Sit, Uatu, Sit (One Thing I Love About WandaVision Episode 5)

Even as it divides its time with the “real world,” WandaVision keeps making good use of its meta text

As expected, the more time WandaVision spends outside of its alternate-reality bubble, and gets back to advancing the ongoing storyline of the MCU, the less it feels like something completely new and unexpected.

To be clear: it’s still an outstanding show. Its shifts between realities, characters, and modes of storytelling are all excellently paced and executed. Even as it gets closer to providing more of the action-movie moments that MCU fans expect from a tentpole, big-budget TV series, those moments are tense and memorable.

Except those moments work like the rest of the MCU does, while the series up until now has felt like something different. In particular, they left me with the feeling that I was perfectly in sync with what was happening on screen, without having to suspend my disbelief about anything. That sounds odd, considering it’s a show about alternate reality bubbles and super heroes and synthezoids with powers gifted to them via the infinity stones, but I’m talking about suspending my disbelief in the show itself, not its content.

For instance: now, I’m back to second-guessing not just the motives of certain characters, but second-guessing whether I’m supposed to be second-guessing them. I mean, everybody could tell SWORD director guy was suspicious, and they even have our most sympathetic characters call it out. But now I can’t tell if the show itself was trying to hide it. It seems like a missed opportunity for a little bit more depth in a series that’s otherwise been able to give sitcom-style conflicts an underlying tension and dread unlike anything we’ve seen before. There was potential to set up a more interesting relationship between the director and Our Heroes, but instead they just seem to be repeating story beats from Captain America: Civil War.

But there were two moments in this episode that worked brilliantly, a reminder that this series is doing more to push the limits of conventional storytelling not just past what we’ve seen in the rest of the MCU, but in television as a whole. Neither of them are the “big spoiler moments” of the episode — or the amazing pictures of Vision over the opening credits — but they are spoiler-adjacent, so I’d recommend not reading on until you’ve seen all five episodes.

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WandaVision in the Meta-text of Madness

Episode 4 of WandaVision somehow managed to top what’s already been an astoundingly well-crafted series

As much as I’ve been loving WandaVision, there’s been a creeping sense of dread — in addition to the overt one that’s baked into the premise — that eventually this fun, bizarre experiment is going to have to be unrolled, scaled back, and placed into the more mundane “real world” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Which at this point has spaceships, time travel, multiple alien species, magic, multiple heroes who can casually fly, and a society still dealing with the fact that half of the living people in the universe were blinked out of existence for five years. But still.

It turns out that I needn’t have worried, because episode 4, “We Interrupt This Program,” was great. It didn’t feel like a reduction, but a recalibration, a re-contextualization of what we’ve seen so far, and a suggestion of how the already-huge MCU might expand in the next “phase.”

Last weekend, I made a belabored argument that the MCU had managed to create something that wasn’t “cinema,” wasn’t really like episodic TV, and wasn’t really like comic books, but combined the aspects of each most suited to a 21st century audience. At the time, I felt like I might’ve been laying it on a little thick. But this episode feels like the MCU responding with, “Uh, yeah, no shit, dude. Where’ve you been?”

I’ve got three favorite moments in this episode, but talking about them is spoiler heavy so please don’t read the rest until you’ve seen the first four episodes of WandaVision.

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The Back Side of the 1960s

Preemptively heading off comments about the upcoming Jungle Cruise refurb

Today, Disney announced their plan to make changes to the Jungle Cruise rides at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, removing culturally insensitive (and imperialist) references to native tribes, guides, and head hunters, and replacing them with a new storyline about the hapless crew of a previous journey.

I wanted to ask all the Disney parks fans to join together and head off any attempts from the internet to turn this into some kind of controversy. To be fair, I haven’t actually seen any complaints about it yet, because I’m largely out of touch with the usual gang of obsessives on Twitter and in forums. So this might not even be necessary. Maybe everybody’s excited about it!

