Dodging Both Rock and Hard Place: the Uncompromising Hero

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I watched MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT last week, then rewatched BLACK PANTHER a few days later, and I was struck by the similarities. Both are about good men in a situation where other people expect them to be ruthless if they want to succeed. Both refuse but succeed anyway, partly through a circle of incredibly competent friends, and partly through their own awesomeness.

Exceedingly minor spoilers for both films.

“You are a good man, with a good heart, and it is hard for a good man to be king.”

To me, that’s the central line in THE BLACK PANTHER. T’challa is a good man who readily accepts the self-serving policies that have been handed down to him. Yes, black people around the world are oppressed, but Wakanda stands apart. That’s how it’s always been. They don’t liberate. They don’t conquer. They live happily and prosperously inside their secret country, minding their own bees wax. In fact, the first action scene in the film is a sequence where The Black Panther interrupts a rescue mission for the needs of the Wakandan state.

It’s Nakia who speaks up for doing the right thing, and W’Kabi who repeats the self-serving conventional wisdom. T’challa is ready to follow that tradition without even considering what it really means, right up to the point that he has to save someone’s life.

So, where T’challa talks and talks about doing what’s best for the country–what keeps them safe–but the first time he’s faced with the choice between helping and keeping his national secret, he helps. He doesn’t even consider his options first. It’s just “Here’s a person I know who has been hurt. We will help.” When questioned by his friends, he can’t even come up with a justification. It’s not a carefully thought out decision. It’s just him listening to his “good heart.”

Obviously, Killmonger is the other extreme. He wants to use the power and resources of Wakanda to kill and conquer. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire.” For him, nothing has value except power: not the lives of the enemies he’s recorded in the scars on his body. Not the girlfriend who helps him on his heists, and not the Wakandan traditions that put him on the throne.

If Killmonger had not blown off The Black Panther’s call for a resumption of their trial by combat, the climax of that film might have gone very differently. The Dora Milaje would have been honor bound to stay out of the fight, and Shuri, Nakia, and Ross’s attempt to stop the shipments of weapons would have failed. That’s a much better chance at victory, but Killmonger couldn’t honor the local tradition because he doesn’t care about doing the right thing.

With MI:FALLOUT, Ethan Hunt is continually put into situations where the expedient thing is to sacrifice someone else for sake of the mission. It’s pretty much the entire plot, front to back.

But because this is a movie, the protagonist can be as clever/fast/tough/resourceful as he needs to be to make it all work out. The real thrills come from seeing how effectively the movie makes you think he has to “go there”, then lets him be the hero instead.

The biggest difference between MI:F and TBP is that T’challa wields incredible power and authority. When he decides to do the good but not expedient thing, he only has to give the order, then endure the astonished expressions of his pals. For Ethan Hunt, he’s surrounded by enemies and allies he can’t trust (plus a couple of real friends, obviously). The stakes are much higher than “Our culture will have to open up to the world” so the tension is greater.

Fact: I enjoyed them both. The only thing I hope they do with the second Black Panther flick is to make T’challa as smart as he is in the comics. I want to see him win not because he used a clever karate move. I want him to show off his brains, too.

And, just to say in passing, that earlier this week I rewatched both Jack Reacher films, and as I said on Twitter, Christopher McQuarrie is a severely underrated writer/director. No matter how frantic or desperate the movie gets, it never feels like the story is skimming over something important. Great stuff.

Randomness for 7/31

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1) The Legend of John Arthur, the Toughest Man in America.

2) Don’t Feed The Trolls and Other Hideous Lies.

3) What the Data Says About Producing Low-Budget Horror Movies.

4) Raising the barre: how science is saving ballet dancers.

5) What Happened When I Tried To Talk To My Twitter Abusers.

6) Ten Changes Made in the Lord of the Rings Novelization.

