Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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12

August 2018

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Schrodinger’s Tower: Jon Snow and the Assumption of Certainty

Written by , Posted in Blog, Game of Thrones, Pop Culture

A baby was born in the Tower of Joy at the end of Robert’s Rebellion. The Jon Snow parentage question is a central mystery surrounding George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin himself has referenced the mystery on many occasions, citing Game of Thrones creators David Benihoff and D.B. Weiss’ ability to correctly identify Jon’s mother as the point that gave him enough confidence to give his blessing for the series.

The question of Jon’s true parents, widely believed to be Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, often expressed through the equation R + L = J, has been a source of intrigue since the release of A Game of Thrones in 1996. In the finale of season seven, Bran confirmed this detail to Sam, though book fans have no such certainty after decades of hints spread out throughout the first five books. The puzzle lingers, even if its solution feels blatantly obvious.

The paradox of Schrodinger’s Cat is a thought experiment theorized by Erwin Schrodinger that examines interpretations of quantum mechanics. A feline is trapped in a box with a radioactive substance and a Geiger counter to detect whether or not the substance decays, which would kill the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation supposes that until one opens the box, the cat inside is simultaneously alive and dead, since we cannot know which is the actual case. Such is the conundrum with linear states of being. At some point, reality has to stop being theoretical and start being actual, which begs the question of whether both states simultaneously existed at all.

The Tower of Joy is currently a closed box with a baby. There is plenty of evidence that Jon Snow was born in there. The event already happened in the books, but the outcome hasn’t happened because we still don’t know who the baby was. We can’t know for sure until GRRM opens the box.

And yet, we sort of can know. The show opened its own box, and given the magnitude of the events at stake, it does seem safe to assume that the outcome will be the same. The show differs from the books in dozens of ways, but that secret lies at the centerpiece of both of their mythologies. It wouldn’t be much different than a situation where the movie version of Pride & Prejudice saw Elizabeth end up with Charlies Bingley instead of Mr. Darcy.

Alternative theories to R + L = J have been around since the release of the first book back in the 90s. Perhaps the most popular is the theory of B + A = J, suggesting that Jon is the son of Brandon Stark, Ned Stark’s brother, and Ashara Dayne, a character absent from the show but an important figure to Ned as well as Barristan Selmy. Generally, under this theory, R + L = D, with Daenerys serving as the child born in the Tower of Joy to Rhaegar and Lyanna.

There are a few big problems with B + A = J, namely the timeline and the idea that Ned wouldn’t need to claim Jon as his own if he didn’t have any Targaryen blood. Ashara was most likely pregnant before her death, but we know very little about the circumstances. That doesn’t automatically follow that Ashara is Jon’s mother, but there’s enough mystery about her life to keep theories alive for those who want to believe in them.

Many in the ASOIAF fandom do not wish to believe in B + A = J, a theory that earns plenty of eyerolls when mentioned by someone who wants to make a serious case. It’s not a great argument, and the show has practically put the matter to rest, except in the sense that it can’t. The idea that B + A almost certainly doesn’t = J does not change the fact that B + A could equal J, if GRRM decided he wanted it to.

George R.R. Martin could sit at home and deviate from R + L = J if he thought that the books should exist independently from the show. I don’t think that’s very likely, but that is an outcome that could happen if a single human being decided that it should. As every Terminator movie reminds us, the future is not set in stone. We haven’t looked inside the box yet. The Geiger counter has not made its move.

While that’s not terribly compelling evidence against R + L = J, it does remind us of the unique situation we find ourselves in with a television show that has progressed further along than source material that is still actively being written. Imagine the fan outrage if Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 showed how Harry defeated Voldemort before J.K. Rowling released the final volume. That’s pretty much the territory that Game of Thrones finds itself in, albeit with a much larger universe and a lot more lingering questions.

Schrodinger’s Cat reminds us that things cannot happen until they have happened. R + L = J is simultaneously true and not true until the pages are finally released. Only then can the tinfoil fan theories be fully debunked with a definitive sense of clarity. The fact that the show already revealed what was inside its box can give us a pretty good, almost certain, sense of what to expect, but the assumption of reality is not the same as reality itself.

