Some-maj

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is at its best when it’s at its darkest and weirdest.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a weird movie, and I still can’t tell if I like it in spite of that, or because of it.

I don’t mean “weird” in the way you’d expect a movie called “Fantastic Beasts” to be weird, but weird in the ways you wouldn’t expect the first movie in a huge new blockbuster franchise to be. It’s oddly paced and weirdly edited. Dialogue-heavy scenes will have long exchanges where the camera’s focused on the people who are listening instead of speaking. Scenes end abruptly or linger a bit too long. Some have music that feels jarringly out of place. Many have swooping camera movements that focus on the wrong thing, or end at a weird angle as if the direction of rotation was broken and no one thought to fix it. There are sudden shifts in tone from rutting-monster-chasing slapstick to child abuse. The main male character is off-putting and unlikeable, and the main female character is inscrutable.

Weirdest of all is that it kinda works.

I also saw Doctor Strange this week, and it’s another movie that’s simultaneously trying to be a huge-budget franchise entry and a cavalcade of wondrous sights like you’ve never seen before. I liked Doctor Strange a lot; it was often visually interesting and surprisingly funny. But it was also 100% a superhero origin story that followed the Marvel template from start to finish. Fantastic Beasts kept doing stuff I didn’t expect — not always in a good way, but in a way that made it feel slightly less like Corporate Entertainment Product. (The reviewers on “What the Flick?” had exactly the opposite reaction, so as always, your mileage may vary).

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the best of the Harry Potter movies, and if I’m being honest, it’s the only one that I’d be interested in seeing again. I was a bigger fan of the books than the movies, and the general aesthetic of the movies than the movies themselves. When we went to the Warner Brothers studio tour outside London, I loved the look of everything and found myself repeatedly wishing that the movies had assembled all the parts into something better. But Prisoner of Azkaban is the one movie in the series that feels less like a franchise installment and more like Alfonso Cuarón making a movie set in the Harry Potter universe.

Fantastic Beasts isn’t as good as that, but to me it has much of the same feel. It often feels like the movie that someone wanted to make instead of the movie that someone was contractually obligated to work. And when the jokes do land — like Jacob’s reaction to giggle water in the clip above, or when the “Niffler” (the most charming of all the beasts, and they know it) catches a slow-motion forlorn look at all the jewelry in a shop window he’ll never get to steal — they feel like they’ve earned it.

I’m not sure how much I’m projecting, but I’m wondering how much of my reaction is due to the fact that it’s JK Rowling’s first screenplay. She’s accomplished enough to be able to do whatever the hell she wants, but also inexperienced enough with screenplays in particular that she doesn’t feel completely beholden to formula. So much of the Harry Potter series feels like Rowling was savvy enough to know exactly what the book’s audience would get excited about, from candy and trading cards and sports heroes to skipping class and getting the upper hand on your teachers. Fantastic Beasts felt to me like she was including the ideas she wanted to, even if people in Warner Brothers marketing were balking at the idea of a magical animal movie where the villains are religious fundamentalists and the angry manifestation of people suppressing their true natures from a society that persecutes them for being different.

And good for her. I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal theme parks, because it’s beautiful but I think it gets so much wrong about theme park design. Shows don’t have enough capacity, the shops are too small and cramped, and the main attraction is too intense for both ends of the bell curve of its audience. I’ve heard — I still don’t know if it’s apocryphal, though — that a lot of those decisions were mandates from Rowling, who insisted on “authentic” food and “realistic” spaces that would feel like real shops in the UK.

After going back to check out the Hollywood version recently, I’ve lightened up considerably. It’s still not my favorite, and I still don’t think it all works. But it definitely feels like its own thing. It’s memorable, and it feels unique not just in the Universal parks but among theme parks in general. There must be something to be said for breaking from the template and not being worried about screwing everything up.

Electric Sheep

HBO’s Westworld is as much of a post-millennial meta-textual exercise as the original was a 1970s fear-of-technology thriller. That doesn’t mean it has nothing to say, though. Spoilers for the first three episodes.

WestworldOpeningHorse
I was two when the original Westworld came out, so there’s no way I could’ve seen it until the early 80s. I don’t remember anything about the movie itself. But it had so much pop cultural weight that I vividly remember images from it, in particular Yul Brenner’s Gunslinger, and especially the image of his face coming off. It’s one of those iconic images of the 1970s, right up there with Steve Austin fighting a Sasquatch and Charlton Heston cursing at the Statue of Liberty.

Which is a big part of why I think the reversal in the first episode of HBO’s Westworld is so brilliant. It’s not just a silly attention-grabbing twist like having Captain Kirk’s most famous lines delivered by Spock and vice versa. When it’s revealed that The Man in Black played by Ed Harris is actually one of the guests and not the robotic hosts, it’s packed with a lot more significance than just a fake-out callback. It’s an overture for the entire series.

Where do your sympathies lie, and how quickly do they change? Why do they change once it’s revealed a character is “real” or not? If you can’t tell the difference between the hosts and the guests, then why is there a difference at all? Are the Man in Black’s actions still reprehensible when you consider that he’s just playing a game? And what happens when we realize we’re at least one level removed from everything, and the question of “real” or “fake” is moot because everyone’s a character in a TV series?

The Assassination of Teddy Flood by Some Griefer smh!

On the podcast Shall We Play a Game?, the hosts (human, I’m presuming) JJ Sutherland and Chris Sullentrop have spent a couple of episodes talking about Westworld, specifically how the central conceit of the theme park compares to open-world video games.

They were disappointed that the series focused so strongly on the implications of artificial intelligences becoming sentient, because that’s a concept that’s already been exhaustively explored in decades of science fiction. Here’s a TV series that has the opportunity to be fully informed by video game culture, and it seems like a waste to spend that just doing a retread of all the Star Trek episodes about Data.

In particular, Sullentrop felt that the show clearly wanted us to empathize with the hosts and find the Man in Black completely reprehensible. But he’s merely playing the game (or, as we later find out, the meta-game). If he’s been visiting Westworld for 30 years, then he’s seen the cycles repeat over and over. He’s seen all of these characters be murdered and come back the next day with no signs of trauma and no memory of what had happened. He’s seen the older models, which are just barely removed from current-day Audo-Animatronics and couldn’t possibly be mistaken for a human.

By that measure, the Man in Black was just killing an NPC in a video game, but the series was playing it up as grand tragedy. That’s the same kind of thing that’s been used as a gag, like Austin Powers asking why nobody thinks about how things affect the family of a henchman.

I don’t quite agree with their criticisms. The idea of AIs gaining sentience isn’t a new one, but I think Westworld is combining it with the notion of interactivity and intent to add more nuance to the entire question of ethics and culpability in arts and entertainment. It’s a discussion that came up a lot about games in the early-to-mid-2000s, as opportunists tried to create a panic about “murder simulators” like Grand Theft Auto. Everybody who played and/or made video games was forced to take a step back and consider the question: is it obscene, or at best unhealthy, to be enjoying a hobby that’s disproportionately focused on murdering ever-increasingly realistic computer-generated human beings?

At the time, I thought we generally came to a consensus, and the consensus was a resounding “…err, probably not?” Whenever a watchdog group tries to go on a crusade against an artistic medium, all the hand-wringing and pearl-clutching ultimately falls to the basic fact that most adults can distinguish fiction from reality. Players do things in games like GTA specifically because they know they’re not real. So much time was wasted criticizing the game for glorifying violence, when it would’ve been better spent criticizing the game for believing that its adolescent bullshit was howlingly clever and biting satire.

Stay a While, and Listen

Westworld responds to the whole discussion with the question: “okay, fine, but what if the NPCs were really convincingly realistic?”

Episode two introduces us to a new everyman protagonist William and his douchebro companion Logan, two for-real-this-time guests who give us a chance to experience the park as an outsider coming in. William’s a first-time visitor who’s guided through an orientation by a beautiful woman. He asks, indirectly, whether she’s one of the android hosts or an employee of the park. Her response is one of the core ideas of the entire series: “If you can’t tell, does it matter?”

The characters tend to use the term “theme park” to describe Westworld, but most of the terminology throughout the series treats it like an open-world video game. There are mentions of levels, zones, and easter eggs. We see the guests get invited on quests in much the same way they do in video game equivalents: a seemingly random encounter with a character who introduces a side story.

When William gets approached by one of these — a grizzled old prospector with a story about a missing treasure — Logan warns him not to waste his time on such a “low level” distraction. When the same prospector tries again to tell his story, later inside a restaurant, Logan responds by stabbing him. He pins the old man’s hand to the table, causing him to scream in pain and shock and bleed all over everything in the middle of dinner.

There’s no question that the character is an android, or that it’ll quickly be reset with no memory of the event, patched up to give his quest to someone else. There’s also no question that it’s a supremely dick move on the part of Logan, vulgar and needlessly cruel. Knowing that it’s not “real” doesn’t do much to mitigate the fact that he chose to violently attack someone that could scream and bleed. Westworld‘s not content to say “they know it’s not real” and leave it at that.

Whoroborous

Earlier in the series, there’s an important scene in which the park’s narrative designer pitches a new storyline to the board of directors. You can tell it’s an important scene because it’s got a ton of extras and an Anthony Hopkins monologue. The narrative designer is describing a dark and violent adventure that would tick off all the “adult content” boxes in a video game or, for that matter, an HBO series. There’s “self-cannibalism” and “something I like to call the whoroborous,” which I have to admit is genius in how economically it reinforces that this is an irredeemably loathsome character. He promises that the experience will give guests the “privilege of getting to know the character they’re most interested in: themselves.”

After his pitch, he’s completely shut down by Hopkins as the park’s co-creator and ineffable creative director. He dismisses it as nothing but cheap thrills and parlor tricks. The guests “already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.” And then the unbreakable combo burn to cap it off: “The only thing your story tells me, Mr. Sizemore, is who you are.”

