Literacy 2022: Book 14: A Line to Kill

Anthony Horowitz’s third book casting himself as Dr. Watson to a brilliant but abrasive fictional detective

Book
A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz

Series
Book 3 in the “Hawthorne and Horowitz Investigate” series

Synopsis
To promote the first book in the series, The Word is Murder, the author and former detective Hawthorne are invited to a literary festival on a small English island. As tends to happen, they’re pulled into a murder investigation, in which the other writers and the island’s close-knit community are all prime suspects.

Pros

  • Horowitz has proven himself to be a master craftsman when it comes to old-fashioned murder mysteries, and this one might be the most accessible and satisfying of his that I’ve read so far.
  • The meta-gimmick of this series — in which Horowitz casts himself as Watson to a fictional detective Holmes — isn’t as overpowering and distracting as in the previous books, being used instead to establish the premise and then mostly fade to the background.
  • None of the clues are artificially obscured or dropped onto the reader at the last minute, there’s a satisfying sense that observant readers had everything they needed to solve the mystery.
  • Breaks free of the template of the first book, which had already started to wear thin in the second: there’s no need to artificially introduce an action-packed climax into every detective story.
  • I was able to guess the identity of the murderer, but it was neither too obscured nor too obvious, and I felt like if I’d been reading more slowly and carefully, I would’ve been able to piece together the relevance of all the clues.
  • Very cleverly uses the format, and the idea that Horowitz is thinking in terms of writing a murder mystery as the mystery is playing out, as a way to sum up information and throw in red herrings.

Cons

  • Hawthorne is still an abrasive and unlikable character by design, but I still haven’t reached the point where he’s more fascinating than just plain annoying.
  • Horowitz’s self-deprecating comments are still in full effect here, as he casts himself as the eternally disrespected and under-appreciated second fiddle to a brilliant detective. The charm is wearing a little thin. It invariably comes across either as a humblebrag, or as someone who’s not hapless so much as spineless.
  • I welcomed the fact that the metatextual gimmickry was played down in this book, but it did have the side effect of making it seem more like a traditional murder mystery without the novelty in The Word is Murder.

Verdict
Another satisfying, old-fashioned murder mystery that’s a lot of fun to read. It does feel less experimental and innovative than the first two books in the series, but avoids feeling like a repetitive formula while still using its clever premise to its advantage.

Literacy 2022: Book 13: Spook

Mary Roach applies her accessible and funny style of non-fiction writing to the topic of ghosts, reincarnation, and the afterlife.

Book
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

Synopsis
Roach looks into the history (and present) of varying attempts to prove the existence of the afterlife around the world, including researches attempting to document and verify cases of reincarnation in India, the history of Spiritualism and mediums in the UK and US, and recent research into electromagnetic fields and ultrasound to explain ghost sightings.

Pros

  • Roach’s introduction establishes herself as a skeptic who needs verifiable proof, but still intends to approach the subject with a fair an open mind instead of dismissing people outright.
  • Very funny throughout, Roach is on-point with her asides and tangential observations about the details she finds delightful.
  • Extensively researched but never dry, Roach includes a complete bibliography, acknowledges when the more scientific material made no sense to her, and interviews people directly involved wherever possible.
  • Roach’s template for these books — magazine article-length essays on various topics with segues leading into the next topic — works perfectly here, giving full accounts of her time “in the field” drilling down on a single subject, while still feeling more like a unified work than a collection of loosely-related essays.
  • Extremely accessible and fun to read

Cons

  • The mission statement of the book is in the introduction: find some verifiable, repeatable evidence. As a result, it feels entertaining if not particularly deep. This is not likely to be a book that will change anyone’s perception of life or the afterlife, because it’s not necessarily intended to.

Verdict
Excellent, and it’s solidified me as a fan of Mary Roach. (Even though I might be a bit too sensitive/squeamish for her other topics, like Stiff and Bonk). In my opinion, this is exactly the right way to combine humor with science/nonfiction writing.

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Sasquatch

Fun with old reference photos

I was looking through photos from 2019 and found a bunch of goofy reference photos I’d taken while trying to draw characters for Sasquatchers.

One of the advantages to looking like I do is that I’ve got a live reference at the ready whenever I need to draw Sasquatches or big dumb guys. Bonus photo of me trying to capture the perfect expression of a Florida Skunk Ape.

Lessons from the BearPig

Learning to think of myself as an ever-improving artist instead of a bad artist

Something I realized tonight is that a lot of my perception of my own art abilities is probably due to having my first job in video games be at LucasArts.