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Monday

23

July 2018

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UnReal Goes Out with a Whimper

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture

UnReal entered the TV landscape as a singular entity. The idea of a Lifetime scripted series winning any award, let alone the prestigious Peabody, still seems pretty ridiculous years after the Bachelor-style scripted drama claimed the prize. UnReal’s first season was a refreshing breath of fresh air for summer programming, which made its downfall all the more unfortunate as each of its three subsequent seasons failed to approach the high bar set by its freshman effort.

The news that season four had dropped on Hulu in its entirety, mere months after April’s season three finale, seemed quite odd, as if Lifetime was looking to dump the remainder of the show on someone else’s doorstep. This confusion fit in perfectly with the chaos that defined the show after its first season, a hot commodity with zero direction. Where season one served as an indoctrination on The Bachelor’s manipulative nature and false premise, season two tried to turn the spotlight on seemingly every other political issue facing the nation, including a much-maligned effort to offer something compelling on the state of racism in the country. Season two was a mess.

Season three corrected some of the issues by avoiding broader American politics, but mostly came up short in its effort to recapture the magic of the first with a season that felt increasingly unnecessary as time went on. UnReal has always had something interesting to say about feminism, with two leads who reveled in the contrast between female empowerment and ruthless ambition, but the show has consistently faltered in its execution of these ideas as fictional stories that a viewer is supposed to actually consume.

It’s far easier to root for the idea of Shiri Appleby’s Rachel Goldberg than the character herself. The character Rachel is a terrible person who does terrible things for reasons that are never really clear or particularly compelling. She acts in service to Everlasting, but something is always missing from the carnage left behind in her wake. Multiple characters die and a penis is severed over the course of our time with Everlasting, but the viewer is never really given much of a reason to support the fictitious show or its mean-spirited showrunners.

While this wasn’t really a problem in season one, when Rachel’s motives were still left relatively undefined and the critiques against reality TV were still fresh, the passage of time was not particularly beneficial to either Rachel or Constance Zimmer’s Quinn, whose conscience looked worse and worse in the face of continued complicity. Rachel and Quinn are fun to watch together. Appleby and Zimmer have great chemistry are frequently able to string together compelling scenes that hint at the idea that there’s something greater at play behind their antics at Everlasting. If only UnReal was better at explaining its motives to the viewer.

Season four meanders quite a bit. Everlasting shifts gears to mirror Bachelor in Paradise with a game show competition for a million dollar prize that the show never fully invests itself in. What could’ve been a great opportunity to use prior contestants to diagnose the symptoms of reality TV became mostly a sideshow dominated by Natalie Hall’s Candy, a plant marketed as a “superfan” competing on Everlasting in an effort to establish her for a later spinoff. Candy distracts from the entire All-Star premise and takes up much of the screen time at the expense of contestants from UnReal’s earlier seasons.

UnReal probably wants to tell you that reality TV exploits sexism for ratings and that those who produce it are awful people who would do anything to top their previous stunts. That message gets lost along the way by the lack any sort of follow-through by the show to endear a single element of its existence to the audience. The closest it comes to succeeding in this task comes in the form of Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman’s Jay, a gay producer who possesses one of the few moral consciences on the set of Everlasting. Problem is, Jay never truly evolves past being the person there to tell everyone else they’d gone too far. Certain events in season four make this notion a little empty as time goes on, a nice sentiment if nothing more.

Season four of UnReal is terrible television. It is not simply bad because it’s entirely made up of bad people doing bad things for bad reasons. It wants us to believe that it acts in service to broader ideas, but never cares to actually engage with the implications of reality TV’s existence. The entire genre exploits its cast, but tens of millions of people still tune in. UnReal wants to say something interesting about that dichotomy, but ends up mirroring the material it parodies by coming up empty on substance. The Bachelor isn’t love, and UnReal isn’t really satire. Both are eerily similar in their core being, as products of consumption without any real depth.

I loved UnReal when it first debuted. It was different, it was raw, and it was exciting. Almost immediately after, it sunk into self-parody and misguided attempts to shine a light on issues it shouldn’t have gone near. None of its final three seasons came anywhere close to the highs experienced in that first year inside the house, which I guess probably says something about the audience that stuck with it, myself included.

