Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Daredevil: Bringing It Home


Five days ago I settled into the TV room of friends-of-the-blog Alison Walker and Kevin Eustice for a screening of the third season of Daredevil. We only got a few episodes in, since we'd all had a long week and we had a lot of gaming to rest up for in the weekend to come (Starfinder Saturdays! 5e Sundays!), but I finished it up last night and this was 13 hours of great television. So let's talk about it.

Fan Service

Let's get this out of the way first. There was so much delightful fan service in this series, and you can hate on me or call it pandering, but I will not even apologize for loving the crap out of it. We finally got "Kingpin" used on screen, and we got that character's traditional white suit. We got a fistfight with Gladiator (which was completely unexpected after the way Melvin has been used in the first two seasons), and he's wearing a recognizable homage to his classic outfit and wielding buzzsaws! And just to show that the series is not at all apologetic or shy about its fan service, Matt Murdock describes himself as a "Man without Fear" in the big final speech. I'm telling you, I was in tears.

What's the point of all this? My point is: this is a show which is not afraid to acknowledge it comes from a comic book. Do you remember Bryan Singer's first X-Men film? It is a movie which transformed how superhero movies were made, and it is filled with snarky cuts from Logan about how stupid all this comic book shit is. I realize that movie was, like, a million years ago, but just look at how far we have come. Singer's X-Men is a good movie, but it cannot hide the fact that it's a little embarrassed by its source material. That embarrassment is still around, in all kinds of superhero films and TV shows these days, but not in this third season of Daredevil. And that turned me on.

Reconstruction

The Marvel Netflix shows have a thing they do that really pisses me off. It's the second season deconstruction. I get why they do this, but it's lazy, and it goes like this: We spent the whole first season establishing our character, getting their priorities straight, building positive relationships with secondary characters, and just generally succeeding in the face of incredible odds. So, logically, in the second season we tear down all that stuff. I mean, we put so much effort into setting them up, those relationships and those values are clearly what is at stake for the protagonist, so the temptation to ruin it is irresistible.

And so, in their second season, Luke and Clair break up. In Iron Fist's second season, not only do Danny and Colleen break up, but he gives her his super powers (we will talk about the ignominious end of Iron Fist another time). And in Daredevil's second season, well, it was not pretty. I basically shouted "Run, Matt! Get away from her!" every time Elektra was on the screen. Maybe we just have a generation of writers whose go-to move for the second part of something is Empire Strikes Back, I don't know. And I'm not saying there aren't episodes in there that are good, because there's a lot of good in those shows. But they are all kind of doing the same thing, and I'm tired of it.

It was thus to my great relief and honest surprise that Daredevil's third season is about putting all the broken shit back together. From the opening credits, my secret hope was that this series would end with Foggy and Matt practicing law together again and Matt and Karen reunited. And... oh my god... I got that. Like, I unapologetically got that. And I am so stoked.

Look, everyone who watches Daredevil knows that Foggy Nelson and Karen Page are the ingredients that make the show soar. Matt is great; please do not misunderstand. Charlie does a fantastic job with the character. The action is still incredible. He totally sells every bit of that character. But Matt is still a superhero and he is bound up in all of these superhero tropes that really restrict what the character can do. A superhero in a movie or TV show must always deny they are a hero; literally, they must say, "I'm no hero," when anyone dares to call them one. They are forced to repeat things like the training montage, the suiting-up montage, or the Hero's Choice—when the hero is forced to decide between doing something good for society or something good for himself. Matt's version of this comes when he's in Fisk's bedroom and he can either stay and take Fisk by surprise and "take my one shot" at him, or flee to the church to save Karen from Bullseye. Of course, this is actually a false Hero's Choice, as so many of them are these days, because Matt at that point in the story does not simply want to defeat Fisk, he wants to kill Fisk, and so choosing to stay and fight Fisk is not, actually, pro-social, but anti-social, and so by choosing to rescue Karen and defend the church he is actually doing both something good for him and something good for society. But I digress.