I was pretty over-confident when I started there, and I thought of myself as at least a pretty good artist if not an exceptional one. I didn’t have any aspirations of taking a full-time job as an artist or animator, but I figured I wasn’t bad for a programmer, and being around so many talented professionals would be a great opportunity to get better.

The attitude at the company — or at least, the parts of the company that I came in contact with — was a lot more binary than that: you either were an artist, or you weren’t. “Programmer art” was at best disposable, and more often something that was to be sought out and destroyed as early and as thoroughly as possible, lest it somehow infect the game and bring shame down upon the entire company.

To be clear, I don’t think it was at all unreasonable. There’s no sense in having art made by amateurs in a place that was hiring some of the best professional artists in the business. And I get it on a personal level, too. I wouldn’t want somebody coming in and trying to do my job, even if they were good at it. But it did have a permanent side effect: it made me start to think of my own art skills not just as “not professional,” but as “not fit to be seen by humans.”

It’s only recently that I’ve started to break free from the Talent Binary. It doesn’t have to be either professional-quality or worthless. I’ve slowly started to appreciate that the stuff I draw doesn’t necessarily have to be great, that it’s okay if it’s just good enough. Does it convey what it needs to convey, and does it seem “genuine” instead of just an uninspired copy of someone else’s work? That’s probably good enough.

I also started to appreciate that it doesn’t even necessarily need to be good, if I enjoy doing it. It’s only by being in environments that literally treated art as a commodity that I got locked in the mindset of art as being a product. It’s okay to just have fun trying. And I also started to accept that while I might be able to reach a level of skill that I’m completely satisfied with, if I put in the work every day to practice and get better, I don’t actually enjoy it enough to do that. It feels pretty good to let myself off the hook, without thinking that I have to give it up entirely.

There was a piece of programmer art in The Curse of Monkey Island that was a perfect example of the lessons I should have taken from LucasArts instead of the ones that I did.

For quite a long time during development, the title screen of the game was a DeluxePaint creation by my boss, the lead programmer. It was a simple scene with a calming, light blue background. In the center was the text “The Curse of Monkey Island,” in the usual SCUMM dialog font which some nerd out there probably knows the exact name of but I don’t. Below was a curved line depicting a beautiful sandy beach, and on either side were delightfully abstracted palm trees made from an assortment of brown and green polygons. And in the center of the screen was a face: a perfect brown circle, with two light brown semi-circles representing the ears, two black circles for the eyes, and a light brown circle that was the snout. As the title text suggested, it was the Bear Pig of Monkey Island. At the time, and being the arrogant little shits that we were, we made fun of it. Even the artist himself called it “bad programmer art.”

But was it? It did exactly what it needed to do, which is provide a backdrop for game initialization and indicate where the final title sequence would begin. And during development, it set the mood. This wasn’t just some numbered sequel, but a story with a title and everything. The island evoked the crystal clear waters and sandy beaches of the Caribbean, to envelop us in our tropical setting every day while we sat inside a dark windowless office in Northern California.

And the Bear Pig was a reminder of the folly of arrogant men trying to tamper in God’s domain, daring to create blasphemous, hybrid monstrosities that could serve no possible purpose other than to be a lesson in human fallibility. A valuable lesson to all of us not to get too cocky while working in one of our favorite franchises!

So was it “good” art? No. Oh God, no. No no no no no. But was it good enough? Also no. But… did it serve its purpose? Considering that 25 years later, it’s still a fun memory of one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on a team I’m still amazed I was lucky enough to work with, I’d give it a qualified “maybe.”

Unleash the Basilisk

Thoughts about old computers, emulators, and the difference between idealized memory and practical reality

Every couple of years, with relentless regularity since the late 1990s, I become overwhelmed with the need to bring my beloved college computers back to life.

Throughout my freshman year, I had a Mac Plus that was given to me as a graduation present. I loved this computer about as much as it’s possible to love an inanimate object. I still vividly remember the story of when my parents gave it to me, and it’s easily one of my top 10 memories. It was everything I wanted after years of reading Mac User magazine, getting excited at screenshots of simple utilities that looked like pure magic, running GEOS on my Commodore 128 and dreaming of the day I’d finally get “the real thing.” It was the focal point of my friendship with my best friend that year, as we’d spend a lot of time on the Mac running Dark Castle, Beyond Dark Castle, and Uninvited, and it was likely the thing that really made me want to work in video games.

