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Archive for June, 2010

No More Gritty Reboots! Part 2 — the Women

Friday, June 25th, 2010

by Alex Jacobs

This is the conclusion of Alex’s insightful rant about remakes of superhero films. In Part 2, he turns his jaundiced but discerning eye to the treatment of the other half of humanity in Hollywood reboots. I added a comment of my own at the end.

When I sent “No More Gritty Reboots,” it was intended as a stand-alone piece, but Athena did something rather irritating: she made me think. She pointed out that my examples only included male superheroes and asked if I’d care to see reboots of female superheroes.

I hadn’t realized I’d left such a gaping hole in my rant, but there it was. I had originally written it in a very stream-of-consciousness manner, which meant that female superheroes hadn’t even entered my train of thought. Why was that? It took me some time to figure it out, but the answers I came up with disturbed me a great deal.

I’ve no interest in seeing remakes of female superhero movies because the few that have been made have been so atrociously bad that I’d rather they scrap everything and start over completely. Most female superheroes work within groups (i.e. X-Men, Fantastic 4). While they may occasionally be given a worthwhile scene or two in films, such as Anna Paquin’s wonderful portrayal of Rogue’s fear at her growing mutant abilities in X-Men, the stories are still about the male characters. The only time a female hero has really been given equality within a group has been Elastigirl in The Incredibles.

To date, the overwhelming majority of female action heroes fall into two categories: ridiculously sexualized male fantasies (Catwoman) and male action heroes who happen to have breasts (Elektra). In very few instances are female heroes given the opportunity to explore what it means to be a female hero.

Catwoman had the potential to be a phenomenal character, as the comic books and the excellent animated series have shown.  Yet I have little confidence that Hollywood will move beyond the BDSM trappings and explore the reasons Selina Kyle has remained so compelling for over fifty years. While I would dearly love to be proven wrong, I suspect that Hollywood will see Catwoman only as a lithe young woman who wears a tight-fitting costume and carries a whip. While Tim Burton’s Batman Returns did much to explore the effects of trying to live a morally neutral life, even Burton failed to show Kyle as anything more than a freak avenger. Halle Berry did not improve matters and I see little purpose in rehashing that travesty.

I have even less confidence in Elektra. Her character was interesting in Daredevil because she was trying to balance her love for her family, a relationship, the risk of exposing herself emotionally, physically, and sexually, the danger of betrayal, and a drive for justice, all set against a world that systematically attempted to deny her agency in either a legal venue or as a vigilante. Is it any wonder she got a spin-off while Daredevil was quietly forgotten? However, Elektra completely ignored the character’s identity in order to prance her out in a ridiculously revealing costume to overly-sexualized, violent choreography (see these articles on the impracticalities of female superhero costumes). Not even the fifteen year-old fanboy target audience was interested.

Jean Grey and Mystique do better in the first two X-Men movies, but the best female superhero in film remains Elastigirl from The Incredibles. As far as power and screen time goes, she is on par with the male characters. Her character integrates classically feminine roles (the caregiver) with classically masculine ones (the protector). Most importantly, she does not let herself be defined by either the superhero group or her family but chooses her own relation to both roles. To me, that is the ideal embodiment of feminism and gender equality: not a rejection of any given role because it is associated with one’s gender, but the power to choose one’s role. Our place in the world should not be defined by our birth, whether that means race, sexual orientation, class, or gender. In superhero movies, only Elastigirl truly gets it right.

Rather than remake these movies, I’d like to see completely different female superheroes get the full Hollywood treatment. I would hope that this would avoid female knock-offs (Superwoman, Batgirl, She-Hulk, etc). Rather, I’d love to see:

- Wonder Woman: Forget the powers. I’m interested in this movie because Wonder Woman isn’t just a powerhouse, like Superman, but a leader; not a soldier but a general. A Wonder Woman movie could not only serve as a positive feminist tale, but also expand our definition of heroism.

- Scarlet Witch: While lesser known than many other heroes, Scarlet Witch is one of the most fascinating. Her legacy is that of villainy but she often strives to be a hero. If we define feminism not as the championing of femininity against masculinity but as the attempt to rise above prescribed roles, I can think of no greater champion than Scarlet Witch. A Scarlet Witch movie would have more to say about individuality, family, and freedom than near anything else I can think of. That she’s a woman is part of her character, but not her defining trait.

