Stop Saying Marvel Movies Are All the Same; You Look a Fool

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

Lately, I’ve been minding my own business reading totally unrelated articles about the entertainment industry and media criticism when bam! Slapped in the face with a backhanded insult aimed at Marvel Studios. “They’re all the same,” reviewers opine with a wink and a smile. “Nothing happens in them; they can’t damage their franchise!” critics gleefully deduce, seemingly not paying attention to the films at all.

Let’s just dispense with the idea that all Marvel Studios films are the same and that nothing happens in them. It’s precisely the opposite of the truth and is such a willful misreading it smacks of elitist snobbery.

Continue Reading

Nobody’s Nobody (Except When They Are): Agents of SHIELD and the Problem of Coulson (v. 2)

Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes

(This essay is #3 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)

It’s time to talk about our fearless leader: Phil Coulson. Agents of SHIELD was conceived entirely as a vehicle for Coulson, a minor character from the film continuity with a large fan following. Coulson was Jossed (aka “killed for plot reasons”) in 2012’s The Avengers and the outcry was so enormous that an entire series was built around resurrecting him. Agents of SHIELD‘s genesis is more complicated than that (experimenting with different media formats to optimize all available revenue streams has a lot to do with it too), but without Coulson there is no Agents of SHIELD.

Which is why it’s too bad that Coulson was never really a character at all. It’s doubly too bad that it took nearly an entire season of Agents of SHIELD for them to fix that problem. (I wrote a much shorter piece about this before season 2.) Advance warning that almost all of the links in this piece are to TV Tropes.

spoiler warning

Continue Reading

Agents of SHIELD as Accountable Cult TV

Estimated Reading Time: 18 minutes

(This essay is #2 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)

Agents of SHIELD is the glue that holds the Marvel Cinematic Universe together. Not exclusively, and sometimes not entirely successfully, but there’s no denying that the work the series does is deeply enriching to the MCU as a whole. Through its utilization of cult TV conventions, the pioneering transmedia interconnectivity in the MCU, and its own nerdy sensibility, Agents of SHIELD is a (nearly) ideal example of cult television and the storytelling potential of modern media. I love cult TV, meta, intertextuality, and transmedia storytelling so much that a lot of times I just start squealing like people can understand what high-pitched piggy noises mean. So, here I’ll unpack it in human English with as little jargon as possible.

Additional spoiler warnings for: The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica (2003), Lost

spoiler warning

Continue Reading

On Star Wars: The Force Awakens: But Is the Damn Thing Any Good?

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

I think it’s appropriate to inaugurate my sci-fi/cult-ish/whatever blog with my thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, yes? Here goes. 2000% SPOILER-FREE, I ASSURE YOU.

I have complete apathy for any upcoming installments of Star Wars. Ever. I do not care.1 If I cared any less I would probably turn inside out and become a black hole of uncaring. I am not moved by the marketing, I am not swayed by the nostalgia. I actively dislike J.J. Abrams in general. I have no emotional investment in this endeavor, be it positive or negative. I am very interested in film/TV narrative franchises, however, so the mechanics of the thing are fascinating to me. Additionally, my soul revolts at the very threat of spoilers. So I figured, hey, no one will tell me if this movie is actually any damn good irrespective of all the hype. I might as well go and see it before it gets spoiled.

There is nothing particularly special about this film. Overall, when you subtract Luke, Han, and Leia, what you’ve got is a basic, uninspired space opera. Essentially, it’s fan fic. Now, this is by design. The original Star Wars is the quintessential space opera. The space opera to begin and end all others. The original formula of the original films is invoked in full force precisely because it worked, because it is familiar, and because that’s what people are paying to see. But that still means that, every beat the film hits, every homage, and every plot point is laid out and inevitable within the first five minutes of the movie. It’s not even a matter of guessing what’s going to happen: you know. It’s almost categorically impossible to legitimately spoil anything. It’s all a forgone conclusion. (That said, I do not spoil. May I be struck down from on high should I ever spoil something without a warning.) Additionally, at times The Force Awakens almost willfully ignores the fact that the three prequel films happened, thank the stars. It’s a complete return to the atmosphere of the original trilogy which is why, even as inevitable as it is, it works.

It might be predictable, kind of trite, and a bit boring as far as plot, but the movie is still a treat to watch. The special effects aren’t obtrusive but are used in cool ways. The old aesthetic of the original trilogy is back with a vengeance and that’s what lends the film about 80% of its charm. There are Chosen Ones and Saviors and those Seeking Redemption and so-on and so-forth, but even as each character fits snugly into their prescribed role, it’s still fun to watch them in their trials and battles. It’s not ’80s high-camp, but it leans that way.

I’ve seen a lot of kerfuffle over whether Rey is a Mary Sue or not. Let me unpack the term “Mary Sue” a bit. There are two schools of thought: one is that it simply describes an improbably flawless, hyper-competent character (male or female, though “Gary Stu” is an equivalent male version); the second is that it’s sexist vocabulary used to invalidate female wish fulfillment fantasy characters. To my mind, Mary Sues are intentionally and necessarily constructed to have no flaws and very little conflict that they cannot immediately solve. Most Mary Sues that I come across are half-assed attempts at “strong female characters”—the lazy kind who are empty functions that shoot machine guns and blow up bad guys without any motivation, conflict, or personality. The kind you get when writers think they are being asked to include “badass” women when really what people want is fully-formed, well-realized characters who also happen to be female. That’s it, y’all.

Rey is flawless with very little conflict but, in the context of the film and her function within it, I wouldn’t call her a Mary Sue. Both Rey and Finn exist as audience projection fantasies. Neither is particularly developed nor conflicted. Revisiting such an iconic mythos requires that these characters not be too defined. Because we are projecting onto them, to give them too much personality risks alienating the paying customer. As Rey and Finn discover the quirks, references, and homages to the original, culturally omnipresent works, it’s as if the viewers themselves are plonked down in these iconic situations like they’re running around a theme park. Neither character actually has that much conflict, that much background, or that much interest individually. I really loved Rey and Finn’s rapport, their friendship, etc. But the fact remains that, while they’re sometimes goofy, and while they do mess up a few times, they are still blank canvases for all of us to cast ourselves onto. I’m sure there’s a TV Tropes-style term for that, but my encyclopedic knowledge of TV Tropes is failing me at the moment.

I promised no spoilers so I’ll forego the rest of my commentary for now. I will say that I instantly fell in love with Poe Dameron. Every time he was on screen I was grinning like an idiot. But Poe also asserted a definite persona right from the start. Overall, I’d say I still have complete and total apathy for any future installments in the Star Wars franchise. There’s just nothing here that I really care about. That said, I’m sure I’ll go back in the future. Just out of curiosity.

(My actual favorite part: the Captain America: Civil War trailer before the film rolled. You will quickly learn that this blog will mostly be a dumping ground for my Marvel Cinematic Universe rants.)

1 I do feel obliged to mention that one of my best friends is a massive Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) fan and once ceremonially burned Mickey Mouse in effigy to express her displeasure with the erasure of the EU. Personally, however, I have no real interest or vendetta.

Continue Reading