My point was that Matt's screen time is restricted by all of these invisible borders, these superhero tropes which many screenwriters seem to feel are mandatory for the genre. But Foggy and Karen are so much more free, and because they don't have to jump through those hoops and perform tropes we all recognize, they seem just so much more spontaneous and real. They're more human. And we laugh with them and love them, and holy crap Foggy is getting some action on the couch. And because the show has done such a good job at making me love these characters, I want to see them all together, even if they are under duress. Breaking up their friendship and their love is just painful and awful, and we have enough of that in the world right now. I want to see the protagonists taking comfort in each other when things go to hell, not making things worse with dysfunctional accusations. I'm not asking for everything to be sweetness and light. Conflict is necessary for a good story and victory without a cost is boring. But busting up Matt/Foggy/Karen was like taking your dog out back and shooting it. It serves no good purpose and just pisses me off.

So I'm glad the show brought the band back together.

Pacing

Common Wisdom for the Marvel Netflix shows is that 13 episodes is too long, that an 8-episode season is better, that all the longer shows hit some kind of slowdown for the middle third. There is no slowdown in Daredevil. There is no mid-season slump. Partly that is because the season avoided another common plot structure in these shows, which is "introduce a secondary villain to take up the middle 4 episodes." You can see this with Nuke in Jessica Jones's first season, and you can see it with the fake-vet storyline in Punisher. (I would have much rather watched an entire show about that plot, by the way, than the torture porn which ensued once that secondary antagonist was shuffled off.) Daredevil's third season does not do this. It introduces Agent Nadeen and Bullseye slowly, warms them up, and walks them both back and forth over the line of viewer sympathy a couple of times, before finally bringing both to rousing climaxes in the last couple episodes. And it is just phenomenal television. It is so well written, people, I cannot overstate it. The first season of Daredevil ended with the most anticlimactic fight in 13 episodes; Matt was suddenly posing in his new outfit and Fisk was underwhelming and pathetic. The final confrontation of this third season puts Matt, Bullseye, Fisk, and Vanessa in a locked room with tons of interesting terrain, and then you hit the "Go!" bell and it's 15 minutes of OMG.

Politics

A final note about the Karen episode. Now, I am on record as saying that the Fisk episode from season 1, "Rabbit in a Snowstorm," is one of the best hours of television I have ever seen. So the Karen episode, in which we finally learn her story, has got some really hard competition. The show is trying to live up to that promise, both with Karen and Poindexter, and both episodes are great. But let's talk Karen again, because if there is a theme to this blog, it is that I can always talk Karen Page.

Frank Miller's Born Again reintroduced Karen Page to Matt's life, re-established her as the love of his life, and also established a sordid past for her which includes drug use and prostitution. Now, Frank Miller is kind of insane, and he glamorizes prostitution in a way that the Netflix crew were wise to stay well clear of, but moving on. The point of Karen's sordid past, from a writing and plot perspective, is that it allows her to forgive Matt for lying to her all this time because she, too, has done wrong and needs forgiveness. And when Matt forgives her and heals her, she can forgive him and heal him, because, as Vanessa puts it so sweetly, "We're all broken," and the trick is to find someone whose broken pieces complement your own broken pieces, to make one whole thing.

In the first season, Karen's past was only hinted at. And honestly, it didn't seem all that bad. We were told her brother was dead in some kind of car accident. She was clearly trying to hide it, but from here it seemed like kind of a nothingburger. It certainly didn't look anything like a former life as a junkie. And this was important to Born Again because when Karen sells Matt's secret identity, she does it for drugs. So without the drugs, it was hard to see how Karen could ever be brought to expose Matt to Fisk, which was the whole starting point for the Born Again storyline which this season of Daredevil is adapting.

But the show does everything it needs to do. Karen's youth in a dying Vermont town is as bleak and hopeless a depiction of the opioid crisis among white Americans as I have ever seen. It brilliantly brings together the facts we already knew (dead brother, car accident) with all the things we needed from the source material (drug addict),  tailored it to the Karen we have in this series (brilliant intelligence, weakness for guys who fight on her behalf, shot Wesley), and added a feminist note in the way her father simply assumes she'll deal with all the consequences of his own actions, figuring out problems and making all the decisions, in the same way her mother did before she died of cancer, her only hope a lottery ticket. I spent five years in rural America and a lot of what I saw was different, because it was the rural South instead of Vermont, but in the long trailing howl of pain, it was exactly the same.

