One Thing I Love About “Stories of Your Life and Others”

I think Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang is a work of genius that dispels my assumptions about science fiction vs science fantasy

From the movie Arrival, based on “Story of Your Life”, and also a billion memes

Whenever I meet another person who’s significantly smarter than I am, my brain immediately and involuntarily starts doing this thing where it starts looking for deficits. “Okay, sure, she may understand linear algebra in a way that I’ve never been able to, but I’d be able to understand it too, if I hadn’t devoted so time to developing a sense of humor to be a more well-rounded person.”

It’s complete bullshit, of course. And it should go without saying that it never actually works, because I don’t live in an 80s teen movie where people have one defining trait. And almost every time I’ve met someone frustratingly smarter than I am, they’ve also turned out to be creative, imaginative, and often funny. (And occasionally, infuriatingly, really good-looking as well).

It was a familiar feeling reading Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, a collection of short stories seemingly written by someone better than me at understanding linguistics, semiotics, and what it fundamentally means to be human.

Usually my attempts to read science fiction end in failure, even though it’s always seemed like I should be a fan. I think I bounce off “real” sci-fi for the same reason I didn’t enjoy taking astronomy in college: the amazing things that we’ve learned about the cosmos aren’t the result of seat-of-your-pants jaunts on a faster-than-light spaceship navigating through asteroid fields, but from centuries of earthbound study. On a purely intellectual level, I can appreciate the spectacular amount of work and brilliant insight that goes into just gathering images from outer space, but still I was disappointed that astronomy classes turned out to be 1% cool pictures of nebulae and 99% geology and physics. Science fantasy is flashier and more fun than science fiction, and both are orders of magnitude more fun than actual science.

It’s appropriate that immediately before this book, I read Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke for the first time. That’s long had a reputation as being a classic of “hard” science fiction, and for good reason: its drama comes almost entirely from insurmountable limitations of physics (along with some conjecture about interplanetary politics) instead of human interaction. Its characters speak in dry monologues, the attempts at humor are almost unforgivably corny, and there’s an air of just-give-her-a-smack-on-the-ass sexism that pervades the whole thing, although to me at least, it comes across as more musty and dated than genuinely misogynist. The only real personality in the book is that Clarke comes across as way into polygamy.

The preface to the edition of Rendezvous with Rama that I read acknowledges the weakness of character development, but gives it a pass because the book isn’t “about” that. It’s a stereotype about science fiction that I’ve long just accepted as true: a story can either have scientific rigor or good character development, but never both, because they’re inherently mutually exclusive.

The aspect I love the most about Stories of Your Life and Others is that it completely refutes that idea. It takes concepts from science fantasy (and high fantasy), tells them with the rigor of science fiction, and uses them to explore some of the same ideas as contemporary literary fiction. Most of the stories in this book are deeply, profoundly human.

And they don’t use the crutch of direct allegory to make their point — like using the story of an android to ask what makes us human, which can be well-told and effective, but is still processed intellectually. The stories in this book explore a fantastic premise in all its permutations, layering on idea after idea to leave the reader with less of a conclusion and more of a feeling. I didn’t understand “Division by Zero,” for instance, and I still don’t. Even (especially?) after reading Chiang’s afterword describing the impetus for the story, I don’t feel like I can understand the depth of its premise, or fully appreciate the implications of its premise. And still, it left me feeling shaken, in a way even more troubling because I couldn’t explain it. I had to put the book down and couldn’t go back to it for a couple of weeks.

That’s why I can’t say I loved the book, even though I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call it genius. I do think the stories at the end of this collection were well told but felt either a little predictable or a little too direct when compared to the others, but honestly only suffer when compared to the strength of the first few stories. But more than that, it took an emotional toll on me, as if I’d read seven complete novels in the time I’d intended to read one. I’d expected a short story collection to be a light read, but it was anything but. These short stories don’t feel like sketches, but like sucking on bullion cubes of densely-concentrated ideas.

I haven’t yet seen Arrival, but it’s such a beautiful idea that makes perfect sense for a movie translation. And I’ve already got Chiang’s latest collection, Exhalation, but I’m not eager to jump into it right away. One of the review blurbs calls it “relentless,” and there’s a story called “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” both of which make me think I need to take a break first and read something lighter. I can tolerate somebody being smarter than me, and I can tolerate somebody being more insightful than me, but pulling both at once just seems unfair.

Avengers: No Homo

Want to call for better representation in media, but without making disingenuous or simple-minded arguments that accomplish nothing? It’s a snap!


A couple of minor warnings first: the above video may be NSFW for language, and both the video and this post “spoils” details about a minor scene that happens within the first 30 minutes of Avengers: Endgame.

Edited 5/12/19: Since I wrote this, I’ve been seeing more interviews and articles that have made me change my mind about this. Worst is the announcement that a major character is going to be revealed to be LGBT in an upcoming movie. I’ve seen that interpreted as a new character being introduced, or an existing character coming out. Obviously keeping a character closeted for years and then treating it as a victory to reveal after the fact would be BS and invalidate every assumption I’ve made about what the movies are trying to do with “archetypal” characters. But really, the entire issue now seems more like a series of PR stunts and less like the sincere message of inclusion that I assumed it was when I first saw Endgame. I think I should probably stop trying to defend the multi-billion dollar franchise and let it speak for itself.

Original Post: Here’s something that annoys me, and these days, it’s such a relief to see something that just annoys me, as opposed to something that makes me outraged and unable to concentrate on anything except stomping around angrily muttering to myself.

