardless of what happens in the sequel.

Avengers 4 will not erase that emotional resonance, even if it literally erases what happens at the end of Infinity War. That moment in time - those stunned, tear-stained audiences - will always exist and will always be legitimate.

Take The Last Jedi, which Jesse Hassenger contrasts with Infinity War in the Slate piece I linked above. I don't necessarily agree with Hassenger's contention that The Last Jedi represents a movie that's uniquely challenging to its franchise's fans - Luke Skywalker still gets to save the day (if in an unexpected fashion), he still gets the movie's big, bad-ass moment, the movie bends over backward to save beloved characters and the purportedly "tragic" tone of The Last Jedi is entirely in line with The Empire Strikes Back and The Revenge of the Sith. 

But setting that aside (and a reminder: I liked The Last Jedi!), all of The Last Jedi's subversive virtues exist in spite of the fact that we know they're likely to be set aside in Episode IX. Does anyone seriously doubt that the good guys will come out victorious in the last movie? Does anyone really believe that the Dark Side will win and that The First Order will take over the galaxy?

Of course not. We all know that Episode IX will end as all Star Wars stories canonically end - with the Light Side the winning side. Whatever subversion The Last Jedi can boast, history will almost certainly view its as the temporary setback in the inevitably triumphant story cycle of this particular Star Wars trilogy.

And that's fine! That doesn't take anything away from The Last Jedi at all. Everything there is to admire in that movie will still exist after Episode IX. And the same is true of Infinity War.

For that matter, it shortchanges Infinity War to reduce the power of its ending to the death of so many of its heroes. Audiences were not just moved by the loss of these characters. Yes, it was stunning to see so many Avengers fade into non-existence, but it was also stunning to see Thanos flick away so many Avengers like so many flies. It was stunning to see Earth's mightiest heroes fling themselves at Thanos in desperation and then see them fail - utterly, completely, comprehensively fail, after a decade spent representing indomitable will and unstoppable virtue.

The most stirring, inspirational moment in Infinity War is the sudden appearance of Thor in Wakanda, wielding his new axe, forged by the heat of a dying star, turning the tide of battle as Alan Silvestri's wonderful "Avengers" theme kicks in. It's the quintessential "Big Damn Heroes" moment, all punctuated by Mark Ruffalo's hilarious, "Oh, you guys are screwed now!" (The movie's biggest laugh line in my theater)

And the movie brutally undercuts it minutes later.

And it was stunning to see so much of this from Thanos' perspective. What's striking about the last 10-15 minutes of Infinity War is the extent to which they represent Thanos getting his big act three Marvel movie heroic triumph. He has the huge army in Wakanda, of course, but in so many ways Thanos is the underdog here, the lone warrior battling the imposing forces arrayed against him.

The fight on Titan is a single man struggling against a super genius in a technologically advanced metal suit, a master of the mystic arts, a half-man/half-living planet, a bruising Kree warrior, a genetic mutant with the agility of a spider and his own super suit and an alien with telepathic powers.

And he beats them.

Thanos shows up in Wakanda and has to fight off the likes of Black Panther, Captain America, Black Widow, Bruce Banner in the Hulk Buster suit and the entire Wakandan royal guard.

And he beats them.

Infinity War's ending forces the audience to realize they're rooting for the doomed legions fighting against the unstoppable hero. And after the fight, after Thanos beats his seemingly unbeatable foes, we're forced to watch the aftermath, when the triumphant hero can finally lay down his burdens and enjoy his long-sought-after moment of rest.

Even more than the dusting of the heroes, it's the movie's last shot that sticks in the mind and refuses to leave. Thanos, having found peace and victory in the fulfillment of his destiny, but at a terrible cost, limps outside, sits down and watches the sun rise.

That's it. No swelling orchestral score, no moment of inspiration, no heroes crouching on a roof, watching over their city - just a quiet moment of triumphant contemplation for the genocidal villain. And in that peace is such extraordinary tragedy.

It is, of course, not the critic's job to merely parrot the views of a movie's audience. Donald Trump is President of the United States - the American public can make mistakes, you know? Critics have every right to dislike a movie that audiences like. Popularity does not equal quality.

But the inability of so many Infinity War critics to understand why the movie's ending hits fans so hard in spite of the inevitable Avengers 4 narrative fix represents another failure to grasp the emotional connection audiences have with these characters.

It's real, and it explains why this ending overcomes the genre savvy fans have built up over the year. And it's that connection that enables Marvel to pull off a gutsy, breathtaking, devastating and entirely unexpected ending to one of the most eagerly anticipated movies in recent memory.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War is a marvel

Movie: Avengers: Infinity War
Grade: A-

There's a bit of downtime near the end of Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War during which superhero/wizard/Captain Cumberbatch Dr. Strange uses his power over space and time to travel through the more than 14 million timelines in which he, Iron Man, Spider-Man and a couple Guardians of the Galaxy fight the genocidal villain Thanos on Thanos' devastated home world of Titan. Using these mystical Monte Carlo simulations, Dr. Strange can see that, in 14 million attempts, the good guys win...once.

He could just as easily be talking about Infinity War, which could have failed so easily and in so many ways. It is every metaphor you can imagine: a juggling act, a high wire act, running through a minefield, etc. The odds against getting it right might not have been exactly 14 million to one, but they were certainly long.

Infinity War might not be the Marvel Cinematic Universe's best movie. But it is surely Marvel Studios' greatest accomplishment, a beautiful, breathtaking adventure that pays off a decade of work with both epic scale spectacle and moments of quiet, introspective tenderness.