But: when Disneyland painted its theme park fairy tale castle a brighter color, people responded as if the company had gone back in time and physically assaulted their younger selves. Anything involving “cultural sensitivity” — like, hypothetically speaking, changing a key scene in an attraction that showed the lighter, family-friendly side of both fat-shaming and human trafficking — tends to have people grousing about it for years.

And actually, I get it. Song of the South is undeniably a movie infused with racism to its core, but I still felt more than a little melancholy when I heard that Splash Mountain was being re-themed to The Princess and the Frog. The movie, its songs, and the ride conjure up very specific, wonderful memories of my childhood and my mother, and it’ll never not be sad seeing those erased.

I understand intellectually why it’s necessary to change, and I’m in favor of the changes, but there’s still that emotional gut response aversion to it. That temptation to ask, “can’t we just acknowledge that it’s dated, and keep it with asterisks attached?” Or, “Isn’t it ultimately harmless?”

So here’s a very recent — and pretty embarrassing, honestly — example to demonstrate why having dated, inaccurate, or insensitive images repeated constantly, even if they seem “harmless” or “just a gag,” can be harmful. If you’re like me, a middle-class American or Western European who’s never traveled to east Africa, what is the image that come into your head when I mention “Kenya?”

Is it this?

Image of Nairobi from the Enchanting Travels website

I’m embarrassed to admit that I always pictured what I’d always thought was a positive image: a broad, beautiful, savanna with zebras and wildebeests grazing peacefully. I know that much of the country is actually like that. And I know that my only other frame of reference for “Africa” — the fictional city of “Harambe” in Animal Kingdom — is supposed to be a relatively accurate depiction of the smaller towns that are probably more widespread (at least, as of the late 1990s). But my entire idea of the country, if not the entire continent, was so full of these images of safaris and small towns that they’d completely crowded out even the possibility of a cosmopolitan city center with millions of people.

To compare it to something I understand better: it would be as if I thought the entire state of Georgia was like the small towns in the rural southern part of the state, and Atlanta didn’t even exist. I’m not putting any value judgment on small towns vs city centers; the older I get, the more I think cities are overrated. I’m just talking about preconceived notions of an entire place that don’t account for its variety, and don’t update over the years along with the real world.

Just last week, somebody on Twitter posted a picture of the Nairobi skyline — I can’t remember the exact context, but it was in response to some dipshit trying to say that Kenya was backwards — and I think it might’ve been the first I’d ever even seen the city. I wasn’t even aware that I’d been carrying around those over-simplistic ideas of what the country, and really, the rest of the world is like.

So essentially what I’m saying is that I could understand the complaints about the Jungle Cruise changes: the ride is supposed to be silly and light-hearted and never claims to be an accurate representation. Plus, it’s set during some not-quite-specified time period in the early 20th century, so it’s supposed to be dated. (Similar to the “They’re pirates! They’re supposed to be bad guys!” complaint, as if that were the point).

But my response is simply that images are more powerful than we think, especially when they’re presented as if they were harmless, and especially when they’re repeated so often. We can — and in the case of the Jungle Cruise, absolutely should — keep the old aesthetic, but we’re not obliged to keep the old attitudes. From the gags I’ve seen in their “first look” video, it seems like they’ve got the right idea: it’s still silly and fun, but the humor is more inclusive instead of just making fun of people that don’t deserve it.

True Believers

(Over-)Thinking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and whether it’s “cinema,” or if it’s something even more relevant to the 21st century

Hey, did everybody catch the latest episode of WandaVision. It was pretty rad. The feeling of a TV-series-long homage to “It’s a Good Life” was stronger than ever, with the added depth of being invested in the characters to make it super sinister. My favorite gag in the whole episode was how they called back to the various ways TV series have tried to hide an actor’s pregnancy over the years: putting them in big coats, standing behind counters, holding a bowl of fruit.

While I was reading back over my gushing about WandaVision, a few things stood out: first was that I seriously need an editor.