The video above is from a recording of Jon Lovett’s podcast, and in it he calls out the new Avengers movie and director Joe Russo in particular for patting themselves on the back for claiming to make great strides in gay representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the surface, it seems like bullshit for them to be bragging about it, since it’s the first and only mention of gay relationships after 11 years and 22 movies, and it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference from a minor civilian character not really affiliated with any of the super heroes. The scene is of a support group with Steve Rogers and a bunch of other characters talking about life after Thanos, and Joe Russo plays a man who describes going on a date with another man and how neither of them have been able to come to terms with losing so many people.

First, let me get my basic assumptions out of the way:

  • Representation in the media — even in something as seemingly trivial as superhero movies — is extremely important. I’m still convinced that if I’d seen more representations of gay men who weren’t caricatures when I was a teenager, I would’ve had a much easier time coming out and wouldn’t have wasted my 20s.
  • Making a marketing push bragging about this minor scene as being a step forward for LGBTQ equality would be bullshit, but Russo didn’t do that. What actually happened was that the Russo brothers did an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, and they were responding to a direct question the interviewer asked about it. It’s pretty disingenuous to make it sound like Marvel or Joe Russo were leading with it.
  • Obviously, neither Marvel nor the Russo brothers need me to be defending them; they’re not scrappy underdogs and they’ll hold up fine against criticism on the internet. But I just think that it’s churlish and asinine to take a sincere gesture and throw it back in anyone’s face. That’s true whether it’s wishing someone Happy Holidays, or putting in a brief acknowledgement of non-hetero relationships in a blockbuster movie.
  • It also seems churlish for me to point out how hypocritical it is for a speechwriter for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to be calling out anybody for spending years pretending that LGBT people don’t exist, before making a half-assed show of support and then expecting to be praised for it. So I’ll only mention it once.
  • If a billion and a half dollars’ worth of people in international markets see a brief but sincere and sympathetic portrayal of a gay man who’s just like everyone else, I’ll appreciate it. Both in the spirit that it was included in the movie, and for the potential it has to reach audiences.
  • If any other Marvel apologist (and I’ll concede that I am 100% a Marvel apologist) tries to claim that there are no gay characters in the MCU because these are action movies and not about relationships, tell them that that’s complete nonsense. The movies aren’t very sexy — apart, of course, from the constant stream of images going through my head every time Captain America or Thor are on screen — but they are full of heterosexual relationships. To the point where multiple storylines in Infinity War and Endgame, including a couple of the franchise-long story arcs, are driven by heterosexual romantic relationships.

I’ll also just say that I liked the scene. I noticed it when I was watching the movie, and I thought it was a nice little bit of welcome inclusion. Not earth-shattering, but welcome. And I don’t doubt its sincerity, both since Russo played the cameo himself, and because it’s played opposite Chris Evans, who’s been outspokenly pro-LGBT rights.

But Lovett practically sneers at it, both for being too short to be significant but also for drawing too much attention to itself. Of course I realize that Lovett is being hyperbolic in that video for effect, but he’s also got the tone of someone on a self-righteous tear fighting against bigotry and corporate cowardice. And to be clear, it’s not just Lovett. A simple Google search will turn up dozens of different think pieces calling out Russo and Marvel for being tone-deaf or much worse.

At the center of all of the arguments, I think, is the false dichotomy that Lovett presents: that either there’s an openly gay superhero in the MCU, or else Disney and Marvel execs are profit-driven cowards if not outright homophobes. That’s a claim that’s either short-sighted or disingenuous, depending on how charitable you’re feeling.

The actual choices are: the Marvel movies briefly show an incidentally gay character, as they did in Endgame; or there’s no representation at all. And if you want to blame someone for that, blame Marvel Comics. Or more accurately, blame over 60 years of Marvel Comics.

The reason the MCU doesn’t (and likely won’t soon) have an LGBT superhero is simply because all of its characters were created in a time back when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness. To claim that they can or should introduce new gay superheroes — or new superheroes, period — is to ignore why these movies exist. If you claim that they exist to make lots of money, that’s just lazy cynicism; these movies don’t need to be nearly as good as they are, and they’d still be plenty profitable. The real reason these movies exist is to bring decades’ worth of characters together into a cohesive “modern mythology” for a new audience. (Which will then make lots of money that they’re not making from selling comic books).

So as far as I’m aware, the movies have been dealing exclusively with the long-running “platonic ideal” versions of The Avengers and associated characters. With few exceptions, they don’t invent whole new characters that haven’t appeared in the comics, and they don’t significantly alter the existing characters. Origins are combined and streamlined, lengthy subplots or convoluted legacy storylines are omitted, and entire aspects of the characters might be left out or abbreviated, but for the most part, they’re not dramatically changed from the “essence” of the character.

With the caveat that I’m not a Marvel guy and definitely don’t know all the details (or even highlights for that matter) from the comics, here are the exceptions I’m aware of: Agent Coulson was invented for the movies, but he was created specifically to be essentially a MIB, an “everyman.” They used the Ultimates version of Nick Fury instead of the “main universe” one, but I would claim that’s less because of his race and more because Samuel L. Jackson is objectively and effortlessly bad-ass. They changed the origins of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver because they don’t have licensing rights for mutants. They changed the origins of Vision and Ultron because they hadn’t introduced Ant-Man yet. The only genuine, significantly-change-the-comics-storyline reversals that I’m aware of were in Iron-Man 3 and the Kree-Skrull war in Captain Marvel.

But the idea is that the main characters have key aspects to their origins and their personalities that aren’t getting re-imagined. Every version of Tony Stark has to be brilliant and arrogant and get trapped in a cave and build a suit to fight his way out. Every version of Captain America has to be noble and has to volunteer to take the super-serum. They’ve taken a lot of liberties with Thor, but he still started out as the arrogant and pompous thunder god, until they learned that that doesn’t make for very entertaining movies, and they need to make him funny.

