Fantastic 4 and the Case for Story Arcs

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I recently saw Fantastic Four (2015), or “Fant4stic” as it’s come to be called, to differentiate it from the 2005 film of the same name. It was bad, for a lot of the same reasons that other recent superhero movies have been bad. I don’t doubt that the story had potential, and director Josh Trank’s original cut might have even been good, before 20th Century Fox started meddling with it. But the potential good version of this movie never made it to theaters, and as the director himself said, we’ll probably never see it. What we do have is a cut of the movie that’s shoddily made–and worse, poorly written. Hard as it tried, the movie just isn’t very good, and I’m ready to talk about why.

(Here’s a hint: It’s not Michael B. Jordan’s fault.)

The biggest problem with Fantastic Four (2015) is that it has no story arc and no character arcs. The characters experience changes in circumstance over the course of the movie, but none of them change internally, and no greater point or theme is examined. This makes the story totally unengaging and dull.

(Let me pause here to say that there is no one thing wrong with this movie. I’m going to focus on the writing, since that’s the area I’m most qualified to talk about and the biggest problem I found, but this film is rife with problems. It seems to be attempting a darker, grittier tone, but has nothing of substance backing that up. It has the same terrible color grading that Batman v. Superman had. The visual design is incredibly poor, making things that should be cool and interesting look boring. The editing, although mostly serviceable, doesn’t hit the story beats that it should and can’t hide certain bad shot compositions. When I said this movie was shoddily made, I meant it.)

There are five main characters in Fantastic Four: Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, Ben Grimm, and Victor Von Doom. Victor, of course, becomes the villain of the story once he gains powers, while the other four become the superhero team bent on taking him down. The problem, as I stated before, is that none of these people have any real personality. Reed and Sue get the worst of it: all that can really be said about them is that Reed is a genius and Sue is good at reading people. Neither of them have an arc or even change much at all over the course of the story, despite supposedly being the male and female leads.

This is especially frustrating because Reed Richards is a flawed character. He’s repeatedly portrayed as selfish and too focused on science for science’s sake. It wouldn’t have taken much to show him changing, realizing that being part of a team means being there for your teammates. The movie even has the perfect opportunity to set this up: there’s a scene near the beginning where Sue point-blank tells Reed that he wants fame, and that he’s only out for himself. Reed rejects this; his actions later on indicate that he might be motivated by fame, but then the movie skips to a year later and that plot thread is cut off. That original conversation between Sue and Reed could’ve been the perfect opportunity to set up an actual conflict, where Reed is selfish and fame-seeking and Sue deliberately distances herself from him and everyone else so she doesn’t have to deal with their repetitive nonsense. But it doesn’t; neither character goes anywhere, and by the end we’re still not sure what they’re like as people.

Johnny Storm is the same character he’s always been: hot-headed, impulsive, and careless. He’s smart too, and good at building things, but doesn’t see the value in working in a lab. After the movie’s one-year time skip, Johnny seems the least bothered by his powers and new living situation; he’s just as impulsive as ever, jumping into a career with the military with barely a thought. And then the climax happens, and by the end of the movie Johnny is the same as he ever was. He’s arguably better off than Sue or Reed, since he as least has an identifiable personality; but he’s still a static character. He has no change, or growth, or arc. And the supposed sibling relationship between him and Sue is barely there.

Victor Von Doom is the villain of this movie. If you couldn’t figure that out from his name, you probably could from his constant abrasiveness and the anti-establishment remarks he makes every few minutes. In this version of the origin story Victor gets lost in the negative zone Planet Zero, and emerges a year later with metal skin, telekinetic powers, and a thirst for the destruction of Earth. He’s a cynical anti-government protester given the ability to finally tear it all down. It’s… a halfway-decent motivation for a villain, better than nothing, but there’s nothing to make Victor sympathetic to the viewer, and again, there could have been. Victor’s anger at the world could have been understandable. His anger at the team and especially Reed could have been justifiable–they did sort of abandon him on Planet Zero, after all. His inevitable turn to the dark side could’ve been less inevitable–it could’ve been a direct result of Reed’s selfishness, or Victor’s own determination to be disillusioned.

None of that happened. The villain tries to blow up the world with a beam of energy in the sky, and the heroes stop him. And the whole mess of a climax is poorly lit, to boot.

Last in the list of main characters is Ben Grimm, the Thing. Ben is Reed’s childhood best friend, despite the two of them not really having much in common. When Reed gets the science internship of his dreams, he and Ben part ways, and Ben completely drops out of the story–until Reed drunk-dials him and talks him into coming along on the trip to Planet Zero, because… well, they’ve always been friends.

To put it another way: whoever wrote this story, or whoever edited it, had no idea how to work Ben Grimm into the narrative, and had to rely on the flimsiest of excuses to have him go to the negative zone Planet Zero and gain powers.

(I don’t know why they bothered; Sue Storm didn’t ever visit Planet Zero and she still got powers, and that’s never explained. The segment where the whole crew gets superpowers is just incredibly weak.)