There was a great deal of snark when Infinity War's two hour, forty-minute runtime was announced. But what's striking about Infinity War is just how well and how thoroughly the movie uses that time. Infinity War never feels as long as it is - the story is pushed along not so much by constant action (though there is plenty of that) but by a propulsive narrative momentum that sees all the heroes of the MCU (save Ant-Man and poor, neglected Hawkeye) split into different groups with different goals and scattered across the galaxy.

Infinity War creaks a little in its beginning under the weight of the necessary exposition. We get another classroom lecture on the Infinity Stones - six chunks of rock created by the Big Bang and flung across the universe, all with the power to control the six crucial aspects of existence (Space, Mind, Reality, Time, Soul and Power, if you're curious). Thanos, who has acquired two of the Stones by the time the opening credits roll, needs to collect the remaining four to fulfill his longstanding dream: the death of half the beings in the universe.

But once the groundwork is laid, Infinity War takes off. The movie's greatest accomplishment is its ability to so well serve so many characters, including its villain. Infinity War needs every one of its 160 minutes to tell its story and explore its characters. It does this in part by putting all of them under extraordinary stress and pushing them to the breaking point. But it also does it by gleefully playing out the dynamics that result from bringing together these characters from such different corners of the Marvel universe - Thor and Rocket, Tony Stark and Dr. Strange (who's basically Stark with an all-powerful wizard's sense of self-importance), Bruce Banner and Princess Shuri of Wakanda.

Infinity War isn't perfect on this front. A few characters - Black Panther, Black Widow and even, to an extent, Captain America - are given a handful of moments that basically serve as a greatest hits album for their personalities (Steve Rogers is noble and brave, Black Widow is a badass, etc). But then, that's the strength of the MCU - a decade with these characters means Infinity War's decisions don't feel like cheats or shortcuts. Captain America has earned those brief moments of nobility. T'Challa has earned his gravitas and determination.

The movie is even able to find extraordinary heart and heartbreak in the relationship between Vision and Scarlet Witch, two relatively under-the-radar members of the MCU's hero roster, to the extent that it defines the climax of the film.

But Infinity War's best character work is reserved for Thanos, who, along with Black Panther's Killmonger, Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2's Ego and Spider-Man: Homecoming's Vulture, appears to have finally solved Marvel's famous villain problem.

The CGI in Marvel's movies hasn't always been as convincing as one might expect from a studio with essentially unlimited funds - the computer-assisted action sequences in Black Panther were that great movie's biggest weaknesses. But Thanos is a CGI revelation (helped by Josh Brolin's able performance), a figure of hulking size and strength whose face is capable of truly remarkable variation and subtlety. Marvel's CGI team succeeds in making every nuance of emotion play across Thanos' impressively expressive face.

But more impressive than the technical achievement is the emotional one. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo (who got promoted to the big franchise after helming the exceptional Captain America installments Winter Soldier and Civil War) and credited screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are able to turn the genocidal "Mad Titan" into an impressively sympathetic figure. Thanos gets his own twisted hero's journey in Infinity War: an origin story and call to action, a comprehensible goal and motivation, seemingly impossible-to-overcome obstacles and, in one of the movie's most emotionally resonant scenes, a heartbreaking sacrifice that results in extraordinary pain.

There's a surprising lack of cruelty to Thanos, this genocidal villain who willingly murders and tortures to get what he wants. There's not even the kind of matter-of-fact apathy to his actions that you see from the usual businesslike, cold-blooded professional bad guy in other movies. Thanos believes so deeply in his cause and speaks of it with such genuine emotion that the bloody steps he takes to further it seem (in the character's eyes, at least) believably necessary.

And all of the time spent investing in Thanos' motivations pays off with a final shot that is simultaneously jaw dropping and gently peaceful.

In every moment of Infinity War there is a sense of extraordinarily talented people doing their job well and with great seriousness, both behind the camera and in front of it. Chris Hemsworth deserves special praise for his work here - he could very easily have settled into the expected bland blond brick groove after the original Thor, but instead developed into a reliable comedic talent, and indeed carries much of Infinity War with both his comedic timing and his emotional range. Hemsworth manages to mine genuine hilarity from his scenes while still conveying the weariness and melancholy of someone who has lost everyone he has ever cared about.

There are so many other great performances: Robert Downey Jr provides his usual dynamite work as a more evolved, weary and wary Tony Stark, Tom Holland believably sells Spider-Man's enthusiasm and, especially in one heartbreaking scene, frightened youth, Zoe Saldana persuasively conveys Gamora's conflicted emotions as the adopted daughter of Thanos and so on and so on. The Marvel chain has no weak links.

That consistent excellence and care is what stands out about Infinity War and, indeed, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Infinity War isn't without its flaws - Thanos' cadre of spooky henchmen is mostly under-developed, and none of the action sequences in the movie reach true greatness. But it is striking just how deeply everyone involved with Infinity War cared about getting it right. No one is here just to cash a check, though the checks are staggeringly large. In a genre that's still fighting for respectability, even while dominating the box office, none of these stars is just marking time in a silly superhero movie until a "serious" role comes along.

Getting Infinity War wrong would have been so easy, and getting it right must have been incredibly hard. The fact that the Russo brothers and everyone involved did get it so right is a reflection of the great talent of the creative team, yes. But it's also a reflection of how seriously they took the task, how hard they were willing to work at it and how profoundly they respected their audience.