I believe that it’d be weird and unnecessary to say “The Hulk was mild-mannered Doctor Bruce Banner until he was genetically altered by an overdose of gamma radiation, and also he’s into dudes.” (And I say that as someone who definitely wouldn’t mind seeing Mark Ruffalo making out with dudes). Orientation, along with gender and often race, is a significant part of identity, and to treat it as arbitrary is to cheapen it.

When you’re inventing new characters, then arbitrary choices in race, gender, orientation, and identity are great! They’re likely to make for a more interesting and unique story. At worst, it’ll probably be welcome representation for someone in the audience. But if you’re changing an identity-significant aspect of an existing character, then I believe that you’re obligated to answer the question “why?” The change draws attention to itself, so you have to devote screen time to do something with it.

For instance: I think it was a welcome change to cast black actors as Heimdall and Valkyrie, because it doesn’t impact the characters. The reason it doesn’t impact the characters is because Asgard presumably doesn’t have all the connotations of race that Midgard does, so it can actually be arbitrary and not have to “mean” anything. You just give better representation to more of the audience in movies already overfull of white people, and you also get to cast two of the most beautiful living humans in your superhero movie. Win-win.

Mild spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming: they did cast an actress of color as MJ instead of making her the iconic white redhead, but I’d argue that the movie and its casting don’t treat race as arbitrary, even if they don’t address race explicitly. For MJ herself, it’s just a clever surprise that this character crucial to the Spider-Man universe has been there the whole time; she just looks nothing like what you’d expect. It’s an extension of another play on the audience’s assumptions about race that happens earlier in the movie, which I won’t spoil because I thought it was one of the movie’s most effective moments. In both cases, they implicitly assert the notion that it’s our assumptions about race that are arbitrary.

As a counter-example from a different franchise: making Sulu gay in the new Star Trek. It was a change that drew attention to itself but then just sat there, doing nothing. If I’m being charitable, I’d say that sexual orientation was the least interesting way to show that they’re in an alternate reality. But really, I think it was just a ham-fisted attempt at diversity that chose Sulu solely because the original actor of the character is gay in real life, which doesn’t even make sense. Making alternate Spock gay could’ve been interesting (fascinating?) but the tepid attempt to show Sulu as a casually-happens-to-be-gay character didn’t make me feel represented; it made me feel like I was being pandered to.

So why can’t they use the LGBT characters that already exist in the comics? Because there simply aren’t many interesting Avengers-caliber ones on the Marvel side. I keep seeing lists of LGBT characters in comics online, and it’s always more disheartening than encouraging. Unless you’re a big fan of Northstar, I guess, but I’ve only ever heard of him via lists of LGBT characters. Iceman is the obvious exception, and maybe there’ll be room for him in the movies now that Disney’s bought Fox and they can start using mutants.

One weird, paradoxical side effect of all this: by trying to articulate why it’s okay that I’m not exactly represented in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I now feel more included in the MCU than I ever have before.

Several times over the last decade, I’ve mentioned my story of being at Wondercon with thousands of nerds all watching the first Iron-Man trailer, and seeing them all absolutely losing their shit over it, and me just standing there not getting what the big deal was. Ever since then, I’ve felt like I’m an outsider trying to catch up: I’ll watch the “what you need to know before watching Captain America: Civil War” primers or read the “15 things you should know about the Kree-Skrull War” blog posts or see the “25 Easter Eggs you missed in Thor: Ragnarok” videos, filling in gaps of my comics knowledge so that I can enjoy the movies as much as the comics super-fans who are the real audience.

But it took 11 years and 22 movies for me to realize that I am the real audience. It doesn’t seem like they’ve been making these things for the people who can name all the different lineups of the Avengers since the original incarnation; they can and will enjoy the hell out of them, but they’re not who the movies are “for.” It seems more that they’ve been making them for people like me, who want to enjoy seeing these characters together, but have never been able to get into them.

And finally, I should say that I think only the movies get a pass for it. And as they start phase two of the movies, time is running out and it’s something they need to start addressing. I haven’t been watching the TV series since the first couple of Netflix seasons and a few episode of Agents of SHIELD, and it seems like with all those hours of screen time, there’s really no excuse if they haven’t tossed in an LGBT character here or there.

Them (One Thing I Almost Didn’t Like About Get Out)

I finally worked up the nerve to watch Get Out, and I really liked it. It was a close call, apparently.

(I’m going to avoid spoilers until the second half of this post. It’s remarkable how I managed to go about two years without having this movie ruined for me, and I think it’s vastly improved by going in as ignorant as possible!)

It’s been about two years since Get Out was released, and over a year since I bought it for home streaming, but I’ve only just watched it this week, mostly to make sure I’ve seen it before Jordan Peele’s new movie Us.

I could make excuses, but the main reason I haven’t watched it is because I’ve been scared of it. I love thinking about and post-analyzing horror movies but rarely enjoy watching them, at least if they’re at all serious in tone. I’ve got extremely low tolerance for gore and depictions of torture, as well. If I’m being honest, there are parts of Key and Peele that were almost too uncomfortable for me to watch, so how bad would it be without the necessity to be funny, and without basic cable censors? I’ve asked several times online for a summation of how violent/gory/scary Get Out is, but I always got mixed answers (because it’s subjective). My take, for anyone else who’s been interested but scared to watch it:

  • It’s excellent and deserves all the praise it’s gotten
  • It’s only got one real jump scare
  • Gore is minimal
  • It’s very funny in places, but isn’t a horror comedy
  • The scariest moments are all psychological horror and tension

Since it’s been so long since it was released, it seems like every white person on the internet has already posted their opinions and analysis of it, several times over. I don’t have much new to say, but I can at least be another white person on the internet and give my personal take on it.