It works as a statement about the “death of the artist” and an encapsulation of about a decade’s worth of online discussion about narrative games. With any game that’s not purely abstract, there’s going to be a tension between systems and narrative. I think it’s a nice touch that Westworld depicts them as two separate divisions within the company who each have no respect for the work of the other. It’s also interesting that the show so far has seemed a lot more sympathetic to the systems team than the narrative designers, considering that the show runners are both writers.

For a long stretch in the early 2000s, there was a backlash against narrative in video games, after AAA developers abused the whole notion of interactivity with over-long cut-scenes. The overriding sentiment seemed to be that narrative was a stopgap until we could realize a fully systems-driven interactive environment. Like Star Trek‘s holodecks, or of course, Westworld. Procedural generation, environmental storytelling, and emergent narratives were the future! So it was interesting to see a fictionalized account of that technology idealized and perfected, and the fiction still demands narrative designers.

The unique power of interactive entertainment is that it deals with potentials and possibility spaces. It’s well-described by that idea of players being able to discover who they could be, instead of who they are. A designer imposing a pre-determined story on players is narrowing all the thousands of possibilities down to one or two. For the player, it’s passive listening.

But a guest in the 1973 version of Westworld would be exposed to the opposite extreme: nothing but settings, characters, and systems. The only story driving the experience is the guest’s own, so there’s little chance for discovery.

The original movie and the new series have similar scenes: a newly-arrived guest comes into his own by shooting a bad guy. In the original, the new guest (Richard Benjamin) gets bullied by the Gunslinger, his pal (James Brolin) tells him to kill him, and so he does. He does it a second time, is put in jail, and his pal helps him escape by blowing up the side of the jail and murdering the sheriff.

In the new series, William leaves the orientation and chooses a white hat as his last decision: as we heard earlier, “the guests already know who they are.” Later, bandits start a shootout in town. William discovers that he’s not completely invincible in Westworld, as he gets shot and knocked back. He’s about to stay back out of the fight until he notices one of the prostitutes is in danger. He responds by aiming his gun at the threatening bandit, and he fires it for the first time, killing the bandit and saving the girl.

He’d already defined himself as a good guy, but it wasn’t until the story surprised him and pushed back against him that he took action. Without both the audience and the artist taking part, there’s little chance for discovery. It ends up like having a conversation with yourself, or having your head up your own ass.

(Incidentally: re-watching the original Westworld, I was pleasantly surprised to see the park had a NASA-style control room complete with rows of computers with spinning tape drives. They’d monitor the guests and respond with events like “initiate the queen’s infidelity” or “cue the bar fight.” It’s like a live action version of the “narrative engines” that people have spent over a decade pitching in video games, like a perpetual motion engine run on snake oil).

How The West Was 0x01

As much as I liked the series, I initially assumed that keeping the Western setting was a weird, clumsy anachronism. I’m not a huge fan of all of Michael Crichton’s work, but he was indisputibly a genius at recognizing trends and being able to exploit them. He came up with Westworld right as the western was fading and dystopian sci-fi was getting popular. But now, like Kris Straub says in his webcomic, we don’t even make movies about the Old West anymore. If it were made in 2016, it’d have to be Game of Thrones But With Robots. It’s weird to expect Westerns to have a resurgence at a time that’s far enough in the future to have androids indistinguishable from humans.

It may not be plausible, but for storytelling, it makes a ton of sense. The American frontier setting has just the right connotation of adventure, lawlessness, freedom, and familiarity for a theme park where rich people shoot and have sex with robots. Westerns in particular are all about symbols that got encoded into pop culture over decades: white hats, black hats, guns, “savages”, gallows, saloons with world-weary madames. You can instantly distinguish between the “theme park” and “real world” on sight, and you can pick up on characters’ identities, relationships, and back stories almost as easily.

One of the things that impressed me so much about the HBO series’s pilot is how economical it is at setting up the story. It focuses almost completely on Dolores and how everything relates to her. The show doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining the concept of the theme park or details about how everything works, trusting that audiences will be able to follow along through context and that amazing opening sequence. All the traditional introduction — William’s orientation and his arrival at the park — is saved for the second episode. It’s no longer strictly necessary by that point, so can mostly serve as character introduction for William and Logan.

Much of that economy of storytelling is possible because of the iconography of Westerns. The stories don’t have to be that complicated; they just have to be understandable. They’re all in service of the “real” story, which at least at the start, is all about headier stuff like what it means to be sentient and how our actions define us.

That’s also what’s so impressive about Evan Rachel Wood’s performance as Dolores. She often has to play multiple versions of the character within the same scene, constantly switching between them not just in attitude but in accent. It’s especially remarkable in her “sessions” with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), where she has to go from being completely in character, to being an android playing that character, to being an android, to being an android who’s starting to gain sentience. Each shift has to read instantly, because it often lasts for only a single line of dialogue.

There’s a scene in which Dolores is alone with Teddy (James Marsden), delivering a conversation that was written for them and that you can tell they’d both acted out countless times before, and you can tell immediately when she’s gone off script. She’s started asking questions a real woman would ask, and Teddy’s unable to answer without another cliche.

Lady Westworld for Her

Making a story that plays with well-worn stereotypes always seems to make some audiences suspicious. I’m not sure if it’s actually a new phenomenon, but over the past few years I’ve noticed that critics of popular art like games, comics, and TV series, are extremely reluctant to recognize intent on the part of the creators. Emily Nussbaum’s “The Meta-Politics of Westworld in The New Yorker is far from the most egregious example, but it’s the one I read most recently.

Presumably because she’s coming at the show not as a video game player but as a TV critic, Nussbaum believes that the metatext in Westworld is about television: it “introduces itself as a science-fiction thriller about cyborgs who become self-aware, then reveals its true identity as what happens when an HBO drama struggles to do the same.” She concludes that the first four episodes have their moments, but that the series never goes beyond its premise “into something profound.”

I think by making assumptions about the show’s ambitions and influences, the essay does the series a real disservice. Nussbaum ends her essay by contrasting the sexist Westerns of the 50s and 60s with the new series’s focus on characters like Dolores and Thandie Newton’s Maeve Millay, but concludes:

This is not to say that the show is feminist in any clear or uncontradictory way — like many series of this school, it often treats male fantasy as a default setting, something that everyone can enjoy. It’s baffling why certain demographics would ever pay to visit Westworld. Would straight women be titillated or depressed by cyborg hookers? Why would a lesbian guest — coded, obnoxiously, as less than hot — behave with a prostitute exactly as a straight man would? Where are all the gay male bachelor parties? […] So female customers get scattered like raisins into the oatmeal of male action; and, while the cast is visually polyglot, the dialogue is color-blind. The result is a layer of insoluble instability, a puzzle that the viewer has to work out for herself: Is Westworld the blinkered macho fantasy, or is that “Westworld”? It’s a meta-cliffhanger with its own allure, leaving us only one way to find out: stay tuned for next week’s episode.

Except it’s really not a difficult puzzle. The only things that make it tricky are the assumption that depicting something is the same as endorsing it, and holding onto an ostensibly open-minded but ultimately prescriptive notion of gender. That’s especially unfortunate when you consider that so much of the series is about how we’re defined as people by our actions and behavior instead of a predetermined identity.

Westworld doesn’t seem to be focused on gender, because its core tension isn’t men vs women but humans vs robots. The park is a movie-and-TV fantasy version of the Old West, so like its inspiration, it’s disproportionately male and women are confined to homesteads and whorehouses. But the series treats gender as arbitrary.

As far as pure representation goes: both women and men are represented at every level of the organization from management to tech staff to artistic staff to operations. Even “on stage,” the show makes an effort to show women — and robots designed to look like women — in prominent roles, like a bandit leader or a deputy.

But the criticism of Westworld as being a “male fantasy” is about more than just representation. And here, it makes assumptions about gender — the demographic split between stuff boys like and stuff girls like — that I’d hoped we were all maturing out of. It assumes that of course, straight women and “gay bachelor parties” wouldn’t want to ride horses and shoot guns and have lots of sex. In video games, players and publishers both have spent years trying to defend the shitty depiction (or lack of depiction) of women in shooters and open-world games by asserting the patently false statement that women just don’t play those games. It leads to a gross notion of demographics split down binary gender lines, where presumably, Westworld is for boys and Sex and the City is for girls (and gay men).

Even if you accept the traditional definitions of masculine vs feminine qualities, Westworld has indeed been feminist in an uncontradictory and unambiguous way. It’s in a sequence about Maeve, her appeal to the guests, and a systems tech named Elsie (Shannon Woodward). Over the course of the second episode, we see the staff reacting to Maeve’s declining popularity as a sexual object with the guests.

We see three versions of the scene where she delivers a short written monologue in which she arrived in America and discovered that she had the freedom to do “whatever the fuck I wanted” (because when Westworld has an idea, it likes to drive it home all the way). After the first fails because Maeve has a severe flashback to an earlier “life,” a pair of techs from the narrative division come in. The man does a quick exam and concludes “I’d fuck her,” and the woman orders him to double Maeve’s “aggression” characteristic; “She’s a hooker. No need to be coy.”

After that, we see Maeve deliver the same speech to an intimidated guest, who slinks away bashfully. With so many failures, she’ll have to be decommissioned! That’s when Elsie steps in, does an analysis, then undoes the clumsy changes from the “morons in narrative.” She restores aggression to normal but increases Maeve’s perception and “emotional acuity.” We see the scene play out a third time, Maeve nails delivery of the story, and she hooks up a guest with exactly who he wants, in the form of a different prostitute.

Choosing empathy over aggression: it really couldn’t be less ambiguous without delivering another explicit monologue.

The Man Who Made Out With Liberty Valance

I find the criticism annoying because one of my favorite aspects of Westworld is how it avoids explict moralizing. The show depicts sexuality and orientation as being almost as arbitrary as gender.

