The comparison between Superman and Captain America is very much like the comparison between tractors and trucks. They’re not an unreasonable comparison to make, especially when you only know of either thanks to movies, but the more you know about either the less the comparison works. The two have some very broad similarities, but when you start to talk about the kind of stories they can tell, things start to break down.
Curious what you think of the permeability of shonen anime into the general consciousness, as seen in Everyone Making BNHA OCs. – Casey
First things first shonen anime is and has been part of the general consciousness for about thirty years now. My dad knows who Tobor the 8 Man was even if he didn’t, at the time know it was Anime, and Astro Boy is an institution world-wide. What’s more Goku, from Dragonball Z has the cultural cachet of Superman, which puts their general awareness in public attention around about the same level of, literally, Jesus Christ.
That said, there is something interesting about Boku No Hero Academia, a name that I feel it’d be a bit tired to make fun of at this point, and how it relates to Everyone Making BNHA OCs. Specifically, the thing that’s interesting isn’t that Everyone Is Making BNHA OCs…
… its that people feel okay talking abouti making BNHA OCs.
OCs are a really interestingly contentious part of culture. For a start, all creative characters both have them and don’t – the nature of all creative culture as a gigantic remix machine where things we experience become part of the things we create and how it’s all part of this greater framework generation and what we see as originality is really a shift in perspectives or a paradigmatic repositioning and oh god you’re falling asleep – but the other thing is, OCs are seen almost inextricably as embarassing. We use the joke ‘OC, do not steal’ as an inherent joke to describe something people shouldn’t care about, where the speaker is meant to care very much. The Sonic OC is a whole psychosexual bazaar at this point, something most people observe from the outside and awkwardly step around.
Fanart is an interesting mill of media where people often have very one-sided relationships with the work; they do not care about the artist and their opinions or input as much as they care about the other media work the artist invokes. Artists can use fanart as a stepping stone but there is a lot more fanart that goes nowhere than anything else, and the nature of the decontextualising internet means it’s often appreciated by people who have basically no connection to the artist, because they have connection to the media it flows from. Typically speaking, fanart is not a space to get creative – if there’s a character in a lineup from a show that didn’t come from the show, people will almost always see them as not appropriate.
Yet, BNHA has this strange phenomenon where people aren’t just making OCs for it, they’re also comfortable labelling them as such, sharing them, and then, within the framework of the series, using those characters to make fanart of the series. Here, check out this character, who I’m using to show off the way that powers in this really weird and interesting and cool universe could work out!
I don’t think BNHA is uniquely suited for this; you could have seen the same thing back in Ranma 1/2’s heyday, where characters all had ridiculous martial arts and possibly their own ridiculous magical spring. Heck, there was a ten year long roleplay thread on a newsgroup called GRIT that was just about people’s Ranma 1/2 OCs (at first – it spiralled off, as anything would).
What I find more interesting – what I find exciting – is that we’re at a point now where showing off your BNHA OC isn’t seen as inherently ridiculous. We’re reaching a place where when people say I care about this thing, and here is my inclusion in it, nobody says get that out of here. There is a welcoming in this concept space, and…
well, I find that exciting. I wonder how much stuff I’d love better, how much better I’d be at some things if I didn’t feel I was constantly being told I wasn’t good enough.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m fond of someone I record a podcast with. To counter the claims of nepotism, I want it known that I love Clay despite him routinely making fun of me for being related to a ventriloquist.
Now, Clay’s situation is such I feel reluctant telling anyone how great he is. I don’t feel comfortable waving my arms in the air and shouting about the glory of this wonderful friend, this thoughtful man who has had to learn twice as much as I did in half the time with worse handicaps.
As Rachel, Clay is someone who makes me sure the world would be better if people like them just had the freedom to make things, to tell stories, to care about the things they care about and not deal with malarkey like the right change for the drier and washer.
Three years ago I was told it was important for men to foster stable, emotionally mature relationships so they didn’t rely on women to take care of them. I tried that, I joke, then it turns out they were all girls. Despite all that, standing out from that, there’s Clay – who has had his own path through life from similar spaces as me, making him one of the few people I know who can get a lot of the things I normally need to spend so long explaining.
I love some dorky superhero roleplay. Ever since City of Heroes I got in the habit of just enjoying the stories I could tell, the ways I could play in story universes that care about superheroic elements and the tropes of superheroes. I like sidekicks. I like superfamilies. I like doom robots and death rays and I like capes and costumes and I like all of these things.
I love Generation IV, which is a roleplaying setting ran and maintained by a handful of friends. Gen 4 hasn’t been super busy lately – in part because some of the major players have had major life shifts and vacations – but it’s something that I’ve really loved to be able to go to throughout this year. It is a thing that my friends made and for which I am grateful.
There’s this book, called Invisible Ink, by Brian McDonald, which I haven’t read, but I have heard summarised, and that right there is kind of a punchline in and of itself. The book has a bunch of stuff in it (including gender-coding storytelling tools, so I dunno, nevermind). In that book he outlines the idea that a lot of work is put into characterising and presenting certain characters in movies that fail at making those characters resonant because there’s something wrong or missing there.
The example given is the idea of rescuing a cat from a tree, something Superman does. Anyone unfamiliar with this scene idea or story beat probably doesn’t read this blog, but assuming otherwise, the idea is that a Superman story takes some time early on, before the story has ramped up and tension is high, to show Superman rescuing a cat stuck in a tree and return it to the people who are afraid. It’s a simple, small exchange, and one that most Superman movies have left out.
