Randomness for 6/10

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  1. Why Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse has the most inventive visuals you’ll see this year.
  2. Europe’s first underwater restaurant.
  3. How to actually, truly focus on what you’re doing.
  4. The Kentucky Derby as Told by the Horses.
  5. Grocer Designed Embarrassing Plastic Bags to Shame Customers into Bringing Their Own.
  6. The Queens of Sicily: 1061 to 1266. 18 biographies about 18 powerful women.
  7. Stun Gun Myths Rewatching VERONICA MARS got me wondering how likely (initial hypothesis: not very) it was that you could render someone unconscious by zapping them. Of course, my hypothesis was [spoiler]. 

What are the Odds? Half-assed Guesses about Stranger Things 3

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Between Christmas and New Years–right before the MS-DOS/date announcement promo was released–I kept thinking about what was in store for season three of Stranger Things. Not about who gets to live and who gets to die. The show has always been fairly gentle on the main cast, even thought it can be deadly for the supporting cast. #JusticeforBarb #JusticeforBenny #JusticeforMews #JusticeforHeather(pending) But what about the other story developments on the way?

So I made a list of predictions and bullshitted up the odds of them actually happening.

Here’s the list I came up with back at the end of December, the odds that indicate how likely I think it is, why I think it might happen, how, and a little commentary on the back end about it. Story talk! I enjoy story talk, and this one’s mainly about structure and foreshadowing.

1. Nancy discovers that Ted is not her biological father: 3:1

Basis: While shooting at cans in the woods, Nancy says she has no idea why her mother and father got married. And neither does the audience. “He was older and came from a good family” doesn’t really cut it. Why Karen and Ted?

Plot reveal: I’m thinking that, as a teenager, Karen had a shitty boyfriend who got her pregnant, then ditched her. (Who? Cary Elwes as the mayor is my current frontrunner, but if Jake Busey’s character is a long-time Hawkins resident, he’s a possibility, too).

To avoid a small-town scandal and spare their daughter a reputation that would have made her life hell, Karen’s parents paired her with Ted, who was older, had a good job, and needed a wife for “respectability”.

Foreshadowing to watch for: Any middle-aged male character who, in the first or second episode, asks Nancy how her mom is doing. Especially if they smirk when they ask.

Commentary: Obviously, I think this one is fairly likely, but I’m not sure how it would play into the season as a whole. In other words, why include it? The most obvious answer is “Billy,” as Ted (or someone) discovers Karen having an affair and is all “This again?”

Alternately, this season’s monster might be thematically related.

Finally, if this is true, I’d expect this to be common knowledge among the other parents. The kids and the teens might be shocked, but the grownups would sort of shrug and say “Well, I mean… yeah.”

2. Ted is gay and closeted: 12:1

Basis: See above. Ted acts like his home life is a bear trap he can’t escape and he shows zero affection for his extremely hot wife.

Plot reveal: Ted has a secret life, one where he’s not, you know, a great guy or anything, but he gets to be his real self. I’d expect it to connect him to another supporting character who is also in the closet. Maybe the mayor. Maybe Officer Powell or Calahan. Maybe Billy.

Foreshadowing to watch for: If anyone enters a dimly lit bar with only men in it, I’m expecting they’re going to run into Ted. Or, if he and Karen discuss their marriage as an arrangement or a deal.

Commentary: This one feels like a long shot, in part because the first two seasons set up Ted’s disinterest in his extremely hot wife, but not that he’s going out alone or spending time away from the family, which you’d expect if he was leading a double life.

Of course, Ted might be some form of gray asexual, but I honestly don’t think the show is sophisticated enough to go there.

As a character, Ted is not appealing. At all. But he could stand to be humanized. He has this great life he doesn’t seem to appreciate, and right now the show’s explanation is that he’s a drip, but it’s the work of a TV show to alter or invert its characters. It might be time to get a bit more Ted.

3. Ted becomes the major villain: 30:1

Basis: Pretty much none, except that I want it. Hashtag Fun.

Plot reveal: If this happens, it’ll happen early. He’ll be bitten by one of the infected/monster rats by the end of episode one, then will have a short descent into active evil (as opposed to “napping evil”) then full villain mode.

Foreshadowing to watch for: The first episode will have a lot of characters to re-introduce, but if Ted seems to be getting more than his share of screen time…

Hold on. Ted getting screen time? This sounds less and less likely with every word I type. Let me increase those odds to 30:1

Commentary: Given the style and tone of the show, this story choice is mutually exclusive with number 2. If one happens, the other won’t.

4. Will comes out to his friends: 3:1

Basis: Lonnie suspected that his son was “queer” and as much as I hate to admit it, psychopaths are sometimes very good at reading people. Plus, the fans seem to want it.

Plot reveal: That Will has feelings for one of the DnD Four (probably Mike) that goes beyond ordinary friendship, and that he, like Dustin, is unhappy that two of the four have coupled up. With girls.

Foreshadowing to watch for: That lingering half-second-too-long reverse shot of Will’s expressionless face as he looks off camera, if the shot right before the cut was on Mike, Billy, Lucas, Dustin, or some other appropriate male character. That’s how modern film and TV indicate unexpressed longing.

