A Brave New World? Or a Brave New Mess?

The EndBreaking eggs for the new omelet.

I have enjoyed the last few months as the current Marvel Universe draws to a close; since it was all ending anyway, many Marvel writers have been taking chances and exploring interesting character-changes that would never have been allowed by the previous status-quo. My fave has been what’s been happening with Thor/Loki, but there’s lots of other good stuff. But now that we’re getting leaked glimpses of what is coming, I’m a little worried.

Why, exactly? There is a recent IO9 article, which I’ll quote here:

“Some of the confirmations were things fans had expected, such as the news that characters from the universes destroyed during the cataclysmic event that is currently annihilating many of Marvel’s former alternate realities will find a home in the new Marvel universe (many fans already gathered from the recent revelation that Ultimate Spider-Man Miles Morales will become a member of a new Avengers team).

“But Marvel also revealed that versions of the characters created for the event — like Maestro, a future evil version of the Hulk appearing in the companies reboot of the Future Imperfect storyline, or the all-female Avengers team A-Force — will cross over from the event, and with them, the Battleworld that Secret Wars takes place on. So essentially, a mashed-up version of the former alternate realities of Marvel Comics will somehow co-exist alongside whatever new reality is created for Marvel Comics to exist in after the event. Is your head hurting yet? Mine is.”

I had previously been under the impression (or hope) that Marvel was using the Secret War/Battleworld event to clear the decks and begin afresh, start with a blank slate and tell new stories.

In some ways I expected it to be much like the Ultimate Universe, only more organized.

Now I’m not sure what it’s going to look like. Will the survivors, both the ones on “Earth” and the ones on Battleworld, remember the old timelines? Or will there be a “reboot” for the Main Characters (the FF, the Avengers, the X-Men, etc) who will have lived the new history and not remember the Secret War, plus the “outsiders”, who are stranded survivors on Battleworld?

I hope that’s what it means. Why? Because one thing that the Marvel Ciniverse of the Marvel Studios movies has gotten absolutely right is its decision to abandon the kitchen-sink approach typical of the superhero genre and go for a Grand Unified Theory of Cool Stuff. In the Marvel Ciniverse it is superscience; everything is explained by science, whether it is human science (Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk), alien and alien/human science (Wanda, Pietro, the Inhumans), and magic-science (Thor, Loki).

Clark’s Law reigns supreme, and the result is an astonishingly coherent and powerful vehicle for the stories of the Marvel Ciniverse. On top of this, add the reboot of all the stories which eliminated the legions of associated heroes, villains, events, and sheer mass-driven inertia of the comics, and a thing of beauty is born.

While the main impetus behind the Wearing the Cape books was the desire to tell a “socially realistic” superhero story, the desire for fresh heroes and a more “rational” origin/explanation for the wonders of the superhero world played a huge role as well.

I still hope that is what Marvel is doing here; I’m just no longer so optimistic.

We shall see.

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“The Future’s So Bright, I’ve Got To Wear Shades.”

TomorrowlandWhen you think about it, this image is every Green’s nightmare…

I mean come on: endless wheat fields, no sign of untouched nature? A techno-utopia city obviously powered by something other than wind and sun? Sorry. I just finished watching Tomorrowland, and the movie has left me a bit snarky.

Not that it wasn’t good–it was. But it reminded me of something that has bugged me for years, specifically the question of who stole The Future. The Future, capital “T,” capital “F.” Hint: it wasn’t the inventors and engineers. They were busy making it.

What I’m getting at, and what the movie points out, is that the Sixties were the golden age of The Future; back then The Future meant flying cars, interplanetary travel, domestic robots. You know, the good stuff. By the time I was old enough to  start paying attention to both science and science-fiction, however, The Future was: Global Cooling (we were “dirtying” the atmosphere, cooling the globe, and all going to starve) and the Population Bomb (we were breeding too fast, exhausting our resources, and all going to starve). If we didn’t blow our selves up in an orgy of thermonuclear warfare first (and then most of the survivors would starve because of the nuclear winter).

We also had a good shot at killing all the birds with DDT or destroying the ozone layer and baking (and starving again).

This was depressing, but only for awhile. Why? It turned out we weren’t cooling the Earth, industrialization was slowing the birth-rate and we weren’t going to exhaust any of the resources doomsayers said we would any time soon (plus we showed a genius for using or creating new materials). We also didn’t blow ourselves up, and we discovered that both the DDT and ozone scares were false alarms.

But are we safe? Of course not; now it appears we are warming the Earth (and are going to starve, we are always going to starve). Some environmentalists believe the good news is that some new plague is likely to take us down before we can take the planet down with us.

Hmmm. Paint me skeptical.

