Zero Entropy Is Our Goal

I’d never call myself a hero, but of course I can’t stop any of you from calling me that….

There’s a special streaming on Netflix that has been getting a lot of praise and recommendations to watch it. I finally watched it over the weekend, and I didn’t like it at all.

I spent some time last night and today writing a post explaining exactly why I didn’t like it, and the more I thought about it, the more I hated it. Still, I detailed my criticisms in a way that I think was fair, somewhat insightful, and always tried to meet the material at its own level. And I took care to explain why my dislike of it was relevant outside of just a TV show.

Then I just deleted the whole thing and wrote this post instead. Because honestly, why waste so much time chewing on something I don’t like? If other people like it, then it did its job, no matter what I think.

While I’m waiting for my medal to arrive, I did want to include a briefer take on the more relevant issue: what to do when someone you love (or yourself) is struggling with anxiety and depression.

There’s a really toxic idea that’s been going around for several years, repeated and embellished with each repetition to the point that whatever original good intention has been lost. It says that if someone is having a depressive episode, we should treat them as if we would a cartoon sleepwalker: never interfere! It says that our role is just to listen, never to offer help, or compare their experiences to our own.

I think it’s bullshit, and I hate it. Of course there are ways to take it too far, to make it too much about yourself, to come across as too judgmental, or to inadvertently minimize or trivialize what they’re going through. But the alternative isn’t just to do nothing. Someone who wants you just to listen to their misery without comment doesn’t want a friend or a partner, they just want a witness. No matter what narcissistic simpletons on social media might suggest. Besides, we’ve got enough to deal with, having to remember the fifteen billion rules suggested by self-proclaimed “introverts” detailing how they expect to be treated.

We need more genuine connections to each other, not fewer.

One Thing I Like About Loki

The new Loki series is a victory for “genre fiction,” since it’s full of weird stuff that’s not that weird anymore.

Pretty early in the first episode of Loki, there’s a brief scene where he’s forced to consider whether he’s a robot without being aware of it. I like the scene because it’s got such good line reads from both actors. More than that, though, it’s a good example of how the MCU acknowledges the absurdity of the whole premise of the MCU: trying to translate decades of comic book weirdness into “mainstream” movies and television.

I liked the first episode of the series a lot, but there wasn’t the same “electricity” I felt from the novelty of watching WandaVision. And I don’t think that’s a criticism! It’s a sign that 10+ years of gradually pushing out the borders of what’s “too weird for Hollywood” has paid off.

There’s so much great stuff going on in this series: the set direction, art direction, costume design, prop design, a fantastic retro animated sequence, some imaginative VFX with various time doorways and what is essentially an “exposition projector,” not to mention great casting including the always-welcome Pillboy. (Eugene Cordero, who’s just great).

And yet, I don’t have much to say about it! It’s not that novel anymore; its presence alone isn’t that remarkable. Which means I don’t have to consider the changing level of respectability of genre fiction in the mainstream, parallels to aesthetics of the Fallout series, how ideas established in comics translate to live action, any of it. I can just enjoy watching it. (Of course, I realize I don’t have to write about any of this stuff for free on a personal blog; I just am unable to turn off that portion of my brain for some reason).

The first episode was full of moments and design decisions that would’ve drawn attention to themselves just a few years ago, but now it just feels like it all simply works without comment.

Also, I was surprised at the end of the episode. We’ve known about the premise of this series forever, so in retrospect, the revelation probably should’ve been obvious. “Who’s the villain in a Loki series?” But I didn’t see it coming at all, which I take as a sign that I was actually watching the show, instead of being in detached cinema studies/media analysis mode. I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of metatext, but just as a story.

Which is how most of the source comics work, now that the 90s are over and there’s less of a trend of high-profile comics stories about comics stories. It feels like we can stop defending genre fiction and justifying genre fiction, and just enjoy genre fiction. And appreciate a Marvel series that finally seems to be embracing the Marvel aesthetic.

Image of the Timekeepers and the "sacred timeline" from the animated sequence in the first episode of Loki

Captain America and the Pledge of Allegiance

Why The Falcon and the Winter Soldier worked for me, even though its finale didn’t

After watching the episode six finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, my initial impression was that it was a really strong five-episode series. There were some pretty great action sequences, and a few really good character moments. I even liked Sam’s extended monologue lecturing all the selfish politicians about how everything was their fault. But I still felt like the finale had betrayed much of what had made the previous episodes so strong, tossing out the attempts to show complexity and nuance in favor of the over-simplified action movie morality that the MCU is too often accused of glorifying.

Now, though, I think that’s both unfair and inaccurate. The series did have things it wanted to say and new ideas it wanted to bring to the MCU, and I think it did end up being tonally consistent. My problem with it is that it wanted conclusions that it didn’t quite earn.