Commentary: One of the problems with the show is that it’s not as diverse as it should be. Letting Zombie Boy, the fragile, trembling prince of Hawkins, come out to his friends would help address that shortfall a bit but still feel like a natural part of his character growth.

5. Billy becomes a major villain
6. Karen and Billy hook up

LOL. These two were overtaken by later events, by which I mean: the first trailer.

The way this is edited makes it seem as if the infected bite on Billy’s arm turns him into the raw meat monster, but maybe they’re being tricksy. (It could be Ted. It could!).

Also, Karen and Billy are totally doing it.

So let’s assume those predictions turn out to be true (and no will be more shocked than me if I get something right) and create a derived prediction:

5a/6a. Karen becomes a monster/zombie. 2:1

Basis: I assumed, from the moment the first teaser featured a new mall in Hawkins, that it would be built over the site of the Hawkins lab and that the plot would involve zombies in some way. When the chapter titles were released, one of them was called “The Bite.” Suggestive, no? Also, “The Battle of Starcourt”? Please. We’re getting zombies this season. (odds: 1:12)

The trailer confirmed some of this. There’s a shot that looks like people doing the zombie-stagger, and Billy gets that bite, and (to cheat a little by referencing something said outside the show) the Duffers said they’d originally planned for Billy to be a bigger threat in season 2, but they had to pull that plot line because the show was already so full.

However! While “The Bite” is a perfect chapter title for a zombie show, it’s been given to the second to last episode. That’s really late in the season for a monster series and can’t be a reference to the _start_ of the spread of the zombies. So it must be referring to a bite on a specific person.

Why not Karen? If Billy’s infected and they’re having an affair, there would have to be a scene where she has to deal with Infected Billy. It’s unavoidable. The only reason I give it a 2:1 instead of a 1:1 is because I figure there’s a 50/50 chance the writers will arrange things so she will escape from Billy instead of getting infected.

Plot reveal: The kids realize that there’s a zombie-ish menace, and Mike returns home to regroup, only to discover that there’s a zombie already in the house! And it’s MOM! Dun dun duuuuun.

Foreshadowing to watch for: If Billy is getting it on with Karen, he’ll be getting it on with one of the other pool moms, too, and the show will establish the danger to Karen by having him bite and infect one of them. If Karen sees this zombified other woman, she’s more likely to escape from her scene with Billy without getting infected. If she does not, she’ll be less prepared and more likely to be monster-ized.

If the show establishes early that “Baby” Holly sometimes stays out of the house, it’s more likely that Karen will be infected. If Holly becomes infected herself, the infection is almost certainly curable.

Commentary: The 80’s had an awful lot of horror movies where character got themselves offed right after they had sex. It was puritanical and unwelcome, and I’m sort of hoping this plot line won’t play out that way.

7. Kali returns 1:1

Basis: Structure. Nothing else. Just structure. Linnea Berthelsen does not appear in the trailer or other promotional videos, and her name isn’t in the cast list on Wikipedia. (I can’t check imdb for the moment), but I’m still expecting her to make a surprise appearance, if only because it makes no sense to drop her.

Plot reveal: If Kali does turn up, she will either appear as a villain, just at the moment Our Heroes think they’ve escaped/defeated the monster, or she’ll ride to Jane’s rescue. Probably the latter. If neither happens, I’ll expect to see her in the last scene of the last episode, staggering wounded into Hawkins looking for Jane’s help, or else being chained and drugged in a cargo hold of a ship on its way to the Soviet Union.

Foreshadowing to watch for: In the first season, Hawkins Lab surveilled the cast with work vans. The trailer hints at Soviet agents appearing in the plot, so expect them to have some sort of nondescript vehicle that trails the characters. But if there’s an additional vehicle, one that looks more ordinary (like it’s been stolen), that’ll probably be Kali.

Commentary: The Kali episodes were not exactly fan favorites, but I liked the character and would be disappointed if she’s written out of the show. Of course, with Erica getting a bigger role, and Max and Billy and Murray making their return, plus at least four new characters, the cast is getting pretty full. I expect her to return without her crew.

8. Mike and Jane break up: 100:1

Basis: One of my flaws as a writer is that I try to make things too “realistic”, especially when the realistic choice is something readers don’t want. But still, what are the odds that Jane (I’m not using her dehumanizing lab name no matter how cool it is) would form a long-lasting relationship with the very first boy who was kind to her?

Seem like a long shot? It does to me.

But if Mike and Jane realized they weren’t compatible–she was bored by the stuff he likes, and vice versa, or she gets sick of being the one who has to do all the killing while he does nothing but tell people what to do–the show’s die-hard fans would swarm Netflix headquarters and strangle the executives with blue hairbands.

So, it probably would make sense for it to happen, but it won’t.

Plot reveal: They wouldn’t do this as a reveal. It would build in the narrative until the conflict reached a breaking point, like the Jane/Hopper conflict in season two.

Foreshadowing to watch for: Arguing, I guess?

Commentary: All I’ll say is, I’m glad they kept them apart for season two, so enough time could pass and the actors could be… what, 14 and 15 while their characters played out their big Young Love storyline. Maybe I’ve been trained by TV shows casting 20-somethings as high school kids, but Millie Bobby Brown looked awfully young for that kiss at the end of season one, when she was eleven years old.