Either the park has a disproportionate number of gay or bisexual employees and guests, or the show is depicting a future in which nobody’s as hung up on sexual orientation as we are, and everyone’s a little bisexual. (I hope it’s the latter). Either way, neither the characters nor the show seem to care one way or the other. Logan pairs up with both a male and female host the second he arrives at the park. Later, he’s shown having sex with two different women and a man, and it’s not made explicit who’s a host and who’s a guest.

In the first episode, Elsie is shown making out with one of the female hosts when no one is looking. The show does pay attention to it and treat it as ominous, but not because it’s two women. It’s notable because it shows how even the employees are unable to stop thinking of the hosts as if they were people.

(Anthony Hopkins’s character reinforces this idea later on, when he notices that a worker has put a gown around one of the hosts. He chastises the worker, tears off the gown, and cuts the host’s face with a scalpel to prove that it’s just an object. “It has no modesty to be preserved,” he insists, even though I side with the poor worker. I wouldn’t want to spend every day at my job with a dong in my face, anthropomorphized or not).

We see two different women guests taking advantage of women prostitutes, so I’m not sure who’s the one Nussbaum describes as “coded, obnoxiously, as less than hot.” Regardless, it’s the most obnoxious part of her review. For one thing, I can’t imagine the actress would be thrilled to hear that she’s somehow not hot enough to be a positive representation of lesbian and bisexual women. For another, they’re guests. Almost all of the guests are “coded to be less than hot.”

In fact, we should’ve been able to tell that Teddy wasn’t one of the guests from scene one. Simply because he’s played my James Marsden, who has a face too handsome to look quite real. All of the hosts are cast to be striking — either traditionally attractive like Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and Marsden; or character-actor memorable. The guests and the employees are supposed to read as real people. (Which is why someone who looks like Shannon Woodward is made to look movie-librarian average).

If You Can’t Tell, Does it Matter?

So if the puzzle is how Westworld feels about Westworld the place, there are a few clues. Like how the employees all seem miserable, paranoid, and lonely. How they comment how horribly the hosts are treated and the only redeeming factor is that they can’t remember any of it. How a guest is shown shooting a bandit leader in a clumsy anti-climax of a dramatic scene, and then he goofily gets his wife with him to pose with the corpse. How the man running the park’s “story” is vulgar, self-important, and thinks in terms of lurid, cheap thrills and stereotypes. How a drunk guest interrupts another scene by killing Teddy for no reason, right in the middle of a conversation, and then unloads his gun into the body and shouts “now that’s a vacation!”

There’s another scene from the original Westworld that has a parallel in the HBO series. It’s after Richard Benjamin’s character has murdered the Gunslinger just for spilling his drink, then had sex with a prostitute robot with the sound of gunfire from a bank robbery coming in from the street outside. He was also in a pointless bar fight that destroyed the entire saloon, shot and killed the town sheriff while escaping from jail, and murdered the Gunslinger a second time, but I honestly can’t remember what happened in what order. But at some point after his murder and sex spree, he leans back and tells his pal that he’s having a lot of fun, and they smile knowingly and the scene ends.

In the first episode of the new series, the scene cuts to a shack out in the wilderness in which HBO Series-style sex is happening all over. A generically handsome guest stands up from the bed and tells his pal that he’s having a lot of fun. His pal is “coded as less than hot” but it’s Kyle Bornheimer, who Hollywood casts as Average Everyman but we all know is really pretty hot. In any case, Kyle does more than just smile knowingly, he says how this is just the beginning and Teddy, their guide, will take them on an adventure. And if they get bored, “we’ll just use him for target practice.” The camera moves to Teddy, staring blankly with no reaction as a fly crawls across his face.

The original Westworld is an uncomplicated movie. It’s a sequence of events with no larger message apart from “don’t give guns to robots.” The new series shows sad and lonely people pouring their loneliness into robotic companions, companions who are gradually gaining sentience due to the memory of the horrible torture they’re subjected to. It expands the ethics of interactivity into a meditation on how our actions define us. I’d say that if you can’t tell the difference, it does matter.

1984 Upside Down, or, Use Your Allusions

Stranger Things would still be pretty great if it were just a shameless pastiche of 80s movies, but it ends up transcending that.

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Stranger Things is so blatantly, aggressively an homage to the early 1980s that it’s amazing it works at all. There’s hardly a single shot or character or situation that doesn’t in some way reference something from pop culture during the age when Amblin Entertainment Ruled the Earth.

On Vulture, Scott Tobias made a list of film references in the series. (If you haven’t yet watched all eight episodes, be forewarned it’s full of spoilers even from the first entry). Vimeo user Ulysse Thevenon made a compilation video with even more references in a side-by-side comparison.

With all of that referencing going on, it could’ve ended up like nothing more than a dramatic adaptation of a VH-1 I Love the 80s special: a bunch of callbacks that amount to nothing more than vacuous nostalgia. But somehow Stranger Things doesn’t just strike the right balance between “inspiration” and “slavish recreation;” I genuinely think it synthesizes everything into a uniquely 21st century kind of storytelling.

It’s the pop culture equivalent of the Higgs boson: proof of something that had previously been purely theoretical. In this case, a piece of art that’s both aggressively meta-textual and completely earnest.

Since I started writing this, there’ve been dozens of hot takes, explanations, recaps, and analyses written of the series. Instead of rehashing all of that, I’ll try to keep it (relatively) simple and just focus on how I think the references worked, and how they made the series resonate so much with me.

Super 8 Upside Down

Still from Super 8 from Dan North's Spectacular Attractions site
I’ve seen several people compare it to Super 8, which I liked a lot, and which is another extended love letter to early 80s Steven Spielberg. It makes sense, since they have so much in common. But essentially, I think Super 8 and Stranger Things are conceptual opposites.

Super 8 is a modern filmmaker’s attempt to reproduce the feel of late 70s to early 80s Spielberg. It’s like JJ Abrams’s American Graffiti, except he grew up loving filmmaking more than cars. It’s 2011 in “cinematic language” — the images are too sharp, and just look at those lens flares! — but it’s trying to tell a story that’s around 1984 in spirit.

Stranger Things, on the other hand, uses the “cinematic language” of the late 70s and early 80s to tell a modern story. I don’t think the nostalgia is the end goal; it’s a stylistic flourish, or (less charitably) a really effective gimmick. The story, though, is not the kind of thing they were making in 1984.

Calling it just a pastiche of scenes from 1980s movies ignores the fact that those scenes wouldn’t survive in 2016 unaltered. Salem’s Lot scared the pants off me as a kid, but the scene that frightened me the most when I was eight years old seems pretty silly now. And it only took a few years for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to ripen from “spellbinding” and “uplifting” into “nauseatingly maudlin” and “difficult to watch.”

Super 8 seemed like it wanted me to appreciate 80s Spielberg from a respectful distance. As a result, it made me feel like a guy in his 40s reminiscing about the movies he loved as a kid. But Stranger Things made me feel like I was that kid again, completely wrapped up in the story and eager to find out what happened next, the same way I watched TV and movies in those innocent days before I took cinema studies classes and started a blog.

Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jaded Eye

I was completely on board for the whole thing, without that one-level-removed detachment I usually maintain when watching a movie or TV show. The last time I can remember being so engrossed in something was — not that long ago, actually, since it was while watching The Force Awakens. That movie was criticized for being too much of a retread of the originals, or being too much of an exercise in nostalgia to become a classic in its own right. I say that using so much of the “language” of the original movies is a crucial part of why Force Awakens was able to make a 45-year-old feel like a 6-year-old again. It stops being conscious reference and starts to work subliminally.

Stranger Things does something similar. It’s constantly making references but rarely drawing attention to them. Since the Amblin influence is almost never explicit, the series isn’t making any kind of commentary on it. It’s set in the early 80s, but it’s not making any explicit commentary on the time period, either. (Apart from Firestarter-style government conspiracy paranoia, but that’s been pretty much a constant since the 70s). Phones and huge walkie-talkies feature heavily in the plot, but there’s really not a whole lot that would have to change to accommodate cell phones and the internet.

I think that’s worth pointing out because the main influences — Stephen King and Steven Spielberg — were both so focused on being contemporary. King’s entire schtick with his blockbuster novels was taking classic monsters and horror stories and giving them a modern (for the late 70s) update. And Spielberg was so dedicated to putting fantastic stories into completely mundane settings that it almost seemed like he fetishized suburbia. I think in both cases, the goal was to make the subject less distant and more relatable: vampire attacks, telekinetic teen witches, and alien encounters may just as well be happening to you in your very neighborhood!

So Stranger Things is neither contemporary nor a traditional period piece. It isn’t really like Super 8, because it’s not really making any explicit commentary on the 1980s or the love of filmmaking or the naive enthusiasm of youth. And it’s not exactly like E.T. because it’s not trying to be contemporary. In terms of period references, the Steven Spielberg movie it most resembles is Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Raiders isn’t trying to depict the real 1936; it’s a fantasy version that exists only in the movies. It borrowed character archetypes and situations from old movies not in the hope that the audience would recognize them as references, but because the imagery immediately evokes “high adventure.” And Raiders has about as much to say about Nazism as Stranger Things does about post-Watergate paranoia over government-sponsored shadow programs: nothing, except that they make great villains.

Nothing’s specific enough to become parody or reference; it all just blends together into a pleasant melange of K-cars, mix tapes, big phones, bad clothes, and kids who still spent most of the day riding their bikes. As somebody who was around the same age as the kids in Stranger Things in 1984, it’s extremely unsettling seeing my childhood turned into gauzy days-gone-by Happy Days-style nostalgia. Especially since we were a generation so self-obsessed that we didn’t even wait until the end of the decade before we started deconstructing it and trying to define the zeitgeist. It feels like all the significant details getting sandblasted away in favor of a pair of Foster Grants and a Walkman, just like how I know nothing of the 1920s apart from flappers and prohibition.

