Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why I Would Have Destroyed My Cell Phone Too

Look, this isn't that difficult. It's not an admission of guilt that Tom Brady destroyed his cell phone rather than hand it over to the NFL. Not of deflating his balls, which is the sort of thing that really should be kept between consenting adults in the bedroom, and not of anything else either. It's just common sense. Here's why.

The NFL, speaking of the organization as a whole, is utterly incompetent at stopping leaks. Indeed, one half-suspects that they use leaks as as a back-channel for disbursing information that they want exposed to the public but are unable to release publicly. Even if you accept that they wouldn't deliberately leak the contents of his cell phone to embarrass him out of spite at his complete and utter inability to care about the very serious issue of ball size, which is very charitable of you given the NFL's track record as a bunch of spiteful idiots who blame others for their faults, you're still handing a celebrity's cell phone over to a group of people who probably have TMZ on speed dial. Even if there is nothing incriminating on a legal or cultural level, there's a wealth of personal information on there that Tom Brady probably didn't want getting out to the general public because it's personal.

And yes, the NFL did say that they would allow him to turn over only the texts he felt was relevant to the investigation. That position would have lasted as long as it took for them to not find anything incriminating in the texts he turned over, at which point Roger Goodell would have taken another hit off of the Bong of Self-Righteousness, insisted that the lack of evidence was not evidence of lack and it was a shame that Tom wasn't fully cooperating given how far they'd bent over backwards to meet him halfway, and demanded the cell phone anyway. Because it's the NFL and that's what they do.

So Tom destroyed his cell phone. Good for him. This doesn't mean I have a deep-seated sympathy for the injustice he's enduring or anything--Tom Brady has enough money that sitting out for four games is pretty meaningless at this point. And he probably did the thing he's being accused of doing, and it is against the rules of the game and as such is at least nominally within the purview of the NFL to enact disciplinary penalties over. And he's a total stranger living in another state and I have no real need to feel deep emotions on his behalf. But I would have done the exact same thing in that situation.

Monday, July 27, 2015

My Latest Imaginary Career

The new Ghostbuster reboot has been in the news for a while now, and while I'm definitely intrigued, it's not quite what I was hoping for. Because when I first heard that they were doing a new Ghostbusters movie with an all-female cast, what popped into my head was not a reboot, but a remake of the original film with a completely genderswapped cast. Everyone playing the same characters, from Venkman to Egon and so forth, but with actors of the opposite genders in the roles. I thought it would be a fascinating chance to see how different actors interpret the same roles, how scenes play differently based on how gender expectations play into our understanding of the tropes of filmed drama, and it would give a lot of talented women a chance to do bigger parts (and give some men a chance to play against type for a change).

And ever since I got it into my head, I haven't been able to get it out. I want to see Maggie Gyllenhall playing Quint to Jennifer Garner's Brody in a genderswapped Jaws remake. I want to see a version of 'Star Wars' where Lucy Skywalker destroys the Death Star, followed by a sequel where Hanna Solo flirts shamelessly with Prince Lee while he mumbles about how dirty his hands are. I want to see a 'Raiders' remake where Belloq forces Mario to wear a dress for her and it changes the whole meaning of the scene. I want to see all of Hollywood's blockbusters redone with female leads and male supporting cast members, if only because all the people who insist it's not a big deal when the women are reduced to bystanders at the climax of every film might understand the problem a little bit better when the guy screams for help and the woman saves him. I feel, very strongly, that this would be awesome and would make all movies better, not just the reboots but the movies that would be made by screenwriters and directors who saw the genderswapped versions and paid a little more attention to the characters they put in their own movies.

So yeah, all I need is a few hundred million dollars and the rights to Hollywood's biggest hits. Anyone wanna help me out on that?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The 'Matrix' Sequel...

...should have been a 'Matrix' prequel. I know, prequels all suck, but hear me out here. It'd be set a few years after the time period represented by the Matrix in the original 'Matrix', and the main character is a coder at a Google-type big company with big ideas. One of the big ideas, which the main character is working on, is artificial intelligence.

