Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Marvel Cinematic Universe

I've talked about world building before on this blog and I may do some blogs about world building in the coming weeks. In the spirit of that, I want to also do a post on shared worlds, especially the shared world that I think is maybe the best right now: The Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now, I'm not going to get into nuts and bolts of shared worlds and world building right now, I'm going to talk about the quality ranking of these movies and discuss why I like them. I started this over on Facebook and got some interesting comments, so I thought I'd give it a go here. So here goes, in reverse order. (NOTE: I have not seen Age of Ultron, so I have nothing to say here about that. I will amend when I finally get to see it.)

10. IRON MAN 2: I've only caught bits and pieces of this movie because I think it's a mess. It does give us Black Widow (more on that later), but it just didn't work for me and maybe fit worse in the concept of "shared world" than any of the other movies on this list. (More on that later.)

9. THE INCREDIBLE HULK: Vastly better than the 2003 movie, I actually think this movie was a good concept but terrible execution, most notably by Edward Norton. Norton is an amazing actor, but he ruined the movie. The thing about the Hulk is that he's a lot like Batman in that it's not the Hulk/Batman that matters but their alter ego that is vastly more important. Edward Norton wasn't a believable Bruce Banner...Mark Ruffalo is vastly better, the right balance of restrained anger, rumpled genius and twitchiness. The other problem is that the Hulk is supposed to be "fun" on some level (more on that later) and there is nothing fun about this movie.

NOTE: If this were a race, 9 & 10 would be way behind.

8. THOR: If you read my blog, you know I love a well-executed genre mash up and this was the first attempt at it by Marvel because they began to recognize that's what there movies needed to be. They weren't superhero movies but genre action movies that featured superheroes. THOR isn't a bad movie. It's actually pretty good. And it has Natalie Portman. Mmmm, Natalie Portman. It's enjoyable and kind of fun that had some real "meh" parts and some real WOW parts.

7. IRON MAN 3: I caught a lot of flak for my ranking of this movie, but I thought it was the most adult of the three movies. I loved the Extremis plot line and all the suits were freaking cool as hell. Tony's PTSD over New York was well done and his ultimate decision at the end was a fitting touch. Giving Pepper something to do was a nice touch as well.

NOTE: If this were the same race as the previous note, 7 & 8 would be way ahead of 9 & 10 and a little behind the rest. 2-6 would be tightly packed.

6. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: I believe that when io9 reviewed this movie they called it "a war movie with a super hero in it" and that was accurate. It was a great mash up of genres that began setting up the pins for the shared world Marvel was delicately building. This wasn't end of credit or mid credit scenes, this was a whole movie setting up what would happen next. Chris Evans is riveting as Cap/Steve Rogers and making it a period piece works perfectly. Plus it gave us Agent Carter....mmmm, Agent Carter.

5.THE AVENGERS: I'll probably catch some heat over this one. I loved the movie, but I think other MCU movies did what they did better than what this movie did. There are glaring flaws (just what we need a white sausagefest saving the world.) But one of the things it did really well was that it was fun despite the raised stakes of what was happening (more on this later). From the little character moments: Banner's frumpy-ness, Black Widow's blase attitude about everything, Cap's confusion over his place in the world, Tony's ego, etc to the broad sweeping action moments. But the topper for me is Cap giving orders to everyone of what to do and he looks at Hulk and says, "Hulk...smash" and Hulk grins. They did more with the Hulk in that one ensemble piece than the entire movie did.

4. IRON MAN: The movie that started it all, setting up the pieces for everything else that came after it. Smartly done, mixing just enough comic book material with their own spin on the story. And it was wildly entertaining....so much so my genre disliking wife enjoyed it thoroughly.

3. THOR: THE DARK WORLD: Genre mash-up at perhaps its best. Epic fantasy mixed with scifi in just the right doses. I've said in the past that I'm trying to capture that aesthetic in one of my fantasy series. It just works. And while it is a little darker in tone than say the Avengers or GOTG (more on that later) it still has an element of fun and adventure. Plus...more Natalie Portman.

2. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: Another one I'm sure I'll take some heat for, but God I loved this movie. One of my buddies on Facebook felt it didn't hold up on rewatch and I respectfully disagree. Another said it relied too much on jokes and flash to cover up plot holes. So did another movie that I loved: Star Wars. Watch it. There are plot holes you could fly the Millennium Falcon through, but that didn't make the movie any less brilliant. When I first saw GOTG I described it as "Star Wars and Spaceballs had a baby that was raised by Firefly" and I stand by that. (There's a part of me that wants to write about Spaceballs and my desire to write something like it, but that another post!) GOTG brought back space opera by bringing it to the MCU and doesn't feel much like it's part of the comic book world, but there enough call backs for us to recognize it as part of the shared world. I've said before, in my post about epic being fun that GOTG is my argument that an epic story can be fun. Because they can be.