9. Lucas and Max break up: 50:1

Basis: Neil.

Billy tried to split Max from Lucas in season two, and since Neil is a) Billy’s origin story, b) Max’s stepfather, and c) a colossal dick, he might try to split Max and Lucas, and he might apply that pressure through Max’s mother, Susan.

Plot reveal: Again, I don’t see this as a reveal. It might happen over the course of the show, with Max ending things with Lucas not because of Neil’s disapproval, but maybe because of his violence.

Foreshadowing to watch for: If Susan nervously asks whether Max is really happy with Lucas, then maybe.

Commentary: I’m not sure fans are as invested in this teen romance the way they are in the Mike/Jane paring, which makes it a better candidate for a Romantic Turmoil plotline. It also creates a way to keep Neil and Susan invested in season three, and since the title of the first chapter is “Suzie, do you copy?” and Max’s mother is the only Susan on the show, I’m guessing we’re going to be spending some time with them.

Finally, if I were only going to predict that Neil would pressure Susan and Max to ditch Lucas, I’d give it much better odds than 50:1. This is just a guess as to whether they actually split up.

10. Jane uses her powers at the wrong time/for the wrong reason/under the wrong circumstances: 2:1

Basis: Jane has been pretty good about mostly using her powers for good. Even when she’s in the wrong, she pulls back before she does real harm. During her moment of jealousy in “The Pollywog”, she could have gone all Brightburn, lifted Max above that backboard and dunked her like Dr. J. (Hello, 80s reference). She was stressed enough, but she held back.

But this is the first season where she’ll be living in ordinary society, and ordinary society is full of people who need to be flung telekinetically against brick walls.

Plot reveal: The risks are two-fold: human villains discover what she can do, or the general populace do. This prediction basically covers anything from reflexively giving Neil Hargrove an Exorcist 180 when he tries to beat Max to disarming the (presumed) Soviet agent in that funhouse mirror scene in the trailer, but doing it in front of eye witnesses. Does she get her picture in the paper? Does a squad of Soviet agents target her? Does one of the locals (Neil? Susan? Karen?) get it into their heads that’s she’s a monster who has to be put down?

Foreshadowing to watch for: Speeches from Hopper about the importance of keeping her powers a secret (which are bound to happen even if the show doesn’t hit this plot point) combined with reaction shots of a seriously stressed-out Jane as she sees assholes being assholes.

Commentary: Considering this season is going to be focused on a mall and will presumably involve zombified citizens, I think we can assume that, by the end of episode eight, the secrets that have been haunting the town of Hawkins will be significantly less secret. The big question is whether Jane’s abilities also come into the open. That would mean that season three will be the only time she gets to have that “normal life” Hopper’s been talking about.

11. We meet Steve’s parents (and they get zombified): 5:1

Basis: It’s a zombie story (presumably). Steve is one of the best-liked characters on the show. Is he going to get a scene where someone he cares about has been turned?

He’d better.

Plot reveal: Zombie Dad Harrington shuffles through the mall, arms outstretched toward his own son! And there’s Steve, with his nailed-out bat in his hands. Dun dun dunnnnn.

Foreshadowing to watch for: Dad Harrington will be unhappy that his son has taken a job at Scoops Ahoy, but otherwise has a lot of opinions about the mall, either positive or negative. Extra points if, instead, rich kid Steve is be working at the mall because it’s his dad’s project and he is “starting at the bottom”.

Commentary: In season one, we met The Wheelers, The Byers, and the Ives. In season two, we met the Hargroves, the Sinclairs, and Ms. Henderson. Time, I think, for Steve’s “asshole dad” to make an appearance.

12. The DnD Four (plus Max and Jane) have spent the time between seasons 2 and 3 preparing for another monster attack: A hundred mabillion to one

Hey, if monsters tried to eat me (twice!) and I were a young, healthy person who couldn’t move away, I’d spend at least an hour a day preparing for the next time. Running, maybe. Getting the chief to teach me to shoot. Learning to pick locks, code Basic, fix electrical wiring, and maybe how to drive. Oh, a mall has opened up? How about we buy some mall katanas and a book on kendo. With pictures.

But… yeah. I just don’t believe it.

CAVEAT: I’m the worst predictor of things in the world. If any of this actually comes true, I’ll be shocked.

More predictions that probably won’t happen:
* Brenner is captive of/collaborator with the “Soviet presence in Hawkins” that Murray is so worried about.
* Murray gets a triumphant moment when he uncovers actual Soviet agents. Which is maybe his last moment.
* This season’s monster is the speck of smoke monster that was driven out of Will but couldn’t return to the gate and was too weak to maintain a hive mind.
* The monster has been growing and rebuilding its strength, spreading from one rat to another.
* Calahan and Powell learn about the special dangers of living in Hawkins, and Powell quits.
* Hopper hires Steve to take his place.
* This is the season where we find out exactly what the Upside Down is, whether it’s an alternate dimension or a future where the smoke monster ecosystem has destroyed the world.
* The show thins out the cast with some deaths and/or characters lighting out for distant places
* Jopper, which the trailer makes clear is off to a rocky start, happens but does not last to the end of the season.

