Retirement?

To game-mastering, not the blog (although given the track record of how often this page has been updated, maybe that’s not a bad idea either)

Anyway, the last tabletop game I ran was about 8 months ago.  That’s a fairly substantial drought.  There hasn’t been any clamoring for a new game either.  The last game I ran also had perhaps the finest moment a game master can ever hope for.  Rather than attempt to top that moment, why not go out on a high note?

So, that story should probably be told…  I’ve written some of the details in this post here but that’s just a general overview of what went on.  The full story of Star Wars d20 campaign and the subsequent Fate of the Galaxy would take too long to recap but I can relate the proudest moment with sufficient detail to not be overbearing.

The Star Wars game is definitely the longest game I’ve ever ran and been a part of, starting in late 2010 or early 2011.  This is impressive, considering the game itself is pretty terrible.  There’s some interesting ideas (Force skills draining vitality and tying some of the more Force abilities to feats) but for a d20 game, it lacks the complexity to solve problems that D&D offers.  It also went through a revision and got phased out in favor of SAGA within about 6 years, so the game lacks the depth of the West End Games version.

If there’s trouble conceptualizing this image, think Dragon Ball GT with the terribleness of it replaced with the space fantasy of Spelljammer.  Keep Dragon Ball since the player’s home planet was the Earth from Dragon Ball and the entire first arc of the story was to keep The Empire from finding the wish-granting artifacts.  Dragon Ball Earth was the result of trying to find a good home planet for the PCs, since single-biome planets are lazy and I wanted something that would resemble a home to the galaxy’s multitude of creatures.  Dragon Ball had humans living alongside animal people, so why not use the Earth as a template?

This is all window-dressing for the events of the story, which stayed true to canon (since the galaxy’s a big place and all) until the timeline of Return of the Jedi.  While Gary Kurtz’s ideas were never fully implemented, they did influence the story and allow the PCs to take up the role of being the galaxy’s greatest heroes.

“We had an outline and George changed everything in it, “Kurtz said. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.”

The discussed ending of the film that Kurtz favored presented the rebel forces in tatters, Leia grappling with her new duties as queen and Luke walking off alone “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns,” as Kurtz put it.

Kurtz said that ending would have been a more emotionally nuanced finale to an epic adventure than the forest celebration of the Ewoks that essentially ended the trilogy with a teddy-bear luau.

He was especially disdainful of the Lucas idea of a second Death Star, which he felt would be too derivative of the 1977 film. “So we agreed that I should probably leave.”

With Han Solo dead and the other principals (Luke and Leia) slated to live, we need new people to take part in the finale.  Enter the PCs:  Jedi Master Jace Beleren (fresh off being resurrected with the Dragon Balls after his death at the hands of his Imperial nemesis), General Carmine (elite Rebel commando with powered armor that would make Tony Stark envious), Jedi Knight Carmine (the Carmine family being incredibly numerous, the player having at least 5 unique character sheets at one point) and Crime Lord Spice (the galaxy’s most prominent criminal who’s not in this fight for the revolution but so that his criminal activities can be legitimized in the new galactic order).

Now, a criminal mastermind sticks out in comparison to the other two.  However, Spice wasn’t a Hutt (so he doesn’t have some understanding with The Empire) and was the guy who came out of the Jabba power vacuum victorious.  I also figured in a galaxy as big as Star Wars, the Rebels wouldn’t be the united good guy front they are in the movies.  There’s be people who’d think Mon Mothma’s methods were too tame and they’d need to wage total war against The Empire (as opposed to just hitting military targets).  It also makes sense for Imperial propaganda to have any effect, there would need to be some Rebels who give the others a bad name.

Despite his vast resources, Spice was so addicted to his namesake drug that his physical body had withered to the point he needed to be “more machine than man” to survive.  The player really wanted nanites, which I ruled would give him vitality point regeneration (since that’s how they work in a d20 modern supplement).  The person who built these nanites and implemented them into what was left of Spice’s body was renowned mad scientist Dr. Kochin (the same one who had survived the events of The World’s Strongest).

As a mad scientist, Kochin’s creations had a very strong boom or bust effect.  When they worked, they were among the best in the galaxy.  If they failed, well, the results would be catastrophic.  Kochin had a very good working relationship with the Carmines, having designed the majority of that player’s armament.  The power armor, for instance, was capable of flight on par with an X-Wing (so it had a hyperdrive built in) and was the most durable piece of work in the galaxy…unless the player rolled a critical failure, than it would enter a meltdown that would result in either the power source being ejected (rendering the armor unusable and the player stuck until he somehow got out of the armor) or a massive explosion on par with multiple thermal detonators.  Despite their knowledge of Kochin, Jace and the Carmines never warned Crime Lord Spice that what he was having integrated into his body might be incredibly dangerous.

At the time, none of them know how dangerous.  In fiction, nanotechnology just does whatever the hell the writer wants and how it works isn’t exactly explained (if at all).  Now, one of my favorite things about gamemastering is deconstructing and exploring tropes.  So, nanotech in Star Wars works kinda like everything else does in that universe:  through the will of the Force.  Spice’s nanites fed off the Force itself, a pretty sweet deal since the Force is an omnipresent energy field binding all living things in the galaxy together.  As with all Kochin creations, there’s a rub:  Upon the death of the host body, the nanites continue to replicate.  Indefinitely.  This leads to the grey goo scenario, where the entire galaxy is consumed by nanites.

Kochin knew about this possible outcome but didn’t share it because he’s a mad scientist who figured the grey goo outcome and extinguishing of all life in the galaxy was preferable to the tyranny of The Empire.  Conveniently for him, Spice was a Force user who had neglected his abilities to pursue a life of crime (the final d20 session had the characters at either level 15 or 16 and to get all 10 levels of the Crime Lord prestige class, Spice had to multiclass as a Jedi Consular/Noble).  Kochin figured either the Rebels win the day through battle or via Spice triggering a nanite storm upon his death (highly possible considering he was in the same location as some of the most powerful Force users in the galaxy).

