Category: Superheroes

Luke Cage

First of all, I am legitimately not, in any way, an expert on the greater contextual and cultural significance of Luke Cage, the series, as it pertains to blackness in America. I am no expert, nor am I even in a position to be an expert. If you’d like to read a take about blackness in Luke Cage and its first four episodes, check out these pieces on Women Write About Comics: They are better informed and better aware than anything I have to say. They do touch on something that I see in the other Marvel series, but we’ll get onto that when we get there.

I’m not only not black, I’m not only not black but in a culture that has dominated and oppressed black people. I’m not only not black and part of a culture that dominated and oppressed black people, I’m not even in the right culture that’s dominated and oppressed the black people that Luke Cage is all about. I am, simply put, nobody on that topic. Go read those posts, they taught me stuff, and crystallised some realisations. I do not think Luke Cage is a work that should be looked to as an example of How To Write Blackness.

As best I can see, Luke Cage is a work of media that wants its blackness to be palatable to whiteness and is willing to simplify things to do that. I don’t hold it against anyone in the show on that front, I just see that as a byproduct of being made by businesses that ultimately don’t want to piss off white people too much. Yet, that’s not a perspective I’d have come to on my own.

Nonetheless, no work is a single expression; while the greater throughline and message of Luke Cage can ring hollow, while it is a show that has as said, forgotten the face of its father there are still things, I’d say smaller things, in this series that I think are good ideas, good things for storytellers to reach out and learn from. Telling stories is hard, telling great stories is incredibly hard – you take whatever tools you can get from whatever source you can get ’em.

However, that stuff is more… fiddly. So let’s put it after a jump.


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Daredevil — Season 2: This Got Silly

Season 1 of Daredevil was a fairly tight, coherent narrative that had a great big mystery to establish, and a story point it wanted to build to. There was the twin arcs together of Wilson Fisk ascending to his status as the Kingpin, and Matt Murdock becoming the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Good work, rounded well, mesh ’em together and you have a solid structure to fill in with incidents and plans and ideas and stuff.

Season 2 did not have any such singular narrative and instead spent all its energy on world-building and narrative construction that was going to matter later. It wanted you to know about Elektra, about Frank Castle, and about yes, finalising the book-keeping of the ascent of Wilson Fisk. There was also some attempt to make the Hand more prominent, to put Madame Gao in position, and to tie up and resolve the question of Nobu, as a character.

What you get as a result is a TV series that has a lot to get done, but almost nothing to say. Instead, the show tries to give you a whirlwind tour of important things while giving you almost nothing to make them hold together?

As with last time, no plot synopsis; no episode by episode rundown. What I’m going to talk about are things the series tried to do, to give you both a potentially interesting insight into the series, maybe a hit of media analysis, or just a way to continue experiencing something you already like. I guess you could also frame this as is there stuff in this that’s enjoyable, if I bother to think about it?

So, content warning about the violence and child death in the series and also spoilers after this cut.
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The Fundamental Superpower

More than anything else, invulnerability is the centerpiece of the superhero genre.

There are characters who can fight other people, characters who can beat opponents, characters who can shoot opponents, characters who can talk others down, plan things around them, characters who can present lethal force and characters who can present nonlethal force, but when there is a character – a heroic character – who walks through what the enemies do, unharmed, when they do not need to fear the people who can do all the others, that is the genesis of the story space that goes towards superheroes.

And what’s more, that invulnerability creates a new moral impetus. Suddenly, when a character is safe, when a character is beyond harm, there becomes a question of what to do with that personal safety? How many stories are about characters who are functionally immune to harm who idle around and boredly don’t do things?

This is one of those things Luke Cage does that I really love. There’s one scene, just the first scene where we’re shown his invulnerability, in action, in practice, and watching the physics-defying nonsense of two people trying to punch and hurt Luke and the action slows and stops and suddenly you just revel in the moment of our protagonist being utterly unhurt.