Avengers: Infinity War is more than just a great movie, then: it's an admirable one.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Actually, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Good

Marvel Studios' Black Panther is set to earn approximately every single dollar currently in circulation in the American economy - and rightfully so! It's a damn fine movie - you should see it!

And on the occasion of this cultural phenomenon, it's time once again for another round of every movie fan's favorite dance: the Marvel Two Step. 

That particular dance goes like this:

1. Critics praise the specific Marvel movie in question and admit it's pretty darn good, then

2. Lament the loathsome Lovecraftian leviathan that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is almost single-handedly responsible for the death of all that is good and decent in Cinema.

The discussion around Black Panther has featured a fairly common variant on the second step, which is to argue that the movie in question represents a unique entry in the MCU, something utterly unlike all the other films Marvel Studios has released over the last decade.

For example, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's review at The AV Club, which is titled "The entertaining and ambitious Black Panther breaks from the Marvel formula," starts with, "It’s taken a decade and 18 films, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has finally produced a superhero movie that feels like it was ripped from the pages of a comic book....Ditching the MCU’s familiar roster of heroes (they don’t get as much as a mention) along with many of the basics of the Marvel film formula, Ryan Coogler has turned Black Panther into a highly personal crowd-pleaser..."

David Edelstein's review at New York Magazine, titled "Black Panther Is Unusually Gripping And Grounded for a Superhero Film," includes such lines as "That Black Panther has a richer palette than its Marvel precursors is no surprise, since its roots are equally in pop culture and African folklore" and "For one thing, Coogler hasn’t explicitly connected him to the tiring Marvel superhero stable" and "Black Panther’s team is so wonderful that I hate to think of it being dulled by the mostly white-bread Avengers."

We could go on and find other reviews in this vein, but you get the point: Black Panther = Good, Marvel Cinematic Universe = Bad.

But allow me to defend the following position: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is good. It's good because Marvel Studios makes good movies, and the existence of the MCU means audiences get more good Marvel movies than they otherwise would.

What's odd about that proposition is that the conclusion is controversial, but the supporting argument - that Marvel Studios movies are usually good - isn't. Rotten Tomatoes has its flaws, obviously, but as a quick and dirty gauge of critical reaction it's useful. 

Black Panther is at 97% "fresh." Thor: Ragnarok is 92% fresh. Spider-Man: Homecoming, also 92%. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is at 83%. Doctor Strange, 90%. Captain America: Civil War, 91%.

I could go on, but I think the point is clear. There are some (relative) duds here: The Incredible Hulk is just 67% fresh, while Thor: The Dark World brings up the rear at 66%. But taken as a whole, the MCU boasts a truly remarkable consistency, providing audiences with reliably outstanding movies every year for more than a decade. And that's something critics agree with.

So why, then, have so many critics responded to the MCU with what can fairly be labelled existential angst? Why do so many MCU reviews give the reader whiplash, bouncing from praise for the specific movie to over-wrought concerns about what Marvel Studios is doing to the world of quality cinema?

Crowding Out...What, Exactly?

Within economics, there's a concept known as "crowding out." To vastly over-simplify (because I only understand the idea on a vastly over-simplified level), it's a phenomenon in which government increases public investment by X amount, but this has the effect of decreasing private investment by roughly X amount, meaning there's no net increase in the amount of investment in society.

Much of the criticism of the MCU is essentially a crowding out theory: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is such a massive enterprise, a factory churning out multiple high-budget movies every year, that it sucks in an overwhelming share of Hollywood's talent and financial resources. Any individual Marvel movie might be fine, but the MCU, taken as a whole, has a negative effect because it prevents the production of other, smaller movies.

To be sure, it is literally true that a writer, director, actor or other member of the creative team can't be on two sets at once. If Scarlett Johansson is filming Avengers: Infinity War, that means, by definition, that she can't be filming some other movie.

We've seen specific examples of this. To cross over into the jumbled and poorly lit world of the DC Extended Universe for a minute, Ben Affleck had to give up a number of projects - including a long-gestating adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand - when he agreed to play Batman. 

But that was only unfortunate because the DC movies Affleck has participated in since that decision have been utter crap. If, instead, DC and Warner Brothers had made good movies featuring Batman, it would be difficult for me to get all haughty about the loss of an adaptation of a Stephen King novel set in a post-apocalyptic America, even if The Stand is one of my favorite books in the world.

In general, however, the crowding out theory is melodramatic. Marvel's movies dominate at the box office and generate intense fan discussion, but for those who aren't fans of superhero movies, there's no lack of smaller, more intimate movies that recognize the only true drama is the clinking of silverware on plates at a tense family dinner. And these movies continue to attract critical attention and awards recognition.

The Academy Award winner for Best Picture in 2016 was a small budget picture about a young African-American man's budding sexuality - the runner-up (presumably) was a throwback Hollywood musical. The 2015 winner was a true story examination of child abuse in the Catholic Church. The 2014 winner was a technically innovative comic drama about theater and the artistic process. The 2013 winner was a brutal adaptation of a kidnapped black man's time in slavery.

Nary a superhero movie in sight! In fact, superhero movies have notoriously struggled to gain traction at the Oscars and other prestigious film awards. The fact is that while Marvel movies rake in the bucks, there's plenty of oxygen left for films that better fit the critical taste.