The third season of Daredevil is about a lot of things. But make no mistake, one of those things is our political moment. The villain is a fabulously rich guy who has bought a golden hotel which he seldom leaves. He's been charged with multiple crimes but, because the federal government answers to him, is immune from prosecution. He accuses the media of spreading lies about him when, of course, every time he opens his own mouth he is lying. He quite literally beats Agent Nadeen by canceling the man's health care. When the heroes go looking for a way to put him behind bars, they go to state law enforcement and they charge him with state crimes. When they do this, their allies are always black or immigrants. Hell, look at Wilson Fisk and Donald Trump in profile, and you'd hardly be able to tell the difference except that one of them admits he has no hair and the other can't.

  • Watch Daredevil.
  • Be a voter.
  • Save America.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Hallway Fights Ep 3: Daredevil

Hallway Fights is a deep dive into the Netflix Marvel shows. With this episode, I turn to Daredevil's first season. I'm joined by Jenny Blenk, an expert on the portrayal of disability in superhero media, Graham Scott, whose experience as a journalist helps me understand Ben Urich's portrayal on the show, and Wallace Cleaves, an old friend and fellow gamer.


Friday, September 1, 2017

HALLWAY FIGHTS Ep 2

Mike Lafferty and I are joined by Jim Seals and Graham Scott to talk the conclusion of DEFENDERS. Our focus was mostly the writing and characterization. We didn't all like the show to the same degree, and Iron Fist gets a lot of shade thrown at him.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Hallway Fights Ep 1

Please join Alison Walker, Walt Robillard, and myself for the first episode of HALLWAY FIGHTS, a podcast examining Marvel's Netflix shows.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Doctor Strange

Last night I and a handful of my AMST 1102: American Identities on Film students sat down to watch Doctor Strange. I had (mostly) taken care to avoid spoilers for this film, but I had seen one-sentence reviews from the Facebook brain trust and the most common sentiment seemed to be, "Good, paint-by-numbers superhero movie." The consensus was that Marvel has made so many superhero movies that they have got the formula pretty much down, and Doctor Strange was an unremarkable exercise in executing this formula.

Well, yes and no. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

First off, let me get one thing out of the way right now. Doctor Strange disappointed me. Only in one way. I was disappointed because the Eye of Agamotto -- so lovingly portrayed on screen (it doesn't especially bother me that it's been turned into the casing for the Time Gem, one of the Infinity Stones) -- did not float up off of Strange's chest and embed itself in his forehead to become his third eye. Because, come on, that would have been awesome. I suppose I'll live.

Now that my personal crying fit is over, let's talk about how Doctor Strange does or does not spool out the patented Mighty Marvel Method. Marvel's casting about for a replacement for Robert Downey Jr as the tentpole actor for the next wave of films was clearly on display. Strange and Stark have made "facial hair bro" jokes in the comics before, or at least Tony has while Stephen played the straight man, and for me as a fan of the comics, this was perhaps the least successful part of the film. I'm going to have a hard time seeing Stephen Strange as funny. But I'd better get used to it, because the Marvel films are marked by their sense of humor, and that appears to be part of the formula.

What Strange and Stark have more in common is their status as wealthy elite, and their self-centered nature. Strange's origin story in the comics made it clear that his selfishness manifested, more than anything else, in greed: Stephen would not help people who could not afford his fee. In Doctor Strange this has been altered to a desire for fame -- and this change is not done just for the hell of it, or because someone thought it would play better, but because it links in to the film's overall exploration of immortality, the reason people want it, and the things they're willing to do to get it. Strange, like Kaecilius, was afraid of death and wanted to live forever. Strange didn't begin in the land of symbol and metaphor, the land where magic lives, so in the mundane world the closest Stephen can get to immortality is fame. I get that, and I can see why they changed his motivation from greed.