I think about this moment a lot, and here’s what’s had me thinking about it lately:
In Miraculous, there’s a moment where Marinette, as Ladybug, goes into a room to hide when she transforms. The door is ajar, and she left it that way, so it’s not like looking in the open door requires an action. If you were outside, and the light caught your eye, there’s a deniability to looking. Adrien, as Cat Noir, is outside and is in a position to look.
Now to be clear, there is no actual need for Adrien to be there. The story has been resolved and it’s an established point that Cat Noir often leaves the scene of an incident quickly so he, too, can transform back into Adrien and hide his identity. If the story wanted, he would not even be here.
Adrien approaches the door where Marinette is changing, and closes it.
The story doesn’t need to do this. There’s no unending question of why he was or wasn’t doing something in that room at the same time, no plot hole introduced by his presence or absence there. There’s nothing that needs explaining here. There’s no reason for this scene – except to show you something of who Adrien is, and what he’d do when confronted with an opportunity to learn something about Ladybug she’s not willingly letting him know.
Here’s an idea, he says, missing PBS Idea Channel So Much Already, Miraculous is a superhero story of a different type because it is girly.
Don’t get at me on this one. We exist in a world with a culturally-accepted, defined and utilised gender binary, and all the Gender Is Fake, and Girly is Fake comments you can throw out there won’t change the fact that it’s part of how we do exist, and in that existing, there is definitely such a thing as girly stuff. And Miraculous Ladybug is very girly.
Girly is in this case a shorthand aesthetic for the things we already signpost as of or relating to girls. It’s in part an aesthetic, choices full of pinks, bright colours, pastels and broadly emotionally approachable signals. In a lot of media these are things that are also coded as being frivolous, or unimportant, or inherently comical. In Season 1 of Ladybug, Marinette is shown focusing on a fashion show, a school play, a babysitting job, and a literal popularity contest, which are all things I’m fairly sure Spider-Man has made fun of caring about.
They are serious though, and Marinette takes them seriously. Taking these things seriously involves looking – seriously – at why we don’t, about what about them makes them Not Serious. Why is babysitting silly? Why is fashion silly? What makes them somehow less worthy a subject for a teen superhero to care about than, say, a chemistry experiment or a baseball game?
Sexism, yes, but think about the specifics. Why shouldn’t these things matter? Why not? When you start to remember these things are competitions or challenges with their own stakes, and the story takes them seriously, they’re just as rich a vein of fodder for the story as anything else. Since they’re inherently low-stakes problems in universe, though, these aren’t spaces you can have things like Out of Control Lab Accidents that make people into monsters, or introduce gunshot-level threats. The problems in Miraculous have to be superhero-worthy while having roots in these very mundane activities we entrust to children, without the framing of being Eventually Important versions of Important Things that we normally code as for boys.
Know what definitely is a real thing that can feel worthy of a threat in those situations? Human emotions. Distress and sadness and anxiety and all these problems that we struggle with as adults, and maybe don’t even successfully handle. When you look at the problems that come up in the first season you have problems like being ignored by your parents when you were right, not being respected by your peers, being given conflicting information when you’re too young to understand it and being rejected and spurned by someone who you realise was much worse a person than you ever imagined. These emotional states are then, through the narrative tool of Hawkmoth (Papillon in the French, which makes me giggle), transformed into open, obvious metaphors for being stuck on that emotional problem.
There’s also how it informs the tension of the story’s protagonists: Adrien and Marinette are both characters who have Got It for each other, but this tension is not arbitary. Adrien is a good looking boy – both in universe, and also in his design. The story doesn’t present a Very Average looking boy as being handsome, and there are boys around him who are also less pretty, showing the story is actually making him exceptional. The boys are presented as needing to be visually interesting, and they are, rather than being more or less templates of one another.
When the time comes, however, that Marinette takes action – as Ladybug, mind you, since this is clearly part of her contention as a superhero – none of the negative traits we associate with Girly are a problem. Marinette is not shown being paralysed by emotions, or wrapped up in indecision. There is a confidence to her actions that typically would be coded as Not-Girly – but this is story that is so happily and wholly Girly it serves more to ask the question Why Would This Be Out of Type? Ladybug’s behaviour is unlike Marinette’s, but that’s because Marinette isn’t confident – not because she’s a girl.
Let’s take this one to a point of demonstration. In episode 6, the villain, Mr Pigeon, has a whistle that lets him control flocks of pigeons. Oh and spoilers I guess. Point is, in this episode, there’s a moment where three people lunge for it and their hands hit it in a stack – Cat Noir’s hand, then Mr Pigeon’s hand, then Marinette’s hand. And without thinking about it, without a moment of ‘ahah!’ or looking to the characters’ faces or whatever, bam, she just smashes downwards and breaks the object at the bottom of the stack.
Marinette’s problem-solving, the power of getting one Lucky solution in the right time and place, is really excellent as it shows her being thoughtful and confident, quick-thinking and decisive. The story will present her with Oven Mitts and say fix the problem, hero, and she will come up with the solution in some of the most wonderfully silly point-and-click adventure moments in media.
Miraculous is a girly superhero show. It’s about a girl, it’s about the things a girl cares about, and it wants to talk to girls in the storytelling tools of girls. And it’s absolutely great.
Holy crap oh my goodness this show is so good people. I’d normally like, try and structure this whole thing somewhat and there will be time for that but for now, I’m just going to gush about some things in this series I really hecking like.