If nothing else, it got me invested enough to be yelling back at the screen through much of it, which is something I haven’t done in a while. But to explain why requires spoilers for the entire series.

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My Dragons Are More Sophisticated Than Your Super-Heroes

Responding to dumb ideas that refuse to die, and how it all relates to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

I’ve only seen one complete episode of Game of Thrones, but that was enough. Seeing a beautiful young woman pushed into an arranged marriage that was essentially slavery and then violently raped, and then an incestuous couple pushing a child to his death for witnessing them having sex, convinced me that this wasn’t the HBO prestige series for me.

Even if it wasn’t for me, though, I’m not interested in trying to put it down or anything. It had a lot of talent behind it, and I know a lot of smart people who got really into it. Plus, it inspired a lot of creative people to try their own hand at fantasy world-building themselves.

For instance: in an opinion column in The Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg constructed a fantastic, elaborate, alternate reality in which Game of Thrones was a dramatized extrapolation of the War of the Roses designed to engender thoughtful, mature discussions about trauma, parentage, the foundations of a just government… and which also, occasionally, happened to show titties and people being beheaded or getting their eyes gouged out.

I’m not suggesting that the depth and nuance Rosenberg describes wasn’t actually present in the series, but I am absolutely 100% saying it’s comically disingenuous for her to act as if Game of Thrones‘s popularity was due to its mature and thought-provoking ideas, and that its TV-MA content and promise of dragons and zombies was just a happy accident. I have to call foul when TV critics claim not to understand how prestige TV works.

As Rosenberg describes the state of popular media as toothless and “flaccid,” while lamenting that Watchmen and Promising Young Woman weren’t more popular, it’s clear that this just boils down to the familiar refrain: the stuff I like is complex and sophisticated; this other stuff that’s popular is trite and simplistic. The part that I can’t get over is how weird this version is.

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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Sleeper Agent

Four episodes into The Falcon and the Winter Solider, and it’s finally won me over

I had pretty low expectations for The Falcon and the Winter Solider — it was being marketed as a buddy action comedy set in the MCU, and it seemed to be a little too familiar to be super compelling. It seemed like it was going to be a genre series, even before WandaVision came along and spent a couple of months chewing up multiple genres and spitting them back out in the form of an extended grief metaphor/blockbuster film prequel.

It’s a little unfair, since the show’s been really good from the start. Good performances, a great action sequence to start with, pretty good pacing, smart and understated dialogue, and a tone that manages to be serious without being humorless, grounded without being mundane. The whole “odd couple buddy comedy” aspect does make up much of one episode, but then it’s mercifully relegated to the background.

I felt like I had a handle on the show by the end of the first episode, and the best example of that was the culmination of Bucky’s story in that episode. It seemed like the show wanted the “reveal” of Yori’s son to be a big deal, but I thought it was weird they were stretching out that scene, since I’d thought they’d made it all but explicit up to that point. But I also wasn’t that bothered by it — it wasn’t a huge, Shyamalan-esque “Oh my God did we just blow your ever-lovin’ mind?!” scene, but instead a weighty character moment that worked okay even if you weren’t that surprised.

So that was my overall impression of the series — it might not be blowing me away with its surprises or innovations, but it’s all entertaining and well-executed. That lasted until midway through the fourth episode, when I realized this series had gotten its hooks into me. And although it initially comes across as formulaic, I think it’s subverting the Marvel superhero formula more subtly and intelligently than some projects explicitly questioning the genre.

Continue reading “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Sleeper Agent”

Friday’s All Right for Doing It, Rockapella

This week’s links are a retrospective for a charming educational series, city planning primers, and more about why GM sucks so bad.

I was too old to be the target audience of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, but that didn’t stop me from watching pretty often. It was such a charming concept executed so well that I wished it had existed just a few years earlier. (Except then, it wouldn’t have been such a product of the 1990s, which is probably an inseparable part of the charm). This retrospective/history of the show does a pretty good job of reminding you why it was so appealing, even to those of us in college at the time.

I’ve also spent the week re-discovering the City Beautiful channel, where Dave Amos makes well-produced videos about different topics in city planning and city development. I first found the channel on account of its videos about the original plan for EPCOT and a comparison of Disney World’s transit system to “real world” transit systems in similarly-sized cities. I think The Algorithm brought it back to my attention because I’ve gotten into the “City Planner Plays” channel, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a city planner doing play-through videos of Cities: Skylines.

And in case I was getting too optimistic about our potential for intelligently planning to solve the issues facing cities, Climate Town came long with another video describing how General Motors’s outsized influence on city planning helped destroy the entire model for healthy cities in the United States, to guarantee that we’re overwhelmingly dependent on cars.

