Monday, September 1, 2014

It Can't Be For Nothing: Why Video Game Movies Fail, and How "The Last of Us" Can Succeed

You sit at your usual booth, wondering where your book-headed friend is. Normally he’s here by now, and though you don’t so much converse as he rants, you can’t help but find him entertaining, even when you disagree. Sometimes you even learn.

You look around the bar to see if you can see him, and when you don’t, you turn back around to sit more comfortably... only to have your eyes meet the irritated, bespectacled gaze of a heavy-set man who hasn’t had a haircut in way too damn long. Your breathing hitches for a brief second. You remember this man. He just would not shut up about Cowboy Bebop.

“Oh, hello,” you say, trying your best to be friendly. “Can I buy you a bevera—“

“SHUT YER PIE HOLE I’VE GOT THINGS TO TALK ABOUT”

So, you’ve heard that they’re doing a movie of The Last of Us now, right? That’s great! I’m excited. It’s rumored Bruce “Jesus Christ” Campbell is attached, and I believe dude will dig down deep and bring some serious pathos to the character of Joel. And Naughty Dog made the damn game, and they’re involved, and they’re not going to let their baby fail.

Here’s the thing that’s bothering me: Unless they’re absolutely willing to murder every single one of their darlings, like the novelists say, their movie is going to go the way of Tomb Raider and Mortal Kombat Annihilation and Resident Evil: Thesaurus Word for “Bad” and Max Payne. Most of us are going to hate it because it took a game with a great plot and made a movie that’s mostly unwatchable.

And I know you’re wondering why I’m so sure of this. And I will tell you.

And in order to do this I will need to talk about the plot and the ending of The Last of Us, so SPOILER ALERTS ARE IN EFFECT. So get the hell out of this bar, right now, and play through The Last of Us and come back so we can talk about it.

**********

Welcome back! I am so glad you did that thing I just told you to do.

So wasn’t that game awesome!? Cinematic in all the best ways and emotional and great characters and holy hell, it’s going to be hard to make a good movie out of that.

I can see you mouthing the words wondering what I’m on about, but it kind of gets to why video game adaptations... and cross-media adaptations in general... have historically tended towards the awful. See, various media engages us in different ways, and how we engage with games is very, very different from how we engage with other art forms.

Think about how you relate the events of a movie or a comic or a novel. It’s third person. “So then Captain America kicks Batroc in the head!” “And Indiana gets on his feet and kicks that Nazi in the head!” “And then Shane gets into a bar fight and kicks a guy in the head!”*

*This actually happens in the novel. And I hope someone out there appreciates me bringing up Shane, of all things.

Now consider how you relate what happened in a game you played. “So I’m surrounded by zombies but I manage to spam the dodge maneuver until I get to the door, just inside the time limit!” “So then I score a crit that one-shots the mind flayer the round before he TPKs the party!” “That’s when I land on Dave’s Boardwalk with a full hotel built, and so I knocked the board over and went to bed!”

See, none of the hypothetical tellers of those tales is referring to their characters in game, even though individually they’re playing the roles of Jill Valentine, Llewellyn Ironblade the Elf Fighter, and a boot. And this is where most video game adaptations stumble: huge chunks, if not the entirety, of the art and story and designs are created that way to serve the gameplay. And that gameplay is the thing: you providing action and making decisions gives you the illusion of control, and more than that, involvement. It’s a much, much different storytelling mechanism than the mechanisms of other media.

You can get as wrapped up in a book or a comic or movie as you can a video game, but it’s a much different process to get there.

This is a big portion of why Silent Hill, the movie, was so much less scary than Silent Hill, the game. Despite using a number of the scariest monsters in the whole series and inventing monsters even more screwed up than that (re: Colin the Janitor), those couldn’t actually get as terrifying as running from low-polygon-count dogs across a chain-link floor with poor texture work. Rose Da Silva is probably a better fleshed-out character than Harry Mason, but we care more about what’s happening to him because on some level it’s happening to us. The low-polygon-count dogs are chasing us. Interactivity can bridge gaps when storytelling fails to cross them.