So, after the Battle of Kashyyyk when the players learned Kochin’s fleet left suddenly during a point where the fight was in favor of the Imperials, the players were completely baffled.  Jace and the Carmines wrote it off as simply Kochin being a wacky, weird mad scientist but Spice treated it as military desertion.  Spice would spend the next five years devoting all available resources to finding Dr. Kochin.  When Spice located Kochin, he declared martial law over the planet for the time it took to capture him, severely disrupting a Republic diplomatic mission.  Kochin was then executed after a show trial.

A drug-addicted crime lord is never entirely sane but the stress of locating Kochin, ruling a criminal empire and pouring resources into the creation of a virtual reality to replace the galaxy everyone lives in eventually wore on the guy.  Spice would go into bouts of insanity where he’d “nanite swarm!” where he’d split himself into pieces and reform as a way of finding mental clarity.  Of course, this had the side effect of pieces that didn’t reform into the central host creating a separate body…so he’d make copies of himself to explore ideas since he didn’t trust his subordinates.

So, instead of one crime lord with nanotechnology that could end the galaxy, we have a few hundred!

Of course, the Jedi felt the disturbances in the Force (since the nanites literally eat the Force to replicate) and needed some way to rid the galaxy of the Spice threat.  Kochin’s old research notes survived in the chassis of his old droid and the real threat to the galaxy was eventually revealed to the Jedi and the New Republic government.  All of whom now had to figure out how to handle the Spice issue while Grand Admiral Thrawn is reconquering Imperial space.

Now, there was a few months worth of sessions between the Battle of Kashyyyk and the reveal of Spice’s nanites.  So, when the truth was revealed, Jace’s player looked at me and said, “Did you have this planned out several months ago?”

“Mhm.”

The look on his face afterward was the proudest moment a gamemaster could ever hope for.  The look of shock (oh my god, Spice is a bigger threat to the galaxy than Thrawn!), awe (wow, this was all planned out several months and somehow didn’t get fucked up by the players) and appreciation (suddenly a lot of things that have happened in these sessions makes perfect sense)…it’d be incredibly hard to top that moment.  It’s probably best to think of this as a retirement in wrestling or music terms (where it’s never really anyone’s final performance until they’ve died) and maybe circumstances change but for right now…I’m satisfied ending on that note.

Viewers Will Complain Yet Continue to Watch

This was published two months ago but it’s worth revisiting its central thesis:  That people will complain about a show yet continue to watch.  In this case, the show in question in Game of Thrones.  With the current sixth season of the show only a few episodes away from ending, let’s see if season 5 was enough to turn viewers off from the show.

Before we start comparing seasons, though, we should look at what data we’re dealing with:  the TV ratings for each episode and the seasons as a whole.

Season 1:  2.22 (premiere), 2.20 (lowest rated), 2.44, 2.45, 2.58, 2.44, 2.40, 2.72, 2.66, 3.04 (finale)

Season 2:  3.86 (premiere), 3.76, 3.77, 3.65, 3.90, 3.88, 3.69, 3.86, 3.38 (lowest rated), 4.20 (finale)

Season 3:  4.37, (premiere) 4.27 (lowest rated), 4.72, 4.87, 5.35, 5.50 (highest rated), 4.84, 5.13, 5.22, 5.39 (finale)

Season 4:  6.64 (premiere), 6.31 (lowest rated), 6.59, 6.95, 7.16, 6.40, 7.20 (highest rated), 7.17, 6.95, 7.09 (finale)

Season 5:  8.00 (premiere), 6.81, 6.71, 6.82, 6.56, 6.24, 5.40 (lowest rated), 7.01, 7.14, 8.11 (finale)

Season 6:  7.94 (premiere), 7.29, 7.28, 7.82, 7.89, 6.71 (lowest rated), 7.80 (with 3 episodes yet to air)

We can see a few trend lines right away:  Viewership tends to have increased from the first episode to the finale.  Viewership also grows exponentially by the time of the next season (the jump to season 3 from season 2 only nets a .17 whereas the others are all above .82).  While the premiere and finale episodes have higher ratings, viewers don’t really depart in mass droves throughout the season.  Season 1’s audience is fairly consistent (the first two episodes are the ones with the lowest ratings) and the other good seasons never drop by more than half a million (0.5).

Season 5 has some of the highest ratings yet but viewership does crash throughout.  Despite never having ratings drop by more than half a point at any time throughout the first four seasons, season 5’s 2nd episode falls off by almost 1.20 points!  The 5.40 rating for season 5’s episode 7 is the lowest the show did since season 3!  While the finale continued the trend of having a higher rating than the premiere, it was the lowest increase in the history of the show.  To top this argument off, season 6’s premiere was the first in show history to actually lose viewers from a previous season!

So the logic that “people will complain yet continue to watch” is complete bunk.  If a show’s as terrible as season 5 Game of Thrones, viewers won’t even stick around to complain…they’ll just stop watching entirely.

Now, Maisie’s right in that people have continued to watch the show.  Aside from the premiere, Season 6’s ratings are a pretty considerable jump over season 5’s.  With three episodes left to air, it’s quite possible the show could jump back into the 8’s.  However, based on the above data, the show should already be performing in the 8’s and possibly the 9’s.

Look at the average in ratings for each season:  Season 1 (2.52), Season 2 (3.80), Season 3 (4.97), Season 4 (6.85), Season 5 (6.88), Season 6 (7.49).  Ratings jump substantially until season 5, which grinds everything to a halt.  Hell, season 5’s average is thrown out of proportion by the premiere and finale episodes.  Take those out and season 5 averages 6.59, a lower number than season 4’s (6.84) if the same standard is applied.

So, it doesn’t look like season 5 was awful enough to keep people away from the show.  It was terrible enough to severely cut into the show’s growth and quite a chunk of the audience did quit watching for a substantial period of time.  As for why people are still watching, there’s a myriad of reasons:  The plot’s actually moving, curiosity from book readers to see where plots could be headed, etc.  I only keep up through the Internet to see what all is going to happen but watching it via HBO is a step too far.  In essence, I’m complaining about a show I used to watch but don’t anymore.