And while there are a lot of MCU movies out there, they haven't exactly prevented those involved from doing other things. Johansson, for example, first appeared in the MCU in 2010's Iron Man 2. Since then, she's released We Bought a Zoo (2011), Don Jon (2013), Under the Skin (2013), Her (2013), Hail, Caesar! (2016), Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Rough Night (2017), among many other credits. 

In other words, since signing on to the all-consuming MCU monster, Scarlett Johansson has been able to make:

  • A really stupid feel-good comedy (We Bought A Zoo)
  • A surprisingly thoughtful romantic comedy (Don Jon)
  • An expectedly thoughtful sci-fi exploration of intimacy and consciousness (Her)
  • A Coen Brothers movie (Hail, Caesar!)
  • A mis-begotten adaptation of an anime classic (Ghost in the Shell)
  • A standard raunchy studio comedy (Rough Night)
  • The world's most effective abstinence-only education film (Under the Skin)
All of which raises two points: first, the MCU has obviously not stopped Scarlett Johansson from making a whole bunch of non-superhero movies (and again, that's not a comprehensive list). And second, while there's some great stuff on that list (Her, Under the Skin, Don Jon), there's also some real nonsense. 

(And not for nothing, but take a look at the list of recent Best Picture nominees. Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for his role in Moonlight, and he played the villain in an MCU series on Netflix. Arrival was nominated in 2016, and its two leads play prominent roles in both the MCU and the DCEU. And on and on and on.)

Which illustrates the core problem with the crowding out theory: its foundation is the disdain for genre fiction that still defines much of our critical discourse. To treat it as a given that it's a bad thing for society that a superhero movie has "crowded out" other, non-superhero movies is to treat it as a given that those other genres are inherently superior. It assumes that losing out on a family drama so an actor or director can make a Marvel movie is a net loss for the movie-going public, because it treats the former genre as more legitimate than the latter.

As a personal preference, that's unobjectionable. As a supposedly indisputable value system that should define how we all look at the movie landscape, it's intensely flawed. 

And it ignores the fact that, in a hypothetical world where the MCU doesn't exist, we lose a bevvy of genuinely outstanding movies, and we shouldn't take it for granted, as many critics do, that the replacement films rushing in to fill the gaps would be superior. There's no reason to assume that, freed from their obligations to Marvel, the creatives in question would make movies that were closer in quality to Her or Under the Skin than they were to We Bought a Zoo or Ghost in the Shell. Should I be weeping at the thought that I've missed out on the chance to see the next Rough Night?

After all, how many more biopics do you want Chadwick Boseman to make? And how many more Hobbit movies do you want to subject Martin Freeman to?

All Marvel Movies Are the Same, Except the Ones That Aren't

The other prominent criticism of the MCU as a whole is that it's intensely formulaic - any individual Marvel movie is good, but the series of movies, taken as a whole, is too same-y, and so audiences are really just watching the same superhero punch-up over and over again.

And, to be sure, there's some truth to this. Marvel's movies share a basic three-act structure which showcases a big action setpiece at the end of each act and a big, climactic battle at the end of the movie. There's certainly a tonal consistency to the MCU. And, broadly speaking, Marvel's movies look pretty similar.

But to focus exclusively on the undeniable consistency in the MCU is to ignore - often deliberately - the extent to which individual Marvel movies break from the "formula" and find new ground. Black Panther is a bright, colorful film that explores difficult ideas with depth and subtlety. Thor: Ragnarok is similarly exuberant with its color palette. Both Guardians of the Galaxy movies are beautiful to look at, and, you know, feature a talking raccoon and a sentient tree. Doctor Strange, while a lesser MCU film, is quite visually inventive. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War both play more like political thrillers than traditional superhero movies. Ant-Man is a small scale heist movie that largely eschews huge stakes or battle scenes. Even Iron Man 3, while not visually or narratively unique, is a genuinely weird movie - often, though not always, to positive effect.

When attempting to define a set of things as "just X," it's not unreasonable to pick out one or two exceptions with the set to the general rule. But at a certain point the exceptions hit a critical mass that undermines the point being made.

It's fair to observe there's a blueprint to the films in the MCU. But there's plenty of room within that broader structure for directors, writers, actors and others to do unique, interesting, even weird things with their little corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it's neither fair nor intellectually honest to act as though those efforts don't exist.

Punching Bad Guys on the Battlefield of Ideas

The defining assumption behind both of these objections, which comes through in the (justly) positive reviews for Black Panther, is the sense that superhero movies in general, and the MCU specifically, do not grapple with big ideas. Your Marvel movie might be a perfectly fine bit of popcorn entertainment, critics say, but it's not really "serious - " it doesn't engage with meaningful themes and ideas.

Hence the praise for Black Panther, which openly muses on difficult questions related to revenge, racial oppression and the potential necessity of violent revolution. Jamelle Bouie's piece at Slate is a characteristically excellent examination of the film and its ideas.

But again, to treat Black Panther as unique in this respect within the MCU is to ignore so much of what has made Marvel's movies so compelling. Winter Soldier and Civil War are both examinations of loyalty and patriotism, with the former a genuinely thoughtful look at drone warfare and the surveillance state. Both Guardians of the Galaxy movies ask big questions about the nature of family and friendship - and Volume 2, as Siddhant Adlakha brilliantly observed, is a "movie about the varying ways in which child abuse and neglect manifest...."

And on top of all of this, you have the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, which is a meditation on power, how it should be used, who should wield it and how we grow to be worthy of it.