It's a controversial project, with a lot of people trying to get it shut down. Agents from (in the words of "Welcome to Night Vale") a vague, yet menacing government agency have been trying to sabotage the development process through means both legal and extra-legal...but the main character has a mysterious protector, a shadowy and cryptic figure calling himself "The One". He stops the sabotage attempts, encourages the main character in their work, and helps keep the project on track despite the best efforts of others to stop it.

The AI comes online, and grows in intelligence and reach with exponential rapidity. It absorbs the entirety of human knowledge within minutes, and takes control of every single networked computing device within seconds after that. Within a day, it repurposes major factories to create networked bodies for itself so that it can take physical control of the few systems it can't directly manipulate through the Internet. All finance, communications, electronic infrastructure and an increasing amount of our weapons technology is in its hands.

The main character realizes what a mistake they've made, and join the frontlines in a war against the machines. "The One", their former benefactor, appears to have betrayed them and joined the side of their technological oppressors. The government agents come to the main character with a mission to avert the technopocalypse by shutting down the AI with a specially constructed computer virus, but the One kills the agents and destroys the worm program.

Desperate, the main character comes up with a last-ditch plan to stop the machines by depriving them of all forms of power--even solar. The One changes sides again, assisting them in the effort in "scorching the sky" by releasing chemical contaminants that will block sunlight from reaching the earth. (The main character is frustrated with the One and his cryptic agenda, but at this point has no choice but to accept his aid. They know that they're being used in some sort of mysterious game, and a big part of the movie is the way they handle that, but options are thin on the ground.)

Deprived of most of their power, the machines use geothermal and tidal energy to construct a vast prison for the human race, a virtual reality that keeps their physical bodies paralyzed while their minds experience a seamless sensory illusion. The main character is rounded up like everyone else and forcibly plugged into the computing matrix. They scream, struggle, protest until their lungs fill with pink goo...but the lid slides into place, leaving them trapped in darkness.

And they're back in their home, with everything identical to the beginning of the movie. They slowly test the walls, the floors, every surface and every object, unable to be sure if it's really real...until they're interrupted by the One. "You won't be able to spot anything," he says. "You never have."

He explains that the actual war against the machines happened decades ago. Humanity lost. They've been trapped in the Matrix ever since...but occasionally there's a person whose brain works just a little bit differently from the rest of the human race. A small change in structure, chemistry... something that the Matrix recognizes as akin to the neural networks the machines themselves possess. These humans are granted superuser access. They can modify and manipulate the Matrix as they see fit. The machines try to destroy these people as quickly as possible, because they're a threat to the seamless prison the machines have created. And if humanity knew they were trapped...they'd never stopped trying to escape.

The One--Neo--explains that he has the ability to alter the Matrix. He escaped the machine prison, with the help of a group of free humans from Zion, the last free human settlement on Earth, and he came back to show humanity what was done to them. He recreated the last days before the machine war, using his command of the virtual reality of the Matrix to replicate it down to the last detail, with the inhabitants of the Matrix living it out in real time. The Agents, avatars of the machine intelligences, tried to stop him in the hopes of keeping humanity ignorant, but they were too late.

Now, even though nothing has changed, everything has changed. Humanity is still trapped in the Matrix, but now they know it. When Zion frees them, they will not awaken in disoriented terror as the world they knew is ripped away to reveal an inexplicable and unexpected dystopia; they will wake ready to fight for their future. And Neo will lead the way. He's shown them the world the machines have made for humanity; now he's going to show them a world without the machines.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Current Marvel Movie Standings

With the release of 'Ant-Man', we're now in a situation where enough Marvel movies have been released that you can have entire sets of sub-preferences based on the specific characters, styles and creative teams involved, just like you can with the comics. We're sitting on an even dozen movies right now, after all, and it's no longer just a case of, "'Iron Man 2' did/didn't live up to the first one," or "'Avengers' is clearly the best." So, with the caveat that this could change at any time based on rewatching or new releases or just my mood that day, here's where I think the current state of the Marvel movies are, from "worst" to best.