(I should point out that this is all by way of example. The Silent Hill flick had problems way above and beyond not being able to control the characters.)

And here’s the thing about The Last of Us: that game uses that sense of immersion granted by interactivity as well as anyone else ever has. Maybe better. Unlike the Half-Life series, it does have cutscenes, but Last of Us does give you control in some surprising areas that other games wouldn’t (controlling Sarah at the beginning of the game, where the fact you can look even as you’re stuck in the back of Joel’s car adds verisimilitude). It includes emotional high points nestled regular game play (the bit near the end where you slide from gameplay to cut scene to gameplay and watch the giraffes for as long as you want). And at the end of it, it will force you to do things you don’t necessarily want to do.

Think about that sequence at the end when you (there’s that dreaded second-person again) rescue Ellie. The only way to do so is to kill the doctors about to operate on her. Whether you want to is irrelevant, because that’s what Joel, the character wants. But this isn’t a cut scene. This is something you control.

This is you being forced into taking the actions that your character would take, morally repugnant as you may or may not find them (and it’s enough of a grey area, given the plot of the game, that finding them repugnant is completely possible).

So where does that leave us? The Last of Us is so moving and affecting and genuinely upsetting because its plot is built to take advantage of things that only video games really do, much in the same way Silent Hill was, or how Watchmen and The Sandman are built around comics and House of Leaves is built around prose and Avatar: The Last Airbender was built around TV.

Each of these properties were either hampered in their film adaptations or have yet to have film adaptations at all by the fact that the plots of these properties are very, very tied in to the mechanics of their media, and those that had adaptations, hilariously, failed to adapt. I quite liked that Watchmen flick, but even I have to admit that it was pretty underwhelming considering that it was based on one of the great comics of all time. Part of it was that the innovations the comic made had already been subsumed by art and culture by the time the movie was made, so the content was no longer as challenging. But I’d say the bigger part was that it was such a slavish recreation that it lifted things that took advantage of the comics medium whole-cloth into the film, ignoring the use of the mechanics of medium that made them effective to begin with. Chapter breaks, juxtapositions, pacing... these are mechanics that work a certain way particularly well in the comics medium and that the Watchmen comic took advantage of. Film has its own mechanics, but the Watchmen movie assumed that they would port over because they’re both visual. This led to a flick with weird pacing problems and sequences that fell flat even though they still dazzle in the comic to this day. (Keeper's Note: way back in the prehistory of this blog I argued that changing the mechanics of the ending of Watchmen was one of the best decisions the film makers made.)

So what can the creators of the film version of The Last of Us do to avoid an adaptation that seems to use all of the parts of the game but feels hollow or terribly flawed as a cinematic story?

... good question. That may not be answerable until it’s answered, if that makes any sense. The plot is long and circuitous and relies heavily on gameplay sections to get the characters from point A to point B, and the game’s story covers nearly a year divided into four nearly stand-alone chapters, something that kind of works against the usual flow of movies. It’s a small-scale story that takes place on a huge vista, and that’s the sort of thing movie producers loathe throwing money at (why throw so much money for location shoots and special effects if it’s not for spectacle?). It’s a story that absolutely does not let itself to traditional ways of cinematic storytelling.

The only way, then, that they’re going to live up to the promise of the video game is break new artistic ground with the movie, much as the game did for interactive storytelling.

I hope they can.

With that, the large man takes off his glasses, and wearily informs you that his name is Zomburai!, or Jon Grasseschi in IRL. He’s the author of the webcomic EverydayAbnormal (analyzed previously on this very blog!) and the nascent Dungeons & Dragons blog Mythic Histories. He says he likes long walks on the beach, sensitive women, and world domination. He has a Patreon, a Twitter, and a Facebooks.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Image of the Body: Ferguson, Agency, and Leftist Appropriation

Photo of Twitter user @eyeFLOODpanties taken by Robert Cohen
I want to center this week's article in a somewhat odd way--around a bibliography. I'm doing this for ethical reasons--as a white person writing about the murder of Michael Brown and the resulting protests and violent, militant police repression of the people of Ferguson, MO, events that are fundamentally a product of racism both systemic and individual, I want to do my best not to co-opt the events for the sake of an abstract academic argument. This is particularly important in the context of the specific ideas I'm going to attempt to grapple with, since I want to talk about issues of agency, the use of images and signs, and the political transformation of people into signifiers. Centering this article upon the bibliography of information I drew upon in writing it is, in part, an attempt to avoid the behaviors I'm trying to call out.