- Stephanie Brown: If you’re not familiar with Stephanie Brown, please see Project Girl Wonder. Brown was the daughter of a super villain and, for a time, served as Robin, eventually dying in service in an incredibly disturbing and sexualized manner. The lack of acknowledgment of her death is a source of controversy within the comics community. I would love to see a Robin movie that featured Stephanie Brown rather than any of the rotating boys. Such a movie would include Batman but would focus on what it means to voluntarily work with such a disturbed individual for a choice you believe in. Whether Brown lives or dies in the film – and I believe the latter could be included in a respectful and appropriately literary manner – either conclusion would make it a tale well worth telling.

What are the chances of these movies being made? Pretty high, actually. Hollywood is motivated by money, and right now a super hero’s name in the title is the most overwhelming factor in whether a movie makes money. Will they be made well? That’s more debatable. Hollywood has shown that it can do superheroes well — even that it can do female superheroes well — but consistency is the big problem. Joss Whedon has shown he can deliver most consistently. He’s currently doing Captain America and The Avengers, which despite its historical lineup has no female heroes in the rumored cast, but maybe afterward?

I choose to hope.

Athena’s coda: Catwoman has been an incredible missed opportunity indeed, given the allure of Trickster figures. Additionally, she illustrates how differently women and men are judged for identical behavior. Both Catwoman and Batman are trauma-driven vigilantes; yet whereas he’s viewed as a hero and has the Establishment’s resources at his disposal, she’s often portrayed as a villain and operates without any external support. As for Elastigirl (girl?!), my take is less optimistic. Although she gets to exercise her powers, they are still strictly in service of her family — protecting her kids, cleaning up her husband’s messes — rather than the “larger” goals vouchsafed to male superheroes.

Superheroes who crack moulds: Xena Warrior Princess (Lucy Lawless); Catwoman (Eartha Kitt); Hiyao Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime; Aeon and Sithandra (Charlize Theron, Sophie Okonedo).

Related posts:
Le Plus Ça Change…
The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade
Set Transporter Coordinates to… (the Star Trek reboot)
And Ain’t I a Human?

No More Gritty Reboots! Part 1 — the Men

Friday, June 18th, 2010

by Alex Jacobs

Today I have the pleasure of hosting the first part of an insightful rant by pen-friend Alex Jacobs. Alex graduated from Beloit College in 2005 with a degree in creative writing, literary studies, and rhetoric and discourse. In addition to amateur literary criticism, he currently teaches ballroom in Philadelphia, PA. Alex’s personal writings reside at Suburbaknght and his professional dance writing can be found at Dancing Through the Recession.

I’m sick of gritty reboots.

I was going to make a joke here about gritty reboots being the new black, but that doesn’t work. A gritty reboot just takes something and puts black on it. Don’t get me wrong, a gritty reboot can be fantastic (Batman Begins) but it can also be atrocious (Daredevil) or pointless (The Hulk, Star Trek).

I have to lay most of the problem at the feet of Batman Begins. Batman Begins was a fantastic movie, the reasons for which Hollywood seems to have missed entirely. Batman Begins took a superhero who’s always had a problem with camp and whose latest films had spiraled into self-parody and got rid of all the extraneous bullshit. Instead of ridiculous bat-themed gadgets we had tools that were actually useful and based on real technology. Instead of Gotham as a bright neon Blade Runner knock-off we got a shadow-shrouded city that was as much of a character as any of the actors. Instead of Three Stooges-esque comedy fight sequences we got commando-style combat encounters that truly felt threatening due to their violence.

These were great, but they weren’t what made Batman Begins a great movie. Batman Begins was great because it was populated by real characters. Bruce Wayne wasn’t interesting because he angsted but because his angst was a realistic and sympathetic reaction to what he’d gone through. Christopher Nolan and David Goyer wrote someone who was crazy enough that we all believed he could become Batman and but was still sympathetic enough that we wanted to observe the process. Batman Begins was about character.