Boom. That’s all.

Season 3 is a little more than a month away. I’m looking forward to it.

The Infinity Saga: a 22-Episode “Season” of Theatrical TV Spread Over Ten Years

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Here’s a quote I haven’t forgotten from Manohla Dargis’s NYTimes review of Spider-Man: Homecoming.

[The Marvel Cinematic Universe] is vast, complicated, lucrative and ever-expanding. It’s also intrinsically uninteresting for viewers (at least one!) who just want a good movie.

Confession: I remember no one saying this about The Return of the King. Nobody wanted to skip the first two films and have the third stand on its own.

And why should they? The Lord of the Rings films were a trilogy, like the books.

I also don’t remember anyone complaining that they should have been able to walk into a screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One, and (to satisfy their desire for “a good movie”) automagically know who’s who and how they relate to each other. Did audience members suddenly blurt out, “Who’s this DumbleDude guy? Sounds like a dick.”

Well, I’m sure someone did, somewhere, but no one paid them to publish those thoughts in the NYTimes.

Sequels! There are so many of them in the MCU, and it all started with that end-credits scene where Nick Fury tells Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative. Based on that one scene–not to mention the marketing that confirmed a common setting for these films–Thor was a sequel to Iron Man. The Incredible Hulk (which included a Tony Stark cameo) mentioned super-soldier serum in 2008, three years before Captain America: The First Avenger. That means The Incredible Hulk was another sequel and CA:TFA was a prequel.

Don’t like using the word like that? Would you rather think of the Iron Man movies as one film and two sequels, and the three Thor and three Captain America movies as one film and two sequels (each) and then The Avengers as some odd crossover event that won’t be neatly characterized, but that also comes with sequels?

Let’s look at Wikipedia for a sec.

A sequel is a literature, film, theatre, television, music or video game that continues the story of, or expands upon, some earlier work. In the common context of a narrative work of fiction, a sequel portrays events set in the same fictional universe as an earlier work, usually chronologically following the events of that work.

I confess (a second time), I prefer that one to the “continuation of the story” definition that you see in online dictionaries, which is unnecessarily nebulous. The films share a setting, which means they share supporting characters and story elements: SHIELD, the infinity stones, the Kree. Also, the events of previous movies affect current ones. T’Challa becomes king in CA: Civil War and is crowned in his solo film. SHIELD conducts research into Hydra technology because Loki sends The Destroyer to New Mexico to kill Thor.

Sequels.

That’s what the MCU is. They’ve created a long story–22 episodes of the newly christened “Infinity Saga” and I’ll see the “season finale” Friday sometime–and they’ve done it as haphazardly as the creators of traditional network TV series have done it. I suffered through the first season of 24 because the premise sounded amazing, but as that show foundered, it became clear that the creators did not have a plan for the season. They were winging it, episode by episode, and it showed. The folks making the MCU were winging it, too. See my previous blog post.

Except we need better a better term for it. Marvel is working on sequels for Black Panther and Doctor Strange, and when you use the word “sequel” that way, you understand exactly what they mean: another movie with Stephen Strange or T’Challa as the protagonist. What will we call the upcoming Shang-Chi film? An episode? An “installment”?

So I understand why people would complain that these films aren’t films, but I think that’s wrong. I think they’re both films and episodes, and they’re all the more enjoyable for it.

By the way, on Sunday night I plan to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones, even though I’ve skipped every other previous episode. And I’m going to say shit like “Who’s that guy? Who’s she? Jeez, remember back in the day when you could just watch a good TV show? Mid-season, fourth season, it didn’t matter! You had Starsky and you had Hutch and once the opening theme explained the premise, you were set. Now *that* was TV! Wait. Who’s that zombie–looking guy?”

We’ve gotten used to long arcs on TV shows, thanks to so-called prestige TV and the tendency of streaming shows to make each season a miniseries. Maybe we’re looking at a genuine sea change in the film industry, too.

Everything changes.

New and Definitive Listing of MCU Films (w/ commentary) Don’t @ Me

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With Avengers: Endgame dropping this week, I decided to finally finish this post. Don’t bother trying to argue with me, because I’m 100% correct on all of this. Rotten Tomatoes scores added so you can see how wrong everyone else is.

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (RT: 90%) Still the best of the MCU, with terrific villains, interesting locations, and a plot you give a shit about. Steve Rogers is a man who isn’t sure if he should continue to serve, and discovers that he should be giving orders, not taking them. Plus, the strongest parts of these movies are the relationships between the heroes and the people they love. Excellent movie.

2. The Avengers (RT: 92%) A strong contender for the first spot, with only a couple of glaring flaws holding it back. “I’m always angry” feels like a placeholder line in a moment that needs something stronger, and I suspect Whedon et al underestimated just how much of a sex symbol Tom Hiddleston’s Loki had become. In other words, no one wanted to hear him say “mewling quim.” But the characters bounce off each other and to keep things interesting, and the action scenes (all but two involving Avenger v Avenger conflict) are top notch. Love it.