Of course, the major change to Strange's origin story is that Kaecilius is the former pupil turned follower of Dormammu, instead of Mordo. From a screenwriting standpoint, this is done so that the film can finish Kaecilius off as an antagonist at the end of the picture, his actor never to be seen again. (Quick hat tip to whoever decided to give us a quick look at the Mindless Ones, as Kaecilius and his gang are sucked up into the sky.) We can focus on Strange himself and use this film to set up Mordo as the antagonist in the sequel. We saw the same thing happening in -- of all films -- Green Lantern, in which Sinestro pretty much played the exact same role. Chiwetel Ejiotor is an excellent actor, and I can see why, once he is cast as Mordo, you would want to keep him around for as long as possible. Unfortunately, this does play into the Marvel Formula in which every hero is opposed by a bad guy who is basically identical to the hero in terms of powers. It breaks a little with the trope only in that the hero is not directly responsible for the bad guy; in this case, it's the Ancient One's willingness to break the rules which alienates Mordo and turns him against his fellow sorcerers, and not Strange himself. But I am not looking forward to a second movie in which Strange is opposed by a guy who has his same powers. That's a yawner.

And let's talk about the Ancient One, since this was the big point of disapproval for so many while the film was in development. It's not the gender-switch of the Ancient One which is relevant here -- Swinton is a great, hard working actress and she does a good job in the role, shifting from action scenes to tender moments. I really liked her last scene, again because it thwarted expectations. Everyone expects a dying character to look into the hero's eyes, say their final words, and then roll the head back and close the eyes. But the Ancient One vanished when we weren't even looking. It seems like a small way to break the formula, but I liked it nevertheless. (For the record, the best death scene in a Marvel film is the death of Dr. Erskine in the first Captain America film. Because it is silent. Tucci does not have to speak during it, because the last time we saw him -- talking with Steve at his bunk the night before the experiment -- he said what needed to be said. And so in his death scene all Tucci has to do is repeat the physical gesture he made then, and we hear the words again now. That is brilliant.)

But back to the racial issue of the Ancient One. Using a "Celtic" background for the character instead of Asian is a shame. My understanding, and I have not researched this, is that it was a move basically driven by the film's expected Chinese audience, and China's problematic relationship with Tibet. Well, I don't know about all that. But what I do know is that there's no shortage of Asian actors who could have played that part, and I don't see what the film really gained by making her vaguely British. I suppose the gang at Shamballa become more ethnically diverse, because we already have Wong to represent Asian-ness, but the move puts Wong underneath a Western sorcerer supreme and, besides, don't we have Stephen himself to fulfill the role of "ignorant white dude who is suddenly better at everything than the black and Asian dudes who have been here for years?" I'm not happy with the change. But, again, Swinton is great. So I guess if you are going to fuck with a good thing, may as well do it as well as you can. (Let's all feel pre-sorry for Wong, by the way. One of the weird changes in this movie was making Wong a sorcerer. But then, at the end, Mordo demonstrates his ability to strip magic from someone, and he announces his belief in "too many sorcerers." The writing is on the wall for poor Wong.)

What we really need to talk about, and the thing that distinguishes Doctor Strange from every Marvel film except, maybe, Guardians of the Galaxy, is its ending. This film's resolution to the central conflict throws out everything Marvel is doing not only in its own movies, but also (most of) its Netflix shows. The hero does not resolve the problem by fighting the bad guy.

This is a huge deal for me. This could have been a mediocre superhero movie and I would still have found it interesting for its ending. I suspect many people are going to see it and feel somewhat disappointed by the film, maybe even for reasons they can't articulate. It's going to seem anti-climactic. People may even call it boring. The source of all this is the way in which Stephen forces Dormammu to withdraw from Earth by trapping him in a time loop. It is a straight-up Dr Who ending, or the sort of thing you might see on Star Trek.

Which is no accident. Doctor Who has legions of fanatical followers, a majority of whom are women. Benedict Cumberbatch has never played the Doctor, but is beloved by many of the same fans, who first met him on Sherlock and now follow everything he does. What distinguishes the Doctor from traditional male-oriented action heroes is that he doesn't carry a gun, doesn't believe in violence, and usually solves his problems by outsmarting the bad guy (who, admittedly, are often not hard to outsmart). When Strange landed in the Dark Dimension twenty times, only to say, "I'm here to bargain," he may as well have been walking straight out of the TARDIS.

And the Original Series episode of Star Trek, "The Alternative Factor", straight up ends with a guy voluntarily trapping himself in an eternal wrestling move with his own evil doppleganger from another dimension in order to save our world. It's Doctor Strange except Dormammu refuses to bargain and the Enterprise just blows the whole thing up.