Which brings us back to Tomorrowland (spoilers: if you intend to see it, don’t read any further). The movie asks the same question: who stole that bright, optimistic future? The answer? A GIANT, THOUGHT-PROJECTING MACHINE BROADCASTING IMAGES OF THE PROBABLE END OF THE WORLD INTO EVERYONE’S SUBCONSCIOUS MINDS. I kid you not. Everyone subconsciously believed the world was coming to an end, and it was a bit of a downer.

The movie tried to skate over precisely what that ending was to be, but was somewhat contradictory: one image showed mega-scale volcanism, another a nuclear cloud, another drowned coastlines from melted icecaps (mega-scale volcanism and nuclear war would both cool the Earth (see above), and sea levels would drop if they did anything). Whatever it was, it wasn’t Global Warming–it happened too fast.

Actually the logic at the end of the show is a total bomb, but that’s okay.

So here’s what gets me: the doomsayers have been consistently wrong on every major prediction. Even the global-warming crowd has found its decadel projections foiled by natural climate variability, yet their predictions drive governments to take measures that would in no way slow global warming if the projections are close to accurate. Seriously. Look at their models.

“Ah,” you say. “But this time the doomsayers are right, and if we don’t do a lot more than we’re doing now then this time we really are all going to starve.”

Maybe…but the environmentalist solution? Slash our modern high-energy economy to the bone, and prevent developing countries from building their own high-energy economies. That way, only some of us will starve (mostly them, but there are still too many of them anyway). Really; all hard-core environmentalists pretty much think like Agent Smith from The Matrix.

Tomorrowland reified this dynamic nicely. If you want to see a scholarly (and entertaining) discussion of it, check out The Merchants of Despair.

Merchants

My solution? Which, BTW, is also the suggestion of one of the founders of Greenpeace. A massive program of nuclear-power development. Replace all oil and coal-burning plants in the US with nuclear power, hydro power, and geothermal power plants within a decade. Research the hell out of solar, clean-fission, fusion, and beamed power, and let the markets bring them online as they become economically competitive. Export the technology to the rest of the world (you can even make nuclear plants that use the thorium fuel cycle and so don’t make the stuff of nuclear bombs).

Then, even if carbon-driven global warming isn’t happening, we’ll have a cleaner and more energy-rich world. Meanwhile a little sulfur injected into the upper atmosphere every few years (it comes down quick) will do a little more of what volcanoes do today and keep temperatures from climbing too high.

My point is, whatever happens we already have a lot of the answers. And as more things happen we’ll deal with them too; it’s the history of the human race. We didn’t get the flying cars but we got personal computers and the internet, which have changed the world and are still changing the world far more than flying cars ever would have. We are using our resources better and finding more all the time. We have largely beat world hunger (in the places it still exists it is a political problem rather than a resource problem). Without government-run Big Solutions we are building Tomorrowland a piece at a time.

Is that city in the wheat field our inevitable destiny? No. But as long as modern society survives, vibrant, future-looking, and never satisfied, if we don’t get it we’ll get something else as good or better. Or we could get pessimistic and throw away the tools that will save and transform us, hunker down, and settle for much, much less. In the resulting future dystopia, at least the doomsayers will be happy.

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Holy Cow, It’s May: Updates and a Movie Review.

Cover Beta 6 croppedProgressing on the art, at least

Artemis dropped out of mist and onto the table, and that would have pretty much ended the poker game even if my bursting through the warehouse’s high windows in a shower of glass above them hadn’t finished ruining the players’ night. Lit by the crackling halo of her electrostatic field, Lei Zi floated through the shattered windows behind me and fired off a carefully calibrated electromagnetic pulse. The sticky charge of free electrons washed past me as I fell to send an electronics-killing surge through any unshielded devices inside the zone. “Go, go, go!” she chanted in my earbug on the open channel.

I let myself fall with the glass. No sense rushing anywhere while I was still picking targets.

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First the good news: Ronin Games is on track (the two paragraphs above are the opening lines). I hope to have a first draft finished by the end of the month, and may be in edits and formatting by the end of June. This is a good thing. The bad news; it looks like Wearing the Cape: the Roleplaying Game will be finished later this year than hoped. The Kickstarter should still launch in 2015, but likely in the third quarter of the year.

Meanwhile, my most recent distraction has been Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-Poster-006-800x1185A2 was a treat; with few missteps, Whedon again handled the huge ensemble cast of heroes with grace and style, even bringing on new characters and making them shine with only a few lines (especially Pietro and Wanda).

Warning: Incredible Spoilers, do not scroll down if you haven’t seen the movie!