Daredevil — Season 1: Arcs In Red

With the Defenders arriving, I wanted to take some time to walk back through the Marvel series that made it up and see what I really felt about these things. I really like having access to some binge media I can have running alongside other tedious tasks like data entry or design management.

The arc of these series to me start with Jessica Jones, then Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. I watched one episode of Jessica Jones and immediately checked out. Maybe I’ll go back to it if Defenders gives me a stronger anchor to the character. What that means is that the first Netflix hero I really watched, and thought about was the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, Matt Murdock himself.

You’re not going to see plot synopsese here, or rundowns episode by episode. That’s for other people to do and do better than me. What we’re doing here is a conversation about what the series tried to do, what the story was about, and things about how the story lingered in my memory after it got made.

I’m personally of the opinion that when you talk about ‘themes’ and ‘concepts’ in a work you might be seeing something the work does that wasn’t necessarily put there by the people making it. That’s fine: That’s its own conversation for later, but the basic gist is that whether or not it was put there, if I can find it and justify it, it is still there enough. We all bring our interpretations to the work, and what we find satisfying or interesting matters to us.

There will be content warning about the violence and child abuse in the series, a brief attempt by a person without autism discussing something of autism, and also spoilers after this cut, so here, we, go! Continue reading

No Capes!

You ever see something you fundamentally disagree with become the like, unifying meme of a realm of art and media culture that the people who repeat it literally have no opinions about? Like, you get to see as people who don’t care and don’t understand just parrot an opinion that you know is wrong but they also have no idea or framework for explaining or talking about why it’s wrong so if you shouted at them you’d be the asshole?

Yeah, Edna Mode sucks.

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Suicide Squad’s First Seventeen Minutes Are Garbage

Image result for suicide squad

I consume a fair bit of critical pop media, like reviews for movies I haven’t seen or don’t intend to see. Part of this is convenient – it’s free – and part of it is that I like to look at work in terms of the ideas that go into it rather than necessarily their execution. One movie that got an absolute beating last year from everyone in my critical circle was Suicide Squad.

I sort of wondered why I hadn’t seen any ninety-minute piece-by-piece dismantling of the thing. The longest form critique of it I’d seen from anyone is Dan Olson who talked about it specifically in terms of editing, something that’s clearly his area of expertise. But the normal sources that dredge into these works and really stomp around on the details seemed to just let Suicide Squad go.

I thought that was kinda weird, and when Netflix sent me an email telling me I could watch Suicide Squad now, I took that insult as a personal challenge. Maybe it’d be interestingly bad.

Turns out, no, and I learned why it didn’t get that big ole teardown I was expecting from anyone. It’s too dense.

You can go through this movie in terms of plot beats and just kick each of them around for being bad or badly set up or morally incoherent or diegetically nonsensical or breaking disbelief or any of that. Not hard, not hard at all – the entire movie can be summarised as different types of bad decision. But what really surprised me is in the seventeen minutes of utter horse-butt garbage I watched, was how densely packed it was with really basic bad decisions. And some of those bad decisions were dizzying.

The opening of Suicide Squad is just watching two squad members get randomly abused by their prison guards – just two of them. Two of them out of context, which would, conventionally, suggest that these are the focal characters. Right there, you have a structural problem; why two and why just two? If it was just Deadshot, for example, you could see him being treated as the focal character, the one they have to introduce into the squad to explain things to, and use him as a Watson-like lens. But instead they introduce both Deadshot and Harley Quinn, and then don’t go on to the rest of the squad with this same structure. One, two, – fphhhhpt.

There’s a reason movies do things in threes. Threes form pleasant structure. You can even tell a little story with three – the establisher, the twist, and the counterpoint, for example. A dynamic group can be easily made with three. But instead we get two, and it just so happens to be the two who are by all accounts the best things in the movie. Thing is, there’s some surprisingly detailed flashback stuff which uh, look, if you show me a beautiful woman getting a tube stuck up her nose in that kind of detail in a movie, director, I am going to assume this is some Quentin Tarantino feet thing. You don’t need to show that, you can just cut it and move on to the next thing.