Second is that I referred to Paul Bettany as “Jennifer Connelly’s husband,” which could come across as a weird dig against him out of nowhere, but I really intended it as a dig against his agent. Or probably more accurately, the byzantine union rules that resulted in his getting top billing over Elizabeth Olsen. Because that doesn’t seem fair at all. Bettany himself, on the other hand, seems pretty cool.

But third was how I put in a dig against Martin Scorsese for saying that “Marvel movies aren’t ‘cinema.'” This was a quote that I’d heard a while ago, back when the internet was trying to gin it up into a controversy, but at the time I just rolled my eyes and moved on. Last week I realized that if I’m going to keep referencing it, I should probably look it up and see what he actually said.

And I was disappointed. I’d expected it disagree entirely, but I figured that coming from a filmmaker with Scorsese’s stature, it would be a well-thought-out and multi-layered argument. Instead, it’s just the same old “high art vs low art” gate-keeping that fans of “genre fiction” have been used to seeing for decades. It uses a narrow definition of “cinema” that is just flexible enough to include the stuff that Scorsese likes, it conflates subject matter with artistic merit, and it goes on to conflate artistic merit with financing, production, distribution, and exhibition. And it should come as little surprise that it frames the predominance of “franchise pictures” as the death of the auteur-driven film model in which he became world-famous and widely respected.

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“I Love WandaVision”

Reviewing (or really, effusively gushing about) the first two episodes of the new MCU series WandaVision

Two warnings first: 1) This has spoilers for the first two episodes of WandaVision. 2) I’ve barely read any Marvel comics, so if you got here via a search, hoping for easter eggs and hidden comics references and storyline speculation, I’m no help. Luckily for you, there’s a metric shitton of that already online: ScreenCrush has a bunch and tries to speculate on future story developments, while Nerdist keeps it a little bit more to the comics references themselves.

As an only-partially-abashed fan of Disney, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve maybe been a little too much of an apologist for global media conglomerates. I feel like I’ve abandoned any claim to indie cred several times over, when I suggest that not all IP is bad, and that sometimes mega-budgeted corporate productions can result in fantastic experiences.

WandaVision makes me feel a little vindicated, because I’m skeptical you’d ever see something quite like it without ten years of blockbuster movies and a corporate-owned streaming service behind it.

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IP Freely

Finding inspiration for independent creativity via an investor announcement from a multi-billion-dollar multinational entertainment conglomerate

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in a mopey funk thinking about intellectual property vs creator-owned original work, and how the landscape of creative work has changed so dramatically, and what it says about my own career.

My first job in video games was for a sequel to a game that I loved, and after working on several more sequels and licensed titles over the years, I finally got to work with some of my all-time favorite characters. I even got to make my own small contribution with an original character.1Well, as original as a pastiche of at least five different other characters can be. Recently I saw that character being used as company branding for a license-holder who’s making re-releases for the games, which just feels like giving me a huge middle finger.

I guess the lesson learned, after 25 years, is: never confuse a “feeling of ownership” over something you’ve made with actual ownership. Turns out that the conversion rate between USD and a sense of pride in a creative work is, at the time of this writing, 0.00.

Way back in the dark mists of the mid-1990s, when I was working in that first job in game development, there was a pervasive false dichotomy between “licensed titles” (the term “intellectual property” hadn’t really hit mainstream yet) and original work. In short, you were either working on something original, or you were selling out.2The first company I worked at had a couple of gigantic all-encompassing licenses, so that probably had a lot to do with it, but I know that it wasn’t limited to just LucasArts, since you can still see it all the time in regards to Imagineering projects, and the rise of “not cinema” super-hero movies.

It was silly even back then, but seems particularly absurd now. Some of the most brilliant, genre-redefining games were licensed games; and I’ve had a much greater sense of ownership over my work on a couple of licensed games than for the “original” ones. But still, it was pervasive enough that I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more inherently valuable about original work.

I suspect I was always too idealistic to admit that this was just trying to put a “celebrate the unique magic of creativity” spin on what was in reality a much more financial concern. Obviously, talented people can make something great out of a license just as well as they can out of an original concept. The biggest differences are who gets control over it, and who gets to profit from the labor involved. In retrospect, I probably should’ve noticed that the people who were shouting the loudest about the integrity of original content were the exact same people who stood to benefit the most from it.

