Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Avengers - Loki's Motivation

A good antagonist should be identifiable with in some small way. Not only are audiences bored with a standard "good versus evil" plot, but an opponent with ideals is more appealing than one just trying to take over the world. Magneto is a great example. He's a guy just trying to take care of mutants, even though his methods are sometimes morally wrong. On the opposite side of this are the X-Men, who are also trying to take care of mutants, but through reconciliation and cooperation with humans instead of violence and subjugation. Or in the recent Dawn of the Planet of Apes, Dreyfus and Koba are faced with considerable threats, and decide to respond with preemptive violence. Are these characters in the wrong? Sure, but we can understand where they're coming from. If you knew that a group of people was building/creating/amassing weapons for the sake of wiping you and everyone you love off the face of the planet, would you be able to resist the urge to attack them first, before they could harm the ones you care about? You start out knowing or the movie manipulates you into thinking that Magneto is a supervillian, so he must be wrong, or Monkey With a Scary Face must be wrong, but at some level, we should be able to understand what motivates these characters' actions and hopefully empathize with them, even just a little bit.

Moreover, struggle between these characters should represent a larger struggle between ideals. When you see Magneto and the X-Men fight, the question is not "Which mutant is stronger?" but "Which belief (do the writers think) is right?" It doesn't matter if Neo or Agent Smith is a better fighter, what matters is the ideals they are replacing during a fight scene. Darth Vader has years and years of experience wielding the force and fighting, but in the Star Wars universe, good triumphs over evil, so he will lose the fight to Luke, who had days and days of experience lifting muppets.

With that in mind, what's up with Loki in this movie?

We know the ideal that Loki is presenting. We know this very well, because hack writer Joss Whedon presents it to the audience in the form of an expository speech that Loki gives in front of a bunch of German citizens: People want to be dominated by a ruler. Isn't Loki's goal to conquer the whole world? Is he going to give this speech every single time he runs into a group of people? Why is he explaining his motivation to what he believes to be his inferiors? Oh right, because writing is hard, you guys. It's so much easier to just have Loki tell you everything, instead of showing it to you.

For starters, you already know how I feel about him just explaining this shit to the audience, when a much better method would be for him to wreck havoc in Germany, and threaten people to turn against each other, their families and their nation for the benefit of being protected by him. What really hurts about this scene in Germany is that it starts out on the right track: Loki does some scary shit, people get worried and bow out of fear. It would have made sense to take this a bit further and have Loki tell them to, I don't know, fight each other for the honor of being able to serve Loki in safety. Or if you destroy a German government building, Loki won't hurt you. Have the people actually choose sides for their own selfish sakes.

But, that's still not that good, because Loki is positing an ideal that nobody actually believes. You hear "Human beings want to be slaves" and you can't think of anything that makes less sense than that. Even crazy dictators didn't believe shit like that. Even in my "Show Don't Tell" example just now, that's presenting more of a "people seek protection above everything else" belief. So, of course, an old guy in the crowd says, "No, we don't want to be subjugated. That's fucking dumb," because it is.

This is completely ignoring the fact that I can't understand why Loki wants to conquer Earth anyway. As you may recall, this movie has a problem with consistency across the other movies in the Marvel universe. (Seriously, Joss, all you had to do was watch the other movies a few times, then you might understand the characters you were writing. This shit is not hard. I know you have Netflix.) So out of the 7 or 9 or whatever planes of existence that are known to Loki, one of which includes a realm that is rightfully his, and one of which is a magical land of godlike beings with advanced scientific technology, that if you recall from the first Thor movie is exactly the place that Loki wants to rule, Loki decides to spend his time conquering Earth. Why? Because falafels are delicious. (HA! That's so random, am I right? Falafels! You guys, I'm a funny writer like Joss Whedon.)

But ok, the studio says that Loki has to be in the movie because he's the biggest draw, and the movie has to be set on Earth so we can get the other heroes involved. Fine. How about we give Loki the kind of motivation that a real person might have, instead this elementary school level antagonism of "Let's rool the world because people would like it."

Try this on for size: Loki comes to Earth, but instead of landing in Germany for a contrived reference to Hitler, Loki and his staff land in the Middle East, in the middle of a firefight between two armed groups in a residential area. Because we don't need to get too political here, they can just be identity-less fighters, endangering the lives of the civilians around them. Loki shakes his head and comments to himself how even though these inferior beings (humans) are part of the same realm (Midgard), yet they fight amongst themselves as if there was an actual difference between them. He then uses his mind control and deceptive powers to turn the militants on themselves, and soon they incapacitate the members of their own group. The civilians begin to notice that the fighting has stopped and notice this lone man standing in the middle of it all. They rightfully assume that he has ended the fighting and began praising and thanking him for it. Loki looks disgusted. "Bow," he demands, and as the civilians look confused at this command, the Earth begins to shatter and split open. Every innocent person falls into a pit where they are set upon by demons and monsters. It's a terrifying scene that continues just long enough for the horror of it to sink in, and then suddenly, everyone is back where they were, in front of Loki, realizing that the torment they just suffered through was entirely in their minds, and with the power of his staff, Loki can turn that on or off as he wishes. One by one they bow to him.