Unfortunately, Hollywood didn’t pay attention to that. They saw sets with low illumination and characters with tragic pasts and said, “Aha! Keep everything dark! That’s what makes a great movie!”

No, no, no, no, no!

To paraphrase Aristotle, if characters in a drama behave in a believable manner and experience logical consequences because of that behavior, at the conclusion of the story the audience will experience “a useful fear.” It doesn’t matter if the circumstances aren’t realistic so long as the characters act in a believable fashion given the circumstances, because we will continue to identify with the characters and take something away from their experiences. That requires real characters.

Spiderman 3 was a fairly dark movie but the characters were morons. People don’t hate it because of the dance sequence and emo hair – they hate it because the dance sequence and emo hair are out of character, coming completely out of left field. Don’t believe me? Check out Doug “That Guy With the Glasses” Walker’s five-second movie. The first season of Heroes was amazing because it was filled with fascinating characters who behaved like real people despite the absurdity of dormant superhero genes, because we believed them when they reacted to such genes. The subsequent seasons fell apart because the story began to dominate the characters, and once that happens you realize how insipid the story really is.

I’m truly worried about Spiderman’s gritty reboot. I’m worried it’s going to be all grit and the producers are going to forget what made the first two movies so wonderful in the first place.

Then there’s the issue of rebooting origin stories. The origin story is the easiest to portray because it’s easier to sympathize with a normal person going through changes than a superhero dealing with being a superhero, but we need stories that go beyond puberty and mid-life crisis metaphors (X-Men and Iron Man respectively). We need stories about what it means to live in the new life you’ve created for yourself. Batman Begins was a great film but it was The Dark Knight that truly had something to say, and it was a message our society needs very badly.

Hollywood, don’t keep being gritty for the sake of being gritty and don’t keep rebooting because it’s easier to start over than to go forward. I want to see:

- A Superman movie that makes use of the “alien among us” concept to deal with 21st century loneliness.

- A Spiderman movie that uses choosing between two dreams as a theme and not a cheap way to raise the stakes.

- An X-Men movie that contrasts the team’s bemoaning their outsider status with the Brotherhood’s celebration of it (though one scene in X-2 did this very well).

I want stories that matter and characters I care about, not just endless dark-framed long shots followed by closeups of the heroes’ faces.

Images that linger, characters and connections that matter: Bruce brainstorms with Alfred in Batman Begins (Christian Bale, Michael Caine); Wolverine risks his life to heal Rogue in X-Men (Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin); Theo and Marichka risk theirs to take Kee and her newborn daughter to safety in Children of Men (Clive Owen, Oanna Pellea, Claire-Hope Ashitey).

Related posts:
The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade
Set Transporter Coordinates to… (the Star Trek reboot)
Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain

The (Game)play’s the Thing: The Retro-RPG Eschalon

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Five and twenty years ago, far back in the mists of time, a cyber-aficionado friend invited me to see her new game. Despite the primitive graphics, I liked the game’s feel, the sense of adventure and story, the witty allusions and non-linear play. The game was King’s Quest I. At about the same time, Rogue showed up. Since then, the major reason that I haven’t become a quest game addict is that developers stopped bringing them out for the Apple OS. Among my favorites I count Gabriel Knight, Syberia, Myst, King’s Quest, Circle of Blood, The Journeyman Project, the sui generis System’s Twilight, Christminster and its fellow interactive fictions – and of course that labor of love, Nethack.

The list will tell you something about my gaming tastes. I detest open-ended, multi-player, shooting and arcade games. If given a choice, I play a wizard or rogue and advance many skills rather than specialize. What captivates me is worldbuilding: story, atmospherics and the quality of the quests. That’s why the only Zork game I liked was Nemesis. It had a coherent storyline and context, and you became invested in the fates of its protagonists. And I don’t mind sparse graphics, as long as they’re evocative (System’s Twilight is a prime example).

Fast forward to 2007. Having decided not to buy any playstation, I was glumly contemplating the slim pickings for Mac users when I stumbled on Basilisk Games. They (well, he – it’s a single person who “followed his bliss”) had just launched Eschalon 1, a retro RPG game and the first of a projected trilogy for all major platforms. I looked at screen caps, downloaded the demo… and three years later, here I am in Eschalon 2, Grand Magus hat and Scout sandals on, Warmoth bow and Abyssal Freeze spell readied, facing rift harpies in the windy crags of Mistfell.

