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.

One Thing I Like About She-Hulk: Attorney At Law

Watch me take a few hundred words to say “Tatiana Maslany”

Some people online tried to turn it into A Big Thing when Mark Ruffalo compared the MCU to Star Wars, saying that the MCU lets different projects have different voices, while with Star Wars you’re always getting the same thing. I was happy to see that it failed to drum up that much publicity, since it’s a pretty uncontroversial observation: Star Wars is mostly tonally consistent, while the MCU tends to be more experimental with styles and genres.1That all have identical, interchangeable fight and action scenes of people flying around and shooting lasers and punching things. 2Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

That’s most evident with She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. There have been two episodes so far, and the first episode had a training montage, a little bit of comical fighting, and then a climax with exactly one punch. The second had no action scenes. I was impressed that Marvel was unapologetic about making Hawkeye an action-comedy, but She-Hulk seems to have taken that even farther. They’ve gone all-in on being a comedy series.

There are dozens of ways that could’ve gone wrong3And it’s only two episodes in, so it still can, I guess.. I’ve tried reading John Byrne’s She-Hulk comics, but I always bounce off of them, because they’re in a voice that sounds like John Byrne, not like Jennifer Walters. It’s a kind of comedy that’s pretty common in comic books and video games, where it’s written for an extremely specific audience of comic book readers or video game players. (And to be clear, I have 100% been guilty of writing like that!) And the MCU is usually more successful when they try to be wry or clever than outright funny; their attempts at comedy have been inconsistent at best.

But what has been consistent in the MCU is fantastic casting, and that’s most evident in the She-Hulk series. Tatiana Maslany so completely and thoroughly understands the assignment that she manages to make even the clunkiest dialogue4I really didn’t go for the whole “Steve Rogers is a virgin” gag as much as Marvel wanted me to. at least a little charming. This material could very easily have come across as too broad or too try-hard, but she approaches every single scene not as if she were an actor doing comedy in a Marvel series, but as Jennifer Walters. She’s a character that doesn’t take much of what’s going on in that world all that seriously, but still exists completely and totally in that world.

Even when she’s breaking the fourth wall, which is kind of a requirement for She-Hulk at this point, but could have been insufferable if any other actor tried it. It feels like the tone of the show is deliberately broad, but she still manages to seamlessly go in and out of a scene, even ones that seem to be begging for her to mug and wink at the camera.

My favorite example so far: in the second episode, there’s a phone conversation between her and and her cousin, where she’s trying to explain why she’s taking the case of a man who tried to kill him, way back at the start of the MCU.5I’d thought The Incredible Hulk was officially in the MCU, but it’s not on Disney+ at least in the US, so I guess it’s tied up in some kind of rights issue? Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner explains that it’s fine, he doesn’t hold any grudges against the guy, and “that was so long ago, I’m a different person. Literally.”

It’s a pretty solid gag, a pretty funny bit of self-awareness aimed at people who’ve been following the MCU on a casual level.6The gag is that Ruffalo’s character was played by Ed Norton in the movie where all of The Abomination’s origin story happened. The scene cuts back to Maslany, who says “Ha!” at the camera before sailing right back into her conversation. And I think she just nailed the delivery: acknowledge it’s a B+/A- gag, and then move on.

It’s not all broad comedy and winking in-jokes. I liked that they cast Cousin Larry as her dad, and he lives completely within a family sitcom, while Steve Coulter as her boss gets a few of the funniest lines delivered completely straight and sour-faced7“I truly do not care who your paralegal is”. And Josh Segarra as “Pug” struck me as instantly hilarious, even though I can’t explain why beyond the fact that every single line delivery sounded like an unnecessarily weird and 100% correct choice. Maslany’s got to play against all of that, matching everybody’s energy to make all these weird shifts in tone flow together, while still nailing her own delivery.

To be honest, when I heard they were casting her as She-Hulk, I thought it sounded like a bit of over-kill. You don’t really need an actor that good to be in what appears to be a light and goofy comedy series. Now after seeing a couple of episodes, I’m realizing I was wrong. Having an actor that good is the key to making it work at all.

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    That all have identical, interchangeable fight and action scenes of people flying around and shooting lasers and punching things.
  • 2
    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
  • 3
    And it’s only two episodes in, so it still can, I guess.
  • 4
    I really didn’t go for the whole “Steve Rogers is a virgin” gag as much as Marvel wanted me to.
  • 5
    I’d thought The Incredible Hulk was officially in the MCU, but it’s not on Disney+ at least in the US, so I guess it’s tied up in some kind of rights issue?
  • 6
    The gag is that Ruffalo’s character was played by Ed Norton in the movie where all of The Abomination’s origin story happened.
  • 7
    “I truly do not care who your paralegal is”

Revisionist History and Revisionist Present, Splash Mountain Edition

Thoughts on an update of a Disney ride, and being on the internet without taking the bait.

Update 08/27/22: If I had done just a few more minutes’ worth of digging, I would’ve seen that the people vocally objecting to the Splash Mountain re-theme all, without fail, quickly revealed themselves to be blatant bigots. The entire thing is obviously a “Comicsgate”/”Gamergate” style campaign, trying to insert alt-right talking points into discussions about pop culture. They’re assholes who are using people’s legitimate nostalgia for a ride and a movie to help amplify their bigotry, and I regret giving them any attention whatsoever.