Inclusion: I’ve said before that I was late to the party on both Inside Amy Schumer and Key and Peele, because I wasn’t sure that either show was “for” me, as someone who isn’t a woman and isn’t black. As a white liberal NPR-listening American, though, I’m 100% sure that Get Out is “for” me. I’m not exclusively the target audience, obviously, but I’m unquestionably part of it, and that certainty is actually pretty nice for once.

Even if Peele hadn’t explicitly said as much, it’s clear that the movie is a reaction to those of us who wanted to believe that the Obama Administration was a milestone, and that America was making progress towards becoming a “post-racial” society, even if we had a long way to go. This movie seems not only to reject that idea completely, but to make us question whether “post-racial” is a noble goal at all. The idea is really only appealing to those of us whose identities wouldn’t be assimilated — when white people say “post-racial” what we’re assuming (usually unconsciously) is actually “everybody looks different but is still essentially like me.”

Representation: I’ve been looking forward to Us as well — or at least, having every intention of seeing it and then chickening out to watch Captain Marvel again instead — because I still like the idea of intelligent horror movies and because I think Lupita Nyong’o is amazing. When I read the Rotten Tomatoes synopsis:

Haunted by an unexplainable and unresolved trauma from her past and compounded by a string of eerie coincidences, Adelaide feels her paranoia elevate to high-alert as she grows increasingly certain that something bad is going to befall her family. […] Us pits an endearing American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.

I was embarrassed, because I realized there was no mention in the synopsis, or in any of the trailers, that the main characters were black. I’d just assumed that Peele’s next movie after Get Out would be another example of social movie commentary about race, and I didn’t consider that it might not have anything to do with the protagonists being black. Apart from being made by a filmmaker who’s loved watching movies all his life but rarely seen himself reflected in the characters.

I haven’t heard much about Us other than that it’s really good, and now I kind of don’t want it to be social commentary. I’d love to see an example in horror where the endearing American family isn’t white by default.

Empathy: As much as I want to understand all the issues that surround representation in the media, there’s always going to be a limit to how much I “get it” since I’ve very rarely been in a situation where I’m the only white person. Even trying to go the intersectional route and comparing it to growing up gay surrounded by media that 99.99% for and about straight people, it’s nowhere near a perfect comparison.

I can say that during those few times when I’ve been in a racial minority, there’s been this undercurrent of unease that I just can’t intellectualize away, no matter how hard I try. I haven’t ever felt threatened, just different. And every time I’ve thought, “this is just weird,” it’s been accompanied by the realization, “but temporary for me, while they have to feel like this almost all of the time, and wonder if they’re physically in danger on top of that.” It’s profoundly othering, in a time when I’m doing my best to by empathetic, and it’s perpetually frustrating and discouraging for anyone who believes in a future where we’ll all just be comfortable around each other. I want to be the type of person who just gets it, but I’m probably more the type of person who subconsciously keeps saying “my man.”

Which is an idea that Get Out handles so perfectly, it’s astounding. The movie presents the perfect visual representation of being simultaneously marginalized and exposed, which refers back to the image of watching people on TV who aren’t like you, with the addition of being powerless to stop it.

It’s a huge part of why the premise is so perfectly suited to a horror film, which leads to my favorite part of the movie, which is the final scene, which makes any discussion of it a huge spoiler.

SPOILERS FOR GET OUT

One Thing I Love About Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel shows what can happen when you stop making superhero movies and start making movies for an audience familiar with superheroes

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) Photo: Chuck Zlotnick ©Marvel Studios 2019

There’s a lot I loved about Captain Marvel, but if I had to pick one thing, it’d be how it culminates in a fight scene set to “Just a Girl” by No Doubt. It’s not my favorite scene in the movie, and I kind of agree with the criticism that it’s kind of corny and extremely on-the-nose. But it also felt to me like a perfect example of how everyone involved in the production just got it. It felt to me like a victory lap, not just for this movie, but for the entire decade-plus franchise of impossibly huge blockbusters.

To explain what I’m talking about, I have to take a step back and say that I disagree with most of the reviews I’ve seen of Captain Marvel. The consensus seems to be that this is a good but middling Marvel movie, which feels like a throwback to the first phase of origin story movies. And they say that Captain Marvel has a ton of potential, but that there’s little room for character development in this movie, and the story ends right as it’s getting interesting.

My response is to point out that Captain Marvel introduces multiple alien species; shape-shifters; a fight scene on a train through Los Angeles; chases in cars, jet fighters, and spaceships; a forgotten identity subplot; an investigation into a secret project buried deep inside a NASA base; an intergalactic war; and an adorable flerken.

It’s complicated, is my point, and weird in such a shamelessly nerdy, comic-book-saturated way that I still have a hard time believing that these are the biggest, most mainstream movies being made these days. This couldn’t have been released alongside the first wave of Marvel movies, since back then, people still believed that super-heroes were a tough sell for a mainstream audience. It wasn’t until Guardians of the Galaxy that the franchise got into sci-fi (and comedy, for that matter), but Captain Marvel tosses you right into the middle of a planet full of aliens in the first scene.

Over the years, I’ve tried several times to get up to speed on the whole sci-fi side of the Marvel universe. And even in comic book geek terms, Captain Marvel’s origin story is weird and confusing, with Krees and Skrulls and alien DNA fusion and multiple identities. I read and watched multiple “explain the history of Captain Marvel” articles and videos in preparation for the movie, and I never felt like I got it. Try explaining Carol Danvers’s back story in an environment where filmmakers still believe you have to show Bruce Wayne’s parents dying every single time or you’ll be completely baffled by the premise of Batman. After spending over a decade getting everyone accustomed to comic book storytelling, it’s a little easier.