Like most games of this kind, Eschalon (henceforth EB) is based on the Dungeons and Dragons concept and is vaguely Tolkienesque. In a devastated world, a champion undertakes a quest upon which the fate of that universe depends. S/he starts with very little, acquiring knowledge, skills and ever more powerful accessories as s/he explores the world, completes quests, solves puzzles and dispatches enemies.

In EB 1, the future champion also starts with the too-common total retrograde declarative amnesia.  In Anglosaxon: she doesn’t even recall her name, let alone past deeds, though she still wields a mean blade. The handicap allows bystanders and texts to fill in the background story in carefully apportioned snippets, but at least here it fits into the story arc.

EB 2 starts where its predecessor ended but is reasonably self-contained. So the two games can be played independently, although playing both makes for a far more satisfying sense of story. Unusually for such a game, at the end of EB 2 what was up till that point solid fantasy veers into science fiction. The twist becomes intriguing after the disorientation of the shift dissipates, and it literally embodies the Clarke precept that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

EB has the usual player classes, “races” and alignments. Quests can be completed in any relative order until the story funnels into the endgame. Unlike Nethack and its many clones, it unfolds both above and below ground. It’s turn-based, which means you can relax and enjoy its ambience instead of frantically pushing buttons in an adrenaline haze. And though you cannot advance in levels without a good deal of slaughter, Eschalon also requires strategy – especially if you play warlocks, as I do.

The Eschalon games are not perfect. Names are the usual pseudo-epic hodgepodge. Unlike the clever, vital exchanges in Gabriel Knight, interactions with non-player characters are limited and underflavored. The dialogue is by-the-numbers (“Do you want this quest?” Choice 1: “Yes, I will undertake it and gain umpteen experience points!” Choice 2: “No, I’ll just go eat some worms!”). Entire squares of the map are featureless waste through which you must literally trudge. Worse yet, if you meet enemies in such regions you have no recourse but brute-force bashing coupled with fleeing to regroup. In some parts, the enemy throngs are numbingly monotonous. You cannot attain the highest levels unless you resort to the cheat of reloading a previous character into a new game. And unlike Nethack, Eschalon has no class-specific quests.

At the same time, the game has truly wonderful touches. Non-player characters fight enemies if you maneuver them within each other’s range. You can kill enemies by luring them under portcullises or near gunpowder kegs (which you can even place strategically in EB 2, though they’re damnably heavy). There is no respawning of hostiles and containers generate random loot that can be literally marvelous. In EB 2 you also have weather, which affects skill and equipment efficacy; and foraging ability, that gifts you with sacks of alchemy ingredients every time you camp.

The EB universe has beautifully rendered and logically varied environments – mountains, plains and coasts; tundras, forests, prairies, deserts.  Also, this is a water world, like Le Guin’s Earthsea. Rivers, lakes, seas are never too far away and play an active role in the game. During the day, birds sing or frogs peep.  At night, crickets trill and fireflies twinkle.  Then there is the music. It warns you if enemies are nearby, even if you can’t see them. It swells to a paean when you’re engaged in combat. And in EB 2 it has become a beguiling, elegiac Lydian background that is integral to the game’s mood, although it is not linked to quest context as it is in Myst.

Despite its quotidian larger concept, Eschalon is immensely appealing to me because it has a coherent story with context – and because it demands and rewards exploration. Lagniappes abound in the game: a hidden chest in this rocky cove, a skills trainer in that secluded glen. And the fragmentary texts and conversation snippets that you encounter or trigger (especially in EB 2) have echoes, as if there are indeed layers to this world beyond its surface, itself riddled with abandoned buildings and half-completed works that add to the haunting effect.

Given that the Eschalon games are essentially the work of a single person, they are a real achievement, especially in evoking the sense of a rich, lived-in, immersive universe. It comes as no surprise that EB 1 won an indie award and created a devoted word-of-mouth following that awaited the advent of EB 2 with baited breath. It will be a real loss to RPG stalwarts if this devotion does not translate to enough income for Thomas Riegsecker to complete his own quest: finish Eschalon as he dreams – and as we do, along with him.