Splash Mountain remains a problem, and not just for the obvious reasons. Possibly because the re-theming of the ride was delayed by COVID, we’ve gotten to hear an extra two years of people complaining about it.

I already talked about my reaction to the re-theme back when it was announced. Digest version: it makes me sad, because I grew up with Song of the South, I associate it with a family member who passed away, and when I was little, those animated characters were Quintessential Disney to me even more than Mickey Mouse. But the re-theme is going to be better in every possible way: better for Disney, better for Disney’s merchandising division, better for the young kids who’ll have new characters to get attached to, and better for guests who’ll get a fairly significant overhaul for a 30-year-old ride.

But there’s still a lot of revisionist history going on around Splash Mountain and Song of the South. Not just the movie’s absurdly Disney-fied version of a plantation during Reconstruction, but this bizarre idea that objections to the movie and the ride are some recent “woke” invention.

Simply put: Disney was well aware that there were objections to the movie when it was made in 1946, and that there were objections to the movie when the ride was made in 1989. Suggesting that it was a simpler time and they were just unaware of the connotations is an insultingly lousy defense, because it suggests that the people at Disney were either stupid or grossly naive. No, they’ve known at every step that there was going to be push back, they just never had enough incentive to care.

Really, the whole history of the movie and the attraction has been a series of half-measures to work around objectionable material, for the sake of preserving a bunch of charming characters. The movie was re-worked to emphasize that it was set during the Reconstruction and therefore the happy, magical black people weren’t actually enslaved. The ride was re-worked to change the “tar baby” to a beehive and put all the focus on the animated segments. The benefit of hindsight makes it clearer that it would’ve been a lot easier to just pick different source material, instead of juggling a hot potato for decades, trying to surgically remove the most objectionable thing and then leaving the rest for the next group of people to deal with. But to suggest that nobody’s ever had a problem with it until political correctness came along is just laughably false.

Even if you have the most charitable possible impression of Joel Chandler Harris, and believe that he was sincerely trying to bring African-American folklore to both black and white audiences as a reunification effort, it’s still obviously a problem because it’s black culture as filtered through a white man. I personally think it’s reasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt — just like with everybody involved with the movie, who I think were at worst insensitive, not malicious — but the whole thing is a problem straight down to its origin.

Ironically, one of the stupidest things I’ve read online also has the barest nugget of a valid argument against a Princess and the Frog re-theme. One of the chuckleheads complaining incessantly on Twitter about “woke Disney” actually said that it was objectionable because it was replacing characters from African-American folklore with a fable written by “two European white men.” Once I stopped laughing at the sheer cluelessness of that, I did feel the barest tinge of regret that we were losing a piece of what is authentically Georgian culture.1A digression about that: since I loved the animated parts of the movie growing up, and just ignored the live action, I had no idea just how much of the movie people find objectionable. I was surprised to hear people call the voices for Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear “racist” since I always just thought they were exaggerated cartoonish versions of how some people in Georgia talk, unaware that the actors were from Amos & Andy and their dialect was dated at best. I have to say I still kind of shrug at that, since I swear that I’ve met several white people who really do talk like Br’er Bear!

So I definitely sympathize with anyone sad to see Splash Mountain go, but I’d also encourage them to get over it, since the re-theming is absolutely a no-brainer of a good idea by every measure2Except for the new name, which I sincerely dislike. It really needed to have “Mountain” in the name, even though there are no mountains in New Orleans as far as I’m aware.. But the actual complaints about the change are so fatuous — even by the standards of people complaining online about Disney parks3I once read a sincere comment from someone complaining about smoking areas, back before they were all removed, and saying that Walt Disney would’ve been disappointed to see so many people smoking in his parks. — that I can’t even believe that they’re being made in good faith.

That’s now true of every complaint about anything “woke” now. It’s so disingenuous and fake and deeply, deeply cynical. Opportunists have realized that they can get immediate attention any time they complain about whatever book, movie, comic book, video game, TV show, or really anything that includes women, LGBT people, non-whites, or non-Christians. Everything gets targeted with a campaign of review bombs and blatantly fake Twitter comments, because they’ve seen over and over again that it’ll generate a ton of reactions.

At this point, it’s just depressing to see people repeatedly taking the bait. Whether by reacting as if the comments are being in good faith, or much more often, just amplifying the stupid comments in order to publicly dunk on them. It’s too tempting to think, “I have the perfect response that will put an end to this kind of backwards thinking once and for all,” or, “I will shine a light on the kind of toxic behavior that permeates the internet, instead of letting their targets suffer privately,” which is exactly the goal behind them: to elevate nonsense and treat it as if it were the subject of reasonable debate.

I don’t know what the actual solution is, but I do know that, for instance, I wouldn’t have given a second thought to the casting of The Sandman (apart from “hey, good choices all around!”) if Neil Gaiman hadn’t publicly responded to complaints about gender-swapping or casting black or non-binary actors. Some of the comments were so obviously phony, written by someone who’d never read the source material, that it’s tough to see what was gained by engaging with them as worthwhile. But if the alternative was for Gaiman to just let all of that garbage float around unaddressed, that’s not great, either.