3. Thor: Ragnarok (RT: 92%) This one is a real surprise, because I would not have expected to place a Thor movie so high on this list. But T:R tears down everything that defined the Thor movies up to now and replaces them with color, humor, production design, and a new way forward for Loki and Thor. So much fun.

4. The Black Panther (RT: 97%) This movie is pretty much tied with the one above, slipping into fourth only because so many of the interesting bits went to the villain and T’Challa was stuck doing the traditional first-MCU dance with an enemy who had his same powers (but was stronger) and daddy issues. Also, both T:R and TBP had ritual combat, but only the fights in Thor made any sense. I refuse to believe that such an advanced society would choose a leader via MMA bout. I know, it’s just a movie, but every moment that I have to forgive is one that disappoints me a little. Still, rhino cavalry! So much joy in this movie. I really did love it.

5. Doctor Strange (RT: 89%) Did I mention villains with the same powers as the hero, but stronger? Well, in a constrained setting like this one, a choice like that becomes invisible. I know people were annoyed by the white-washing of The Ancient One, but it was that or risk losing $110mil from the Chinese market for having a Tibetan character. While the humor on this one fell a little flat, no other MCU film comes close to matching its spectacle, and the journey Stephen Strange takes from arrogant jerk to “It’s not about you” is probably the most meaningful one in the whole series of films. Still, lets see some ranged attacks in the sequel.

6. Spider-man: Homecoming (RT: 92%) Every time I look at how high this places in my list, I think it’s too high. Then I look for something below that I’d rank above it and come up with nothing. It’s funny. S-m:H has become sort of a litmus test for me as I search out a film discussion to take the place of Every Frame a Painting. So many self-proclaimed savvy film theorists turn their attention to the MCU and pick out this film as an example of movies where the main character doesn’t change or grow. Baffling, but I’ve seen it three or four times now from people who ought to be good at this. Anyway, great performances, excellent villain, and the most engaging film version of Peter Parker since… ever.

7. Iron Man (RT: 93%) It’s easy to blah blah about what a massive deal this first film was, the huge effect it had, and the massive risk it represented for pre-Disney Marvel. What can’t be denied is that the first two acts are impeccable. The structure, the performances, everything. If the ending, where Marvel established it’s “Like the hero, but stronger” format, feels a little soft, its all forgiven when Tony Stark blows off the idea of a secret identity. And then Nick Fury? Loved it.

8. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (RT: 84%) The MCU seems to be a playground for jocks with impeccable comic timing. Dave Bautista is the heart of this weird-ass movie, and I’m ready for a Drax trilogy. Maybe it’s time for Peter Quill to grow the fuck up, so GotG3 can score a higher spot on the list. Also, the ending feels a little long. It’s not, probably, but it feels that way. For the future, more Drax and Mantis, less Quill.

9. Iron Man 3 (RT: 79%) The first of these films to score below 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, and while I’ve heard plenty of complaints about this movie, I am there for it. Tony flew a nuke through a wormhole to save the Earth, and now he’s fucked up with anxiety. This is pretty much exactly what I wanted from a superhero movie and I didn’t even know it until I sat down in the theater. Stark gets to be extremely Tony Stark throughout, and the movie makes the wise choice to take away his armor for a big part of the second act. This, maybe, if the first of the movies listed that has a genuinely weak villain, but maybe if they’d stuck with Rebecca Hall instead of switching to Guy Pearce (for “merchandising”) I wouldn’t have had to type all that out.

10. Captain America: Civil War (RT: 91%) I wasn’t terribly keen on the Civil War storyline in the comics, but making it a Captain America movie meant making it about Bucky, and that centers this big, over-stuffed film on that unbreakable friendship between them. As for the central question of the film: In the real world, Tony was right. In the world of the film, Steve was right. Cap didn’t want to sign the accords for two reasons: what if they send the Avengers someplace they shouldn’t go, and what if there’s a problem they need to address but can’t get permission to go. The government that Cap is supposed to be signing on with does both of those things. They send a kill team to assassinate Bucky, who’s been framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and they refuse to let Cap go to Siberia. Thanks, movie, for arranging things so our hero gets to be right.

11. Avengers: Infinity War (RT: 85%) This is another one of those movies that make me think “Eleventh? Surely it should be higher than that” but nope, nothing above feels worthy of being swapped out. I’m not sure why they pulled that whole bit with Hulk losing a fight to Thanos and then hiding away for the rest of the movie (unless they wanted him to keep him from tearing apart the Children of Thanos like cardboard cutouts). I’m also not sure why they wrote Doctor Strange’s dialog the way they did. He’s a neurosurgeon, not a Gandalf from another dimension. “What master do you serve?” sounds bad and is bad. Still, this film did the best job yet of juggling that huge cast of characters, and I’m 100% ready for WandaVision, or whatever they’re calling it.

12. Captain America: The First Avenger (RT: 80%) This is probably the first movie where the main character doesn’t really have a personal journey. He goes from the weakling who wants to do right to the hero who actually can. It’s a solid movie and I just rewatched and enjoyed it a couple weeks back, but without Chris Evans this thing would have gone nowhere.

