Black Adam, or, Welcome To The Rock

Black Adam seems like what you would get if you made a movie out of The Rock

On The Weekly Planet’s episode about Black Adam (spoiler: Mason thought it was fun, James thought it was thoroughly mediocre), they raised a question that I’ve wondered about a few times over the years: where is Dwayne Johnson’s Terminator, or Die Hard, or Rocky/Creed, or even The Chronicles of Riddick?

He’s a hugely profitable action movie star with seemingly limitless charisma, and even when he’s in an unambitious or outright bad movie, he’s usually the best thing in it. But unlike other action movie stars, he hasn’t been in a breakout hit that rises above the standard action movie template. Is he just too big a star now to be cast in movies that aren’t 100% driven by movie studio stakeholders? Or are the movies he’s in exactly the kinds of movies he wants to be making?

After seeing — and being pleasantly surprised by — Black Adam, I’m inclined it’s the latter. As with most movies starring The Rock, even without the disappointing track record of the DCEU involved, I went in with the lowest of expectations. But it turned out to be pretty solid and a lot of fun, always precisely aware of what it is and what it wants to do, but shifting or recasting the formula just enough to stay engaging.

To me, it seemed like what you’d get if you made a movie out of The Rock. Not just a movie starring The Rock, but if you somehow got the essence of his entire public persona, and transmuted it into a blockbuster superhero feature film.

It’s pretty well known that this has been a pet project of Johnson’s for over a decade. He was a fan of the character, he was cast way way back in the early days of the DC movies, and the project has been waiting for the timing to be right (by which I’m assuming: for the Shazam movie to come out, and for Zack Snyder’s dominance over the DCEU to fade) to finally get made. Even if you weren’t aware of that, though, the entire project feels like something that either he was closely involved in, or was specifically crafted around him.

It checks off all the items that I would imagine are required for a movie starring The Rock:

  • He gets to play the antihero with a heart of gold: a big guy with a gruff exterior and a tortured past who could destroy you without a second thought, but will somehow always come through and do the right thing.
  • He’s got a no-nonsense, tough guy rival (Aldis Hodge as Hawkman) who’s almost — but not quite — enough to take him on one-on-one, and their initial fights will eventually grow into a mutual respect.
  • It’s adjacent to the Shazam family, meaning it stays friendly to the audience of teenage boys who loved watching the WWE. Much of the story centers around a teenager who rides a skateboard and loves his mom and does sick kick flips.
  • The Rock gets to be a champion of the underdogs and the oppressed, even if he’s an unwilling one.
  • The Rock is ultimately more powerful than any foe; his greatest enemy is his own self-doubt.
  • There is an ever-present sense of humor — not just hipster deconstructionism or tiresome lampshading, but more like the tone of people who understand kayfabe down to the atomic level.

That last one is the bit that stood out to me. Having characters making wisecracks in dire situations is just table stakes for superhero movies these days, so that’s not enough to make something stand out. But the overall tone here is subtly different. In The Avengers, for instance, everyone is trying to out-wry each other, so the end result feels like an attempt to elevate the inherent corniness of comic books while still keeping it grounded. In Taika Waititi’s Thor movies, there’s an acknowledgement that all of it is completely absurd, so why not lean completely into the absurdity. And Ant-Man and Doctor Strange feel like action comedies: the comedy and the action coexist without really feeding off of each other.

But The Rock — and Black Adam by extension — has this unique ability to so thoroughly embrace and inhabit the corniness that he uses every single drop of it and comes out the other side unscathed. There’s not even the barest hint of self-mockery, because there’s no sense that he needs anyone to know that he’s above the material or aware of how silly it is. He’s The Rock; he doesn’t need to care what anyone thinks.

Case in point: my fiancé and I were swayed by Universal Studios’s seemingly constant advertisements for the Fast and Furious addition to the Studios’ movie tram tour in Hollywood. The “main event” turned out to be a rather forgettable sequence at the end of the tour, in which the characters — I mean, family — drag the tram on a dangerous, high-speed tour through Los Angeles. But the tour up to that point had an overlay to foreshadow that final sequence, which had characters from the movies appearing in scenes throughout on the different sets1All pre-recorded and shown on the tram’s overhead monitors. Johnson’s character was at Universal Studios trying to track down the iconic car of Vin Diesel’s character, trying to bring him to justice once and for all2At least, I think that was the premise? I confess I don’t like the Fast and Furious movies at all, and I’ve never been able to get into them..

Several of the franchise’s actors were on hand to play their characters, but none of them really felt like they were putting in more effort than the barest minimum required for a theme park overlay. Ludacris came the closest, but there was still an odd sense that he wasn’t 100% aware of what the attraction was going to be or how the footage was going to be used. The Rock, on the other hand, nailed it. He swaggered into every scene, called people “stinkpickle” with a famously raised eyebrow, pointed directly at the camera, and generally seemed to be having a blast. And more importantly: understanding completely the tone not just of the Fast and Furious franchise, but of the Universal Studios backlot tour, which has its own peculiar flavor of thoroughly-embraced corniness.