First, for the background details of what's happening in Ferguson, I'd recommend the article Ferguson is Fighting Back from Socialist Worker, which, unlike corporate media outlets, recounts the story from the perspective of the oppressed rather than the militarized police that have been terrorizing a small town for over a week. In particular, it is worth considering this quote from the article:
"Eavesdropping on questions asked of residents by the mainstream media was instructive. Again and again, reporters wanted to know about "looting" and "violence," entirely missing the main point of what was unfolding before them: every resident, if asked, could have told them about the routine police violence they've experienced." --Socialist Worker: Ferguson is Fighting Back
Instructive indeed. That framing is important to the questions I want to consider about the way this is not merely a war waged materially but waged with symbols. This is a battle of words, and corporate media has sided with state terrorism in this battle.

I also want to highlight the ongoing commentary from blogs Gradient Lair and This Is Bobby London, without which I could not have composed this article. In particular, it's worth reading over Bobby London's piece which frames looting not as a random act of greed but an act of political resistance and rebellion (particularly relevant now that we're seeing reports of people breaking into McDonald's in order to get milk to sooth the suffering of civilians who were assaulted by the militarized police with chemical weapons), and three pieces from Gradient Lair, one on avoiding the consumption of black bodies in discourse about events like Ferguson (which I've tried to take to heart here), one on the transformation of black bodies into metaphors for other forms of violence elsewhere in the world, and one on the history of the terrorist/psychological warfare of lynching and the way the treatment of Michael Brown's body fits into that history.

In the interests of contextualization, it's worth taking note of a few other stories about images, image sharing, and the desperate iconoclasm of the militarized police. From Tech Dirt comes a story of a police campaign in Washington to (incorrectly... illegally?) get people to stop filming them with a remarkable statement about responding to smartphones the way they respond to guns; from Z-Net comes a story about Apple's new patent to kill cell phones automatically, because hey, another week, another instance of Apple or Microsoft furthering corporate fascism, and lastly, from Medium, comes an excellent analysis of the way Ferguson represents proof positive of the dangers of a non-neutral Net, as Facebook algorithms systematically sank information about the atrocities being committed against civilians while Twitter sank the #ferguson tag in the US despite it trending globally.

If you want to get involved in pushing back against the militarization of police and the state terrorism on display in Ferguson, here is a list of resources (updated 4:08 Eastern 8/19):

Since I'm adding links, I figure it's worth making a point of mentioning the way in which I'm curating this. I can't vet every one of these donation drives, because I'm honestly not sure how I'd even begin doing so, so that's a limitation I have when I'm posting links. But one thing I can do as a curator of these links is vet the voices being heard. And a great way to make sure you DON'T get included on this list is to post shit about how everything would get better if the left and right would just listen compassionately to one another, or how Obama's hands are tied and he's just doing the best he can politically, or any of that other weak Liberal nonsense. Last I saw, it wasn't the Left lobbing tear gas at civilians. The point here is to boost voices that are drowned out by the corporate media shit show.

With all that said, let's get to the secondary content of this post. Let's talk about the man in the photo at the top of this post, that photo, and its use.

I want to frame this discussion with these three tweets:





Monday, August 11, 2014

Tony Stark in the Integrated Circuit: The Iron Man films and Cyborg Feminism

In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark describes his suit, the Iron Man suit, as a prosthesis. Now, granted, he's describing it that way in order to flummox a congressional committee who assert that his suit is, in fact, a weapon. The scene as a whole is full of uncomfortable, almost Randian grand standing*. It's a problematic scene, to be sure.

*Somewhat mitigated by the revelations in Iron Man 3 about the corrupt nature of the military-industrial complex and the revelation in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that the head of the congressional committee was a member of Hydra and also kind of a sleeze ball.