13. Captain Marvel (RT: 78%) Once again, this seems like a low ranking for a movie I saw in the theater three times (and would have gone a fourth with my niece if family obligations hadn’t interfered). All the Carol and Fury stuff is great, and while I’ve talked already about some of the character moments, it’s also a bummer that Hala and the inside of the Skrull ship look basically like 20 year old TV scifi. Compare the alien tech in this with Thor: Ragnarok and the production design on CM looks like a placeholder that no one swapped out. And then you get to that third act, which is just all-out superhero fun. That first shot of Carol flying gave me goosebumps. Three times. I’m convinced this picture was a billion-dollar earner because, in part, of that bravura ending.

14. Guardians of the Galaxy (RT: 91%) Remember when this was new in theaters and people were talking about it as a herald for the death of grimdark? The movie that opens with a little boy watching his mother die of cancer, then a space man dancing through the ruins of a civilization, kicking the local fauna? I think folks missed that all the humor in this movie was masking a lot of pain, and this wasn’t the bright and upbeat jaunt they’d originally thought. But there was also the space net of space ships, which is not what you’d call the best idea ever, and “Even this green whore—” which was not a winning move. A fun movie on first viewing, I don’t think it really holds up.

15. Ant-Man and the Wasp (RT: 88%) This movie is fine. It’s enjoyable. It hits the right beats, nabs an imaginative sequence from Dave Made A Maze, introduces Black Goliath, gets plenty of genuine belly laughs, and gives fans the Wasp they’ve been waiting for. But it’s time for Walton Goggins to play other characters, because he’s not carrying the “Head Baddie” mantle the way he should. Somebody cast him as the con artist with the heart of gold that we all want him to be, and put someone scary into the roles he’s been getting. Anyway, A-mATW has solid performances, trippy cgi nano-realms, funny jokes, and a solid structure. But I don’t love it and no one can make me love it.

16: Thor (RT: 77%) If you were put a bunch of these movie titles in a list and show them to me in 2007, I would have guessed this one to land at the very bottom. It doesn’t, solely on the strength of the relationship between Thor and Loki. Thor’s love for his brother keeps this thing afloat, even in the face of the Warriors Three and the Odinsleep. Frankly, it was a stroke of genius to establish Mjolnir’s rules about being worthy by having the lead character declared unworthy, then earn it. But it was such a weird movie, and only that brotherly relationship made it work.

17. Ant-Man (RT: 82%) This film is haunted by the Edgar Wright picture it could have been. It’s also haunted by the specter of The Wasp, who should have been part of the plot from the beginning. Honestly, a super-hero heist movie is a no-brainer and ought to be a massive win, but this movie felt like a jumble of fun ideas and weak ones.

18. Avengers: Age of Ultron (RT: 75%) Someone online described Spader’s Ultron voice as a retiree who took a part time job at Home Depot, and yeah, it just doesn’t work. Ultron is one of the scariest of the Avengers’ villains, but this version of him never comes together or feels real. One thing I will say, though, is that it’s funny to remember all the criticisms of this film that said it was overfull with superheroes. Later movies were more crowded, but they made it work. I also question the choice to make Stark the guilty party here. He’s investigating the space spear. It jumps into his computer. Why does that have to be his fault.

19. Iron Man 2 (RT: 73%) The first Iron Man was so wonderful and this was such an amazing misfire. I liked Sam Rockwell quite a bit but they forgot to give Mickey O’Rourke’s character a personality beyond Pissed-Off Guy. And the villains vanish for the middle 45 minutes of the film. Not recommended.

20. Thor: The Dark World (RT: 67%) Oh, look, it’s the movie that drove Natalie Portman out of the MCU. Odin, who spends the whole first movie advocating peace turns into a raging war monger. And the villains, who have great character design, turn out of lack every other aspect of character. Like personalities and motivations. They still hadn’t realized that Chris Hemsworth has excellent comic timing, and this alien invasion of an alien world is ponderous when it could be a sword and planet romp.

21. The Incredible Hulk (RT: 67%) Nobody knows how to make a Hulk movie. He’s a gothic monster. Everyone hates him, including himself, and that loathing sometimes makes him lash out, but he’s good at heart. This film played up his first appearance as though he was a monster, moving in the dark, stalking his victims. It’s the most effective part of the film. Unfortunately, it spins out farther and farther, losing momentum until the big (but unconvincing) fight against “Like The Hulk But Stronger” Abomination in Harlem. Too bad. There’s a gothic monster storyline for the Hulk that could make a gangbusters film

I’ll be seeing Avengers: Endgame this weekend, and I’m curious to see where it will slot in.

For Every Failure, an Opportunity

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If you’re backing my Patreon, you may have noticed that it has been switched back on. That is, it’s back to a monthly basis, charging credit cards at the start of every month. I’d turned it “off” because I’d started a new job. As of this week I’m no longer working there, so it’s on again.

I’ve never been fired for being bad at a job before, but you know what? It was the right thing for them to do. I absolutely should have been let go. And I’m glad for it.

In previous posts I was a little cagey about where I’d been hired because it was a six-month contract at a game company, and I was sure how it would go. I’ll say now that it was the Valve Corporation over in Bellevue. I’ll also say that they asked me not to talk about the games I worked on/heard about/whatever outside of their offices, even to my own family. I haven’t done that and I won’t start now.