Earlier I already mentioned that I am tired of Marvel heroes facing evil versions of themselves. I'm also tired of this when it is depicted on screen as two CGI models fighting. We saw this more in early Marvel films: Iron Man and the Hulk are especially guilty of this, but we saw it recently in Ant-Man too. I just don't see a lot of drama in CGI. On television, Daredevil and Luke Cage still resolve their problems with a big fight in the final episode and, let's be honest, it's always anticlimactic. Daredevil's fight with Fisk at the end of the first season of Daredevil is the worst fight in the series. Marvel has worked hard to make their climaxes more interesting -- look at Thor in The Dark World (with Mjolnir chasing Thor through the dimensions) or Jessica Jones breaking Killgrave's neck. Guardians of the Galaxy is a Star Wars style CGI-fest until everyone crashes and we get the "Dance-off," which -- c'mon -- was brilliant.

But Doctor Strange has a better ending than all of those. (Well, except maybe Jessica Jones. Because watching Killgrave finally get justice was just immensely satisfying.) It is foreshadowed by the moment in which Stephen chastises Mordo for going straight to violence when "there must be another way." God in heaven, how long have we waited for a superhero to say that in a movie? Not since Richard Donner's Superman films have we had a hero committed to non-violence. And Strange is not as extreme as Christopher Reeve's Superman; he is willing to fight when he feels there's no other choice. But Stephen Strange actively seeks out that other choice, which is how he differs from Tony Stark, Thor, and Steve Rogers, from Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, or Luke Cage.

And I, for one, am glad to see that part of the formula get tossed out the window.

Doctor Strange

Last night I and a handful of my AMST 1102: American Identities on Film students sat down to watch Doctor Strange. I had (mostly) taken care to avoid spoilers for this film, but I had seen one-sentence reviews from the Facebook brain trust and the most common sentiment seemed to be, "Good, paint-by-numbers superhero movie." The consensus was that Marvel has made so many superhero movies that they have got the formula pretty much down, and Doctor Strange was an unremarkable exercise in executing this formula.

Well, yes and no. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

First off, let me get one thing out of the way right now. Doctor Strange disappointed me. Only in one way. I was disappointed because the Eye of Agamotto -- so lovingly portrayed on screen (it doesn't especially bother me that it's been turned into the casing for the Time Gem, one of the Infinity Stones) -- did not float up off of Strange's chest and embed itself in his forehead to become his third eye. Because, come on, that would have been awesome. I suppose I'll live.

Now that my personal crying fit is over, let's talk about how Doctor Strange does or does not spool out the patented Mighty Marvel Method. Marvel's casting about for a replacement for Robert Downey Jr as the tentpole actor for the next wave of films was clearly on display. Strange and Stark have made "facial hair bro" jokes in the comics before, or at least Tony has while Stephen played the straight man, and for me as a fan of the comics, this was perhaps the least successful part of the film. I'm going to have a hard time seeing Stephen Strange as funny. But I'd better get used to it, because the Marvel films are marked by their sense of humor, and that appears to be part of the formula.

What Strange and Stark have more in common is their status as wealthy elite, and their self-centered nature. Strange's origin story made it clear that his selfishness manifested, more than anything else, in greed: Stephen would not help people who could not afford his fee. In Doctor Strange this has been altered to a desire for fame -- and this change is not done just for the hell of it, or because someone thought it would play better, but because it links in to the film's overall exploration of immortality, the reason people want it, and the things they're willing to do to get it. Strange, like Kaecilius, was afraid of death and wanted to live forever. Strange didn't begin in the land of symbol and metaphor, the land where magic lives, and in the mundane world the closest Stephen can get to immortality is fame. I get that, and I can see why they changed his motivation from greed.

Of course, the major change to Strange's origin story is that Kaecilius is the former pupil turned follower of Dormammu, instead of Mordo. From a screenwriting standpoint, this is done so that the film can finish Kaecilius off as an antagonist at the end of the picture, his actor never to be seen again. We can focus on Strange himself and use this film to set up Mordo as the antagonist in the sequel. We saw the same thing happening in -- of all films -- Green Lantern, in which Sinestro pretty much played the exact same role. Chiwetel Ejiotor is an excellent actor, and I can see why, once he is cast as Mordo, you would want to keep him around for as long as possible. Unfortunately, this does play into the Marvel Formula in which every hero is opposed by a bad guy who is basically identical to the hero in terms of powers. It breaks a little with the trope only in that the hero is not directly responsible for the bad guy; in this case, it's the Ancient One's willingness to break the rules which alienates Mordo and turns him against his fellow sorcerers. But I am not looking forward to a second movie in which Strange is opposed by a guy who has his same powers. That's a yawner.