7) A ‘beer sommelier’ explains how pouring a beer the wrong way can give you a stomach ache. Video

Why You Should Go See BLINDSPOTTING

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Would it seem incongruous is I said these two different things about BLINDSPOTTING:

1) It’s a film about gentrification.
2) The last 30 minutes have more tension and intensity than any thriller or action movie I’ve seen in the past year.

Typically, when I see a movie in the theater, I don’t bother doing any more than a tweet about it. For example:

or maybe:

But this film feels too complicated for a simple tweet. It’s like a buddy comedy where the funny bits are suddenly cut short by the very real possibility of tragedy. It’s a coming-of-age story for two characters who are already grown men. It’s social and political commentary hung on a frame work of friendship and dumb choices and being unable to erase your past.

Anyway, see this movie as soon as you can, if you can. It’s funny and sad and thrilling and extraordinarily vital.

Young Men in Groups

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I noticed this a couple of weeks ago and I tried to put off a response until my interest in it fell away. It hasn’t. Therefore:

It started with this tweet from Chuck Wendig:

If you click on that and read the whole thread, skip the rest of this paragraph. But basically, there are a bunch of right wing Star Wars fans who have decided the movie series has to be one of the many fronts in the culture war, and they imagine they have the power to tank a movie’s box office through shitposting.

And then there’s the guys who think that targeted harassment against the women who star in these movies–harassment that causes them to shut down their social media–is some kind of victory for men. Especially if the women are not white women.

It reminds me of something I read a very long time ago and never forgot. It was so long ago that I’ve forgotten the source, but it stuck with me: it’s that the most dangerous people you are likely to meet on the street are young men traveling in groups.

As a writer of thriller/action/violence and such, I’ve spent a fair amount of time searching for good books on the subject. They’re surprisingly rare. (I can recommend (with affiliate links) two good ones, if you’re interested. One. Two.) But you can usually find a worthwhile nugget or two in any book.

The reason young men in groups are especially dangerous, according to this long-forgotten author, is that to the men in the group, the victim almost doesn’t matter. The victim is beside the point. The real reason the men in the group want to do violence is to impress the other members. They want to prove themselves. To push things a little farther.

In the book, the technique the author proposed to head off the confrontation was to look one member of the group in the eye–not the one directly in front of you, but one standing back a little–and say something like “You know this is wrong.” Basically, to shame them into breaking the cycle of competition so they would move on.

It seems to me that part (not all, but part) of what’s going on in these RW hate campaigns is a similar dynamic. It was certainly the case with GooberGate, where young men were competing to be the most outrageous shit head, and for all the notoriety that went with it. The victim didn’t matter to them except as a trophy to show off to their friends. What mattered was attention from others in your group.

And when you’re online, a victim can’t look someone in the eye and shame them. That has to happen in real life, because that online connection will never be as strong as the connection to their group.

For example, check out this article about an incel who left the online incel community. Is it body dimorphism for him to believe he’s too ugly to ever get a girlfriend? He looks like a perfectly normal guy, but maybe he doesn’t feel like one. He says he didn’t approve of violent talk in those incel communities, but he thought they were dark humor.

I’m glad to say that Mr. Former Incel had a chance to meet people in real life who looked him in the eye and made him realize he already knew it was wrong. Instead of chiding other incels who fantasized about violence, he walked away.

There will always be a certain percentage of any particular group of abusers who are psychopaths or sadists. They hurt people because they like it and they can’t be shamed into changing. But the people around them, who see that viciousness as a kind of strength, emulate them so they can feel strong, too. Those followers can be cut away, but it’s not easy. And I have no idea how it can be done in online spaces.

Verfremdungseffekt and the Modern Theseus: A Short(ish) Review of DAVE MADE A MAZE

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I came across this movie in an odd way. It was literally lying on the floor in the library; someone meant to check it out, but dropped it while browsing through graphic novels. I looked at the cover, read the back, then opened wikipedia to make sure the Rotten Tomatoes score was not below 40%. Then… sure. Why not?

Especially since my wife has a soft spot for artsy, oddball movies with interesting production design.

