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Sunday 28 April 2019

The Marvel List - Why and How

Remember a time before half the journalism online was top ten lists of things that you didn't necessarily care about?

Guess who is about to contribute to the problem.

Yep, little old me.

Before we get into that. Who's your favourite superhero?

If you don't have one - you know what, this blog probably may not hold much interest for you. I won't be mad if you hit the Back button. A lot of everyone else probably thought of at least one specific superhero - and it is probably Batman or Spider-Man.

Mine's Cable.

Following that, of course - there's been a lot of movies released in the past... well, let's be honest, forty years... that have followed the antics of at least one superhero and their respective villain or foil. I can predict that, if you have a favourite superhero, you may well have a favourite superhero movie.

It might even be Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, like mine.

They are, after all, a billion-dollar business. Some of the biggest earning movies in decades - 7 of the top 20 grossing movies in the past ten years, all but one of which were Marvel movies. Even if you don't read comics or care about them much, you have to acknowledge their success.

I mean, they're successful enough that there is an entire personality sub-trait which is "sneering at superhero movies", because, you know. Why not.

So - those who are still on board - you have a favourite superhero movie. Probably you have several more, and if pressed, you could arrange them into a list of sorts. Right?

The List - the capitalisation is necessary - actually came about as I was trying to work out what movies one needed to watch before they went in to see Avengers: Endgame.

I've always been more of a Marvel fan than a DC fan. The selection just interests me more. In terms of comics, it isn't like the two companies are as vastly different as their movie releases have been. That's a real polarising agent, right there. The gulf is wide.

So The List started as the master list for Marvel movies that had to be seen before Endgame, which I was compiling in chronological order in-universe. It's not Star Wars - you don't need to skip around that order to find the best time to reveal certain things. You can just watch it as it happened in the timeline. 

Then when I had that list in front of me, I decided to do something different with it.

I decided to stick them in order of preference. Not order of quality, of objective film-making talent and skill, or anything like that - literally, in order of those that I would rather watch in an either-or situation.

So I shifted them around, I moved them into the places I felt comfortable with them being, and it was as I was looking at the top three that I realised there were films missing - and the only way to fix that, was to properly define what a Marvel movie is.

This is gonna get nerdy.

So technically speaking, Iron Man is the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - movies pretty much made by Marvel Studios. Iron Man being the first one, it was in production for a long time before Marvel Studios bought the rights back in the mid-2000s. But we all know full well that Tony Stark is a Marvel character, right? Like, Kirby and Lee concocted him in the mid-sixties. (A grossly simplified history, I know.)

Except those movies officially released by Marvel Studios aren't the only Marvel movies, those being, movies featuring characters that are part of Marvel comics. That throws the doors wide open, which necessitates a bit of a restriction - when we say "movies", we mean anything with a cinematic release. Not straight-to-DVD, not a TV movie.

That means we not only get to include the Main 22 - everything from Iron Man in 2008 forwards to Avengers: Endgame - but also the unexpected smash Spider-Verse, which as I mentioned was my favourite. It means we include the Ang Lee Hulk movie put out in 2003. It means including the rest of the Sony Spider-Man movies - the three featuring Tobey Maguire, and the two featuring Andrew Garfield. It means including all three Fantastic Four movies, the two cheesy ones featuring a pre-Captain America Chris Evans and the new darker DC-like one.

It means the X-Men movies. All of them. From the first one, through the weird reboot of First Class and Days Of Future Past, through to Logan and Apocalypse (and the forthcoming Dark Phoenix). It means including Deadpool and its sequel. It means Daredevil and Elektra. It means all three Blade movies. It means Ghost Rider and Punisher, and their respective sequels.

It means Big Hero 6, which is a Disney movie, but based on Marvel characters. It means the really rather bad Captain America movie from 1990, starring JD Salinger's son (no, really). It means the Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie from 1989, which is as bad as you might expect.

It means Howard the Duck.