I often ridicule the idea of “peak TV” and the people who assign importance to a medium long-regarded as mindless entertainment. Neither ends of this spectrum are representative of television as a whole, but neither could be. We don’t live in a world with absolutes, even if politics and the media constantly try to make us think otherwise.

UnReal existed as a deeply flawed indictment on American culture. It usually failed to shed light on topics it tried to engage with. Despite this, I kept watching anyway. I don’t want there to be a fifth season, but I’d probably watch it, if only to see Quinn rag on Graham one more time. Entertainment can tell us a lot about the world, but sometimes it shouldn’t. Sometimes we watch TV because it feels good, or it used to feel good, and rather than sit and write thousand word think pieces as to why we do the things we do, often it’s better to kick back and enjoy the show.

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Saturday

2

June 2018

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Best F(r)iends: Volume Two Is an Esoteric Odyssey Through Perceptive Reality

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture

The only reasonable expectation one could have heading into Best F(r)iends Vol. Two was that it would be a very strange movie. A Twitter reply from the official movie account stating that this cut was an early preview version only added to the mystique of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero’s latest team up, one where the significance of the parenthesized R in the title really comes to life. Volume One was about a friendship, but Volume Two sets its sights on the ways in which human connection often transform us into, well, fiends.

I found myself constantly thinking of the work of Terrence Malick as the movie rolled along. Like Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life, the cinematography of Volume Two often takes a detour to focus on the macro questions that humanity has grappled with throughout time. One of the many benefits of repeat viewings of The Room is that one finds themselves pondering similar thoughts upon the seventh go-around through that narratives. Sometimes the here and now is less important than the why of it all. I don’t think there’s anyone in Hollywood who understands the importance of that question quite like Tommy Wiseau.

Volume Two has a lot less Tommy Wiseau than the first movie, but his presence never looms far from the narrative. Sestero’s Jon mostly interacts with girlfriend/accomplice Traci, played by Kristen StephensonPino, and her uncle Rick, played by BF newcomer Rick Stanton (though he’s credited on IMDB for the first volume). Rick delivers many of the movie’s most memorable lines not uttered by Wiseau, but the new dynamic somewhat under-delivers on the foundation built between Wiseau and Sestero by the first movie.

In my review of Volume One, I noted how the friendship between Wiseau and Sestero served as the driving force behind all their collaborations, as well as The Disaster Artist. Volume Two furthers this concept by separating the two real-life best friends for much of the movie, reminding us that we can never truly venture too far from that which forms the very ethos of its existence. Wiseau has compared Volume Two to Breaking Bad in interviews over the past few weeks, a comparison that makes sense not just from a narrative standpoint. If Walter White was Bryan Cranston’s career evolution from his time on Malcolm in the Middle, Best F(r)iends is an acknowledgment that Wiseau’s career is destined for another chapter beyond his iconic debut in The Room.

Like Malick, I’ll always be down for whatever’s next for Wiseau. In an era defined by big-budget franchise movies that ooze an aura of complacency and sameness, Tommy has consistently brought something new to the table. The Room is often unfairly pigeonholed into the “so bad it’s good trope,” which has never done justice to the real reason the movie lives on in the present tense in a way that no movie besides The Rocky Horror Picture show can claim. The Room gives its audience something all too foreign to cinema: something fresh.

There were only three people in the theatre for Volume Two, including my partner, far less than the crowd who showed up for the first go around of this two day event. We laughed the entire time. I felt euphoric upon leaving the theatre, experiencing a world where anything was possible. Movies used to make a lot of people feel that way.

Tommy Wiseau’s career has consistently embodied the American dream. He worked hard, refined his talent, and transformed a common abstract ambition into a global phenomenon. Best F(r)iends: Volume Two is both a worthy tribute to the sheer force of nature that willed this career into existence, and a satisfying addition to his legacy. Preview cut or not, I’m very happy to be along for the ride.

 

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Wednesday

30

May 2018

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Transgender Storytime: Being Someone’s First

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Note: This is post is not about sex. 

It can be easy to forget that for all the blame that transgender people receive for various problems in the world, there really aren’t very many of us relative to the rest of the population. This concept is compounded by the idea that there are plenty of places in the country where it isn’t exactly safe to be out of the closet, either as trans or as part of the broader LGBTQ community. There are in fact plenty of people who have never interacted with a transgender person.