Here’s a thing! Ladybugs are a symbol of luck. I didn’t know that going in, and for a little while I was confused as to why they chose the two characters they had – the black cat and the ladybug and I just didn’t quite get why. Then when you find that ladybugs are good luck, the imagery and meme of the black cat as bad luck and – and that’s good use of imagery and concept space! That gives you space to look at the two characters, gives you a nice, simple place to start from! It anchors characters to existing media spaces and it gives them distinct, interesting visual theming!
That means that when they work together in the same space, despite the fact the two characters are basically the same style of fighter, and move more or less the same way you’re never left confused as to which one you’re seeing in a moment of action because one is bright honking red and the other is black, but neither of their costumes seem to be of a different type to the other!
Also if luck is the thing that defines the two characters it means your solutions to problems can be extremely outlandish or one-time! A character who relies on luck as a theme means that if she only gets a thing to work once that’s enough, unlike characters like Batman who rely on being heavily prepared! This means things can be both more thematically interesting and varied while also showing off the character’s quick wits!
Oh and the enemies! All the enemies are empowered by the real villain when they demonstrate a moment of emotional distress that the can’t handle or process properly – which is to say, this is a series where the big conflict point is processing your emotions properly. Nobody’s sadness or anger is shown as being illegitimate, and nobody’s emotions are used to excuse or justify the things they do – because the villain is using magical powers to take control of them, there’s no need to do that.
This is great because it means you can treat emotional duress as important and worth respecting, you can show characters repeatedly resisting it or engaging with it to show their growth as people, and you can even show how some people’s processing can be inhibited or expressed. Then you get the added dimension that both adults and children fall prey to this power set, for a variety of different reasons – some are meanspirited and cruel, but many of them are frustrated or misunderstood! This means there are stories about handling emotions as a child and as an adult and at no point does the story just say ‘well suck it up.’
So you have these characters who are directly expressing rudimentary metaphors about emotional processing in a way that involves actual cool looking fights with some dynamic, interestingly chosen characters who fight and think and are cool at things, and then the aftermath is about watching the protagonists grow in light of the things they now understand about the emotional process their friends went through, and there’s no guilt or rancor about the times they were turned. There is a legitimate recognition that someone else preyed on their emotional state and ‘made’ them into villains, and that those moments of distress or anger or rage don’t represent who they truly are!
This is romantic storytelling at its most primal, not romance-as-interaction, where people are smoochin’ and doin’ smooches and that’s all the stories are moving about, but romance where human emotion are the driving forces of the universe, where the story is always moving in ways to make human emotion run against other human emotion! Coincidence transpires – and it’s fine, because the story isn’t about the realism of events – and then that brings people’s emotions to bear against one another!
Things don’t need explaining, they need understanding.
Plus it’s funny. It’s funny in a way that doesn’t treat its viewers – who are kids – like idiots. It doesn’t pitch its comedy low, and that means it projects a sense of respect for its viewers. They show things only a few moments, and don’t need to over-explain it – basically it’s like an exact, functional opposite to Suicide Squad, which overstates everything and is also grim and dark and grungy for no good reason.
I have more, but I kind of want to save more in-depth conversation about it until I’ve rewatched some of it, but also to do a bit more of an in-depth read on Marinette as a character and what choosing her has done for this series as a superhero story.
God it’s a good time to like superheroes.
The Defenders is an adequate average of the sum of its parts. At its best it is Luke Cage’s snappy dialogue and Daredevil’s fight choreography in tight, threatening situations with an appreciation of highlight moments, and at its worst, it has Jessica Jones and Danny Rand in it.
Kind-of-spoilers below the fold.
Iron Fist, the 2017 Netflix series, is bad.
Let us, for now, set aside its issues as an adaptation of a source material.
Iron Fist is bad because more than anything else, it’s a series that doesn’t know what it is about.
I’ve touched on this in these articles. The fear of the costume and the style of the superhero. The way they hired someone who wasn’t good for the role in any way. The excuses, the endless excuses for why the show isn’t very good, the defensive posture that blames their failings on, amongst other things, a presidential election. The way the took a story about a martial artist returning home to right a dreadful wrong through violence against an old disabled man, and made it about conspiracy and zombies and another hero’s villains. Every single one of these decisions is a bad one and none of them are bad enough to stand on their own as a sign of what made the series break, none of them are this series’ fatal flaw.
But every single one of them could only show up if you, when presented with the series as it exists, had no idea what it was meant to be. The show doesn’t know why it missed or what it missed, because the show didn’t know what it was trying to even be in the first place. Say what you want about Luke Cage’s position on Blackness, it at least knew damn well it was a series about a Black superhero dealing with Black Street problems. The identity of Luke Cage permeates its very being.
Let us then speak of what I feel represents the central coda, the most important and vital flaw of the Iron Fist series and the way it handles its central premise, the characteristic that the series is literally named for.
What is the Iron Fist?
It is the power that Danny has, which the story… sort of doesn’t really explain. It’s just, he has the power of the Iron Fist, and he mostly uses it to punch through walls. It’s not used creatively or cleverly. It is power, a direct application of force, and Danny can’t use it constantly. There is no explanation as to why. At one point he heals Coleen, and then that’s it. The Fist is returned to being vaguely explained. Defenders elaborates on it, but it still is building on the foundations of Iron Fist, inheriting its flaws.