I’m also reminded of the Jungle Cruise movie, which I thought remained in the realm of “thoroughly adequate.” So much of the movie relied on Dwayne Johnson’s charisma (and Emily Blunt’s, obviously), but it never felt quite like it understood how his charisma works. It checked off the boxes of “gruff antihero with a heart of gold and a mysterious past with a twist leading into act 3,” just like Black Adam, but it kept putting him in scenes that felt as if they were written by someone else with a vague idea of “action movie star” in mind.

I don’t think it’s any insult at all to Johnson’s acting ability to point out that he’s not at his best when he’s trying to inhabit a character.3At least, in a leading role. I’ve never seen Be Cool, but the clips I’ve seen suggest that when he’s given a side character and the chance to be goofy, he nails it. I feel more like his entire public persona is a character. The projects that best use his talents are the ones that let him meld an existing character completely with his own, like in the teleportation device from The Fly. The Rock is a character that he’s been working on and perfecting for decades; why would you throw all that work away and instead ask him to play a diminished version?

So I got the feeling that Black Adam was exactly the movie that Dwayne Johnson wanted to make. It’s unpretentious, sentimental, corny, often nonsensical or repetitive, occasionally predictable, and above all fun and appealing more often than not. Somehow, it comes across as both shrewdly and carefully constructed, but also heartfelt. It frequently winks at the camera, but it never feels like it’s ashamed of its corniness, or that it has to make excuses for it. In other words, it feels like The Rock.

  • 1
    All pre-recorded and shown on the tram’s overhead monitors
  • 2
    At least, I think that was the premise? I confess I don’t like the Fast and Furious movies at all, and I’ve never been able to get into them.
  • 3
    At least, in a leading role. I’ve never seen Be Cool, but the clips I’ve seen suggest that when he’s given a side character and the chance to be goofy, he nails it.

Four Things I Like About Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan’s horror series for Netflix are so thoughtful and ambitious that even the ones that don’t work for me are still fascinating. Spoilers for the entire series.

I seem to have a trend going where I’m always a year behind on the Mike Flanagan-led horror series for Netflix. I’ve kept it up for the third year in a row, using a miserable weekend being sick as an excuse to watch Midnight Mass, long after the buzz has already died down around it.

None of the series has worked for me as well as The Haunting of Hill House did, but I’d still consider myself a fan. They’re all so thoughtful and ambitious, clearly trying to do something new with the horror genre by giving them some weight and thematic significance, without losing the fun of monsters, ghosts, and jump scares. I love that they’re not quite an anthology series, but have that feel because of the same actors appearing over and over in significantly different roles.

And you can see why actors keep wanting to work with this team again, too. I don’t know anything about the actual production — although Flanagan and Kate Seigel do seem like genuinely cool people with a real love of horror stories and what can be done with them — but it’s evident that these series give actors plenty work with. Similar to Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story and spin-off projects, which give actors the chance to go completely over the top, Flanagan’s series give their actors weighty monologues where they can rhapsodize about the nature of what it means to be alive.

So Midnight Mass is smart, thoughtful, frequently moving, full of some really strong performances, indelible imagery, perfectly understated visual effects, and a few genuinely scary moments. It’s also meandering and overlong; I think calling it “a slow burn” is a little too charitable, and it would’ve benefited from having two or three fewer episodes. It’s full of monologues that undermine any sense of urgency in the story; a character will drop a bombshell of information that needs to be acted on immediately, only for the other character to start going on a lengthy tangent about germ theory or 9/11 or a story from their childhood. (“Sir, this is a Wendy’s.”) It peaks about mid-way through, then kind of fizzles out through its ending. It’s all very well done, and it takes a while to realize what a big swing it’s making with its ambition, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

It’s too dense to pick just one thing I like about it, so here are four:

Continue reading “Four Things I Like About Midnight Mass”

Literacy 2022: Book 12: Raising Steam

The last “grown-up” Discworld novel affectionately leaves its characters with comfortable lives in a world that’s changing for the better

Book
Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Series
Book 40 in the Discworld series

Synopsis
The invention of the steam engine brings irreversible change to the Discworld, and also proves to be the one thing that might stop a faction of technology-hating dwarfs from being able to stop progress.

Pros

  • All the spirit of a Discworld novel, with its no-nonsense celebration of common sense, hard work, and integrity, and rejection of arrogance and selfishness
  • Cleverly uses the train as both a metaphor for progress and the physical embodiment of progress and the magic of invention
  • Checks in on many of the beloved characters from throughout the books, reassuring us of their happy endings
  • Combines ideas of technological progress with social progress, giving us an ultimately optimistic vision of what we can accomplish when we work together

Cons

  • The pacing seemed a little off; there are long stretches where not much seems to be happening, and then moments of key action that seemed a bit rushed

Verdict
There’s no such thing as a bad Discworld book, since you always want more time with these characters and Pratchett’s no-nonsense worldview. I haven’t yet read any of the Tiffany Aching books, and there are a few more in the series that I haven’t gotten to yet, so I’m not “done” with Discworld. Still, this felt like a satisfying conclusion, with an optimistic vision of a potential future for the world that we’ve spent decades growing to love.