And the part that’s especially dispiriting is that we’re in at least the fourth or fifth generation of this whole process. You can see how thoroughly it’s infected the conversation around everything. Bullshit, regressive ideas that would’ve been roundly rejected in the days before Web 2.0 are now just taken for granted and expected. This story has a woman superhero, so naturally some people are going to find that objectionable.

Real progress would mean that yes, of course, in 2022 we can see, for instance, a Predator movie with a bad-ass Comanche woman as its lead, that sounds awesome, you’d have to be a fool to object to that. But instead, we get a round of “hey look at this fool who’s objecting to that, let’s all point and laugh.” Even if we’re dismissing them as bullshit, we’re still spending way too much time thinking of bullshit.

What’s even more dispiriting than that is that I’m having a harder and harder time believing any of it is genuine or in good faith, from any direction. We’ve already seen worthless, contemptible piece-of-shit policitians4And that’s me being polite. shamelessly gin up culture wars — putting real people in danger — to advance their own political careers. If those assholes can get so much attention for it, it stands to reason that crass media marketing types are much, much better at it.

For instance: I think that Kate Bush is undeniably a genius, but you could show me detailed transcripts from Netflix headquarters and I still wouldn’t believe that the recent popularity of “Running Up That Hill” was completely organic, and not manufactured by the Stranger Things team doing some extremely effective viral marketing. That’s the innocuous version. What happens when a marketing campaign realizes that people complaining about a black or a Muslim or a female character in a movie or TV series generates a ton of buzz around it?

I know it sounds implausible that people involved in marketing would knowingly do something that makes people’s lives worse, but humor me in this obviously fantastic thought experiment.

It’s entirely possible that I’m being overly optimistic when I assume that people can’t possibly be so genuinely upset about a 30-year-old theme park ride, or a black man or a white woman being cast as the lead in an action movie, or transgender people simply existing. But even if I’m wrong about that, I’m right in thinking that those people don’t deserve to keep having such an outsized part in our conversations.

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    A digression about that: since I loved the animated parts of the movie growing up, and just ignored the live action, I had no idea just how much of the movie people find objectionable. I was surprised to hear people call the voices for Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear “racist” since I always just thought they were exaggerated cartoonish versions of how some people in Georgia talk, unaware that the actors were from Amos & Andy and their dialect was dated at best. I have to say I still kind of shrug at that, since I swear that I’ve met several white people who really do talk like Br’er Bear!
  • 2
    Except for the new name, which I sincerely dislike. It really needed to have “Mountain” in the name, even though there are no mountains in New Orleans as far as I’m aware.
  • 3
    I once read a sincere comment from someone complaining about smoking areas, back before they were all removed, and saying that Walt Disney would’ve been disappointed to see so many people smoking in his parks.
  • 4
    And that’s me being polite.

One Thing I Love About Baymax!

The Baymax! series on Disney Plus proves that being positive, uplifting, and inclusive doesn’t require reducing yourself to a bland, deflated, mess.

(Note: I would’ve loved to include a screenshot from the series illustrating what I’m talking about, but someone at Disney or Apple or Google finally disabled the ability to capture stills from Google Chrome, just like it’s already disabled on Safari. It should be covered under fair use and is nothing but free marketing from fans voluntarily promoting stuff online, but hey, go off. You wouldn’t screenshot a car!)

I liked Big Hero 6 a lot, even though it always felt like an electric ball of potential energy that was never quite able to resonate with me. So much of what I liked about it was deliberately constructed to make people like me like it: the character design of Baymax, the cross-cultural future-present world-building of San Fransokyo, the action/comedy tone, all made to appeal to the part of me that’s still a teenage nerd1Which, let’s be honest, is all of me..

But even though you could already see the multiple variants of Baymax figures on toy shelves even while the film was still running, it didn’t feel crass or manipulative to me. Instead, it reminded me of the early “blue sky” phases of a project, when everyone is throwing out tons of creative ideas, all building on top of each other, with no obligation to streamline or focus. In fact, the attempts to focus all of that energy onto a Disney Animated Feature story are the parts that didn’t quite work for me. I vaguely remember an attempt to use family tragedy as the instigating event for the story, but even as someone hard-wired to respond to those stories, I didn’t feel like it was authentic. And to this day, I wouldn’t be able to give a synopsis of the movie’s plot. Ultimately I felt like the movie was so many fantastic ideas without enough heart to hold them all together.

So the new Baymax! series is essentially the opposite. Each episode is a charming story concentrated to its 11-minute-long essence. It uses all the world-building that’s been established, but doesn’t dwell on any of it — it assumes that you’ve either seen the movie or its action series spinoff, or maybe it just assumes that the audience will be able to get it without any lengthy explanations needed.

Instead, it takes a recurring premise — Baymax steadfastly helps someone who thinks they don’t want or need his help — distills the story down to its basic beats, mines as much comedy action as it can out of it, and then the kicker: delivers a resolution to the character’s story that feels completely earned.

None of it feels schmaltzy, maudlin, or formulaic, partly because the stories are too brief for extended moments of manipulation, but also because the series has the confidence that it can move you without resorting to tear-jerking moments.