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Okay then. Whedon continues his theme of how, as humans, we are Our Own Worst Enemy: in A1 toying with the Cosmic Cube draws the attention of Thanos, who sends Loki and his space-orcs to retrieve it. In A2, Tony Stark’s attempt to create an AI capable of bringing about World Peace…goes a little awry. Furthering that theme, it turns out that Pietro and Wanda’s motive for volunteering for Hydra’s augmentation experiments was seeking revenge for the death of their parents in a missile attack using, wait for it…Stark Industries weapons.

So, we create our enemies? But not so fast; Hydra predates Stark Industries, and the next Big Bad is definitely Thanos (again). So maybe all the tinkering with Cosmic Cubes and AIs was with good reason.

Onward, I really enjoyed how Whedon highlighted Hawkeye and Natasha in A2. First, he gave Hawkeye a secret family (shades of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe). He also re-emphasized the deep and platonic camaraderie between Hawkeye and Natasha; and I do mean platonic—Natasha is practically part of the family (an aunt to their kids, and they’re naming their next child after her). Whedon could have easily arranged a silly love-triange there but he thankfully passed on the temptation; instead they are true BFs.

black-widow-thumb

I really wish the Black Widow would get her own movie.

Equally interesting, I thought that Natasha’s attraction to Dr. Banner was very well done. I may be in the minority on this opinion (you can certainly find arguments to the contrary, see here and here), but the budding—and apparently doomed—relationship feels both awkward and superfluous to the plot; in other words, it feels real. To psychoanalyze it in two sentences: Natasha sees Hawkeye’s happy family and regrets not having one of her own (the Red Room monstrously deprived her of both past and future family ties). Banner responds to Natasha’s attraction with more than a little bewilderment and regret (he obviously doesn’t see himself as an object of romantic interest, and his curse similarly cuts him off from prospects of family).

So what about the super-heroics? Well this is a Joss Whedon movie; of course the action was epic and brutal. I especially appreciated how in the final fight, the Avengers’ first concern was to prevent civilian casualties; they begin by trying to evacuate as many people as they can, and in the end refuse the easy—at one point the only—solution. It would have been unthinkable. This is something that is often missed even in the comics.

And both Ultron and Vision are amazing.

Final Note: In the next few days I should be putting the first five chapters of Ronin Games up on The Cape (my series newsletter). Go here to sign up if you have not already.

I hope everyone has a wonderful May!

M.G.Harmon

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Smart TV (I was going to say brains on TV.)

I Zombie

Question: What is the difference between a monster and a person with an unusual dietary requirement? Answer: Timing.

Disclaimer: I don’t like zombies. Really. They’ve been done to death. And yes, this may just be that kind of “punish”ing review. Because I like this show. So far a lot, although only two episodes in it’s kind of hard to judge what kind of lurching legs it has. It may be unkillable.

The story: uptight and over-achieving young and hot surgeon, Liv Moore (who’s very name has to be a pun), gets talked into loosening up and joining a fellow doctor for a boat party. Where free samples of a new designer drug turn partakers into brain-eating zombies. Liv is scratched by one–the truly smarmy dealer himself, coincidentally–before escaping over the side of the boat. She wakes up on the beach in a body bag. Yup, you guessed it, she’s now a zombie. Apparently the rest of the new zombies were killed by fire when the party-boat burned to the water line, and all the other partiers either burned or drowned.

Of course nobody believes in zombies, so Liv isn’t promptly quarantined by the CDC. But she does quit her amazing surgeon’s position for a job at the local medical examiner’s office. Because, yes, she needs to eat brains to survive–or at least to keep from switching into full on mindless hungry Zombie Mode. Everything else she eats is now completely tasteless unless she adds a six-alarm fire side of chilli peppers, which is a pity because apparently brains don’t taste at all good; dress them up how she might, she complains endlessly about their squishy texture and metallic aftertaste.

Anyway, Liv is very depressed, practically a… okay, a zombie. She’s had to give up her career, which apparently she’s been preparing for since she was potty-trained, and her Absolutely Perfect Boyfriend fiance (she very rightly fears that zombie-ism is a communicable social disease and she isn’t about to risk doing that to him). Her family, roommate, and ex-fiance don’t understand her, she is “living” with no purpose, and death just sucks.

Then her medical examiner boss (who got tossed out of the CDC because of his obsession with man-made viruses) figures out what she is. Instead of outing her, he starts treating her as his personal science project (in a friendly way). He wants to both understand her and cure her.

And Liv finds a purpose in death: because you see, when she eats bits of someone’s brain she gets stimuli-triggered visions from their memories. She also temporarily picks up their skills and personality quirks… A series of events leads to her working with a rookie detective to solve murders (he thinks she’s a psychic, which is just so much more believable than zombies).

Liv is a zombie superhero!