And the best thing about everyone being accustomed to comic book storytelling is that it allows Captain Marvel to treat genres as pretty much irrelevant. So it can freely hop from car chase to space dogfight to spy movie to buddy movie and be confident that an audience in the 21st century is perfectly able to keep up.

It also means that it can trust that everyone in the audience knows how super-heroes work. Carol Danvers has the same character arc as every other super-hero: being thrown into an extraordinary situation, defining herself on her own terms, and gradually discovering the full extent of her powers. And when she finally becomes the Marvel Universe’s version of Superman (not a spoiler, since it’s all over the trailers!), there’s no longer any tension from just a fight scene. You know she’s going to win, so don’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pretending that the outcome is in doubt. Just lean 1000% into the 1990s girl power of the movie’s premise and acknowledge that the whole scene exists only to be fun spectacle.

So much of Captain Marvel felt to me like the filmmakers and the audience finally being completely in sync with decades of popular storytelling. It’s an origin story, but it felt like a long overdue relief from origin-story fatigue.

I can still remember being at Wondercon years ago and seeing hundreds of comic book geeks just losing their shit seeing the trailer for Iron Man. I was never a fan of the character, so I just didn’t get the excitement and was a little envious of it. Fast forward a decade, and I’m spending the first part of Avengers Infinity War grinning like an idiot at finally getting the chance to see Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange battling a bad guy in Manhattan.

In a way, it’s even more perfect that Marvel replaced the usual Marvel Studios logo at the beginning of Captain Marvel with a tribute to Stan Lee and a classy title card simply thanking him. This felt to me less like a genre film and more like an acknowledgement of just how pervasive and familiar that Stan Lee’s stories have become. It felt less like a superhero movie and more like a shared cultural moment.

One Thing I Love About The Good Place

The Good Place silently rejects decades of “white by default” in favor of showing what heaven is really going to be like.

I’m going to be careful not to post any spoilers about the series, and I won’t go into detail about any actual plot points.

The thing I love most about The Good Place isn’t that the human characters all come from different ethnic and economic backgrounds across the world. The thing I love the most is that The Good Place doesn’t even acknowledge its diversity as anything unusual. Of course heaven wouldn’t be populated mostly by white, English-speaking middle class people of European descent — why would you ever imagine otherwise? That doesn’t even make sense.

And yet it’s such a pervasive idea that I fell for it, subconsciously. I spent a long time thinking of this as a liberal progressive show, just for showing diversity. But it’s not actually progressive to acknowledge that the majority of the people on Earth aren’t white Americans. We’ve just let things get pushed so far out of balance that globalism and more equal media representation feel like bold progressive concepts, instead of just reality.

The Good Place isn’t a political show — in fact, I can think of a few opportunities it had to make political commentary, and it wisely avoided it. It always keeps a careful balance between cerebral and lowbrow humor, with its best gags suspended in that perfect state between brilliant and idiotic; making a pointed topical reference would cheapen the whole thing, somehow. And it deliberately touches on a variety of philosophies, but its own voice is a kind of optimistic humanism.

And it’s definitely, refreshingly, not the vapid, performative nonsense that tries to pass itself off as progressivisim in the 21st century. The show relentlessly mocks Florida, Arizona, America in general, and trash and douchebags of every variety, without seeming cruel but also without deflating into toothless, lowest-common-denominator humor. It demands that we all strive to be better versions of ourselves, but without ever succumbing to pearl-clutching or self-righteous indignation.

(Also, it almost never indulges in outright sentimentality, but it has made me cry on more than one occasion. Every time, it felt earned).

I definitely love The Good Place for all the ways it explicitly defies my expectations. For instance: at the end of the first season, I imagined what format the second season was going to take. They covered all that in a montage in like the second episode of the second season, then proceeded to go off in an entirely different direction.

But even more than that, I love the way it implicitly defied my expectations, challenging me for patting myself on the back for being a good liberal progressive. It doesn’t just say that men, women, black, white, American, Senegalese, Pakistani, Filipino, poor, rich, even angel or demon, all have the potential to be good. It says of course that’s the case, and it’d be stupid to think that that’s some kind of a big deal.

One Thing I Like About Happy Death Day (and Happy Death Day 2U)

Neither movie feels obligated to be scary, but ignoring genres makes them both better movies.

I’d heard a lot of good things about Happy Death Day back in 2017, but it wasn’t until now that its sequel has been released that I got around to watching them both. Incidentally: if you want to watch these movies, I highly recommend watching them back to back. Almost everything good about the sequel comes from the various ways it builds on, expands, twists, or subverts something from the first.

My first reaction to Happy Death Day was that it’s in the spirit of the Scream movies, but not as clever and not nearly as scary. It’s fairly smart and often pretty funny, and it felt simultaneously contemporary and retro. It was kind of like a lower-body-count throwback to a time before slasher movies spent a couple decades trying to out-murder each other.

But after seeing the direction Happy Death Day 2U takes the story, I feel like it’s actually the opposite of the Scream series in overall philosophy. While Scream was all about being a Gen-X self-conscious deconstruction of the horror genre, Happy Death Day seems like a millennial assertion that genres are more or less irrelevant.

Most slasher movies and monster movies treat their characters are disposable, giving them just enough motivation to set-up the next murder and making the hero just interesting enough to be able to hold an audience’s interest through to the end. But Happy Death Day loved its main character — and with good reason, since Jessica Rothe is charismatic as hell and by far the best aspect of the movie — and treated all of the “horror” as just a mechanism to show how her character develops.