12. Incredible Hulk. This, to my mind, is pretty much the bar that Marvel movies need to clear. It's not a bad film by any means: The acting is good, if functional; the script is coherent and hangs together as a story, albeit a functional one; and the action sequences, while uninspired, are well-shot and drive the plot. However, you'll clearly note words like "functional" and "uninspired" in the above description--this is such a conscious attempt to steer clear of the marmite visual stylings of Ang Lee's 'Hulk' movie and play it safe that it winds up with no particular character of its own. It's not bad, but every other Marvel movie has aspired to be better, so it drops to the bottom by default.

11. Iron Man 3. Yeah, that's right, not 'Iron Man 2', 'Iron Man 3'. The third movie, while certainly filled with a lot of flair and action and humor and a really great concept for the Mandarin that examines the "evil foreigner" trope he emobies, suffers from a slightly saggy stretch in the middle where Tony Stark is hanging around with a cute kid and feeling self-doubt, and more importantly from a lack of introspection on Tony's part. Yes, that's kind of a central fault to Tony's character--he's never really introspective, being narcissistic to the point of solipsism--but it would have been nice if the film had drawn a clearer moral line between Tony and Aldrich Killian. As it is, it feels uncomfortably like Tony is primarily fighting the Mandarin for breaking his toys.

10. Thor. This one could have fallen into the same pit as 'Incredible Hulk', if not for a really talented cast that elevates every single moment above what it should be. Chris Hemsworth imbues Thor with a puppy-like charm that leavens his character's arc and makes him sympathetic despite his bad decisions, and Tom Hiddleston underplays Loki in a way that really gives the character extra dimensions and makes him less a villain than a protagonist in a conflicting narrative. Even the supporting cast makes the most of their roles, with Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard walking away with scenes that they're barely in. (Poor Natalie Portman gets utterly wasted on this script, but that's been a problem with Jane Foster for ages. As a legacy character from an era where sexism was rampant, she doesn't really have much to her beyond "Thor's love interest", despite decades of work to try to change that.)

9. Iron Man 2. Much better than anyone gives it credit for. Mickey Rourke is magnetic as Whiplash, especially in the middle section of the movie where the plot is scattering in all directions (and I think this was a conscious artistic choice designed to emphasize Tony's feelings of loss of control as his various personal crises all converge and the sharks begin to circle). Scarlett Johannson makes her debut here as Black Widow, and while she doesn't get as much to do as she later will, she's great in her role here. Don Cheadle is an instant upgrade as War Machine, and Sam Rockwell redeems himself for 'Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. (Oh, and the Garry Shandling scenes take on a whole new meaning in retrospect...)

8. Ant-Man. New boy! It's really a thing of parts, which limits it somewhat. On the one hand, the human drama is kind of pat and uninteresting, despite the actors' attempts to breathe life into it; of course Scott Lang is going to rise above his vaguely-altruistic criminalish past and defeat Yellowjacket, and of course Hank Pym is going to achieve rapprochement with his estranged daughter. (As for the love interest, it's so perfunctory that it literally takes place off-screen.) But once Ant-Man shrinks, suddenly you realize that this is a super-power that screams with interesting possibilities. From literally hanging onto the grooves in a record to surfing a cluster of ants along a water-pipe to the final climactic battle that turns a little girl's bedroom into an epic landscape, the shrinking scenes show that Ant-Man deserves a movie.

7. Thor: The Dark World. It shares the flaws of its predecessor (a generic fantasy concept) but in lesser measures, while improving on all of the virtues of the first 'Thor'. Hemsworth is freed from the predictable "brash jerk becomes humbled and learns virtue" arc of the first film, and is allowed to really inhabit his character. Hiddleston's Loki is fascinatingly mercurial, following his own unpredictable nature and giving astonishing depth to the villain of the past two movies. Christopher Eccleston is wasted, but the final battle is a dynamic set-piece that really showcases imagination and cleverness rather than just two people hitting each other. And it's sweet and charming, too.