To be honest, writing all this down I find the premise clever but not deep. So, why do I like it? Because the writer has gone beyond the zombie-joke aspects of the story. Liv is believable and sympathetic as Everywoman (if Everywoman was a brilliant overachiever turned into a zombie); she is a very relateable young woman who Had It All or at least a close approximation, then lost it. The human resonances are everywhere; she has a condition that makes her unemployable in her chosen field, she has a disease that makes intimate relationships risky, all carefully laid plans for the future wrecked, she is drifting and trying to find purpose. She’s practically a Woobie (see TV Trope here).

Pleasingly, the writers are avoiding stereotypes when not winking at or outright mocking them, and everything is a least one degree from normal. Did I mention the first Regular Bad Guy to appear? He’s the dealer who scratched Liv, yes he’s a zombie, and he’s making the most of his condition by infecting victims and becoming their supplier of brains. Clever.

The viewer can even count on the occasional moral lesson; in Episode 2, Liv eats part of the brain of a talented artist; she discovers her artistic and passionate side (to the point where her vocabulary changes and she’s both painting compulsively and lusting after beautiful men and women). She loves her new-found sense of passion, but also realizes that our passionate natures are inherently selfish as desire drowns reason and consideration. Plus it was fun to watch her detective partner wonder just what was happening to his morose emo psychic.

So I’m going to give this show a shot. It might have quite a long TV-live, or unlife anyway.

M.G.Harmon

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Castle and Courtly Love

CastleA little heavy on the symbolism?

Writing Update: For those impatient for the next Wearing the Cape book (and believe me, I’m as eager to see how it turns out as you are), I can say that I hope to have a first rough-draft done by the end of March, mid-April tops. From there it should only be another couple of months to edit, rewrite, and polish–which means a possible July release date. No promises, but I will try my best to see that happen.

Meanwhile, on a completely unrelated subject, if you’re following this blog you already know of my love for Castle. Well, here’s another love letter to the series.

Castle and Courtly Love

It may surprise readers who don’t know my background that I once wrote a senior paper on Courtly Love; in fact, it was my “graduate paper” and the paper I sent with my history master’s program application. It was also the funniest graduate paper of the semester—I had to read parts of it for the class, and many of my fellow students needed to see the example citations before they would believe I wasn’t making it up. I mention this because I recently realized that one of my favorite TV shows, Castle, is in among other things a protracted tale of courtly love.

Courtly Love

Courtly Love

For those who haven’t encountered the concept before, here is courtly love in its purest form.
1.) A knight falls in love with an unobtainable lady of superior station.

2.) The knight falls into a melancholy inspired by his unworthy state and/or the hopelessness of his love.

3.) Nonetheless, the knight is inspired and ennobled by his love, performing great deeds to woo her.

4.) The knight also sings his lady’s praises, composes poetry and songs for her, even makes himself a ridiculous figure through his pursuit of her good graces. Captured by love, he is willing to serve her with no recognition or requiting of affection.

In its pure form, Courtly Love can look pretty ridiculous; we would also consider it rather unhealthy (for a serious TV Trope analysis of it, go here). Historically, it was only ever really practiced in a highly artificial court setting (thus the name), and was as stylized as cosplay and LARPing. However, remove the unobtainable part, and you have the framework for Romantic Love as idealized in Western Culture.

Castle the Courtly Lover

So let’s look at the symbolism and themes developed in Castle.

First off, Richard Castle is a name invoking chivalry. Richard as in Richard the Lionhearted, Castle as in, well, the whole Middle Ages, the chivalric period. Since Rick chose his name, one wonders if he sees himself as a questing knight of sorts.

When Castle first encounters Beckett (whose name, Katherine Beckett, implies both nobility and unbending character), he is a charming but rather pitiful man. While successful, he has fallen into despondency. He is also presented as both uncaring of others (he is undisturbed by murders dressed up to mimic his books and even wants pictures for bragging rights), and a clown (the whole multiple arrests thing, one involving stealing a police horse and riding it naked). Castle’s one saving grace is his love for and devotion to his daughter, the exception to his self-centered behavior.

Detective Kate Beckett is in every way superior to Castle when they first meet; while he is a wildly successful mystery writer, he is an entertainer. She is dedicated to giving others justice while Castle is dedicated to no one (except Alexis, and to a much lesser extent his mother). Castle is initially drawn to Beckett on only a superficial level; she is a fascinating character for him to mine for inspiration, plus he finds her hot. In the first episode he straight-up propositions her, and is refused.

Detective Beckett herself possesses interesting chivalric/mythic resonances. First, she is a lady-knight, a questor in her own right. Second, like the Fisher King of Arthurian Myth, she is afflicted by a Wound That Will Not Heal.

Probably the single strongest Courtly Love parallel is that, from the very beginning, Castle chooses Beckett as his muse. He writes books about her and dedicates them to her. He pursues her from the beginning, although the goals of his pursuit change over time. He is inspired by Beckett and the others at the 12th, gradually becoming a less self-centered man.