And I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the second movie is even less interested in the horror movie format, leaning heavily into sci-fi for a while before making it clear that it really doesn’t care about genre at all. It really just wants to spend more time with its characters and their story.

This results in some neat things that I’ve never seen before, such as a slasher movie with a pretty strong and emotional scene in which a victim gets to make peace with her killer. Or a story about time loops in which the audience is rewarded for noticing the changes. And some seemingly insignificant moments from the first movie — like the rolling blackouts — are made such a key part of the sequel that you have to wonder whether the whole thing was planned out from the start.

But straddling several different genres means that it isn’t particularly great at any of them. There are several emotional moments that just don’t feel earned, comedy moments that fall flat, dramatic twists and reveals the audience can easily predict, and suspense scenes that aren’t particularly suspenseful. Each movie has at least one gag that works really well (in the first, it’s Danielle answering “I missed breakfast” with “We all miss breakfast.” In the second, it’s Tree pulling a gun on a cop while he’s using the bathroom). But there are some so clumsy and forced that they threaten to ruin everything, especially when surrounded by scenes that are supposed to be emotional or suspenseful.

It also often feels extremely derivative. When Happy Death Day finally acknowledges Groundhog Day, it’s at the very end of the movie, and Tree claims never to have heard of it or of Bill Murray. Which seems highly suspect, even for a college student in 2017. (The idea that she’d never heard of or seen Back to the Future in the sequel is also ridiculous). I’m assuming it’s the filmmakers telling the audience they’re aware that their entire premise is just “what if Groundhog Day were a slasher movie?” while also justifying it as its own new thing. But it really just draws attention to the fact that much of Groundhog Day was at least as horrific as anything in Happy Death Day, although it was played as a romantic comedy.

Ultimately, I’d consider Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U to succeed more than they fail, and I believe it’s because there’s an earnest rejection of cynicism at the heart of both of them. They’re not that concerned with being self-aware deconstructions or re-examinations of existing genres because they’re not that concerned with genre. It’s not even a reboot or re-imagining or homage to Groundhog Day, because it doesn’t comment on or build on anything in that movie; it just uses all the same parts to tell a different story. The result is that it has genuine affection for its characters and a few really clever moments, but at the cost of several corny or derivative scenes.

As horror/suspense/comedy/sci-fi genre hybrids, they don’t really excel at any of those genres, but they also feel undeniably free of the constraints of those genres. They only feel obliged to tell fun and interesting stories, and for the most part (and thanks to some brilliant casting), they work.

Film Rebuff

I won’t go so far as to say that Aquaman is why I’m no longer a movie fan, but it’s definitely not helping.

I can’t bring myself to see Aquaman.

Normally, this would be unremarkable, but I used to be a huge movie fan. I aspired to be a filmmaker! I went to a ridiculously overpriced and unhelpful film and television school! I was always on top of what was going on in popular movies, at least, and I saw everything that was dominating popular discussion.

But a while ago, I realized that for the past few years, I’ve only seen one or two of the Best Picture Oscar nominees. This year, I realized I don’t even know who the nominees are. (Except for Black Panther, which I did see, and it was awesome).

Toward the end of last year, I tried to reawaken that love of cinema within myself by joining AMC’s “A-List,” which charges $20 a month to see up to three movies a week. Here in the Bay Area, a single ticket can be around $16-$20, so seeing at least two movies a month will make the subscription cost worth it.

Except last month, I only saw one movie. I kept making reservations to see Aquaman — keeping my expectations very low and planning to go just for spectacle and silly fun — but kept being surprised by how little it took to keep me from seeing Aquaman.

I’m in the Mission and the movie starts in 15 minutes? I’m not going to rush all the way across the city to see Aquaman. I just got home from work and have nothing planned for the night? I just go comfortable; I don’t feel like dragging myself out of the house just to see Aquaman. I’ve got a completely free Saturday, I want to get out of the house, and I need to see just one more movie to make my movie pass “worth it” for the month? I guess I can go see Aquam— hang on, this movie is two and a half hours long?!

It’s not just that DC’s attempts to form a cinematic universe have wavered between uninteresting and actively repellant. (And I’m possibly the only person in the US who kind of liked Man of Steel!) I still haven’t seen Pixar’s last few movies, and they used to be opening-weekend essential for me. These days, all I see are the occasional huge event movie (and every single entry in the Marvel cinematic universe, because they’ve been surprisingly consistently solid).

I realize that moviegoing has been on the decline in general, which is the whole reason that stuff like “A-List” exists in the first place. But it seems to be that it’s not just the moviegoing experience has suffered — having to put up with parking, rude people in the audience, the high costs of concessions — but the movies themselves. Apart from the MCU and the occasional animated release, there’s just not that much interesting going on in movies anymore. The most talented filmmakers (IMO) are the Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuaron, and they’re doing projects for Netflix that don’t require me to leave the house.

Going to the theater used to seem like such an event, but in 2019, it feels like more and more of an anachronism. It’s not just that there’s little “social” feeling anymore; the audience actually actively harms the experience.

Over the years I’ve had several memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences seeing a movie in a theater with a crowd: the first time seeing The Empire Strikes Back in Atlanta, seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in college with a theater full of fans who cheered every stunt and hissed at all the villains, seeing the first Scream movie with a bunch of rowdy teenagers yelling back at the screen, and seeing The Force Awakens on a rainy night in a small theater in San Francisco with a theater full of wounded but still optimistic Star Wars fans.

