Category Archives: geekery

Review: The Expanse Season Four

Season four of the Expanse has arrived! If you haven’t watched it, go do that. 

Because below thar be SPOILERS! 

The first episode opens up with what amounts to a roll call, revisiting the series’ various characters, now clumped into a few groups that will mostly remain separate through the season as they grapple with the ramifications of the galaxy being opened up for possible exploration and exploitation by the events at the end of season three. 

On Earth, UN Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala is facing a new web of political machinations, far less sinister than the plots she foiled in season three, but in some ways, this new ordeal is more horrifying: an election. Despite popular clamoring for expansion, her impulse is to hold back on colonization beyond the ring gates. Having seen the horrors of Eros, she is reluctant to open the floodgates and let the “blood-soaked gold rush” that central protagonist James Holden predicted begin. 

So when she needs someone to help her apply the brakes to the expansionist zeal, she turns to the man who knows the ring-building protomolecule best: Holden himself. At her behest, he and the Roci head out past the ring gates to a little planet called Ilus, or New Terra, depending on who you talk to.

The Ilus storyline where Belter squatters and corporate stooges from Earth tussle for control of a planet that is brimming with both hostile alien organisms and world-shaping protomolecule technology is adapted largely from the fourth Expanse novel, Cibola Burn.  

On Ilus, Holden and his crew work through a pretty self-contained story arc. The Earth expedition crashed under suspicious circumstances and their security chief, Murtry, wants to flush out the Belter terrorists responsible. Meanwhile, Holden has ferried the protomolecule’s artificial intelligence based on the memories of Joe Miller along to Ilus and inadvertently switched on the planet-scale machinery beneath the surface. Meanwhile, Naomi pushes herself to the breaking point trying to acclimate to a planet’s gravity and Amos makes a new friend (wink, wink). The conflicts these core characters face are mostly external now since they have coalesced into a little family and aren’t at odds with one another. The action here isn’t quite episodic, but the challenges and complications our core characters face feel somewhat disconnected from the larger issues of the galaxy, just as they did in Cibola Burn. 

That novel takes place almost entirely on Ilus, away from all the other characters except the core Rocinante gang of Holden, Alex, Naomi, and Amos. Season four of the show, though, does not leave the rest of the cast from the previous seasons behind. 

Just as the show continues to track Avasarala’s political conundrum even after she has sent Holden on his way, it also keeps up with Drummer and Ashford, who are now both in uniform and hunting rogue OPA around the ring gate to maintain the uneasy alliance with Earth and Mars. Ashford is a changed man since season three. He acknowledges his errors and has resolved himself firmly to non-violence—well, in the largest sense anyway. He still has to shoot down pirates, but he preaches to any he can catch that the new Belt needs to reject violence as a political tool. It’s easy to see that this stance is both his penance for almost lashing out at the ring gate and wiping out humanity and the natural evolution of his compromises in the name of progress when we met him in season three. The show, though, hints that he has also come to blame himself and his life of violence for the death of his child, alluded to in past episodes but made more tangible here as he watches some old zero-G home movies. 

The Expanse was no doubt trying to get the most out of its big guest star here and lets him outshine Cara Gee’s Drummer a bit, but that’s understandable, considering his fate. His loss at the end of the season suggests darker developments ahead for the peace between the Belt, Earth, and Mars. 

The show also finally goes to Mars. We’ve technically been here before, but only for an outdoor combat exercise in season two. At long last we get to see Martian culture through Frankie Adams’s Bobbie Draper, now a disgraced ex-marine looking to reintegrate into Martian society. Ever since she first joined the show, I’ve been hoping that they would just leave Bobbie on the Rocinante once she was there (even though that’s not what happened in the books either). Bobbie’s reluctance to do so makes sense for her character, though. She is, as we hear so often, a good Martian. But that means less than it used to now that Martian society is fraying. Why spend your lifetime terraforming Mars, many are now wondering, when there are livable worlds on the other side of the gate? 

The novella Gods of Risk features Bobbie as a side character and is one of the most forgettable of The Expanse’s ancillary pieces. Going into the season, I’d kind of hoped we wouldn’t be seeing it hashed out on screen, but it does serve as the jumping off point for Bobbie’s arc here. The series, though, extends that story and eventually makes her foray into the underworld connect with the larger events in the system. It makes sense for the show, and even makes sense for the character—to an extent. Bobbie slides into her criminal life a little too easily. I honestly thought she was probably under cover for the cop who harasses her at the beginning—that she’d discreetly contacted her and was gathering evidence to bust up Esai’s little syndicate. 

But the Bobbie Draper we met on the show has always been different than her counterpart in the books. Always a little angrier, and always a more fervent believer in Mars’s destiny. Having that carpet yanked out from her and losing her sense of purpose yet again just works as justification for stepping outside the law. Many fans may have wished that she would just take Avasarala’s job offer and leave Mars right away since Frankie Adams and Shohreh Aghdashloo are delightful together and their chemistry in seasons 2 and 3 made those some of the best episodes of the whole series, but hopefully we will see plenty fo them together in season five. 