And also because it so often treats Baymax not as the hero but as the antagonist. One episode about a food truck owner with an allergy is filled with shots calling back to the Terminator movies, with a panicked hero trying to escape a robot in relentless pursuit. That wry sense of humor is what lets the series be so relentlessly positive and inclusive, without its feeling trite or performative.

It’s such a brilliant idea to take all the components ready-made for an action-comedy adventure series and turn them into a series of charming and uplifting animated shorts. It feels to me like all of the creativity and imagination that went into Big Hero 6‘s world-building finally found the kinds of stories that work perfectly within its world.

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    Which, let’s be honest, is all of me.

Ms Marvel Super Follow-Up Issue 1

I’d already been enjoying Ms Marvel, but the finale episode knocked it over the top

The Ms Marvel series had already won me over on sheer charm, but the finale episode was so well-done that it knocked the show into my #2 favorite MCU series, right after WandaVision1Please don’t turn Kamala Khan into a villain, Marvel. The scene of Kamala revealing her secret identity to her family was enough to win me over just on its own.

My biggest complaint — my only complaint, really — is that once you show a villain firing weapons at children, you need to show them getting a bigger comeuppance than just losing their job.

Some of the middle episodes seemed to me to struggle with balancing MCU-level fate-of-the-entire-world action scenes with a series targeted at a younger, more family-friendly audience. I think the finale did a much better job with it overall2But the content warning at the beginning of the episode was a thoughtful and necessary inclusion, keeping it mostly at the those-wacky-teens-and-their-inventions level while still keeping the stakes high.

Best of all is that it managed to stay true to the series’ overall tone of joy, optimism, community, and family, without coming across as mawkish or tacked-on.3I think Captain America’s final speech in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was well-written and well-acted, but it still felt like an over-simplistic afterthought after the more mature and nuanced takes on it earlier in the series. The repeated idea of responding to aggression with empathetic resistance is a great one even for audiences that don’t fall into the “young adult” category. This is the first MCU series that I would love to see turned into an ongoing series4As much as I loved WandaVision, it absolutely didn’t need a second season, and I hope there is one after the movies.

A final spoiler note related to my wondering whether I’m in the target audience or not: We’d seen a comment online about Bruno’s last revelation in the finale (which was a big surprise to me, after so many months of speculation about how the MCU was going to continue!), mentioning the sound cue that played underneath it. We watched it again today, cranking up the volume and listening for anything unusual, but didn’t hear anything particularly odd — maybe it was a sound effect from one of the earlier movies that we didn’t recognize?

As a joke, I said that if they really wanted to drive it home, they would’ve included the iconic theme song from the 90s TV series that I’m still not trying to spoil for people who haven’t seen all of Ms Marvel yet. So we went back and listened to the scene again, even more closely, and there it was: that iconic riff, played barely audibly just underneath the theme music5Which reminds me: hearing Pakistani/Indian takes on the usual MCU themes has been just delightful through the whole series.. Which made me wonder: was it that subtle for everybody watching? Or just for those of us who are in our 50s and having to watch everything with the subtitles turned on these days?

Whatever the case, I’m squeezing myself into the target audience even if that wasn’t the original intention. I’ve been charmed by this series and I can’t wait for The Marvels.

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    Please don’t turn Kamala Khan into a villain, Marvel
  • 2
    But the content warning at the beginning of the episode was a thoughtful and necessary inclusion
  • 3
    I think Captain America’s final speech in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was well-written and well-acted, but it still felt like an over-simplistic afterthought after the more mature and nuanced takes on it earlier in the series.
  • 4
    As much as I loved WandaVision, it absolutely didn’t need a second season
  • 5
    Which reminds me: hearing Pakistani/Indian takes on the usual MCU themes has been just delightful through the whole series.

One Thing I Love About Ms Marvel

Apart from possibly the best casting in any MCU project, the thing I like best about Ms Marvel is the same thing I liked about Hawkeye

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve seen the first five episodes of Ms Marvel on Disney Plus1I believe it’ll be a six-episode series, so only the finale is left.. I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoyed it; I can’t really think of a better word to describe it than delightful.

I admit that I initially assumed that it would be little more than a victory lap for the MCU2Kind of like Rogers The Musical combined with some nods to Muslim-American culture that could either come across as pandering or inert. Instead, there’s a real feeling of enthusiasm, excitement, and pride that comes through.

It’s what makes the series work, since it would frankly be underwhelming if it were nothing more than an MCU super-hero origin series: the pacing is weirdly disjointed, as stuff just seems to happen instead of flowing together in a clear chain of cause-and-effect. But the disjointed pacing in most MCU projects seems to be the result of trying to cram in big action set pieces at predetermined intervals, while here it’s reversed. In Ms Marvel, it usually feels as if they’re trying to work backwards from a predetermined set of character moments, while fitting everything into a set of 30-minute episodes.

But those character moments work largely because the performances are so good. Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan is so perfectly cast that it’s almost absurd; Marvel has released making-of featurettes that describe how Vellani was at least as big a fan of Captain Marvel (and Ms Marvel, and the comics in general) as her character is, and it comes across as completely genuine.