Further surprises come in the form of the Kingsman and Kick-Ass movies, both of which were published under Icon Comics, an imprint of Marvel that seems mostly dedicated to letting Mark Millar publish whatever he wants. It also includes Men In Black - originally published by Aircel, which was bought out by Malibu, which was bought out by Marvel.

So what I have is a list of Marvel movies, sixty-one of them thus far, and they have been arranged in order from 1 to 61 - in order of which I would rather watch. That is as technical as the listing got, simple but effective, and utterly lacking in any kind of real objectivity. And still, at times, the fight between movies in consecutive spaces has been a little...


There's several I haven't seen yet. I am working on fixing that. What this list has given me is an appreciation for the Marvel movies which are actually well-made - you really don't have a true love for the superb fight choreography in Captain America: The Winter Soldier until you've had to watch Dolph Lundgren trying to be Frank Castle. You forget just how good a Spider-Man Tom Holland is until you watch Andrew Garfield. I mean, bless him, he tried, but. It's just no comparison.

I haven't seen Logan yet. Which is a sin, I know - but I intend on fixing that this weekend. It won't go on the list until I have seen it but I predict it will go in pretty high. I also haven't seen X-Men Apocalypse (ugh) or the sequel to Ghost Rider (UGH) but, again, I will fix that. I don't predict them being quite as high on the list as Logan.

I will spare you the entire list - though if anyone wants to see it, I will put it together and publish it in a comment here. What I will share with you, though, is a couple of the salient points. Remember, this is just my opinion.
  • The top five are Spider-Verse, Homecoming, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Thor: Ragnarok. There's not much I'd rather watch than Carole Danvers beating the piss out of literally anything, and those few things are mostly Spider-Man related.
  • Infinity War comes in at 17 out of 61 - Endgame got in at 9. They were both better movies than I thought they were going to be, even if they have their structural problems.
  • Only three actual MCU movies sit in the bottom third of the list. That bottom third is mostly composed of bad Fox movies.
  • I really, really am not a fan of the X-Men or the Fantastic Four.
So... why does this list even get maintained? What's the point? Why do book-keeping on stuff which is meant to be fun and enjoyable escapism?

Because it has given me new eyes to look at media that had previously been taken for granted. It gave me a framework to enjoy this new batch of movies in. It reminded me of where we've come from, of places we can go. If you look at the sheer amount of improvement in actual film-making standards in between the 90s Captain America and Chris Evans' performance, it's like a whole different world. It's also a great excuse to go back and watch some old favourites that I haven't seen in a while.

And because - frankly - it gives us something to talk about.

...of course, that means that at some point, I'm going to need to do a DC list...

...but maybe I'll save that for a rainy month.

If you'd care to share my blog with your friends, I'd appreciate that! If you'd like to thank me in a fiscal form for entertaining you a little bit, I do have a Patreon right here, but please - no pressure. Thank you for reading, and check my social media to the right to keep in touch.

Sunday 21 April 2019

Boldly Going

Warning - ahead will lay spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery.

For a long time Deep Space Nine was my favourite Star Trek series.

This was mostly because it was the one that was least... you know... Trek. It was often about complicated political scenarios involving multiple different state and non-state actors that were not necessarily bad guys or good guys. Even if the show was sometimes set up to make them look that way - like, I'll rattle on endlessly about the kinda racist symmetry between Trek races and their real-world counterparts.

It had a Captain that wasn't really a Captain - and Sisko was the best Captain, even if he wasn't one until later. It had a great support cast. It didn't subscribe to the Federation being the absolute best and everyone else being various shades of worse. It openly held up a magnifying glass to the Federation and showed its flaws for all to see.

Because, honestly, the Federation kind of bores me.

It all just kind of reeks of a big pat on the back, for no apparent reason. It seems to be what people think will be the victory, the endgame, while also being... really bland, for a government that actively encourages constant improvement of artistic pursuits.

It all seems a bit... hollow.