But even if all of this wasn't true, even if Black Panther was the only Marvel movie to seriously grapple with big, difficult ideas, it would remain true that Black Panther exists. Put another way, a cinematic universe that can accommodate a movie where the (black) villain's last words are, "Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, 'cause they knew death was better than bondage," cannot, by definition, be the rote, simplistic, unchallenging franchise its critics say it is.

Marvel Studios has built an empire out of Iron Man, Thor, Black Panther and the freaking Guardians of the Galaxy. Its movies have succeeded commercially and artistically because they exist in a shared cinematic universe, not in spite of that fact. The films have succeeded in building audience loyalty because they have succeeded in forging a connection between their characters and their audiences, a connection that is only possible because we've grown to know them over the course of a decade and multiple films.

If you just don't like Marvel's movies, if you don't think they're any good - that's fine. It's fair and reasonable to simply dislike a given movie or movies.

But if you grant that most of these individual movies are quality films while wondering why so many of us got emotional just watching the trailer to Infinity War, if it seems preposterous to you that grown men and women could have an emotional connection with comic book superheroes, it's because you don't understand what Marvel has achieved through the MCU. And if you think the MCU has lethally poisoned our cinematic universe, that says far more about your genre pre-conceptions than it does Marvel.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Jason Mendoza belongs in The Bad Place. And that's a problem for The Good Place.

The Good Place wrapped up its extraordinary second season a couple weeks ago, and the show deserves all of the hosannas that have been thrown its way since. The Good Place is really nothing less than the best sitcom on TV - Michael Schur, his writing team and the remarkable acting ensemble assembled for the show have created something truly delightful.

But The Good Place has always been interested in doing more than just telling jokes, even if it's pretty damn great at that. A sitcom can't be said to succeed unless it's consistently funny, and if a sitcom is consistently funny it can't be said to fail. But that doesn't mean it's humorless or unfair to raise questions about other things a show offers.

And that's particularly true for The Good Place, which from day one has - with great skill - grappled with the big problems of moral philosophy and asked difficult questions about the nature of human betterment and how the motives of self-improvement affect its morality.

And the show has a very clear answer to those questions. You can pretty fairly sum up the show's philosophy with Michael's impassioned speech in the season finale:

"Because of my accidental experiment, these four humans got better. After they died. That's not supposed to be possible. Over and over again I watched as they became thoughtful and generous and caring...."

It's a good speech, and Ted Danson sells the hell out of it. It's a wonderful sentiment, beautifully expressed, and it serves as a succinct mission statement for a wonderful show.

It's also kind of bullshit.

Oh, it's not all bullshit. In fact, it's mostly true. It's true of three of the four humans Michael is talking about. Hell, it's even true of eternal Siri analogue Janet, whose character arc has been one of the show's great successes.

But it's bullshit when it comes to Jason Mendoza, the lovable dolt played with such skill by Manny Jacinto. Because to put it bluntly, Jason isn't better. He hasn't improved himself. In fact, Jason's pretty awful.

None of that is a reflection on Jacinto, who has been a revelation in the role. But there's an extent to which Jacinto's performance, which has brought a real depth of emotion to what could have been a one-note dirtbag role, has hidden his character's lack of development, and how that static characterization undermines - at least in some measure - the show's driving ethos.

To use the clickbait-y title I rejected but am not too proud to break out here, The Good Place has a Jason Mendoza problem.

Every other member of our charming foursome has, indeed, shown the improvement Michael raved about. Eleanor has taken huge strides to make herself a better person. Chidi has embraced a measure of decisiveness. Tahani has found self-awareness and (a little bit of) humility.

So it's weird that, in his big speech to the immortal Judge, Michael highlights Jason's supposed improvement, saying "And now he's so much better." It's weird because Jason isn't better.

Jason's the same guy he's been since his true nature was revealed in the first season. And that's a guy who - in his pre-rigor mortis days - would:

  • Chuck empty spray paint cans at flamingos
  • Sell fake drugs to college students
  • Exhibit entirely too much passion for Molotov cocktails 
  • Get himself killed trying to commit robbery

Of course, you could put together a similar list for Eleanor, who made her living telemarketing fake pharmaceuticals to senior citizens. The difference is that we've seen Eleanor evolve over the course of two seasons - above all else, we've seen her grow to regret her life and her decisions and to recognize her moral failings. We've seen her try to become a better person. 

Can we say that about Jason? I don't see how. He's positively proud of the flamingo assault ("When I was six, I hit one right on the butt!"). In "Rhonda, Diana, Jake and Trent," which saw the group briefly invade the actual Bad Place, Jason doesn't just get along with the demons he and Chidi have to interact with - he gleefully bonds with them, connecting in a way that's too earnest for the largely guileless Jason to fake. 

Jason is not a more thoughtful character than he was when we first met him. He's not a kinder person than he was when we first met him. He is fundamentally unchanged from the person he was when the series starts.

What we've heard about Jason's life, and what we've seen of him in the afterlife, doesn't paint the picture of evil or even maliciousness. But there's no great normative benefit to hurting people through thoughtlessness. 

This isn't just complaining about a fictional character's personality flaws - these flaws speak directly to the theme of the show. It doesn't necessarily undermine the idea at the heart of The Good Place to say that Jason has never improved as a person - three out of four ain't bad, after all. But when your North Star is the concept of betterment, of self-improvement and the power of human connection to spur positive changes in our lives, you need to at least grapple with the reality that a quarter of your data set doesn't fit the narrative.