The premise is simple: Annie returns from a business trip to discover that her boyfriend, Dave, has built a shitty cardboard fort in their living room. And he’s inside it. And he won’t come out.

Well, he claims that he can’t come out. And he begs her not to mess with it, because it’s his latest project and he wants to finish it. And he doesn’t want her to come inside. He says it’s bigger on the inside, and he’s lost in a maze that he constructed. He doesn’t want her to get lost too. Or set off one of the booby traps he created. Or run into the minotaur that has somehow appeared.

Annie thinks Dave is having a full on breakdown. She invites one or two close friends to help draw him out, but of course a bunch of his jerk pals show up and take nothing about the situation seriously. They all push into the entrance of Dave’s little fort and discover that yeah, it’s bigger on the inside. Which means they spend the next hour and ten moving from room to room, hallway to hallway, inside a living cardboard maze built out of Dave’s frustration and self-loathing, while the minotaur and booby traps take them out one by one.

Let’s talk about the flaws first, and I have to start with the dialog. It’s rarely more than perfunctory, and the movie isn’t nearly as fun as it would have been with dialog that startled and entertained. Lackluster dialog is literally the only factor that keeps this from becoming an honest-to-god classic. If Dave’s motivation for creating the weirdo labyrinth that’s killing his friends is “I wanted to make something,” you don’t need him to say that a bunch of times. Have him say it once, and shoot it so that the audience knows that it matters.

I don’t think it’s a surprise that its the supporting cast who get most of the best lines. They get most of the personality, too.

Another problem (one I’d normally be willing to forgive) is that Dave himself is the worst. He’s an “artist” who never finishes a project, and who lives, at least in part, off of his parents. He’s so frustrated, you guys, because he hasn’t amounted to anything, and he’s already thirty years old! Can you believe it? So old!

As a 52-year-old who didn’t sign a publishing deal until he was 42, and who might never sign another under my real name again, Dave sounded like a toddler crying over a dropped ice cream cone. Sure, I understand why that might make you unhappy, but this is petty compared to the shit that’s on the way, believe me.

Plus, he has Annie, who starts the movie nine-tenths done with Dave’s self-indulgent bullshit (and his awful friends) but falls in love with him all over again by the end. And is she hot? Suuuuuuper hot.

Despite those two flaws, I still enjoyed the hell out of this movie.

It’s the maze that’s the real star here, with its patchwork cardboard walls, weird rooms, and elaborate traps. The estrangement effect is in full swing, because the film never stops reminding you that it’s a film. Every room, effect, or plot twist makes you think “Wow, they’re knocking this out of the park” or “They put in a lot of work for that two-second shot” where “they” = “the filmmakers.” You never suspend disbelief or invest in the character’s emotional dilemma, and that’s okay.

And intentional. The tone is light and ironic. Even the deaths are played for laughs (and wow, did we laugh). Plus, three of Dave’s friends who are caught in the maze with him are a documentary film crew more concerned with documenting the situation than solving it. The movie keeps telling you you’re watching a movie and daring you to enjoy it nonetheless.

I’m trying not to spoil any of the stuff that makes this movie such a fucking delight. The less you know going in, the better. Dave Made a Maze may not be a great movie, but it sure is a lot of fun.

Randomness for 5/6

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1) Coming Clean: The Physics of Doing Laundry

2) D&D Creatures Created by a Neural Network are Weird.

3) Ask a Manager: I’m being mentored against my will by a dude who’s my peer.

4) How 50 Female Characters Were Described in their Screenplays.

5) Patterns among profitable moves budgeted between $3 and $10 million.

6) French Museum Discovers Half of its Collection are Fakes.

7) Vaccines Work: Here are the Facts. (a comic)

Yeah. Right: On the artificiality of narrative and the suspension of disbelief

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If you hate spoilers for movies, especially the new Avengers picture, don’t read farther.

My kid doesn’t like action movies.