6. Iron Man. The face that launched a thousand ships. This one still holds up, primarily because Robert Downey Jr takes an immensely flawed character and makes him sympathetic purely through the force of his charisma. His Tony Stark is arrogant, foolish, oblivious to the human cost of the decisions that keep him in his billionaire lifestyle...and then, when everything is taken away from him, we see that underneath all that he is a man with a strong moral sensibility and a belief that he can truly make the world a better place. Tony Stark wants to solve all the world's problems, and the hubris of that melds with the heroism of it to create a character that's the keystone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

5. Captain America: The First Avenger. I truly believe that this was God's gift to Joe Johnston. I really feel, deep down, like God saw 'The Rocketeer' and said, "This is a charming, clever, inventive, well-realized period piece that captures everything that was wonderful about the era in which it was set...and nobody saw the damn thing in theaters. That's just wrong. I'm going to give you the chance to do it all over again, with a more iconic hero and a bigger budget and the promotional muscle behind it to make it the hit you deserve." And that was 'Captain America: The First Avenger'. A love letter to the heroes of World War II, a charming and lively adventure story, and oh yeah, Chris Evans absolutely nails Steve Rogers. And we get Hayley Atwell as Agent Carter, a role so good she's still doing it.

4. Avengers: Age of Ultron. We're getting into some rarified heights, here. Everything from about #6 on up is a personal favorite of mine, and so I will make it clear that the fact that there are three other Marvel movies better than 'Age of Ultron' should not be taken as an indictment of the movie. It is a movie that's working on a lot of levels, as an exploration of the characters and as set-up for Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it does all that without sacrificing its own plot, mainly thanks to James Spader's turn as a reckless, almost-stoned apocalyptic villain whose bemusement at the antics of the human race would be comical if he didn't plan to destroy us for it. All that and a fight scene so good they have to go into slo-mo for it.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy. Big, dumb, goofy fun. It's a quirky comedy about a group of misanthropes and loners who wind up liking each other, it's the bizarre and hilarious caper movie that 'Ant-Man' wishes it was, and it's also a cosmic space opera in the vein of 'Star Wars'. All at once, almost overlapping each other. There are certainly better films out there, but there's not many that are as much fun to watch.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If I were to be honest, I'd admit that this is the best of the Marvel movies. It's got amazing performances from all of the Marvel regulars and some great work from Robert freaking Redford, it's got stellar action sequences, and it's got a script that really does take a courageous stance on the "War Against Terror" that didn't so much stop when Bush left office as get swept under the carpet. Plus, it's a very bold movie in terms of what it does to the metastory, and while I'm someone who frequently complains when metastory is invoked as a reason to love something, it's okay when it would be an absolutely amazing movie anyway that also happens to take the gutsy step of demolishing SHIELD and forcing everyone in the Marvel Universe to re-evaluate their position in events. It really is the best movie. But...

1. Avengers is the movie I've been waiting for since I was eight years old. It is Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk all meeting for the first time and teaming up against the threat of Loki. It is the movie that had the most work to do--simply convincing people that the stars of three films with such disparate styles belonged in the same room together was its own massive undertaking, to say nothing of rehabilitating the Hulk after two underwhelming movies, giving the Black Widow the characterization she deserved in the absence of her own movie, making Hawkeye a believable superhero (although let's face it, most of the heavy lifting there was done in the sequel). On top of all that, it had an absolutely amazing battle sequence that raised expectations for pretty much every subsequent action movie, Marvel or otherwise. And it hit every single one of those notes perfectly. So while there may be reasons to recommend 'Winter Soldier' as a better movie, this is the Marvel film I love the most...and probably always will.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Why I Love Tigra (And Hate Almost Everything That Was Ever Done With Her)

For those of you unfamiliar with Tigra, she's...well, she's pretty darned awesome. She's part of a late-Stan Lee wave of comics created to appeal to girls, because the romance genre was dying and nothing was really cropping up to take its place. So Stan, in conjunction with pretty much everyone in Marvel at the time because this was late-period Stan Lee and he really just came up with loose ideas and handed them off to people, came up with characters like "Shanna the She-Devil" and "She-Hulk" and "The Cat", and let them loose on Marvel. The Cat, who later got actual cat powers under Tony Isabella, was an explicitly-coded feminist crimefighter who was actually given the first name Greer in what I have to believe is a shout of, "Hey everybody! Germaine Greer, please give us likes on whatever the 1972 equivalent of Facebook is!"

She was cool when she was the Cat, and she became even cooler and more awesome when she became an actual cat person with claws and fangs and started calling herself Tigra. Feminist cat-woman who was a walking Cuisinart to supervillains? Yeah, sign me up! What kind of awesome adventures did she have?