How it happened was this: Gabe, the founder of the company, liked my books and invited me to lunch. This was back in, I think, 2012? 2013? Several months before my Kickstarter for The Great Way, at least. I’d heard of Valve’s games but hadn’t played any, and I honestly thought he was going to ask if I would write a novel for the company. But lunch wasn’t just me and Gabe, we were joined by a bunch of writers already working for the company, and I was all What am I doing here? Nobody needs me to write a novel when they already have Marc Laidlaw sitting right there.

It turned out the offer was to work at the company on the actual games, which I had to decline. I didn’t play many video games because a) they were often asking me to do shit that was illegal and immoral, which I hate and b) too many games were boring, making me quit early, and most of all c) if I did like them, I could be obsessive about it. I mean, Freedom Force and its sequel were scads of fun, but playing them, I spent hours with my back to the living room, and every other aspect of my life suffered. I’m not exactly Mr. Moderation. My wife was especially unhappy to be ignored evening after evening while I shot pretend ray guns at cartoon people.

After that lunch meeting, I started playing (and enjoying) games a lot more, and Valve was a big reason for that. I love the Portal and Half-Life games–like, genuinely loved playing them–because they didn’t ask me to run errands, murder innocent people or navigate lots of high places without railings (seriously the worst). As my son got older, he started recommending games that suited me better, and so I felt I understood them a little better. I never became good, but they made sense in a conceptual way

Then we came to the end of 2018. I’d taken a big gamble after The Great Way and Key/Egg came out. I put two years into a fat fantasy with a cool setting, a plot that was a little out of the ordinary, and badass characters. The plan was simple. Write a book that stands out, place it with NY publishers, and let the backlist bump spill some extra coins into our savings accounts.

Except it didn’t work. Publishers passed. The book was too different, or too something, and there was no new contract and therefore no bump.

At that point, we’d been living off the money from The Great Way for too long and our savings was getting low (not to mention rent increases and a possible eviction in the coming months), so my wife asked me to find a day job, and I thought about Valve, and I reached out. Did, maybe, I have something to contribute there?

Nope! But I didn’t know that at the time.

Gabe and his people were nice enough to give me a chance though, working on a multiplayer team-fighting game that was in the very early stages. I was to do worldbuilding for them.

Which meant: Where and Why.

Where are they fighting?

Why are they fighting?

Those were the two questions I was supposed to answer, and over the course of two months, I couldn’t make a suggestion that both matched the criteria they’d given me and also made the rest of the team excited. Two full months! Of course they let me go.

As a writer, I’ve had my share of one-star reviews. And you don’t grow up in a family like mine and get all tender-hearted about what people think of you. But when you’re sitting in a meeting, and everyone looks miserable because of you–because of the mouth-sounds you’re making–well, that suuuuucks.

You guys should have seen some of the body language in the room for that last meeting. Picture, if you will, a person sitting on a bench at a bus stop at night. They’ve forgotten their jacket, and it’s sleeting. That’s exactly some of those guys were sitting: hunched over, head down, waiting for all this to just be over.

And that was my fault.

See, it doesn’t matter if it’s a great company, or that the money was good, or that there was a free salad bar at lunch every day with chick peas you could scoop right into the bowl (seriously, so fucking delicious). None of that shit matters if the work itself is a waste of time to everyone on the team, including the person doing it. That’s demoralizing as hell.

Me, personally, I think the setting I created for that last meeting would be a home run in all sorts of media–books, animation, whatever–but not in computer games and certainly not in the game they’re working so hard to create. It just didn’t fit. And at this point, I don’t care where my proposals came up short or if they went too far or what was actually wrong. All that matters is that it wasn’t successful, and Valve owns it, and I hope they can cherry-pick a few things out of it that they find useful. And if they can’t, sorry, guys.

Where does that leave me? Not unemployed, exactly, since I’m working for myself again.

Those two months helped refill our bank accounts a little, and I have three completed, unreleased novel manuscripts. One is that big gamble. Another is a mystery/thriller with no supernatural elements. Another is the fun fantasy adventure that needs a little bit more tweaking before my agent takes it to NY publishers.

I’m composing this during the time I’m supposed to be writing a novelette for an anthology I’ve been invited to, but I put that off because I feel like I owe you guys an update on where things stand, fiction-wise. I’ve spent the last two months squeezing my own projects into the hour before I went into the office, but now that I’m back on my own time, things will go faster.

My fun fantasy will go out to publishers (“Funpunk”! You heard it here first, folks). My big gamble book and the thriller will be self-published. Kickstarter maybe? We’ll have to see. I also have to write the next Twenty Palaces novella. And at some point soon, we’ll look again at our bank accounts and maybe I’ll grab another day job.

So I wanted you to know that, even though I haven’t published a new novel since 2015(!) I haven’t stopped writing. I haven’t stopped working hard. There’s new stuff on the horizon and, you know, maybe I won’t try those big gambles again.