And then skinny Amanda Waller walks in through the door in a different scene and… and…

I thought I could get through the first seventeen minutes explaining bad decisions this movie makes.

I was wrong.

I haven’t gotten past the first five minutes.

This movie is really, really bad.

“Who You Are” Stories

Once I wrote that in superhero stories ‘what you do’ isn’t important, but ‘who you are’ stories are. The notion that when presented with a bomb in a school, every single superhero was going to try and stop it, but the question of what happened should be presented in terms of showing something of the character of that superhero. Did they rush? Did they flag? Did they try to absorb the bomb’s explosion with their body? Did they do that, and survive? Was the challenge finding the bomb, or was it in an elaborate disassembling scene? Was it dealing with super-heightened PTSD from Scarecrow Serum and the time they were trapped in a school as a child?

But never ever doubt that yes indeed: The hero is going to stop the bomb.

If the central character can be described as ‘going to a location, being powerful, leaving’ then that’s all there is to them and I get bored. That’s because altercations and interactions should be opportunities for the character to show me something of themselves, to deliver the dialogue in their way, to give me some feeling of connection to or understanding of what it is like being them, in these heightened situations. Merely being powerful isn’t what makes any individual character cool, it’s how you learn about who they are that does. And then, when you do that, make the person you’re showing me an interesting person worth empathising with on some level.

The Day Without Crime

On December 1, a few moments past midnight, the new day dawning, 2012, City of Heroes shut down.

For some of us, it was the middle of the night. For some of us, it’d been the afternoon. Fox and I had climbed to the top of a Kings Row skyscraper, as Backbeat and Harlem, who stood there waiting for the moment the server shut down. We didn’t know what to expect. Didn’t know what it’d be like. Would chunks of the sky corrupt? Would the game client continue on dumbly, unaware of what happened? Would the world end with a bang, or a whimper?

The last words I saw in that game, in that space where I had spent six years of my life, was the shouting of Backbeat, towering and fierce fist-fighting woman who had raged in the name of love, was

This
Is
My
City.
It was three years ago, today. We stood, numb, in the wreckage. A gang of roleplayers, who had connections outside the game, tangling up on Formspring, in chat programs, in private communiques and emails, a interconnected patchwork quilt of people who didn’t know they knew each other or what they meant to one another, but able to trace threads of red and blue to one another.

And the story went on.

It had to. Did we just shut down what we’d created when the game was gone? Some of us did. Some of us just straight up shuttered the accounts the second the game ended. Others, like me, didn’t want to surrender. We’d been melancholy since the announcement, since we’d learned our time was limited. People had been going out and patrolling less. There were fewer people touting their achievements. Everything had the pallor of a doomed world.

I had written a book-of-sorts as the game closed. The denouments of over forty heroes, the incidents that came after the game ended, as their stories continued. Some happily-ever-afters. Some new chapters. A eulogy for something I’d loved. I always saw myself as caring about the world and wanting to make it feel real. For my actions to have an impact in a shared, communal playspace, and for other people to find it easier to believe those things happened. It was a work, and I loved doing it. People did patrols, and they did things, and we spoke about it as if it was a task that needed doing. When someone played a lot one day, I spoke of it as if there had been a spike in activity, that they were responding to a problem. Double XP weekends were ‘black weekends’ – times when there were multiple culminating plans and plots, ruining so many things all at once.

What did it mean, then, that on December 1, nobody logged on?

That’s when I, in our little magic circle of shared storytelling, used the characters I had to share one more story. That after years – in some cases decades – of patrolling and pushing and fighting against the forces of evil in Paragon City, there had been finally, one day – one day – without a single reported incident of a crime to the police. That villainy had been beaten back enough, that there was some respite. We had done some good. We had made things, at least a bit, better for our little world.