As a panelist at the 2018 Con of Thrones in Dallas this past weekend, I learned that I was the first transgender person that a few of the audience had ever talked with. I know this because they told me, which is kind of a strange burden to place on an individual, as if their conduct or behavior speaks on behalf of their entire community. Other friends at the Con expressed shock that anyone would even say that to me at all, which reflects the unusual nature of the position that transgender people can find themselves in with regard to representation.

There is a certain question posed to women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, etc. to explain the concept of privilege by people who don’t have the perspective of knowing what it’s like to live without it. Variations of the phrase, “it’s not my job to explain sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.” exist to reflect the burden often placed on the oppressed to be expected to talk about this kind of stuff. Not every person who falls under any of those categories either wants to, or has the time to oblige every one of those requests. For the vast majority of us, it’s not our job.

It’s not really my job either, but I did publish a book called The Transgender Manifesto that sought in part to dissect the state of the national conversation surrounding LGBTQ people. In that sense, I am familiar with most of the boilerplate questions that are asked about transgender people and how to answer them. I don’t really mind being the first transgender person that others interact with. Often times, I actually enjoy the conversation.

The national conversation regarding LGBTQ topics in general has drastically improved over the course of my lifetime. You almost never hear people talk about whether being gay is a choice anymore, in part because society at large has finally accepted that it’s not. Straight people don’t really get points anymore for stating that fact, but the notion that it’s not talked about is kind of a big deal because it signals something we don’t see all that often: progress.

I talk a lot about how transgender equality is inevitable, as society finally comes to grips with the fact that we are human beings who exist. The question is really a matter of when, which is where the importance of visibility comes in. It’s far easier to rail against an abstract concept on Twitter than a living person. That’s why trolls rarely tend to be as hateful in person as they are online.

So for me, being someone’s first is an opportunity. The discussion rarely focuses on transgender issues too much, since that’s hardly the most interesting aspect of your average trans person’s life. It’s an unfair burden to place on a community as a whole, and I worry about the people who really don’t want to be asked these questions.

From a personal standpoint, as someone who spent their formative years never believing that a world that accepted transgender people would exist in my lifetime, I feel an obligation both to my younger self and the future generations to fight as hard as I can for transgender equality. If that means some cringe-worthy conversations, so be it. Those who came before us paved the way for the LGBTQ victories we enjoy today. It’s up to us to get the job done.

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Tuesday

29

May 2018

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Solo Plays It Safe with an Iconic Character Known for Taking Risks

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I often credit the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels for fostering my love of reading at an early age. While not exactly Faulkner-quality prose, the familiar characters allowed me to read narratively complex stories in elementary school. I’ll always be grateful to the EU for opening that door for me, even as I recognized that its end made sense from a logistical perspective as Star Wars looked to the future.

The balance of fan service has been a central pillar of the Disney era. Star Wars movies have never just been movies. These are films that carry deeper meanings to the millions of fans who have obsessed over them for decades. Future Star Wars installments will always be received not just on their own merits, but what fans wanted them to be.

Kylo Ren’s urging to “let the past die” in The Last Jedi carried the sense that it was speaking to the fanbase at large, reminding us all that this is just entertainment. If Solo: A Star Wars Story was viewed solely through the prism of an action movie, the reception would likely be much better. As a movie, it is very entertaining.

As a Star Wars movie, it’s safe. Too safe to star a character who once uttered the phrase, “never tell me the odds.” Han is a bold character. You wouldn’t necessarily pick up on that from Alden Ehrenreich’s performance. Harrison Ford’s presence will always linger no matter what, but Ehrenreich made the mistake of not giving the audience something else to chew on. He does an adequate job with a character where adequate would never be enough.

Donald Glover succeeds where Ehrenreich fails in his portrayal of Lando Calrissian, which keeps the essence of Billy Dee Williams’ iconic performance while adding a new layer to the character. His Lando is an affectionately faithful adaptation of the character that Glover still manages to make his own. I’d be very interested in a spinoff featuring the character, who has more depth than the rest of the cast combined, excluding Joonas Suotamo’s Chewbacca, who continues to excel as the emotional backbone of the franchise.