Again, this is frustrating because there are a lot of ways that Ben’s characterization could have gone. He’s depicted in this adaptation as a latchkey kid with a family that’s unsupportive at best and abusive at worst; did he latch onto Reed because Reed was the first person he ever met that made him feel wanted? Ben isn’t a man of science and clearly doesn’t completely understand what he and Reed are doing–but he still spent seven or eight years hanging out with Reed despite “not getting it”. He’d have to have some brains for that, or maybe he picked up some baseline knowledge from Reed along the way. That idea could’ve led to a narrative thread where Ben is underestimated, by himself and others, until something galvanizes him into reaching his full potential.

Failing that, there’s still the fact that Reed is a selfish friend, and Ben could’ve been a foil to him, or the one to give him a wake-up call about how hurtful his actions are. This… seems like the storyline the filmmakers might have been attempting, but the lack of real characterization for Reed or Ben and the lack of consistency in the editing makes it fall flat. The only consistent character trait that Ben displays is anger at Reed for abandoning him, which conveniently dissipates after the battle with Doom. Even Ben’s classic rivalry with Johnny Storm is absent except for a one-liner at the tail end of the film.

At this point, you might be wondering why I’ve written so much about every character in this movie. I’ve spent a lot of time just recapping what each character does, and offering suggestions on how their personalities and progressions through the plot could be improved. This sometimes seems like an exercise in futility, even to me, but I keep doing it, because good stories mean a lot to me. I believe that the heart of a good movie is an engaging story.

As computer-generated special effects get better and cheaper, it seems that more and more movies are relying solely on flashy VFX to sell tickets. This is fine in moderation–who doesn’t want to sit back and watch photo-realistic dinosaurs or apes slug it out every so often? But when a film substitutes VFX for a real story, more often than not it falls flat. I am firmly of the belief that no matter how much CGI is in a movie, no matter how many superpowers or robots or dinosaurs factor into the plot, a film will not work unless the underlying story boils down to a simple, human story, with the protagonist learning and changing and arcing as things happen. Without a strong story at its core, a movie will feel empty no matter how good the special effects look.

A good example of this is one of my favorite movies of all time, Pacific RimPacific Rim‘s plot mostly consists of fifteen-story mech robots and lizard-y Godzilla knockoffs trying to punch each other into the ground, all rendered in breathtaking CGI. But that’s not all there is to the story. With the CGI monster fights removed, Pacific Rim is about a veteran recovering from the traumatic death of his brother during wartime. It’s also about a young woman balancing her relationship with her adoptive father and her desire to avenge her dead family. Pacific Rim has very hopeful, very human stories at its core, and this is what makes it good. It’s a fun movie to watch, but it also has an element that stays with you after the last bomb goes off and the alien monsters all blow up.

Fantastic Four lacks this central story. (A lot of mediocre blockbusters do, really, some of the worst offenders being Jurassic World and Batman v. Superman.) And without a meaningful arc for any of the characters, the movie ultimately doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t teach the audience anything; it doesn’t even really make them feel anything. So the audience doesn’t care.

A movie can survive cheesy acting and low-budget special effects. It can even survive shoddy directing or editing if the acting is good, and stale acting can be disguised by inspired editing. But no film can thrive without a story that connects with the audience and then goes somewhere and shows them something. Fantastic Four (2015) had… well, it had a lot of problems, but its biggest failing was that it had no story. And, as box office earnings and critical reviews showed, the movie suffered for it. Let it be a lesson. Let it teach us that beneath whatever gimmicks we come up with, movies must have stories, and characters must have arcs.

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Micro-Tension: What Is It?

I first heard the term “micro-tension” a few years back, when I visited Chicago for a writer’s conference. “Micro-tension” is, in essence, the concept of tension in a story taken to its logical extreme: tension built into every line of a written story, a kind of kinetic energy that propels the reader from one sentence into the next. This is a skill I’m still trying to master in my own writing, something that takes constant attention to detail and awareness of your work.

What micro-tension is not is a writing element commonly associated with screenplays. Scripts written for movie and television production have a different set of guidelines associated with them, the most obvious difference being that the description in a screenplay doesn’t need to have tension or vocabulary or finesse. It just needs to communicate the action that will be happening on-screen. In a script, only the dialogue needs to be written with subtlety, and even dialogue tends to be edited and moved around by directors and actors, depending on what works for the story and characters. So micro-tension is something you see a lot less of when it comes to screenplays, even if the writer is prone to describing the action in a way similar to prose. The exception, again, is dialogue.

Dialogue can be written with plenty of micro-tension; tension, of many kinds, is crucial in dialogue. Line-by-line tension, though not applicable in every case, keeps scenes and stories flowing, and it keeps the audience engaged.

The best example of this that I’ve seen recently is Agents of Shield, season two.

(This is the part of the article where I’m going to apologize for being really, really behind on pretty much every TV show I care about, Agents of Shield included. For those even more behind than I am, spoilers for the end of season one are just ahead.)

One of Agents of Shield‘s main characters, at the beginning of season two, has brain damage from an attempted murder at the end of season one. The character, Fitz, suffers from memory loss and is often unable to remember specific words. Other characters have to jump in and complete his sentences, proposing the words he can’t remember. And since the whole cast is constantly in danger and dealing with problems, the constant back-and-forth of Fitz giving half of an idea and the other characters having to finish it add a whole new layer of tension to already action-packed scenes.