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Strange Puts on his Broken Watch: Understated Character Moments in Superhero Melodramas Like Captain Marvel

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Remember the end of DOCTOR STRANGE, where he straps on that super-expensive but thoroughly ruined watch to symbolize that he has learned to accept the broken things that are important to him? I thought that was beautiful because it underplayed the moment. It implied rather than stated, and it did so artfully.

Later, I heard a bunch of people didn’t like the movie because (in part) they thought Strange didn’t change. Never mind that he started off as a guy who was concerned only with his rep, to the point that he wouldn’t see patients if they were too old or sick and his treatment might fail, and at the end of the movie, he wins by losing, and he does so in a way that ensures no one will ever know about it except for him and his two buddies. He has turned himself upside down on reputation and failure, and he’s found a new, better way to live.

But DOCTOR STRANGE is a superhero melodrama, and the less obvious story beats were lost in all the disks of colored light, uncollapsing buildings, and kung fu. And now I think the same thing has happened to CAPTAIN MARVEL.

Now, to be clear, I really, really enjoyed CAPTAIN MARVEL. I saw it twice in the theater already, and once my wife and son go on their trip, I’ll see it again.

FYI: SPOILERS after the jump. You’ve been warned.

Continue reading

The Pressure to Continue the Story After the Story

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That video below? Worth watching, like Ellis’s other work.

(Actually, I’m sort of assuming the video shows up, since WordPress’s new “block” system doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.)

If you’ve watched it (and let me say again, you should) you already know that it’s a discussion of some relatively recent critical schools of thought about literature, namely, does the author have any authority over the story and characters outside the published text? Or, to use the examples in the video, does the author get to tell us what happened to the characters after the last page? Do we have to take seriously the secret things they tell us about the characters that’s not in the text (such as, that Dumbledore is gay)?

Like John Green in the video, I’m of the opinion that readers get to choose for themselves, and at least should be able to extrapolate from the story.

As a personal example, a number of readers asked me what happened to Lar Italga after the end of The Great Way. Me, I thought it was so obvious that I didn’t even bother to write it. But that wasn’t good enough for some, and they seemed annoyed when I turned the question around and asked what they thought happened to him. They didn’t want to extrapolate. They wanted the authoritative word.

A number of people also wanted authoritative insight into how the names were pronounced, and “however you like” was apparently not an acceptable answer. I’ve read I-don’t-know-how-many fantasy novels with goofy pronunciation guides and I’ve learned to ignore them. In the privacy of my own head, I think of the characters’ names however I like, but a significant number of readers want the “correct” form.

The video takes JK Rowling to task for many of her pronouncements about the world of the books and the future of the characters. Is it especially laudable to make Dumbledore gay if you don’t include it in the actual book where it would have counted? Do we need an apology about who Hermione ended up with? Do we need to be told that, before indoor plumbing, wizard students crapped on the floor and them magic-ed the mess away?

Lots of people had a laugh at that last one, but it seems she knows what she’s talking about. Click the tweet below to see why I will never ever time travel back to the middle ages in Europe.

I’m lying here being sick while @seraph76 reads me bits of a history of French royal court poisonings and I think we need another terror— rahaf mohammed al-qanon (@AliceAvizandum) January 5, 2019

I know it starts off talking about poison, but it quickly moves to sewers (or the lack thereof) and no, please, authors, do not try for this level of realism. Just click the tweet to open and read. It’s hair-raising.

So, yeah, Rowling has a history of coming up with a bunch of extraneous stuff about the Harry Potter books–seemingly without giving it a lot of thought–and not to the benefit of her books or herself. To which I have to say: Can you blame her?

The Harry Potter books were such a gigantic hit that she has been deluged with questions, many from very young readers. Is she supposed to tell a ten-year-old Hermione fan that the character is a fictional construct with no life or existence outside the text? Yeah, that would go over well.

It’s entirely unsurprising that she launched an entire website (literally “More Potter”) which lists a bunch of character biographies and other bullshit that Rowling (or one of her interns/social media hires/whatever) threw together in an afternoon. That it draws in the hardcore fans (and tries to sell them stuff) is an entirely reasonable way to avoid all those earnest questions flooding the author’s social media.

And then, when a new Fantastic Beasts movie comes out, superfans get upset because the backstory in the movie doesn’t match the extraneous BS listed on Pottermore. Not that it matters. The Hogwarts Cinematic Universe is different from the books, obviously.

So yeah, I get why John Green and other authors (like myself) don’t want to add more story once the story is done. I also believe that Rowling’s circumstances are unique to her, and the pressure on her to drop these little bits of extraneous story must be incredible. I don’t always like what she says, but she has my sympathy.

Randomness for 1/14

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1) The Chinese government’s extensive “social credit” surveillance system rewards loyal citizens and punishes whistle blowers.

2) Relationships vs Algorithm at Netflix.

3) For the First Time in More Than 20 Years, Copyrighted Works Will Enter the Public Domain.

4) The Fall and Rise of M. Night Shyamalan

5) Forgery Experts Explain 5 Ways To Spot A Fake. Video.

6) Dating while in therapy? The advice column answer to this question is both kind and its not interested in the way we bullshit ourselves. Excellent.

7) How to take awesome food photos by Helen Rosner. (This is a terrific primer on visual composition)