One Thing I Love About the She-Hulk Finale

She-Hulk literally delivers its mission statement directly to the camera, but still manages to leave all of its implications for the audience to figure out. Lots of spoilers for the series.

Here’s an example of how blatantly obvious you have to be about something before everyone will get it: the entire time Jennifer Walters spent addressing the mysterious KEVIN in the finale episode, I kept thinking that it was a missed opportunity that they didn’t put a baseball hat on top of him. In fact, KEVIN was clearly, blatantly, designed to look like he was wearing a baseball hat, and this is shown on-screen for long stretches of time, but I completely missed it.1I read a segment from an interview with Kevin Feige in which he said his only push-back to that entire sequence presenting him as an all-controlling AI content generator was that the concept art put a baseball hat on top of the robot, and he pushed for the less silly but still overwhelmingly obvious version used in the show. Which just cements my respect for him and makes me even more convinced he deserves his success. I love the idea of someone becoming obscenely wealthy and powerful just by getting it.

I mention that as a disclaimer that all of the things I think are subtle about She-Hulk are probably not subtle at all. But really, that’s the thing that’s impressed me the most about the series as a whole: it hasn’t ever been subtle about telling the audience exactly what it’s about, but all of the gags and guest appearances and stunt casting and lamp-shading in-jokes haven’t been just a layer of frivolous comedy, skipping along the top to keep it from being too strident or too serious. Instead, they’ve been like a stage magician throwing out one misdirection after another, leaving it until the big finish to show that they’ve been one step ahead the entire time.

The final episode spins last week’s downer of an ending into an over-the-top barrage of self-aware parodies and silly gags. I think it would’ve been completely successful even if it had just stayed on that level, defiantly asserting itself as a light-hearted comedy series proudly existing in the middle of a superhero action-movie juggernaut. When you’re part of a franchise that makes literally billions of dollars, mostly by iterating on a template that’s known to be successful, it’s bold to be able to say, “Nah, we just want to be goofy.”

I admit that while I’ve been enjoying the series a lot — even the episodes that seemed the most frivolous and least “necessary” — it’s been bugging me how often Jennifer Walters seemed to be getting sidelined in her own series. They even had her acknowledge that early on in a fourth-wall break about the audience wanting to see more of Wong, but at the time I just assumed that was a semi-apologetic bit of self-awareness. “We’re going to keep doing this, but we want you to at least know that we’re aware that it’s at the expense of the main character’s story.” The introduction of Titania as an archenemy seemed to be a huge anti-climax and a waste of a hugely charismatic actress. Side characters like Madisynn came in and seemed to steal all the attention away from the lead character. It felt like the series was swimming against the current of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, still managing to be silly and fun, but with all of its franchise obligations keeping it from being as solid as it could’ve been.

The finale says not just that they’re aware of it, but that it was the point all along. Jen’s dream of a gender-swapped version of The Incredible Hulk‘s credit sequence works fine as just a gag parody, and it also works within the fiction: the injustice of her being perceived as a savage monster just for responding in anger to criminal levels of abuse. But it also fits into the theme of the episode and the series as a whole, repeating the question that Jen has been asking outright all along: why can’t she have an identity of her own outside of just being a lady version of a male character?2I learned from Nerdist’s recap videos that there’s an additional layer there: the whole reason the character exists was in response to The Incredible Hulk TV series, and Marvel’s fear that the producers would try to create a female-led spin-off of their own, as they had with The Bionic Woman.

By the end of the show, she’s not just re-writing her finale, but re-defining her whole character. She says outright that the finale was taking things in a weird direction, when it should’ve been about her being able to finally reconcile both of her identities. And that idea is plenty strong enough for a “legal comedy” (if that’s what you prefer to call it). But the finale also draws attention to how it’s spent the last nine episodes reconciling a character that’s been almost entirely defined by men, to one that can actually exist as a voice for women. Even the well-intentioned attempts to redefine or re-invent She-Hulk over the years have still resulted in her being an almost cartoonishly literal representation of “female empowerment.” This series says that instead of giving yet another version of the character that’s defined by how she reacts to sexism and anti-feminism, and how she reacts to the standard superhero cliches, why not just let her define herself?

The finale emphasizes that the audience has been focused on the wrong things all along. Instead of thinking of it as a superhero origin story that uses stolen blood and fight scenes as metaphors for a personal struggle, we should’ve recognized that all the “A plots” were just MCU connective tissue, vehicles for the real story about a woman who stops letting herself be defined by other people. It still works well as a story about a woman figuring out what it means to be a superhero, but I think it’s more interesting as a story about a woman figuring out what it means to be herself.