And let's talk about the Ancient One, since this was the big point of disapproval by so many while the film was in development. It's not the gender-switch of the Ancient One which is relevant here -- Swindon is a great, hard working actress and she does a good job in the role, shifting from action scenes to tender moments. I really liked her last scene, again because it thwarted expectations. Everyone expects a dying character to look into the hero's eyes, say their final words, and then roll the head back and close the eyes. But the Ancient One vanished when we weren't even looking. It seems like a small way to break the formula, but I liked it nevertheless. (For the record, the best death scene in a Marvel film is the death of Dr. Erskine in the first Captain America film. Because it is silent. Tucci does not have to speak during it, because the last time we saw him -- talking with Steve at his bunk the night before the experiment -- he said what needed to be said. And so in his death scene all Tucci has to do is repeat the physical gesture he made then, and we hear the words again now. That is brilliant.)

But back to the racial issue of the Ancient One. Using a "Celtic" background for the character instead of Asian is a shame. My understanding, and I have not researched this, is that it was a move basically driven by the film's expected Chinese audience, and China's problematic relationship with Tibet. Well, I don't know about all that. But what I do know is that there're no shortage of Asian actors who could have played that part, and I don't see what the film really gained by making her vaguely British. I suppose the gang at Shamballa become more ethnically diverse, because we already have Wong to represent Asian-ness, but the move puts Wong underneath a Western sorcerer supreme and, besides, don't we have Stephen himself to fulfill the role of "ignorant white dude who is suddenly better at everything than the black and Asian dudes who have been here for years?" I'm not happy with the change. But, again, Swindon is great. So I guess if you are going to fuck with a good thing, may as well do it as well as you can.

What we really need to talk about, and the thing that distinguishes Doctor Strange from every Marvel film except, maybe, Guardians of the Galaxy, is its ending. This film's resolution to the central conflict throws out everything Marvel is doing not only in its own movies, but also (most of) its Netflix shows. The hero does not resolve the problem by fighting the bad guy.

This is a huge deal for me. This could have been a mediocre superhero movie and I would still have found it interesting for its ending. I suspect many people are going to see it and feel somewhat disappointed by the film, maybe even for reasons they can't articulate. It's going to seem anti-climactic. People may even call it boring. The source of all this is the way in which Stephen forces Dormammu to withdraw from Earth by trapping him in a time loop. It is a straight-up Dr Who ending, or the sort of thing you might see on Star Trek.

Which is no accident. Doctor Who has legions of fanatical followers, a majority of which are women. Benedict Cumberbatch has never played the Doctor, but is beloved by many of the same fans, who first met him on Sherlock and now follow everything he does. What distinguishes the Doctor from traditional male-oriented action heroes is that he doesn't carry a gun, doesn't believe in violence, and usually solves his problems by outsmarting the bad guy (who, admittedly, are often not hard to outsmart). When Strange landed in the Dark Dimension twenty times, only to say, "I'm here to bargain," he may as well have been walking straight out of the TARDIS.

And the Original Series episode of Star Trek, "The Alternative Factor", straight up ends with a guy voluntarily trapping himself in an eternal wrestling move with his own evil doppleganger from another dimension in order to save our world. It's Doctor Strange except Dormammu refuses to bargain and the Enterprise just blows the whole thing up.

Earlier I already mentioned that I am tired of Marvel heroes facing evil versions of themselves. I'm also tired of this when it is depicted on screen as two CGI models fighting. We saw this more in early Marvel films: Iron Man and the Hulk are especially guilty of this, but we saw it recently in Ant-Man too. I just don't see a lot of drama in CGI. On television, Daredevil and Luke Cage still resolve their problems with a big fight in the final episode and, let's be honest, its always been anticlimactic. Daredevil's fight with Fisk at the end of the first season of Daredevil is the worst fight in the series. Marvel has worked hard to make their climaxes more interesting -- look at Thor in The Dark World, with Mjolnir chasing Thor through the dimensions or Jessica Jones breaking Killgrave's neck. Guardians of the Galaxy is a Star Wars style CGI-fest until everyone crashes and we get the "Dance-off," which -- c'mon -- was brilliant.