Warcraft

Alternate headlineWarcraft movie is so bad, David Bowie died after watching an advance cut!

Despite the jest, there are no strong feelings about the Warcraft film.  When reacting to the critics who are slamming the film, it’s important to keep the following in mind:  Most critics hate fantasy films, most video game movies are mediocre at best and there’s not any great expectations for Warcraft anyway.

It might seem a little ridiculous to say “critics hate fantasy films” in the age of a comic book movie.  All one has to do is look at the awards shows, though, and see that box office success does not translate to critical accolades.  The Dark Knight is one of the greatest movies of all time yet didn’t even get nominated for Best Picture (which went to Slumdog Millionaire).  Even after the number of nominations increased from 5 to 10 after that controversy, The Avengers didn’t warrant consideration in 2013.  This isn’t even a new phenomenon:  Annie Hall beat out the original Star Wars and Lord of the Rings only received the Best Picture honors in its last year when it should have won three consecutive awards.

So, yeah, critics aren’t going to like Warcraft or movies like it anyway.  Of course, video game movies have a pretty terrible track record.  What would be the best video game movie?  Resident Evil (which has inexplicably spawned a series of films)?  Tomb RaiderSilent HillMortal Kombat?  None of these are on the level of a Dark Knight or The Avengers, which comic book fans can proudly point to as great representatives of their medium.

Since critics aren’t going to like the movie and all since most video game movies are “eh” at best, the expectations for Warcraft should be very low.  It also faces some rather tough competition:  the star-studded Now You See Me 2, The Conjuring 2 (which will most likely be the popular alternative to the former) and for critical snobs there’s Genius.  Oh and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel will be in its second week, which while action blockbusters tend to be front-loaded in their box office take, there will be that someone who thinks it’s worth seeing again (or didn’t see the movie the week before) and goes to see TMNT than Warcraft.

Let’s also not discount Blizzard’s rather awful track record with Warcraft since its merger with Activision back in 2008:  Wrath of the Lich King?  Hit but shouldn’t count since development on it started well before Activision and Blizzard got in bed.  Cataclysm?  Awful.  Mists of Pandaria?  Meh.  Heartstone?  Hit.  Warlords of Draenor?  Critical miss!

Sure, Warcraft could rejuvenate the series and be a super awesome fantasy movie this summer…but it won’t.  Critics already hate it.  Video game movies struggle to be “decent” at best.  Unless there’s more hardcore Blizzard fans than thought, people are going to be more interested in something else than what looks to be “ye olde derivative fantasy movie.”  Maybe a December release date would have been better?  Sure, it could still flop like Eragon and Narnia did but it’d also have a better chance of succeeding than it does now; sandwiched between Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Finding Dory.

The Future of Console Gaming

I used to have this magazine that was a holiday 2000 video game guide.  It detailed what sorts of games were worth getting, for what consoles and even speculated about the future.  This was around the time the PS2 launched in America and the Xbox and GameCube were only a year away.  SegaNet was also a thing, so there was an expansive piece on the future of online gaming and what it would mean.  I wish I still had the magazine itself but I remember it being very much a fluff-piece.  In essence, it argued “the future will be great!”  It’s interesting to think back on that magazine in a similar way that people get a kick out of seeing what the future would look like according to someone in the 1950’s.

It’s an article I thought back on when reading about the new Xbox console upgrade.  “In March, Xbox boss Phil Spencer dropped some hints about this new approach, telling journalists that he’d like to see consoles take a PC-like evolution.”  Well, hell, consoles have been on that trajectory since 2000 (at the very least)!  At this point, there’s no discernible difference between a console and a PC that’s relevant.  Some will argue hardware technicalities but as someone who values more important aspects like plot and functionality, arguing how graphically powerful a device is will fall on deaf ears here.

The first step towards console-PC integration was the inclusion of an internal hard drive with the original Xbox.  The magazine touted this up as a great feature that would “reduce load times” and be a substantial improvement over memory cards/cartridges.  That prediction was true for a time.  There was more than enough hard drive space for games on the original Xbox and the first half of the Xbox 360’s life span.  Then the attitude changed where players had to directly install games on to the drive to avoid issues (of the stability or loading variety) with games.  The Xbox One and PS4 now mandate it as a prerequisite to playing.

Games have also ballooned in size too.  It was pretty notable when an installed game on the 360 took up a few gigabytes.  Now games on the Xbone take up at least 20 and it’s not surprising to see them surpass 40.  20-40 GB games eventually add up on a game console, even if someone’s not using it as a multimedia device for Netflix or whatever else.  Factor in the paltry hard drive space of 500 GB and it’s a complete mess!  Compare that number to the store-bought computer I have that’s 6 years old, which has 700 GBs on it!  I suppose it’s just a marketing gimmick to sell external hard drives…

The real damning bit is online connectivity.  The magazine thought online gaming would be great:  “Keep playing your favorite games as developers can update them after release via the Internet!”  “Play with random strangers across the globe!”  It didn’t mention overpriced DLC.  There’s no mention of developers releasing unfinished games and then patching them later, if at all (or, if they’re really cruel, pricing them behind a paywall).  There’s no consideration that online gaming would be a factor in the death of split-screen multiplayer.

But enough sounding like a grognard, the damage “a PC-like evolution” has really done to consoles is rob them of what made them unique.  Before this generation, it was possible to buy a console and have a reliable piece of hardware that would last 6 years minimum.  If I ever wanted to scratch an itch for a certain game, all that needed to be done was take care of the console and it would still work.  Compare this to the nightmare of playing older games on a PC, where a change in the operating system can cause more than enough headaches.

That wasn’t enough of a selling point for consoles, though.  Now, companies need to “update” their hardware so they can keep up with the latest technology.  Shit like this is why it was difficult to get into PC gaming:  Every time a new and interesting PC game was out, something like a graphics card had to be updated so the game could be played.  And Sony and Microsoft want to bring that hassle into the console market?  More power to them but I’m going to go find a new hobby to pour time into.