Some comics fans may be seething, shouting at their screens about how the comics handle it and yes, the comics handle it better and you are right, but that is not important. This is not a point of comparison, this is looking at the series and its own message.
When and how does the character use the power? What limits it? What provokes it? What, in this superheroic story, is the thing that sets the character apart from the greater population, and how do they access this power? What, more than anything else, is the Iron Fist about?
I’ve watched this series now, I’ve double checked, and the single common trait with Danny using the Iron Fist is Danny getting mad.
Danny gets angry, and the power comes to him. When the power is not available, it is because he has not gotten mad enough. There is no philosophy, no coda, not even the most rudimentary of koan. The story doesn’t frame the Iron Fist’s power as a result of study, or training, or an emotional centering, or being able to spend his time fighting or charging up or needing to summon the megazords or anything. It connects very directly. Anger In, Power Out.
That is the story this show thinks is interesting. That’s the central idea of this series. Danny needs to find things that make him angry enough to act, angry enough to draw on that power. That’s your story. It permeates. Danny is mad that he is being denied his billionaire status – not because he wants it, but because he’s being denied it. Danny has outbursts of anger, he hates his opponents, he steps to violence in his very first scene for no really good reason. Opposition to Danny deserves violence, because Danny uses violence, and violence is directly and only connected to anger.
This is this world’s Danny Rand. He is angry, not because of things he experienced, or internalised guilt. Not because of self-loathing or cruelty. I’d look at the subtext to work it out, but we don’t have to, because the story just flat-out tells you.
Danny doesn’t feel he has a place in the world, he feels like he doesn’t belong, like he needs something more in his life, a life that already features being an immortal god-fighting dragon-punching superhero billionaire. Danny was picked on a little bit as a kid, but he had loving parents who gave him everything, and even his father’s last words were that he loved him. Danny’s anger puts the loss of his family’s company on the same level as the loss of his parents at the same level as handcuffing him and so on, and it does not feel making his parents’ death an act he could be angry about is worthwhile.
There’s an attempt to represent his violence as like Coleen’s violence, as if the two share some emotional challenge, but it’s never explained because they don’t explain why Coleen is that way, because women don’t need backstories.
Danny’s anger is petulance at a void.
That’s not what the Iron Fist story really is about. That’s a stock character – it’s almost a cliche. Heck, it’s a Disney Princess at the most bland.
This, all of this, is what you get when your story doesn’t really know what it’s about. The people in the story talk about the trappings of kung fu – in a really orientalist way, of course – and about the idea of a business conspiracy or Rand enterprises or all these things, and there’s talk about centering Danny’s chi and connecting him to other stuff, but none of it connects, none of it really makes any sense because there’s no central throughline of the character, the idea of how you attain power, or how Danny relates to power and violence beyond get opposed, get angry, get power.
A final example, from the last episode.
In two scenes, back to back, Meachum forwards that he can do whatever he wants, because he has money. Cut. A different scene. Jill informs Danny that he can’t do whatever he wants, because he has money, meaning his actions will be observed. It literally uses the same funds to represent that Danny is unable to do things, and that Meachum can do anything.
This is a series that doesn’t know what it’s about, and doesn’t know what matters to it. What follows then is things cast down, to land near one another, in the shape of a narrative, ultimately hollow, ultimately meaningless.
There’s a sad irony here in that one of the most basic, well known pieces of actual historical philosophy quotes, a quote you can find on coffee mugs for executives, would help avoid this problem.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
— Sun Tzu’s, The Art of War
Surely even the kind of dinks who wrote this Danny Rand would know that one.
Iron Fist is bad at doing all the things it wants to do.
We’ve talked in the process about things that will make your storytelling better. We’ve talked about looking at issues in structural ways, and we’ve talked about invigorating characters with character rather than as instruments for the story. We haven’t really dealt with specific, individualised incidents of hecking up execution. And this is a series that hecks up the execution a lot.
Hey, remember this dark dynamic? This black arcing?
Why is this here?
Do you see this in the series at all? Does it tie into the colour dynamics of the rest of the series? Can you think of any time that the series does anything that looks like this? Danny has a clear colour dynamic of bright yellow, but dark black never really shows up to contrast with it like in this opening.
This is a visual motif that the show literally never uses except in its opening. In Daredevil, the colour scheme of the opening is a signifier; you see the red in Daredevil’s outfit, in Elektra’s outfit, in background colours and lighting and shots and it’s also a motif of the bloodstains and damage you see on Matt. Luke Cage uses yellow to indicate street signs, and imbalances (like yellow tinted windows, gold of crowns, the warm light of the club looking down on the patrons).
By contrast, Danny gets a yellow fist and that’s it. The Defenders builds on his colour scheme, of course, putting him in green light that helps to contrast him to Matt, while also suggesting a commonality in his space between Luke and Jessica, but in this opening, in this first impression, what is there of Danny that exists. What works?
Also, because this character is both animated and obscured, they can show that character doing a bunch of extremely cool things, as if he had, perhaps, mastered some martial arts, martial arts that let them do something like attain the powers of the Immortal Iron Fist. I hope you’re not attached to this sort of acrobatic motion with lines of energy like this, though, because you’re never going to see it.
The Chi Focus
If you go back and rewatch the first episodes like I did, because I dunno, I make bad life choices, you might remember there was this recurrent visual theme they tried to use for Danny to focus his chi. Lots of vertical lines, blurring and shifting over the film. Remember that? Danny’s inability to focus his chi is an early story beat that fades away, and with it, the effect. It’s not used later to represent when he’s out of focus with his chi despite the fact that his chi is out of whack is used as a story beat.