In one scene in the fourth episode of the season, Fitz is trying to direct another character (Hunter) in fixing a virus-laden computer grid to stop the characters’ base from exploding.

Hunter: Uh, this one [wire] here?
Fitz: No, no! Dear God, no. The one beside it, the one beside it.
Hunter: Uh, uh, the left?
Fitz: To the right! To the right.

That’s dialogue from the actual show (in the fourth episode of season two, at about thirty-two minutes in, if anyone’s curious). This is micro-tension in dialogue. The feeling that both characters have to be on the same wavelength, because everyone will literally go down in flames if Hunter doesn’t get exactly what Fitz’s plan is, as he’s saying it.

Micro-tension is a small yet effective technique for hooking the reader–or viewer–and convincing them to invest time and attention in finding out how the story ends. It’s something that’s necessary to dialogue in screenplays just as it’s necessary to prose in books. Agents of Shield season two has a particularly good–and particularly unique–example of how to execute that micro-tension, while building character interactions and a compelling story at the same time. The show has its flaws, but this is something that it did especially well, and something other shows could stand to learn from.

Book Review: The Currents of Space

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High above the planet Florinia, the Squires of Sark live in unimaginable wealth and comfort. Down in the eternal spring of the planet, however, the native Florinians labor ceaselessly to produce the precious kyrt that brings prosperity to their Sarkite masters.

Living among the workers of Florinia, Rik is a man without a memory or a past. He has been abducted and brainwashed. Barely able to speak or care for himself when he was found, Rik is widely regarded as a simpleton by the worker community where he lives. As his memories begin to return, however, Rik finds himself driven by a cryptic message he is determined to deliver: Everyone on Florinia is doomed…the Currents of Space are bringing destruction. But if the planet is evacuated, the power of Sark will end–so there are those who would kill the messenger. The fate of the Galaxy hangs in the balance.

Isaac Asimov is one of the great writers of scientific literature. He’s best known for writing about robots and artificial intelligence, but some of his novels also fell into what we now consider the space opera genre: sweeping, epic galactic stories, most of them with intricate political storylines. The Currents of Space is one of these. Its plot is based on carefully balanced interplanetary politics, futuristic science, and a cautionary tale about oppressive power structures. All this, and book is only about 239 pages long.

Asimov offers a collection of interesting characters, from low class workers to a functional princess, who keep the plot constantly moving in exciting and sometimes frustrating ways. Woven into the story are themes about systemic oppression, violence, and politics–themes that become much more apropos when you remember that the book was first published in 1952.

The Currents of Space is a short and fast-paced read with well-developed moral underpinnings and an intriguing ending. I would highly recommend it, not only to fans of Asimov’s work, but to all fans of thoughtful science fiction.

Can Lego Storytellers Overcome Their Own Structural Shortcomings?

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I have never liked Lego’s Ninjago franchise. I don’t like the premise, I don’t like how it’s animated, and it’s regularly a contender for my Top Five Worst Written TV Shows list, so I certainly don’t like the writing. This didn’t used to be a big deal. Ninjago is just one of many Lego-based TV shows, most of which are fairly mediocre. And of all the mediocre and sometimes awful shows available for children these days, Ninjago is hardly the worst, and it’s not a glaringly popular show, so it was fairly easy for me to ignore up until this point.

That’s no longer the case. Lego (and Warner Bros.) did this to themselves, really, by deciding that Ninjago should be the subject of the third Lego franchise movie. The Lego Ninjago Movie is coming to a theater near you on September 22, 2017. And that’s fine–it might even be a good movie! The two previous Lego movies were pretty good!–but it means that Ninjago is about to get way more mainstream than it’s ever been. So I’m taking the chance to air my grievances with this previously obscure animated kids’ show.

First: The Premise.

Ninjago is the story of five young ninjas–Kai, Jay, Cole, Zane, and later Lloyd–who are tasked with defending their world from a variety of villainous forces. Along for the ride are several supporting characters, including Sensei Wu, the group’s mentor, Kai’s sister Nya, and Lloyd’s mother Misako.

The show is ostensibly set in a fantasy version of feudal Japan–hence the ninjas–but after the two pilot episodes, the show abandons that setting pretty quickly in favor of “Ninjago City”, which is just a generic city setting, and other set pieces that don’t generally have much to do with feudal Japan, or ninjas. This leads to the impression that the writers are just throwing in as many bankable elements as they can in an attempt to sell more toys. This has given rise to a couple of interesting episodes, such as “Ninjaball Run” and “Wrong Place, Wrong Time”, but mostly it just makes the show feel unfocused and confusing. Every time you revisit the show, there’s a new flying pilot ship or army of cyborgs or ghost realm, and that makes it hard to keep up.

Another problem with the premise is that while the original setting is inspired by Japan, the show never really follows through with that idea. Ninjago City takes no inspiration from modern Japanese cities; it’s as generic as they come. There are random elements, like the aforementioned flying pirate ship, that have no reason to be in fantasy Japan. Most of the characters aren’t identifiably Japanese–Wu, Garmadon, Misako, and I think Nya are all coded as Japanese, but none of the main characters are. It’s never explained how Lloyd turned out blonde. By season six, I think the writers just gave up, because season six’s villain is a djinn, which is an Arabian mythological creature.