The one encouraging thing is that it’s another reminder of how many of our problems in city design, pollution, income inequality, and racial inequity, have been orchestrated, instead of being inevitable or just developing organically. If we’re reminded that people are responsible for all this, then we can commit to being people that fix it.

Flourish! (My Take on WandaVision’s Finale)

WandaVision’s excellent finale somehow did everything it needed to do and so much of what it wanted to do

I avoided the internet for any risk of spoilers before watching the finale episode of WandaVision (titled, appropriately, “The Series Finale”), and you should, too. This post is going to be about the finale and the entire season so far.

Despite my precautions, I did manage to see one tweet saying that it relied too much on spectacle and tried to pack too much into one episode. As somebody who’s been an unabashed fan of this series from episode one, who thinks it’s been groundbreaking and near flawless in execution, and who’s spent hours thinking about each episode, my reaction to that opinion was: “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

I mean, this series is kicking off the next phase of the MCU.1I think Spider-Man: Far From Home is “officially” the start of the next phase, but it felt to me more like an epilogue than a kick-off. But it’s been noticeably light on superhero battles so far, and the past couple of episodes have been setting up four separate showdowns between hero and villain all converging in one place.

It seemed inevitable that this intelligent, relentlessly self-aware, character-driven series would have to wrap up its experiment and settle into its place in the MCU franchise. And that’s not such a bad thing: I liked Infinity War and Endgame a lot, but there’s no denying that they were unapologetically overwrought and overstuffed.

Not to mention that my own expectations have been overwrought and overstuffed. Other people on the internet have been spending weeks getting more and more hyped up about secret cameos, introductions of the multiverse, tie-ins with mutants, layers on layers of hidden references, Mephisto, Nightmare, Wundagore, and introducing decades of conflicting comics continuity into a 9-episode TV series. Meanwhile, I’ve been building up the show as this multi-layered, meta-textual masterpiece that has as much to say about the very nature of storytelling as it does about infinity stones. I had to prepare myself for Marvel to say, “Nah, we just wanted to parody some old TV series. Did you catch our hidden message about how sitcoms represent escapism?”

Continue reading “Flourish! (My Take on WandaVision’s Finale)”

Not an Imaginary Story! (One Thing I Like About WandaVision Episode 8)

Episode 8 of WandaVision has what I believe are some great ideas about what’s actually “real”

Lots of spoilers for the entire series of WandaVision in this blog post, obviously, so read at your own peril.

Once again, WandaVision has taken us out of the fantastic bubble of Westview, dumping us into the mundane real world of the MCU, with its boring old stories of centuries-old covens of witches, and top-secret government facilities building fantastic sci-fi weapons to keep super-powered heroes in check.

Like you might expect from an episode titled “Previously On,” this one was full of exposition, delivered via speeches and flashbacks. Like you’d expect from WandaVision, it’s all so well-written and performed and executed that it’s almost a shame that the series’s weird and novel format distracts from how well made the show is.

But right as it ended, I felt a little disappointed. All along,1You’re humming the tune now, aren’t you? my favorite thing about the show has been that I’ve felt completely in sync with the storytelling, even though I recognized almost none of its Easter eggs, comics lore, or ever-growing MCU internal lore.2I nodded sagely when the videos pointed out that Strücker was the name of a Hydra agent, then felt kind of dumb when they pointed out that he was a fairly significant character in a movie that I’ve seen twice. This episode had the most genuinely moving moment in the series so far, if not the entire MCU: of course, it’s Vision’s description of grief as being not emptiness, but “love persevering,” which is especially relevant to everyone who survived 2020. But then it ended with a moment that felt so jarringly artificial to me that it knocked me out of the story so hard, you’d think that I’d just mentioned Ultron.

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WandaVision All Along (One Thing I Love About WandaVision Episode 7)

WandaVision proves that if you’re good enough at what you do, you become spoiler-proof

In this post, I’m making the argument that WandaVision is so brilliantly made that it’s made itself spoiler proof, but it’s a working theory, and I don’t want to take any unnecessary chances. Please don’t read it unless you’ve seen WandaVision Episode 7, “Breaking the Fourth Wall.”

Choosing the One Thing I Love about the latest episode of WandaVision was easy, because it’s the bit I’ve watched about 10 times by now: the final “reveal.” Somehow it works in all the same ways that the usual intrigue-driven Mystery Story does… but is also not much of a surprise at all. What was revealed wasn’t as important as how it was revealed, and what it means for the series and the rest of the MCU.

My initial reaction was to think, “Of course, we already knew that.” But I quickly realized that I only knew because I’ve been watching all the “easter eggs” and “things you missed” videos after each episode. If I hadn’t, my reaction would’ve been “Who? Should I recognize that name?”