The wild thing about Tony's claim, though, is that the films are almost calculated to back him up and support his claim. Iron Man--or, later, the Iron Men--is/are an extension of Tony's being. They are a prosthetic not in the sense that they restore him to some idealized "normal" human functionality but in the sense that they are a tool that acts as an extension of the human body in order to facilitate a human's aims.

It should be obvious that Tony Stark is a cyborg, though not a conventional one. His most obvious cybernetic feature is the power core embedded in his chest, but his suit, in the way it extends both his body and will, is also a part of his cybernetic being. The films consistently portray the Suit as a second self for Tony, an eventually unlimited tangle of extra limbs that transform his body into a fluidly-bounded and ambiguous mass.

Why am I bringing all this obvious stuff up?

Well, because these concepts aren't just of interest to transhumanists and science fiction fans, they're also of interest to a particular strand of contemporary critical theory--Cyborg Feminism. And the films don't just have a veneer of cyberization, they also can serve as an access point to these ideas and the deconstructive power they level at the existing power structures of the world.

Let's talk about Tony Stark the Cyborg.

I'm on a Giacometti kick after last article.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Cha-Change! Formal Experimentation in Adventure Time

I want to talk about Adventure Time, and the experimental direction that the show has taken, and the episode Food Chain in particular, but we're going to have to do some work before we can get to that discussion. That's ok, because it's a discussion well worth having!

When a show gets as experimental as Adventure Time has, playing with different styles, metatextual elements, surreal explorations of sexuality, and so on, that show deserves praise. And I think it deserves praise that goes a bit beyond the initial "well isn't that neat" praise of pop culture journalism and digs into the weird alien guts of the thing to see how it all fits together, why it's significant, and what it all means. Which, of course, takes work, particularly when you're discussing an episode as odd as Food Chain, an episode where lead characters Finn and Jake metamorphose progressively through the forms and lives of different organisms as they experience the titular food chain first hand on a small desert oasis. The episode explores this philosophical journey through a dynamic and cheerfully--even gleefully--off model animation style notably different from the show's usual techniques. And in the process it makes it possible for us to discuss some of the odder recent offerings in Theory.

But let's not get ahead of things here. First, let's talk about why Adventure Time has the freedom to play around with form and narrative so extensively. The show has, over the course of five-and-change seasons, grounded the weirdness in remarkably sincere emotional relationships between the characters. And this sincerity is a gift that keeps giving as far as experimentation is concerned.

Pictured: Finn and Jake

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hyperflexible Mythology: Classpects, Fandom, and Fanfiction

Several months ago when I decided to move this entire establishment to the icy howling perpetual nightmare that is Jupiter's Great Red Spot some reacted with undue skepticism. But it looks like yet again I have gotten the last laugh, fools, for through a chain of events too complex to describe here but stemming inexorably from my decision to drop a once hospitable pub into the middle of a storm that ravages the flesh and mind alike with fingers of icy death, I have finally achieved my highest level of power yet!

Yes, indeed, I have reached... GOD TIER!

Pictured: My pantless apotheosis is complete.
AND THIS ISN'T EVEN MY FINAL FORM!

This change couldn't have come at a better time, as by sheer coincidence I wish to speak today about famed hypercomic Homestuck's symbolic and mythological structure which ties into the "God Tier" that certain characters reach throughout the narrative.

One of the many game-inspired parts of Homestuck is its use of what are called Mythological Roles for each character. That sounds very lofty, but what it really amounts to is one of the oldest elements in fantasy games: a magical area of expertise or "aspect," and a way in which that aspect is used as a tool by the character: a "class." Together, these mythological roles are described, somewhat awkwardly, as "Classpects," and they overshadow much of the fandom's activity.