Remember? It was a whole thing? It was after Danny healed Coleen with Bakuto’s help and – oh, okay, Remember how Danny healed Coleen in the middle of the series? Remember that now he has the ability to do Amazing Healing Moves and he just… doesn’t do it again?
I bring this up because these are examples of rudimentary execution error. If you introduce a power in the second act of a story it should matter, in some way, by the end of the story. If you’re going to introduce a visual aesthetic to a problem, use that visual aesthetic again when you use that problem a second or third time.
In this, the healing is a doorway the story stepped through and forgot when they move on.
As a game, you can probably ask ‘remember when this happened’ about a lot of things in this series and watch people fail tell if you’re making it up or not, because there’s a lot of forgettable stuff here. There’s a reason we talk about repetition and patterns and structure in storytelling: These things make it easier – or possible – for the things you do to remain in people’s minds. It’s like telling a joke. You can’t just state a punchline – without a setup, it’s just a weird interjection pineapple.
Iron Fist’s central plot is mostly made up of about six or seven really short story beats, and the rest, because it is not anchored, it does not reside in the memory, is just… lost. It’s not just bad storytelling – it means much of this story is boring.
The Cu-Cu-Cu-Cu-Cu-Cuts And Edits
The fights in Iron Fist with one exception suck.
The excuse for this style of combat choppiness, with these super-short edits, is that it’s done to obscure the fact that half of the people in this scene can’t fight. Not in the style of the Iron Fist comics, not in the style of this series. Hell, not even in the style of Daredevil, the nearest approximate.
Now, this gets held up as an example of bad editing and I’d say it’s almost the opposite. The editor here clearly did a lot of work to try and turn pillowfist douchebeard into the person who was throwing punches. The editor can only work with what they’re given, and here, they’re given 56 individual components that they had to stitch together to fill 35 seconds. I give the benefit of the doubt, where I think this editor was using as much as they could of each shot, because editing is very hard.
With that, it means this bad scene’s fault falls on the person making decisions, and that means yeah, the director had to direct the fight coordinators and choreographers and camera people and the set managers. Some of these shots require cameras to be in places the characters physically are, meaning this was shot multiple times over.
There is nothing wrong with having Danny have a fight in this space, or even a fight with a bunch of cuts in it. But this way of doing it is bad, and has bad effects. It also gets to be easily held up as an example of a problem. It’s frantic and sloppy.
This is an example of an execution error, and not just stuff like the Line of Action that even a clueless donk like me knows about. I’m not a camera guy! I’m not a cinema guy! If I can look at this and say ‘whoah this is shit’ imagine what it’s like for editors and cinematographers and critics of that form! Imagine how it looks to them!
Oh and by the way, Finn, know what’s a great way to obscure when you change a shot from stunt double to lead actor?
Like the Iron Fist wears.
Like he’s meant to wear.
LIKE A SUPERHERO SHOW WOULD USE.
Let’s talk about choices.
There are some writers out there, and yes, I might mean you (and if I do mean you, I am judging you), who regard the story that they are writing as a wild creature that wanders and runs as it goes, and you, the author, are helpless to do anything but document it as the tiger whose tail they hold goes where it will. Which is to say, these people will blame the story for the choices they make about what to put in it. Which is to say, these people are cowards who don’t want to own up to the things they want to put in their story, the things they choose to do.
Choices like, for example, punching a woman in the face for no good reason, and treating an entire school of Asian martial philosophy like it’s a cereal box top. These are problems you can fix, if you acknowledge they are things you are choosing to do, and if you think about what you’re doing; they’re much harder to deal with if you pretend they sort of just magically slithered into the story themselves.
Does K’un-L’un Exist?
In Iron Fist Danny and Coleen talk about the philosophies of their martial studies. It’s a conversation that we see in small, clipped ways. He uses her sword in a way that’s kind of insulting, and the pair spar back and forth about the ideology of their worldviews. She cites this, he cites that. He demonstrates his superiority over her with physical force, imposition of his hand and body, while they discuss, her ideas being presented as tested against the ideas of his way, his way that seems to be winning all the encounters. Her ancient philosophy she learned from her family vs his ancient philosophy he learned from K’un-L’un.
Here’s the problem: K’un-L’un doesn’t exist.
The philosophies of Japanese martial arts are real things with real histories. Danny is talking made up D&D sourcebook bullshit, which is patched together with that special kind of ‘I just heard of this’ problem, things like travelling to a dojo to meet with a sensei to gain their respect as if that’s a practice everyone should know about despite it being a trend from one very specific period of Japanese history. Things like his disdain of shoes, his (unconsciously?) racist language when talking to the students, these are all covered under the heading of being ‘like K’un-L’un.’ Danny acts this way, and it is forgiveable in how it makes the character look in a world that is like our own, because Danny is from K’un-L’un.
But the problem is, again, that K’un-L’un doesn’t exist.
This is a worldbuilding point, this is about making the things you create in a universe feel like they matter, and showing them in contrast to things we know matter. It’s why heroes punch bricks to show how strong they are.
This story wants to juxtapose one culture it doesn’t really seem to understand or respect with a culture it invented. They chose to compare K’un-L’un’s ideals with Coleen’s and then present K’un-L’un as superior. It could have been a non-confrontational relationship; they could have spoken of old teachers together, of connecting to mysterious masters that don’t exist because of Coleen’s association with the Hand. Instead, they made this choice.