Images: Benoit Sokal’s Syberia; Nethack, tile version (partial level); Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight; Eschalon Book 2 trailer.

Glimpses of my immersive universe (more in the Stories section):

Contra Mundum
Dry Rivers
Planetfall

Note: The article is now also at Huffington Post.

The Sirens of Titan: Alien Life?

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

(Title borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut)

In the novel and film 2010, when the Monolith builders force Jupiter into nuclear ignition they also program poor put-upon HAL to broadcast, non-stop “All these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landings there.”

Arthur C. Clarke was deemed uncannily prescient when he wrote this, because many astrobiologists believe that life may exist under Europa’s thick ice crust: the moon harbors an underground water ocean and has geothermal energy courtesy of its huge planet. But recent news from the Cassini-Huygens mission could prove the prophet wrong. Before we encounter life on Europa, we may find it on Titan.

The Cassini data essentially show complex surface chemistry, as the Voyager data did for Mars. They also show mysterious absences of items expected to be abundant, given Titan’s specifics – acetylene and hydrogen in particular. Such results always carry the cautionary sentence that “non-biogenic processes yet unknown” could cause these anomalies. But organisms feeding on the missing chemicals is definitely on the list of these processes, something that several astrobiologists (Chris McKay, Derek Schulze-Makuch, David Grinspoon) suggested five years ago by speculating that acetylene would be tasty to Titanian life.

Titan, unlike bone-dry Mars, has enormous lakes – although they contain liquid hydrocarbons, rather than water. The lightest in that family (methane and ethane) are poor solvents because they’re non-polar, unlike water and ammonia. Nevertheless, they do act as solvents for the rich organic soup churned by Titan’s thick atmosphere of ammonia and methane (Carl Sagan’s “tholins”, from the Hellenic word for murky). And although chemical reactions will be slow in Titan’s ambient temperature of –190 Celsius (room temperature is 24 Celsius), all bets are off once enzymes are involved.

If we can conclude definitively that there is life on Titan, we will have walked one step further to the right of the Drake equation. We share material with Mars by meteorite exchange, so any life that existed or still exists there may have shared its beginnings with us. There can be no such ambiguity for Titan, given its distance and conditions. Whatever we find there, from bacteria to placidly grazing hydrogen balloons, it will be the product of an independent genesis. And it will be very different from us, finally making it possible to rigorously determine which aspects of life are parochial and which are universal.

This brings us full circle to HAL’s warning. If life exists elsewhere in the solar system, it will be both a boon and a burden. Such a discovery will give a major boost to astrobiology, which will finally have a legitimate topic to explore beyond the armchair vaporings of famous physicists – and to crewed space exploration, beyond the depressing and trivial prospect of sending more people in fungus-infested tincans into low terrestrial orbit.

At the same time, as I wrote elsewhere, we may destroy alien life even if we are careful. Such an outcome will deprive us of precious, irrecoverable knowledge that will help us make sense of our universe and our own planet, even if the new life consists entirely of bacteria (to say nothing of the moral equivalent of genocide if it’s more advanced than that). It may be that none of these worlds are ours, except for us exploring them and becoming their stewards.

Note: The article is now also on Huffington Post, sans images and references.

Images: Huygens on Titan, Craig Attebery (NASA); “Ammonia!  Ammonia!” by Robert Grossman, The New Yorker.

References:

C. P. McKay and H. D. Smith (2005). Possibilities for methanogenic life in liquid methane on the surface of Titan. Icarus 178, 274-276.

Schulze-Makuch, D., and D.H. Grinspoon (2005) Biologically enhanced energy and carbon cycling on Titan? Astrobiology 5, 560–564.

D. F. Strobel (2010). Molecular hydrogen in Titan’s atmosphere: Implications of the measured tropospheric and thermospheric mole fractions. Icarus, in press.

R. N. Clark et al (2010). Detection and Mapping of Hydrocarbon Deposits on Titan. J. Geophys. Res., in press.