Reasons why this is better than Loki reading the fucking script in fucking Germany:

One - Loki's ideals may be arguably good or bad, but his methods are extreme. What Loki is advocating in this scenario is safety in exchange for subservience. We get to see that these people's lives are in very real danger in an event that actually happens around the world every day, and Loki changes that. Under Loki's system, there would be no fighting and there would be no needless killing, because we would all be under his sole reign.

Two - This establishes Loki has a credible and terrifying threat. One the oft-quoted lines from this movie is the "He has an army." "We have a Hulk." bullshit. What I hear from this line, and why it is so toxic to making a good movie, is this: There is a problem that needs strength to be solved, but there is absolutely no reason to worry, because we have the strongest thing in the world. This dissolves any possible tension the fight could have had, while presenting an obstacle that nobody needs to grow or change to overcome. Hulk starts out the movie punching things, and ends the movie punching things. But a movie where the threat is not in Loki's physical might, but in his ability to deceive his opponents is a conflict with unclear outcomes. After all, you have a bunch of strong people put in a situation where they can't punch their way to victory. They have to learn shit. They have to think outside the box to defeat Loki's mind games.

Three - Remember when I said that good fights should present two ideals, and the one that the writer thinks is stronger will win? If Loki presents an ideal of ruling through fear, The Avengers may be able to represent an ideal of protection through collaborative effort. (Get it? That shit is a metaphor for world peace, ya'll.) I suggested before that instead of the movie being about fucking nothing, the movie could be about Captain America bringing the team of Avengers together and learning how to lead them. We could show Cap wanting to protect people from Loki's fear tactics, but being unable to do so on his own. He has to learn not to control and manage the other superheroes, but work with them and convince them to act together as a team. Remember in the end of The Avengers where all them are fighting aliens, but they're all doing it separately and not at all together? (Except for the one scene where they stand around and pose, of course.) Instead of the climax being "Get one guy to fly a nuke into a spaceship" we could show that individually we are weak, but we can work together for the greater good.

Part of a series on The Avengers:
Part One - Bias
Part Two - Main Characters
Part Three - Consistency
Part Four - 8-Bit

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

8-Bit Avengers

So, there's a new video out in the "8-bit" series on Youtube, and it just so happens to be of my favorite obsession: The Avengers.

So, yes, this is a stupid little internet video that someone made, (actually that someone is Cinefix, which makes a lot of great videos on movies) but this makes the problems with the plot even more obvious than they already were.

A good screenplay should build upon itself, rather than just being a collection of things that happen. Each event in the plot should lead into the next event. An easier way to say this is that events in a movie should be connected with a "so" rather than a "and then". Romeo and Juliet meet, so they fall in love, so their families get angry, so Romeo kills a motherfucker, so he has to run away, so Juliet fakes her death, so Romeo thinks she's dead, so he kills himself, so she kills herself. This shit is not rocket science.

The challenge then, is to see what the events in The Avengers have to do with the end of the movie, or even with anything at all. You can remove roughly 90% of what happens in this movie except for "blow shit up with a nuke", which wasn't even an idea that an Avenger had. Let's break this video down.

Capture Loki and get the tesseract: This has no bearing on anything that happens later, because you know that Loki escapes with the tesseract. Was there a point to him being captured? Arguably no, since I guess his goal was to disable SHIELD and trick the Hulk into incapacitating everyone? Like, I guess that was his plan? But they get the drop on the hellicarrier and succeed in driving Hulk mad, but nothing comes of that, so.

Thor and Iron Man fighting: I actually recall this being the moment when I first saw this move in the theaters where I realized that I was watching a dumb movie. As you know, there is no purpose to this fight. Thor pretty much could have just walked into the movie and the result would be the same.

The attack on the hellicarrier: Nothing happens here. Black Widow successfully saves Hawkeye, but Hawkeye has no bearing on the final outcome of this movie, so there is no reason to think this important. Hulk jumps out of the hellicarrier, but shows up again in the next scene. Thor gets locked into the glass cage, but shows up again in the next scene. Iron Man saves the hellicarrier, but the hellicarrier doesn't do anything for the rest of the movie, so that's useless

Then the aliens invade: Just to be clear, nothing until this point of the movie actually mattered in the grand scheme of things. You could have taken everything after Hawkeye getting taken captured and until the alien invasion and cut it out, and the plot would not change at all. Sure, you have the other Avengers being introduced, but the only Avenger who makes any impact on the plot is Iron Man, who takes the nuke that somebody else decided to fire to totally massacre a very large number of people including some of which I'm sure were soldiers' families, or medical units, or whatever. (That's a whole other issue that I will definitely be getting into later.)

Again, do you see how nothing that happens this movie has any consequence?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Probably the biggest problem with this movie is that it's out of theaters by the time I write this. The second biggest problem is that it's not actually perfect.