In their discreet plot arcs, each of the main characters from the previous seasons interacts with new faces—some potential allies, some foils, and some antagonists. Bobbie spends her time running with a crew who are in no way as cool as the Roci gang. Avasarala has a couple of new political flunkies (I really thought one of them would turn out to be Soren from the books) and a new political opponent. Their two story lines likely feel the least significant because those other characters don’t seem to be sticking around for long and don’t really carry much weight when all is said and done. When Bobbie is back on her own, we aren’t exactly left missing her erstwhile fellow criminals—and would rather see her clash with the new enemies she meets in only a literal flash at the end of her story on Mars.

The Expanse has had villains before, monsters like Dresden or people warped by their ambitions like Errinwright and Mao. But the show’s best antagonists are the ones who kind of have a point. Dawes and Fred’s conflict was layered and nuanced, just as their eventual alliance is presumed to be (I hope they are moving heaven and Earth to ensure we see Jared Harris again in Season 5) because you could see Dawes’s argument and understand his ambitions for the belt even when they ran counter to what our heroes wanted. 

Murtry, the boogeyman of Ilus is certainly not one of those characters. He could have been, and it’s somewhat disappointing that the show misses such an obvious chance to develop him as a more nuanced counter to Holden. The moment when he spins around and says, “Now that’s a threat” and fires without real provocation was too black and white. A simple second or two of footage where the Belters, uncowed, continue challenging him, a simple “What if it is?” to cast some shades of gray into the moment would have made his whole arc and all the choices he made afterward more compelling. 

But Murtry was never staying around long anyway, so it’s no great loss. 

If The Expanse missed its chance with him, then it stuck the landing with Marco, who is obviously being set up as a major antagonist for the future of the show. We know from the exposition introducing Naomi’s former love and lover that he has a reputation for being “charismatic,” but that flash of tell, don’t show in Ashford’s dialogue is rendered totally forgivable when we meet him and find that, dammit, they weren’t kidding.

Played by Keon Alexander, Marco is seductive. His scene in the airlock doesn’t just win over some of the enemy factions, it woos the viewer. He is easily the strongest new presence in any of the separate threads that run throughout the ten episodes of season four. 

These threads come together—or at least start to—in the end. Like the novel Cibola Burn that provides much of the material for this season, season four does a lot to set up the board for future action. That foreshadowing becomes more overt by the end of the season when Marco Inaros reveals his plan to attack Earth, where most of the rest of our characters either are or are heading to. The entire plot on Ilus was about resolving the nagging issues of intergalactic expansion, wiping away the last traces of the intelligence that opened the gates for us so that this bold new frontier would be ours, truly ours, and even demonstrating that, in a pinch, we can survive the myriad trials waiting for us on these habitable, but still alien worlds made available through the miracle of the protomolecule.

But in the hands of showrunner Naren Shankar and his tremendous cast and crew, the season is also a settling of personal frictions. Each character explores and resolves inner conflicts. Drummer is going to be her own person. Avasarala has made her peace with defeat, for the first time. Bobbie, robbed of her life-long purpose, has found another mission. By working with Lucia, Naomi accepts that she has remade and redeemed herself. Alex, too, is able to articulate his regrets about his family, but is still sure he is where he belongs. Holden moves past being simply the “hand terminal” the protomolecule is punching buttons into and chooses his role as the vanguard for this new civilization. (Amos is, well, still Amos; but even he has faced the very root of his trauma through the ordeal of going blind.) 

Through it all, they’ve now been tested and are steeled for the challenges ahead in Season 5…

 

IF YOU’VE NEVER READ THE BOOKS, THEN THAT’S THE END OF THE REVIEW—TURN BACK NOW!

 

And readers of the books know what those challenges will be.

Obviously, setting up Marco’s attack on Earth seems like it’s spoiling one of the big shocks of Nemesis Games. In the post Game of Thrones era, TV viewers no longer expect that the heroes will always thwart the bad guys at every turn and many are likely prepared now for the rocks to fall. 

The build-up, though, lends more direction to the events of season 4. These threads that Drummer, Ashford, and Bobbie have been pulling lead somewhere—somewhere more horrible than any of them has yet realized. Looking ahead to season five, it’s difficult to imagine how the show will reckon with a catastrophe of the scale described in the books. One hopes it does better than the novels did. Holden making “sympathize with the Belt” videos after the greatest atrocity in human history always seemed both tone deaf and pointless. I think Shankar knows where to go with this, though. The level of foreshadowing that has gone into this moment—not just with Marco’s holograms and the captured Martian’s warning about the dream of Mars being “writ large,” but from hints and mentions of “rocks” falling throughout the show’s life—suggests that he knows that he and his crew are building up towards something both massive and monstrous. 

The Expanse is often compared with BSG—hell, I’ve done it—but the disaster of the Cylon attack launched the series. This will be different. The entire world of The Expanse will be upended and a new order will be left in its wake. 

