All hail the God of Silliness

If you had told me a year ago that a Thor film would be one of my favourite Marvel movies in recent years, I would have looked at you like you were touched in the head, possibly by a mythical hammer. For me, the two first Thor films were firmly at the bottom of the MCU, kept company only by Iron Man 2. In fact, I would have said that the character Thor was my least favourite of all the main characters in Marvel’s cinematic universe (though I am not including the TV series in this reckoning, because, well, Danny Rand). Yes, thanks to The Avengers I could see that the big, blond lug had some potential, but mainly as a supporting character and as the butt of a bunch of jokes.

Thor: Ragnarok

After Thor: Ragnarok, though? Well, let’s put it like this: if you’re looking for story or theme in an MCU film, the latest adventure of the God of Thunder won’t make you a convert. If you’re expecting a plot that is significantly different from, oh, pretty much every single Marvel movie since Iron Man, you’re out of luck. If you want a movie that fully embraces the silliness inherent in this ever-growing comic book universe translated onto the screen, though? Then hell, yeah – Thor: Ragnarok is an embarrassment of riches.

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Biff, bang, pow! Or: An age of small-screen Marvels?

I’ll be honest: while I’d say that I enjoyed the majority of Marvel movies to date, the thing I’m least interested in is the fights. There are some fun, well-shot and -choreographed kerfuffles in the films, but on the whole I like them heroes less when they speak with their fists, repulsor beams and mythical hammers. What’s worse than a Marvel movie fight scene, though? A Marvel TV series fight scene.

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Making for a Happy Medium

While it should be self-evident that different media allow for different kinds of storytelling and different forms of expression, it’s good to be reminded of this in enjoyable ways in this Age of Adaptation, where so many films, TV series, games are adaptations of material in other media. Last week I saw the London production of Gypsy, which was brilliant, startling – and a great example of a story that works best on stage. We’d previously seen the ’60s film version of Gypsy, which works well in its own right, but it’s on the stage that the story came truly alive.

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________ will remember that.

The recent Telltale Games series – The Walking Dead, which is currently in its second season, and The Wolf Among Us, based on Bill Willingham’s Fables – make great use of that phrase. They provide the player with relatively limited choice, but they put you in control of how you behave towards others, how you treat them. You may just have tried to cement a shaky alliance by siding with a frightened father over the rest of the group: Kenny will remember that. Or you have just had your character, Sheriff Bigby Wolf – yes, that’s the Big Bad Wolf of fairytale fame in human shape -, beat up a murder suspect in the hope of scaring a confession out of him: The Woodsman will remember that.

The Telltale games, especially the recent ones, have mostly received good to great reviews, but there’s been criticism of what they do since the beginning. Choice and consequence: these are one of the Holy Grails of many gamers, and a fair number of them see the choices in the two aforementioned series as shallow at best, false at worst: the plot largely remains the same, regardless of what you do and what the other characters remember. If someone is fated – or, more accurately, written – to die, they will die. Sometimes the plot may branch in small ways, but these branches are usually closed quickly in favour of a tightly constructed story arc.

What changes, though, is your relationship to the characters you interact with. Kenny will remember that you sided with him at a time when he felt most alone – and, perhaps more important, you will remember. You’ll feel like a good guy, or conflicted over siding with a decent but choleric man who acts before he thinks. The interaction may be shallow in one sense, but in another it is far more nuanced than the binary, “Choose your own adventure”-style story choices in some games lauded for giving the player agency. I don’t dislike those games, but I find Telltale’s, let’s say, relationship-based interactivity more engaging. Their games give you the sort of choices that at least I can relate to: in real life, I rarely am faced with deciding between remaining loyal to a corrupt lord that nevertheless provides stability or joining a rebel army whose dedication to the cause borders on fanaticism. The choices I have are usually about my attitude towards others and how I express this: do I snap at someone because I’m tired and they pushed the wrong buttons, or do I let it go? These are the decisions that in aggregate shape who I feel I am.