Solo suffers from too many callbacks, an issue that plagued A Force Awakens, especially in repeat viewings. I’m not sure how many fans really cared to see how Han would make the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs before the film came out, and I’m sure that number is smaller after its release. In this realm, Solo probably suffers from a bit of franchise fatigue, as TFA largely escaped criticism essentially functioning as a remake of A New Hope.

The novelty of new Star Wars movies has certainly worn off. Kylo Ren can tell us to give up the past, but Disney wants to have it both ways by constantly reminding us of earlier, better entries to the series. Solo is not a bad movie, but it exists as part of a franchise that has safe distance from the prequels. Entertaining isn’t going to be enough for plenty of people.

My past Star Wars related articles have grappled with the fandom dilemma. I’ll always see the franchise as that thing I obsessed over as a child. I’ve forged friendships based on a common love of obscure quotes from the original trilogies. I know that this thing belongs to Disney now. I’ll always see Star Wars as more than just a movie franchise, but it is no longer something I obsess about. I let Star Wars go. As a result, I left the theatre satisfied with two hours of an enjoyable narrative.

Solo never wanted to be more than a decent movie. Fans have come to expect something more from Star Wars. In a movie laced with callbacks and references, it’s hard to fault them for not letting go. Disney can tell us to forget the past, but it should take its own advice with future entries.

For more on Star Wars, here are my reviews of The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi, as well as an article lamenting the end of the Expanded Universe and one rethinking Luke Skywalker

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Wednesday

2

May 2018

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Five Issues for The MCU Until Avengers 4

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture

Note: This article is riddled with spoilers. Do NOT read it if you haven’t seen the movie and care about that kind of stuff. I’ve written a spoiler-free review, which you can read here. Otherwise, you can read my books until the time comes when you should return to my website to read this article. It’s long and I worked hard on it.

There are a lot of things to love about Infinity War, but narrative resolution is definitely not one of them. The movie has less of an ending and more of a year-long intermission. Until then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has two movies and a couple tv shows planned until Thanos returns.

A year is a long time to wait for that to happen, especially when some of the dust bunnies have their own solo movies in the not so distant future. This article addresses the issues that will linger during the gap between Avengers installments. Some could have long-term ramifications, others may end up not mattering at all. Let’s take a look at what will be affected by the uncertain fates of half the MCU.

 

The Shared Timeline Has a Dust Problem

 

There are two MCU movies set to premiere before Avengers 4. We know 2019’s Captain Marvel is set in the 1990s, but from what we know Ant-Man and the Wasp takes place between the events of Civil War and Infinity War. It’s hardly a bold prediction to suggest that at least some of the film, presumably toward the end, will deal with the fallout of the finger snap of dust and why Ant-Man (and maybe Hawkeye) wasn’t in Wakanda helping to save the world.

From the trailers and what we know of MCU solo movies, it seems fairly safe to assume that much of Ant-Man and the Wasp will have nothing to do with Infinity War. They’re going to do their own thing. The tone of the trailer is fairly light-hearted, completely disconnected from the doom and gloom that Thanos brought. That makes sense considering the nature of the character, as well as star Paul Rudd, but it’s puzzling considering what just happened to Earth.

The trailer also introduces the Quantum Realm, which could very well factor into Avengers 4’s resolution. There may be a very good reason for why this movie needs to be sandwiched in-between Avengers entries, especially given Ant-Man’s absence from Infinity War. That doesn’t really change the fact that the MCU sort of looks like it’s trying to have it both ways. By setting Ant-Man and the Wasp before Infinity War, the film gets to be a fun caper while ostensibly putting forth the in-universe reason for why its characters didn’t show up in a movie that was presumably being filmed at the same time.

MCU movies move the ball forward, not backwards. ­Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t an origin story like Captain America: The First Avenger or Captain Marvel that has the luxury of being able to take a step back from the action to establish its hero. Imagine if Winter Soldier took place in-between the post-credit scene of First Avenger and the events of The Avengers. Inter-connectedness means that actions in one movie affect another. Getting around that by setting an installment in the very recent past feels like a bit of a cop-out.

 Marvel’s TV shows might exist as part of the overall continuity, but this really isn’t something that matters at all. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is really the only one out of the near dozen series that even tries to follow what the movies are doing. This is in spite of the fact that all five of the Netflix series take place in New York City, a location that features heavily into the films. The events of The Avengers are referenced several times, but the details of the attacks don’t ever factor into any of the series in any meaningful way.