And again, K’un-Lun doesn’t exist.
That Time Danny Punched A Pliable Woman In The Face
This example’s been discussed elsewhere but let’s talk about Season 1, Episode 6; Immortal Emerges From Cave. It’s a tournament episode (that’s not a tournament, because Danny just has to fight everyone). That’s where we meet the Bride Of Nine Spiders.
Remember our Daredevil conversation? Here’s the short list of signals that a character isn’t a character but is instead an object.
- Instrumentality: Does this character exist to explain something about the story?
- Agency: Does the character have the capacity to make choices for themself?
- Ownership: Is this character owned by someone else? Do they exist without that character?
- Fungibility: Is the character interchangeable with other such characters?
- Violability: Can you visit violence on this character without moral question?
- Subjectivity: Does the character have a subjective perspective? Their own views, their own desires or values?
The character is not fungible – she’s got a standout design that contrasts with the rest of the Hand. Also, she’s a woman while they’re mostly represented by men. You can maybe read something into her introductory shot suggesting she’s a poison researcher… but you’d have to do a lot of work to claim that’s subjectivity or violability. Beyond that? She gets the whole list. Note that there’s nothing wrong with having a character be an object in your story, objects are useful tools to move things along. There sure is a problem with, for example, having a lot of characters who are just objects, especially if all those characters share a racial grouping.
The Sexually Dangerous Exoticised Woman is a trope so old it’s literally gathering dust, and she’s an Exotically Sexy Acupuncture Spider Lady, which is …Not A Good Look. I’m not against spiders, or sexiness, or associating spiders with sexiness; No, the concern is that The Bride of Nine Spiders isn’t presented as anything but that. There is no question of why she does things, or how she does things. She simply is.
For instrumentality, she does a bunch of stuff that makes no sense when considered as her actions to achieve her ends, and once she fills her role in the story she’s gone. Hypothetically her purpose is to defeat the Iron Fist. What we see is a sequence where she enables and explains things about Danny to the audience, things that the story has not shown to the audience. Somehow, we’re told, the Bride of Nine Spiders knows what Danny really wants, what he really is.
How is she supposed to know?
Why does she try seducing him after poisoning him? Why does she put herself in unnecessary danger? If she can close with him and pin him, why not just poison him more? If she had her own identity, her own personality, you could use that as your reason, but the scene doesn’t do anything to do that. The Bride of Nine Spiders is a tool Iron Fist uses to fill time in the story, to state some things about Danny, and then she needs to be dealt with so the story can proceed.
That’s why we get a full shot of Danny backhanding a pretty Asian lady who’s pressing up against him. It literally takes a beat to show us, oh hey look at Danny punching this woman who was flirting with him in the face.
Now remember: This is not a scene from the comics. This isn’t something in the actress’ contract. This is something they chose to show.
Who failed to think about this scene twice?
Why’s Danny white?
We talked about how the truth of the comics is nonsense – they threw out everything in the comics that matters to the origin and structure of Danny. They didn’t even tell a superhero story with him. They made a Daredevil knockoff, complete with giving Danny one of Daredevil’s villains to oppose.
Why then, is he white? The answer lies at the bottom of this post, but before we go there, a fold, and a conversation about what Danny should have been, in my opinion.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
— Leo Tolstoy
While I’ve had things to say about Daredevil and Luke Cage, those works were largely mixed, fairly robust and reasonably whole things, things that worked. They were series that were not great, but were good enough and were mostly remarkable in the ways they could be better. They were, as it were, happy families: they were similar. Even outlining their failures was mostly best left to small, short summaries.
Iron Fist, however, is an unhappy family, and it is unhappy indeed.
Rather than try and hammer together every complaint there is about Iron Fist into one mega-essay, which, let’s not kid ourselves, it’d be a rant, lose focus, and it’d need to be a dozen things all at once. Instead, then:
WELCOME TO IRON FIST WEEK!
Oh and I’m gunna spoil the heck out of stuff. Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
Superman’s a real fun topic. Continue reading
God Bless Youtube auto suggestions and the awful internet community. It’s surprising what you’re inspired to talk about.
I’m going to talk about violence for a little bit here. Continue reading
This joke was too big to tweet, alas.
We were talking about the Avengers as we walked, and mentioned that, “Well, Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans are both good looking dudes.”
“Wait, they’re both named Chris?” Pendix asked, confused.
“And Starlord is played by…” he went on, as if checking up on me.
“… Chris Pratt?”
“… Is this really the Marvel expanded universe?”
“No,” said Fox. “It’s Chrisses on Infinite Earths.”
From 2011 to 2012 in City of Heroes, I played a character named Snared. Snared’s real name was Ryker Baptiste, and he had a younger sister, Michelle, known as Chell. Both of them were orphaned in their arrival in the game setting, and the story I told with them was that of a caring, but flawed father figure, and his complicated experience of watching his little sister grow up and become a whole person in her own right.
Chell was easily one of my favourite characters to write in the setting. She wasn’t a superhero; she was just a normal person, and she was a normal person who grew up surrounded by these icons of superhero power. In the incident that orphaned Chell and Ryker, she was heavily injured, which meant her first introduction to several players was as a presence in a hospital, a girl who spoke to them but could not leave her hospital bed. Ryker and Chell were immigrants from a fantasy country, a colony of multinational thugs and criminals, the Etoile. Ryker and Chell therefore had a different cultural context, and they spoke multiple languages – smatterings of Italian and German amongst their English.