I want to talk about them today not so much to analyze what individual classpects mean and do, or even their role in the wider narrative of Homestuck (plenty of other writers have already spilled much ink on these topics), but to explore what they mean for the fandom. See, the classpects are, in the words of author Andrew Hussie, a kind of hyperflexible mythology with a wide range of possible interpretations and implementations. These aren't necessarily traditional "elements" or rpg classes--classes include such odd things as "Sylph," "Muse," and "Heir," and aspects include "Breath," "Light," "Blood," "Hope," and "Void"--and the classpects are often ill-defined in their powers, or profoundly shaky in application, in part due to the fact that many of the characters do not, themselves, understand their own abilities. This leads, inevitably, to lots of fan speculation and conversation. It also represents one of the many systems within Homestuck that fans can latch onto as a structure to manipulate and deviate from in fan works.

Homestuck is not alone in having such a structure. The Classpects share many of their most useful qualities with such diverse systems as the Five Colors of Magic in Magic: The Gathering, the four Houses of Hogwarts, and the multi-person teamup nature of Pacific Rim's Jaegers. What these systems all share is a certain amount of arbitraryness and vagueness balanced by a named structure and a range of possible, tangible implementations of that structure. And they seem to share many of the same effects on fanfiction and fandom activities, making certain things possible that are not, perhaps, as easy to pull off with either more loosely or more rigidly defined structures.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Remarkable Queerness of Shinji Ikari

Our hero, Shinji Ikari
The fandom for acclaimed anime Neon Genesis Evangelion has developed some remarkably bizarre attitudes and ideas about the series they love. I'm not talking here about the speculation regarding the actual narrative itself--the questions of "what the hell did I just watch, what happened in the last two episodes, why is there a live action shot of people in a movie theater, was this sort of a Freudian thing..."--which do get pretty bizarre at times, but which are on the whole pretty innocuous. These are ideas that despite their strangeness simply attempt to clarify the basic narrative of the original series, the film that followed, and the heavily altered narrative of the reboot films (of which, out of four total, three have been released. We're still waiting to see whether the fourth one explains what the hell happened in the third one).

No, the really weird ideas that I want to talk about today are the notions that the fandom has adopted that fly in the face of just about everything the text attempts to establish thematically. One of the more obvious examples of this comes from the heavy sexualization of the two teenage female pilots that the fandom--and, frustratingly, the marketing team--participates in, despite the fact that the show goes to great lengths to deconstruct everything from harem anime tropes to the specific character archetypes of those characters to the idea of fanservice in general. The most fanservicey scenes are frequently profoundly uncomfortable, if not outright nightmarishly surreal. According to fan lore, End of Evangelion, the film that acts as the conclusion to the original series, was deliberately dark, brutal, incomprehensible, and full of psychosexual revulsion directed squarely at the protagonist because creator Hideaki Anno was so outraged and disgusted with the Otaku misreading of the film. Whether or not that's true, the fact that the fanbase regards it as plausible should tell you a lot about... well, about the whole Eva phenomenon really.

That's not what I'm here to rant angrily about this week though. No, I want to hone in on another particularly bizarre idea that the fandom has adopted. Specifically, the weird notion that the series protagonist, Shinji Ikari, is straight.

As with a lot of the other more frustrating reactions to the series, it's not just a reproduction of the shitty backwards attitudes that a lot of geeks hold, it reproduces them in such a way that it garbles the actual thematic arc of the series and makes character actions and development alike borderline incomprehensible. It's of particular interest to me, as well, for the way it results in a dismantling of creator efforts to increase representation, forcefully repressing "deviant" sexuality. This is the much canonized practice in fandom culture of erasing what few paltry instances of queer representation exist popular culture. It's the flip side of the coin I discussed a few weeks ago with respect to the possibility of reading queerness into Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: it's reading queerness out of media.

Before we get to discuss Shinji Ikari's bi- or perhaps pansexuality, though, we need to talk a little about what makes Evangelion tick as a narrative. And that means diving deep into the boggy nightmare of Eva's plot.

Bear with me, folks, I'm going to try to make this as comprehensible as possible.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Janelle Monae: Sci Fi Queen Yet Uncrowned



Last week I rambled for a bit about Janelle Monae and the epic science fiction story that she's weaving across multiple albums and videos, and discussed some of the ways in which this particular project has succeeded where other concept albums, in particular, fall short. To recap, Monae's story follow the android Cindi Mayweather, on the run from Droid Control after falling in love with the human Anthony Greendown. She becomes a symbol of resistance for the oppressed droids and eventually becomes the Archandroid, a savior-figure destined to... well, we're not quite sure what she's destined to do yet, because we've got at least one more album to go before the story is complete.