You can go back through the episodes and see how the stuff that might’ve seemed like meandering side-plots, or throwaway gags, or plot-lines that ended up fizzling out into disappointing anti-climaxes, were never the point in the first place. The first episode is about how women are taught that their anger and power are something they need to be ashamed of and keep under tight control. The second is about people trying to take advantage of her superhero status and exploit it for their own gain. Throughout, she’s trying to deal with the men who only want her as She-Hulk instead of Jen, before eventually being reminded that the problem is letting men define her self-worth. (I was especially happy that we never saw Josh in the finale; the victory wasn’t seeing him get his comeuppance, but in Jen’s finally realizing that he never actually mattered). Titania is set up to be her super-powered arch-nemesis, but instead ends up being an illustration of how powerful women are so frequently set up just to fight each other. And it might be a stretch, but I like the idea that Madisynn exists as an example of a big sloppy mess of a person who can enjoy herself without caring what anybody else thinks.

For a while it seemed like the series was in a weird position, where they were obligated to include fight scenes, even though the fight scenes didn’t fit thematically and were doomed to be anti-climactic when the main character is invulnerable. So I really liked that they gave Jen an obligatory “hallway fight” in which she’s fighting not against the incel bad guys, but against Marvel’s super secret strike force. The show confidently insists that the fights don’t matter, and the franchise tie-ins don’t matter, and then finds a way to include both, all on its own terms.

Since WandaVision was the first MCU TV series, Marvel’s already shown that they’re perfectly willing to indulge in some meta-storytelling. But I’d been assuming that She-Hulk‘s version was just meant to stay true to the comics and to keep the series feeling light and silly. There’s always a risk when you try to be too self-aware and break the fourth wall, that you’re dooming yourself to shallowness: if you’re coming right out and telling the audience what you’re doing, then you’re not leaving them with anything to interpret for themselves. So I’m really impressed that She-Hulk manages to have it both ways: keeping it fun and self-aware while also filling the series with valid-albeit-shallow “grrl power” messaging; but then also defying the template enough to invite you to go back and re-contextualize what the show’s been saying this whole time. This mediocre white man gives it a big thumbs up.

  • 1
    I read a segment from an interview with Kevin Feige in which he said his only push-back to that entire sequence presenting him as an all-controlling AI content generator was that the concept art put a baseball hat on top of the robot, and he pushed for the less silly but still overwhelmingly obvious version used in the show. Which just cements my respect for him and makes me even more convinced he deserves his success. I love the idea of someone becoming obscenely wealthy and powerful just by getting it.
  • 2
    I learned from Nerdist’s recap videos that there’s an additional layer there: the whole reason the character exists was in response to The Incredible Hulk TV series, and Marvel’s fear that the producers would try to create a female-led spin-off of their own, as they had with The Bionic Woman.

One Thing I Like About Werewolf By Night

Werewolf By Night wasn’t quite as bold as I’d been hoping for, but it pushed the limits of what you can do within the MCU

When I saw the trailer for Werewolf by Night, I thought that Marvel had finally abandoned the notion of making multi-billion dollar global entertainment product, and had become a boutique art house making stuff personally tailored just for me. It felt as personalized as a custom-recorded birthday card.

Since I consider myself one of the internet’s leading evangelists for The Beast Must Die!, I was getting hit with every single one of the right vibes. My only trepidation was that the trailer seemed to be pushing it directly into Universal Monsters territory, instead of making it a 1970s period piece.1Which would’ve been doubly appropriate considering that the Werewolf by Night comics are about as 1970s as you can get without a guest appearance by the Brady Kids. I was holding out hope, though, since the CBS Special Presentation-inspired opening, along with the narration, freeze frames, quick cuts, and fake film effects, all suggested that the movie might be kind of a mashup between 1930s-40s Universal and 1970s Castle Horror.

As it turned out, I was thinking too small. Werewolf by Night was stylistically better than either of those options, since it went for a mash-up of a bunch of different styles, instead of just a pastiche of a single one. There are stun batons, gramophones, and magic amulets, gothic architecture coexisting with art deco and brutalism. It ends up feeling timeless, as if it’s able to draw from a century of genre fiction instead of trying to emulate just one specific period.

It’s become popular to criticize the MCU for its feeling of same-ness — a criticism it often deserves, as genuinely novel concepts so frequently devolve into people flying around punching or shooting lasers at each other. So the current phase of the movies and series have impressed me by how much they’re willing to draw from Marvel’s scattershot library. Is it just super-heroes, or is it a horror story, or sci-fi, or fantasy, or legal sit-coms? The answer is yes.

Werewolf by Night often feels like it’s pushing at the boundaries of the MCU, trying to see how much it can get away with while still fitting into the universe. Unlike a lot of the other MCU entries, it’s most interesting not when it’s showing us a new interpretation of the familiar, but when it’s adding a flourish that’s completely new.2Or at least, new to me. I’m even more unfamiliar with the horror/monster side of the Marvel comics than with anything else. I didn’t even recognize Ted, for instance, until it was pointed out afterwards. The main character Jack transformed completely from a WASP-y, long-sideburned teen into a Mexican man with face paint to honor his heritage. A wind-up, talking corpse. A somber man playing a flaming tuba, for some reason.