I’ve always appreciated that I had a very rare opportunity in that my first job in games was not only for my favorite game developer, but on what was one of my favorite properties. If you think of it as “professional fan fiction,” which is basically how I thought of it, then it’s easy to focus only on living up to your expectations as a fan. It’s easier to forget about all the practical concerns like budgeting and recognition and marketing, and forgetting how much the license is giving you a head start. You’re riding on top of a built-in audience, as well as probably a larger budget and a bigger team. Not to mention all the more subtle advantages, like you’re probably not having to pitch the basics of the concept to people.

A big part of my mopey funk is just realizing how much work is involved when you don’t have that head start. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of creative people sharing their work online — paintings and drawings, CG models, animation, short films, music, independent games — and I’ve been marveling at how anyone has the time and energy to be making so much stuff these days. Most recently I’ve been getting back into the YouTube channel of David Sandberg, a Swedish filmmaker who’s built a Hollywood career off of his short films, and is somehow still making short films and tutorials. On Instagram, I’ve been following artist Sean Kiernan, who’ll casually post concept images for an animated series or video game that has yet to be made.

It’s equal parts inspiring and paralyzing. How do you even get started?

The encouraging thing is that there are not only more sophisticated tools available than ever before, for cheaper than ever before, with a network of people eager to share what they’ve learned. There are even more platforms eager to help you monetize it, if that’s your end goal.

Today, there’s been a firehose of announcements from Disney, for the purposes of reminding COVID-wary investors that even if the theme parks, movie theaters, and cruise lines are closed, the company still has seemingly billions of beloved properties and characters available to work with. There are some Star Wars series that sound amazing, and also Rogue One spin-off Andor; various MCU series in the works; some new series based on Disney Animation properties like Big Hero Six and Zootopia; and even a feature-length Toy Story spin-off about Buzz Lightyear.

In addition to announcements for existing properties, they also announced Encanto, a movie set in Colombia with music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which seems to be pitched to emphasis similarities to Moana; and Iwaju, which looks like an original afrofuturism fantasy story, no doubt made Disney-viable by the success of Black Panther.

It’d be easy to be cynical and say that this is just Disney pumping out a glut of licensed properties to milk every last penny from their licenses. You can tell it’d be easy to say that, since I’ve already seen so many people saying it on Twitter. What’s interesting to me, though, is that very little of this fits into that whole mid-1990s dichotomy of IP vs original content. Original concepts become less risky when combined with known talent or known properties, and vice versa. And licenses are just as likely to be used as vehicles for more established talent (like Jon Favreau, Taika Waititi, and Dave Filoni with Star Wars) as not-as-well-known talent (like the team behind the Ms Marvel series).

There are still tons of creators and tons of ideas out there; the biggest difference between now and the “good old days” is that more of those ideas are getting made by more of those creators. Of course not all of it will be great, but it doesn’t need to be.

And I think it dispels that old dichotomy once and for all. It’s called “intellectual property” for a reason; that’s the only thing that companies like Disney and Lucasfilm truly “own.” They don’t own the talent or creativity of the people making stuff, even though in the past, the gatekeepers of the IP were almost always the same as the gatekeepers of the resources to make everything possible. Being an independent creator was a much, much, much bigger liability back then than it is now.

A huge company is making it possible for tons of new ideas to become reality. A bunch of people who made their names off small indie projects will get much greater exposure from being attached to a big-name project; and a bunch of people working on big-name projects will now potentially have the resources to make their own stuff independently.

As it turns out, the only finite resource is time. I hope I’ve got time to make new stuff with all this TV I’m going to have to watch.

Walt Disney Imagin

Congratulations to Joe Rohde on his retirement, plus my thanks, and some speculation about the future of Disney parks

I wanted to congratulate Joe Rohde on his retirement after 40 years with Imagineering, and to say a public thanks for his involvement in projects that have meant a lot to me.