He won’t overlook the artificial aspects of them to lose himself in the moment. In Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, when Tom Hardy jumped from a flaming truck just as it exploded and caught hold of another vehicle, my son blurted out “He’s dead.”

Now, did I need a teenager to point out that the death-defying stunts of an action movie are inherently artificial and overblown? I assure you that I did not. When I suggested that films are obviously full of fakey bullshit, from the way people speak to the way they look, he just shrugs. He hasn’t bought in to the sort of cinematic hyperbole you find in action films because he just doesn’t enjoy them. The stakes feel false to him because he hasn’t bought in.

Which brings me to Avengers: Infinity War. It’s an action movie where the heroes do *not* narrowly avoid death, even the ones with sequels that have already been greenlit. I’ve seen reactions online from folks who disengaged from the story the same way my son does when a hero comes through a massive gunfight without a scratch, and I’ve been thinking about why.

I suspect it’s because it’s new. Comic books have been killing off their IP… er, I mean, their characters and then bringing them back for years. The last time I looked at comics, Tony Stark had been physically killed, and currently survives as an AI. Bucky put on the Cap suit at one time, and so did Sam Wilson. But it’s always temporary. As a longtime comics reader, I went into the film wondering if they would kill off beloved characters in this style and I wasn’t surprised when they did.

In fact, I experienced the deaths of Black Panther, Dr. Strange, and Spider-man as a kind of relief. No way were those deaths going to be permanent, and the incredibly somber finale of A:IW was softened in a way that I welcomed. It pulled me out of the story a little, but I was okay with that. There are lots of movies that make a virtue out of artificiality.

I’ve also grown up with action movies that have grown more bombastic over the last four decades. We’ve gone from westerns and cop movies where the hero and villain shoot at each other once, then one clutches at their shirt and falls over, to ludicrous better mousetraps of explosions and falling buildings. For me, that has been a slow evolution in pushing the boundaries of the disbelief we’re willing to suspend, but my son has seen all these old movies in a jumble. He’s been thrown into the deep end of pirates of the caribbean and John Woo, and its too much too fast.

Anyway, it’s a good movie for the sort of movie it is. I’m a fan of stories about superpowers, so it hits a sweet spot for me. At some point, I’ll have to watch it back-to-back with the recent Justice League film, to figure out why one made a “Villain collects plot coupons” plot work so well, while the other did it so poorly.

Also, in this movie, the heroes lose because they’re unwilling to sacrifice individuals for the greater good (although I wanted to tear my hair out when Dr. Strange bargained for Stark’s life) while the villains won because they’re willing to kill their own (not just with Thanos murdering his own daughter, but “We have blood to give). I hope that, when The Return of the Avengers comes out next year, the heroes succeed and the villains fail for those same qualities.

But I’m still interested, as a storyteller, in limits of our suspension of disbelief and in how we move those limits around.

Randomness for 1/23

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1) Things restaurant workers wish you knew about being a patron in a restaurant.

2) The Beautiful Science of Cream Hitting Coffee.

3) The 50 Best Good/Bad Movies.

4) The New Republic on JRR Tolkien, circa 1956.

5)

6) Police give out thumb drives infected with malware as cybersecurity prizes.

7)

“We’re not in a prophecy.” “Let the past die.” “I’m scared.” Three short reviews

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I think that, if I group my reviews together, I can keep them short. So I’m going to try that.

Bright

Everyone who creates a fantasy with a contemporary setting has two major issues they need to address. Okay, it’s more than two, but as far as I’m concerned, these are the biggest.

First, the stakes are bullshit.

Second, monsters are not effective stand-ins for victims of injustice.

The first is pretty straight forward, I think. In the normal course of things, I care as much about who becomes the next arch-duke of the sewer goblins as I do about whether some complete stranger I’ll never meet is going to wear a blue hat or a green one. It’s made up. It’s not connected to me. I just don’t care.