It also means that your brain isn’t looking for specific flashes of recognition so much as taking it all in sub-verbally as the tone and mood of 1984-ish. It was a distant, simpler time, when pre-teens were always getting into fantastic adventures, and the little sister from E.T. grew up to develop pyrokinetic powers and went on adventures with The Goonies and the teens from Some Kind of Sixteen Pretty In Pink Candles to go look at a dead body that was left by the Alien.

The Epic of Lando

Although I think the “cinematic language” of Stranger Things is supposed to work silently and subconsciously, the show does make a lot of explicit references, too.

That in itself makes it weird: even today but especially in the 80s, movie and TV stories all existed in their own distinct parallel universes, each complete with fake brands, fake celebrities, and fake popular culture. Whether it was because of licensing issues, fear of being labeled a “sell out” with product placement, fear of being too topical or dated, or fear of being too unimaginative, productions almost never made mention of identifiable aspects of the real world.

Scott Tobias’s article mentions how Stranger Things explicitly mentions Poltergeist, and then creates a “hall of mirrors” as the characters go on to experience much of the same events as in Poltergeist. There’s an actual 1980s song in every episode, even if they weren’t 100% accurate to the year. (And they’re good songs, too! The Bangles’ version of “Hazy Shade of Winter” has always been severely underrated). Eleven watches a Coca-Cola commercial, and she’s nuts for Eggo waffles instead of Reese’s Pieces. There are movie posters for The Evil Dead and The Thing prominently visible hanging on walls in the background.

I don’t think they’re supposed to be just period details (apart from the Coke ad), but thematic. It’s significant that Joyce is the one who mentions Poltergeist, since the memory foreshadows the fact that the rest of the her story mirrors that of the lead character in Poltergeist. (If you don’t think Jobeth Williams was the star of that movie, you saw a very different movie from the one I did).

The other characters have references that reflect their character arcs, to a lesser degree. It’s Jonathan who has the (inappropriate) Evil Dead poster, and his “major” moment is setting up traps in a small house to try and kill a rampaging monster. Mike has the poster for The Thing in his basement, and he’ll go on to discover something alien that causes his whole group to be suspicious of each other and makes him wonder who he can trust.

It suggests that they’re using 80s references similarly to how ancient poems use allusions: they place the characters in a lineage of archetypal heroes. I don’t think that’s an entirely BS too-many-cinema-studies-classes read on it, either, since the show is even more explicit with it.

The three pop culture institutions that get the most direct references in Stranger Things are The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, X-Men, and Star Wars. One interesting aspect of that is that all of those properties were still fringe nerd-markers in the early 1980s, which had a big resurgence into the mainstream by 2016. (Even as ubiquitous as Star Wars was, there was always the idea that it was silly and you were supposed to be at least a little embarrassed for liking it).

The more interesting aspect — and possibly something that’s only possible because of their renewed popularity and status as “cultural institutions” — is that the references are used as shorthand. They mention “Mirkwood” as the scary place where the first attack took place. They describe the alternate dimension as “The Vale of Shadows” to immediately understand what it is. They understand Eleven’s powers by comparing her to Professor X or Jean Grey.

Most directly of all, they compare Eleven alternately to Yoda (as an unassuming figure who turns out to have great power) and Lando (as a traitor). To drive the idea home, they have Eleven levitating the Millennium Falcon with her mind when she’s trying to find out what she can do. For audiences in 2016 — and for nerdy kids in 1984 — the characters and story of Star Wars are so well-recognized that just the name of a character can tell you everything you need to know.

Digress Much?

Since I made the claim that Stranger Things is “uniquely 21st century storytelling,” I’ve got to compare it to how they did it in the 1990s. The best example I can think of is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the TV series.

It was also an attempt to take classic stories about monsters and update them to make them relatable to a contemporary audience. And like the Stephen King novels, it tried to turn its monsters into metaphors. But it took the idea and did something completely — even tragically — 1990s in spirit: it made the characters self-aware. King’s early novels and short stories still showed affection for the classic monsters; the psychological interpretations and metaphors expanded on traditional horror stories.

But starting with the premise (and obviously, the title) of the movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer wanted us to know that the monsters were old-fashioned and silly, and that it was in on the joke. The TV series was more earnest and much less gimmicky, but the inherently 1990s part of the tone remained: vampires and werewolves are fun, but it’s the metaphors for young adulthood that are really important.

So when the characters in Buffy call themselves “The Scooby Gang,” the show’s acknowledging that sure, the concept of a bunch of mystery-solving teens fighting monsters is corny and silly, but they’re aware of it, and they’re doing it for a reason. Stick around for the good stuff, and you might just learn a thing or two about growing up. When they call their enemy the “Big Bad,” they’re acknowledging that the format of their season-long story arcs is formulaic, but don’t worry about it because they’re in on the joke.

Stranger Things doesn’t feel the need to be that defensive. And it’s really no longer necessary: back in the 90s when I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I absolutely loved the self-aware references, since they felt like the makers of the show were talking directly to me. But when the kids in Stranger Things make reference to Lando or Yoda or Professor X, it’s a point of cultural reference that the writers, the audience, and the characters all have in common.

No “Spielberg Stares”

The “Spielberg Stare” is the one thing that makes me keep forgetting what a brilliant director Steven Spielberg is. It makes me forget that The Lost World had one of the best extended action sequences of any film ever with the van teetering over the edge of a cliff, and remember that movie only for the scene in which a teenaged gymnast uses a conveniently-placed set of parallel bars to drop-kick a velociraptor.

The stare is when he has the camera linger on a character looking wide-eyed and open-mouthed at something unbelievable just off-screen. It’s meant to drive home that we in the audience are about to see something absolutely wondrous AF and if we aren’t as blown away by it as the characters in the movie, then what the hell is wrong with us anyway? Around 25-30% of the time — double that if the movie is E.T. — the stare ends with a sudden, rehearsed-a-billion-times-to-try-and-make-it-not-look-so-rehearsed burst of laughter, to let us know that we just can’t contain our delight at what we’re seeing.

If it’s not clear, I hate it. I think it’s maudlin and manipulative, and it didn’t even survive until the mid-1980s before it became completely insufferable. (He kept it up through the 1990s, and it’s one of my least favorite aspects of Jurassic Park).

And there’s none of it in Stranger Things. The closest I can think of would be the scene where the kid is suspended in mid-air over a cliff, or the scene where the utility truck does a back flip over the kids on bikes. Apart from that, though, the characters aren’t allowed to be stunned by anything for too long.

It’s part of the idea that the story doesn’t take place in its own separate universe. The characters aren’t seeing something completely mind-blowing, because they have a frame of reference for most of it: this is like that D&D monster, that’s like that comic book character. So much of science fiction, horror, or action TV is spent establishing how the universe works, showing characters being exposed to the unbelievable for the first time, and repeating the key “rules” in long expository sequences.

And dealing with characters’ skepticism! It’s so common in these stories to have much of the plot revolve around the fact our characters have seen something fantastic and no one else will believe them. There’s certainly some of that in Stranger Things, but it’s usually relegated to the background instead of made the focus of the conflict. Instead, characters who are exposed to the weirdness are quick to get on board and start formulating a plan of what to do next. Even Steve jumps right in to help!

It gives the whole thing a kind of forward momentum that’s so unusual in episodic television that it’s almost jarring.

The cold open has a cold open

Finally, an example of how all of this stuff works together. The still below is from the first scene in the entire series. I don’t believe I’m spoiling anything when I tell you not to get too attached to this guy:
Stranger Things Still
Everyone in the target audience for this series has seen this scene, hundreds of times. Dozens of those times were in The X-Files alone.

It’s the monster’s first victim, the incident that brings our main characters into the story. It sets up a bit of intrigue, giving us some clues as to how the monster works — lights go out when it’s around — but leaving the details for us to figure out — how did it move around so quickly, is it invisible? It sets the tone for the series: how scary is it going to be? How gory? Do they show the attack or leave it to the imagination?

The scene’s always followed by one that introduces our heroes in their natural habitat. We get a few moments of character development, and then something happens that pulls into the story, tying them to the monster from the cold open. Maybe there’s a close call that our hero just barely survives. Maybe there’s a brief flash of the monster, showing us a bit more of what form it takes. Maybe the hero will see something that no one else believes.

I’ll tell you what’s not supposed to happen: the monster isn’t supposed to appear in full view in the second scene of the series. When a kid gets safely into his house and locks the door, that’s supposed to be the end of the scene. The monster shouldn’t still be outside, and the monster sure as hell shouldn’t be able to follow him inside. And on top of everything else, you’re not supposed to lose one of your main characters before the credits even start.

I think the main reason that Stranger Things so effectively scared me, without gore or violence, is that it kept that forward momentum and kept changing up the “rules.” (“We just saw the monster kill someone. Why are we seeing it again so soon after?”) I believe that they were using the same gimmick as in Psycho, but more subtly: using the audience’s expectations of how the story’s “supposed” to work against them. In retrospect, so much of the series’s story was easily explainable and full of standard, formulaic story structure.

But going into the show knowing almost nothing about it, I found myself surprised over and over again. Both by how quickly some parts of the story were moving, and by how scenes would escalate in intensity past what I’d expected them to. (I absolutely did not expect Joyce to see the monster trying to push itself through the wall of her house, for instance). Surprising for a series that’s essentially Frankensteined together from the pieces of movies and TV I’ve already seen: for the bulk of the series up until the final episode, I really had no idea what was going to happen next.

Meta-textual Earnestness

So when I say that Stranger Things is a uniquely 21st century form of storytelling, it has nothing to do with the Netflix distribution and binge-watching. It’s because it’s a synthesis of the kinds of stories we’ve been telling in popular media for the last four decades.

It’s got the fascination with the mundane and realism that I consider to be the hallmark of the 70s cinema, along with the Firestarter elements of paranoia about the government that have just gotten taken more for granted in the decades since.

It’s obviously an homage to the 80s, but I think the main thing it gets from there is sense of a return to fantasy and wonder, plus the kind of genuine earnestness you get when a writer or director isn’t afraid of being too maudlin.