 

Stray Thoughts:

  • I wonder why Brian George was recast. New Arjun was one of the most distracting things in this season. It’s hard to accept such a dramatic turn in Avasarala’s relationship without the sense of continuity we’d have had with the previous actor remaining in the role. 
  • Also, the choices they make in Avasarala’s arc on Earth are fascinating. The conceit of her losing the election was concocted for the show, along with the tension in her marriage (which had alway seemed like her rock both in the novel and past seasons of the show). But the really fascinating wrinkle comes in her debate with Nancy Gao. Gao’s attack on the economic policies on Earth is dramatic and we can’t help but see Avasarala as a guardian of a social order that is fundamentally unjust. As with her later manipulations that alienate her husband, Avasrala is just plain wrong. It’s an interesting choice for one of everyone’s favorite characters and I’m curious how it will shape her future. 
  • We get to see Nadine Nicole’s Clarissa Mao reach out to Amos via video chat because she has no one else left in the world. She comments that she has to—cough, cough—spend the rest of her life in jail. Stay tuned, Peaches. 
  • Also, for shits and giggles, I inaugurated a new Twitter feed with one-sentence recaps of every Expanse episode as self-help book titles like this one. Check ‘em out. 

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.

The Expanse is the Best Space Opera. Full Stop.

This week brought the dreaded news that the SyFy channel would not be picking up the series adaptation of The Expanse novels for a fourth season. The move was not quite shocking, but still somewhat of a surprise. The show’s productions values are top notch and not cheap, so the fact that it has not garnered a broad fan base like Game of Thrones made its future uncertain. But the universal critical acclaim seemed to suggest that SyFy would want to keep it around for bragging rights, if nothing else.

In the glory days of the SciFi network (before the questionable and to many, odious name change) the network took a similar gamble on an expensive critical darling that never really had the viewership to justify its budget but was a flagship for what the network wanted to be–before it decided to be the home of craptacular fare like Sharknado. Battlestar Galactica was part of the early wave of revitalizations and everything-old-is-new-again fervor that has gripped Hollywood throughout the twenty-first century. The show took name recognition and the outline of the original series’s concept and created a “gritty” and “philosophical” version of a pulp sci-fi dud from the 70s.

It worked and the network spun the long-running show into a prestige piece with a dedicated fan base that still argues for the series as one of the best sci-fi shows of all time.

Here’s the thing, though: The Expanse is better and will continue to be better than Battlestar Galactica.

Early in its life, the remade Battlestar Galactica (BSG to aficionados) promised its viewers that its nefarious android antagonists had “a plan.” But the producers and writers have since admitted that they included that bit in the show’s crawl simply because it sounded cool. Not only did the Cylons not have a plan, neither did the show runners.

The series sometimes raced and other times lurched through a thinky, but often incoherent exploration of man’s relationship to technology and the age-old question science fiction never gets tired of reheating: what does it mean to be human? Along the way there were some great characters rendered in fantastic performances (often having to overcome inconsistent writing) and some truly intolerable ones (looking at you, Apollo).

Many a science fiction series has waded through such unevenness. Star Trek: the Next Generation‘s first season is unwatchable today and rarely suggests the heights the show would someday reach. It’s natural enough for a series to take its time to find its footing.

It would be easy to look at the first few episodes of The Expanse and think that’s what was happening, but the pacing is not a sign of uncertainty, but confidence. The Expanse rewards patience as it builds its world and its characters. Now, in the third season, the complexity of that world and the investment in those characters is paying off in a tense conflict of epic scale.

But that conflict is only prelude to what’s coming.

Many other science fiction and fantasy shows struggle with endings just as much as many flail about for sure footing at the beginning. One only has to look back at the last few seasons of the X-files (to say nothing of the disastrous rebooted seasons) to see how a lack of “a plan” can be disastrous to a show built on mystery and intrigue. The same could be argued of Lost and, if last season was any indication, may taint the denouement of Game of Thrones.

But fans of The Expanse novels have no fear for that outcome. We know the shape of many things to come and they are earth-shatteringly awesome.  Fans like me aren’t worried by this (hopefully momentary) cancellation because it means we won’t ever know what happens in the story. What we’re afraid of is being deprived of the cinematic rendering of that story that we know it so richly deserves.

Hopefully, that won’t come to pass. Hopefully, the press swirling around the cancellation–every article I read reiterates that SyFy’s move is either a crying shame or down right tragic–will find it a new home at Netflix or Hulu and the Cinderella story will inspire more people to watch it.

It is a show that deserves viewers, but more than that, it is the space opera the Golden Age of Television deserves.

Regolith and Aquifers: Terraforming Mars with Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is a monumental sci-fi classic.

It’s also kind of a slog.

With no central narrative arc beyond the ongoing political, economic, and ecological evolution of human settlement on Mars and a rotating cast of narrators whose lives on the red planet range from the mundane–hydrologists, yay!–to the, well, also mundane–desert nomads driving around rovers, yay!–the colossal 700,00o+ word opus never quite aspires to page-turner status.

Reading it, you come away feeling qualified to join NASA as a geologist should we ever get our collective shit together and actually settle a second planet.

And that is what the book is ultimately about: getting our shit together as Homo sapiens…well, rather as Homo martial. Throughout the novels, Robinson evidences his exhaustive and expansive research by dwelling on the minutiae of Martian geology and climate. It’s an ultimately fascinating kind of Utopianism tied to the reworking of the surface of Mars as a kind of ur-metaphor for shaping society.

The Mars Trilogy’s politics are based on a what-works practicality set against the tabula rosa of a new world. His characters squabble over the direction of this new society, eventually settling into a new constitution that ingests the best from Earth’s history with a keen understanding of the forces that have threatened human freedom and dignity throughout, whether they be economic injustices or cultural anachronisms.