The Wolf Among Us

Obviously games are often escapist fare, and many enjoy making decisions that they are unlikely ever to face in real life. I won’t deny that the escapist side of games appeals to me too – yet I like some reality in my escapism. I like to feel with characters in unreal worlds that nevertheless resonate and feel real to me. In that respect, I usually stand with good old Marianne Moore, not just with respect to poetry: I want “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”, and not just toads but Kennys, woodsmen and Big Bad Wolves that, for their red eyes and sharp claws, are relatable, are people. Telltale’s choices aren’t epic, they’re human-scale, and they are a large part of what makes their tales of the zombie apocalypse and of exiled fairytale characters trying to make a life in ’80s New York interesting to me: the premises come to life most in how they juxtapose the fantastic and the real, the supernatural and the essentially human. Being an asshole or a nice guy, taking the easy way or sticking to your beliefs, even if you can’t change where things end up, perhaps especially when these choices end up not making a dent in reality – they nevertheless define who you are. Games, perhaps more than other media or art forms, offer interesting ways of expressing yourself.

Clementine will remember that. As will I, because that decision was mine in a meaningful way. When I choose to side with one faction over another in The Witcher II, I do so because I want to see all the material the developers created, to get my money’s worth. I know I will go back to choose the other faction later on. When I make choices as an ex-con trying to do right by his surrogate daughter in a dangerous world, or as a sheriff with deep-rooted anger issues trying to solve a murder, most likely I won’t go back to listen to the other branches on the dialogue tree. I’ve made my choice, and I, too, will remember that.

P.S.: There’s one instance where The Wolf Among Us uses, and subverts, the “_______ will remember that.” trope to great comedic effect. The game’s almost worth playing just for that.

These Dead are made for Walking

Zombies. How’s that for unlikely media stars? I used to think it’s only geek culture that goes for zombies in a big way, with stuff like the Marvel Zombies series (seriously!) and with even the most unlikely games having to shoehorn in a mode where you battle the undead hordes.

But no, zombies have arrived in a big way, and they seem to be here to stay. Perhaps the biggest success in this respect has been Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, a comic series started in 2003 which by now has generated not only a TV series that is currently in its third season – and an adventure game series by Telltale Games that is one of the most unexpected gaming hits ever. Adventure games are a bit of a zombie genre themselves; back in the ’80s and ’90s there were many best-selling series, from the Monkey Island games to Sierra’s countless Quest titles, but these days there simply aren’t any triple-A graphic adventures. Telltale, too, have not always produced sterling games, often resorting to tired genre clichés in various series of games trying, with varying success, to revive old franchises, including video game follow-ups to the Back to the Future and Jurassic Park series of films.

To be honest, I didn’t expect much from The Walking Dead. I read the comics but quickly gave up; they start well and are admirably ruthless at depicting a world after the zombie apocalypse where no one is safe from being chowed on by shambling corpses, but the writing is often clumsy and the plotting increasingly became about little other than escalating worst-case scenarios with a touch of sadism towards the characters. (I don’t expect the scenario to be all sunshine and lollipops, but ceaseless grimness and brutality quickly become boring.) The TV series seems well made enough, but zombie fiction tends to rehearse two plots over and over again: 1) the zombies are coming! and 2) man is wolf to man (oh, and the zombies are coming!). How much story can you squeeze out of the overall setup?

Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead doesn’t tell a story that is fundamentally new, but it succeeds at taking the shopworn premise and giving it a spin. For anyone who’s ever despaired at people seriously discussing how they’d fare in the undead apocalypse (and listening to the kind of guys who’d seriously claim that they’ve got it all figured out: “Man, all I need is a sharp katana and 500 tins of baked beans…”), the game puts you in the shoes of a survivor and makes you take some hard decisions. Do you save the person who’s most likely to be of use but who hates your guts or do you throw him to the undead in favour of the woman you’re kinda sweet on? Do you distribute your limited food and water among the group or do you keep them for yourself and the eight-year old girl you’ve taken under your wing?

The game was advertised on the strength of the choices it gives the player, but admittedly the plot doesn’t change in any major ways based on what you do. What does change, though, is how the characters feel about you and how you feel about the characters. What Telltale does magnificently is engage you in the story of a small band of characters – none of which fit the typical video game template (no super heroes, space marines and busty female archaeologists in this one!) – and make you feel the escalating dread and weariness. Whatever you do, you don’t end up saving the world. You might not even save yourself. In The Walking Dead, winning may mean making sure that Clementine, the little girl that ends up in your care, survives another day, that she gets to eat, and that you’ll manage to keep her and the dwindling group of survivors from losing not only their lives but indeed the will to live.