If you pay any kind of attention to movie reviews or criticism, you've probably already heard a bit about Edge of Tomorrow. It is a pretty great movie. Not perfect by any means, but awfully, awfully good. (I got into a conversation about it with a friend of mine, and when pressed, I had a really hard time articulating what made it so good, and had to concede that it's actually something of B+/A- type of movie.)

I do want to throw my opinion onto the pile though. The aliens look cool, the fight scenes are awesome, the ending sucks, the love story is superfluous, the supporting cast is pointless, and the final scene is drained of all tension.

The biggest appeal to the movie itself is the arc that the main character takes. You see him grow and change throughout the movie in a very strong, and most importantly, believable way. He doesn't start off like "Action Man", but instead a very easily relateable coward. He wants to avoid being on the frontlines of the war, because, well, doesn't everyone? He doesn't act like a total asshole in the beginning, actually, just someone afraid to fight a war against unstoppable killing machines who also control time. Even without the sci-fi elements of this movie, that scene where he's in the transport vessel is terrifying every time you see it. It's understandable that he wanted to avoid it, and you emphasize with him for being scared. That makes his growth so much more powerful.

But, if you've heard anything about this movie, you've probably already heard that. One thing that amazes me and then immediately saddens me is that the love this movie is getting from critics is a giant "Fuck you" to Hollywood. The fact that so many people love to praise this movie, and are urging people to go see it and give it money is not a testament to how amazing the movie is (like I said, pretty great, but not perfect) but how shitty everything else is right now.

I get sad though, because I know that Hollywood won't absorb this lesson. They will not say, "Oh, we had a movie with an original story and a strong character arc, that must be what audiences like," but instead will promptly go, "BIG NAME STARS WACKY ALIENS EXPLOSIONS". Well, I'm happy Edge of Tomorrow exists anyway. Please go see it.

1) Well made? - For sure. The action scenes are well-filmed and appropriately chaotic for a war movie.
2) Contributed?  - Sadly, no. This took an idea from another movie and put a sci-fi/action spin on it, which is good, but did it have to be made? Not really.
3) Good time? - I actually saw this one in 4D, so it was impossible to be bored or even motionless. Still, I can say that even in old-timey 2D, this was a great time.
4) Watch again? - I would have seen it three times in the theater if I could have.
5) Worth it?  - Yes! God, I wish it was still in theaters so I could urge you to go see it.
6) Who should watch this? - On one end of the audience spectrum, there lies the person that really only enjoys artsy-fartsy movies. That person might not enjoy Edge of Tomorrow as much as most people.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Catching Up

The first day back after a long absence from writing is always the hardest. I've learned to pretty much give up on expecting that anything I write on that first day (today) would be worthwhile for any reason. And so, this post today is totally useless, and I'd actually prefer you not even read it.

I've been very busy with schoolwork, as always. This semester has been learning all about peacekeeping and different conflicts all over the world. I started thinking about how to best combine what I've been learning in class and what I can write on this blog. I still believe that one of the best skills someone can have, and so I'd like to practice being able to do that by explaining some of the issues around recent conflicts like Sri Lanka, Syria and Taiwan.

With that in mind, I'd also like to take the time and write some more about science, about which I am not an expert, but hopefully can explain a few things in a simple enough way to make somebody understand them. That's all I really want.

With my schedule lately, I haven't been able to write about or see any movies in a while, which I'm sure you can imagine makes me very sad. Within the past month, I've seen some really great movies (Wadjda and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and a really bad movie (47 Ronin), all of which I hope to write about sometime soon. I especially want to delve into 47 Ronin, which I found fascinating in how there might actually be a good concept or idea hidden in there somewhere. I really wonder how much would have to be changed to turn it into a great movie.

In addition to that, I'm running out of good movies that I'm looking forward to for now. Guardians of the Galaxy is coming out this week, and I'm really excited and hopeful for that movie. I hate the comics, I hated the way that the marketing for the movie was being pushed down comic readers' throats, and I was totally uninterested in any of these characters, but I'll be goddamned if the trailers and the hype surrounding this movie didn't make me very eager to see it.

I always have Korean going in some form or another, but with the Korean test that I took yesterday and grad school always bearing down on me, I wasn't able to write anything in Korean for public consumption in the past few weeks. I hope to fix that soon, but I'm honestly running out of things to talk about. Maybe comics?

Speaking of, I've been reading a lot of good things lately too. I just got fully caught up on Robert Kirkman's Invincible, and with Walking Dead taking a new turn lately, I'm excited to share my thoughts on all things Kirkman. And, even though I'm wholly unqualified to do so, I really want to talk a bit about what makes Ms. Marvel so great. And it is. So great.

On a side note, I haven't been totally out of the loop in terms of writing. I actually got started on a short story (for the first time in five years.) It feels pretty good to write fiction for a change, if only to keep things interesting. If/When it gets finished I might share it here, who knows?

And, that's it for updates. Tomorrow I'll write something worthwhile now that the muscles are good and stretched.