Those are experiences you just can’t get from even the best home theater system. But five times over nearly forty-eight years isn’t a great average, either. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know two and a half hours of Aquaman isn’t it. Even if I can kind of see it for free.

One Thing I Love About Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an Amazing movie that completely understands how origin stories work.

It’d be a lot easier for me to name One Thing I Hate about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — the pacing of the final act — because the movie’s a straight-up masterpiece. I knew next to nothing about it; until a couple months ago, I thought the ads were just for a new series on the Disney XD channel or something.

After Homecoming (which I really, really enjoyed but is still nowhere near as good as Into the Spider-Verse), I thought it was bizarre that Sony would be releasing another Spider-Man movie, much less a feature-length animated one. But the whole premise of the movie is how so many different versions of the character can coexist, and also it’s just such a fantastic piece of work that it’d have been criminal not to release it.

But the whole point of these “One Thing I Like” posts is to keep me focused, so I’ll choose one thing. And it’s not how the sound effects are written on-screen like in a comic, or how a guy hit in the head with a bagel has the SFX “BAGEL!” flash over his head way in the background, or how when Peter Parker starts hacking a computer the words “CLICKETY CLACKETY CLACKETY” appear over the keys as if to emphasize how unimportant the “hacking” is to the actual plot of a comic book story.

Even though those are all fantastic, just like how a 3D modeled character in front of an exquisitely painted background can be gorgeous in motion and just as gorgeous as a still shot and make you wonder whether there were a single frame of the entire two-hour-long frantic action movie that wasn’t absolutely beautiful.

And also it’s the best animated movie that I’ve seen in years, and it raises the bar for what an animated movie has to do to keep from feeling stale and irrelevant. And it’s the best super-hero movie I’ve seen in years, possibly the best since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies or maybe even Richard Donner’s Superman.

The One Thing I’ll Choose To Write About is how the movie is packed full of origin stories, but it uses them both as quick introductions and to mock the entire genre of super-hero movies (and video games) and their over-reliance on origin stories.

Into the Spider-verse is itself the origin story of Miles Morales, but it presents itself as Peter Parker’s. And then the other Peter Parker’s, and Gwen Stacy’s, and then three more. As a result, it strips away all the garbage of “origin story as a think that super-hero movies do,” and it gets back into what makes the origin an actual story.

In other words: it rushes over all the stuff that comic book stories act like we should care about (like being bitten by a radioactive spider) and returns the focus to the story we really should care about (like a universal story of a kid finding his own path vs. living up to the expectations other people place on him).

At this point, it feels like the only reasons that these movies keep telling (and retelling, and re-re-telling) origin stories is out of arrogance and fear. Filmmakers, comic book creators, and writers want their version to become the Definitive Take on the character’s story. And I think producers are afraid that audiences are going to be completely confused by such a “fantastic” and “weird” story unless they see it all play out in front of them.

With the art style obviously but with the storytelling as well, Into the Spider-Verse seems fearless. It’s not worried that super-heroes and super-villains and multiple dimensions are going to be too bizarre and confusing for audiences who’ve been living in a dimension where comics have been around for about a century and some of the most popular and successful movies of the last decade have been based on comic book characters.

I saw a review of the movie that criticized it for not devoting more character development to Kingpin, while I thought the movie did a fantastic job of establishing his character and his motivation with as little dialogue as possible — just his visual appearance and a quick flashback tell you everything you need to know about the character.

As somebody who was never a Marvel fan until the X-Men movies, I saw a ton of stuff in Into the Spider-Verse that was briefly shown or hinted at, but never explained. And I think that’s awesome. I don’t know why Norman Osborne was an actual goblin, or who Scorpion and Tombstone are. (We had to look up “Tombstone’s” name online!) I don’t know why alternate-universe Gwen Stacy was in a band, but I think it’s rad that they showed it as part of her introduction.

It feels as if origin stories are included in comic adaptations for the same reason that panel divisions or split screens, and occasionally narration boxes and written SFX are: they just seem like they’re supposed to be there because comics have them. But Into the Spider-Verse seems to have a better, almost Scott McCloud-ian, understanding of exactly how those elements work in comics, and most importantly, why they’re cool. So the narration boxes are always moving, and they appear when they’re actually necessary (like when Scorpion speaks in Spanish) instead of just being a stylistic flourish. And the pattern of halftone dots and seemingly mismatched color separation are holdovers from an era of comic book printing that few people in the “target” audience will have ever seen, but they’re included just because they look cool. And the “Kirby Dots” appear both as an homage to Marvel’s golden age and then again in multicolor simply because it’s a neat effect.

And in the end, it is such a conventional and universal comic book story about kids and their heroes and what it takes to find their own place, but it’s told in such a breathtaking way that it never seems conventional. It’s refreshing seeing a movie so heavily steeped in nostalgia that still assumes you want to see stuff that you’ve never seen before, and assumes that you’ll be able to keep up while it takes you through every place it wants to go.

One Thing I Like About Ralph Breaks the Internet

The Wreck It Ralph sequel allows for weird character design and animation you might not see in a movie that’s hung up on being a timeless classic.

If I’m being honest, the one thing I like about Ralph Breaks the Internet is how angry it seems to make Cartoon Brew. You can just see the sneer of disdain as the writer dismisses the movie as nothing more than corporate fan service, and I admit that I always love seeing animation and film snobs’ discomfort when they see something that’s not directly targeted at them.

Now to be fair, I’m firmly in the camp of Corporate-Artist Compromise, and even I found some of Ralph Breaks the Internet on the verge of being completely insufferable. Yes, the movie does turn into an ad for a section of the Disney website, and it does include a sequence intended just to celebrate all the IP that Disney has bought, and it celebrates web properties that don’t really deserve it, and it’s brazen about its merchandising tie-ins including an entire suite of princess-themed casual clothing.