Robinson offers a way forward beyond the privatization and spiraling inequality that plague post-Liberal Western society and posits a fresh start on Mars as a way that humanity can, as a whole, reinvent itself. A kind of new city upon the hill to replace the worn-out idealizations of America.

The Earth Robinson describes, wracked by ecological catastrophe and ruled by vast, competing trans-national corporations seems oddly prescient of the world we actually face in the twenty-first century (the last book, Blue Mars, was published in 1996). So many of his characters are ultimately scientists that the entire enterprise could be characterized as a scientific remaking of society–society remade as science. Empirical. Pragmatic. Testable. Open.

Given the retreat into ignorance so on display in contemporary American society–where people dismiss science as “fake news” and apparently flat Earthers are an actual thing–it’s a particularly appealing utopia to gaze at longingly. Robinson’s ultimate theory is that as society progresses, the new paradigms always come into conflict with the old, and indeed whole eras of history are defined by such tensions.

In his hypothesized future, capitalism as a transitional mode between feudalism and democracy gives way to new, more just economic modalities. It seems reasonable to believe that we have reached or are nearly reaching the useful limits of capitalism. Yes, it has created great wealth, but after being co-opted by regimes like today’s China,  it can no longer claim to be the channel into a broader liberalism of Fukuyamian promises and globally it is more and more a driver of extreme inequality–enough to rival any past aristocratic systems.

What, then, beyond it? Robinson’s Mars safeguards the commons, denying private ownership of land or resources and allows competitive economics and markets to be driven by co-ops, banishing the massive trans-nat corporations to Earth where they slowly wither.

It’s a lot to hope for, but in the book, one of the powerful forces that helps the Martians establish their independence and protect their special society is a giant corporation called Praxis, led by an polarizing visionary CEO who believes the world order of and by corporations must give way to something better. He aids the Martians in their search for that better something. Robinson seemed to be anticipating the era of the tech paragons of the Internet age like Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerberg…

Did I mention that Elon Musk wants to go to Mars?

Politics and the Superhero

So, Black Panther has arrived and everybody’s pretty excited about it (well, except racists). The film has delivered the biggest debut of any Marvel hero so far (though technically the character appeared first in Captain America: Civil War) and is second in its opening haul only to the original Avengers. Beyond its early box office might, the film has also garnered outstanding reviews, with io9 calling it Marvel’s first “Shakespearean Epic.”

It’s continuing proof that the Marvel is one slick entertainment factory. The film is sumptuous in its realization of the Afro-futurist world of Wakanda, the isolated and secret utopia protected by the titular hero and king. The cast is so undeniably stellar that it’s hard to even begin to talk about the performances without this whole piece becoming a tribute to the spot-on realizations of these characters (though I have to mention the star-making turn for Letitia Wright as the newest Disney princess, Shuri…and Lupita Nyong’o because she’s Lupita Nyong’o).

(Personally, the only disappointing thing about this film was the predictability of the plot. Even without being familiar with the comics, from which several key story points were apparently taken, if you’d sat me down before the movie and asked me to outline the story, I would’ve been able to hit every key plot point based on only seeing the first trailer.)

Of course, what’s keeping the conversation about this film going is fairly atypical for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Audiences aren’t coming out of the movie wondering about the infinity stones (okay, maybe a little) or how this will impact the next Avengers movie. Instead, Black Panther has us talking about representation (again, that cast) and–gasp!–politics.

Captain America: Winter Soldier surprised me by delving into the politics of the drone war and the post-9/11 surveillance state. But those themes were really quite secondary to a plot that was still, at its heart, a superhero’s story. Black Panther, though, inverts this ideological hierarchy, putting the action and whiz-bang antics in the back seat. Up front, it offers several layers of political discourse between its varied (and surprisingly earnest) story beats, from overt commentary on the African Diaspora through the righteous but perverse ideology of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger to implicit critique of American isolationism and exceptionalism expressed through the allegorical mirror of Wakanda.

For whatever reason, the discussion swirling around Black Panther has me thinking back to one of the biggest disappointments in the history of superhero filmdom: The Dark Knight Rises.

That film’s problematic, muddled political themes always bothered me. The way Bane tries to offer himself up as a savior of “the people” in a direct mockery of Occupy Wallstreet was a particularly noxious bent for a movie about a billionaire savior to take. Taken seriously–and Nolan’s movies plead to be taken seriously–Bruce Wayne is, indeed, a problematic figure. How many millions does he spend fighting crime through vigilantism and how much more impact could that money make actually improving communities?

The Dark Knight Rises might have explored those questions. At a few turns, if feels like it wanted to. When Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle warns Bruce Wayne that he and the other filthy rich should “batten down the hatches” because “a storm is coming” it felt as though Christopher Nolan might be game to question the inequality of Batman’s world. But when the storm comes, it is brought by the masked Bane and his master Talia Al Gul. These villains purport to be carrying on the work of the latter’s father from Batman Begins, but Ras al Gul wanted to destroy Gotham to stamp out its decadence and corruption as an example to the rest of humanity. Bane seems only interested in causing despair.