Arrow

Saw this headline, read the ensuing article and found it to be a bit hilarious.  Not because a show’s fandom has turned against it to the point they’re hyping up another show but because of the article’s last sentence:  “If even these die-hard Arrow fans who made it through 4 seasons of camp can’t continue, it probably isn’t looking good for the show’s prospects.”  Now there’s no point in arguing Arrow season 4 is any good because it isn’t (the penultimate episode of the season got the lowest rating in the show’s history) but we can take issue with a pessimistic take on the show’s future.  We can also argue whether Arrow’s camp or not (it isn’t).

“It probably isn’t looking good for the show’s prospects.”  Well, Arrow just got renewed for a 5th season.  Obviously, The CW isn’t going to hold shows to the same standards as FOX or CBS would…but a renewal (especially after 5 seasons) is pretty good for what a network thinks about a show’s prospects.  Having a full season order to turn possibly turn things around is a lot more than the majority of TV shows get.

The above paragraph is only taking issue with half the quote, the other half labeling Arrow as “camp.”  Considering that using the word “camp” to describe a superhero TV show brings to mind the 1960’s Batman series, it’s absolutely hilarious to imply Arrow‘s in the same league.  In fact, the majority of complaints about the show are that it’s “too dark/serious/brooding, especially when compared to more ‘fun’ shows like The Flash or Legends of Tomorrow.”  It’s actually quite nice that Arrow stands out in that regard and gives people who prefer grittier, street-level heroes a watchable option.

So, if Arrow‘s not campy and the show’s prospects look good, what the hell went wrong the past two seasons?  Well, look at the correlation.  Most people enjoyed the pilot but the show didn’t really take off until The Odyssey episode, where Slade and Oliver develop an unlikely friendship in the flashback.  Sara Lance and her mother’s search for her also becomes a plot point around this time and Sara eventually appears.  From that episode on until the end of season 2 is considered the pinnacle of the show.

Season 2 bears some more mentioning because of how fucking awesome it is!  Slade basically gets injected with a drug that gives him superpowers (strength and accelerated healing) as well as making him crazy.  Events on the island cause Slade to lose his grip on reality and his friendship with Oliver disintegrates.  Things go south on the island, to the point where Oliver has to kill Slade…except he didn’t.  Slade survived and now wants revenge on Oliver, planning to achieve this by murdering everyone he lives (the entirety of Star City).  Sara reappears and some plot is devoted to figuring out how she’ll go about rekindling her relationships with various loved one while being pursued by the League of Assassins.  There’s also various other excellent subplots (Oliver training a sidekick, what happens when a rich idiot doesn’t do his day job, to name two).

Season 2 ends with the Slade plot being resolved and the third season opens with Sara being killed by a mystery assailant.  In two episodes, the show had neutralized one of its best villains and killed off one of its strongest characters.  This results in two of the show’s best actors (Manu Bennett and Caity Lotz) no longer being on the show.  There’s an episode of season 3 that encapsulates the decline; the episode where Slade escapes from his prison on the island and Oliver has to team with/protect his sister.  Now, Slade as a villain had a season and a half’s worth of focus so he’d be worthy of a multi-episode arc, right?  Wouldn’t it have been awesome to see how Ra’s al-Guhl figures Slade into his plans to make Oliver his successor (or how Slade would interact with the League)?  Instead, the issue’s resolved at the end of a single episode.

As for Caity Lotz’s Sara, she’s eventually revived via the Lazarus Pit so she can have a lead role on Legends of Tomorrow.  Unlike Slade, she at least gets some focus.  She’ll be missed on Arrow full-time, however, because of the talent and intensity she brought to the show (watch her fight scenes and compare them to anyone else’s).

Arrow has a future and it could be a good one.  Bringing back Slade or Sara would be a cheap fix but a better way would be to look at that stretch of episodes from The Odyssey to the season 2 finale; all the while taking notes on what worked.  Strong characters, drama between them, a competent villain, more science and street-level heroics than magic nonsense…these are the elements that made Arrow a great show.  Re-implementing them will give the show an excellent shot at returning to its season 2 form.

Hold the Inconsistencies

An HBO affiliate ended up releasing “The Door” episode of Game of Thrones a day early. The spoilers for that episode and the feedback for it was so wut-tastic that I had to lift the moratorium on watching the show to see the craziness for myself. The episode did not disappoint. It also looks like the source for this insanity is the laziness of the show-runners, as evident from all the narrative inconsistencies.

Without George R.R. Martin’s framework to keep the show in check, Game of Thrones has careened into a nonsensical mess. Just look at how Sansas interacts with Littlefinger, Jon and Brienne. She correctly tells off Littlefinger for “saving her from the people who murdered her family so he could give her to the other people who murdered her family.” Then she takes his word that the Blackfish has retaken Riverrun seriously enough that she sends Brienne away from Castle Black. Oh and she trusts Jon Snow enough to use him as a symbol to rally the Northern houses but not enough to tell him about Littlefinger’s visit?

The nonsense isn’t limited to the North either. The summit on Pyke to determine who will become the new King of the Iron Islands ends with Euron Greyjoy being chosen over Yara. They justify this by saying “Yara’s a woman and thus can’t rule” but it doesn’t Euron, who even admits to murdering the previous King (who is his own brother). Remember when Jamie Lannister’s reputation as the “King-slayer” was a major plot point and was used to develop his character? Or when the death of a character leading a house destabilized it?

These are but mere nitpicks compared to this visual…

fleet

So, Yara, can steal the entire Ironborn fleet to the point Euron’s first act as King is to order people to deforest the Iron Islands to “build 1,000 ships”….but she can’t win enough votes to become Queen? Maybe the writers should have played The Witcher 3, which shows how this type of plot should be done!