But every time it threatens to become unforgivably crass, it redeems itself by dong something weird and imaginative.

The best example of this is the character design and animation, which is the real One Thing I Like about Ralph Breaks the InternetWreck it Ralph gave the different game worlds their own character and animation styles, and that brilliant idea is taken even further in the sequel. There’s the two lead characters, then all the residents of the internet like Yesss and eBoy and the popup ads, then all the human avatars in the internet, then the main characters of Slaughter Race, then the player characters of Slaughter Race, then about a century’s worth of Disney princesses all redesigned with a homogenous art style, then a computer worm and virus, then all the humans (and cats) that are supposed to exist in the real world, and then the characters in Fix-It Felix and Tapper. Each group has not just its own character style but animation style, sometimes with varying frame rates.

And that’s not to mention all the 2D art scattered throughout the movie, like in the avatars on video comments. I love it when 3D animation is able to incorporate traditional, defiantly analog 2D art.

It all results in something like a “two-channel” movie, where broad, topical, and sometimes Corporate Entertainment Product-caliber jokes are being told in the foreground, while clever and imaginative details are playing out all over the background. I love how the Slaughter Race player characters awkwardly pop between walk cycles and idle animations. I love how you can tell that Fix-It Felix is a slightly newer game than Tapper because Tapper has a lower frame rate. I love that Yesss, the character whose entire reason for existence is to be on top of trends, has a different outfit and hairstyle in practically every scene.

And I especially love how Knowsmore’s eyes seem to be flat 2D animations playing within his 3D glasses. Actually, I love everything about Knowsmore, from bringing back Alan Tudyk to voice another classic animation-inspired character, to the way his design blends flat shapes with rounded and shaded ones. Like all of the internet residents, his design is heavily reminiscent of (if not directly influenced by) now-classic UPA character designs.

Which is entirely thematically appropriate, since the characters are all representatives of/manifestations of commercial sites, and so many of the UPA designs are inextricably associated with commercial animation. It’s become standard to think of art and commerce as mutually exclusive – at least partially because of the gross extremes companies went to in the 80s, creating cheap and sloppy cartoons that were shamelessly nothing more than toy commercials – but it’d be revisionist history to ignore the close (and healthy) relationship between animation and the corporate sponsors that led to some great art.

I think Ralph Breaks the Internet fits into that history. It’s undeniably a marketing- and corporate synergy-driven movie, and it has no illusions of being an earnest indie movie. But it also feels looser, freer, and able to take risks that a “classic” Disney animated feature couldn’t. A lot of it is surprising and just plain weird. Because it’s an essentially disposable mash-up, it allows for that wide range of styles that would seem too discordant or not polished enough for a more straightforward movie.

In that sense, it’s similar to The Emperor’s New Groove, which may have been less majestic and artistic than its originally-intended form, but still ended up being a hell of a lot of fun. I don’t know whether Ralph Breaks the Internet‘s overly-topical and self-referential material will hold up ten years from now, or whether it’ll seem obnoxiously dated and crass. But last night, it was hilarious and fun. And it seemed to be giving a lot of Disney character artists and animators the chance to do imaginative, experimental stuff that would never make its way into something like Frozen or even a feature-length Toy Story.

One Thing I Like About Annihilation

Annihilation breathes life into the book while simultaneously dumbing it down, but really it’s all about the bear.

Annihilation was a book that I wished I liked more than I did. It was a good modern take on Lovecraftian horror. It also struck a good balance between the cosmic and the personal. It did interesting things with an unreliable and often unlikeable narrator. It strove for realism — difficult when the subject is something so fantastic — and always respected the reader’s intelligence. But it also felt cold, meandering, and  ultimately pointless. I didn’t bother reading the other books in the trilogy and just stopped after the first. It was a really smart and pretty well-crafted book that I just didn’t like very much.

Annihliation the movie adaptation is similarly tough to love. It fixes some of the issues I had with the book, but introduces a ton of other problems. Casting some of the most beautiful people working in movies helps breathe life into the characters, but there’s only so much life you can breathe into characters that are intentionally designed to be numb, cold, and inscrutable. The subtlety and intelligence of the book don’t really survive the translation to a screenplay, since ideas can’t be left ambiguous but instead need to be explicitly addressed and explained.

And it’s given an overlong Hollywood ending that is frankly just dumb. To be honest, I don’t remember how the book ends, since my memory is that it just kind of unravels. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t as ludicrous as the movie’s bizarrely self-indulgent final act.

But the movie has a fantastic sequence that is just bonkers, featuring a genetically modified bear. The entire sequence is just masterfully done, starting as a tense and desperate stand-off that just gets worse and worse. It’s weird and gross and tense and genuinely horrifying, and it’s probably the best scene in any sci-fi/horror movie since John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Really, the entire movie reminded me of The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it very much looks like a movie from 2018 — the CG is ever-present if not overpowering — but has the soul of a sci-fi horror movie from the late 1970s. When movies weren’t afraid to be weird and gross and inscrutable. When they were allowed to do a slow burn building up to one or two big scenes, instead of having to fire off a burst of quick action shots for fear of losing the audience’s attention for one second.

And an addendum to the “One Thing I Like” is that it renewed my respect for the aforementioned beautiful people in Hollywood — Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, and Tessa Thompson — who seem to consistently pick the most interesting roles instead of the most glamorous ones.

If Annihilation had ended about twenty minutes earlier, I would’ve gone away loving it — the standout scenes are that well done. As it is, it’s remarkable that a movie this weird and often slow-paced could make it through Hollywood with its weirdness still intact.