Beckett also makes the perfect Unobtainable Lady; she is disdainful of Castle until their association begins to change him for the better, and once she returns his feelings she is prevented from accepting him, first by circumstance, then by her Wound That Will Not Heal. At one point (all of Season Four) Castle is reduced to exactly the kind of hopeless, unobtainable love that most characterized the Courtly Love ideal.

Love Stinks

Like many Castle fans, I found Season Four incredibly frustrating; if the writers had extended the Season of Frustration into Season Five I probably would have stopped watching. Why? Because there is a simple reason why Courtly Love, in its pure form, isn’t part of Western Culture; we believe in Happy Endings. At some point we find the courtly lover an object of pity rather than admiration. Unrequited love stinks (thus the song), and Castle was getting rather pitiful towards the end of Season Four.

However, Castle’s extended quest (which really lasted through Seasons Three and Four, with Season Five, Six, and part of Seven a testing of their mutual love and commitment) provided a tremendous series arc and gave firm ground for the evolution of both Castle’s and Beckett’s characters. It is also the only series currently on TV where this kind of arc—a romantic quest with its accompanying challenges and ennoblement—has gotten so explicit. And the huge fan-following it has created is a testament to the enduring value of romantic love in our somewhat jaded culture.

Plus, it’s been a helluva lot of fun to watch.

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News, Stuff, Things.

Harlequin-SmallThe Harlequin, in one of her many costumes.

So… A lot has happened since Thanksgiving–nothing above-the-fold newsworthy, but progress on several fronts. The above piece is the last of the Sentinels’ character pics and now the artist is beginning work on the gamebook’s cover. And that’s just the most visible sign of progress.

The playtest files for the hero-creation round are now going out to willing victims–I mean generous gamers–and several concepts for superhero roleplaying using Fate Core will be tested. Since, while I have played numerous tabletop RPGs in my time I’ve never designed one, I am more than a little worried about this stage; it could prove traumatic.

On the Ronin Games front, the plotlines of the story are still coming together although I know how it will begin and end. Among other things, it will involve a rather abrupt reevaluation of a recurring “villain.” And Magical Girls.

Meanwhile, I have found myself prodigiously entertained by some unexpected treasures. The most notable is Agent Carter:

Agent CarterI was leery of the concept of the mini-series–not because of the character but because I doubted the studio’s ability to pull it off. While I enjoy Agents of Shield, I’ll be the first to admit it has a few problems, and in its way Agent Carter is even more ambitious. However, if the rest of the show lives up to the first two hours, it will be the best “superhero” TV show of 2015 (possibly of the decade). The writing and production is top-notch, and Hayley Atwell is, again, amazing as Peggy Carter. On top of that, James D’Arcy steals every scene he is in as Jarvis, Howard Stark’s omnicompetent butler (and I wonder if we will ever meet Mrs. Jarvis?).

One comment I have to make after watching the show, is that it reminds me again of the difference between sexism and misogyny. Sexism is the belief that one gender is superior to the other; misogyny is the hatred of women.

Why was I thinking about that? Because Agent Carter is showing us a world that might as well be another planet for 21st Century Westerners; the 60s, 70s, and 80s saw a cultural shift unlike any in history–watching Peggy Carter navigate post-war society is painful at times since most of the men in her world are blindly sexist.

Even Howard Stark, the man who recruits her to his mission, is sexist–he simply makes an exception for Agent Carter based on his personal experience with her. While there are few misogynists in the show (and what Agent Carter does to one is fun to watch), the sexism of 1950s society is on full display–even hilariously highlighted by the tendency for the Captain America Radio Show to be on in the background, featuring “Nurse” or “Aid” Peggy Carter being threatened by villains and rescued by Cap, while Agent Carter hands out serious beat-downs.

I have only one objection here, and it’s not directly about Agent Carter but a trend.

It’s not universal, but in Hollywood and on TV the pure Action Hero–strong, competent, and without major flaws or humorous ticks–is almost always a Female Action Hero. Take, for example, my favorite humor-mystery series, Castle; Detective Beckett is the Action Hero, Rick Castle the comedic sidekick.

It’s funny, and I love it, but the other day Agent Carter/Butler Jarvis dynamic made me think about how pervasive the trend is becoming. Let’s look at other “action” shows.

Eureka: Director Allison Blair is much smarter than Sheriff Jack Carter, Deputy Jo Lupo much more dangerous.

Warehouse 13: Agent Mykay Bering is in every way superior to Agent Pete Lattimer (other than his intuition, not a traditionally masculine trait).

Agents of Shield: In a plane full of ridiculously competent people, the most physically dangerous is…Agent May.