I’m also really impressed with Zenobia Shroff’s performance as her mother Muneeba Khan. Her character is given so many opportunities to evaporate into clichés, but she manages to feel genuine and sympathetic throughout. Any story about a teenager coming of age is going to have scenes where the parents are antagonists, but even when she’s set up to be the main obstacle, there’s a sense that you can understand why she’s doing the things she does. It would’ve just come across as “hyper-protective immigrant mom” had she not been able to convey a genuine sense of compassion.

All of that works together towards what I think is the one thing I like most about Ms Marvel, which is essentially the same thing I liked about Hawkeye, which is that it has a tone and focus that go beyond just being a super-hero origin story. Kamala Khan is a character even more obsessed with super-heroes than Kate Bishop was, but these series don’t accept “super-hero” as a genre on its own. Hawkeye was an action-comedy that frequently called back to the MCU, while Ms Marvel is a coming-of-age story about a Pakistani Muslim-American teenager that uses the supernatural not so much as the focus, but as the thing that helps her define herself.

Part of that is knowing what the target audience is. This feels like a show about a teenager that isn’t necessarily targeted at teenagers, but designed from top to bottom to be something that teenagers can watch with their families. That means that the crises are kept mostly in the realm of things that a girl in high school in Jersey City would be concerned about, with the destruction of the entire world3Because this is still an MCU super-hero story, after all being treated as a backdrop for more personal stories.

I spent a lot of the series thinking that I was enjoying it, but I was just barely included in the target audience, but as the series has progressed, the more I’ve been convinced that it is at least partially aimed at people like me — white Americans who don’t know much about the experiences of American immigrant families, and only the most basic details about non-European history.4And distressingly little about non-European present. I don’t know how much, if any, of the series was actually filmed in Karachi, but seeing even the MCU version of it was more than I’ve ever seen of Pakistan in the media. I’ve picked up the barest hint of basic info about the separation of India and Pakistan, but I either never knew, or I’d forgotten, how much of the conflict was driven not just by British colonialism, but by divisions between Muslims and Hindus. Obviously I’m not claiming that I’m now an authority, but seeing even this much presented in an accessible format is more than I’ve gotten before.

I’ve read criticism from the original Ms Marvel comics writer, lamenting that the TV series chose to change Kamala’s powers from the body-stretching/shape-shifting ones in the comics to something “shiny and sparkly.” I can see both sides to the argument, as I understand it. I like the TV origin story much better than the comics I’ve read — even if The Inhumans hadn’t been such a disappointment, tying Kamala’s origin story to that instead of something more rooted in Islamic mythology would’ve been a huge missed opportunity. Also, even if the body-stretching imagery looked good — and it rarely looks good even on feature film budgets, much less in a TV series — it would make Kamala seem more like a junior Reed Richards than a hero inspired by Carol Danvers.

But there is an extremely important idea from the comics that has undeniably been lost in the TV translation: in the comics, when Kamala first gains her powers, she almost subconsciously takes on the form of a more Westernized version of beauty. It takes a while before she’s comfortable presenting herself as a Pakistani-American teenage girl with a big weird fist, because she’s spent her entire life being barraged with imagery that suggests she’s weird and different. Ironically it’s kind of a shame that the TV version of Kamala comes across as more confident than her comics counterpart — she’s often insecure, and often feels like an outsider, but in the TV version, it’s more because of her nerdiness than her ethnicity or heritage.

To be fair, the TV series does hint at that, with a scene in which obnoxious white kids give her alcohol at a party, but it’s pretty brief. Most of the series presents Kamala and her family as part of a sizable Muslim community that welcomes non-Muslims, instead of portraying them as an isolated enclave surrounded by people who see them as outsiders.

I’m obviously not qualified to say whether that’s an entirely positive change or not. It does have the effect of making me feel even more like I intersect with the target audience, though — the comics felt as if they were made to give Muslim and South Asian teenagers in general a character whom they could directly identify with, from someone who understands what their experiences are like. The TV series often feels more like it’s intending to show non-Muslims like me what a different culture is like. I do wonder if it would seem too simplistic, too juvenile, or too didactic for teenagers who’ve already grown up in that environment, but I can only say that I’ve loved seeing the portrayal of a culture that’s not my own, but inclusive.

  • 1
    I believe it’ll be a six-episode series, so only the finale is left.
  • 2
    Kind of like Rogers The Musical
  • 3
    Because this is still an MCU super-hero story, after all
  • 4
    And distressingly little about non-European present. I don’t know how much, if any, of the series was actually filmed in Karachi, but seeing even the MCU version of it was more than I’ve ever seen of Pakistan in the media.