Ninjago, with a little thought and creativity, could’ve actually had a really interesting setting and premise, with the characters being ninjas in a steampunk/modern-mythical version of Japan. I’m disappointed that the show didn’t run with that, because it would’ve been more interesting and engaging than the mush of ideas they’ve got going now.

Next Up: The Animation.

This is probably the least frustrating problem I have with the show, and the issue most likely to be fixed by the new movie. The animation of most Lego shows, due to having comparatively lower budgets, has a sort of unfinished rubbery look to it, and the characters tend to move with a full range of motion, just like they would if they weren’t Lego minifigures, which is strange to look at when they are Lego minifigures. The animation in Lego movies is much better–it’s meant to emulate stop action, so it looks more natural. The character designs for the movie also look more visually distinct and unique, so that’s good. Overall I’m not too worried about the animation in the movie; as long as it improves on the show’s animation, it’ll probably be fine.

My last point is the one I could talk the longest about. I’ll try to keep it brief, but to sum up: I absolutely despise how Ninjago is written.

If there’s one thing in stories that irks me, it’s missed opportunities. And Ninjago is chock full of those. As with the setting, the writers’ tendency to choose the most cliche or well-established route for the story means that the show is constantly bypassing opportunities to do interesting and creative things.

The pilot (which is technically two episodes) starts with Kai, the main character (at least for a little while), being forced to become a ninja when his sister is kidnapped. This is… an alright plotline, but it’s been done to death in other media. Everyone has seen it before. What’s worse, this begins a plot thread for Nya that sees her almost constantly sidelined and treated as a damsel in distress, or a romantic trophy for Jay. (And Cole that one time.) Nya occasionally has an effect on the plot; in season one (after the pilot) she becomes a samurai for a while… after being told by her brother and the other ninjas that she just isn’t up to being a hero. Season five sees her become the ninja of water, but by season six Nya is back to being the damsel in distress, as that season’s villain kidnaps her and basically uses her to repeatedly lure Jay into traps. And that’s just Nya. I haven’t even talked about how the other characters are written yet.

Remember Kai? Kai is the character the series starts with, and the viewpoint character for about a season and a half. After that the focus abruptly shifts to Lloyd, who then remains as the real main character for most of the rest of the show. Kai’s narrative never really reaches a high point or finishes; he just keeps leveling up after every season with the rest of the supporting characters. And that’s another problem: at this point the main characters are all so absurdly powerful that the villains have to be reality-warping time travelers to pose any kind of threat. After a while, repeated level-ups and ridiculously powerful villains just start to get boring.

These are the bones of Ninjago‘s writing problems. Just about every season of the show is plagued with missed opportunities, cliche plot points, underused (and overused) characters, and a lack of focus that just make it disappointing to watch. Somewhere inside Ninjago there are a lot of interesting ideas trying desperately to fight their way to the surface through an ocean of tired, lazy writing decisions.

You might ask, “Why does any of this matter? It’s just a kids’ show. It’s not supposed to be good.” Maybe it’s not. There are still a lot of animated kids’ shows that range from mediocre to awful. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In recent years, shows like Adventure TimeAvatar: The Last Airbender, and Phineas and Ferb have proven that even shows meant for kids can have engaging storylines, complex characters, and stunning plot twists. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has all of those things, and it’s meant to sell toys–just like Ninjago is. So there’s really no excuse for the show to be this mediocre–other than the fact that the creators just don’t care that much about what they’re doing.

I hope the movie will be better than this. It seems like it’s going to attempt the same style of humor and action that The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie had. The animation will be better, and the format will (hopefully) force the writers to tell a more complete and streamlined story. But I have to admit that I’m worried. The Lego Ninjago Movie is primarily pulling from the show’s material–material that is, as I’ve pointed out at length, quite flawed. The Lego Movie was an original story and The Lego Batman Movie had 65+ years of comics, animation, and movies to pull from. The Lego Ninjago Movie only has this. I hope they can fix the show’s structural problems and tell a better story. We’ll have to wait until September to see if they do.

Did Anyone Here Ever Read the Redwall Books?

I saw War for the Planet of the Apes recently. It was one of the few times I’ve ever gone to see a movie in a series with almost zero context for what else happens in said series. I mean, I knew it was about apes and humans… fighting a war? But that was about it. Fortunately the movie filled me in on just about every important event in the series, so that was good. And besides that, it was… a fine movie. It had its share of plot holes and annoying moments, but no more so than any other blockbuster I’ve seen this year. The one thing that set it apart from other same-universe franchise films released in recent years is that it reminded me of the Redwall series.

Redwall is a series of books written by Brian Jacques. It consists of twenty-two books, none of which were directly related to each other but all took place in the same universe. The first book is also named Redwall. The books are fantasy epics often compared to Tolkien and Lewis, with the added kid-friendly approach of all of the characters being talking, anthropomorphic animals. These animals have fun, exciting adventures that take them all over their quasi-medieval world. The Redwall books were a staple of my childhood, and like most of the other books I read as a kid, they were at times incredibly dark. Pretty much every villain was some kind of ravenously evil warlord bent on destroying and subjugating the peaceful woodland folk–and the villain usually had some measure of success before it was all over. Characters were frequently killed, tortured, or enslaved, and every so often you’d run across a really freaky or grotesque monster-slash-character. Even so, the books always ended with the good guys triumphing, mourning their fallen comrades, and returning to a peaceful and prosperous life. They were formulaic at times, but the Redwall books also had a rather comforting view of morality, where the good and bad guys were easy to identify and the good guys always won out in the end. That view of things, along with many humorous moments and characters, tended to balance out the darker content.