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She’s Not the Final Boss Now (One Thing I Like About WandaVision)

Episode 6 shows that WandaVision succeeds where other Intrigue TV hasn’t: because it’s about more than just its central mystery

MOVIE CRITICS AND FANS, 2020: The Marvel So-Called “Cinematic” Universe is just a bunch of the same shallow thing over and over again, just punches and CGI.

MARVEL STUDIOS, SOMETIME IN 2019 PROBABLY: Thank you for coming to this meeting. What we need is an early 2000s-style claymation commercial for yogurt with an Extreme Shark and a little boy starving to death, to represent the main character’s survivor’s guilt.

It’s not surprising that I didn’t immediately love episode 6 of WandaVision (“All New Halloween Spooktacular!” if you’re scoring at home), because its format is imitating my least favorite era of sitcoms. All the self-awareness and deconstructionism of the late 80s and early 90s could’ve turned into something interesting, but instead it just turned really shallow, loud, cynical, and soulless all through the late 90s and early 2000s.

Still, I continue to be impressed with how much this series is in tune with the audience. (Or at least this guy in the audience, but I know I’m not the only one). This episode somehow feels like even more of a recalibration/exposition episode than episode 4, which is the one that explicitly went back and set up the situation that led to the series so far.

And that’s not really a gripe; having an episode like this is essential for the pacing. The audience already understands the gimmick for the series, so less time can be spent recreating the sitcom format — screen-time, although most certainly not in terms of production time! — except when the format is in service of setting up the story. It also lines up with the in-story idea that fewer and fewer people are all-in on this altered reality as the season goes on: the leads are less wary of showing off their powers, and we have a better idea that not everyone on screen is caught in the spell.

I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the episode in which the characters are in self-referential costumes, and showing more awareness that they’re all playing roles in a fantasy, is the one paying homage to TV shows that broke the fourth wall. Now I’m wondering if episode 4 wasn’t actually a break in the format. It might’ve been their homage to 1980s television, since it was structured so much like an episode of The X-Files.

Because I’ve felt so in sync with this show, it means that episodes like this are mostly filled with confirmations instead of revelations. Yes, obviously that’s a bad guy. Sure, the people outside of Wanda’s sphere of influence and attention exist in a perpetual, miserable, stasis. Right, Monica Rambeau is probably going to be a super-hero, and good, so are the kids. And as everybody suspected, it’s looking more likely that some soon-to-be-revealed villain at least initiated the whole thing, if they aren’t still actively manipulating Wanda.

It’s a nice change from the usual in Intrigue TV, where you can almost feel the show creators lurking in the background and giggling, “Oh have we got such a delicious secret for you all!

And there were a few genuinely surprising moments, too. First was the commercial I already mentioned, and it was fantastic because it kept up the real genuine gimmick of the series: telling a dark idea using something that’s completely tonally inappropriate and creepy.

Second was that fantastic ending, which raised the stakes in a way I didn’t see coming. I think turning the SWORD agents into clowns and their camp into a circus was a great acknowledgement that they were never going to be the real source of conflict in this series, because the series’s conflict is character driven.

But the one thing I love about WandaVision that I want to call out is that even as it gets closer to revealing more about its central mystery, it’s showing that its central mystery is kind of irrelevant. Maybe I’m just tired of watching so many “102 Easter Eggs You Missed In WandaVision!!!!” videos repeating the same tenuous stabs at sketchy interpretation, but I’m increasingly feeling like the references and Easter eggs simply don’t matter as much as I’d originally thought.

They can be fun, if you’re into that kind of thing — I especially like the observation from the computer displays that SWORD’s project to inhibit or suppress Vision was called Operation Cataract — but the series isn’t actually some puzzle box or ARG that will reward the first person to figure it out. It’s not a show for “nerds.” I have to keep reminding myself that the MCU is gigantic now, and comic books and sci-fi aren’t niche audiences anymore.

It feels increasingly like that idea is implicit in WandaVision: it’s a mash-up of pop culture and “genre fiction” without any apparent interest in putting a value judgment on any of it. Instead, it just treats everything as a shared cultural reference that’s fair game for storytelling. I’ve got to break myself of these outdated ideas of “target audiences” and “nerd television” and such, since they’re ideas used to sell art, not to make or understand it. They’re about excluding people or limiting possibilities, instead of expanding them.

I’m reminded of all the times I’ve seen audiences or executives see something imaginative and react with “Oh, this is so weird! Were the people who made this high? Are audiences going to get it?” This series reacts like Nick Fury to Peter Parker: “Bitch, please. You’ve been to space.”