I don’t mean to suggest this is a bad thing. Separation of Church and state is certainly warranted with the sheer amount of content. My only issue is that the events of Infinity War feel like the first really impossible thing to pretend doesn’t radically change everything. This isn’t a case of Spider-Man not showing up at a Daredevil fight that presumably takes place near his neighborhood, but one where the entire structure of the world is changed, at least temporarily.

Half the world is dust. How do Daredevil or Runaways not address this? I don’t think there’s an answer to that, but I also don’t think they actually will. What’s the point of a shared universe that doesn’t actually share the universe?

 

Hype for Future Movies

 

Marvel hasn’t said much about Phase Four. We know that there will be a Black Panther 2, a Spider-Man 2, and a Guardians of the Galaxy 3. It seems rather ridiculous to think that any of these movies will be made without their key players, including Gamora.

 We also know that there will be an Avengers 4 next year, which will presumably alter the events of Infinity War’s ending. Fans will head into that movie with a fair degree of certainty of this fact, which is an unusual position for an MCU movie to be in, as Marvel doesn’t tend to give much away in terms of plot. Trouble is, that’s a year away.

The Phase 4 movies will start production before that. We will know if T’Challa, Peter Parker, or Groot reappear in these movies. Marvel is good at keeping plenty of secrets, but those are pretty big ones to keep under wraps.

Is that good for enthusiasm? It might be impossible to say, as I imagine all three of those films will make a boatload of money, but there’s this thing hanging up in the air. I’m not sure why.

We don’t know who will die in Avengers 4, or who will stay dead, but we do know that Marvel is not going to make piles on money into dust by taking several of its hottest stars off the map. The fates of Iron Man and Captain America are up in the air largely because of the expected departures of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. We don’t have that kind of uncertainty with Black Panther, Spider-Man, or Star-Lord, but for the next year we’re expected to pretend to. Hard to say that makes much sense.

 

Hype for Current Movies

 

What’s the difference between hype for current and future movies? Black Panther is still in theatres in many places. It hasn’t even been three months, but now it exists in a world where the fate of its star is currently in limbo. Peter Parker is in a similar position less than a year after the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming.

I don’t expect that we’ll live in a world where either of these characters stay dead forever, but we’re going to spend the next year with that question lingering in everyone’s head. That’s a pretty unusual position for two characters widely expected to be two of the main centerpieces for the MCU going forward. Considering Black Panther’s historic performance, I also don’t think it’s a particularly welcome distraction either.

While this a problem that seems likely to pertain solely to this year, it remains a deeply puzzling decision. Franchises are obviously affected by each entry, but fans typically don’t go from film to film with uncertainty surrounding the fate of the main character, especially in the superhero genre. The fact that it should barely even constitute uncertainty doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a weird feint.

T’Challa & Peter Parker have more wind at their sails than anyone in the MCU. This doesn’t help that at all. I’m not sure we’ve ever been in a position where a superhero died in a film while his previous movie was still airing in theatres. Future installments are always affected by their preceding entries. We’ve never seen this kind of thunder-stealing toward a movie that literally just came out.

 

Star-Lord Needs to Rehab His Image

 

This issue sort of falls into the same category of the first two, except in one key way. The uncertainty surrounding many of the MCU characters creates some marketing issues that the franchise will have to work around, but there will almost certainly be a point when these people do return to their franchises. There are millions and millions of fans out there who want them to.

Star-Lord is in a bit of a different position from the others in that he’s not only a pile of dust, but he’s also the reason we have piles of dust. The ending of Infinity War is entirely and solely his fault. Peter Quill’s temper tantrum may have destroyed the world.

As a result of that, any attempts to fix this mess that lead to subsequent casualties will also be his fault. That’ll matter more if any of the departing cast are permanently killed off in the effort to bring back the dust bunnies. Tony Stark may have his happy ending with Pepper denied because Quill needed to sock Thanos right before they defeated him anyway.

The Guardians of the Galaxy movies are pretty upbeat and fun, even when Rocket and Quill are mad at each other. These characters have great chemistry which endeared them to the audience. As of now, Rocket is the only one left.