In the Dark Knight, Harvey Dent said, “You either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” What a much more interesting film The Dark Knight Rises could have been if it found Batman wondering–in the light of the League of Shadows’ continued assault on a seemingly at-peace Gotham–whether he had become the villain, the lynchpin holding together a corrupt economic system that kept the rich rich and the poor under control.

But alas, that opportunity was wasted.

So The Dark Knight Rises misses its chance to comment on its times. Perhaps Nolan wanted to repudiate the Occupy movement, but refused to make it an overt propaganda film where the rich, like Batman, should really just be trusted with the reigns of society. It certainly doesn’t seem interested in interrogating the inequality or corruption that was so important in Begins.

In a way, then, Black Panther is the film that The Dark Knight Rises could have been. It is unafraid to question its hero’s position within its fictional world. In the beginning of the film, T’Challa has complete faith in Wakanda’s long standing secrecy, even when urged to abandon it by his love interest Nakia. It is only through his struggle against Killmonger and the revelations his appearance in Wakanda brings that he changes his view of what Wakanda should be to the world. It will not be master as Killmonger would have it, but nor can he allow his country and its myriad gifts to remain aloof from the rest of humankind. The film may have landed during the Trump presidency, but its theme is unmistakably of the Obama era: unabashedly against isolation and militarism alike, advocating principled engagement.

In these troubled political times, a success story like Black Panther is a beacon–made more explicit by a mid-credits scene at the UN in which T’Challa warns the world that we must seek unity, arguing that “illusions of division threaten our very existence…But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

Persepolis Rising (Book 7 of The Expanse)

The Expanse as a novel series has sought to serve many masters. Both fun space romp and broad political allegory, through the six previous novels the rag-tag crew of the gunship Rocinante has wandered in and out of the path of several dramatic events in future history–from a war between Earth and Mars to the opening of interstellar wormholes created by the mysterious alien protomolecule.

The seventh novel, though, opens after a dizzying time jump. At the end of the previous installment Babylon’s Ashes, the Rocinante crew bested the Free Navy, the foes who in the previous novel had used an asteroid attack to decimate Earth, and established a new interstellar transport guild to ferry survivors to the 1,300 new worlds opened up by the alien ring gates. Persepolis Rising begins thirty years later. This jarring opening is the novel’s weakest point as Abraham and Franck, the two authors behind the penname James S. A. Corey, take the reader on an inventory of where the characters from the previous books are after thirty years.

And the answer is: exactly where we left them. We are treated to descriptions of former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper complaining about her old joints and pilot Alex Kamal ferrying messages off to his son by his now-divorced second wife who we never met, but essentially, the crew of the Rocinante are still flying around, just with three decades of apparently uneventful experience under their belts.

Amazingly, thirty years hasn’t changed the core dynamic. Futuristic anti-aging drugs explain why these septuagenarians might still be up to the work of tooling around space as independent contractors in the vast galaxy opened up by the ring gates, but it seems a little hard to swallow that the crew roster would be exactly the same and that life’s eddies never wooed anyone away to greener pastures or brought new, permanent fixtures into their lives.

This distracting conceit falls into the background, though, as the novel settles into beats familiar for any fan of the series. Scheming, adapting, skating by. As always, there’s a big bad that must be faced. This time it is the Laconian Empire, a new political power that grew up from the renegade Martian fleet that disappeared amidst the chaos of Nemesis Games–a threat we knew was out there, but never could have imagined would emerge in quite this way.

The thirty year time jump seems largely a device to give the Laconians time to arm up. It turns out that their leader cum High Consul Duarte picked the Laconia system for his band of mutineers to settle in because it housed an orbital fabrication machine left by the builders of the ring gates. Using this arcane technology, Duarte has built himself and his new nation the most powerful fleet in the universe. Few in number, but unstoppable. With the odds against them, the Rocinante crew settles into those familiar beats to deal with the newest crisis.

What isn’t familiar is the dark territory the novel ends in. The series has grappled with warfare, genocide, and the darkest of human machinations before, but always before the heroes have prevailed over whatever strove to drive them apart, found one another, and faced forward for the next challenge that cabalistic conspiracies and alien protomolecules had in store. This time, though, the odds are so stacked against our heroes that victory has to be redefined. Early on, trapped on the space station inside the null space between the stargates, er, um ring gates, the crew’s goals are tempered by realism. Defeating the Laconians is, early on, dismissed as too lofty a goal. Instead, they must opt for escape.

In the Laconians, Abraham and Franck design an intriguing enemy. Bent on conquest to establish a unified human empire, the Laconians have echoes of fascist domination, but also overtones of American manifest destiny. Obviously, perpetual do-gooder James Holden sums up the problem with their assertion that humanity ultimately needs a single hand at the rudder, “Humanity has done amazing things by just muddling through, arguing and complaining and fighting and negotiating. It’s messy and undignified, but it’s when we’re at our best, because everyone gets to have a voice in it…Whenever there’s just one voice that matters, something terrible comes out of it.”

It’s the kind of thing Holden says a lot and though he is the hero of the series, the novels have never shied away from questioning his smash-into-it idealism. Here, as the Laconians politely demand surrender and show restraint, insisting that they want to preserve lives through their “transition,” there’s a certain allure to the order they offer.