So I was a bit disappointed to see it just turn into a bunch of fight scenes, and to see that after all the build-up to the appearance of the title character as being the most fearsome monster of them all, he ended up being only like the fourth most brutal and scary character in this movie alone. But that build-up had so much pure style that I’ll gladly give it a pass.

One thing I like in particular about Werewolf by Night is how brazen it was about simulating old-school filmmaking techniques with all of the tools that a MCU-budgeted film in 2022 has available. It does lay on the affectations so thick that it sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard — film grain, rough cuts, reel change markers, overall the kind of stuff you might expect to see in an After Effects tutorial. But I think it all balances out to a feeling of near-campy enthusiasm. Harriet Sansom Harris, who’s never been less than awesome in anything I’ve ever seen, goes gleefully over the top throughout, so it sometimes seems like the direction is just trying to keep up to her energy.

And it results in a couple of really neat flourishes. The red of the bloodstone every time it’s shown, with the added bonuses of colored lens flares in a black and white movie. But my favorite is in a sequence where the werewolf is ravaging some generic bad guys in a hallway. The action is all in silhouette against a blinding white doorway that’s slowly closing, with the only other light being the occasional flashes of stun batons. It doesn’t show any of the monster or the violence close-up — seemingly a stylistic choice to preserve the mystery instead of a technical limitation, since they don’t hesitate to show Ted in extreme detail. As the carnage goes on, blood is splashed against the camera lens, obscuring more and more of the view. By the time it’s over, you can only imagine what happened.

Was it a visual effect, or a practical one? I don’t actually know, and that’s what I like about it. I’m so used to CGI being omnipresent in these projects that I tend to assume everything is done in post-production, and I’ve gotten harder and harder to impress. However it was done, it was done with so much style and thought to its purpose instead of simply its spectacle, that I stopped caring about how it was done. Instead of zoning out during the fight scenes, like I typically do, I appreciated the point of the scene: to suggest a new monster that was so fearsome, they weren’t even allowed to show it to us.

  • 1
    Which would’ve been doubly appropriate considering that the Werewolf by Night comics are about as 1970s as you can get without a guest appearance by the Brady Kids.
  • 2
    Or at least, new to me. I’m even more unfamiliar with the horror/monster side of the Marvel comics than with anything else. I didn’t even recognize Ted, for instance, until it was pointed out afterwards.

I, Too, Am An Adult With Very Strong Opinions About Mario Mario

Lazy dunking on casting Chris Pratt has revealed something I never fully appreciated about the franchise

For a minute, I was confused by how people were having such a strong aversion to the Super Mario Bros trailer, considering that Chris Pratt only has a total of two lines and some assorted grunts. Then I remembered the thing that I always forget about Twitter, which is that it’s all about being first, not about being insightful. People have been gearing up to scoff and/or be outraged ever since the first (admittedly weird) casting announcement, and it’s way too late at this point for anyone to say, “we will remain cautiously optimistic until we see more footage from this family-oriented animated feature film” I often forget how the internet works, and for that I apologize.

But as I was getting more baffled and annoyed at people getting so worked up over nothing, I started to realize something that I never fully appreciated about the Mario series: Miyamoto and Nintendo DGAF. Or rather, they care deeply about the right things, but don’t particularly care about the things people on the internet expect them to care about.

Because pretty much all of the Mario games show such a great amount of care and attention to the smallest details — all of the main-line ones, definitely, and most of the side games, even including many of the licensed ones — it’s easy for me to take for granted that they’re obsessive over the same stuff that I’d be obsessive over, if I were in charge of a hugely profitable, long-running, global franchise: world-building, character development, continuity, and so on.

What’s weird is that I’ve kept thinking of them in those terms, even though there’s absolutely zero evidence in any of the games or licensed material. Each of the games1Except for the direct sequels, like Mario Galaxy to Mario Galaxy 2 takes place in a different universe. Many of the characters and settings are recurring, but new ones are constantly being introduced and old ones re-imagined. Everything is based on the central mechanic of the game — he’s got a magic hat! he’s got a spray gun! he can turn into a cat! he’s in 3D! — and, like 1984, is treated as if it’s always been that way, of course: “King Koopa has always been at war with the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario has always been able to jump through star gates between tiny planets.” Mario has been doing multiverses since before it was cool.

Granted, it’s not the most insightful epiphany I’ve ever had, but it gives me even more appreciation of the brilliance of the franchise than I had before. If Miyamoto and Nintendo were as precious with Mario and the associated characters as some people expect them to be, obsessed with lore and continuity, it would’ve quickly become a soulless, repetitive, and predictable run of decreasingly inspired sequels. Instead, they’ve generally shrugged about the sanctity of the characters2As long as they’re generally family-friendly, and true to a basic set of personality sketches even less detailed than the Disney characters’. and only insisted that the games themselves be imaginative and polished.