Chell mostly did her conversing on Formspring. Here are some of her opinions on things:
Drama whores. Annoying or entertaining?
Chell Answer, #1.
So I didn’t realise it, but apparently here in America there’s this whole culture of just doing stupid stuff so people look at you. You lie about being gay, talk about your eating disorder or how you have sex, you dress like a laundry soap advertisement and then you whine and stamp your feet and pout when people pay attention to you. So I have been thinking about this and the more I do the more I think of monkeys throwing poo. I am no monkey, and I do not throw my poo.
Turning up at school without a bra and a tube top when it’s a cold day is not ‘artistic expression.’ It’s standing on your hands and saying ‘LOOK AT MEEEEEE.’ That’s just expressive expression and it’s just the same old monkey poo. I got better things to do with my time at class, because one day I’m going to be one of the people who rock this world rather than rock a tube top. So nyeh.
If you were to be re-incarnated into any species other then the one you presently are. What one would it be? None humans can choose human. Shape changers will lose all ability to shape change!
Chell Answer, #2.
Well, obviously, I’d be the only rock-and-roll playing velociraptor doctor, or doctoraptor. I also wouldn’t mind being reincarnated as like, some suburban family’s pet cat, because that way I wouldn’t have to worry about ladyparts toradmerd and could just spend all day lounging around doing nothing. Which is pretty nice, but you get bored of it. And you can’t draw or paint with paws. Monkeys don’t make great art and they have ugly faces. Octopi and chameleons can treat their whole bodies as a canvas though, so there’s that. That’s pretty neat.
Sticking with dinosaur.
What would you trade your good looks for? I mean like you’d be ugly but you would gain what?
Chell Answer, #3.
I traded a lot of my good looks. I was pretty cute back before. Apparently my nose is a different shape now, and uh, my growth was stunted in some ways and accelerated in others due to all the medical treatments. So I guess I’d say I traded those good looks for being alive.
But they came back! I mean, Fae tells me I’m pretty cute, and while I keep hidden pretty much at school I still know some people see and look. So I didn’t really trade them forever. I didn’t KNOW they’d come back – ficken, I was really scared for ages there that I’d never get hair again and I’d go through my life as a cueball girl without a nose that only got the really creepy pervs who would tell me ‘I love you for who you are!’ while they jerked off to licking my head or something gross.
Knowing that, I still would trade my good looks for peace and love, real love. For me, for Ryker, for everyone I grew up with, for all the great people I read about here, even the dicks. If I could have that if my appearance was to be nailed to a cross, then hand me a hammer.
Share a beautiful picture with me. I’ll do the same.
Chell Answer, #4.
Ich bin kein Opfer. Zur Hölle damit.
(A picture of a hospital door)
Would you give if you knew you would not receive in return?
Chell Answer, #5.
Okay, saw this one and knew I had to answer it, so here it is, number 600.
Yes. Absolutely yes. The most important words in my life are public domain. I want to be a doctor and find a cure to something horrible that becomes public property. I want to be an artist and want people to create things because I inspired them. I want to when I’m well enough, help out at the shelter I hear about. I want to work not for the rewards but because I have gotten so much from people who could afford to give. Being able to give shows you’re strong, and by that metric, I want to be the strongest girl in the world.
I owe so much to people. I owe my home to Faige. I owe my school life and activities to the teachers and tutors who are helping me catch up from all my study in the Isles. I owe my hope to you people and you didn’t even realise you gave it to me. I owe and you gave and there’s nothing I can do to repay it. So I owe. And one day I will give to the world.
Also, thanks for letting me do this, Ryker. I know you give a lot to me and I’m sorry for all the times I’m a pain.
This is writing from two years and change ago. I’ve changed a lot, as a writer, but I still really, really love this character.
This week featured me struggling to explain to someone who had, as far as I know, literally no understanding of comic books, who Mystique was, and what made her interesting. The original question had been about shapeshifters – and shapeshifters are all over the place in media I enjoy. Mystique, however, Mystique strays into special territory. She’s a comic book character; she’s someone I like, and for whom I hold a totem.
While her origin is slightly different, broadly speaking, Mystique is the foster mother of the heroine Rogue, and usually shown as amoral, or at least, self-interested. In most depictions – particularly my favourite X-Men Evolution showings, – she’s beholden to greater powers, often ones she resents. Even with that pressure, though, she is still parental – often changing her plans in order to protect or benefit her surrogate daughter, even though they’re both on opposite sides of the conflict. Often she attempts to convince or manipulate, and she’s never shown as any kind of grand schemer, herself. Mystique doesn’t want to rule the world. She just wants a world where she can be safe, and maybe with some vengeance on those people who would oppose her. As a shapeshifter, she is one of the kind of mutants who can happily pass as normal for her whole life – but she isn’t content with that.
In the totem I hold of Mystique, Mystique is mostly a selfish, pragmatic woman; not an idealist, with only a few important principles. Her freedom is important to her, her ability to control her identity and her destiny, but there is still some part of her that yearns to improve the world, within that pragmatic worldview. Mystique cares about the world she’s leaving behind, even if only in the way it influences others without her advantages.