In the face of this sorta-hostile galactic take-over, the crew focuses on throwing their new enemies off their game, hoping to retreat through the gates with the Rocinante and live to fight another day. It sets up what the authors describe as the concluding trilogy of the series which will take on not only the Laconian empire, but the lurking alien threat of whatever ancient force destroyed the aliens behind the protomolecule and the ring gates billions of years ago. It creates a daunting Empire Strikes Back atmosphere to the novel as the heroes face an enemy they know they can’t defeat.

I won’t go into detail about the emotional toll of this opening chapter of this three-novel conclusion, but suffice it to say that I was so wracked with uncertainty and–maybe “despair” is the right word–that I was unable to sleep after finishing the book…and now cannot wait for next year’s release.

The Last Jedi

 

In what our Disney overlords apparently intend to be a new yearly event, a new Star Wars film has arrived in theaters.

The Last Jedi is the continuation of the Skywalker saga, the Star Wars films proper as opposed to the forthcoming torrent of spin-offs that began with last year’s Rogue One: a Star Wars story and will continue with Solo: Because You Know This Character. (In Disney’s defense, they are also giving Last Jedi director Rian Johnson the reigns to a whole new trilogy set in the Star Wars universe but involving–get this–all new characters and stories!)

Before I go further, let me issue the obligatory spoiler warning.

SPOILERS!

There.

I’m glad to report that The Last Jedi dispenses with the sloppy plotting of its predecessor, The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, it replaces it with gratuitous plotting. There has never been a Star Wars film with this many subplots. While Rey trains with Luke, Po Dameron struggles to guide the Resistance in its slow-burn flight from the First Order, clashing with Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Hodor, or whatever. Meanwhile, Finn takes new character Rose on a side trip to a casino planet to pick up a code breaker to hack the First Order mothership. Oh, and on the mother ship, Kylo Ren struggles to please his master as they pursue–again, slowly–the fleeing Resistance ships.

(Star Wars has never been real sci-fi, but as with the last movie, the logic of the physics in this film are laughable. So the First Order fleet is getting outrun by the Resistance cruiser that is faster and lighter…and yet they never get outrun. They seem to just be stuck behind the Resistance at pretty much the exact same distance for eighteen hours. And yet, it’s only the Resistance ship that can’t go to light speed, so why don’t the First Order ships just split up so some of them can light speed AHEAD of the Resistance, surround and destroy them.)

Of these many plot threads, some are much stronger than others. The most conspicuous weak link is the Finn-Rose subplot. One has to feel for newcomer to the saga Kelly Marie Tran, whose Rose is really shoehorned into an already crowded cast. Her forced motivation is very reminiscent of some of the hackneyed character arcs in Rogue One and the attempt to work her in as one vertex in a love triangle with Finn and Rey (or quadrilateral if you give the Po-Finn shippers their due) just falls flat.

Oscar Isaacs mostly carries through his plot arc as Poe Dameron, wrestling with mutiny to buy Finn and Rose time to pull off their plan, but the real saving grace of the movie is Daisy Ridley’s Rey. As with the last movie, her earnest heroine is the heart of the movie and her interactions with Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren are great. Their showdown with Snoke is tremendous, made all the better because it only ends up revealing the gulf between the two.

The Force Awakens teased Rey’s origins, leading to two years of speculation about her parentage. Is she Luke’s secret daughter? Is she Ben Solo’s secret sister? Is she Obi Won Kenobi’s secret granddaughter?

Thank goodness the answer to all those questions was: No.

According to Kylo Ren, she’s nobody. So, the Skywalker saga will end in Episode IX with Kylo Ren’s defeat and Rey’s ascension as the new Jedi master. (Oh, sorry, did I spoil it? Did you think the whole sage would end with the universe being plunged into darkness?) As Ren breaks this news about Rey’s parentage which the Force revealed to him, he suggests that, deep down, Rey has always known. It’s as she was told in the last movie, “Whoever you were waiting for…is never coming back.”

And therein lies one of the many failures in the film. No, not the filmmakers’ failures, the characters’. In fact, The Last Jedi distinguishes itself from every other Star Wars movie by plumbing new thematic territory. Almost every major character grapples with failure in this film. Rey failed to reunite with her family, the aching need for which is her only lure toward the dark side of the Force. Finn’s mission fails and he is captured. Poe’s mutiny fails and actually undermines the Resistance’s chances of survival. Luke failed Kylo Ren. Leia faces the end of the Resistance, the failure of her life’s work.

And then Yoda shows up to hammer in the lesson. Luke tempts his old master by threatening to burn down a sacred Jedi tree and take all the religion’s most ancient texts with him, but Yoda beats him to the punch and summons some lightning. “Pageturners they were not,” he admits and says that Rey has more Jedi in her than any old books.

Star Wars was based on myth and sought to explore the timeless battle between good and evil, but The Force Awakens began to explore the limits of that dynamic, to really explore what might be meant by that “balance” that George Lucas wrote into the prequels. According to those regrettable chapters, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader was supposed to bring about balance in the Force and Maz Kanata said in The Force Awakens that the battle between good and evil is an endless, recurrent one. The Last Jedi steps beyond good and evil and frames the Force as the cosmic glue that negotiates the cycle of destruction and creation.

