Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why I Disliked the Winter Soldier But Love 'The Winter Soldier'

I have made very little secret, in the past, of my dislike for the comic book character of the Winter Soldier. I have always found him to be emblematic of a certain trend in superhero comics that I'm not fond of, a desperate need to pretend that the genre doesn't have its roots in juvenile fiction and a tendency to paper over everything that could be considered immature with the same overcompensatory obsession with violence, guns and ruthless brutality. Retconning Bucky into a Super Seekrit Black Ops Assassin always felt kind of pathetic to me, even before they transformed him into a Super Seekrit Black Ops Cyborg Soldier.

(Um, for those of you who don't know, according to Brubaker even before Bucky became the Winter Soldier, he was a ruthless assassin killing off Captain America's enemies from the shadows so that Cap could continue to be a star-spangled propaganda machine, and the whole "camp mascot, cute kid, bad puns" thing was a ruse to divert suspicion. Y'know, just the way that Jack Kirby intended.)

Actually, that's kind of the point. I feel like when you write for a shared universe, there's a certain responsibility to respect the work that came before you, and I feel like turning Bucky into a merciless shadow assassin for the US government because you think it's "uncool" that Captain America used to hang out with a teenage boy in short shorts. If you don't want to deal with that part of Captain America's history, that's fine. There are a lot of other things to do with Cap. But retconning it into something nasty and dark and mean always struck me as an unprofessional way to play in the big sandbox.

(And frankly, if you'll allow me a second parenthetical aside in three paragraphs, it felt emblematic of Brubaker's treatment of Cap's mythos in general. I was never the biggest fan of the Jack Monroe Nomad, but I thought the character had been well-written in the past and had potential for more stories, and turning him into a mentally unstable psychotic and then killing him off just to show everyone how badass the Winter Soldier was left a bad taste in my mouth. It was, again, disrespectful of the character's history.)

So with all that said, why am I not just okay with but enthusiastic about the Marvel Cinematic Universe Winter Soldier? Because it's not a retcon. They are not leapfrogging the character from Point A, pun-happy kid who has the dream job of being Captain America's sidekick, to Point Z, grim and merciless gun-toting cyborg who kills people because That's What Cool Heroes Do. They're telling the story of Cap's childhood friend, the guy who always looked after Cap and fought alongside him in wars small and large, who was turned into something terrible against his will and is trying to reclaim his humanity. That's not the story Kirby told, but it's also not a repudiation of it. I can take that Bucky Barnes and that Winter Soldier on their own merits, and enjoy them for what they are.

And in a month or so, I get to see the next installment of their story. I can't wait.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Review: The Mammoth Book of Slasher Movies

There are really only two problems with the Mammoth Book of Slasher Movies by Peter Normanton. Unfortunately, they're both really huge. (Perhaps they're the Mammoth Problems with the Mammoth Book of Slasher Movies? No? Okay. Please yourself.)

The first isn't so bad--the author includes a number of horror movies like '28 Days Later', 'Living Dead at Manchester Morgue', and 'Night of the Living Dead' that aren't actually slasher movies at all. They're zombie movies. Now, I love a good zombie movie as much as the next person, and probably significantly more than the next person depending on who the next person is. But a guide to slasher movies should be aware of what a slasher movie is. In specific, a slasher movie is one that foregrounds the persona of the killer or killers with an intent to make them distinct or unique in some way. (There are also a number of cannibal movies, which kind of blur the line because usually it's an entire group of people acting as the cannibals, but I can at least forgive those because often the cannibals are recognized as unique and distinct individuals. Zombie movies, though, are about a faceless horde.)

This means that there's less space for analysis, because the book is stuffed full of movies that don't belong in it. It also means that the sequels are footnotes at the end of each entry, which is a shame because frequently the tone of a slasher franchise changed over the course of each entry, and it would be worthwhile to look at the way that (for example) Freddy changed from being a grim and vicious child molester to being a malevolent trickster-god, or the way that the mythos of Michael Myers got progressively stranger with each installment.

Worse, though, was the decision to file the movies alphabetically with an index at the back showing their chronological progression, rather than filing them chronologically with an index at the back showing how to find them in alphabetical order. This is absolutely gutting, because what analysis there is of the movies focuses on the way the genre developed as different filmmakers explored the motifs and translated the idea of the Italian murder mystery known as the giallo into American horror...and how a new generation took a genre that had become trite and formulaic and began experimenting with that formula.

So you can imagine how the book is impacted disastrously by having hugely influential films like 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' in the back of the book under 'T', while something like 'Hostel' is about a third of the way in. Any attempt to derive meaning or insight gets lost in the random shuffle of movies, and the book becomes a confused recitation of random details without context. I really wanted to like this book--Normanton clearly knows his stuff, and there's a lot of obscure movies in here that clearly illustrate his ideas about how the genre evolved. But the lack of organization turns it into something of a slog. Unless they fix this problem in a revised and updated edition, I wouldn't spend your time or money.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Definitely One of the Ninety-Nine Percent

You know how I said John Scalzi was right about 99% of the time? Well, he did an essay recently that I really strongly feel is a must-read, because this is one of his best of that 99%.

I don't talk a ton about it, but I am the father of a trans child, and the issues he talks about in this essay are part of my everyday life as a parent. He really does a great job of hitting every important point, including the bit about having the self-awareness to understand that you're not going to get it right the first time and that you need to keep trying and not get defensive when someone points out that you got it wrong. Basically, this is really good Trans 101 stuff, and it deserves a read.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Batman v Superman: A Non-Review

I am given to understand that 'Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice' comes out this weekend. I hope it is enjoyable for the people who go and see it, and I hope you understand that I won't be in that number.

I've tried to be pretty low-key about not having any desire to see it, because I really don't want to be That Guy on the Internet. You know, the one who decides to inflict his personal tastes on everyone by insisting that anything that looks bad to him must be empirically awful and if you liked it, you're a bad person with bad taste? Yeah, That Guy is a jerk. Let's go egg his house. has been brought to my attention that That Guy is hypothetical. Also? That's not his house. Put the rest of the eggs away.

Seriously, I don't want to get into an argument about the merits of the movie. I'm not even saying it's bad. It may be a perfectly good superhero movie--it's just that it looks like it's taking a number of aesthetic elements I really don't like and using them in conjunction. I don't like Zack Snyder's libertarian, hyper-conservative ethos when it's applied to...well, a lot of things, but especially Superman. A person who works on an adaptation of 'The Fountainhead' in their spare time is not going to fundamentally get a hero who operates on principles of pure altruism. That's actually the point of Luthor, in Grant Morrison's view--he literally can't trust Superman because the concept of true altruism is so alien to him that he imputes motives to the character that aren't there because otherwise Superman makes no sense to him.

(Not that I'm saying Snyder is like Luthor, but I'm saying a libertarian Objectivist doesn't have enough of a grasp on altruism to write Superman in a manner that's true to the character.)

I don't like any take on Batman that focuses primarily on his emotional damage, and I don't like any take on the Batman/Superman relationship that focuses primarily on Batman's egotistical need to prove himself superior to Superman. I'm pretty much over Frank Miller's take on the character; I find it reductionist to the point of being one-dimensional, and I think it limits the number of stories you can do about Batman. And further, I think most of the stories you can produce with the Miller Batman tend to show the character as unsympathetic and selfish, fighting crime primarily because it makes him feel strong and powerful rather than because he genuinely wants to help others.

I'm not interested in a story where Batman and Superman hate each other; I feel that it's a view of both characters that's tremendously disrespectful to decades of their histories, and that it really misunderstands what John Byrne was trying to do when he wrote the original 'Man of Steel' mini-series. Byrne was trying to show how two men of very different backgrounds could come to respect each other's commitment to their shared ideals, but everyone took it as, "Batman sees Superman as a wimpy boy scout and Superman sees Batman as a thug," and that characterization got locked in by Frank Miller (who unsurprisingly loves vigilantes and hates altruists).

And very little of the stuff around the edges that I've seen so far appeals to me, although I'm willing to credit the idea that Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman will be great if she's given something to do. I don't think Doomsday is necessary, I like the idea of Facebook Luthor but not enough to see a movie for it, and the cameos by the rest of the Justice League seem forced and desperate, like Warner Brothers is trying too hard to jumpstart a mega-franchise.

Now, I could be wrong about all this stuff. If I start hearing reviews that say, "Wow, this movie is nothing like what you saw in the trailers," I may decide to see it and I may like it. But I ultimately feel like this is not a Batman/Superman movie for me. I'm not saying it's bad, I'm not saying you shouldn't see it, I'm not saying you should feel bad for liking it. I'm just saying that it's rooted in a vision of the characters that's never appealed to me, and I've got better things to do with my time and money.

But if you're wondering what I think...well, now you know.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Friendly Advice for the Production Team of 'Cutthroat Kitchen'

Hi folks!

Look, we all know that social media is pretty awesome, especially if you're a basic cable TV show looking to drum up enthusiasm for your series that could translate into a bump in the ratings. People love to talk about television on social media, and even to watch shows while chatting with other viewers about what they're seeing live. That provides a real incentive to find ways to get your show "trending", in order to get people to switch over to see what's happening. We all get that.

And yes, it's fun to come up with clever topic hashtags, funny and quirky things that will get the public curious about what's going on with your show at that moment. Silly, funny little hashtags like "#hashtaghashtagpan" can create a little bit of excitement and, one would hope translates to a few extra viewers. And since those viewers help pay for the show (indirectly through advertising, let's not explain your own business model to you) then it's understandable that you're always looking for new quirky tags.

But here's the thing about the Internet and social media...they're used for a lot of different things. Some of them are things that, well...only grown-ups talk about. Special, grown-up things that don't necessarily involve cooking or television, except for the people for which both of those things are very important to their grown-up activities because of a special rule we call Rule #34. And it's important to remember that those grown-ups, talking about grown-up things, are on the same social media as everybody else, and the only thing that really divides them is the topics they talk about.

Basically, what I'm saying is that if one of your contestants does happen to slice off the tip of their finger, as happened in the March 13th episode, it's probably for the best if you don't try to get it trending with the hashtag "#justthetip". Because there are two very different meanings to that particular phrase, used by two very different groups of people, and trust me when I say that neither one of the groups who use it want to think about the other meaning when they're very...emotionally using it in its current context.

Okay? Okay.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Why I Avoid "Dream Cast" Lists

Right now, there's a lot of buzz about who the next Doctor Who companion will be. I've heard some interesting names being floated for the part, but I've also seen some "here's who they should cast" lists. Those tend to be very frustrating for me, because most of the "dream cast" lists that you see on the Internet tend to boil down to, "Here are people who are already doing a ton of stuff in sci-fi/fantasy and who are up for every third part in any genre movie or TV series you'd care to name! Wouldn't it be awesome if they were in this, too?"

And while the answer is usually, "Yeah, sure," (I mean, who doesn't want to see David Tennant in more things?) it feels very insular and limiting. The honest answer, especially for Doctor Who, is that I want to see someone I've never heard of. I want to see someone who isn't on my dream casting list, or even my casting list at all. I don't have the resources that a casting director has, and I don't get tons of headshots and resumes crossing my desk. Why should I be lobbying for anyone to get a part?

No, I'd greatly prefer to discover a new actor or actress through Doctor Who, or through any number of other sci-fi/fantasy movies. Let them be the next Matt Smith, or the next Tatiana Maslany, or the next Michael B. Jordan. The casting director's job should be to range far and wide and discover someone brilliant--if they've only found the people we all know about already, they're not working hard enough.