The group fragmented, splintered, and dissolved after that. I moved on, as I had to. My friends moved on to other things. We tried other superhero RP venues, but to my eye, they all fell apart. They just didn’t work. I don’t know why, per se. They just didn’t click. Maybe I’m too fussy, maybe other people just do their own thing and I’m not in it.

But December 1 is a day when something that mattered to me, enormously, died. And it began the not-that-slow death of a community that followed after it.

Man of Steel – The Cruel Pacifist

Much was made of the Christian overtones of Man of Steel, to the point where the movie was advanced-screened to some churches, a point that some folk got outraged about but really just seemed silly to me. Thing is, after it came out – and sucked – I gave it a cursory examination, read some script excerpts, saw the critical reaction, the advertising and figured I wanted nothing to do with it. Then the greater analyses came out and wow was I justified in my observations of this piece of crap, this Jesus-as-Judge extrahuman narrative ordained by human military powers.

Today, I want to talk to you about one particular scene in the building of this narrative, because it’s an incompetently constructed sign of a fundamental misunderstanding of Superman the character and Superman the narrative. Continue reading

Batman’s Gospel

Batman is something of a weirdo legacy character these days, a fanfiction accumulation, an acretion of discarded shapes layered around a core, more dead cells of previous incarnations than anything of his own current incarnation. He is a comics history stool.

What I think is telling is how close and how easily we come to violating the gospels of these characters, gospels that are themselves very young. Specifically, it’s a point of comic book nerd lore that Batman does not use guns. This is of course nonsense: Batman has used guns plenty of times in the past before this idea was established, and since, and Batman’s use of other forms of weaponry that are gun-like is plenty common and Batman deals in a universe where there are numerous threats that could not give a thundering toss about a strong acrobat without a gun, and it’s not like guns are in the universe he’s dealing with hard to come by or ineffectual. Or even, against some of the things he faces, particularly threatening or lethal. Batman’s aversion to guns is fairly non-diegetic, something that the authors imposed because of the values of our own world and don’t really follow through on in their own spaces either. It’s not even a value universally accepted either. Batman is now riding around in a tank with a fucking rocket launcher on the top in the middle of cities, you can’t tell me that’s ‘no guns.’ Guns would make sense in his universe, and he’s an American. Hell, he doesn’t care about property rights or privacy rights, but guns? Nah, no guns. These days, Batman is okay with torture, and rocket launchers, but not guns.

Similarly, Batman is rich – he owns Wayne enterprises and pretty much always has. Thing is, once upon a time, Batman’s net worth was that of a 1950s business owner and his gear, the array of toys he had were all improbable things that didn’t really work. So we priced them in the same way you’d price boxing gloves on sticks, they just kinda were. You could probably imagine them as being expensive things but they weren’t the same kind of expensive things. The Batmobile is probably the biggest piece of weirdo hardware and then it was usually a very stylised sports vehicle. It wasn’t like now – when Batman is literally piloting a tank in the information age. These days, where conspicuous consumption is even more common, when brands make a point of what they’re worth and what they do, we’re practically expected to work out what it would cost for Batman to have any individual thing. The patina of realism, the gritty sense of reality to the character make the discussion of the value of his toys into itself, a marketable piece of information. Some schmuck at Buzzfeed is going to earn a few dollars making an article tallying that shit up like a glorified copy of Quicken. We don’t get to pretend about the amounts of money Batman is blowing, and so we talk about wealthy billionaires whose response to homeless crisis is to punch the underprivileged in his knickers, and get a good laugh, but that feels like it’s a failure of the writers handling him.

In essence, Batman is a character who needs and deserves to have either camp or noir handled around him. You have to be thorough with Batman, and part of that thoroughness is recognising his greater context, what his existence implies and what he can do within it.

One day I’ll find those Frank Miller sketches and talk about a time I think they almost got it weirdly right.