And so failure is part of that cycle. Luke warns Rey that assuming the Jedi are needed to bring light into the universe is pure hubris, that the cycle is unending. Rey, though, gets to remind him–with a little help from Yoda–that we must still always pick a side in the endless struggle, to build or to destroy.

 

Assorted Musings:

-Captain Phasma is still useless.

-Seriously, somebody buy more BB droids for the Resistance. Those things are indis-fucking-pensable!

-Chewy eating roasted porg.

-Seems like we should use that light-speed kamikaze trick more often. Why’d we struggle to hit that one little spot on the Death Star. Just empty out a freighter and light speed it through the heart of the damned thing.

-We finally know where the blue milk comes from. We sooooo did not want to know.

 

The Force Awakens: A Retrospective

You may have heard that there’s a new Star Wars movie out now.

Fear not for spoilers as I have not yet seen it (the wife is feeling under the weather).

Last night, though, while my beloved sniffled, we did watch the previous chapter in the post-George Lucas Star Wars saga: The Force Awakens.

Somehow I refrained from commenting on this film when it was released two years ago. In fact, I haven’t written much about Star Wars in general over the years. That’s a strange omission as Star Wars was–without hyperbole–my entire childhood. (Okay, maybe some hyperbole.)

I watched the original movie on Betamax (Yes, Beta!) dozens of times. My parents tell a story about how, while living in Panama, the delivery of my Christmas present–the Millennium Falcon!–was delayed and they had to concoct an elaborate story, complete with forged note from the big guy in the red suit himself, about how Rudolph had accidentally stepped on the package, forcing Santa to send me a replacement after the holidays.

Then, of course, there were the prequels. I remember dragging my wife to Phantom Menace and becoming very confused the moment Jar Jar Binks appeared on screen. “They’d better kill this guy off quick,” I told her. Those craptacular films are no small part of why I generally fear and distrust prequels today.

Yet, the Force Awakens marked something of a Renaissance for the saga that was so seminal to my imagination. Now safely in the not-at-all-sinister hands of the Disney Corp, Star Wars is prospering again. The praise was unanimous: Star Wars is back! It was fun. It was dynamic. It looked great and not at all a CGI shitshow. The fanboys proclaimed it a success and all rejoiced, “Yay, J.J. Abrams, we forgive you for Into Darkness” (which, for the record, I think is highly underrated).

Except that rewatching Force Awakens last night, I was much more aware of its myriad flaws.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking about prequel-level discussions about sand or about how love had blinded anybody, but there is some sloppy ass plotting going on there. Like, Star Destroyer sized plot holes.

Take the story’s reliance on awfully convenient coincidences which I suppose we are meant to assume is the will of the force acting on a grand scale. The map to Luke Skywalker (which…a map to a person?) ends up on Jakku within walking, er, rolling distance of Rey, our erstwhile protagonist with some sort of mysterious background that  will in some future movie hopefully explain her awesome force sensitivity (without making her a Skywalker–please don’t make her a Skywalker!). Then, Han Solo just happens to take her to a bar with Luke’s old lightsaber in the basement. It goes on and on. Han, Chewy, and Finn just happen to find Captain Phasma on a base the size of a planet and she just happens to be self-interested enough to screw over her supreme leader (there is a comic explaining this character’s background that makes sense of this, by the way). After Rey has won the big lightsaber duel against an injured Kylo Ren (How’d she beat him with no training? He was hurt and she was already good with a stick. Yay, not a plot hole!) a chasm just happens to open up between them, killing neither. Then R2 wakes up and just happens to have the rest of map to Luke all along. And, wait, where’d this map come from in the first place? You know, in the first movie, they stole Death Star plans from the Empire. The plans didn’t just fall out of the sky?!?

But by far the worst part of the movie is Starkiller Base. Look, I get how Abrams was intentionally echoing moments from the original film because the original film was constructed to be archetypal and the whole theme was about the cyclical struggle to find balance and fight the darkness. I get it. But the super-weapon trope wasn’t part of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and it wears really, really thin here. Somehow the First Order, which is only remnant of the empire builds a super weapon that is even more fearsome than what the empire produced at its height. Um…okay. (My son had a great idea here; they should have established that this was a project started under the empire that Snoke resurrected. See, most plot holes can be patched with one line of dialogue. One line! Call me, Hollywood. I will script doctor the hell out of all your sci-fi and I will work cheap.)

This giant planet cannon can fire a single burst…that then automatically breaks up and nukes every planet in a star system? How, exactly? And how can Han and company see the red bolt hitting the Republic’s planets from a completely different system? That should take years for them to see. And wait, where’d the energy for that first shot come from? Starkiller base consumes a star to power up (a whole star!?!) so were there two stars in that system to begin with? Wouldn’t the gravitational disruption of losing a star totally destroy that planet before the Resistance even got there? And if not…does that mean the weapon was only good for two shots since there weren’t any more stars in the system to gobble up? (I mean, it’s stretching credulity enough to believe they could move the Death Star at light speed, but surely we’re not meant to believe they could have warped that entire planet to another star system to keep using that thing, right?)

But dammit, the movie still works. And it works for two reasons:

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega.