I'm surprised at the lack of attention Monae's gotten in geek circles. I've been surprised, too, at the lack of attention from folks interested in social justice, despite the complex commentaries on race, gender, and queer sexuality present within her works. She's gotten a little bit of geek press, and a bit more queer press, but much of the recurring interest I see in her work comes from folks who are already interested in the particular subgenre in which she's arguably working: Afrofuturism.

I can't speak too much to the significance of Afrofuturism or its history, as I am in many ways very peripheral to the whole thing and haven't done the minimum requisite reading that'd make me comfortable talking in more detail, but the basic idea is to blend African and African-American experiences and traditions with the tropes and ideas of science fiction, often in order to reimagine current and future conditions and sometimes in order to challenge white supremacist beliefs. This is, at least, my broad understanding of what isn't exactly a unified movement but a broader cluster of particular interests within the realm of science fiction.

What I do feel reasonable saying is that some of the most exciting work happening in sci fi and fantasy spheres is coming not just from Afrofuturism but from wide ranges of voices that we just haven't heard a whole lot from in the US sci fi/fantasy scene: women, people of color, queer folk, &c. So, it's worth considering Monae's work as a case study for the possible reasons why some of this work is being frustratingly ignored, or at least under-covered in comparison to, say, the latest giant blockbuster franchise.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Janelle Monae: Contemporary Queen of Science Fiction

Science fiction is just an exciting and new way of telling universal stories and it allows the reader to come to the conclusion and draw parallels between the present and the future. I don’t think we enjoy when people remind us, today, this is what’s going on in the world. You know, sometimes we’re so used to hearing that this is what’s happening right now that we become numb to it. So when you take it out of this world, [people] will come to the conclusions themselves.
I think it’s important: whatever way you can get the audience’s attention to listen to your message, a strong message at that, then by any means. I think science fiction does that. --Janelle Monae 
I imagined many moons in the sky lighting the way to freedom. --Cindi Mayweather

My second article ever for Storming the Ivory Tower was about Lady Gaga--specifically about the video for Bad Romance and the implications of its science fiction stylings. It pretty much set the tone, framing narrative/persona, and purpose of the blog, and it also led to a whole string of articles on Gaga over the next few years--what her videos have to say symbolically, narratively, and thematically, and how they fit into wider popular culture.

But I'm bringing it up today not because of any of that nonsense but because of the particular conversation I spun out of it on pop music and science fiction which arguably spanned across these four articles. See, I was partly inspired in my analysis by an article (which I can't find now, unfortunately) that suggested that Gaga was one of the most significant voices in contemporary science fiction. That notion fascinated me because up till that point I had generally seen different media treated as fundamentally segregated from each other--you wouldn't see a list of the best Sci Fi stories of all time including a concept album, a short story, a novel, a live action movie, a TV series, and an anime all listed together. You still wouldn't, I think.

That segregation might go a long way to explaining why rapper and R&B musician Janelle Monae is not known to more fans of speculative fiction. Explains, but not excuses, because Monae should probably be crowned High Queen of the Geeks. How can I justify a statement that hyperbolic when a whole segment of my audience has almost certainly never heard of Monae? Well, just for starters, literally everything she's put out has involved a lengthy story involving this character:


Meet Cindi Mayweather, the Alpha Platinum 9000 android: your new Queen.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Queerness in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL: REPLACE EVERY MENTION OF “MAGIC”/”MAGICIAN” WITH “HOMOSEXUALITY”/”HOMOSEXUAL” AND YOU MAKE ANY POTENTIAL READER INTO A GIGGLING MORON BECAUSE IT TURNS IT COMPLETELY INTO A SUBVERSIVE COMEDY --Tumblr user Drethelin
Susanna Clarke's 800 page doorstopper Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell, a tale of two magicians who attempt to bring practical magic back to England during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, is getting made into a mini-series by the BBC.