I suppose it’s that mostly black-and-white morality, coupled with similar story beats, that makes me think War for the Planet of the Apes and Redwall are more similar than they appear. There are certain scenes in War that could’ve been ripped almost whole cloth from a Redwall book, as could the overall storyline, of a few courageous characters fighting to save their entire community from an insatiable warlord.

Part of the genius of War for the Planet of the Apes is that it takes what seems like a really weird and possibly silly premise–humans and intelligent apes fighting for control of the world–and infuses it with deep themes and imagery that make the story much more profound than you might think going in. Alissa Wilkinson, a writer for Vox, pointed out how it uses Biblical undertones; I would argue that it also pulls from the language of fantasy epics, what with its overarching journey narrative and the villain being a military leader intent on controlling the story’s world. It’s those storylines and themes, borrowed from traditionally meaningful genres, that give War for the Planet of the Apes some real depth. It’s a franchise blockbuster with its share of plot holes, but it’s also an apocalyptic film that may leave viewers thinking about it for a while afterward. That’s the effect it had on me. It also made me want to re-read some of my favorite childhood novels, and think about why we tell these stories about people who aren’t human.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

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When Marvel first announced that they had acquired the rights to make a Spider-Man movie, the entire fan community collectively sighed. “Why would they make another Spider-Man movie, though?” we all said. “We don’t need another Spider-Man movie. They’re just going to do another origin. We don’t need that. We’ve seen Uncle Ben die enough times!”

Well, I’ll say it. We were wrong.

First of all: Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t an origin story, and that’s for the best. It plays off of the fact that everyone already knows who Spider-Man is and where he got his powers, and just runs with the story afterward. Secondly, it’s a fresh story, different from every other Spider-Man movie, with a different villain and a new look at things. The result is almost my ideal Spider-Man movie–a small yet compelling story about a teenage hero trying to protect the little guy in a big city.

Part of the appeal of a Spider-Man movie is that it’s about the underdog–a teenager going up against superpowered villains on the regular. And Tom Holland, the latest in a long line of actors to play Spider-Man, embodies that character perfectly. This version of Peter Parker balances too many extracurricular activities, is never really sure of himself and yet has a drive to do the right thing no matter what. Tom Holland’s acting really brings the character to life, embodying the witty and sarcastic side of Spider-Man, as well as a shy, quiet side of Peter Parker.

The rest of the cast is equally talented, especially Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. the Vulture. For the first time in a while, the villain of this Marvel movie is interesting and understandable, and has a complex relationship with the hero. Michael Keaton’s acting is great, and the CGI backing up his character as the Vulture is beautiful. The rest of the cast is equally talented, and I appreciated how the classic Spider-Man story has been updated for a different audience. Peter Parker is still the shy, nerdy kid bullied by his more popular classmates, but the school he goes to looks and feels like a modern-day high school in New York, and his classmates are no longer a bunch of white kids from the 1960’s. Laura Harrier, Jacob Batalon, and Zendaya all perform excellently as Liz Allen, Ned, and MJ respectively.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is fun and enjoyable take on the Spider-Man mythos, one that easily competes with the earlier trilogy and two-movie reboot. It’s well-written and well paced; maybe the only thing marring it is Marvel’s incessant need to tie every movie they make into their extended shared universe. Tony Stark appears several times as Peter Parker’s new superhero mentor, which is fine, except that his involvement–and, indirectly, the Avengers’ involvement–adds a new layer to the already confusing timeline Marvel has established ever since The Avengers came out in 2012. Between the assertion that eight years have passed between The Avengers and Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the scene that implied Tony Stark and Pepper Potts are back together despite breaking up in Captain America: Civil War (which occurred immediately prior to this movie)… well, the Marvel movie timeline is a little bit rough. I greatly enjoyed Spider-Man: Homecoming, but I think the narrative themes it brought up could have been explored better if Tony Stark hadn’t been so involved in the story. And someday, we’re all going to sit down and have a long talk about how Marvel keeps screwing up their own continuity with every movie they release.

Despite some timeline flaws and the obligatory tie-ins to the rest of the Marvel universe, Spider-Man: Homecoming manages to be a genuinely entertaining movie that’s true both to the character and the mythology of Spider-Man. Tom Holland continues to impress with his acting, and Michael Keaton is in my opinion one of Marvel’s most interesting villains. I wasn’t sure Marvel could accomplish a fresh take on Spider-Man, after all of Sony’s various attempts. But they did it, and they pulled it off without ever feeling like a rehash of earlier films. That’s what I call proving the fans wrong.

Tell, Don’t Show: Narration in Visual Media

One of the most commonly given pieces of advice for young writers is this: “show, don’t tell”. Stories are always more engaging when the audience is allowed to see for themselves what’s going on, and to draw their own conclusions and implications. When the author is constantly holding the audience’s hand, it just makes for a boring story.