They are so charming and engaging as Rey and Finn that you cannot help but love this movie. Seriously, all the fan service may have gotten folks in the door, but what saves this movie from being another Crystal Skull level debacle is these fresh, NEW characters. Enough of the old characters. BB-8 is cuter than R2! Long live porgs! Hell, I’m glad they killed Han Solo. I hope they kill Luke. (But I wish Princess Leia could live forever.)

 

Did the World Need a Wonder Woman Movie?

In today’s Hollywood, producers, movers, and shakers are all clamoring for “shared universe” franchises. Inspired by the juggernaut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every possible story-telling rock is being overturned in the hunt for a franchise of franchises–money making interconnected characters and settings that will hopefully have infinite reservoirs of built-in audience appeal.

It cannot last.

Soon the silver screen will be graced with a Mummy remake starring the incomparable Sofia Boutella. But I doubt even her physical grace and screen charisma can carry a movie that is basically going to be Tom Cruise playing Ethan Hunt (again) vs. monsters. Universal is hoping otherwise, though. In fact, they hope it will be a relaunch (they tried already with an abysmal Dracula movie a few years back) of their monsters-themed shared universe.

On the horizon, we have other studios with similar hopes for Transformers spin-offs (because Bumblebee, the yellow camaro that cannot talk can totally anchor a feature film) and Godzilla vs. King Kong movies.

They’re all trying to do what Marvel did with its superhero movies, and thus, they all miss the point.

Superheroes work as a “shared universe” because they already occupy one. They already dwell in a common space within our collective imagination–they live within the mythic.

That is what the DC shared universe of super hero movies has failed to grasp thus far. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel offered some rays of light, but mostly was subdued by a larger interest on the director’s part of making a darker, grittier superhero universe–an impulse that took over (and took a shit on) the Batman v. Superman debacle.

Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, though, finds the soul in her super heroine that the boys’ outings for the DC murderverse never could. In Batman v Superman, Superman was dragged into the muck in a sophomoric attempt to make his idealism grapple with the ugly side of humanity.

Wonder Woman shares a similar thematic impulse, but executes it so much more capably.

The film is in many ways a bildungsroman for Diana, the nascent Wonder Woman (who never gets called that on screen), who moves past fish-out-of-water gags in London to have her eyes opened to the horrors of war on the Belgium front of WWI. She has trained her whole life to fight war in order to end it, but the suffering she actually witnesses surprises her.

It’s a somewhat superficial exploration of the limits of idealism, but it’s more depth than one generally finds in a super hero movie (Winter Soldier aside) and does much greater justice (pun intended) to her character’s unflappable heroism than Snyder’s take on Superman where Henry Cavil mostly had to grimace to try to maintain Supes’ dignity in the face of terrible, terrible writing.

One cannot credit Gal Gadot enough for her turn as the titular heroine. Even when she exudes naive confidence that the key to peace is simply to find Ares, the God of War, and slay him, her radiance is irrepressible and you want her to be right even though you know she can’t be. Naturally, Diana must learn the hard way that the world of men is not so simple as that and Gadot carries that growth–and conveys the protagonist’s distance from humanity–flawlessly. It’s ironic that many people, both myself and director Patty Jenkins, were skeptical that Gadot had the chops for this part since now she seems like the perfect screen embodiment of the character and likely will be for perpetuity the way that Hugh Jackman will always now be Wolverine.

The other key player in the success and charm of the film is Jenkins. She adopts the visual aesthetic of Snyder’s work–slow mo, muted color palettes–and bends them more purposefully to her story. Her camera loves Gadot’s face, seen often in close up, as much as it does the glint of her armor deflecting a bullet and she manages to humanize the action and epic story (one regrettable bit of CGI artificiality aside) so that the audience feels connected to Diana’s story through her warmth and optimism.

So Wonder Woman is an expertly executed super hero movie and, as many have pointed out, it’s high time that we had one of these stories helmed by a female character.

But, alas, it is one of these stories.

It doesn’t take a fine analytical edge to see the DNA this film shares with its predecessors, particularly the Marvel films that have previously perfected the formula. At one point, Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor leads Diana into a bar to recruit an odd-ball crew for their dangerous mission behind enemy lines and I half expected the camera to pan across the pub to see Chris Evans’s Captain America on the very same endeavor.

It’s a great movie, no doubt. But more than anything, I left wondering if this genre has anything left to give us? The fight choreography was great, but we’ve seen characters tackle rooms of baddies with similar dramatic flair dozens of times–yes, even female characters. Just imagine shooting Black Widow’s fight scenes from Marvel in the style of 300 and you’re there. We’ve also seen the epic show down between God-like heroes and villains tearing the screen and reality apart in blasts of cosmic energy again and again.

Can these scenes really thrill us anymore? Show Wonder Woman to children–preferably some little girls–as their first action movie and they would probably be in rapt awe.

But for us, what is left? We can hardly be dazzled any longer. The story beats and their larger-than-life climaxes are requisite, familiar. The DC movie universe is building toward its Justice League, which looks to be The Avengers with the lights turned down. Marvel itself is building toward the culmination of its “Phase 3” in the two-part Infinity War. And now the world has a really good Wonder Woman movie.

Maybe that’s all it needs.

Maybe it’s time to say, “I say, we will have no more [comic book movies]. Those that are [in production] already, all but one (stop Aquaman, please!), shall live. The rest shall keep as they are…”