From the 90s, it gets the fascination with references and being self-referential, plus the attempt to assert shared modern pop culture as a type of mythology.

From the 2000s, it gets the fascination with mash-ups and meta-text, along with the decade’s lesson learned by over-saturating cinema and TV with CGI, then scaling back to over-correct.

And the result is something that’s simultaneously meta-textual and earnest, referential without winking. It’s a story focused more on forward momentum and formulating a plan of action that showing an action scene followed by multiple scenes of actors dealing with the consequences. Its scares are earned and they’re old-fashioned, and it’s surprising just how well they work. It recreates a fantasy version of 1984 that somehow feels more “real” than Spielberg’s attempts to be contemporary.

I’ve got no idea whether it can work again as well as it did the first run, or whether you could achieve the same effect without the 1980s homage being an essential part of the whole project. As it stands, though, it does a fantastic job establishing and maintaining a tone of referential sincerity that doesn’t just pay honor to the originals, but in so many ways, surpasses them.

Unbreakable

Everything a cowardly adult needs to know about 10 Cloverfield Lane

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I was a huge fan of Cloverfield, so I was super-excited to hear that Bad Robot had been quietly working on 10 Cloverfield Lane, and that it’d be released in just around a month from the first appearance of a leaked teaser trailer.

Of course, that trailer almost certainly wasn’t actually “leaked.” Half the fun of these things is the mystery and the showmanship. And even though this is just a couple of days into opening weekend, I’d already read two reports that a) stressed how the movie’s best not knowing anything going into it, and then b) immediately revealed something (no matter how oblique) that I’d rather have not known going into the movie. I had to go see a matinee today to avoid the bigger spoilers that almost certainly would’ve hit me over the course of the next week.

Still, this looked more “adult” than Cloverfield‘s millennial monster movie, so I was worried it’d be too heavy and disturbing to be fun. Here’s my attempt at answering the stuff I’d been wondering about 10 Cloverfield Lane while divulging as little as possible:

Is it good?
No, it’s excellent.

Do I have to have seen Cloverfield to full appreciate it?
No, you have to have seen Cloverfield in order to have a basic level of film literacy, since it’s one of the outstanding genre movies of the 21st Century.

Aren’t Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman the best?
Absolutely! And no matter how many times people talk about how good they are, I still think they’re underrated.

Is it scary?
I couldn’t tell you for certain, since I spent at least 50% of the movie twisted in my seat watching what was happening from underneath my hand over my eyes. It’s intense.

So it’s a brutal psychological horror film, then?
I wouldn’t say that. Like Cloverfield, it’s a contemporary attempt to make a movie with an “old-fashioned horror movie” spirit. It’s intended to be thrilling, surprising, and fun. (And it succeeds at all three).

Doesn’t the trailer already give away all the surprises?
Surprisingly not.

For real, though, what elements does this movie have in common with Cloverfield?
Both have internet movie fans and reviewers complaining about them, and those fans and reviewers are wrong.

Is there anything I should know that won’t spoil the movie but will give me something to look out for while I’m watching it?
Try reading about Slusho!

Does the movie inspire a perfect do-it-yourself Halloween costume for girls women?
As a matter of fact, yes!

Without giving anything away, what’s the most clever scene from the standpoint of masterfully-written character development?
The charades.

This doesn’t tell me anything other than that you really liked the movie. What if I want to read an actual review?
I like Alonso Duralde’s review on The Wrap, although I don’t at all agree that it felt over-long. I almost entirely agree with Peter Travers’s review in Rolling Stone, although I think he (along with most other reviewers) gives a little bit too much away in describing how this movie relates to Cloverfield.

Is this better or worse than Cloverfield?
I don’t really care, since I’m mostly excited to see the next one come along!

One of the Good Ones

Zootopia is surprisingly great, and a reminder of the value of family movies as parable

zootopia-selfie
Zootopia is “surprisingly articulate.” And that patronizing compliment is one of the best parts of the movie, and the clearest sign that the filmmakers had something more sophisticated to say than I’d expected. It seems weirdly appropriate that a movie I’d initially dismissed as unimaginative and uninteresting would turn out to be a mature and distressingly contemporary parable about prejudice.

In my defense, early marketing didn’t give us a lot to go on. It looked like the entire premise of the movie was: “Wouldn’t it be wacky if there were a whole city full of animals who walk and talk like humans do?!” It seemed as if the Walt Disney Company were releasing a movie with no prior knowledge of the work of the Walt Disney Company.

But after a charming and well-delivered version of the Standard Disney Believe-In-Your-Dreams® Formula, Zootopia immediately sets to work dismantling that formula and then putting it back together again as something with more heft and complexity to it than just an empty aphorism. This is a movie where the hero’s kind and loving parents advise her in the first scene that she should give up on her dreams. The hero’s begrudging partner explicitly says that the idea that you can be anything you want is unrealistic nonsense.

Most importantly, we see Hopps going through her whole journey of overcoming adversity — complete with training montage! — and showing everyone that they shouldn’t assume what she’s capable of, just because she’s a bunny. And almost immediately afterwards, she’s flinging out micro-aggressions at a fox as if she were no better than some ignorant elephant!

Zootopia isn’t a subtle movie, but these aren’t subtle times. Apparently a lot of people need to be explicitly reminded of the things we were taught in kindergarten. What’s most impressed me about the movie is that it explicitly states its message over and over, but it doesn’t come across as dogmatic or self-important, and it doesn’t get in the way of its being a pretty solid detective story. The more I think about it, the more I see how cleverly it’s constructed and how it’s actually pretty transgressive.

It’s fantastic to see Disney Feature Animation using their hugely successful blockbuster hits to take risks with the Disney formula. Frozen (which is the butt of a pretty clever gag in Zootopia) was a movie about princesses that rejected the idea of love at first sight as dangerously naive, instead emphasizing the family that most Disney princesses tend to abandon to get their happy endings.

Zootopia sets up its premise in the very first scene: animals have evolved past their predator and prey relationships. It then spends the rest of its story showing its characters and the audience how many stereotypes they still hold onto. Some of the gags are pretty corny or in danger of passing their expiration date — an extended parody of The Godfather, a cute Fennec Fox who’s actually a deep-voiced adult, an animal nudist colony — but almost every one is another play on that idea of holding onto stereotypes that don’t apply. Even the stoner yak who turns out to have a better memory than an elephant.

Richard Scarry’s Cars And Trucks And Things That Perpetuate Systematic Discrimination

I call that “transgressive” for a couple of reasons. First is that it’s not how anthropomorphized animal stories are supposed to work. People have been using animals as stand-ins for humans for as long as stories have existed, but every example that I’m familiar with handles it in one of two ways: either the fact that they’re animals is arbitrary and mostly ignored, used only to make the story universally appealing, as in Richard Scarry’s books and the early Mickey Mouse cartoons; or it takes advantage of our inherent perception of the animals to make a satirical point, like the pigs in Animal Farm or the cats and mice in Maus.

Zootopia cleverly splits the difference. The entire story is based on the premise that the characters’ “animalness” is arbitrary, but then it presents one example after another of how our perception of inherent traits is so deeply ingrained that it’s almost inescapable. In the world of the story, the predator/prey distinction has become meaningless, but it’s still the one that all the characters fall back on. All the adversity that Hopps overcomes at the start of the movie has nothing to do with being a prey animal (her gruff and unsympathetic boss is a water buffalo) and everything to do with size. But when she’s put on the spot to come up with an explanation for the “mystery,” she asserts that it must have something to do with predators and might even have some biological origin.

Which leads to the other aspect of the story that I’d call transgressive: none of the characters are allowed to be exempt. Hopps’s parents are kind and completely sympathetic, but they’re also undeniably bigots. Hopps repeatedly demonstrates how she “gets it” intellectually, but when she’s pushed into a conflict or presented with something she can’t explain, she falls back on her stereotypes. Nick’s character has internalized the discrimination and let it define him; it’s a solid example of how defeatist cynicism so often disguises itself as “being realistic.”

When I first heard the term “intersectionality”, I thought it was a fantastic way to move forward in how we think about discrimination and civil rights. Then I found out how it’s actually used in practice. I’ve never seen it used to promote empathy or shared humanity, but only in terms of oppression, victimization, and guilt. Instead or being something positive, I’ve only ever seen it presented as a way to make sure that everyone, no matter what struggle they’ve been through, can have something they should feel bad about.

I think Zootopia presents a more optimistic take on the concept, by repeatedly setting up an obvious one-to-one metaphor and then subverting it. The story of Hopps could clearly be taken as a parable about feminism, but then nobody puts any emphasis on gender (her demanding drill sergeant is a polar bear with a female voice). The central tension of predators vs prey seems to correspond exactly with racism against African Americans, but, unlike Maus for example, it flips our assumptions about oppressors vs. oppressed.

One of the most clever sequences has Hopps pursuing a crook into a neighborhood populated entirely by small rodents. It comes very soon after we’ve seen her fighting against the stereotype that she can’t be “a real cop” because she’s too small, and now she’s a giant, in danger of knocking over buildings and stomping on terrified citizens.

The story refuses to let any of the characters settle into a role as purely a victim of oppression or purely an oppressor. It stresses that kindness, empathy, and cooperation are the only way to fight prejudice, ignorance, and fear.

Not All Sloths

Of course, I’m projecting my own beliefs onto the movie. Middle-aged white guy Merlin Mann took to Twitter to make fun of middle-aged thinkpiece-writing white guys like myself:


To which I respond: suck it. Even if you don’t buy the premise that comics and animation have become the modern parable and myth-making, the dismissive idea that “cartoons” are only relevant to kids is weak, tired, and so very, very old. On top of that, the level of public discourse around the themes that Zootopia addresses has become a travesty of progressivism. We could probably use some cartoon animals to set us straight.