Of course, any review of this episode wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Bran. Bran in season 1 ignores an elder (his mother) to do something he’s not supposed to (climb a tower), the consequences of which results in him being paralyzed, the near-extinction of his entire family and the deaths of thousands (if not, millions) of people. So it makes total sense that he would ignore the wishes of an elder (Bloodraven) to do something he’s not supposed to (use his seer powers unsupervised); the consequences of which results in him being branded by the Night King, which allows the King to find where Bran’s located. The ensuing raid results in a near total party kill of Bran’s traveling company as well as the deaths of Bran’s mentor and the Children of the Forest.

Oh and the scene where Bran’s marked and Bloodraven has a sense of urgency of getting Bran to safety? The next scene shows them leisurely watching a past vision that doesn’t really relate to the story. Nothing says “immediate danger” like taking the time to casually view past events!

The real admission that Game of Thrones has gotten lazy and nonsensical is through an indirect admission by the writers themselves. From Slate: “When we first started working on the show, we did not want to do flashbacks because oftentimes it seems like a hallmark of lazy storytelling.” It’s no coincidence that season 5 (universally considered the worst season) began with a flashback and they’ve only become more frequent since.

Some book readers will cling to the hope that George R. R. Martin will handle these scenes better. Well, keep the following in mind when Brandon Sanderson eventually finishes the books: “[The Hodor twist came] from one of our conversations with [author George R.R. Martin]. This is one of his ideas that he told us in Santa Fe. We thought it was f–king fantastic.”

The Nice Guys

Comedies are often difficult to review because humor is so subjective among the viewing audience. Some people love loud, screaming nonsense punctuated with bodily harm. Others like sophisticated word-plays and “clever” dialogue that relies on established call-backs. Yet despite its marketing, The Nice Guys isn’t really a comedy but a action-comedic take on a 1940’s noir film.

Yeah, if that sounds weird, imagine paying to see a comedy and two hours later, walking out of an action/parody thriller.

The main strength of the movie is its excellent cast. Russell Crowe’s character is an enforcer whose methods are fairly direct. It’s a good contrast to Ryan Gosling’s role; a smartass private investigator who despite his incompetence (he’s dubbed the worst detective in the world by his own daughter, who also is kinda his secretary) occasionally has flashes of mad genius. If the movie was two hours of the duo bantering and interacting with one another (and Angourie Rice, who plays Ryan Gosling’s daughter), it’d be a great film.

Instead, the film struggles to find its footing between “comedy/parody” and “action conspiracy thriller.” The film’s plot revolves around Crowe and Gosling trying to locate a missing person and end up stumbling upon a vast conspiracy involving the federal government, Detroit car companies and the Los Angeles porn industry. There’s a good parody film that could be made with those elements but The Nice Guys fails to walk the line separating “comedy” from “serious.”

Take the film’s climax, for instance. It’s mostly an action set-piece but the moments where comedy is implemented really throws the film off-balance. There’s a scene where the duo are held up at gunpoint and then Ryan Gosling makes a sudden move trying to grab a gun from Russell Crowe’s leg. Crowe doesn’t actually have an “ankle gun” because Gosling hallucinated him having one earlier in the film…but the person holding them at gun point just stands there with a weird look on their face. Why doesn’t the gun-toting individual just shoot Gosling, especially if that person has told him to not to make any sudden moves!

If you’re nostalgic for the 1970’s, The Nice Guys should more than fit the bill. There are some moments that are legitimately funny and they mostly come from Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling having fantastic chemistry. The problem is the film never decides on its identity and any moment it comes close to doing so, it shifts gears.  Not recommended!

Dawn of Justice

As someone who felt like they were on a roller coaster throughout all the hype surrounding Batman v. Superman:  Dawn of Justice, it should not be surprising that opinions surrounding the film are mixed.  It’s equally unsurprising that the people responsible for Man of Steel (a polarizing film in its own right) have again created something controversial.  However, the split appears most pronounced between the critics who solidly hate the film and the audience that has enjoyed it.  This is an experience that carried over into my own showing.  As someone who went into the movie with not too many expectations and ended up enjoying it, it will be revealed whether the critiques of the film have any water (spoiler:  mostly no).

Let’s establish expectations for the film:  Critics literally watch movies for a living.  I can’t speak to doing this professionally (i.e. getting paid from a mass media conglomerate to write a review) but their perspective on critiquing movies differs from the audience.  Average Joe/Jane Movie-Goer is not looking for films to reinvent the cinematic landscape, they are looking to enjoy some entertainment, possibly even with friends/family.  Even people who read critical reviews before going to see something have someone they trust who, rather than bore them with nonsense, answers their one simple question:  Is going to see this worth my time?

To answer that question, I have to establish my expectations.  After seeing all the wanton destruction in Man of Steel, I wanted someone to kick Superman’s ass for not trying to save innocent lives (the whole “he’s a rookie Superman who doesn’t know how to control his powers yet” excuse never worked because there’s nothing stopping Superman from taking the fight out of a densely-populated area and the one time they do end up in space, Superman brings him back to Metropolis!).  So, when the Dawn of Justice hype established that someone was going to be Batman, hell yes I got excited!  Now, that anticipation was tempered with the “Dawn of Justice” subtitle because one of the smarter (not to mention lucrative) things Marvel did was have a bunch of individual movies lead in to the big team-up.  This fear led to a feeling that the film will try to do too much, especially when it only has 2 or so hours to work with…which wasn’t helped when talk of a R-rated Director’s Cut surfaced.

In order for Dawn of Justice to work, it had to address that Man of Steel was a flawed film, Batman needed to thoroughly beat the shit out of Superman and restrain itself from indulging in too many Justice League characters and/or subplots.  With these expectations in mind, the film turned out pretty good.

Man of Steel deserves a post itself but for brevity, its flaws center around the aforementioned destruction, poor characterization (particularly Pa Kent) and over-usage of Lois Lane.  Superman and Zod completely leveling Metropolis was the biggest critique and the fact that played into the plot was the movie’s biggest draw.  This complaint is addressed in the movie, almost painstakingly so.  Numerous times it is mentioned that the area heroes are fighting in are “abandoned” or “post-working hours so very few people are likely to be around.”  While it would have better to see Superman punch Doomsday through a mountain instead of a skyscraper, Dawn of Justice does a sufficient job of addressing the “wanton destruction and disregard for civilian life” problem Man of Steel has.