Enter Star Trek: Discovery.

This show is... was... fantastic.

The last episode of the two seasons it has run for aired on Thursday night, I only caught it last (Saturday) night. So the finale is fresh in my mind, and boy howdy, was it an actual... finale.

But I get ahead of myself.

What do I like about Discovery?

Characters, for one. I don't remember a TV show any time in the recent past wherein I have genuinely enjoyed seeing every single character that shows up. I literally found myself thinking - and in some cases saying - "I love her" once every couple of minutes. That is genuinely good character writing, exceptional casting, superb acting. I almost always find someone I hate seeing on screen. This time round - not a one. There is nobody I inwardly groaned at seeing when they showed up.

The main character not being a Captain is a nice twist. It means a natural focus split in each episode. Following Michael Burnham (a black woman being the lead in a Star Trek series, YES) and the Captain in question (it changes a few times in the series) doesn't feel weird, and it doesn't feel like we're being forced to catch up with the B Team every time the A Team requires a time skip.

Burnham is a masterclass in finesse. Every bit of her behaviour is believable. Every motivation she has is clear. Sonequa Martin-Green was not handed an easy role in portraying her. Full human by birth, adopted by a certain Vulcan who married a human, raised Vulcan, she is at times remarkably understated and at times hell-raisingly intimidating. She is brilliant and warm and stubborn and competent and fallible - like any good main character, she contains absolute multitudes. It makes her a good foil to the Captains she serves under - both on the Discovery and (during the pilot) the Shenzhou.

And those Captains...

Herein is the spoilery bit. This is your last chance to turn back.

Captain Gabriel Lorca.

You know this guy gives you the genuine creeps from the very beginning. There's something just not right about him. Just not right. He comes across like a caged predator the entire time. Jason Isaacs absolutely owns this role. Look at him. Whenever he is on screen he devours the competition like a snack. Just menacing enough to keep you guessing but never so overtly menacing as to make you overtly question...

...until it turns out that he's a runaway war criminal from a mirror universe and he has lied, cheated, stolen and murdered his way here. And then it all makes perfect sense. PERFECT sense. Also, congratulations to the writers of the first season of Discovery for making the mirror universe actually have a point.

And that point isn't just having Ensign Tilly, who is MY FAVOURITE, get dolled up as a warrior queen to talk to the emperor of the galaxy.

Hi, Tilly.

So then the second season comes around, after some dramatic real-world events that resulted in the writers being changed - and the series does take a different direction. So rather than having Saru continue as acting Captain, events transpire that lead to a whole different individual sitting in the chair...

Captain Christopher Pike.

I have a new favourite Captain.

Pike is charming, witty, down to earth, competent, friendly. He's all the good things from all the other Captains that you like so much. He is also an inspired bit of casting - Anson Mount looks a LOT like the various and sundry other individuals that have played Pike prior to now.  Unlike the other times he has shown up, in Discovery, you actually get to see him shine.

Shine he does. He steps up to the role of taking care of Discovery with a degree of charisma that would make Kirk jealous, a consideration for his crew that Janeway could learn from, and a pragmatic approach to solving problems that Picard might benefit from. And something something Archer. I dunno. The thing is - due to the way the plot spins out, Pike demonstrates... actual legitimate heroism. I'm not going to go into detail about it, but suffice to say, he shows more genuine deep-in-the-bone moral courage than I think I've ever seen in the Federation.

Then there's Phillipa Georgiou. Captain Phillipa Georgiou, of the Shenzhou.

...or Emperor Phillipa Georgiou, of the Terran Empire.


Michelle Yeoh must have had such a good time playing two such different people. She spends a lot more time in the latter role than the former, but - boy, is she good at it. To be effectively a peaceful philosopher for two episodes, dedicated to the Federation and that which it stands for - and to then be this barbaric, sadistic, ruthless killer? Brilliant.

If only there was more time. If only I could waffle endlessly about how much I love the whole cast. About how an already-solid group of individuals is further swollen by the plot of the second season.