I could go on, but I will summarize instead by arguing that most male action-heroes today either have female counterparts more physically dangerous than they are, or have some flaw or tick that renders them funny–often flaws and ticks that, if applied to female characters, would be labeled sexist (Castle’s metrosexual behavior, Sheriff Carter’s baseline state of exasperated confusion, Agent Lattimer’s dumb-guy/slut act, etc).

Keep in mind that these examples are from some of my favorite shows, and it goes without saying that I purely love strong female characters. But I am seeing the trend, one rising to the level of cliche, and as a writer I find myself wanting to fight it–to restore balance to the force, as it were.

A final note: Small Town Heroes has been a tremendous success. While I am not sure it is the strongest book in the series, reader comments have been mostly very positive and it has performed as well as the others on Amazon–making for a good financial year for me. Now if only I can write faster.

-M.G.Harmon

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Domo Arigato, Big Hero Six.

Big_Hero_6_film_posterI am a huge fan of CGI movies like The Incredibles and now Big Hero Six, as well as a big fan of Live Action/CGI movies like The Avengers and every other superhero movie out now. Why? A couple of reasons, but the first is the CGI, whether the cartoony CGI of Big Hero Six, or the “virtual” CGI of The Avengers allows Hollywood to at last give us superheroes and epic superhero action that looks as real as the rest of the movie, that doesn’t break your feeling that what you are watching is real. For me the “breakthrough” movie was Hancock.

Will-Smith-as-Hancock-hancock-1703785-1200-800Hancock used a combination of CGI and good old-fashioned FX to make a Superman-analogue look real and fight real; the real-estate wrecking fight between Hancock and his “ex” was viscerally believable. Of course then the script had to completely go off the rails…but the action was believable. And this is important to me, not because I like watching titans fight with real-world consequences and not look fake doing it (although that’s nice too), but because for me to buy into the movie emotionally requires my disbelief remaining, well, in suspension.

Of course Big Hero Six–and The Incredibles before it–is not “real” in the live-action sense, but the amazing CGI here is turned to the job of giving us an incredibly detailed world that nonetheless has the feel of the best four-color superhero comics. Here the CGI wizards give us awesome fight-scenes that are cinematic in the true sense of the word, and at the same time feels real enough to keep me inside the movie from opening scene to final credits. And all of that wizardry allows me to say this:

Big Hero Six is one of the best superhero movies to-date. And it did it without being in any way original.

Well, in one way original; in the creation of San Fransokyo. The part of my mind not sucked into the movie was spinning madly throughout–and afterward–trying to imagine the kind of alternate history that could result in San Fransokyo, the ultimate West-meets-East city. Did massive and focused immigration result in San Francisco’s Little Tokyo metastasizing to swallow the city? And what year was it? Ultimate high-tech says at least a decade in the future, but fashions were present-day.

Regardless, I loved the complete fusion of cultures, to the extent that Hiro comes from Japanese-English family. He is raised by his purely American aunt since his parents are dead, in their apartments above her very American coffee shop–which has a Japanese lucky-cat over the door. Signage throughout the city is a mix of English and Japanese, and to add a nice touch it’s spring and blossoming cherry trees are everywhere; it’s Hanami. And all of this is simply a cool backstop for the gleeful homage the movie makes to Japanese anime themes, a West-meets-East mashup of superhero themes, a great origin story.

Best of all, it did it without wallowing in stereotypes. Well, BH6 couldn’t avoid all stereotypes (I’ll leave it to you to spot them), but it nicely subverted most of them; the superteam that assembled around Hiro felt fresh and fun.

BIG-HERO-6-POSTERSA total homage to Japanese cinema superheroes.

And, just like the CGI wizardry, the lack of clumsy stereotyping kept me in the movie, which brings me to my final observation. WARNING: SPOILERS.

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Okay, you were warned; if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re going to get a couple of twists spoiled here.

For all that the superscience-driven powers and action is completely four-color and cinematic, the story was real in the only way that matters; it was Hiro’s literal Hero’s Journey, a pure and moving iteration of the Monomyth. Each step of the way, Hiro acted and responded to events like the boy he is, in heartbreaking circumstances. His quest for justice feels real, and so does the circle of family and friends who rally around him to bring the man responsible for his brother’s death to justice. As a bonus, the master-villain of the piece–the man responsible for the tragedy–is himself a man driven by a quest for justice. This makes him both Hiro’s foe and his foil, adding another layer of emotional depth to the story. Because everyone concerned acted in ways that were true, even the witty banter and visual humor didn’t detract from the drama of the story.

Was Big Hero Six perfect? Well, no. I thought the character of Fred felt dropped-in from another movie, and in the end the revelation that he was the son of another science-superhero (who was never referenced in elsewhere in the movie) felt like a forced joke. But no story is perfect, and BH6 mixed humor and heart to raise the kind of spirit I try and infuse my own stories (with imperfect success).