NOTE: I think the next one is at least two lengths ahead of the pack. If this were a race.

1. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER: I firmly believe that Marvel elevated their game with TWS. Forget it being a good superhero movie....it's a great movie. The directors made no secret that they were attempting to recreate the political thrillers of the 70s and they succeeded. Robert Redford (take a minute to let that sink in) took a secondary role in a superhero movie because he'd never been in a movie like this and his presence alone brings a gravitas to the project. It's a serious movie that asks serious questions, taking it's components from all kinds of places and combines them into a very satisfying gumbo. It gets Black Widow right (where I've heard AGE OF ULTRON gets her all wrong) in so many ways. It violates one of the great rules of comic books: "The only people that stay dead in comic books are Bucky, Jason Todd and Uncle Ben." (NOTE: know 2 of the 3 have been undone, but that's for another discussion.) There is little flaw I can find in this movie and it is the gold standard which all superhero movies should be compared.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Dragons of Autumn Twilight Re-Read: Chapters 19-22: The End of Act One

I'm discovering one of the hardest part of this endeavor is that I find myself becoming overly critical and even snarky about what I'm reading instead of enjoying the books and reveling in how important they were to me in my younger days. Obviously my reading eye and mind have changed, I have a vastly larger pool of literature to compare to Dragonlance and 30 more years of personal experience to haze my view of the world.With that in mind in these chapters we come to one of the early attempts by the authors to do something mature in their books.

Up to this point, for the most part, the book has been little more than a documentation of an old school AD&D game session. There's another blog post in me about this phenomenon. It seems to be the first, early fumblings of many young writers is to transcribe their tabletop game adventures or, worse, their video game adventures. I'll admit this last bit is purely personal as I'm not a gamer. There's one book in particular that I quit on because it read this way...especially the first 100 pages seeming like an endless transcription of every video game fight they'd ever had. Anyway, I digress. Back to Dragonlance.

The conversation between Goldmoon and Riverwind is a real attempt at doing something with a little depth and maturity. I applaud the intent and the effort, but the execution falls flat. It's stilted, awkward and a little hackey. And, as was said over on Tor.com, creepy. They had a chance to do some really interesting things at this point: some real deep worldbuilding, some discussion on what it means to be a ruler/leader that has to choose to be in love or to lead and talk about the sacrifices people have to make sometimes make for the people they love, but miss the opportunity completely. And that's a shame. I'm sure at 13 or 14, I didn't notice it then and thought that was normal, but now, it's noticeable.

The city of Xak Tsaroth continues to fascinate me on a worldbuilder level. The structure of it, what happened to it and its occupation both past and present, is riveting. While I have a Flint-like disdain of the gully dwarves, their occupation of the city makes perfect sense, though there is a little infodumping about the gully dwarves, they are one of the more fascinating parts of Ansalon. It also makes sense that they are subjugated by the draconians and don't even realize it.

The other thing these chapters do really well is ramp up the conflict between Raistlin and Caramon and the rest of the group. Caramon is loyal to his brother first then the others, but they are blind to it, being too busy waiting for Raistlin to betray them, which he doesn't exactly do ...I mean he had his own motivations for wanting to go through with this plan but don't all of them have their own, sometimes selfish, motivations? Sturm is desperate (I would say psychotic) to prove his bravery against a dragon, as much a creature of legend in their world as it is in ours, and Goldmoon is ready to sacrifice her life to face the same creature that's killed her love not once but twice in the name of what could have been a hallucination caused by errant gasses (not out of the possibility in an AD&D game)? So far, Raistlin is the kid they HAD to play with because they all wanted to play with Caramon and they are really resentful about it, whether that was because he was a dick (self-defense mechanism) or because he couldn't keep up with the rest of them. It's a nice touch that the only way he gets the spellbook is by an act of kindness.

The fight with the dragon has some tense moments, but it feels like after three chapters in Xak Tsaroth we want to destroy it and move along. It is another nice touch that the "damsel in distress" is Raistlin and he is prepared to make a final sacrifice, whether that's out of spite or to save his friends is left ambiguous, At the end, the thing that ruins the dragon fight seems to be a little bit of laziness as it's a very heavy handed example of dues ex machina if there ever was one.

We end Book One with the chilling words "Solace is burning."