Instead of being overly fixated on a style bible, they’ve allowed the characters to be re-interpreted in dozens of different (and highly marketable!) ways. Why shouldn’t they play tennis together, or golf, or race go-karts? Why can’t they have plumbing side-jobs as doctors or ghost-hunters or typing instructors? Instead of being overly possessive of their “classic” assets, they made two whole games just giving you all the pieces and inviting you to remix your own games. Instead of being risk-averse with casting, they agreed for their flagship character to be played by a professional wrestler, and a British guy.

I initially thought it was weird to cast Chris Pratt as Mario, but in retrospect that was a dumb reaction. Why not cast a personable movie and TV star with experience doing comedy in both live action and animation as the lead in your animated family action comedy? Mario actor Charles Martinet (who is also prominently credited in the trailer) is extremely good at suggesting a ton of character with just the occasional “it’s-a me!” and “okey dokey!” but that specific voice would be hell of grating over an entire feature film. And having Mario stare blankly and silently while the surrounding characters are all energetic and interesting would just rob Mario of any personality; he’d end up Gordon Freeman-ed.

So to sum up: I think the new movie looks pretty neat and fun, and I’m more interested in it than I was before. I think Nintendo’s handling of the Mario characters is even more clever than I did before. And a lot of people on Twitter seriously need to chill out, go outside, and touch some mushrooms.

  • 1
    Except for the direct sequels, like Mario Galaxy to Mario Galaxy 2
  • 2
    As long as they’re generally family-friendly, and true to a basic set of personality sketches even less detailed than the Disney characters’.

Haven’t Got Time for Immortality

Immortality is both a masterwork and a frustrating example of the limitations of interactive storytelling. Spoilers within.

Immortality is a fascinating and frustrating interactive movie that asks the audience to solve the mystery of what happened to a promising young actress by watching and scrubbing through clips from her three unreleased films. I can’t remember ever having this kind of reaction to interactive entertainment, where I can recognize that it is both a fantastic achievement of ambition and execution, and also a disappointment.

I’ve been careful to say “interactive movie” and “audience” instead of “video game” and “player,” because Immortality is not a game. I don’t consider calling something “not a game” as a pejorative, and it’s absurd that people get so hung up about it, but this is kind of a weird case. The main thing that keeps it from being a video game is my biggest issue with it: you navigate the experience with insufficient information, so you’re essentially wandering through a collection of very well-made video clips, instead of making meaningful choices.

But this is a perfect example of how I’m of two minds about Immortality, because the thing that made it ultimately not work for me is the same thing that made it an amazing experience for the first several hours. It’s structured so that it’s front-loaded with discovery, as you’re uncovering more and more stuff and marveling at how deep and layered the whole experience is. It’s honestly unlike anything I’ve experienced in games or interactive entertainment before, and to come up with any kind of comparison I’d have to go way way back to the early days of the internet, when following a hypertext link could result in diving down a rabbit hole that seemed to have no end.

I read a review that promised no spoilers, but then talked about something crucial to the game that I really wish I’d discovered myself. So I recommend going in cold, with just one piece of advice: play it with a game controller if at all possible. I spent the first evening using just a mouse and keyboard, and while it was still fascinating, it turned out that I was missing a crucial part of the experience, and I was just going around in circles. The rest of this post is going to necessarily give too much away, so I recommend giving it a try even if just for those spectacular first few hours. It’s absurdly affordable considering how much work obviously went into the production, and it’s also currently included with Xbox Game Pass, if you want to take a risk-free dive into it.

Spoilers follow

A Few More Things I Like About Barbarian

Still thinking about a horror movie that probably wasn’t intended to be quite as thoughtful as I made it sound. Minor spoilers.

Very cool alternate official movie poster for Barbarian from Bloody Disgusting

When I wrote about the movie Barbarian, I may have been so eager to avoid spoilers and to compare it to my expectations that I misrepresented what the movie’s actually like. I’m still going to avoid spoiling anything specific in the movie, but I will be talking more about its tone and what to expect, so if you’re planning to see it, I really recommend avoiding this and going in cold.

I made it sound like the movie’s not very scary (it is, and there are at least two scenes of extremely graphic violence), and that it’s not particularly funny (it is, and there’s a pretty long1No pun intended sequence that’s straight-up hilarious).

The comedy’s easier to explain, since it was just a case of my hearing the buzz around the movie and expecting it to work like Malignant or Orphan: First Kill: where it goes over-the-top with its horror elements to the point of highlighting how absurd it all is. Instead of that, Barbarian‘s funniest moments are all character-based. They present a character with all the familiar components of a horror movie setup, and then show them behaving exactly like those characters would.

It’s really clever, for a couple of reasons: first is that it doesn’t just rely on absurdity that evaporates as soon as the novelty wears off. There’s a satirical edge to all of it. The theme of selfishness vs self-interest, and the things that we owe to each other as people, comes through loud and clear even though the movie isn’t banging us over the head with its message. (I don’t know that I’d call it subtle, but it does expertly avoid having any of the characters explicitly summing up the idea in dialogue).