So if you haven’t seen it yet, but you’re reading this blog because you like my books, go see it now. It’s not just a kid’s show. It’s not a joky story about a big balloon robot.Well, okay it is–at least Baymax provides the warm heart of the story, but it’s also so much more. You’ll certainly laugh, you may cry, you’ll want to see it again, and you’ll want to make San Fransokyo real.

Big Hero Six has so far generated 600+ fanfic pieces and counting. ‘Nuff said.

M.G.Harmon

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Velveteen vs. The Multiverse

multiverseChristmas came early this year, with the realization that Seanan McGuire’s second Velveteen book, Velveteen vs. The Multiverse, was finally available on Kindle. I stopped what I was doing, bought it, and read it in two long sittings.

If you haven’t read the first book yet, Velveteen vs. The Junior Super-Patriots, or my review of it, go here. If you’ve read the first book, go here and grab the sequel.

What? Still here? Shame on you. I’m not going to give any spoilers, I’ll just say that VVTM more than fulfills the promise of VVTJSP. Seanan stuck the landing perfectly and with style, now go give her your money! I may, or may not talk more about it later. For now I’ll note that what I thought was a Kitchen Sink universe may well have been a Single Origin universe–you just don’t see it unless you squint. Clever, totally McGuire, and an awesome read.

-M.G.Harmon

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Castle and Cerebus Shifts

CastleI didn’t think I’d actually write about this, but I just can’t seem to let it go. I’m a big Castle fan. Well, not big–I don’t buy memorabilia, follow series news, or even know anything about the cast. But I’ve seen every episode and own all the seasons on DVD, and that’s pretty big for a boy who just isn’t that into mystery series. Perhaps it’s the crazy mash-up that is the show: it has been called a “combination of Moonlighting and Murder, She Wrote, albeit served with a generous helping of Law & Order and seasoned liberally with Nathan Fillion’s natural wise-ass charm.”

In any case, it’s always fun to catch on a Monday night (or Tuesday morning). I love the character of Richard Castle, and wish I could find my own Katherine Beckett. But here’s the thing: the show’s not perfect. It’s a high-wire act, balancing between humor and drama…no, actually it swings back and forth laughing and waving wildly. As the show progresses the writers develop the technique of dropping one or three outright insane episodes into every season, interspersed with episodes that are red and gritty. I think I’ve mentioned before somewhere that the show doesn’t so much suffer from Cerebus Syndrome (and it’s reverse) as enjoy it tremendously.

Normally this is part of the fun, but it takes a great deal of writerly dexterity to pull it off, complicated footwork, and recently the writers missed a step. No, they pretty much tripped over their own feet and face-planted into the audience right in front of the judges. It was bad. So bad, that I want to hold it up here as an example to other writers.

DON’T DO THIS.

castle married

No, I don’t mean “For the love of Pete, don’t get married!” But this is the scene where Castle and Beckett become Casket, a “consummation devoutly to be wished” by many Castle fans, especially after the series ended last season on a cliff-hanger instead of a wedding led up to by many episodes. And therein lies the problem. After a season-long buildup last season, and a romance-arc climax then deferred, a few episodes into the new season they decide to just do it–get married. It was very well done; I didn’t cry, but only because of my Y-chromosome.

But. They tacked Castle’s epiphany and re-proposal and the Wedding of Richard Castle and Katherine Beckett (with family only), on the end of one of the show’s Silly Episodes! A cliched silly episode! It is almost a truism that, if a television series lasts long enough, there will come an episode which completely rips off Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. The Main Character gets knocked out, or drugged, or has a near-death experience, or just dreams, and finds himself living in a world without him. Or in one where he made significantly different decisions. He wakes up, having learned the lesson of blah blah blah… They even broadcast the theme at the beginning of the episode by having Castle reference the movie. And they had fun with it: Castle spent much of the episode “re-meeting” Beckett and the rest of the detectives, finagling his way into their case, and Learning His Lesson. I laughed. A lot.

But then Castle wakes up, realizes no matter how screwed up things are right now he and Beckett are Meant To Be, and re-proposes. She says “Yes,” and fade to the minister and the vows. Wait, what? I’m not making this up. I wish I was. As much as I enjoy the show (and the Honeymoon Episode was hilarious), I wanted to attend a Castle convention just to punch a writer or two.

Because you can’t do that. I mentioned the show’s penchant for Cerebus Shifts at the beginning of this rant, but there are rules. Well, a rule. It’s called Keep Your Promise To The Viewer. Let me give you an example: Wearing the Cape. I ended WtC on a somewhat tragic note. Once I realized I was going there, I went back through my manuscript and made sure that, as humorous as the story got at times, the reader never forgot that the stakes were Life and Death and sometimes Death was arbitrary. Early on, I informed the reader what kind of story this was, and I kept my promise. To do otherwise is to lose readers.