Dawn of Justice also had to answer for Man of Steel‘s poor characterization.  It’s a fair point:  If Man of Steel couldn’t characterize Pa Kent correctly, how can they be trusted with Batman, Alfred, Wonder Woman or Lex Luthor?  Instead of course-correcting itself, Dawn of Justice voices Pa Kent’s concerns in Man of Steel better than Pa Kent did in Man of Steel!  Essentially, Pa Kent had reservations about Clark using his powers because the best intentions don’t often bring the best results.  There’s an infamous scene in Man of Steel where Pa Kent tells Clark he should have thought about letting a group of kids who are drowning in a school bus die.  Dawn of Justice has a scene where Superman hallucinates talking with his “dad” and Pa Kent tells him how he tried to save the family farm from a flood, only for the diverted waters to ruin another farm instead.  Such a scene explaining Pa Kent’s logic behind his beliefs would have done wonders for Man of Steel.

Not only does Dawn of Justice repair Pa Kent’s character but the movie itself is incredibly well-cast.  Ben Affleck’s Batman and Jeremy Iron’s Alfred (as well as the interaction between them) are some of the film’s highest points.  Gal Gadot doesn’t have a lot of dialogue but it’s a good omen for the Wonder Woman movie that she makes the most of her plentiful screen time (her interactions with Wayne and fight with Doomsday got some of the audience’s loudest applause).  Jesse Eisenberg is really good at playing Lex Luthor like a mad genius but as someone who grew up on the DC Animated Universe, Clancy Brown’s menacing businessman will forever be the definitive portrayal.  The returning cast from Man of Steel is mostly excellent (notably Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White) with the exception of Lois Lane.

Unfortunately, the one thing Dawn of Justice didn’t correct is how overabundant Lois Lane is to the plot.  In Man of Steel, Lois was asked to go on Zod’s ship for no particular reason when he really only wanted Superman.  She can even talk to the Krypton ship computer and Jor-El even formally addresses when he should have no idea who she is!  Later in the movie, she’s able to virtually teleport from one end of Metropolis to the climax where Superman breaks Zod’s neck.  While Dawn of Justice does a better job utilizing her journalism skills, it is rather annoying that she can just get a helicopter from a news agency and fly to Gotham to stop two superheroes from fighting in about 15-20 minutes.

With my expectations mostly met, it’s no surprise that the film ended up being pretty good.  So, let’s focus on the critics, whose criticisms boil down to two salient points:  (1) The movie’s too serious/not fun enough and (2) it’s too imposing/bloated for its 2.5 hour run-time.

For a moment, let’s indulge in the critical consensus and make the movie more “light-hearted” and/or “fun”.  Then people would be bitching about DC copying Marvel’s template and having no identity!  These critics also forget that the “fun” studio is having its two biggest characters not only fight but recruit other heroes (!) to fight for them in Civil War!  To more seriously address the point, the movie has more than enough levity between Lex Luthor, Perry White and Alfred.  And in a movie that’s literally titled Batman v. Superman, two of the world’s most renowned heroes, how much fun should there be in a fight?

The “film’s got too much going on considering its run-time” argument will have more merit, if only be default.  Dawn of Justice follows the same plot trajectory Man of Steel did, where the first 1/3 of the movie introduces all the characters and provides an origin story while the 2/3 leads to the 3/3 big action climax.  Thus, it inherits the pacing issues although the opening scene where Bruce Wayne is on the ground in Metropolis is absolutely riveting.  It was also a treat seeing all the talking head bits in the middle part discussing Superman, asking some rather poignant questions for the viewer to think about.  The movie does seem a little over-complicated (Lex Luthor doesn’t really need to manipulate both Batman and Superman into fighting each other) but once the action-filled finale starts, most people won’t care.

So, is Dawn of Justice worth the time and money?  Before that can be answered, it’s worth asking another question:  What do you want/expect from it?  I wanted the film to address the flaws inherent within Man of Steel.  The heroes’ disregard for civilian life and wide-scale property damage had to be reined in.  Superman needed to get his ass kicked by someone who he had hurt through that disregard.  Because DC/Warner Bros. had eschewed the Marvel method of individual hero movies leading to the big team-up, the movie needed to not be a gigantic cluster-fuck of Justice League cameos.  On those counts, Batman v. Superman:  Dawn of Justice succeeded tremendously.

The Daredevil Dilemma

One of the main themes throughout Daredevil season 2 is the question of what vigilante superheroes should do with criminals once they’re apprehended.  There’s the approach taken by the title character:  Work within the law as much as possible and trust the system to reform the individual.  Contrasting this is Frank Castle’s idea that criminals are irredeemable and the legal system doesn’t go far enough to punish them.  While it’s appreciated that the writers don’t take sides and leave the viewer to decide who’s right or wrong, Daredevil’s argument is completely undercut by the narrative and its failure to properly reinforce his ideals.

The theme of trusting the law is apparent throughout all of season 2 but it’s best encapsulated in the third episode.  Daredevil is chained on top of a roof by Frank Castle (aka The Punisher) and the episode revolves around the two of them debating their approaches.  The relevant exchange is posted below with Daredevil’s words in red.