In the end, Telltale’s take on the Walking Dead universe reminds me of nothing as much as of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It doesn’t have the same beautifully sparse prose, but it has the same trajectory – and it effectively puts me in the shoes of The Road‘s father, desperately wanting to make sure that the child I’m looking after is safe but at the same time knowing that I must not do so at the price of my own humanity. The relationship between Lee, the player character, and Clementine is one of the most successfully executed relationships in any game I’ve ever played, and it beats most similar relationships in films and TV. Hell (on earth), even Mr Ebert might appreciate this one when he isn’t yelling for those damn brain-eating kids to get off his laaaaarrrrgh-

P.S.: My apologies for the pun in the title – the only thing that’s funny about it is its smell…

A League too far?

Has it finally happened? Have I gone off Alan Moore? What’s next: will I stop liking rare steak? (I admit, I like good quality beef and my carbon footprint looks like nothing so much as a gigantic hoof-print…)

Well, what has happened is this: I used to get most if not all new Alan Moore comics by default, and after reading League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 2009: Are there any more subtitles coming this way? that’s simply not the case any more. I haven’t liked any of Moore’s recent works as much as those created during his heyday – masterworks such as WatchmenFrom Hell, V for Vendetta – but I’ve found enough things to like even in decidedly lesser Moore such as Smax, his Top 10 spin-off.

For the record, I think that the first two League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volumes are fantastic examples of strong storytelling and characterisation. Thematically they may not be as complex and rewarding as the works that made Moore famous, but they’re still examples of an author at the top of his craft. The continued adventures of the League though… To my mind Moore made two mistakes: one being that his ambition to create a world where all fictions are true overrode any wish he had to tell a good story with great characters, the other that the closer the story came to our present the less Moore had to say about the culture he was riffing on. 1910 and 1969 are still well crafted, and the latter even manages to intrigue as a story, but 2009 simply doesn’t say anything much of interest about modern pop culture. Its critique is shallow and lazy, making the Grand Old Madman of Comics come across as an old coot going, “You kids, get off my lawn!”

The greatest crime, though, is that a series that once featured extraordinary characters written with depth and sympathy (for the most part) – well, that series ended up with versions of the surviving characters that were uninteresting and exchangeable. Mina and Alan, as the century rolled on, were reduced to pale shadows of their former selves, in ways that made them boring to read rather than resonating thematically, which may be what Moore was aiming for.

It’s a shame, because throughout Century there are scenes that show Moore has still got it, and one of my favourite bits in all of the League is the deus ex machina he employs at the end of 2009, managing to be funny and chilling at the same time. But it doesn’t quite make up for the increasing tendency in the comics to indulge in Where’s Waldo-style “Spot the reference!” games – and, what is worse, games that lack the gleeful joy of earlier instalments. Too much of 2009 feels perfunctory. So, quite seriously, has Alan Moore become too much of a caricature of himself?

Sadly, even Kevin O’Neill’s art feels lacking in 2009 – perhaps because the (near-)present is a less exciting playground than the fictional past. He’s still got some great visuals, but both in terms of writing and art 2009 feels tired too much of the time. Perhaps it’s time for Moore to take a holiday? Watch some good TV? Get over himself?

Not your average assembly line heroes

As a nerd/geek since childhood, I’m a bit of an odd duck. I never read superhero comics as a kid. Asterix, yes, as well as Tintin, and for a while there I also read some of the Disney stuff, but never very avidly. The caped crusaders, men of steel, the uncanny mutants and amazing arachnid-boys, though? Nope. I was never particularly interested. Yes, I watched the occasional superhero movie and am still a fan of Burton’s Batman Returns and Nolan’s takes on the dark’n’depressed knight, I did catch most of the X-Men, Spiderman and Iron Man films at the cinema, but I never felt all that engaged. At their best they were a fun way of spending two hours, at their worst they were forgettable but had some cool special effects, but I didn’t get what would make people go and buy regular instalments of their favourite heroes’ comic series.