While the movie isn’t subtle, it does leave a bit of room for interpretation. Two interpretations I disagree with are reviews by Matt Zoeller Seitz on RogerEbert.com, and Scott Renshaw in Salt Lake City Weekly. (Who are, coincidentally, also middle-aged white guys). I only found Renshaw’s review because his is one of the very few negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and he’s getting a ton of undeserved flak from that, because people on the internet tend to be ridiculously and obnoxiously defensive and abusive. (As evidence, see my telling a stranger to “suck it” because he made fun of guys like me and posts like this one).

In any case, Seitz says that the movie is too open for interpretation:

“Zootopia” pretty much rubber-stamps whatever worldview parents want to pass on to their kids, however embracing or malignant that may be. I can imagine an anti-racist and a racist coming out of this film, each thinking it validated their sense of how the world works.

Which implies a sort of moral relativism that simply doesn’t exist in the movie. For one thing, the story rejects the idea of “a racist” or “an anti-racist.” It portrays discrimination as behavior, not an identifier. It suggests that we can all be simultaneously on the giving and receiving end of it. I feel that so much of what passes for progressivism these days treats oppression, prejudice, and discrimination as perpetual states of being instead of injustices that we can work together to correct.

And the movie absolutely doesn’t stop at saying “we’re all a bit culpable” and leave it at that. There are most definitely bad guys. It acknowledges that prejudice is motivated just as often by fear as it is by malice, and the bad guys are the ones who manipulate that fear to drive us apart. Which is why the movie’s message is so depressingly relevant for 2016.

Both reviewers conclude that the movie’s message gets muddled because it simultaneously says that stereotypes are bad, and then relies on stereotypes for its gags. Renshaw writes:

It’s even more confusing when it starts to feel that Zootopia is working against its own message to get easy laughs. One extended sequence is set at the animal equivalent of the DMV, which is staffed entirely by slow-moving sloths. It’s a decent-enough idea, until you realize that it’s based on a stereotype […] For a movie built entirely around “don’t judge an animal by its species,” there’s also plenty of “a leopard can’t change its spots.”

While Seitz describes it:

The film isn’t wrong to say that carnivores are biologically inclined to want to eat herbivores, that bunnies reproduce prolifically, the sloths are slow-moving (they work at the DMV here), that you can take the fox out of the forest but you can’t take forest out of the fox, and so on. […] This all seems clever and noble until you realize that all the stereotypes about various animals are to some extent true, in particular the most basic one: carnivores eat herbivores because it’s in their nature.

This complaint seems wrong to me on two levels: just on the surface, it seems like what would happen if Aesop took his stuff to the internet and had a thousand of us middle-aged white men pointing out that actually, foxes don’t enjoy grapes, so his entire premise is invalid.

The entire premise of the movie is that the carnivore/herbivore relationship doesn’t exist anymore, so it’s a completely artificial distinction that’s dangerously foolish for the characters to cling to. If you’re going to take issue with that, you might as well take issue with the idea of animals talking and wearing clothes.

You might even say that this lack of a predator/prey relationship is what makes this an ideal fictional city, as suggested by the movie’s diabolically subtle title.

And again, I think what makes the movie so remarkable is that it teaches a lesson about prejudice by showing us repeatedly how our own prejudices work against the story’s main premise. They start the story by saying (explicitly), “here’s the setup,” and then go on knowing that the audience won’t be able to fully buy into the setup.

If you look at the complaint deeper, though, it gets at why I think Zootopia is a more mature and sophisticated allegory than I’d given it credit for, even while I was watching it and enjoying it. Yes, there are indeed a lot of gags based on the animals behaving like animals. But I don’t see it as “leopards can’t change their spots.” In the context of a story about discrimination, it’s a symbol of cultural identity and a rejection of whitewashing.

The sloths are a shaky example, since it really is played more for laughs than anything else, and it isn’t subverted until the very end of the movie. But it gets a pass since it’s such a good scene, and kind of a masterpiece of comic timing.

For all the other examples, though, the movie acknowledges the differences but is careful not to place any value judgments on them. The bunnies do reproduce prolifically, the wolves can’t help but howl in unison, the polar bears enjoy the cold, hamsters like going through habitrails, and the movie doesn’t find anything wrong with any of that.

It makes a distinction between traits that are limiting and those that are a part of our identity. The gentlest character in the movie is a cheetah cop who loves doughnuts and idolizes a gazelle. It’s a valuable reminder that rejecting the preconceived notions of how we judge each other doesn’t mean rejecting everything that makes us unique.

That’s as good an opportunity as any to point out how great the character animation is throughout. I’m ambivalent towards the character design and environmental design in general — it’s well done and pleasant if not particularly spectacular. But the character animation hooked me from the first scene, with the wide-eyed kids nervously waiting for their cues as they presented the school play. It was just plain delightful to see Hopps insist that “cute” is derogatory for bunnies, and then spend the rest of the movie stamping her foot like Thumper when she got excited, or wrinkling her nose whenever she was curious.

I’m sure I’m being completely unfairly dismissive of the work that went into the character design; it had so many opportunities to go wrong, as is evidenced by the horrific background dancers for pop star Gazelle, which I’m against on the strongest possible terms.

Would That It Were So Simple

A cursory and non-reductive look at Hail, Caesar! by Joel and Ethan Coen

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I’ve been promising for a while that I’m going to be less reductive about movies. So even though I saw Hail, Caesar! last night and have been thinking about it ever since, I won’t try to come up with some belabored explanation of what I think it all means.

After all, trying to assign a “meaning” to everything is insufferably pretentious. It’s the kind of thing that self-important writers do, sitting together flinging high-minded concepts at each other without being able to put them into practice or make them relevant. It’s not actual communication, but just a pretense of superiority to cover up a deep-seated bitterness over the fact that writing is not universally accepted to be the most important thing there is.

It’s all part of the value judgment we tend to put on the labels of “art” vs “entertainment.” As if entertainment is inherently ephemeral, vapid, and valueless. The only way to elevate it to the higher and worthwhile level of “Art” is to put it in service of some important and meaningful statement. By, for instance, inserting ideas into unrelated stories for audiences to decode and pick apart like puzzle boxes, with the goal of “changing minds.” Or having a movie end with a forceful, dramatic monologue that explains to the audience exactly what the whole thing is about.

If it were just self-important ramblings from someone who’d taken too many cinema studies courses, it’d be bad enough. But the problem is that it’s reductive. It’s dismissive of all the wonderful things that movies can do, and it undermines the efforts of the hundreds of people who work to bring those wonderful experiences to audiences.

After all, there’s a ton of artistry that goes into a movie that’s more than just the self-congratulation of screenwriters and attention-grabbing performances by movie stars. There are cinematographers, editors, composers, choreographers, set designers, artistic directors, dancers, and stunt people. And that’s not counting all the people whose work doesn’t make it directly onto the screen, but who are essential to making the entire thing possible.

It’s an attitude that assumes that the movie industry’s days of spectacle and pageantry and displays of raw talent are gone and no longer missed, because the medium “matured.” It assumes an evolution from cheap tricks and stunts into more refined and intelligent stories of beautiful and sophisticated people delivering clever dialogue. It claims that there’s no true artistry in a well-executed farce, or a perfectly choreographed musical number. It ignores the delight of an audience enjoying something together in favor of being able to say I get it.

So I’m going to resist my natural tendency to talk about the Coen brothers as populists. Or to mention their disdain for pretense and self-importance. Or to put anything in the context of their recurring theme of spirituality vs. religion, and the futility of being so focused on the meaning and the answer that we lose sight of the wonder of life and the beauty of experience itself.

Instead, I’ll just talk about what I liked most in Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ absurd, spectacular farce about the “golden age” of Hollywood.

I loved that they went all-in on reproducing genre after genre of classic movie, not just as casual reference but full-blown production. The result is the best living cinematographer and film composer working with scores of the most talented people in the industry making pitch-perfect recreations of old musical westerns, Gene Kelly-style musicals with elaborate dance numbers, Esther Williams-style “aquamusicals,” pompous sword-and-sandal epics, and high-society melodramas. And then made the references pitch-perfect as well, to Cold War spy dramas, a film noir car chase, and of course, the Singin’ in the Rain-style movie-within-a-movie.

I loved that the Coens returned to their Blood Simple-era mastery of timing, setting up the slow burn “Would that it were so simple” gag that’s shown in the trailer, waiting for a few more scenes before setting up the punchline, then stretching out the delivery of the punchline even more by inserting one of the other funniest scenes in the movie, with Frances McDormand’s film editor.

Every single performance in the movie was perfect, which is especially remarkable considering that they weren’t all in the same genre of movie. Being the straight man in a screwball comedy is a thankless job, but Josh Brolin keeps it grounded. But Alden Ehrenreich is kind of amazing, not just for completely getting the wild changes in tone from scene to scene, but also being able to do an affected accent trying to affect a different accent. And this is the first movie where I’ve liked Channing Tatum.

I loved the recurring gag about not “depicting the godhead” (check the disclaimers in the end credits) while making a movie billed “A Tale of The Christ,” and then not only did they never show the actor playing Jesus, they had an assistant director asking him whether he was principal or supporting cast.

I loved that the high-minded, presumably religious epic On Wings As Eagles was built up with such import and significance and then marvelously deflated. I loved the “No Dames!” musical number that started with a subtle nod to the Gene Kelly performances that seemed just-barely-shy of homoerotic, and then got more and more blatant as the routine got more and more sophisticated.

And I loved that Eddie Mannix’s guilt and loyalty and devotion were depicted as a crisis of faith, and contrasted against the religious leaders who didn’t have the answers; the warmongers who dismissed movies as ephemeral, valueless entertainment; and the biblical epics that depicted sudden, awe-inspiring epiphanies that turned out to be ultimately empty. Mannix didn’t really have any sudden moment of clarity; he just went on helping people who needed help and made movies that reached millions of people and brought joy to their lives.