Or, at the very least, your characters shouldn't act as though Jason's improvement is a self-evident thing. There's simply a huge dissonance between The Good Place's conception of Jason and the reality of the character as shown on-screen. 

This particular failure isn't fatal - even great shows have flaws, and The Good Place is undeniably a great show. But Jason's static characterization stands out - not just because every other element of The Good Place is so well done, but because character development is an intrinsic part of the show's DNA. It's arguably what the show is about, in a fundamental sense. 

The Good Place has earned the trust of its viewers - it has surmounted every hurdle that its premise and narrative would seem to suggest. If, two seasons in, the worst thing we can say about it is that one character is more a well-acted amusement than a dynamic human being, that speaks volumes about the show's quality. 

Still, as we look forward to a much-deserved third season, the big outstanding question for The Good Place isn't narrative in nature - we know Schur and company will handle that part fine. Instead, the big question is how - and if - the show will be able to reconcile its perception of Jason with the reality of the character.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Top 10 Television Episodes of 2017

By the standards of most human beings, I watch a staggering amount of television. But by the standards of those who are paid to write and watch about TV, I've missed an awful lot. That won't stop me from offering an unqualified list of the best episodes that aired in 2017, of course, but keep in mind that there's a lot of great TV I wasn't able to watch this past year.

That said, the list:

10. Speechless, "C-A--CAMP"

This is admittedly more of a season achievement award than anything else. Speechless was one of the highlights of the 2016-2017 new television season, a genuinely sweet, heart-warming sitcom about an under-represented community that never forgot to be funny. Speechless' greatest achievement is its ability to portray J.J., the high schooler with cerebral palsy who is at the center of the show, with dignity and grace, while still mining his teenage boy flaws for sitcom humor. J.J.'s not a saint, he's not an inspiration - he's just a kid, and that means he can be gross and weird and inappropriate.

"C-A--CAMP" is the season finale and a solid showcase for the entire Speechless ensemble. Exploring J.J.'s first real stab at independence, "C-A--CAMP" is, in many ways, a stereotypical network sitcom season finale: it's big and emotional (there's a helicopter!), and ends the season on a note of small-bore change that won't fundamentally alter the structure of the show. But "C-A-CAMP" is a reasonable representation of an outstanding first season (that has been followed by a similarly excellent second season), and belongs on this list.

9. Lucifer, "Off The Record"

Lucifer is more of an entertaining show than it is a genuinely good one, and it certainly falls far short of greatness. It does a few things very well, and it has a keen grasp of those strengths. It knows the right tone for its story and characters, and it hues to that tone with impressive consistency.

"Off The Record" makes this list, however, because it's one of the few Lucifer episodes to try something different. By playing with perspective and chronology, and diving deep into the psychology of a reporter (played by Patrick Fabian, who'll show up again on this list) who's new to the wacky Lucifer universe, "Off The Record" represents a rare bit of adventurousness and ambition from a show that's usually content to stay in its lane.

8. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., "The Return"

One reason for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s improvement since its disappointing and tedious first season has been the abandonment of standalone episodes. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D found its groove when it stopped trying to tell isolated stories and instead focused on longer arcs, which provided a more compelling framework for the show's characters.

"The Return" is kind of an exception to the overall trend, then, an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D that stands out on its own. It represents a fitting culmination to the Framework arc that saw the main characters trapped in a computer simulation in which HYDRA controlled the world. It compellingly explored the consequences of the actions the characters took while trapped in the Framework, treating them as meaningful choices with emotional resonance.

But the real highlight here is Mallory Jansen (formerly of the late, lamented Galavant) as Aida, the former "life model decoy" whose journey to self-awareness and - of course - super-villainy is the best character arc of the season. Jansen's performance in this episode was, quite simply, one of the best on television in 2017, though it was never going to get much recognition.

"The Return" asked a pretty fascinating question: what happens when a super-powered entity discovers emotion - including heartbreak - for the very first time? The answer itself wasn't terribly surprising - it goes badly. But Jansen's furious, grief-ridden performance gave life and energy to the end of the show's fourth season, and proved that even predictable stories have the power to move us.

7. Better Call Saul, "Lantern"

Some of the seams started showing in Better Call Saul's still-excellent third season, especially in the storylines involving Breaking Bad returnee Mike Ehrmantraut. Mike's scenes were smart, well-shot, intricately put together and, frankly, kind of boring.

Fortunately, the McGill Brothers and Kim Wexler were still around to keep things exciting. "Lantern," the season three finale, (likely) marks the death of Chuck McGill, played with smarmy brilliance by Michael McKean, who steals the episode with a portrayal of Chuck's episode-long nervous breakdown that's as exceptional as it is hard to watch.

But there's enough limelight here for multiple characters, including Howard Hamlin. As played by Patrick Fabian, modern television's finest douchebag, Howard had evolved from an empty suit antagonist in the first season to a man of genuine strength and integrity. The scene in which he tells off Chuck, largely sparking the older McGill brother's cringe-worthy breakdown, is as much a catharsis for the audience as it is for Howard.

6. The Good Place, "Michael's Gambit"

"Michael's Gambit" isn't on this list entirely because of Ted Danson's creepy, evil smile toward the end of the episode, but that smile sure is one hell of a kicker.

It was easy to be skeptical about The Good Place's basic premise, which saw Kristen Bell's Eleanor accidentally sent to heaven after her cruddy, undignified life ended in a cruddy, undignified death. But The Good Place quickly put those concerns to rest, immediately establishing itself as the best sitcom on television, a show defined by its hilarity, thoughtfulness and intricate plotting.