The Castle series writers forgot that: they flirted with Mood Whiplash. Actually, no flirting was involved–with both the canceled wedding last season and this Wonderful Life/Marriage episode, they slapped the viewer upside the head with a wet fish. They tried to pull off what they normally pull off beautifully episode to episode, something deeply silly, then something serious, but in the same episode. It didn’t work, and the whiplash was extreme.

I’m willing to bet that now the writers are listening to fan backlash and wishing for a time machine. Did it kill the series for me? Hardly. As I said, the next episode was hilarious and note-perfect (and next week’s looks to be one of the more serious ones). I still love the writing, love the acting, love the fun. But I’ll continue to love the series despite their having muffed this crucial character-arc climax so badly.

Come to think of it, there are a few scenes in my books that make me feel the same way in hindsight. But once it’s written, it’s written. All you can do is go on to the next story, and I’ll go on watching Castle as long as they keep getting it right 90% of the time. Who am I kidding? 75% of the time. It’s still that good. Besides, watching someone as smart and professional as Kate Beckett put up with a goof like Rick Castle–and even find him adorable–ventures into the realm of wish-fulfillment for me. He’s a lucky dog. Which was kind of the point of the whole hallucinatory episode. -M.G.Harmon

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The Trials of Constantine

Constantine

Well that was disappointing…

So, I recorded and watched the pilot episode of Constantine, after looking forward to it for months. All I can say is… Meh. Which is too bad; so far this season, DC had been batting pretty good. The Flash got off to a good start, and so did Gotham. I had high hopes. So what went wrong?

Okay, well first off Constantine just didn’t scare me. For all the occult and horror elements, it feels pitched as an action-show. By that I mean that the main character is on top of things and doesn’t come across like he’s skating on the edge of disaster at all. He’s not worried, so I’m not worried.

Oh, you say, but he’s tormented. Nope, not that either. Sure he checked himself into an insane asylum hoping that professionals could drive him insane enough to forget. But he never feels actually, you know, driven enough to check himself into an asylum and have volts shot through his brain.

Then there’s his co-star, Beth? Oh yeah, Liv–I remember because of the blood and cockroaches. She goes from “This can’t be real!” to “Okay, this is real and I can trust this guy with no razor and a trench-coat,” in about two scenes. Um, okay.

At least he looks like John Constantine? A valid point, given that the last one looked like this:
Constantine 1 But here’s the thing: say what you will about Keanu Reeves’ range as an actor, he was note-perfect in the movie. Sure, he acted like a depressed, don’t-give-a-flying-*** burnout who was racking up exorcisms to try to win his way into Heaven, but in the end he fought because somebody had to and at no point did he act like he thought he was actually going to win; he fought because it pissed him off to let the Bad Guys win without a fight. And in the end he showed he had a soul by passing on Satan’s offer of more time, asking instead to spend the favor on getting an innocent woman out of Hell.

Which brings us to Astra (funny coincidence on the name…). This Constantine’s mistake damned her to hell, and himself, but it was his mistake. He check himself into the loony bin hoping to forget that what he’d done and what is waiting for him. So when talking to an angel, does he ask if there’s any hope of saving Astra? Nope, it’s all about him. At that moment the character absolutely lost me; every move he makes is completely selfish (yes, I know that’s Constantine, but you have to give a main character some redemptive trait or the reader can’t connect with him at all).

Last gripe: it didn’t help that every time Constantine said something, I imagined the same line being spoken by this man:supernatural-s08-e23-4

And guess what? Misha Collins does it better.

Enough of the gripes: how would I fix it if I had a time machine? After all, a few writers read this blog and might be curious as to what I think would have helped.

First, Supernatural already did all this, and better, so look at that show’s early seasons. The Winchester boys always acted like, as mad-prepared as they were, they were never more than just one step ahead of “ending bloody” (Dean’s nice phrase).

Second, the main character, at least of the pilot and the first few episodes, should have been Liv. We should have seen it through her eyes as her world went crazy and this scruffy and mysterious guy shows up. Pile on the atmosphere, the suspense, the shrieking I’m Going To Die moments followed by the What The Hell Was That breakdown moments. The story of Constantine’s failure and damnation and what-the-Hell approach to life should have been dragged out of him over a bottle. With the hint at the end, in John’s Touched By an Angel moment, that he might be able to save Astra and it involves keeping Liv alive and sane.

Oh yeah; and hire Misha Collins. Somebody’s already taken away his razor and issued him the trench-coat.

-M.G.Harmon

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