Worse, when fantasy has a contemporary setting, the plot is always about *preventing* some terrible event. If the heroes aren’t fighting like hell to keep a mcguffin out of the villain’s hands, they’re doing their best to break up a ritual. That makes the most dangerous consequence the characters are facing into a threat that’s never realized.

That’s why, when I was planning Child of Fire, I set it in a small town where the villain is the main source of jobs for the locals. Hammer Bay will die off if the heroes end the bad guy and they lose all those jobs. That’s a stake that people understand and care about. (Also, the ritual happened long before the story started.)

Bright, at least, avoids the shitty ritual climax, but it still trots out a bunch of folderol about a Dark Lord who will return if the villains can blah blah with the mcguffin. It never happens. I knew it wouldn’t happen. I didn’t care.

And do I really need to explain that second pitfall? You don’t illuminate human injustice by dehumanizing the victims of injustice. It’s even sketchy to do it to the perpetrators of injustice, although there are ways to make that work. But the victims? No. Just, no.

As for the movie itself, it’s not good. The end is dull. The beginning is unpleasant because of that second pitfall above. The middle is buoyed by a few interesting action scenes but too much of it is too dark.

The first time I heard Netflix was going to make a Will Smith movie about a cop with elves and orcs, I thought they meant Law & Order: Angmar. That would have been interesting. Once I heard they were going to set it in modern LA I knew it would be crap.

The Final Jedi

I’ve been calling this film by the wrong name on Twitter as a joke, and now it’s begun to feel more right than the right one.

Seeing it a second time was a smart choice on my part (pats self on back). Having the ending spoiled, and knowing who was going to succeed, and which elements that I was originally rooting for turned out to be terrible, made the intent of the film much more clear.

I wonder how many people, conditioned to cheer on the hotshot pilot and the bold plan, were prepared for the way that plot line turned. The more I think about it, the more I suspect that some viewers’ disappointment lay in that unexpected feeling of futility and dismay.

It still feels a little long, but I liked it much more a second time.

The Punisher

I’ve seen this show three times now, and I’m more impressed every time. It very much wants to be divorced from the MCU that it’s nominally a part of, and frankly, that weakens it. It’s hard to imagine these villains in this particular setting operating without trying to recruit superpowered people or acquire high-tech weapons. And frankly, that’s what I was hoping to see.

The show gave me something else: a military/spy thriller about a CIA coverup combined with a drama about veterans and PTSD. And it was beautifully shot and acted.

I’d suggest a few of the roles could have been cast better. The actress playing Medani has the worst accent of all the non-Americans playing New Yorkers, and the guy playing Billy isn’t physically frightening enough to match Bernthal’s Frank Castle. He looks more like a successful divorce lawyer than a
deadly killer.

What’s more, unlike most of these Netflix Marvel shows, the pacing is solid. Not breakneck but there are no episodes that feel like treading water.

Turns out, it’s a solid show, but not a Marvel show.

Justice League (no spoilers)

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Okay. I wasn’t going to see it until next week, but reviews said it was sorta good, so I caught a 7pm sneak tonight.

The theater was mostly empty, a very bad sign.

The movie itself was “pretty good for superhero movies” if that’s any kind of rating that matters. They finally got the heroes right. The villains were still cgi ciphers for a supers plot, with three macguffins that have to be gathered and joined to end the world, etc etc. The parademons were effectively animated but Steppenwolf was an empty shell.

Still, this is the first time I genuinely liked Cavill as Superman. He’s always looked the part, but I never really felt he was playing the Superman I grew up with. Affleck was terrific as Batman, and the others were excellent. Gadot especially. I’m glad they skipped the origin stories and I’m glad they cast charismatic people.

As action movies go, it was exciting, if a bit repetitive. Next time I hope they mix things up more.

Honestly, I can’t decide if this is the power of low expectations, or if I just had fun. Now I’m honestly looking forward to movies for these individual heroes.

Anyway, it’s a quarter after 11 at night and I’ve got a pint of black coffee beside me. THE PUNISHER starts in 45 minutes, and I’ll be sitting up to binge it.