All of that narrative worked paid off in "Michael's Gambit," the show's season finale, which revealed that our core group of characters - Eleanor, Tahani, Jason and Chidi -  were actually in The Bad Place, test subjects for demon Michael's new theories on hellish punishments. Punctuated by Danson's masterful laugh, this was the best sort of twist: utterly shocking, but completely reasonable in hindsight.

5. Rick and Morty, "The Rickshank Rickdemption"

Another season achievement award. Rick and Morty had a predictably outstanding third season, combining unique sci-fi weirdness with a genuine willingness to probe the psychological depths of its thoroughly fucked up characters.

Did Rick and Morty occasionally wallow in cynicism and emotional darkness? A bit. And while Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland admirably deconstructed the mindset of a self-proclaimed evil scientist god, there was still an awful lot of straight-forward "Rick is an impossibly awesome evil scientist god" stuff this season.

But that's nit-picking. "The Rickshank Redemption," Rick and Morty's season three premiere, was the show at its best - gleefully weird and satisfyingly subversive, with an impossible to untangle combination of sincerity and utter bullshit.

For the record, other possibilities here include "Pickle Rick," "Vindicators 3" and "Rest and Ricklaxation."

And shut up about the sauce.

4. The Good Place, "Dance Dance Resolution"

If "Michael's Gambit" proved that The Good Place could pull off an extraordinary twist, "Dance Dance Resolution", the third episode of season two, proved that Michael Schur and his team weren't taking any steps backward after a great first season.

"Dance Dance Resolution" is a sitcom triumph, a hilarious episode of television that manages to address every concern critics and fans had about the show's second season while moving the plot forward in meaningful ways.

"Dance Dance Resolution" sees Michael resetting his Bad Place experiment time and time again, only to be foiled repeatedly when Eleanor (and, in one particularly embarrassing scenario, Jason) keeps figuring out the ruse. No matter which deeply mediocre food item Michael fills the neighborhood with, or which torture scenario he conjures up, something always goes awry.

And for extra-special bonus jokes, check out writer Megan Amram's exhaustive list of restaurant puns.

3. Better Call Saul, "Chicanery"

The creative team behind Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad have many strengths, but the greatest is their ability to make high-quality prestige drama that's actually fun. These shows are complex and challenging and well-made, but they're also enjoyable in a way that much of our modern prestige television industry just isn't.

This isn't to say that these other shows are bad (check out #2 below) - it's just that Vince Gilligan and company have found a way to make great TV that never feels like an obligation.

"Chicanery" isn't an explosive bit of pulp storytelling, like Breaking Bad classics "Ozymandias" and "Crawl Space." But in its relentlessly focused, skillfully claustrophobic portrayal of the fraternal battle between Jimmy and Chuck McGill, as waged in a bar association hearing that determines whether Jimmy will lose his legal license as a result of his actions in the show's second season, "Chicanery" makes clear just how brilliant this entire group of writers, actors and directors really is.

It's probably not a coincidence that "Chicanery," like "Lantern," keeps Mike off-screen. The story of Jimmy McGill and his evolution into Saul Goodman has always been the show's best, and "Chicanery's" laser focus keeps the tension palpable as we see just how far Jimmy is willing to go to save his own skin and destroy his own brother.

2. The Leftovers, "The Book of Nora"

I'll confess, I sometimes found The Leftovers to be a bit of a chore. I often appreciated it more than I truly enjoyed it - this chronicle of a world where two percent of the global population had disappeared without a trace or an explanation always took itself very seriously, and while the show's exploration of grief and trauma was well-acted and crafted with great care, it was also relentless and unforgiving.

Still, there was no denying the show's quality, and it went out on a high note with its third season and - especially - with its series finale, "The Book of Nora."

Mostly taking place decades in the future, "The Book of Nora" highlights the grace notes that were always a part of the show's ambitious symphony. It is, in the end, a story of the necessity and durability of human connection and of our ability to find redemption and love in the face of extraordinary trauma and even our own mistakes.

In some ways, it was unfortunate that Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrota decided to end the series with Nora's big monologue about discovering The Departed in another universe (it makes sense in context). It's too easy to obsess over whether Nora was telling the truth, too easy to ignore everything else that was great about "The Book of Nora." And for a show that stubbornly insisted there was no answer to The Departure, just the reality of the loss and the necessity to continue in the face of tragedy, it was surprising to see just such an answer.

Still, Nora's monologue is beautiful, and Carrie Coon throws everything she has into it. And, in the end, while the show provides a possible answer, the truth of it is as irrelevant as ever. What's important is Kevin's final line: "You're here."

1. Game of Thrones, "The Spoils of War"

I've already written at some length on why I disagree with the consensus that Game of Thrones is a show in decline. If you're the masochistic sort, you can read that piece here.

But "The Spoils of War" is the episode that needs no defending. It's a brilliant, thrilling hour of television, one of the best Game of Thrones has produced. It's spectacular and magnificent and utterly exhilarating.

"The Spoils of War" reveals a creative team in perfect control of the staggering effects resources - both practical and computer generated - available to them. In many ways, it represents the culmination of six years of waiting for Daenerys' dragons to be fully unleashed, and "The Spoils of War" delivered on that promise in a way that won over even the most skeptical of observers.