A List of Things I Like About Thor: Love and Thunder

Because there haven’t been enough people posting their opinions about this movie online

  • I like it better than Ragnarok. I don’t think there are any moments in Love and Thunder that hold up to the best moments of Ragnarok, but I think it works better as a movie overall, largely because it feels more confidently silly instead of trying to balance pathos and heavy metal while proving “a Thor movie can too be funny.”
  • Russell Crowe as Zeus was clearly there to have fun and felt he had absolutely nothing to prove. Ever since Endgame, I haven’t been able to make up my mind whether the MCU as a whole and Thor in particular are making fun of fat people, or if it’s just acknowledging that a physique like Chris Hemsworth’s isn’t natural (or even attainable) to most people and is every bit an active choice. Love and Thunder makes it even murkier, but at least Crowe seems to be delighted to appear in armor that highlights his “post-divorce” body1Which is 10,000x hotter than he was in Gladiator, if you ask me.
  • Tessa Thompson as King Valkyrie had to underplay her performance — as she often had to be the straight man2Ironically surrounded by absurdity — but she still managed to be a distinctive character who fit perfectly into this bizarre universe. The result was that she was powerfully sexy and attractive in just about every scene, even for an actor who is usually the sexiest person on camera without even trying.
  • The lighter tone worked overall because it made the darker subjects feel less like maudlin manipulation. Jane’s cancer story in the comic felt cheaper to me because it tried so hard to give the subject the gravitas it was supposed to deserve, which was then undercut by introducing a magic hammer. I felt the movie was actually more respectful by letting her be silly and over-enthusiastic about getting to be a superhero. It spun the premise from “real-world tragedy given a supernatural spin” to one about a character choosing what to make of her life.
  • The screaming goats were overused and yet they still made me laugh every single time.
  • The girl using her stuffed animal as a weapon was a little predictable and obvious but still worked 1000%.
  • Gorr the God-Butcher’s story didn’t give Christian Bale any opportunities to be funny, but it worked perfectly as a counterpoint to the silliness of the rest of the movie, emphasizing how increasingly cosmic-powered and god-like superheroes become disgusting when they act without integrity and responsibility.
  • It also meshed surprisingly well with Jane Foster’s story, bringing the idea back from “who would win in a fight?” or “who will be first to reach the magic MacGuffin?” to questions about why we do the things we do, and why do we exist at all.
  • It’s my favorite of the Taika Waititi projects I’ve seen3Apart from maybe the TV series of What We Do In the Shadows, which I love mostly based on the performances of the actors. Every time I see a project where he’s a creative lead, I’m left with the feeling that I wish I liked it more than I actually do. It often feels like the sense of freedom that makes his projects so appealing is combined with a lack of restraint. So jokes that don’t really land are given way too much screen time4As much as I like Melissa McCarthy, I wish they’d cut the entire rehash of the play in New Asgard, since it was no longer making fun at the self-seriousness of the first two Thor movies, but just saying “Hey look at these famous and semi-famous people we got to do cameos”, and the stories often feel disjointed in tone and weirdly flippant5The scene in The Mandalorian with the stormtroopers punching the bag containing Baby Yoda is a perfect example. In Love and Thunder, I think the shifts in tone were used for good effect: the silly stuff felt like it was poking fun at targets who deserved it, while more serious subjects were treated with enough levity that they felt authentic instead of maudlin.
  • 1
    Which is 10,000x hotter than he was in Gladiator, if you ask me
  • 2
    Ironically
  • 3
    Apart from maybe the TV series of What We Do In the Shadows, which I love mostly based on the performances of the actors
  • 4
    As much as I like Melissa McCarthy, I wish they’d cut the entire rehash of the play in New Asgard, since it was no longer making fun at the self-seriousness of the first two Thor movies, but just saying “Hey look at these famous and semi-famous people we got to do cameos”
  • 5
    The scene in The Mandalorian with the stormtroopers punching the bag containing Baby Yoda is a perfect example

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

More than even Infinity War and Endgame, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feels like the culmination of the whole MCU (for better and worse)

I really enjoyed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and I liked too much about it to be able to pick just one thing. It’s big, loud, and overstuffed, but for every criticism I have, I’m even more amazed that it works at all.

It works as a blockbuster franchise movie that must’ve had to answer to dozens of different stakeholders, but still has enough flourishes to make it unmistakably a Sam Raimi-directed movie. Like Captain America: Civil War, it works as a big super-hero team-up movie and a tentpole entry in the MCU, but it’s also a surprisingly good sequel to the first Doctor Strange. And I’d say that even more than Infinity War and Endgame, it shows what can happen when you’ve got all the various parts of the MCU laying the groundwork to culminate in a huge, weird story.

First: the Sam Raimi effect. As somebody who always liked the Evil Dead movies but couldn’t really love them, my two favorite sequences in Raimi-directed movies are:

  1. In Darkman, the shot of Frances McDormand looking at the explosion in disbelief that perfectly cross-fades to her at a funeral.
  2. In Spider-Man 2, the sequence of Doctor Octopus coming to life on the operating room table.1For whoever’s keeping track of these things: number 3 is the seance/summoning/exorcism sequence in Drag Me To Hell.

The thing that both of those have in common is that they’re perfect translations of comic book aesthetics to filmmaking. Plenty of filmmakers have tried to translate comics to movies, either getting the “spirit” of comics or doing a too-literal direct interpretation, but nobody’s ever been as successful at it as Raimi.

So I had a blast seeing Raimi getting the reins of the full power of the MCU dreadnaught, but still be able to make enough of it in his own style. There aren’t any sequences that quite reach the level of that Doc Octopus scene in Spider-Man 2 — although a scene with a character getting caught in a prison of reflections and busting their way out was gloriously creepy — but there were so many camera spins, zooms, and stylistic flourishes that you could probably recognize it as his work even before Bruce Campbell showed up.