Over the years, Animal Kingdom has become my favorite park at Walt Disney World. Of course, that’s not due to any one person, but I think the main reason Animal Kingdom has gotten better over time is because of a commitment to world-building in every single detail, whether it’s inside an attraction or not. Being able to communicate, explain, express, and defend that vision is most often credited to Rohde, and it makes sense. He just seems to get, on a fundamental level, what that park is about and why it works. On top of everything else, I love that Animal Kingdom exists as tangible proof that an insistence on thoughtful, exhaustively-researched, ethically conscious design can actually make a tangible difference.

Today I’ve seen a lot of people online worrying about what Rohde’s retirement will mean for the future of Disney parks and Imagineering, and I’ve got some opinions on that, too. I should probably emphasize that I list the WDI projects I worked on in my “About” section because I’m extremely proud of them, not because I’m in any way an “insider” or have any kind of informed opinion about how Imagineering actually works. I contracted for everything, and I was never a “real” employee. Disney has such a culture of “magic” and showmanship that even their behind-the-scenes specials are as carefully controlled and presented as anything actually happening on-stage, and there have been plenty of times that I haven’t been able to tell the difference. So all of this is just one fan’s opinion, based on nothing other than interviews, documentaries, and being in the parks quite a bit.

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Welcome, Foolish Meeples

When hinges creak in doorless chambers… that is the time when nerds are present, talking about the Haunted Mansion: Call of the Spirits board game.

I’ve already mentioned I’m in the middle of a low-key obsession with Prospero Hall, a game design studio based in Seattle. The game that set me off was Godzilla: Tokyo Clash, a kaiju beat-em-up that I enjoyed so much that I immediately set off to 3D print a bunch of pieces for it. Even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic bereft of Game Nights, I haven’t been able to resist getting all the Prospero Hall games I could get my hands on.

So when I found out they’d made The Haunted Mansion: Call of the Spirits, there was no point in my even pretending I’d wait to get a copy. It’s one of my top 5 Disney attractions, and the game is like a love letter to the ride, with every single detail and design element seemingly aimed directly at fans.

The Haunted Mansion: Call of the Spirits is a set collection/press-your-luck game, with the premise that the ghosts have, as the song says, come out to socialize. Each player gets a piece shaped like the bats on the end of the stanchions in the queue, and you can move between the seance room and the endless hallway. Cards representing the ghosts are placed around the board, each with a suit representing its room in the ride — the stretching room, portrait hall, ballroom, graveyard, attic (with grooms of the haunted bride), etc. You’re trying to collect ghost cards to build sets from the same suit, each with a Sushi Go-esque point value system. At the same time, you’re trying to avoid collecting too many haunt cards, which cost points at the end of the game. These are received mainly from crossing paths with the hitchhiking ghosts trying to follow you home.

A particularly clever element is that the endless hallway is represented by a rondel in the center of the board. In addition to moving from space to space, a player can rotate the piece any number of spaces, moving herself and any other players in the hallway. The only thing that feels even remotely like a missed opportunity in the entire game is the lack of doom buggies, but they’re here in spirit: riding on an infinite circular track, passing through all of the rooms of the mansion.

I’ve only played it once, but it’s fun and quick-moving. The time estimate on the box is 30 minutes, which seems about right. But there were plenty of opportunities for interesting decisions, so don’t assume that a short, licensed game is necessarily shallow.

Really, that’s exactly why I’m in love with Prospero Hall’s games at the moment, especially the ones made in conjunction with Funko Games. Frankly they’re better than licensed games have any right to be. Most of the time, especially with Disney licenses, publishers just lazily slap new artwork on top of a mass market game most people are already tired of playing: Clue, Life, Risk, or now even Catan. Prospero Hall seems to be making more interesting games based on licenses they love — if they don’t love them, they’re doing an awful good job of faking it.