One of the easiest “telling” techniques to identify is narration. Since narration involves a character speaking more or less directly to the audience, it’s easy for narration to become a lazy author’s way of communicating information they cab’t think to work into the story. However–this isn’t the only way narration is ever used. It’s actually an essential element of written-word stories, and it can be well incorporated into visual stories–television and movies–as well. It all hinges on the narration playing a meaningful role in the story.

Two of the television shows I’ve watched recently feature narration as an element the writers attempted to use within the first few episodes. These shows are DC’s Arrow and CBS’s Limitless, both of which are currently available on Netflix in their entirety. Arrow is a superhero adaptation of the DC comics character Green Arrow, and Limitless is a spinoff of the 2011 Bradley Cooper film of the same name. Both shows are available to stream, and they’re both fairly interesting. But their respective usage of narration effectively shows the pros and cons to using such a narrative device in a visually told story.

Arrow features narration by the main character in the first few episodes only. Said main character eventually stopped narrating along to the events of the show, because the narration was effectively useless. All it did was sum up the events that had happened so far–events the audience had already seen play out. The narration was redundant, and that made it boring. Even worse, it had little to no entertainment value. Arrow has drawn criticism for taking itself too seriously, and the narration at the very beginning of the show was the perfect example of that problem. Arrow‘s narration, limited as it was, was an unendingly grim summary of the show’s events–and some of those events were too absurd to fuse well with the gritty, self-serious style of the show. Fortunately, the writers seem to have realized this, the amount of narration in Arrow dropped dramatically within the first few episodes, almost to zero.

Now let’s talk about Limitless.

Limitless also features narration by the main character as a defining characteristic of its first few episodes. However, narration in Limitless works much better than it does in Arrow, for a few reasons.

First: it actually serves a purpose. In Arrow, the narration really only exists to let the writers rehash what they already showed the audience, and to let them tell the viewer how the main character is feeling. It’s essentially the worst combination of showing and telling. Limitless‘s narration, by contrast, gives the writers a way to show the main character’s thought process. this might not work in a different story, but Limitless relies on being able to quickly communicate the main character’s genius-level reasoning and leaps of logic with the audience. This justifies the use of narration, making it less grating to the audience.

The second reason is that it’s just more pleasant to watch. Arrow‘s narration, as I said, is almost unendingly somber and bleak (just like the show itself, but that’s another topic). Limitless plays to its strengths and keeps its bouts of narration relatively lighthearted, in keeping with its own tone. The actor also delivers the lines with more emotion and interest than there is to be found in Arrow. All in all, Limitless is just more fun to watch.

Finally–going back to what I mentioned in the first point–Limitless‘s writers don’t use the narration to cheat their way out of writing an emotionally engaging character. They never use it to tell the audience how the main character is feeling–only what he’s doing and thinking, whenever he’s doing or thinking it faster than the average audience can follow. In essence, the writers of Limitless don’t take the chance to be lazy. They weave the characters’ feelings into the story and let the actors portray those emotions within each scene. The show isn’t perfect, but it feels more authentic than the early episodes of Arrow, because it trusts it audience to understand what’s going on, and draw their own conclusions.

Narration, like all elements of story, isn’t right for every story. It can’t and shouldn’t be applied across the board. But it is a useful tool for some stories, and when it’s used well in visual media it’s important to study why it works. Looking at the difference between these two shows, it’s easy to see where one went wrong. Limitless lets the actors and story communicate the emotional beats without holding the audience’s hand. Arrow feels that it can’t rely on its audience to understand what’s happening, so the characters are constantly talking about how their emotions. And that’s a failing that can make a decent show mediocre. If not used carefully and purposefully, narration can all too easily become a crutch that writers use to avoid writing emotional subtext.

The Racing-est Generation: A Cars 3 Review

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Image source: IMDB

The bar for Pixar’s Cars 3 wasn’t set all that high–but at the same time, it was surrounded by high stakes. After Cars 2‘s general failure at re-capturing what people originally enjoyed about Cars, the third installment was seen as Pixar’s chance to do one better and live up to their good name. Cars 3, it was hoped, would be the sequel that had the same heart and storytelling as the first movie.

Did it succeed? To make a long story short: Yeah, mostly.

Let me start with the positive: Cars 3 is miles, leagues, light-years better than Cars 2. It represents a return to the soulful, sensible storytelling Pixar built its brand on. Cars 3 is beautifully animated, and as with (almost) all Pixar movies, it has a decent story and some genuinely funny humor. It’s on par for a Pixar movie, which means that it’s in general a good movie. It has all that down.

Cars 3 is not as good as the first Cars movie. It doesn’t have the same brisk yet quiet plot, the same rock-solid character arc and sense of pace. In fact, Cars 3 is a little clunky in terms of pacing specifically–the flow of the story is somewhat, if you’ll pardon the pun, stop-and-go. What rescues it from feeling mediocre in comparison to the first movie is its unique themes. While the first Cars was about a young star athlete learning humility and openness, Cars 3 is about… an older, seasoned athlete learning humility and openness.