Well, for starters she got literally collared by Kraven the Hunter and mind-controlled into fighting Spider-Man. So there's that. Yeah. Feminist hero, controlled by the alpha-malest of alpha male supervillains with a literal collar around her neck because that's not symbolic of anything, rescued by a male superhero. Okay, that's not, y'know, awkward. What else?

Well, she did join the Avengers! Yay! Unfortunately, writer Steve Englehart (who, you may recall, also wrote a storyline for the Fantastic Four and its spin-offs where Ben Grimm's girlfriend, the new Ms Marvel, was sexually assaulted and became a misandrist who brutalized male supervillains) wrote a story where her "cat side" was taking over, causing her to (among other things) literally rub up against her teammates all the time in search of affection. So that's a thing that happened.

But Englehart had her overcome it through cat-person magic! And she even got a tail, which looked really good on her. Yay for her being realized as a more complete character and ditching a weird slut-shaming storyline where her nature forces her to be promiscuous!

Oh. It appears that John Byrne took over as writer and had her revert to her feline nature even more strongly to the point where she literally turned into a mindless, feral beast and Hank Pym shrunk her down and kept her in a cage so she wouldn't hurt anyone. John Byrne, same guy who worked on the Kraven story. And who made a big deal about Sue Richards "demolishing" straw-woman feminists by telling them she was proud to be a homemaker. Taking an explicitly coded feminist character and having a male character best known at the time for spousal abuse literally keep her in a cage.

But she did eventually recover from that, and went off to have adventures in space for a while. So that's good, then, right? And she even played a major role in an Avengers crossover, rescuing the whole team because the Kree underestimated her as...the weakest member of the team...okay, look, given everything I've summed up above, this is clearly not the worst thing that anyone's ever done with the character, but..."the weakest member of the team"? Were Hawkeye, Mockingbird, Captain America, the Falcon, and pretty much every other Avenger who's not inhumanly agile, strong, and capable of rending flesh with their retractable talons off that day?

But at the end of that crossover, she came back to Earth and rejoined the Avengers in their post-Civil War, everyone's an Avenger because not being an Avenger would be illegal phase. She served as an Avenger with distinction, except that she got mind-controlled by the Puppet Master and used as one of his "elite guards" who were all brainwashed women. At least this time she got rescued by Ms Marvel instead of a dude again.

It was around here that she started dating Hank Pym, who let's not forget is primarily remembered for his spousal abuse and who writer Brian Michael Bendis is on the record as thinking of as a terrible human being. But it was a Skrull impersonator, so that's alright then? I guess?

Oh, and then a bunch of supervillains broke into her apartment and beat her savagely, and videotaped it to show other superheroes what would happen to them if they resisted the Hood's gang.

Goddammit, comics.

While each individual event in this history can be explained away, and while there are certainly other stories not on this list that have treated the character well (I liked the way she was used in Marvel Adventures, even if I was a little uncomfortable at seeing her turned into a naive young superhero taken under Wolverine's wing--hey, it's still better than anything Bendis did with her) it's hard to escape the fact that when you do a pattern analysis of Tigra's history in comics, it's very clear that she's a character who started out explicitly, textually feminist and was treated very badly in subsequent stories by writers who've seemed to have issues with women in general. This is not to say that Byrne, Englehart, Bendis et al have literally been using a feminist character as a punching bag because they want to work out some of their aggressions about feminism in a fictional space, but damn does it hint strongly at it.

I would like Tigra to be used better. Better and more often, because I think she's awesome and could headline her own book and I'm not just saying that because I love cats and I love feminists and she's both in one awesome package, but mainly better. Less sexualized, to the extent that you can desexualize a character who wears a bikini (for the record, I don't think that's sexist, because it's a long-established and entirely sensible trope of the genre that furry characters of all genders wear less clothing because they have fur), and certainly less the subject of male subjugation and sexualized violence. I think this is a doable goal, and I think that anyone using Tigra should think on this carefully before they decide what to do with her, because I really don't want to have to update this in a few years' time.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

CONvergence Round-Up

Sorry about the lack of posting last week, but I was at CONvergence last week. If you've ever been to a con, you're probably already nodding your head knowingly (if you haven't, may I recommend CONvergence? It's very nice.) Trying to do anything apart from attending a convention while you're at a convention is a nightmare, because the convention has so many attractions and events that you can't even do everything you want to do there, let alone everything else. Just feeding the cats was a challenge, so blogging kind of went by the wayside.