Production values and art direction are impeccable. In Call of the Spirits, the ghost cards all have art that fans of the ride will recognize from paintings or animatronics. (There are some familiar paintings arranged on the outside of the box as well). There’s another nice surprise detail for Haunted Mansion fans in the box, that I didn’t take a photograph of to let players discover it on their own.

As I said, as a fan of the Haunted Mansion, there was no way that I wasn’t going to buy this game. But I think even non-fans should be impressed with what they’re doing here. They’re raising the bar not just for licensed games but for mass market games in general. The game mechanics here aren’t completely original, but it is a novel combination of some familiar mechanics, and there’s a good chance it’ll introduce players to a type of game they’ve never played before. 1Lords of Waterdeep, a licensed D&D game, was what made me love worker placement games more than any of the traditional choices for “best in genre.” Disney Villainous is the most accessible asymmetric game I’ve seen, and I still have yet to play anything else quite like it. I’d certainly rather play Call of the Spirits than Sushi Go, which is the most similar game I can think of.

I’ve only played the two-player variant, and much like with Godzilla: Tokyo Clash, I can already tell that the game’s probably more interesting with three or more. I think even if I didn’t love the Haunted Mansion, I’d have fun with this game. And even if this one weren’t for me, I’d be impressed that they’re working to make board games more accessible to more people, and better overall.

Tomorrowland Trivia Authority

90% of me bragging about finally winning something, 10% reminiscing about Hipster Tomorrowland

If you like hearing recordings of people saying my name, then you should definitely check out episode 61 of the RetroWDW podcast! Because I’m a big big winner. Every episode, they do a contest called the Audio Rewind, where they play a sound clip from somewhere and sometime in Walt Disney World’s past, and you have to guess where it’s from.

After multiple failed attempts, I finally won one by identifying “Music Makers” by Esquivel, which used to play in the exit queue of Space Mountain. I’m especially happy about this one, since that addition had a big impact on me. It was part of the 1994 refurb of Tomorrowland, which as far as I’m concerned was a Golden Age for Imagineering.

They just nailed the tone. It’d been obvious for decades that Tomorrowland — in both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom — was never going to work as even a semi-realistic representation of the future, so the more sustainable direction was a retro-fantasy version. Disney had already been doing this with attractions like Horizons and World of Motion, but the most clever idea of the 94 refurb was that they didn’t limit it to just one version of “retro.” Instead of just going all-in on “steampunk” or “space age,” they combine elements of just about every popular futuristic fantasy from the late 1800s to the 1980s. Art Deco, 1920s modernism, mid-century modern, post war and Cold War, with lots and lots of neon.

Space Mountain’s new exit had an extended FedEx advertisement in the form of a long moving walkway past a series of dioramas about interplanetary deliveries. Including robot dogs on Mars, for some reason. At the time I had just “discovered” Esquivel via a compilation called Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, and hearing it in Disney World made me feel like Disney and I were perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist of retro-cool.

This was around the same time Disneyland’s Space Mountain got a light tunnel on its lift hill and an on-ride soundtrack with Dick Dale doing a space-surf guitar version of Carnival of the Animals. The rest of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland refurb was… less that successful, but that was probably due to cost-cutting and short-sighted exec decisions instead of a lack of imagination. But the first time I rode that version of Space Mountain remains one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had at a theme park.

Disney Parks will always have an element of dated corniness to them, but that’s not a criticism; it’s an important part of how they work. It part of what makes them feel safe and nostalgic. 1And why attempts to be scary and “edgy” like Alien Encounter, or mockingly self-aware like Tiki Room Under New Management, are always going to be a failure. Seeing and hearing the park playing something that I actually thought was cool felt like it was speaking to me directly for once.

Postcards from Batuu

Photos from various trips to Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland (before the pandemic)

I’m still in the process of figuring out how to use WordPress as a Flickr+Facebook+Instagram+Twitter replacement. A previous version of this post with vacation photos got broken while I was removing plugins, so here’s an attempt to re-post.

The key takeaway from these photos is that Galaxy’s Edge is rad, and has everything a middle-aged nerd could possibly want. It’s got spaceships and other vehicles: