In a Rut

Lately, I’ve been thinking the scope of my activities is just too narrow.

When I get online, I go to the same cycle of websites every day. I check CNN to see if anything important is happening. I pick out a couple of articles from The Atlantic that seem interesting. I go to io9, my portal of choice for the Gizmodo geeky stuff I want to follow. I go to the forum for my gaming clan. Then I google “Destiny” and see if there’s any news, usually reading Paul Tassi’s near-daily post at Forbes. Then I google “Expanse” to see if they’ve finally released a premiere date for Season 4 (spoiler: they haven’t).

That’s it. Then I’ll end up doing that all over again a few times a day. Whenever I need a break at work, I run that gamut even though there’s nothing new after 8AM on most of those sites. (And once a week, I peek in at National Review to try to force myself outside my bubble.)

Oh, and there’s Facebook.

But Facebook also feels like it’s just the same thing over and over again. There’re left-leaning political posts. The algorithm makes sure I know what Elizabeth Warren and Ocasio-Cortez are up to. There’s going to be a some petitions for me to sign to tell the powers that be that I want to save the bees and stuff like that. There’ll be the daily activity on my AP English teachers’ group and my Expanse fan group. Sometimes I’ll respond to some of that stuff.

But there’s a definite sameness and monotony to all of it, that’s for sure.

Scrolling through just now, I saw the oatmealish paste of pics of “friends” doing “stuff.” A few Memorial Day tributes. A few news items from one ex-student whose reposts always seem to end up in my feed.

Apparently, though, there is a way to shake this up. In–ironically–this weekend’s Atlantic, Joe Pinsker describes his own experiment in unseating Facebook’s algorithm and basking in unfettered randomness. He describes how using tools like Noisify, he has been able to follow in the footsteps of hyper-randomizers like Max Hawkins, a man who has literally let randomizers dictate what he eats, where he shops…even where he lives! Pinsker ended up in Facebook groups on everything from dinosaur fans to rat breeding.

Recently a friend at work told me I should download the Reddit app. Tell it what you like, he said, and it will feed you items of interest. At the time, I kind of smiled and nodded, but some little voice inside was telling me that I didn’t want to have another app offering me more articles about Destiny and The Expanse (Jesus Christ, are those really my only interests?!?).

But maybe I will download it now.

I’ll try it out and tell it nothing. Maybe I’ll use a random number generator–a dice app–to dictate each day how many links to count down and then click. I will commit to diving down the rabbit hole and seeing what sort of weirdness I can get myself into. I will broaden my god-damned horizons!

But first let me check my clan’s forum–see if anyone’s online.

On Endings and Fan Service

Two colossal sagas in the history of geekdom came to a close recently.

We fans have witnessed the end of both the TV saga Game of Thrones and the close of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, I know that technically the continuity of the Marvel universe will go on, but Avengers: Endgame was obviously an ending–it was right there in the titles. Whatever comes next will be fundamentally different.

Anyone who’s paid any attention to both series knows that these conclusions have been received very differently.

Avengers: Endgame has closed out an audacious, improbable, often-absurd twenty-two film cinematic cycle with such aplomb and bombast that fans were blown away. Like all the MCU, such a thing should not be possible. After the dark cliffhanger of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, I personally didn’t think there was any way that the architects of this sweeping, epic comic-book fantasy could pull it off and stick the landing.

But they did. They really did.

On the other end of the spectrum, Game of Thrones landed with an audible plop.

What went wrong? There’s been a lot of criticism of the writing on Game of Thrones and its seeming decline for several years now. For example: As if the entire story was taking place in a game of Skyrim, all the characters seemed to have leveled up in the last few seasons and gained the ability to fast travel wherever they needed to be.

But this kind of handwavium sloppy writing isn’t confined to Game of Thrones. The Marvel movies–Infinity War and Endgame in particular–are guilty of similar plot contrivances. Tony’s Ironman armor, which was once a merely impossible piece of technology that encased a human being in a flight-suit and weapons platform at once–now seems capable of, well, anything. The “nannites” that he developed sometime after his appearance in Spider-Man: Homecoming can just fashion anything he needs on the fly. And, like Game of Thrones, our characters seem remarkably spry in jumping from place to place–even the ones who don’t have access to mystical inter-dimensional portals.

So, why do we forgive the one and not the other? It’s not because one is a superior spectacle. The production value and cinematography, along with the acting, in the last few seasons of Game of Thrones have continued to be top notch, indubitably superior to the frenetic whiz-bang flashing energy that characterizes the visual palate of the MCU.

Most of those who share the opinion that Game of Thrones took a nosedive would probably fault the character development. Thrones has thrown some curve balls at characters’ apparent narrative arcs before. Hell, subverting the audience’s expectations of how characters are supposed to develop is pretty much the show’s (and novel series’s) trademark. After all, wasn’t Ned supposed to be the protagonist of the series? Yet, his head ended up rolling into a basket in episode nine of the first season.

What made Thrones great was that characters’ choices always led to consequences that they could not foresee–that’s where the conflicts in the show came from. Because they were nuanced beings in a complex world, the dominos never quite fell how these characters thought they might. Rob Stark’s plans fell apart because he followed his heart at one point, and tried to do his duty at another. Tyrian failed because he underestimated his sister’s animus and because his political capital wasn’t stronger than his own underlying resentment of a world that had served him ill.

But at a certain point, the characters seemed to stop simply being served hands other than what the audience might expect and began to behave inconsistently with the journeys we could see them taking. They were not just thrust into difficult situations; they were forced to behave in ways that didn’t seem to fit who they had been, sometimes just episodes before.

Obviously, the central example of this is Daenerys. For many viewers and fans, she was the hero of the show. Yet, beginning in season seven, the show started hinting that she had dark inclinations and was a tyrant in her heart of hearts. Many of us who had been thrilled for her triumphs–which were again and again framed as heroic by the show’s bold visuals, rousing music, and the structure of the episodes themselves–hoped that these hints were red herrings, that in the end, Dany would be the leader we believed her to be.

But, no, in the end, she did the unthinkable and burned down the very city she had crossed an ocean to possess. With the battle for King’s Landing already won and her enemies surrendering, she just kept burning anyway.

Now, this outcome could have been well done. Dany as an antagonist could have been very interesting. But the showmakers clumsily made her simply a villain, losing all nuance. It’s as though they could not really conceive of a (female) character who was both ruthless and compassionate. They insisted on reducing her to one thing, one variable–and painted her embracing her ambition as morally unambiguous as genocidal rage. The word I read again and again in reviews online was “unearned.”

Again, I think a contrast with the MCU is instructive here. When the plot for Captain America: Civil War called for the Avengers to be divided, there were people on Team Cap and Team Tony–debating which of the two central Avengers was right. And the really interesting thing about that movie was that you could really see how both were right and both were wrong.

If Game of Thrones had played its cards right, we could have seen a similar tension between Jon and Dany, able to see how her ruthlessness could serve the realm and pave the way to the future, but also maybe understand that Jon and Tyrian would have believe they had to stop her.

But instead, we all had to agree that Dany had become a kind of monster and that Jon had to kill her.

Many fans felt betrayed by that turn of events, but even more were disappointed that it wasn’t handled with the kind of careful development that marked the early seasons of the show.

George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones book series A Song of Ice and Fire, warned us via Twitter back in 2013: “Art is not a democracy. People don’t get to vote on how it ends.”

That’s certainly true of his novels, but some might wonder about the larger phenomenon of Game of Thrones, the show. Is this really art any longer? I mean, certainly a lot of art goes into it. From the art of performance from a truly stellar cast to the painstakingly rendered art of the visual universe built form the labor and minds of dozens upon dozens of designers, cinematographers, computer artists, costume designers, etc.