Cars 3 follows Lightning McQueen, the main character of the Cars franchise, as he reaches what looks like the end of his racing career. As a host of rookie racers with fresh skills and technological enhancements take to the track, everyone seems to agree that Lightning McQueen’s racing days are over–everyone, that is, but Lightning himself. Desperate to continue doing what he loves, McQueen is forced to team up with a young trainer named Cruz Ramirez, as he discovers a new aspect of following your dreams.

In many ways, Cars 3 is about the gap between generations. (It’s very easy to draw parallels to Baby Boomers and Millennials; at least, that’s the first conclusion I came to while still in the theater.) It’s about an older athlete who’s starting to slow down, who’s realizing that he’s not on the cutting edge anymore, that he can’t rely on his speed alone as technology and technique marches on without him. The movie’s plot forces Lightning McQueen to confront the creeping fear of aging and retirement, which he sees as an ultimate loss of purpose. This is a conflict regularly faced by each generation as they age and are forced to work with the younger folk, who seem to want nothing more than to replace their elders.

The entitlement and smugness of the younger generation (insert a tired quip about millennials here) is represented by Jackson Storm, an unbearably egotistical young racer who’s perfectly tuned to be as fast as is physically possible for a race car. He throws his victories in Lightning McQueen’s face and is utterly assured of his own skill and status. He’s easy to hate, and it’s clear that he represents the Ultimate Millennial™, the person every thinkpiece writer over fifty-five sees as the enemy.

Fortunately, Jackson Storm isn’t the only pseudo-millennial character the movie has to offer. The other representative of the younger set is Cruz Ramirez, a racing trainer assigned to help Lightning McQueen get back on track. Cruz represents the uncertainty, caution, and crushing self-doubt that many millennials wrestle with. To explain further would be to spoil some of the movie’s pivotal emotional points, but the relationship between Cruz and Lightning is ultimately one of the best parts of the film. The character of Cruz keeps the movie from veering into a tired rant against Those Darn Millennials™–and it allows the movie to make some subtle points about representation and the different kinds of confidence between generations, to boot.

Cars 3 is very much a kid’s movie–but below the surface, it seems more geared toward the parents in the audience. It’s not a perfect movie. The plot feels rushed in some places and too slow in others, and some of the dialogue is rote. The ending, in my opinion, was too neat and tidy, and should’ve been more like the ending of the first Cars. But Cars 3 does represent a welcome return to the heart and soul that’s supposed to characterize Pixar movies. It’s a well-made film with thought-provoking themes and an interesting plot–even if it does drag a bit at times. Like many of Pixar’s newer movies, Cars 3 has its flaws. But, ultimately, it is a thoroughly enjoyable movie. And I for one am very glad to finally have a genuine, decent sequel (and possible conclusion) to the Cars franchise.

Define “Groundbreaking”: A Wonder Woman Review

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I vividly remember the popular attitude most reviewers took towards Joss Whedon’s The Avengers when it came out. “If this doesn’t make your inner nine-year-old scream with excitement, you’re probably dead inside.” That seemed to be most people’s reaction to a superhero team-up movie years in the making: it made them feel like kids again, in the best way. Oftentimes that’s the point of movies, to appeal to your inner sense of excitement and wonder for a few hours. I like superhero movies, but not all of them have that affect on me. My usual reaction is to criticize movies, even ones I like. But in this case, I can say without reservation that Wonder Woman made me feel like a kid again.

As the first female-led superhero movie since 2005, Wonder Woman had a lot riding on it. It had to be a better continuation of the DC cinematic universe, it had to adequately provide a backstory for an iconic comic book character, and it had to prove that female-led and female-directed action films can do well at the box office. So far, it’s done all of those things. Based on the movie’s critical response and box office earnings, even just a few days after release, it has been a rousing success.

As a story, Wonder Woman is fairly usual, with plot elements that have all been used before in different movies. The villain’s motivation is one you’ve heard before. The hero(ine)’s journey is fairly standard. The war movie elements (since the film is set during World War I) are familiar, even those with a superhero in the mix, since Captain America: The First Avenger established long ago that you can, in fact, meld the superhero genre with the war movie genre. The editing of the movie has some pitfalls but is overall extremely competent, and the fight scenes are amazing. A mixture of quick-cuts and longer shots and a highly skilled use of slow motion, coupled with the film’s soundtrack, make them an absolute joy to watch. Taken at face value, Wonder Woman is a very good movie, definitely the best DC movie in recent years (if not ever), but it’s not the best movie ever. Taken at face value, you might say it isn’t a “groundbreaking” movie. But that would depend on how you define “groundbreaking”.

As I stated before, Wonder Woman is the first female-led superhero movie since 2005. Nearly all of the female-led superhero movies before now–such as Catwoman, Elektra, and the 1984 Supergirl film–have been badly written, poorly shot, or have objectified the leading lady–or done all three of those things at once. And none of them did well at the box office, which led to the drought of female-led superhero films from 2005 to 2017. Wonder Woman was seen as a gamble for DC, especially since it had a female director. But the choice of Patty Jenkins to direct Wonder Woman turned out to be one of the movie’s greatest strengths. It is a factor that did turn the movie into something groundbreaking.