“I’m not a bad guy, Red.”
“You wanna explain that to the orphans and the widows of the men you killed?”
“For Christ’s sake, that’s what you think?  I’m just some crazy asshole going around unloading on whoever I want to?”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I think.”
“That it?”
“You think you’re anything else?”
“I think that the people I kill need killing, that’s what I think.”
“You left men hanging from meat hooks!”
“They got off easy, in my opinion.”
“You shot up a hospital.”
“Yeah and nobody got hurt who didn’t deserve it.”
“Oh, yeah.  What about you, Frank?  What happens the day someone decides you deserve it?”
“I tell you what, they better not miss.”
“Come on, you run around this city like it’s your damn shooting gallery.  You think you do–“
“Yeah, what do you do?  What do you do?  You act like it’s a playground.  You beat up the bullies with your fists.  You throw ’em in jail, everybody calls you a hero, right?  And then a month, a week, a day later, they’re back on the streets doing the same goddamn thing–”
“Yeah, so you just put ’em in the morgue.”
“You’re goddamn right, I do.”
“You ever doubt yourself, Frank?”
“Not even for a second.”
“Really?  Really?  You never think for one second, ‘Shit, I just killed a human being’?”
“That’s being pretty generous.”
“A human being who did a lot of stupid shit, maybe even evil, but had one small piece of goodness in him.  Maybe just a scrap, Frank, but something.  And then you come along and that one tiny flicker of light gets snuffed out forever.”
“I think you’re wrong.”
“Which part?”
“All of it.  I think there’s no good in the filth that I put down, that’s what I think.”
“And how do you know?”
“I just know.  Look around, Red.  This city, it stinks.  It’s a sewer.  It stinks and it smells like shit and I can’t get the stink out of my nose.  I think that this world, it needs men that are willing to make the hard call.  I think you and me are the same!”
“That’s bullshit, Frank, and you know it!”
“Only I do the one thing that you can’t.  You hit ’em and they get back up.  I hit ’em and they stay down.  It’s permanent.  I make sure that they don’t make it out on the street again.  I take pride in that.”
“Let me ask you this.”
“What’s that?”
“What about hope?”
“Oh, fuck.”
“Come on, Frank–“
“You wanna talk about Santa Claus?”
“I live in the real world too and I’ve seen it.”
“Yeah.  What have you seen?”
“Redemption, Frank.”
“Ah, Jesus Christ.”
“It’s real.  And it’s possible.  The people you murder deserve another chance.”
“What, to kill again?  Rape again?  Is that what you want?”
“No, Frank.  To try again, Frank.  To try.  And if you don’t get that, there’s something broken in you you can’t fix and you really are a nutjob.”

Clearly, Daredevil believes criminals can rehabilitate themselves or, at the very least, deserve the chance to do so.  Unfortunately, the narrative completely undercuts his entire argument.  He believes in the law despite admitting that it sometimes isn’t always enough to do what’s necessary, thus it’s acceptable to act outside of it.  His criticism of The Punisher’s actions and motives are understandable, they are also completely unsubstantiated.  Also, while Daredevil is convinced people should have a shot to redeem themselves, there’s no one in the story who actually does this.

It’s a bit hypocritical for Daredevil to be chastising The Punisher for operating outside the law when he has no qualms himself.  He even admits to his best friend, Foggy Nelson, that operating within the law has its limits.  His admission comes an episode after going to a warehouse with the intent to kill Wilson Fisk, to which Foggy responds, “It’s not enough playing judge and jury?  You gotta add executioner to the list?  What happened to all that talk about going after him through the system?  Making the law work for us?”  Daredevil’s reply:  “Sometimes the law isn’t enough.”  The Punisher’s absolutely right when he insists there’s no difference between the two of them other than methods.

Speaking of The Punisher’s methods, Daredevil’s critique of them is understandable but  also unsubstantiated.  Punisher’s right that nobody got hurt who didn’t deserve it when he “shot up” the hospital (i.e. nobody died and anyone thinking about the cop who got assaulted should remember most cops outside of Brett are corrupt and easily bought off by someone with power and influence).  Leaving criminals hanging by meat hooks is a valid criticism in Daredevil’s favor but can be countered by the bone-breaking interrogations he often commits.  Basically, if a vigilante is going to operate outside the law, what good does it do to half-ass it (other than to morally justify what they do)?

Daredevil believes in criminals having a chance to redeem themselves but so far, no one on the show has been able to successfully rehabilitate themselves.  Turk, for instance, is still a career criminal who (despite being monitored by the police) has gone from human trafficking to dealing in illegal weaponry.  Wilson Fisk is hellbent on becoming the Kingpin of crime in New York City again and seeking vengeance on the people who put him away.  The only person who can even be remotely argued to be “rehabbed” is Melvin, who was only threatened into making ballistic vests for Fisk.  In other words, if there was someone who had been engaged in serious criminal activity and then changed their ways, Daredevil’s argument that “people should have the chance to redeem themselves” would have some weight to it.  Instead, everyone on the show doubles down on being a criminal and Daredevil’s belief relies on a viewer’s preexisting beliefs to trust him.  A character who was once a criminal and turned away from it to the side of good would have been much more effective.

Ultimately, Foggy Nelson’s belief that it’s better to operate within the law has more merit than Daredevil’s approach.  However, if the drama of the show is going to revolve around how far vigilantism should go, than it’s no surprise The Punisher’s methods win out.  Daredevil’s argument lacks substance because he really is an ineffective half-measure.  Belief in people redeeming themselves is a nice sentiment but it’s not a practical one, seeing as how no one in the series has been able to turn away from their criminal nature.  Is it any surprise then that people empathize with The Punisher and support him over the archetypal superhero?

Dramatic Escalation

Stories are built on a foundation known as “dramatic conflict.” While it can take many forms, drama usually boils down to one of two possibilities. Conflict will either specific to a character or revolve around their response vs. a threat to the world they live in.  Stories will often have both but one will take precedence over the other.  The Star Wars saga has successfully tackled both approaches but has gone to the well containing one option a little too often.

The main plot of the original Star Wars revolves around the Death Star, an Imperial space station with enough firepower to destroy an entire planet. There’s some character conflict present (Luke unsure if he wants to accept his Jedi heritage, Han’s conflict of selfishness v. selflessness) but the movie really revolves around the Death Star. The movie’s climax, for instance, has Luke trusting the Force over his targeting computer and Han choosing to save his friend…actions that result in the Death Star’s destruction. Their character development exists for the sole purpose of wrapping up the main plot.