But is a TV series really art or is it, ultimately, product?

And what does either “owe” to the audience. Some fans felt outraged by the last season of Thrones. Some say the characters “deserved” better. Some said they themselves did.

Is this just democratic critique? Voices made public via Twitter and the web that would have simply been exchanged around the water cooler in previous eras? Or is this something different? Has “fandom” become so entitled that it demands, impudently like a child king, the stories it wants and wants them now!

Why did Gatsby have to die? You shouldn’t have killed him, Mr. Fitzgerald. John Proctor should escape; Miller’s an asshole!

I’m not sure we’ve crossed a line from wishing things had gone differently to believing that they should have gone differently. Perhaps the problem is in this era of hypermedia alongside constant cycles of reboots and recycled stories, we feel that nothing is permanent, that no ending is really ever set in stone. People complained about recasting Harrison Ford for the recent Star Wars movie based on Han Solo’s early years. And lo and behold, someone sicked a deep learning AI on the movie and grafted Ford’s face onto the action of the film. I myself thought that a simple fan edit to the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones could throw some moral ambiguity into Dany’s actions. Clip out her strafing the streets willy nilly and have her just attack the red keep. Make the carnage collateral damage and make Jon Snow’s choice more difficult.

Yeah, that’d fix it.

Whether this pattern is the democratization of art wherein everyone is commentator if not creator, or if we’re simply seeing the excesses of an overly entitled generation of fans too used to a digital world that force feeds them what they like and more of it, only time will tell.

Of course, when everyone agrees you did it well, like Marvel, then it doesn’t seem to matter.


Assorted Musings on Endgame:

  • It may all be sound and fury signifying nothing, but damned is it entertaining. A self-referential nerdgasm that bends back on itself like a mobius strip of easter eggs and comic mythology dense enough to collapse space-time itself, a phrase that used to mark media and narratives as too obtuse for mass consumption but is now exactly the kind of thing people would talk about in this absurdly glorious (gloriously absurd?) film series. But to really appreciate some great moments, you’ve got to have been along for so many little things:
  • There’s Carol Danvers taking a head-butt from Thanos and looking schoolmarm stern as if the menace of the entire 22 movie cycle was a particularly disobedient welp. (Oh, who is Carol Danvers? Didn’t you see Captain Marvel? You had to in order to understand why she’s suddenly with the Avengers in the first five minutes of the movie–hell, you had to wait for the after-credits scene for her movie to understand that.)
  • And there’s Captain America back in an elevator with all the bad guys. But you wouldn’t know they were bad guys unless you were taking notes during his second movie when we found out they were all secretly Hydra agents who have not yet–at that point in the time stream–revealed their evil allegiance. Did you think Cap was going to pummel them to escape the elevator? No, he just pretends to be one of them by whispering “Hail Hydra.” (But you don’t really get the significance of that unless you followed the recent Secret Wars comic series, or at least paid attention to the press that buzzed around the gimmicky, attention-getting twist in the series.)
  • Pyrrhic Victory, much? Think about the world the Avengers have actually “saved.” The psychological trauma of the snap is hardly erased by the return of all the folks who were dusted. Think about what suicide rates must have been like after the snap? Hawkeye’s family may be intact because he went on a morose murder-spree, but how many other wives and husbands moved on and remarried while their significant others were disappeared? Those are some awkward “Homecomings.” And think about poor Peter Parker. Yes, from the trailers for his next movie we see that all the characters whose names we knew were conveniently also missing for five years and are still teenagers, but think about that Monday back at high school. Half the class is “new” to the other half. That’s a lot of social awkwardness. “Hey, that’s my usual seat?” and such. What about food production? Society would have ramped down agricultural production. There will have to be rations while everyone retools. The job market is going to be utterly bizarre. “This is my office!” People will have moved. Houses will have been abandoned for years. The whole economy will have adjusted to a smaller population and now, suddenly, there are going to be mouths to feed, people who want to work and to have roofs over their heads. The world–hell, the entire universe–has a lot of sorting out to do. Poor Antman missed out on all his daughter’s middle school years…wait, maybe he lucked out there.
  • My favorite part has got to be Thanos’s ship turning its guns skyward. I was like, “Oh, yeah, here she comes.”