So no real message, just an astoundingly talented bunch of filmmakers making a silly, funny farce about the “magic” of movies. But maybe I missed the point entirely.

Exit, surrounded by Muppets

Tremendous respect for David Bowie, and a theory on what seems truly alien

As somebody who really only knew David Bowie’s work “indirectly,” it’s bizarre how profoundly firmament-shaking it is to realize he’s no longer a constant, always creating new things that no one else would be able to do.

I really, really liked Labyrinth a lot (I think I was unfortunately at just the wrong age to keep from loving it), and I totally, genuinely loved his duet with Bing Crosby on “Little Drummer Boy.” But apart from that, I always thought of his music as something that cooler people than me listened to. It honestly wasn’t until The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou that I was aware of individual songs (apart from “Space Oddity” and “China Girl”), and the versions that come to my head are still the acoustic ones in Portuguese.

But amidst all the people talking about how preternaturally talented and legendary he was, and what a huge influence he was on “weird” kids (whether LGBT or otherwise), the thing that I keep seeing over and over is how kind and funny he was in person.

It’s weird because I would’ve expected the accounts of him being like an alien or an impossibly famous artist. But I was surprised by that unassuming response to a fan letter in Letters of Note, or the account of him making fun of his own eye color, or just multiple stories of him putting people in awe of him at ease.

Even a still from Labyrinth with him smiling surrounded by goblins is a reminder that the alien, intimidating, super-powerful menace was the character he was playing. The man himself was just an impossibly famous rock star who’d decided to have fun and share his talent by being in a movie with muppets.

When you’re that cool and that universally loved, it seems like you don’t HAVE to be kind and funny, so it must’ve just come naturally.

It makes me wonder if what we perceive as alien and unapproachable is actually just being able to appreciate exactly how weird and silly we all are. And then, instead of being embarrassed by it or trying to disguise it, just completely celebrating it.

It’s a Shame About Rey

Another note about The Force Awakens, merchandising, and spoiler culture. Contains huge spoilers, obviously.

This post is partly about what an impressive job Disney and Lucasfilm did of keeping details about The Force Awakens secret until its release. So please: if you haven’t yet seen the movie, don’t read it.

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While I’m thinking about Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars (if they could bar wars, why don’t they?): one of the things the internet’s decided they just will not stand for is the way that the film is being marketed.

And by “the internet,” I of course mean maybe a couple hundred people who care enough to write blog posts and start a #WheresRey hashtag. Don’t mistake this post for a “I saw this thing on Twitter and am therefore now responding to the cultural zeitgeist,” but instead a comment on an a couple aspects of this movie and its promotional campaign that I thought were interesting.

The outrage I’m talking about [note: not actually outrage] is best summed up in this post by Mike Adamick (which I saw via my friend Chris Hockabout on Facebook): “Rey is not a role model for little girls.”

Continue reading “It’s a Shame About Rey”

It’s True. All of It.

Why I unabashedly love Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and how much I’ve missed being able to unabashedly love a movie

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It’s called a “Luggabeast”

A cool thing I discovered after seeing The Force Awakens a second time is that I don’t really care about anybody else’s opinion of The Force Awakens.

Really, though, you don’t care about my opinion of it, either. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you need to stop reading this right now. I’m still somewhat amazed by how well Disney & Lucasfilm have managed to keep the movie in everybody’s consciousness for months but still keep so much of it a surprise.

If you have seen it and have some criticisms you feel need to be addressed: eh, can’t help you there. When people talk about Star Wars being a “religion” to Nerds of a Certain Age, it’s intended to be derogatory of course, but there’s some truth to it. It’s more than a series of movies and their associated merchandise; it’s a phenomenon. In my case, it literally transformed my life. So when an experience so thoroughly triggers that feeling of unbridled delight that I haven’t felt in decades, I’m going to be a little dogmatic. Either you love it as much as I do, or you’re mistaken.

But if you did love it and just want to read another fan gushing about it, you’ve come to the right place. Watching it filled me with the kind of naked, uncynical, bean-to-bar exhilaration I haven’t gotten from a movie since seeing Big Trouble in Little China or Ghostbusters for the first time in 1986. For a few hours last Friday, I was transported back to Phipps Plaza in 1980 watching the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back and tearing up at the sheer wonder of it all.

A Long Time Ago

Of course, the down side to being picked up and transported back in time to being a wide-eyed nine-year-old in 1980 is having to get dumped back into the body of a 44-year-old in 2015. It’s alarming how dyspeptic and self-important we’ve all become.

It’s not just the wet blankets. We’ve always had those. For fun, read “The Empire Strikes Out” by David Gerrold from Starlog in 1980 and marvel at how much of it has survived and spread today. Neil deGrasse Tyson is on Twitter pushing buttons as unconvincingly as any of the people operating electronics in Star Wars. (To be fair, Gerrold’s question of how would a giant worm living in an uninhabitable asteroid be able to find food is actually kind of interesting on an academic level. Unlike the crusty old tired complaints about sound in space).

And Gerrold’s whole preamble should sound hauntingly familiar to anyone who’s on the internet in 2015. It’s the words of the martyr who knows what he’s saying won’t be popular among the “fanatics,” but he’s just got to share his complaints about the movie.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever understand the mentality of the “apathetic pan,” the need to inform as many people as possible that you don’t like something that’s popular. Or that it was good but not great. Or that it was fun but you have complaints that you’ll present as a list now. I’m not sure how to react to that, either, other than with a shrug and an Ayn Rand-ian “Oh well, sucks to be you.”

The whole phenomenon of “spoiler free reviews” really made it clear how far we’ve gotten away from engaging and analyzing arts and entertainment, and now just broadcast opinions as widely as possible. Last Wednesday, some kind of review embargo lifted, which meant every site on the internet was scrambling to be the first to post their spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens. It was a torrent of reviews that no one would read for a movie that everyone would see.

And I do mean every site. I’m not sure exactly why I’d want to know what the writers of a technology site or a video game blog thought about the new Star Wars movie, but I could absolutely find out, in written, video, podcast, and roundtable discussion format.

But who was the audience for these things? If anyone was on the fence about seeing the movie, they wouldn’t benefit from a positive review because tickets had sold out weeks earlier. Which also meant that people who’d already bought tickets wanted to know as little about the movie as possible. Which means that the critics couldn’t address anything of real substance about the movie for fear of “spoilers.” It’s talking in vague abstracts about a piece of art for which I have no context. That’s more search-engine optimization than film criticism.

I’m not cynical enough to think that it’s all SEO. A lot of it is genuine enthusiasm, the same reason I’m writing this. But that almost makes it more tragic: the idea of getting excited to see a movie and then rushing home to list all the problems you had with it.

Maybe it’s a side effect of being told for years that the stuff we loved was infantilizing and shallow? So we have to somehow prove that we’re able to appreciate The Muppets on a much deeper level. It’s not enough just to enjoy something; we have to be able to deconstruct it. If we’re not being analytical enough, it shows we lack discernment.

Part of it might be a by-product of Star Wars itself. One of the side effects of Star Wars’s unprecedented popularity was a fascination with how the movies were made. We all learned about blue screens and miniatures and matte paintings, and I doubt I was the only kid who went out and banged a wrench against a telephone pole support cable in an attempt to recreate the blaster sound effects like I saw in the “making of.” But instead of inspiring us all to become movie makers, it seems to have encouraged us all to think like movie reviewers.

Whatever the reason, it’s meant that even people who loved the movie need to qualify it somehow. “It’s not perfect,” or “it’s not as good as the first two,” or “it’s fine for what it is.” Which is kind of a drag, because I wish people could just lose their minds over it like I did.

I’ve already resolved to be less reductive about movies (and other art), trying to identify and compartmentalize the one thing that the entire work means. But it goes deeper than that. I’m realizing that I go into everything like an analyst instead of an audience. I’m devoting around 75% of my brain to the experience, and the other 25% trying to think of interesting things to say about the experience later. It’s like viewing every big event through a smartphone screen instead of being in the moment.

(The rest of this is spoiler-heavy. Please don’t read it if you haven’t yet seen the movie).

Continue reading “It’s True. All of It.”

Daredevil: Gold

Marvel’s Daredevil series turns out to be even better than I first thought.

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A while ago I wrote about my first impressions of the at-the-time-new Daredevil series on Netflix. I thought it was brilliant, but still only managed to get halfway through the season before having to set it aside.

The “problem” was that it was too good at the mood it was trying to establish. The tension of the series relies on the feeling of a city that’s irreparably broken, where the corruption goes so deep that it taints even the people trying to fight against it. It remains a solid series throughout, but it’s not a carefree, fun romp.

Now, I’ve finally finished watching the first season, and my opinion of it’s changed. Before, I thought it was really good. Now, I think it’s kind of a master work. If it just existed in a vacuum as a one-hour drama/action television series, it’d be really well-done if not groundbreaking; the hyperbole comes in when you consider it as an adaptation. Not just of a long-running series, but of a franchise and a format.

Really, what’s most amazing to me is that it exists at all, when you consider all the different ways it could’ve gone wrong. It could’ve collapsed under the weight of its own cliches, being unabashedly an adaptation of a comic book. It could’ve been pulled apart in any number of directions — too enamored of its fight scenes to allow for long stretches with nothing but dialogue, or too enamored of its “important” dialogue to realize how much storytelling it can accomplish with choreographed fight scenes. It could’ve quickly revealed itself as too derivative, or tried to crib too much from the Christopher Nolan version of Batman, considering that it’s based on a character that was already derivative. It could’ve suffocated from having its head too far up its own ass, being based on what’s maybe the most self-consciously “adult” of mainstream comics characters, and gone the route of “grim and gritty” comics’ facile understanding of what’s “mature.” It could’ve had performances that were too Law & Order for the comic-book stuff to read, or too comic-book for the dramatic stuff. The character of Foggy could’ve been so self-aware as to be insufferable, or the character of Karen could’ve been nothing more than a damsel in distress or a dead weight. It could’ve all been completely torn apart once they let Vincent D’Onofrio loose.