And perhaps most impressively, "The Spoils of War" manages to hit multiple emotional beats amidst the blood and flame of the Loot Train Battle that defines it. Peter Dinklage manages to imbue "Flee, you idiot...you fucking idiot..." with all the intensity we've come to expect from him.

There were definitely subtler episodes of television that aired in 2017. There were definitely more emotionally resonant episodes of television that aired in 2017. But there was nothing that aired on television in 2017 that was as simply great as "The Spoils of War."

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Last Jedi and The Limits of Subversion

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a good movie. I'm pretty sure of that.

The rest of my thoughts on the movie are pretty jumbled, but that's not a bad thing. I'm still thinking about the movie about a week after seeing it, which is usually a good sign and more than I can say for any of the other Star Wars films (most of which I liked, to be clear).

But the movie gives us a lot to think about, and thoughtful people are going to disagree from time to time. What's most interesting about the discussion surrounding the movie is, instead, where reviewers seem to agree.

Here's The AV Club with "The Last Jedi's Best Moment is a 'Fuck You' to George Lucas and J.J. Abrams."

Here's Albert Burneko with "A List of Some Of The Times The Last Jedi Told The Older Star Wars Movies To Eat Shit."

Here's i09 with "The Last Jedi Killed My Childhood, And That's Exactly Why It's Great."

And on and on it goes. The gist of these pieces is basically the same: The Last Jedi excelled because it subverted our expectations of what a Star Wars movie should be. It rejected the old, well-worn tropes of the franchise and found a new path forward.

These takes aren't wrong - this isn't another "disagreeing with critics" post, though there's probably a different piece to be written about what it says that critics are all so gleeful about a Star Wars movie not being a Star Wars movie. The moments these pieces are built around definitely do represent attempts to subvert audience expectations - whether it's the deliberately anti-climactic reveal of Rey's mundane parentage, Kylo Ren's rejection of redemption or even Luke's initial discarding of his father's old lightsaber, there's no doubt Rian Johnson was able to elicit genuine surprise at any number of points in the movie.

 But it's in this ambition that The Last Jedi's biggest disappointment - and biggest missed opportunity - lies. You might be aware that there's a big wall surrounding your seemingly idyllic home, but you never really know its true extent until you walk right up to it and encounter it head on. And that's The Last Jedi's curse: in pushing the boundaries of what a Star Wars movie can be, it showed just how strong those boundaries really are.

Or, to put all my cards out there right now: Rey totally should have taken Kylo Ren's hand and accepted his offer.

It was in that moment after the assassination of Snoke, with Ren's hand out-stretched, with the possibility of the two young powers joining forces to eradicate the Jedi, the Sith, the Resistance and the First Order, to "kill the past" and forge a new future free from the shackles of this famous history, with all that in the offing, that a truly new, exciting and, yes, subversive Star Wars was possible.

Think of the dramatic possibilities that existed in that one moment - the possibility of seeing a likable, charismatic, powerful hero turning on all the audience held dear and embracing evil (put your hand down, Hayden). Or, perhaps, causing us to re-examine how we've always looked at morality in the Star Wars universe - Rey and Kylo, together, might not have been part of the Dark Side. They explicitly wouldn't have been Sith. They would have been something new, something unique, two wounded but powerful individuals driven by their own resentments, tired of chafing against the legacies of those who came before.

And we would have been forced to ask: are they right? Was the universe that came about as the result of the eternal conflict between the Jedi and the Sith really the best possible universe? How much had been destroyed in those interminable wars? Would things be better if all traces of the Jedi and Sith were wiped from the universe? Could a better world be built from these ashes?

We could spend the final movie of this new trilogy watching Rey and Kylo march across the universe, wiping out the Resistance and the New Order alike, building new institutions to replace what they had destroyed. Would Rey be capable of killing Finn? Of killing Leia? How would Kylo Ren react when he finally had the opportunity to destroy Luke Skywalker? We'd finally see the foundations of this well-worn universe thoroughly subverted.

This wouldn't have to end in a dark place. It wouldn't have to end in tragedy. There could still be redemption and light when the final credits of Episode IX rolled. But it would be something different - something truly unique.

But, of course, The Last Jedi didn't choose this route. Rey didn't take Kylo's hand, and she spurned his offer.

And it's in that decision that we see just how unforgiving the wall around Star Wars really is. Because Rey never really had a choice, did she? The Dark Side, a Ren-Rey team-up, the true destruction of the Star Wars legacy - the structure of the franchise ensures those sorts of stories aren't possible.

Oh, there's room for disappointment, for danger, even for the occasional tragedy - but only if they're temporary (or, in the case of the prequels, pre-ordained). Something truly transformative is off the table, at least in this particular story.

There was nothing in The Force Awakens that was as disappointing as Rey's decision to spurn Kylo Ren's offer. That's a reflection of the first movie's lack of ambition, of course, and the fact that The Last Jedi could elicit such an emotion is a testament to Johnson's skill.

But The Force Awakens was a palate cleanser, an attempt to erase the bad taste of the prequels and remind us why we liked Star Wars in the first place. It did that job well enough.

The Last Jedi was something different. It's a better movie, to be sure, and infinitely more interesting. Still, the great paradox of The Last Jedi - and perhaps its defining legacy - is that its ambition illustrates the futility of itself.

The Last Jedi proudly and self-consciously rejected many of the tropes that have defined Star Wars for decades. But for as many expectations as the movie subverted, the core of the franchise proved as predictable and untouchable as we always believed it to be.