But if I spent all that time talking about the people, I wouldn't spend any time talking to you about the plot, which was friggin' great. It had continuity. Continuity! Can you even imagine!? It had a point! It made sense! It had time travel and dimension hopping in it and still made sense!

I also wouldn't be able to spend any time talking about the cinematography. Now... this show got into a spot of hot water because it went over-budget in several areas, early on in production. I, personally, saw all of it on screen. It looked gorgeous. How many TV shows leave you complimenting the cinematography of a single shot aloud? Let alone multiple different shots in the same sequence? It looks great - and it should look great, it's a TV show. It's FOR the eyes. Right? It's for people to look at.

Nor would I have the time to get into the subtler aspects of the show. We've been seeing this particular bit of the intro sequence for two whole seasons now:

...and only in the final episode of the second season to we actually grasp what this means.

Admittedly the show does actually feature this as a thematic, throughout. Things being so very close, but not quite. Reaching out, and not necessarily quite covering that final distance. Always being within grasp, but never grasping.

Then it really happens.

I won't go into detail. I will just give you one line:

"I won't lose you. I only just got you back."

In short: watch Star Trek Discovery. It's great. If you can make it through the first four episodes, you can make it through the rest. And you will find someone, or multiple someones, that just light up your world by being on that screen.

And hey, you might even start liking Trek again.

I did.

If you'd care to share my blog with your friends, I'd appreciate that! If you'd like to thank me in a fiscal form for entertaining you a little bit, I do have a Patreon right here, but please - no pressure. Thank you for reading, and check my social media to the right to keep in touch.

Saturday 13 April 2019

A Battle Most Royale

Society is a funny old thing.

It takes concepts, see - and it chews them up and it spins them around, and it mixes them, and remixes them, and spits them back out. It takes things and puts those things through various processes, until such a time as it can do something with it. Some parts of society take things from other parts. If you want a great example of this, listen to some blues, then listen to Elvis. Some things get appropriated, and some of those things get appropriated across cultures. (That's a different blog.)

Sometimes, shit gets turned around in such an awful way, that a thing created for a specific purpose leads to the total antithesis of that purpose.

Strap yourselves in.

1999, and Koushun Takami's first and only novel - penned after leaving his journalism job three years earlier - reaches the shelves. That novel is named Battle Royale.

Yes, that Battle Royale. The best-seller, that got turned into a Manga by Takami himself, that was then adapted into a movie in 2000, which also spawned a sequel in 2003.

A lot of folks will be aware of the story already. It is set in a dystopian alternate-history Japan, which won the second world war and became a brutal fascist dictatorship. The military runs a program wherein fifty students a year are kidnapped, dropped onto an island, and forced to fight - to kill each other until only one remains.

The reasons why? Well, that's what the novel is really about. You see - what Battle Experiment Number 68 is allegedly meant to do, is to act as an exercise to help the military and government understand survival training. What it is really for, is to highlight just how easy it is for the government to order people's deaths in cruel and unusual ways. It is a stark symbol of just how cruel such an organisation can be. Not just executing 49 teenagers a year - no, actually making teenagers that know each other execute each other. Horrible, when you think about it.

I think it is probable that Takami wanted this to be a warning. As much as it was an exploration of the psychology of people forced into an awful situation, it was also an indictment of the treatment of individuals under a fascist regime. The actual personal cost of measures and actions put in place to have wider repercussions. What brutality comes to mean, to those underneath its boot.

(Fun fact: the historical context of the phrase Battle Royale is a "battle fit for royalty" - and was usually a grand melee, fought between a large number of combatants, to entertain the powers that be. Take note.)

The next big stop on this road map is pretty obvious.

The Hunger Games was released in 2008, with sequels Catching Fire and Mockingbird following in 2009 and 2010 - each of which were made into movies in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively. Author Suzanne Collins claims that she hadn't even heard of Battle Royale until after the book had gone to print, a claim that I am inclined to believe.