My first superhero comics were the more revisionist ones, Moore’s Watchmen, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (which I can safely say I didn’t like), later Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son, all of which riffing to some extent on the comics that had gone before, and that I was aware of in a second-hand, “I’ve read about these…” way. The traditional superheroics, though? I wasn’t interested – unless they were written by someone whose writing I really liked. When Joss Whedon did his run on Astonishing X-Men, I bought the trade paperbacks and greatly enjoyed them, but I always put that down to Whedon doing his thing, not to anything intrinsic to comic book heroes. Same with Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways, which reminded me a lot of Whedon’s TV work. (Ironically, I’m not a big fan of Whedon’s run on Runaways, which should have been a perfect fit but the writing was unengaging.)

What I liked about these especially – Whedon’s X-Men and Vaughan’s Runaways – was that they had characters who weren’t defined by their powers or gadgets. These were characters I’d want to spend time with even if they weren’t saving the world, beating up baddies or fighting their nemeses. And, more than that, they were about dysfunctional (surrogate) families, that old old Tolstoyan chestnut… Families that brought out the best and the worst in each other. Just like those other families in Whedon’s work, the Scoobie Gang, the crew of Serenity, even the team of Angel Investigations.

I didn’t realise that at their best, the superhero comics (at least Marvel – I have to say, I don’t know DC particularly well, although Vertigo’s Sandman is also about a dysfunctional family, of course) are exactly about that. They’re not about the BIFFs, the ZINGs and the POWs, they’re not about being able to punch someone through a mountain, climbing up vertical surfaces like a human spider or running at supersonic speed. And that’s exactly where Joss Whedon’s The Avengers took me completely by surprise. I went in thinking, “Well, I liked Iron Man, I like Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner, and Scarlett Johansson is relatively easy on the eye. Perhaps Whedon will make this work.” I thought I’d probably not give a toss about Captain America (how can I, as a European pinko liberal commie of the worst kind?) or Thor (seriously, that outfit? the hammer?) or the Hulk (green, grotesque, always angry – Mr Hyde’s boring descendant, right?).

And yet, I sat in that cinema giggling with glee, whooping with joy, cheering at the heroic poses, applauding as an enormous motherfucking space serpent thing was punched in the face and went down! For the first time I realised what a joyous, potent blend these superheroics could be, and it was because Whedon made me care. I still don’t particularly need to go and watch Captain America or Thor (probably I will if it’s on TV, but I won’t go out and buy the DVDs), but watching the film’s heroes become a family, warts and all, overcoming their flaws and dysfunctions, and kicking some intergalactic ass? I get a big, goofy grin just remembering the film.

Some of my favourite bits:

  • Colour me green with surprise, but I loved the Hulk in this. More than that, I loved Ruffalo’s Banner and his Hulk. Poignant one moment, laugh-out-funny the next. “Puny god”, indeed!
  • Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury wasn’t a showy role, it didn’t go for the SLJ effect (which by now has become as much of a cliché as Al Pacino’s “Hooah!” persona), but I loved the ambivalence. Yes, he’s a good guy, but he’s primarily a master manipulator. Usually these films reserve the manipulativeness for the bad guys.
  • Captain America’s joy when he finally got a cultural reference!
  • The confrontation between Loki and Black Widow. In so many ways.
  • Naked Bruce Banner and Harry Dean Stanton’s caretaker, accepting that this guy just happens to turn into a huge green monster occasionally. No big thing.
  • The moment when the Avengers finally, well, assemble. The moment is cheesy, glorious and 100% earned.

I came out of that cinema thinking, “I want to watch that film again. And again. And again. And possibly send Joss Whedon, his cast and his crew all the Swiss chocolate I can get my hands on.” I’d be lying if I said the film was perfect – it suffers from a beginning that is somewhat generic and unengaging – but I’ll say it again: The Avengers made me whoop with joy. It made me cheer at the heroic poses. This is no “good enough for its genre” flick, it’s no “well, there’ll be explosions, right?” In some ways it’s the polar opposite of Nolan’s Batman films – as good (or even better?), but doing something entirely different. I’ve seen and read the reinventions of the super hero genre. I’ve seen the revisionist takes. Only now have I seen what these stories can be, in their original form.

And I like it.

P.S.: I also like Film Crit Hulk’s take on The Avengers. The guy’s all-caps Hulk spiel takes some getting used to, and I understand that some people give up, but the guy writes well and makes intelligent points, and he cares about this stuff. Well worth checking out.