After that year, I “upgraded” to an Amiga 500, which was clearly better in every possible way. So many colors! Such better sound! So many more options for expansion! So much room for activities! I ended up using it for all my school work, and spent a lot of time running Deluxe Paint, but somehow it never captured the same magic as that compact Mac.1It was, however, my introduction to The Secret of Monkey Island, so I’m grateful for that. Every time I get overcome with the desire to bring these computers back to life2Or more likely, find functional ones on Ebay, I’m reminded of that feeling of barely-definable, irrational disappointment.

Continue reading “Unleash the Basilisk”
  • 1
    It was, however, my introduction to The Secret of Monkey Island, so I’m grateful for that.
  • 2
    Or more likely, find functional ones on Ebay

Glass Onion and the Post-Whodunnit Detective Story

Glass Onion is fantastic, a thoroughly contemporary satirical comedy that also feels like a comfortable, old-fashioned murder mystery

I loved Knives Out, so I was excited about its sequel Glass Onion even before the casting announcements seemed to be attracting so many great people that it became a running joke on Twitter. I was worried that it wouldn’t be able to live up to my own hype, or that the things that made Knives Out such a revelation wouldn’t be repeatable. So much of the appeal of the first was that it seemed to come out of nowhere as a near-perfect, nostalgic homage to detective stories.

It turns out that I didn’t need to worry, since Glass Onion is absolutely fantastic. It’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a theater, partly because of the crowd of other nerds desperate to see it in the limited run before Netflix relegated it to home streaming, but also because it’s relentlessly entertaining. Just the structure of it alone, with all of the split screens, set-ups, call backs, and twists on top of twists, makes it feel like every scene is a new discovery.

I can’t be too angry with Netflix, I suppose, since it’s their enthusiasm that’s made this sequel possible — you don’t get this many top-of-their-game actors, in a setting like this, for a comfortably old-fashioned movie, without Netflix money — and guarantees at least a third movie in the series. I left Knives Out immediately wanting to see more Benoit Blanc mysteries, so this is better than what I could’ve hoped for. Considering that they seem to be knocking through Agatha Christie settings, and they’ve already done a creepy old house and an idyllic Mediterranean island, I’m hoping that the next one is on a train.

In addition to Daniel Craig returning as Benoit Blanc — and doing an even more spectacular job of making him an instantly classic, unforgettable character — Glass Onion feels perfectly in the same format as Knives Out, and suggests what is going to be the recurring format of the series: old-fashioned stories in completely (in this case, even presciently) contemporary settings, a cast full of actors doing some of their best work and completely embracing their parts, and a story structure that’s constantly folding in on itself and recontextualizing itself.

Plus, possibly, a recurring theme, which is that “rich people suck.” There’s an even more satirical edge to this one than the last. In fact, while Knives Out felt endlessly clever, Glass Onion is more outright funny. I thought it was interesting that the last three movies I’ve seen by Rian Johnson — who is at this point undeniably wealthy — have been pointedly savage against greed and ostentatious displays of money.

Everyone in the cast is great, but the standouts for me were Dave Bautista (who is so consistently good at this that it’s easy to forget how good he is), Kate Hudson (who seemed to be having an absolute blast), and especially Janelle Monáe. I already thought she1Based on that interview, I’m assuming Monáe still accepts she/her pronouns was a superhero, but she is astoundingly good in Glass Onion. She gives one of those performances that understands not only the character, but the whole tone of the entire movie, down to a fundamental level.

I’ve mentioned before that I started picking one thing I like about a piece of art or entertainment to avoid my natural inclination to go into everything like I was preparing for a book report. Recently, that’s started to backfire, though, since now I go into everything looking for the one detail I’m going to pick out to write about it. In Glass Onion, I’d picked one early on, a clever bit of characterization through dialogue that was perfectly executed. It turned out later on that that turned out to be the clue that helped break the case, so there goes that idea for a blog post, I guess. Back to the book reports.

I still haven’t gotten to the point of this blog post, and I really can’t without giving too much away. There’s not much more that I can say about Glass Onion without potentially spoiling a wonderful experience for someone, so I’ll just say: watch it as soon as it comes out on Netflix, and please stop reading this immediately if you haven’t seen it already.

Make a bookmark or something so you can come back later, because I’ve got thoughts and questions.

Spoilers for Glass Onion
  • 1
    Based on that interview, I’m assuming Monáe still accepts she/her pronouns

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 to believe 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.

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    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.
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    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.