Now it would be obvious to up the stakes for the sequel. Instead, the genius of The Empire Strikes Back is not that the Imperials have a super-weapon that’s even more super than the Death Star. It’s that the conflict of the story is entirely character-driven. The Imperials find the Rebel base, causing an impromptu evacuation that has the heroes split up. Han and Leia have to evade Darth Vader’s fleet in a piece of junk that doesn’t even have a functioning hyperdrive. The two of them eventually reach Cloud City and it looks like they’ll be safe…

…Instead, Han’s smuggler past catches up with him as his “buddy” has made a deal with The Empire. Han gets frozen in carbonite and turned over to a bounty hunter that’s going to return him to Jabba the Hutt, who put out a bounty on him when Han chose not to repay his outstanding debt. Luke senses his friends in trouble and has to decide between helping them or completing his Jedi training. Luke ignores the advice of his Jedi teachers to go aid his friends. Instead of helping them, he loses his hand and lightsaber in a duel with Vader.

And the best part is that all this dramatic conflict is completely reasonable. The audience has already been introduced to a galaxy dominated by a tyrannical empire. Sure, they can’t blow up planets with impunity but they’ve still got starships, soldiers, droids, vehicles, credits and connections. All of those resources can be used to hunt down a few people of interest, not to mention a rebellion.  They can also be used to set a trap, an incredibly effective one if the person setting it is skilled in the Dark Side of the Force.

Oddly enough, Empire Strikes Back is the only time character-based drama trumps a galactic-wide threat in terms of plot significance.  For a series that prides itself on characters rather than plot, it’s amazing Star Wars doesn’t try character-based conflict more often. It’s not even that difficult to do: Just put them in tough situations and figure out how they’ll prevail (or not). As we’ll see, this method is a lot easier than creating threats on a galactic scale.

The follow-up, Return of the Jedi, centers around a second Death Star although Luke confronting Vader and the Emperor is also significant. However, Jedi suffers from a bad case of copying the original movie too much. Once the heroes free Han Solo from Jabba’s clutches, the only thing any non-Luke character can do is blow up a second Death Star. This Death Star is unfinished but it can now shoot capital ships with little difficulty. Of course, we only find out about that capability a few minutes before Death Star 2.0 is blown up by the Rebels…

For the sake of being thorough, the prequel trilogy has conflicts on a galactic scale (Palpatine engineering a galactic war so he can turn the Republic into an Empire he rules) and on a personal level (Anakin being lured by the dark side). The problem with the prequels, though, is that they are terrible at establishing why the audience should care about any of the drama. We already know the creation of the Empire is destined to happen but aside from our own predisposition towards republicanism, that belief isn’t reinforced in the story. It wouldn’t have been difficult to have a Senator oppose Palpatine and give speeches that reinforce the values of republican democracy.  Sure, there’s people in the Senate who eventually go on to support the Rebellion (Bail Organa, Mon Mothma) but none of these people do anything when Palpatine institutes a galactic empire.  Why not use the political process to drag out his charges against the Jedi?

The character drama fares no better. Anakin’s written as a bad person from the start when he’s deemed “dangerous” by Obi-Wan, the person who will become his future Jedi Master. Obi-Wan made a promise to train Anakin to fulfill Master Qui-Gon’s wishes but he completely fucks it up. The rest of the Jedi are completely oblivious to Palpatine’s plot. Nothing seems to matter because since everything is predestined to happen: No one tries to stop the Empire from rising or Anakin falling to the dark side until it’s too late.

To the prequels’ credit, at least their plots didn’t revolve around a super-weapon. The Force Awakens features another Death Star (Starkiller Base), that’s now the size of a planet (instead of a moon) and can destroy multiple planets in the same star system. Given that the Death Star in each appearance has been getting more powerful, how does the post-Force Awakens universe escalate the threat from here? Destroy multiple star systems at a time? Destroy the entire universe itself?

The Star Wars Fate game I’m currently game-mastering has run into the same problem. While the Imperial Remnant is still a force to be reckoned with in the galaxy, the greater threat involves nanotechnology. Said nanotech was developed by a mad scientist, implanted in a Force-sensitive crime lord whose mentally unstable and can replicate itself by cannibalizing the Force. If left unchecked, this could lead to these “nanites” eliminating all life in the universe. While that’s all pretty threatening, it does raise questions about how to escalate the threat from there. A later campaign revolving around a re-surging Empire to conquer the galaxy would get eyerolls from the players, who would note (correctly) they’re not as dangerous as the nanites.  The only answer to this problem is to make future game sessions revolve around conflicts specific to the player characters.

Hopefully, Disney doesn’t go the route of bigger and better Death Stars when character drama would be much easier to handle. The Force Awakens has a established a new ensemble with enough depth to them that’s worth exploring while raising possibilities for the old Star Wars characters. Who is Rey, how is she so strong with the Force yet so reluctant to embrace it? What will Finn do once he wakes up from his coma and his primary motivation to aiding the Resistance, Rey, is off training to be a Jedi? Kylo Ren seems to have passed Supreme Leader Snoke’s test of resisting the redemption of the light side, what further training will he undergo? Luke has isolated himself from the galaxy, what will he do now that it needs him again and his isolationism resulted in the death of his best friend? With no Republic Senate and the Resistance the only ones who understand the threat of the First Order, does Leia become Queen of the galaxy or assume some other leadership role?

The forecast for Episode VIII is cautiously optimistic. With J.J. Abrams no longer involved, the audience doesn’t have to worry about the same problems that plagued Star Trek Into Darkness (where the film hit too many familiar beats covered in Star Trek 09 and went as far as bringing back Khan). Think of this way: If J.J. had directed Episode VIII, it honestly shouldn’t surprise anyone if he gender-flipped the famous carbon freezing scene (Finn would be watching helpless as Rey gets frozen in carbonite, tells her he loves her before she rolls her eyes and says, “I know”). New director Rian Johnson directed the best episode of Breaking Bad (Ozymandias) and, hopefully, was taking notes from Vince Gilligan about putting characters in the worst possible situation.