The other reason it’s so clever is because the comedy is built almost entirely on the last hour or so of the movie being scary and suspenseful as hell. Taking advantage of expectations, showing someone opening one increasingly scary door after the next all while the audience is screaming at them not to — that’s such a well-known element of horror movies that even the parodies and meta-commentary deconstruction of it is decades old at this point. Barbarian is so good at playing on this suspense that it doesn’t just have it both ways, it has it three ways: it’s genuinely scary, it builds to an extended comedic payoff, and then it uses it to make a point.

“Don’t go into the scary basement!” seems universal enough: it’s pretty good advice for anybody to follow, even if you’re not aware you’re in a horror movie. But Barbarian quietly emphasizes the idea that it’s not actually that universal. Some people have to be constantly on the lookout for potential horrors everywhere, while others can be fearless because they’ve lived their whole lives without facing any consequences for their actions.

The comedic payoff only works as well as it does because the movie is so good at building suspense, which goes back to my reaction that it “wasn’t very scary.” That sounds like a knock on the movie, but it’s actually an acknowledgement of how adept it is at pumping the suspense for all it’s worth, while sparing the horror to be doled out at just the right time and in just the right amount. The more I think back on Barbarian, the more I appreciate how good it is at showing only what it needs to show, leaving the rest to the audience’s imagination.

The movie’s trailer was so good at implying a third act which would be over-the-top horror and ultra-violence. Which, of course, was the entire point: the dread of what you might see is so much more powerful than the movie showing it to you in lurid, extended detail.2So much of that horror is so effectively suggested by a bloody handprint on a wall, and a set of VHS tapes with short, suggestive labels. I think I’ve been steeling myself for haunted-house season, which is the opposite, relying on cheap thrills and leaving absolutely none of the horror implicit. Barbarian, on the other hand, is remarkable for its restraint.

Thinking about the ways Barbarian builds suspense and delivers horror, I was reminded again of my whole argument about the way The Walking Dead series of games worked. I keep insisting that the branching narrative is the least interesting aspect of those games, even though that’s where all the focus was. The game’s own marketing promised “the game tailors itself to the choices you make,” and several players complained that the choices were often “meaningless,” since the same thing happened no matter what choice you made. But that puts all the focus on the outcome instead of the choice itself. I think that the thing the series did so remarkably well was set up situations in which the horror was in having to make the choice, when there are no good outcomes.

I was reminded of all that while reading a review of Barbarian, which suggested that there were several moments that didn’t make real-world sense, but were dictated by the plot and premise of a horror movie to happen. I disagree. I think that it’s full of moments that make it stronger than the over-the-top wacky horror movie than I’d expected. We get to see one character doing the “right” things that a person in a horror movie should be doing, and it’s clear that they’re awful and motivated purely by self-interest. And we see another character repeatedly choosing to do the “wrong” thing for a person in a horror movie, but she does it because it’s the right thing to do.

One other unrelated thing I really like about Barbarian: the music. There’s a fantastic bit at the very beginning that suggests the horrors of being outside in the neighborhood, versus the safety of the car. And throughout the rest, there are several sequences that vividly reminded me of the fantastic soundtrack to Suspiria — familiar enough to evoke a memory of it, without being a direct reference.

So ultimately, I think I did Barbarian a disservice by emphasizing the satire and suspense, making it sound like some bland, high-minded thought experiment. It is pretty scary and often very funny. I was just surprised by its having something to say on top of the horror.

  • 1
    No pun intended
  • 2
    So much of that horror is so effectively suggested by a bloody handprint on a wall, and a set of VHS tapes with short, suggestive labels.

One Thing I Like About Barbarian

Barbarian doesn’t just mock “Don’t open that door!” moments in horror movies, but explains why you would open that door. (No significant spoilers)

The whole point of my choosing “One Thing I Like” was to keep myself focused instead of spending hours rambling about something I enjoyed, and also to avoid reducing an entire work of art to the one thing that I think it “means.” But it’s backfired, somewhat, since now I tend to go into every movie or video game looking for the one thing I’ll choose to call out.

With Barbarian, I even went in with an idea of what it was going to be. I’m almost completely unfamiliar with Whitest Kids You Know, but I did know enough that the writer and director of Barbarian had experience with comedy. I went into that looking for signs of how horror and comedy so often overlap, and how many of my favorite (or at least most memorable) horror movies were made by filmmakers who also had a good feel for comedy. There’s a lot of overlap: both require you to be completely aware of the audience’s expectations and how to subvert them.

There is a lot of that going on in Barbarian, but I don’t think the comedy angle is the most interesting part of it, at all. I don’t think it’s spoiling much to say that I didn’t find it that funny — not in the same way that Malignant and Orphan: First Kill are darkly funny, for instance — but more satirical. That does keep it from being the type of fun, over-the-top horror movie that I’d expected based on what I’d been hearing, but it does make it a stronger movie overall. There’s a bit of weight to it.

What turned out to be the One Thing I Like about Barbarian is how it’s aware of all the expectations and assumptions of horror movies, and it subverts them not just to be clever or surprising, but to make a point.