The setting is a science fiction dystopia named Panem, divided into thirteen districts that surround a central capitol. Each district (aside from the thirteenth for plot reasons) has two "tributes" picked as representatives - initially by lottery but anyone can volunteer - to compete in a 24-person grand melee, the winner (survivor) of which wins extra rations for their impoverished district.

Again, it is as much as demonstration of the capitol's power and callousness - and control over their citizenry - as it is a practical contest. It is a reminder of what can happen to the citizens of the districts if they were to ever rebel against the government - the games themselves were started after a rebellion that occurred 75 years before the events of the book.

(Fun fact: the phrase bread and circuses, to imply a shallow appeasement of the masses through exploitative entertainment, is from the Latin, panem et circenses. Great name for a dictatorship.)

The arc of the two Battle Royale movies isn't dissimilar to the Hunger Games story, in terms of the means by which the governments control their citizens forming the crucible in which the rebellion is forged. As much a warning to the dictators as to those dictated to. From the beginning, we are shown - this is not okay, this is how a society abuses you, and something that must be fought against. And at the end, we are shown - you will reap what you sow.

With its popularity - among a specific age bracket - it would only be a matter of time before the thematic of the Hunger Games would find itself represented in video game format. Sure enough, it happened.

The Minecraft Hunger Games servers first started up halfway through 2012. Minecraft being the runaway success of the decade, the Hunger Games mod attracted a significant player base - especially after several youtubers took up playing it.

In a game like Minecraft, there is no notion of realism. There's little to no backstory to the situation; there's no history of oppression, no knowledge that this isn't normal, and no true stakes for failure. The people you are killing and out-scavenging are still going to be your friends and colleagues later, probably.

So the warnings that ride with Battle Royale and Hunger Games just don't occur.

Which is why the game format - a grand melee with only one winner - appeals a lot... as several game releases over the following seven years demonstrate.

Minecraft Hunger Games was a modification of an existing game, as were the Battle Royale mods for Arma II and Arma III. More youtube activity, of course - Arma (severely propped up by DayZ) drew in a significant audience for just how wide and broad its gameplay could be. The player models were more realistic, of course - but then, it was still divided from the original concept by the lack of external context.

So the entire notion of battle royale gameplay was firmly cemented before the first dedicated game on the topic was released.

It plays a lot like Arma. Sure. It looks super generic. Sure. That's the point. It was coded by the same PlayerUnknown that made the Arma II Battle Royale mod. It was meant to capitalise on the demand for the gametype. X players drop in, kill X-1 of their competitors, and then achieve a winner winner chicken dinner or whatever it was. Teamwork became a big thing, too - pairs or fours.

It is a style of gameplay that appeals, of course. One can technically do very well without having to be exceptionally skilled. As long as you aren't one of the first however many to die, all you need do is land one of the last few kills, and you can be a winner - and winning against odds like that (or perceived odds like that) can be a huge motivator to try again.

The thing was, that when you have played through it about... a dozen times? That generic graphical outlay can be a real killer. When you see how other games in 2017 were released that actually looked great, and distinctive, and stood out from their peers - it couldn't compete.

Not when this showed up, anyway.

Yeah you knew it was coming, suck it up.

A game mode cobbled up and bolted onto an already existing game idea, one could easily call Fortnite's Battle Royale mode as a cheap cash-in. One would have to understand that basically every response to market demand is the same thing, so - you know, just another sin of Capitalism.

Very few people with access to the internet, or any media at all, are unaware of Fortnite - and almost always, they are aware of the Battle Royale mode. Free to play, if treated right and marketed well, can draw in a significant player base - and Fortnite succeeded by becoming meme-bait.

The graphical style is so different from PUBG, so outstanding and cartoonish, almost looking like original World of Warcraft in its proportions. The construction mechanic adds another layer, too; though perhaps the existence of vehicles in PUBG could have proven to be a competitive factor, that has since been countered by Fortnite's own addons and expansion material.