This is great news, because it means more folks will get exposed to the book's weird and delightful mix between Regency romance and high society politics, historical accounts of a medieval and renaissance tradition of magic in an alternate England, and the strange and often unsettling or even horrific world of fairytales.

But unless some of the subtext within the book is toned down to a remarkable degree, it also means that we're going to have The Talk again within fandom culture about queer baiting and the presence or absence of queer characters within fantasy narratives. This isn't a bad conversation to have at all, of course, but it's sometimes difficult to pick through the particular contexts surrounding a text in order to really get at whether a text is... well, let's say ethical in its treatment (or lack of treatment) of queerness.

That's getting a bit ahead of things though, so let's talk a bit about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, queerness, representation, and how context fiddles with our understanding.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Everybody Hates Grant Ward: Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds

Now I'm about as sick as Grant Ward as you are at this point, so this will be the last article on how much we all hate him. The last till season 2 comes out, at least.

Still, there's just a bit more worth saying about Ward in relation to ideas about sympathetic villains and how we as an audience react to the pain that particular characters suffer.

If you haven't been following along at home, last week I wrote two articles describing the many shortcomings of Agent Grant Ward, a man that Marvel's Agents of SHIELD seemed to be positioning as the brooding antihero of the team, only to dramatically subvert both expectations and our understanding of Ward's character archetype when he turned out to be an actual Nazi.

The first talked about how Ward as the Lone White Male Antihero would, in many stories, get a free pass to determine his own morality. The narrative and theme would warp around him to make his actions and judgements correct, often at the cost of the actions and judgements of female characters. In Agents of SHIELD that logic is turned on its head, and the whole dynamic is revealed to be chauvinistic, patronizing, and ultimately subtly fascistic.

The second article talks about Agent Coulson and Agent Garrett and their respective ideologies. Garrett raises Ward on a steady diet of rightist rhetoric: Ward has no one to depend on but himself, people only get what they can take, and if your life is a nightmare maelstrom of abuse and violence you are solely responsible for it, even if you're a child. This is contrasted dramatically with Coulson's belief in the symbolism of SHIELD: that humanity is worth saving and protecting. Ultimately, Ward doesn't so much lift himself by his own bootstraps as hoist himself by his own petard, wandering around for much of the latter episodes without a sense of purpose, identity, or control, whereas Skye, Coulson's protege, runs circles around him, made confident by both the knowledge that she is not alone, and in the belief in a right and wrong external to her own immediate animal needs--something Ward critically lacks.

In this way, both the antihero archetype and the world in which he operates are shown to be hollow falsehoods, pathetic power fantasies that ultimately amount to nothing.

But there's one more aspect to Ward's character that's worth examining: his angst. Yes, poor Grant Ward has a lot of Feelings and those Feelings justify, in his own mind, any and all actions. The first two parts of the series touched on this a bit but it's worth examining in more detail, so let's talk about poor Grant Ward and his many struggles. (Trigger warnings for discussion of abuse, and some discussion of sexual assault.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Everyone Hates Grant Ward: Strung Up By Your Own Bootstraps

"You didn't tell me he was this crazy."
"He's really stepped it up a notch..."

There's a fascinating contrast in episode 21 of Marvel's Agents of SHIELD between big bad John Garrett and big... good Agent Coulson that effectively conveys the basic messages of SHIELD and Hydra. These messages are worth considering in light of the wider conversation I highlighted on Monday about how utterly loathsome Agent Grant Ward is. After all, Grant Ward wasn't "born evil" as the show has put it over the last few episodes, he was made that way by Garrett. Understanding the ideology that Garrett instilled in his subordinate, and what that suggests about SHIELD and Hydra, is essential to understanding--although not necessarily forgiving!--Ward's actions and character motivations and how they relate to the show's wider themes.