Now, what I’m relaying here is borderline myth, and I can’t find hard evidence that it ever happened. It’s just a story that’s circulated so much and I believe, because comics were trying some weird things, and if you don’t think of trans issues, then it’s just a surprise, off-the-wall surprise that comic book storytelling allows you to play with. It seems the sort of idea a storyteller would come up with without realising just what it could mean in the real world. See, Mystique’s story often has this theme of parental neglect, or of some sort of trauam or heartbreak surrounding her relationship with Rogue. It’s a revealed point of canon that Mystique is also the biological parent of the mutant Nightcrawler – making him and Rogue sort-of-siblings. The lost child angle is interesting, especially when you see how Nightcrawler, who is blue and fuzzy, was bullied and resented for being so different from the norm. Thing is…
… in some drafts of the story, Mystique isn’t his mother.
She’s a shapeshifter. Why should she be constrained to a particular biological reproduction method? I don’t think this story has ever been confirmed, but it’s a popular one that writers seem to like hinting at, or alluding, that Mystique changed her gender, in order to conceive Nightcrawler. There have been numerous hints – and nowadays, outright statements – about Mystique’s bisexuality, and the idea that she maintained a long-term relationship with a woman isn’t uncommon.
A rebel, a mother, a warrior, an opportunist, and a woman who makes the best of what she can, in a world she hates and that she knows hates her.
I really like Mystique.
Edit: Ahah! Fantastic assistance here from Creatrix Tiara!
— Creatrix Tiara (@creatrixtiara) April 30, 2014
If you’re a comic book fan, you’re long-since familiar with the idea that there is some goofy shit characters you like have done that you want to ignore. You know what I’m talking about. Batman being a pirate. Wolverine babyistting. Moonstone marrying Hawkeye. Avengers 200. There’s always something.
Some people let single instances in continuity define and destroy appreciation for a character. Not the route I’d choose, but it’s something some folk I know do. What I prefer to do is a more defined version of what everyone usually does. I ignore the worst of it.
Oh, there are fans who pretend they don’t, but they do.
See, one of the things that long-running game and videogame franchises have done to their marketable characters is create lots of bad material. Even in franchises where there isn’t that much material at all, there’s always going to be some bad stuff. What’s important, then, to you, is to take the character and the aspects of that character that you do like, and boil them away to the way those things make you feel.
Tony Stark is, broadly speaking, usually a supergenius rich guy who experienced a change of heart after originally manufacturing weapons. Sometimes this is super literal (his heart is mangled and he needs the Iron Man suit to keep him alive), and sometimes the change of heart comes at the hand of a super racist stereotype (seriously, check out the original origin story for the guy sometime), but every story is about that person.
That’s how you have to embrace comics, and often videogames. Sometimes you’ll love a story up to a certain point, and A Thing will happen. You have to decide if you’re going to let that Thing ruin the story or the character for you, or if you can take away from it the story that was, mostly, otherwise being constructed in your head. The story you imagined will almost always be better, after all!
These are the totems of the character. The individual impression, the way that character makes you feel about that character. It’s not written anywhere, but script on the sides of your soul. And that’s yours to keep, no matter what some awful person later creates.
I know! I was shocked to discover this too!
Let’s break that down real quick: Continue reading
I am the control function on the impossible. I am the release valve. There are very, very few things in this world that exist at my level of destructive potential and stubbornness. For every single heroine and hero who may teeter on the edge of a precipice, over an edge of ‘too far,’ there is a dreadful heat that lurks beneath, and that is me.
You are on thin fucking ice, my friends, and I will be under you when it breaks.
I play a character in a superhero roleplaying community, the last remaining parts of City of Heroes with which I have any contact. His name is Lock, which is short for Lachlann Piers, and his registered hero identity is Cearmaid. Lock is easily the most powerful character I’ve ever played, even in youthful stupid self-insert fantasy writings that I never let anyone see. Working class, vicious, powerful beyond all reason, and unfailingly moral and judgmental, Lock is probably one of my favourite characters I’ve ever played.
I think the thing that makes Lock so satisfying to play was his unchallenged nature. When dealing with roleplayers, there really is no real way to ‘win’ a fight, beyond convincing everyone you should win. You can convince people to let you win because it will be a better story; you can convince people to let you win because you have written too excellent a win; or you convince people to let you win because you are part of the community, and there is a give and take, an ebb and flow, that winning or losing is something that can be negotiated. You can’t just hit people with bigger numbers, given by some power levelling, or grinding, or any of that. You win a fight because everyone involved, to some degree, wants you to win that fight.
For the most part, people did not challenge Lock. Lock represented a sort of monstrous threat, the likes of which nothing in the game could make happen. There was no ‘apocalyptically flatten city blocks’ power set. He was something beyond what the game could offer, and therefore, that threat, that power, that character, was all in how I played him, and how I convinced people to share in his existence. The power of him, the danger of him, was such that he did not engage in smaller affairs, because doing so would destroy more than it fixed. Time to time, though, the flash of that greater presence flashed through – and my, it seemed intimidating to imagine that, as a person, walking around.
There’s the other side of that, though. Some nights, when I need to feel good about myself, I look at the people who would argue with Lock. The people who did stand against him, who argued his ethics and his morality with him. Those people I can admire. Then I look at those people who acknowledged his existence, and fled from confrontations with him. Sometimes, I wonder to myself, if that was part of the strength of him, or of me: Was I able to convince people around me that they could not win if they took Lock on?
Mostly, I know the reality is pettier: People would not bother arguing with me. People are there to have fun.
But it’s fun to think of.
It’s funny to consider further: Despite almost two years of constant activity in a RP community, there is, I think one character who has ever seen Lock fight.