But Doctor Strange has a better ending than all of those. (Well, except maybe Jessica Jones. Because watching Killgrave finally get justice was just immensely satisfying.) It is foreshadowed by the moment in which Stephen chastises Mordo for going straight to violence when "there must be another way." God in heaven, how long have we waited for a superhero to say that in a movie? Not since Richard Donner's Superman films have we had a hero committed to non-violence. And Strange is not as extreme as Christopher Reeve's Superman; he is willing to fight when he feels there's no other choice. But Stephen Strange actively seeks out that other choice, which is how he differs from Tony Stark, Thor, and Steve Rogers, from Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, or Luke Cage.

And I, for one, am glad to see that part of the formula get tossed out the window.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Super Villain Handbook Deluxe Edition

This book is the end point of about two and a half years of work by many people, first and foremost Mike Lafferty, my friend and publisher at Fainting Goat, and Walt Robillard, who ran the successful Kickstart for the SVH and has been a constant cheerleader for the project. I am also deeply in debt to Ade Smith, who did layout, and to my amazing artists, Dionysia Jones, Jacob Blackmon, Joe Singleton, and Joseph Arnold. Quite a few others became Kickstart backers or helped out as I crowdsourced ideas; too many to name, but you know who you are and I have not forgotten you.

It feels good to hold this book in my hands. It's 220 pages, full color, and I feel a sense of accomplishment. This book is the counterpart to the Field Guide to Superheroes project I did with Vigilance Press, and both ultimately have their roots in a course on the Heroic Epic I took with Darren Miguez back in Vegas, so long ago I honestly don't remember the date.

The original list of 40 villainous archetypes didn't change too much from my initial list all those years ago, though it grew a little to include 21st century boogie-men like the Terrorist and the Evil CEO. A handful of the characters in this book were invented long ago for the Worlds of Wonder setting, but I always had more ideas for heroes in WoWo than I did villains, which is why the Field Guide to Superheroes was so easy and the Handbook took many years. I have come a long way when it comes to collaboration; I have learned to let artists design, because they do that better than me, and I have learned a bit about how to nudge concepts artists give me into something I am more enthusiastic about writing.

One of the key parts of this book is the YOUniverse, which is a setting embracing the concept of public domain. There are several public domain characters in this book, including the Black Terror, Hugo Danner, Stardust the Super-Wizard, Women in Red, Miss/Black Fury, Green Turtle, Night Bird, Wolf Savage, and even Dracula, Robur the Conqueror, Captain Hook, and the Egyptian sorceress called the Beetle. Other public domain characters -- like Sherlock Holmes, Amazing Man, and Lash Lightning -- feature in the background of these characters even if they're not personally represented. But all the 55 characters in the Handbook are public domain, even if they did not start off that way. I did this for a very specific reason: I was tired of inventing settings which, a few years later, I could not continue writing because someone else owned them. This happened with Worlds of Wonder. I didn't want to spend all that time making something and then be unable to develop it. Mike was totally supportive of the idea of making the characters public domain, which was totally against his own self-interest. I can't express how grateful I am.

The idea of including support for running super villain RPGs came from reader feedback. I was initially cold on the idea, as I prefer games in which the players cooperate and are heroic. But as I delved into the idea and read up on what other writers had done with it, I began to see how I could help GMs and players in an all-villains game. I ended up with nine different campaign models for super villain gaming, and most of them, I would totally be happy playing in.

We priced this book at $20 which, honestly, is a steal. For a book this size, with interior color art, the fair price is at least $25 and maybe $30. If you buy the print book, you also get the PDF for free (something I first saw with Evil Hat's Fate games, and loved).

If you are interested in super villains -- how they are portrayed in comics, TV and film, the stories they tell, and the symbolic meanings they embody -- I think you'll like this book. And if you're a gamer, you'll love it.

Check it out.