Assorted Musings on Thrones:

  • Honestly, I’m still too aggrieved to geek out about much of anything in the Thrones finale. But part of me can’t blame Dany for going rage-monster. I mean, poor Missandei. And wouldn’t you be pissed off if it took you like ten minutes to conquer King’s Landing even though your stupid advisors were all like, “Oh, don’t attack it yet, let’s go drag a wight from the north to not convince the evil queen that we’ve got to kumbaya and everything.” Losing her two dragons and her best buddy/hair-dresser was completely unnecessary. She could have taken King’s Landing in the first episode of season six without losing half her army at Winterfell and then marched north to defend the realms of men with the throne in her pocket and all three dragons. Maybe it was realizing all that that made her just decide to fuck it and burn the place down.
  • Oh, but anyone who’s surprised that neither Jon nor Dany ended up on the Iron Throne wasn’t paying attention. I 100% knew that neither of them would rule Westeros. Doesn’t mean I wanted one of them to turn into a homicidal maniac, sheesh.

The Marvel Formula Has Reached Its Limit

So, I just found this mostly-finished post in my unpublished drafts. Since I’m about to write about Avengers: Endgame, I might as well put this up, too. 

Spoilers ahead for the latest Marvel outing: Captain Marvel.

MCU, blah, blah. Ten years. Blah, blah. Twenty-one movies. Blah, blah.

I have long been fascinated with the enormity of the interconnected universe crafted by Marvel Studios under the guiding hand of ur-producer Kevin Feige. But I’ve already talked myself to death surveying its dimensions, its peaks and valleys.

Captain Marvel feels like a flat plane in that landscape. In telling the story of Carol Danvers, Air Force pilot cum intergalactic superhero, the film takes few risks and mostly just pulls the trigger on Marvel’s tried and true formula: Action, check. Witty banter, check. Um…geez is that the whole formula?

By now, that formula is pretty darned familiar. It’s worked well in most of those twenty-one films, and even in some others. By now, the DC comics universe, such that it is, has shifted away from its dour and glum early films toward following the same playbook. The much ballyhooed Wonder Woman was basically a pretty standard fare Marvel movie. I haven’t seen Aquaman, but it seems like it was on script, and the upcoming Shazam’s trailer definitely suggest it’s a paint-by-numbers Marvel clone, too.

Captain Marvel doesn’t have anything like the emotional depth of Black Panther, nor the ideas at work that made Winter Soldier a stand out, which is a shame. There was a lot of room to build in both, really. By making Carol a neophyte in the Kree military, the script misses the chance to make her more complicit in the horrors of war–something that could have added more dimensions to her discovery of their betrayal and of the real nature of their conflict with the Skrulls. The Skrulls, too, are handled poorly. Their leader’s conversion from potentially insidious infiltrator to misunderstood good guy wastes an opportunity to paint the duality of warfare with any nuance, as does Jude Law’s character’s overt about face toward cartoon villainy at the end.

Marvel movies are always at their worst when they are serving the gargantuan MCU itself instead of their own stories. Iron Man 2 was one of the low points of the whole enterprise because it was more interested in setting up SHIELD and the Avenger Initiative than anything else. Age of Ultron was okay at best because it was overcrowded with character introductions and dangling plot threads.

So, too, with Captain Marvel. This movie isn’t really about a character named Carol Danvers who is abducted by aliens and given super powers only to discover her true identity. No, this movie is about putting another piece on the board for Avengers: Endgame. It’s entertaining–mostly–and gives the fans what they want–and then some. But, ironically, given Carol’s tagline, it may go fast, but it doesn’t take us any higher and it doesn’t go any further than it needs to.