It once more drags the game away from the realistic, away from the dystopian stakes of its fictional forebears. It is a zany environment in which one is literally dropped out of the back of a bus into the battleground.

It saw a lot of derision from "serious" gamers, though. (How I hate typing that out, but it's true. That is how they see themselves.) Because kids enjoyed it, and because it was free to play, and you aren't a SRS GMR if you don't pay a shit ton of money for a game and it doesn't look super serious. So what would follow that kind of attitude?

Here we go, this is more my speed.

Apex Legends is much the same as the others, except for several key differences. One is that the players have several choices of character, each with their own special abilities and fantastic designs, much like Overwatch or similar games. It doesn't totally change playstyle, but slightly. Also - you are locked into three-person teams. The map size, compared to the other games previously featured, appears to be immense.

Thematically, there are differences too. Apex Legends is set up as a literal arena sport. No being forced, no threat of consequences. Those who participate are hoping to be - as the title implies - the apex of their art, the legends of their world.

This one is my personal favourite out of any of the other previously-listed games, it bears mention. It is probably obvious. I just love the individual character and weapon design, and its imagining as a professional tournament sport. Also, the technological aspect appeals - if someone dies then they can be reconstituted and brought back by in-game mechanic, rather than just being totally out of the game.

This brings us up to the present...and the original point of this blog.

We started with Battle Royale, 20 years ago - telling us that this is an awful thing to do to people, that they are victims of an abusive fascist state and this should never be allowed to happen in reality.

And then...

The full article is here. You can find another take on it here, and here.

I don't think I need to go into it any further than that, do I?

Fuck the human race, I want off this ride.

If you'd care to share my blog with your friends, I'd appreciate that! If you'd like to thank me in a fiscal form for entertaining you a little bit, I do have a Patreon right here, but please - no pressure. Thank you for reading, and check my social media to the right to keep in touch.

Sunday 7 April 2019

When The Well Is Dry

Sometimes it is hard to get the creative juices flowing - and sometimes, that's because there aren't any to flow.

I'm sure everyone I know who creates stuff has been here, has known this feeling - and I am right in that position right now. Lacking the wherewithal or the oomph or whatever you want to call it to commit words to paper.

One of the worst feelings is having that itch in your fingertips, knowing what you want, knowing that you want to put your ideas down on paper - but lacking the impetus, lacking the words perhaps. Maybe lacking the guts of the actual idea, just the vague shell that it is going to occupy when it ends up in situ.

I get this a lot.

Luckily enough, I'm not relying on the writing to pay my bills. I can only imagine how much more difficult it is to maintain the impetus and continue to produce decent work when on a deadline.

There's a lot going on in the world to distract us, good and bad. Movies, music, so on, so forth. The continuous barrage of greed and cronyism seeping out of our governing institutions. Many, many things that offer distracting alternatives to ramming our heads into the same creative brick wall.

So perhaps that is the answer. Go do something else for a while. It's a suggestion I offer to people - if suffering from serious writer's block or anything similar, just get up, take a walk, listen to some music, play some video games, cleanse the proverbial palate.

What happens when you sit down afterwards and you are still dry?

Well, that's when you start thinking about why you might be lacking. What things have impacted you recently? What's got you down, what's got you stressed? Could that be something you use? Something you can work into your art, or something you can rail against? A catalyst, one way or another?

Try something new? Try making something better, different? Try a total departure from your usual modus operandi, something - as Monty Python's Flying Circus says - completely different?

What if that doesn't work?

Then I suppose we're left with half a blog, and twice as many questions as usual.

But hey, there's worse places to be.

Sorry for the weak angle, folks. Normal service next week.

If you'd care to share my blog with your friends, I'd appreciate that! If you'd like to thank me in a fiscal form for entertaining you a little bit, I do have a Patreon right here, but please - no pressure. Thank you for reading, and check my social media to the right to keep in touch.