It’s funny that the sequence of Strange and America Chavez sailing through different universes is the one that made it into the trailer as an indicator of how weird the movie gets, because at this point, it’s almost tame and predictable. The bar for CG has been raised so high at this point that I just assume that effects houses are capable of doing anything a filmmaker can think of, so the effect in the movie kind of ends up feeling just like a demo reel. The shots in Multiverse of Madness that really stood out to me were the ones that felt old-school, teetering on the edge of cheesiness: there’s at least one shot of characters’ heads superimposed over the frame that actually reminded me of The Night of the Hunter more than anything else. These movies have to check off so many boxes that it’s nice to see filmmakers like Raimi and Taika Waititi getting to have some real fun with it.

But the entire movie was thoroughly and gloriously a comic book movie in subject matter, tone, and frequently aesthetics. More than anything else in the MCU, this seemed to embrace its comic origins even more than its cinematic origins, or even broader “genre fiction” origins. It’s the first that didn’t seem to be bringing comic book source material to a movie-going audience, but rather making movies for comic book audiences. There’s a background character who’s a sorcerer and a talking bull, for instance, and nobody comments on it or even seems to think it’s that remarkable.

As a result, there’s a kind of respect for the audience throughout, and I loved it. A tone of “you get this, you understand why it’s cool, we don’t need to spell it out for you or have characters spending too long gawking at the spectacle of it.” When a cameo happens — and there are several, one of which actually had me spontaneously yelling out “Yaaaayyyy!” in the middle of a packed theater, against my more reserved impulses — it’s not milked for surprise, but treated more like, “Yeah, you all knew this was coming, but it’s cool as hell anyway.”2Contrast it with Moon Knight, which frustratingly seemed to be operating with no awareness of how the rest of the MCU works. One of its big reveals in the finale was of a character who’d been conspicuously absent the entire series, not just to fans of the comics (which I’m not), but to anyone who’d seen a “Who is Moon Knight, anyway?” explainer video (which I am).

Which isn’t to say that it didn’t surprise me; even though most of the surprises were of the “satisfying reassurance of something I already suspected” variety, the whole story went in a direction that I hadn’t suspected at all. (More on that in the spoiler section below).

And even though it was so relentless that I kept finding myself thinking, “Anyone who isn’t exactly me would be exhausted by all of this,” it actually managed to give its major characters genuine character arcs. I compared it to Civil War, but I’d say it works even better as a sequel to Stephen Strange’s story than Civil War was for Steve Rogers. It’s not as surprisingly funny as Doctor Strange was, but it did further the story of Stephen Strange becoming a better person. The arc from the first movie had only gotten him part of the way there.

Since I’d expected it to be all spectacle with little substance, I was actually surprised that Strange’s storyline had essentially the same overall message as Everything Everywhere All at Once: instead of obsessing over what could have been or even what could be, learn to accept with gratitude and humility everything that is. I don’t think it was anywhere near as insightful or as moving as Everything Everywhere, but then, that wasn’t what it was aiming for. It was more focused on super-hero fights and less on the personal implications of the multiverse.

As for the thing that most surprised me — and is in my opinion the strongest example yet of how the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe is paying off in storytelling terms, not just box office — that requires me to spoil the whole story. I think not everybody’s going to like it as much as I did, but it’s still a lot of fun and one of the best entries in the MCU.

Continue reading “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”
  • 1
    For whoever’s keeping track of these things: number 3 is the seance/summoning/exorcism sequence in Drag Me To Hell.
  • 2
    Contrast it with Moon Knight, which frustratingly seemed to be operating with no awareness of how the rest of the MCU works. One of its big reveals in the finale was of a character who’d been conspicuously absent the entire series, not just to fans of the comics (which I’m not), but to anyone who’d seen a “Who is Moon Knight, anyway?” explainer video (which I am).

One Thing I Like About Encanto

Encanto managed to tell a straightforward story without feeling too simplistic

First of all, I’m proud of my joke, which goes like this: Will I still enjoy Encanto if I haven’t seen 1 to (n-1) Canto?

Anyway, one thing I like about Encanto is that I got to watch it on Disney+. I was wrecked by the end of this movie, and I’m kind of tired of having emotional breakdowns in public movie theaters. Magic of cinema, sure, I’m all for it I guess, but I’m 100% behind home streaming for first-run movies1As long as the studio takes that into account when negotiating contracts with their actors who’ve been a prominent part of several of their films for almost a decade, instead of, say, being a multi-billion dollar company hypocritically trying to shame actors for being greedy during a pandemic..

But that’s not the main thing I liked about the movie. There are actually two more things about Encanto that I liked a lot, and I was having kind of a hard time choosing which one was the most worth writing about. Then I realized that they’re both aspects of the same thing: the storytelling is straightforward, direct, and earnest, but without feeling simplistic, maudlin, or juvenile.