There will be some mild spoilers here for the show's finale, which debuted last night, but I'm trying to keep them largely to a minimum, and none of the really major moments will be spoiled, just some of the kicker lines (of which, because this is a Whedon project, there are many). Still, if you haven't seen the finale yet, you may want to hold off reading this article till you get a chance to get caught up.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Everybody Hates Grant Ward: Agents of Chauvinism

Isn't Grant Ward awful? I mean, what a guy. You almost have to kind of love him, in that it's so easy to love to hate him. A lot of fans of Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, the television component of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the property most currently related to the titanic events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, have been a part of the Ward hatedom for a long time, so the revelation that he's actually an agent of evil Nazi science conspiracy Hydra came as a shock, but not necessarily as unwelcome a one as you might expect.

What's fascinating to me about this hatedom is how totally strange it is within the context of wider media culture. Ward is, after all, the perfect grim antiheroic masculine figure, present in media everywhere: a brooding loner, with multiple romantic prospects, a tendency to buck authority, a powerful fighter... Ward could have been transplanted from just about any action film.

But the thing is, Ward's been transplanted into a show about some stuff that doesn't fit so well with his character archetype: teamwork, openness with your allies, the power of god damn friendship of all things, and the need to carry the responsibility of power carefully and not cross the line into world-policing authority and authoritarianism. These are ideas dramatically opposed to the singular authority of the male antihero and Ward feels out of place to some extent in the show's narrative. For a while it seemed like the team would succeed in changing him, but in the end it's turned out that he's been playing them all along in a weirdly metatextual game of tropes and expectations.

And that's what makes this reveal so successful, ultimately. It's a metatextual move, not just a textual one, because our understanding of Ward's character is partly a construct in-show by Ward in accordance with some of these tropes, as he revealed in a lengthy speech a few episodes ago.

So what I'm going to do, over the course of a series of shorter (by my standards) articles over the next week, is analyze all the ways in which Grant Ward sucks, and what his status as the ultimate heel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what his place as the guy we love to hate, says about the MCU's place in culture and take on other action movie narratives.

And what better place to start than with an idea I've complained about before: the authority of the male antihero above that of female characters.

Pictured: A Toolbag.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Night of the Living Fandom

I've been in a very pro-fanfic mood lately, in part because I've been wrapping up work on an anthology of fanfiction based on the trading card game Magic: The Gathering. It's a pretty big project, so the actual production values have certainly occupied my mind, but I've also been thinking quite a bit about the larger picture of what this project means for the way we interact with media in the digital age.

I want to talk a little bit about that kind of changing field of production and consumption, what it means for fans, and how transformative works can be cultivated and encouraged, but first let me give a bit of background for the anthology itself. The anthology is part of a much larger and more complex project called the Magic: Expanded Multiverse, which I jumpstarted a few years ago on Wizards of the Coast's online forums. The idea was to take the setting of Magic and create a massive, internally consistent, fan-generated expanded canon that could exist alongside the main canon. Magic, despite being a card game, actually is perfect for this type of project because the game takes place in a massive multiverse of countless worlds, and stars characters who can travel between these worlds. My friend Jon of Everyday Abnormal has described the game as having a setting that is every setting. I think it's pretty obvious why that would be appealing to creatively-minded fans.

The anthology, Seasons of Dusk, takes place on the world called Innistrad, a dark world beset by monsters. It's basically a Gothic Horror world, and the design of the anthology, created by me and the current head of the M:EM, Barinellos, reflects that aesthetic:



But rather than talk about the setting, I want to talk about the fact that this anthology wasn't (just) posted on a message board or AO3, but actually produced in two different formats: a PDF book, and an ebook that is compatible with most e-readers. This format is significant because Wizards of the Coast, the makers of Magic, now only publish the novels for Magic in digital formats--there is no print novel line now. And while we do state openly that we're a fan project, at least a few of our social media followers assumed that this was one of those real virtual publications.

The fact that we were able to create something that as far as visuals and content are concerned at least can temporarily confuse someone as to the reality of what they're seeing suggests some interesting things about the way the tech we used to compose the anthology--largely open source tech--can disrupt the hierarchies of what is "legitimate" art. In the interests of furthering that disruption and helping to further similar projects, let's talk a bit about how we produced this anthology.