Wonder Woman doesn’t indulge in any of the objectification that most superhero movies–most action films in general–go in for. It’s obvious that it was directed by a woman–obvious in how the camera frames Diana’s face instead of her chest, in how the fight scenes are about her brute strength and power instead of how pretty she can look while doing martial arts. Diana is obviously, obviously, the hero of the film. She follows through the hero’s journey. She starts out innocent and learns from her journey as she goes along, without ever falling into the cliche of a woman who must learn everything she knows from a man. There are male characters in this movie–several of them. But Diana is never overshadowed by them. The narrative of the movie respects her even when some of the characters do not. The story lets Diana fail, lets her experience loss, without ever falling into hurtful tropes or cliches. And that is groundbreaking.

By all metrics, Wonder Woman was a good movie. From a technical standpoint, a writing standpoint, that is more or less all it was: a good and well-made superhero movie. But from a cultural standpoint, it was much more. Wonder Woman gave us an origin story centered around a woman, with the leading man acting as a sidekick for once. It balanced out a lot of the insidious sexism in action movies, giving us an action movie that can be enjoyed without worrying about that one gross scene or the plot points that don’t hit because the female lead was sidelined. Wonder Woman made me feel like a kid again. It inspired me. It gave me hope that one day I can work on a movie like that, that one day there might be more opportunities in cinema for women to create women-oriented stories. That is how Wonder Woman is groundbreaking.

And besides that? It’s a fun movie. It’s enjoyable. It’s as historically accurate as a superhero movie can be. It’s not mean-spirited or harsh, even when it has the opportunity. I highly recommend Wonder Woman. I know I’m going to see it again. It may not be perfect. Even I’ve got some thoughts about the plot that I plan to hash out at a later date. But Wonder Woman is such a hopeful and inspiring movie that I can’t help but give it my recommendation. After all–it’s pretty groundbreaking.

Everything, Everything

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Image source: Epicreads

[A spoiler-free review.]

Everything, Everything is the film adaptation of a novel that tells the story of Maddy Whittier, a teenager with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). This prevents her from ever leaving her house, where she is protected from any allergen or germ that might make her sick. When a new family moves into the house next door, Maddy encounters Olly, and her entire world begins to change.

Everything, Everything is, at its heart, a story about Maddy. Played by Amandla Stenburg, Maddy is the narrator and sole point-of-view character of the film. Stenburg portrays the character with finesse, showing a wide range of emotions. Olly (Nick Robinson) has similar depth, and the two actors have plenty of chemistry together. One of the strengths of the film is that it knows when to focus on Maddy and Olly and together and when to leave the focus simply on Maddy.

The high point of the film is how it portrays Maddy’s point of view. The audience sees everything that happens in the story through her eyes, and the cinematography supports that view. Multiple scenes take place partly in Maddy’s head, as she imagines herself meeting Olly face-to-face in a variety of locations. Since Maddy is the central focus of nearly every scene, the audience is drawn into her mind, and we quickly come to see how Maddy sees the world, how she experiences life. One thing Everything, Everything has mastered in deep POV (point of view). This well-executed technique combined with Amandla Stenburg’s acting means that the main character is fully realized and a joy to watch.

(Also, on a personal opinion note: Amandla Stenburg is one of the most beautiful actresses I’ve seen in a long time. I just enjoyed looking at her throughout the movie. And I love that she’s actually the same age as her character.)

The overall camerawork of the movie is decent. It’s not perfectly smooth, but it’s not distracting either, and there are a number of shots that are truly impressive. The movie’s sets are gorgeous, and each has a distinct feel that adds to the tone of the movie. Maddy’s imagined conversations take place in almost dreamlike settings–a diner, a library, and outer space, to name a few. The shot-to-shot editing is well composed, although some of the scene transitions (particularly in the first half of the movie) are jarring. Overall, Everything, Everything is an enjoyable, well-made movie.

However.

Everything, Everything was a book before it was a movie. And before the movie came out, the book drew criticism for how it portrayed the story of the disabled protagonist. Fully describing the book’s problems would spoil the plot, but suffice to say that the narrative does veer into problematic cliches that often plague stories with disabled protagonists–particularly the cliche that a protagonist must be cured of their disease before they can have a happy ending. The movie sticks close to the same plot from the book, so it has many of the same problems. Disabled reviewers who know more about this topic have written at more length about this; if you’re interested in learning about the controversy, there are links at the end of this post to articles that discuss the story’s problems in depth.

To sum up, Everything, Everything is a well-made movie starring two skilled, beautiful actors. Taken on its own with no cultural context, it’s an enjoyable movie. I certainly appreciated watching it. But the reality is that every movie has some kind of cultrual relevance, and every movie–especially Hollywood movies released to a mass audience–has some kind of impact on the people who watch it. Unfortunately, Everything, Everything perpetuates cliches and maintains a somewhere narrow view of living with a disability. This is a beautiful movie, and I wish that it were more aware of the harm it could do in terms of portraying disabilities.

 

Further Reading:
Review: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
– A book review from the Disabilityinkidlit blog, which features reviews written by disabled reviewers.
Everything Everything: An In-Depth Analysis Into the Ableism Problem – Another book review by a disabled blogger.
‘Everything, Everything’ Draws Criticism for Its Portrayal of SCID and Disability – An article summarizing the negative response the book and movie attracted from some reviewers.