One example of that is the song “Surface Pressure.” I came into the movie after missing the first 30 minutes or so (I since went back and watched it), right as that song came on. I knew the basic premise of the story, and I already knew a surprising amount about the characters just from being on The Internet. I’d seen videos of people doing covers, and I was aware that the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” had become a meme, and I’ve seen lots and lots of musicals Disney and otherwise, so I thought I knew what the structure of the movie was. A song as confessional as “Surface Pressure” must come late in act 2 or so, after we’ve gotten to know the characters but then — twist! — we go deeper and learn more about the characters’ mental state.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was more or less Luisa’s introduction. Or at least the most dialogue she’s had in the movie up to that point, by far. She goes from being “I’m the sister who’s strong” to having an entire song explaining exactly what stresses she’s under. The question “what’s bothering Luisa?” only lingers for about 5 minutes, tops.

The reason that pleasantly surprised me is because movies so often treat that kind of directness, even in musicals, as being too on-the-nose or too simplistic. You can’t just have characters who are self-aware; that’s basic! You’ve got to let the mystery and intrigue stretch out, so the audience can see the character’s arcs playing out as they happen. But here, Mirabel talks to characters, and they immediately tell her exactly what’s on their minds, what their crises are, what they’re dealing with.

It’s almost as if Mirabel’s magical gift is being able to listen and understand what other people are going through.

The other example is that the movie has no villain. Family animated movies have evolved past fairy tale storytelling — and even when they do tell fairy tales, they can focus on aspects of the story that make them feel contemporary — but they still often feel juvenile because of their need to make every conflict about good guys vs bad guys. I still say that the one thing that keeps Up from being a flawless movie is that it spends so much time building its characters and organic, interesting conflicts, then just turns it into a movie about defeating the villain.

Encanto does have an antagonist, but they’re not motivated by greed or evil; they’re motivated by love. The reason the characters can be so direct about their internal struggles is because the movie isn’t about finding out what’s wrong. Everybody knows what’s wrong, and they just don’t know what to do about it. The conflict is driven by the completely understandable belief that it’s the family’s duty to be stewards protecting the miracle, forgetting that the entire reason the miracle exists is to protect the family.

Even though Encanto is full of characters saying explicitly exactly what they’re thinking, that doesn’t mean that there are no layers to it. It has three metaphors that are carried throughout: the casita itself, the candle representing the family’s magic, and the butterfly. I really like that the first two are made explicit as soon as they’re introduced — another case of being direct and skipping any unnecessary obfuscation — while the butterfly quietly lives on Mirabel’s shoulder until the climactic song about finding protection in each other and then needing to break out of that cocoon.

Tangentially related: I keep going back to all of the internet memes about “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and videos covering “Surface Pressure,” and realizing how I’m at least a couple of decades too old to be able to navigate modern social media. I can’t imagine being able to set up a camera and earnestly sing into it and then release it to the public without cringing. I can’t watch the short videos without being suspicious of exactly how many of them are “genuine” and how many are just part of a viral marketing campaign. Don’t people worry that they’ll look gullible or foolish for being taken in by Disney marketing?

But then, worrying about being taken in by marketing is an extremely Gen-X anxiety to have. I find it reassuring that there are people who don’t particularly care whether something they enjoy is coming from a “paid influencer” or not; all that matters is that they’re enjoying it. And there’s nothing to be lost by being fearlessly earnest and direct. The people who would turn up their nose at it were never going to like it in the first place, and as for the people willing to engage, telling or showing them exactly what’s on your mind and what you love is the best way to engage with them.

  • 1
    As long as the studio takes that into account when negotiating contracts with their actors who’ve been a prominent part of several of their films for almost a decade, instead of, say, being a multi-billion dollar company hypocritically trying to shame actors for being greedy during a pandemic.

One Thing I Like About Eternals

Eternals is a defiantly humanistic adaptation of cosmic-powered source material

I didn’t like Eternals. It was overlong, meandering, and ponderous. Its action sequences were weightless in multiple senses of the word. It made baffling story decisions from the opening text crawl to the post-credit sequences.

I’ve lost interest in picking apart things I don’t like, not so much out of any vague push for “positivity,” but because there’s just too much good stuff out there I’d rather be concentrating on. But unlike some other high-profile projects that more or less evaporated after failing to live up to expectations1See: The Matrix Resurrections. Or better: don’t., Eternals left me with something. It was a hazy sense of well-being, a faintly optimistic feeling of global community and shared humanity. (More than just the general light-headedness that came from still being up at 3 AM after foolishly starting the movie at midnight).

In short: Eternals took a part of the Marvel library that was designed from the start to be grand and cosmic, and defiantly turned it into a gentler, more humanistic story. I might not think it was successful, but I can respect that it was so full of intent, especially considering the weight of the MCU machine behind it.

Because I’ve recently read Jack Kirby’s original The Eternals comics, and then Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr’s 2006 update, I can’t help comparing them with the movie version’s adaptation2I haven’t read any of the other Eternals comics, so I can’t really comment on the aspects of those that were used in the movie version.. In particular, there are two aspects of the comics that are done differently in the movie, and they end up saying a lot about what the movie was trying to do: one aspect is representation, and the other is the audience’s entry point into the story.

Continue reading “One Thing I Like About Eternals”
  • 1
    See: The Matrix Resurrections. Or better: don’t.
  • 2
    I haven’t read any of the other Eternals comics, so I can’t really comment on the aspects of those that were used in the movie version.