But it all works. (Almost). It’s a self-contained arc and a hero’s journey story and a tragedy and a character study and a crime drama and a martial arts series and a morality play and a franchise builder. It’s never so high-minded that it forgets to be entertaining, but it does insist that entertainment doesn’t have to be stupid. Yes, it is going to show you Daredevil fighting a ninja, but you’re also going to watch a scene that’s entirely in Mandarin, so don’t complain about having to turn the subtitles on.

If, like me, you were unfamiliar with the character other than at the most basic level — blind lawyer with super-senses who fights criminals with a cane that turns into nunchucks — then take a second to read an overview of the character’s history. And be impressed not only at how much they managed to retain, but how many horrible pitfalls they avoided.

My least favorite episode of the season — by far, since it’s really the only sour note in the entire thing that I can think of — is titled “Stick.” I had never heard of the character, but of course it’s from the comics. And of course it’s from Frank Miller, because it’s just an eyepatch and laser gun short of being the culmination of everything a testosterone-addled 12-year-old in the 80s would think is “rad.” As someone who was a testosterone-addled 12-year-old in the 80s, I can acknowledge this was a part of my past, but it’s not anything to be cherished, celebrated, or re-imagined. (Everybody was obsessed with ninjas back then. This was a time when Marvel thought they needed to make their immortal Canadian anti-hero with a metal-laced skeleton and claws that come out of his hands “more interesting” by having him go to Japan).

So the character of Stick is straight-up bullshit. It’s a perfect Alien 3-style example of not being able to handle what you’re given and instead, tearing down everything that came before in order to write about something else. Except even worse, because it tears everything down to replace it with something that is itself derivative: a sensei with a mysterious past in the form of a wise, blind martial arts master. (Except it’s the 80s, so he’s “flawed.” Which means he’s even more rad). It undermines the main character of the story by saying, “Here’s a guy who can do everything your hero can, even better than your hero can, and without the benefit of super powers.”

The makers of the series did the best they could. First, they cast Scott Glenn to come in and Scott Glenn it up. Then, they spun it the best they could, figuring out how to take the elements of the story that would fit into their own story arc: the idea that loyalty and connection to other people is a weakness, and the idea that it’s the choices Matt Murdock makes that define him as a hero, and not his super powers. (And then towards the end of the series, they have Foggy make a reference to how cliched and dumb the whole notion of a blind sensei is, so all is forgiven).

Throughout, there’s a respect for the source material that’s more skill than reverence. They understand not only how to take elements from the original and fit them into the story they’re trying to tell, but how and why they worked in the original. A lot of adaptations, especially comic book adaptations that try to move the story into “the real world,” are so obsessed with the first part that they lose sight of the second. I’m realizing now that that’s a big part of why Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies don’t work for me: they treat the characters and their origin stories as these disconnected bits of mythology floating around in the ether, without much consideration for how they originally worked and why they became so iconic. Especially with the last movie, it seemed to be more about mashing up familiar references instead of meaning. (Take that to its extreme, and you get a version of The Joker who has a panel from an iconic comic book about The Joker tattooed on his own chest).

But the Daredevil series takes stuff that was used as fairly empty symbolism in the comics — a vigilante in a Devil suit standing on top of a building overlooking a church — and pumps enough depth into it to make it meaningful again.

There’ve been so many “adult” interpretations of Batman that the whole notion of a vigilante hero has pretty much lost any tension or dramatic weight. Daredevil makes it interesting again. Even though it’s an unapologetically bleak setup, there’s still never a question that Daredevil is eventually going to win the fight. The question is what he’s going to lose in the process.

That in itself isn’t uncharted story, and the series doesn’t attempt to explore the material by going all-in on realism. Instead, it takes all the familiar elements and symbols and fits them into a structure where they all support each other and build off of each other. We see every single character faced with temptation, and we see how each character responds to it. None of the stories are self-contained origin stories presented for their own sake; they all reflect on that idea of holding on to your soul despite any corrupting influences. Foggy isn’t just the comic relief character; he’s the constant reminder of the ideals they’re supposed to be fighting for. Karen isn’t a story of an innocent saved by a hero; she has actual agency, and she’s an example of how corruption can gradually and subtly chip away at the soul of a good person.

The villains are straight out of the Stock Gritty Urban Bad Guy warehouse, but as with the best comic book stories, they all reflect on some aspect of the hero and illustrate why the hero’s the star of the story. Some of the corrupt cops show what results when people try to appoint themselves as above the law. One of the cops’ stories shows how he succumbed to corruption out of a desire to keep his loved ones safe. The Russian mobsters are depicted as people who did whatever they had to in order to overcome a horrible upbringing. The character of Madame Gao seems to be about moral relativism, a rejection of the idea that there are good people who do bad things. The Chinese drug-smuggling ring is a rejection of the idea that corruption is passive; it seems to insist that people aren’t forced to do bad things but choose to, an idea that’s reinforced by Karen’s story. And the Yakuza aren’t used much for other than a bit of exotic intrigue and a ninja fight, but there’s still some sense of how a devotion to honor above all else is itself a kind of corruption.

Of course, the first season is as much Kingpin’s origin story as Daredevil’s, so his is the most interesting. And again, it takes what could be the often simplistic moralizing of “comic book stories” and pumps depth back into it. There’s a scene in which he’s dramatically reciting the story of The Good Samaritan that keeps threatening to go over the edge into self-important super-villain monologuing scene, where the writer is a little too eager to make sure you get the point of what he’s been trying to say. But when taken as the culmination of his story, it’s the climactic moment that marks his story as a tragedy. It’s fairly typical for writers and actors to say that the most interesting villains are the ones who see themselves as the heroes, so it’s fascinating to see this series try to take that a step further. They’ve spent the entire season letting us into Fisk’s head, building up empathy if not sympathy, showing us how he became what he is. Then they say, “Wouldn’t it be even more interesting to show him accepting and embracing the fact that he’s the villain?” And it is, because it suggests that his story is just getting started.

Even more interesting to me, in a 2015 adaptation of a comic book that originated in 1964, is how it shows Kingpin as a male character created and defined by women. (Maybe not that surprising, considering that the source material is as well known for its relatively short-lived bad-ass female ninja character as it is for its hero). Every defining moment of his character — from his childhood to the climax of his story — is in reaction to something done by a man, but driven by the decision of a woman. His mother covers for him and protects him. Madame Gao intimidates him and backs him into a corner, effectively forcing him to abandon his pretense of fighting for good. And Gao insisted that Vanessa was a distraction for him, when in fact she was helping define him: all of the aspects of his character that he was trying to keep hidden and keep her shielded from, were the very aspects of his character that most attracted her.

In fact, all of the female characters in Daredevil are defined by their agency, while almost all of the male characters (except Matt and possibly Foggy) are shown either as passive products of their environment or as character simply living out their true nature. Ben Urich’s wife encourages Urich to stay true to his ideals, while acknowledging that being a reporter is simply in his nature, and there’s little he can do about it. Wilson Fisk tries to put a positive spin on his motivations, but both Vanessa and Gao encourage him to acknowledge that he’s doing it for power, not for good. Clare chooses to help Matt Murdock, and it’s ultimately her who chooses how to define their relationship. There’s even an element of it with Foggy and Marci — he’s incorruptible by nature, while she has to actively choose to do the right thing.

When you step back and look at it as part of the overall Marvel franchise, it makes it seem even more that the freak-out over Black Widow was missing the point. The internet would have you believe that the issue comes down to the ratio of how many men she defeats vs how many times we’re shown her ass. The bigger issue (and I’m definitely not the first person to point it out!) is that the movies are so dominated by male characters that she has to represent All Women. And even in a comic book story, “strong female characters” aren’t about super powers or who’d win in a fight.

And still, the thing that impressed me the most in the first couple of episodes stayed true throughout: Daredevil is fantastic at maintaining its tone. Sure, dialogue-heavy scenes peacefully coexist with fight scenes, but it goes even deeper than that. Some of the dialogue-heavy scenes are entirely plot driven, while a fight scene is all about establishing character. Some of the scenes are about dramatic monologuing, while others are about more subtle implications and things left unsaid. There are several moments I would’ve expected to be spun out into multi-episode arcs, but are instead left lingering in the background: for instance, a particularly well-acted moment when Foggy realizes that Karen isn’t attracted to him in the same way she is to Matt. It’s fairly subtle and heartbreaking, and to the best of my memory, no character ever utters the despicable phrase “friend zone.”

Everybody knows Vincent D’Onofrio is great at playing a psychopath, but what I didn’t appreciate is that he’s so good at maintaining it. I would’ve thought that by spending so many episodes building up anticipation for his appearance, when he first explodes and kills a guy, they’d have used up all the value of that for the rest of the season. But he keeps it going for episode after episode, filled with rage and menace and perpetually just on the verge of boiling over. And Ayelet Zurer perfectly underplays Vanessa — never trying to compete with Fisk in bombastic scene-stealing but always conveying a sense of power and control. Once she starts making her motivations perfectly clear, it’s every bit as chilling as any of Fisk’s outbursts.

And there’s a scene where Foggy and Matt are fighting because of course there is; any story about a super-hero with a secret identity demands it. I was never particularly invested in their relationship, or unsure of how it would play out, so I thought the entire thing would be a rote case of doing what it needed to for the season arc and then moving on. But it’s so well-acted (and under-written) that it actually got to me. Matt sobs in the middle of a line, and it really feels like the entire weight of the season up to that point just came crashing down on top of him.

As always, it’s another case of understanding exactly how and why a scene works, instead of simply including it because it’s supposed to be there. I’m tempted to say this should be the template for every live-action adaptation of a comic book, but I honestly don’t know how much of it is reproducible. I am excited to see how it plays out in the second season and all the spin-off series. At this point, I’d even watch a show about Cable.