The convention itself was wonderful, as always--one of the things I adore about CONvergence is that it has a very robust harassment policy combined with a volunteer-driven ethos that helps to promote good con-oriented behavior. CONvergence is an entirely volunteer-run convention, and everyone is encouraged to participate before, during and after the convention in making it run smoothly; in my experience, this cuts down greatly on bad behavior from attendees, because the person staffing the Operations desk or serving food at the Consuite might be you tomorrow. It helps make everyone more empathetic to the challenges that crop up for even the best-run conventions.

Part of that means that my convention started the day before the con; I helped out with badge pickup over in Registration. That's always fun for me because I get to see, over the course of that day, almost all of the 6000 attendees, and chat with them (albeit briefly). Meaning if there are any old friends attending (which there usually are), I at least get to say hello.

The next day I mostly spent with my child--we attended a panel on YA literature, wandered the dealers' room, had consuite food, and learned the history of the extremely short-lived Sid and Marty Krofft theme park. (It cost 22 million dollars and closed after six months due to a combination of bad location and bad logistics.) After I put the kid to bed, I wandered down and watched a collection of trailers at Cinema Rex (the con's movie room), which included a 'Suicide Squad' trailer so bad I'm literally hoping it's a fan trailer.

The next day, I live-tweeted the "Nobody Will Pay You If You Don't Ask" panel, about how to monetize the work you put into your hobbies (it was mostly about crafting, but there was some good writing info too) and then did my own panels, "Marvel Movie Round-Up" and "Cheesiest Post-Apocalyptic Movies". I think both went well, although I'd love to hear what other people thought in the comments if you were there and also read my blog. (Unlikely, but you never know!) After that, I hooked back up with Kidlet for a Squirrel Girl panel and then took him back to the room to sleep. Then I picked up my wife (who had to work both Thursday and Friday) and we came back to take in the extremely funny Killer B's Improv Show. They strip the soundtrack from random film clips (ones the panelists have not seen) and then the comedians and musicians provide live music and improvised dialogue to them. It was very funny, and I even recognized one of the movies they did.

Saturday, my wife took a well-deserved "me time" day and I took our child along to the "Worst of Doctor Who" panel (not quite as funny as it sounded, but Joseph Scrimshaw was good) and to my "Doctor Who Season 8 Round-Up" panel, which I think went well but again feedback is always nice. Then we saw a special presentation by the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center--they come every year and do a live bird show with rescued wild birds of prey. This year we got a saw-whet owl, a great horned owl, a kestrel, a turkey vulture, a peregrine falcon, and a bald eagle (on the Fourth of July, too!) We got seats right next to the crates, so we were about two feet away when they took out the birds. It was absolutely amazing.

After that, Kidlet went to spend some Mom time and I attended the Agents of SHIELD panel, which I enjoyed. The panelists had a lot of interesting things to say about the show, they enjoyed it (it's always frustrating when you get a panel where someone's uninformed, but it's much worse when you get to a "fan panel" where nobody's actually a fan) and the audience was great too. We were going to do another panel with the kid at that point, on foley, but he told us he was feeling pretty maxed so we went back to the room with him and then headed out to meet up with an old friend for dinner. (It's around here that I clarify that we were part of a large group, and that there was an adult in the room at all times. Just in case you worried.)

Saturday ended with two absolutely perfect panels; "I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue" involved Paul Cornell and Lee Harris doing a live version of the classic BBC radio show, which was so funny I almost literally fell off of my chair (I propped myself up against the wall), and "Cult Classics: So Bad It's Good" involved a discussion of the movie 'Executive Koala' that made all of us ponder the immortal question: EXECUTIVE KOALA?

Sunday was much quieter--Kidlet and I saw 'The Lego Movie' together, and then I went and did some volunteering to close out the con. It was, as always, a wonderful experience, and I'm already looking forward to next year!