Barbarian has a long list of horror movie elements that it sets up and then either inverts or expands on. I won’t say more than that, because even comparing them to “classic” horror movies would give too much away. But they’re so familiar at this point, an entire additional list of elements has evolved to counter-act them: the assumption that you can’t give the protagonist a cell phone or a car, for instance, without ruining the whole premise. Barbarian runs through almost all of them, to the point of often feeling like an exercise in setting up expectations and then knocking them down.

So there are several classic horror movie moments, where the audience is screaming at the protagonist “don’t open that door!” or “don’t go into the basement!” only for the protagonist to go ahead and do it anyway. What makes Barbarian so interesting is that it doesn’t just draw attention to them, like Scream, or come up with a self-aware justification, like Cabin in the Woods.

Instead, it introduces a character who does all the right things for a horror movie protagonist, but it still goes horribly wrong. And it gives us a protagonist who does open that door, and does go into the basement, not just because the plot demands it, but because it’s the right thing to do.

I Don’t Know How I Feel About Dreamlight Valley

Disney’s new “kind of free-to-play but also not really” game is confusing the heck out of me and I can’t stop playing it

Disney Dreamlight Valley is like if you took Kingdom Hearts, removed all the traces of a Japanese RPG, and replaced them with The Sims and Animal Crossing. Or, if you want an unfairly uncharitable interpretation: if you made an IP-synergy game mashing up most of Disney’s characters, applied free-to-play mechanics, and then sold it as a retail product.

To be clear, it’s not actually a free-to-play game, and its mechanics don’t feel anywhere near that exploitative. It’s more like the Sims 4 model, where there’s an endless supply of purchasable content, except you can get much of it just by playing the game normally. Even though “normally” does often feel like doing fetch quests or variants on “collect these 3 things” or “cook these 3 things,” or waiting for timers to expire.

It’s odd, is my point, which might be entirely because I’ve largely been out of the whole “casual games” environment for the past several years. Maybe this is just how these types of games work now, and I’m unfairly equating the mechanics with the types of free-to-play games that I absolutely hate?

Whatever the case, the end result is that I’m absolutely hooked on it, even as I’m constantly wondering whether it’s “okay” for me to be hooked on it. I keep wondering whether I can just enjoy it in perpetuity until I get tired of it, like Animal Crossing, or whether the other shoe is going to drop at any moment, and I’ll find the seedy underside of the business model. I suspect that I’m either just paranoid, or too set in my ways, where you paid your 50-60 bucks and got the entire game until the sequel came along a few years later. I get nervous when I see any sign of the business model in the game design itself.

Which isn’t entirely fair, because Dreamlight Valley is charming as hell. I’ve played this kind of “let’s throw all of our IP together in one place” type game a few times before, from cheaper mobile games to more ambitious stuff like Kingdom Hearts and Disney Infinity, and the art direction and production value of Dreamlight Valley is some of the best yet. It feels aimed at a mid-range, widely accessible game engine, instead of being thrown together on the cheap. The characters and locations I’ve seen so far all stay close to their on-screen versions — without radical redesigns to give everything a common art direction — and I think it all works pretty well.

I’m also very happy that they’ve continued the trend of the Disney Animation Studios 3D character designs for humans that started around Tangled or Frozen, which allow for customization and skew towards cartoons, but are all inherently appealing. I can only dream of hitting the level of Daddiness that my in-game avatar pulls off effortlessly, even if I do still wish that the game had representation for people like me, i.e. those whose hair and beard are completely different colors.

It looks like they’re ready for a full suite of dozens of different characters, so they’re not all exhaustively animated, but each has a set of standard animations that’s still full of character. Merlin does his happy dance, Maui slaps his chest, Remy acts enraptured by what he’s smelling, and so on.

Also, for all my uneasiness at the systems and “compulsion loops” seemingly laid bare, the systems do all fit together in clever and frequently satisfying ways. I’m too much of a Gen Xer to ever be completely comfortable when Disney starts laying it on thick with the power Dreams and Magic and Imagination, but I still am extremely pleased to be playing a game where you level up by doing nice things for your friends. It’s just a really nice, comforting suspension of disbelief to be able to ignore the fact that you’re looking at a semi-randomly-generated list of craftable items, and instead tell yourself, “I’m going to take the time to make Mickey Mouse a vegetable casserole, because I know it’s his favorite.”

I’m playing the game on PC with Xbox Game Pass, which might be part of why I can’t quite get comfortable with it. I still don’t fully understand the business model of subscription services. At least with free-to-play games, I had a vague understanding that they were exploiting “whales” who contributed more money than the average player. I hate it, but at least I understand it. Playing a game like Dreamlight Valley — with its roped-off hallways suggesting near-infinite expansion packs and downloadable content in the future — might feel more relaxing if I’d paid for it up front.

At least for now, though, I’ll keep doing favors for Scrooge McDuck (more or less the Dreamlight Valley version of Tom Nook) and trying on different outfits and cooking meals for Mickey Mouse to take on picnics and do my best to ignore the feeling that the rug is going to get pulled out from under me.