I don’t think that’s going to last, as the Guardians’ cast dynamic is too perfect to continue without Gamora, Quill, Drax, and Groot. Their collective inability to follow basic plans was a major plot point of Infinity War, but Quill’s actions quite literally almost ruined everything. His image is going to be in need of some serious rehabilitation. The fate of his franchise pretty much depends on it.

A similar issue popped up in Age of Ultron, where Tony Stark’s actions almost got everyone killed. People did die, including a bunch of nameless Sokovians and the less interesting cinematic Quicksilver that isn’t played by Evan Peters, but Iron Man’s tinkering didn’t kill any beloved major characters. He also didn’t build Ultron as the other Avengers shouted at him that doing so would ruin the universe and get them all killed. Tony carried his guilt with him, which set the plot of Civil War in motion.

I don’t necessarily want a guilt-ridden Star-Lord, but that’s where we’re at. He did something very dumb. He needs to address that. Whatever gets them out of that mess shouldn’t let him off the hook.

Much has been made of Doctor Strange’s timeline and how there was only one out of millions of outcomes that had them beating Thanos. This should not excuse Quill’s actions. Free-will is still a thing that people care about. He needs to own up for his behavior. Anything else runs the risk of cheapening Guardians 3. Laughs without substance can’t carry a film, and heart that doesn’t feel remorse doesn’t make for a compelling protagonist. My big hope for Avengers 4 is that it thoroughly addresses this issue. I don’t want to hate Peter Quill, but that’s pretty much where we’re at.

 

Time Stone Ex Machina

 

There are deaths and then there are comic book deaths. Infinity War has deaths and then it has dust deaths. Some of those will be reversed. The Time Stone will almost certainly play a role in that.

That’s a dangerous can of worms to open. Other characters like Loki have returned, something that Infinity War mentioned a few times. Trouble is, when you stage one mass resurrection, you create the possibility that any resurrection can happen. Comic book readers are used to that, but these are still murky waters for the MCU to wade into.

Many speculative articles have emerged since Infinity War wondering which deaths will stick. The clear distinction between deaths and dust deaths present in the movie is complicated when you consider that the four “real” deaths (Loki, Heimdall, Vision, Gamora) could all conceivably return. One has already escaped death once before, one is Asgardian, one is an android, and the one is a main character in one of the MCU’s most valuable franchises moving forward.

These four are not necessarily in the same boat. Tom Hiddleston and Idris Elba have stated that they have other things they want to do, and given their characters’ early deaths it seems far more likely that their characters will remain dead, though the fact that a Thor 4 looks way more likely than another Iron Man or Captain America film complicates this idea. Infinity War spent a lot of time talking about how the Vision could survive without the Mind Stone, laying down the groundwork for his return. Fans have speculated that Gamora is “trapped” in the Soul Stone, potentially setting up her return in either the next film or Guardians 3 (setting up a potential Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest dynamic if the latter film becomes a quest to get her back). None of these need to be permanent.

Trouble is, some of the cast will be leaving the franchise. It seems highly likely that Avengers 4 will see more deaths where the characters stay dead. The gravity of that runs the risk of being cheapened when there’s always the revival option lingering there. Even if the Stones are destroyed, the idea that something else could do the trick still remains. Comic books always find a way.

I don’t expect every departing character to die. The end of Tony Stark & Steve Rogers can be the end, for now. Leading a major franchise tends to eat up a lot of one’s time. I wouldn’t blame any of the original cast members for wanting time off, just as I suspect some of them will miss the limelight a few years down the road. Death, or retirement, doesn’t need to be the end of anything.

Marvel has been pretty good at protecting its solo films from the aura of “why doesn’t so and so show up to help?” that don’t necessarily have great narrative explanations. Infinity War has created some new issues for the MCU that its follow up will need to address. Fortunately, the company has a pretty flawless track record for pulling this stuff off. Big team-ups have big consequences, especially when there are so many valuable franchises to protect. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and then unhurt by the Time Stone.

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May 2018

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Avengers: Infinity War Sets the Stage for the Endgame

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Note: This review does not contain spoilers.

When I recently re-watched Avengers: Age of Ultron, I was surprised by the relative intimacy of its opening sequence. The amount of characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe had expanded rapidly in Phase Two, but the Avengers team that began that movie was exactly the same as the one that defended New York at the end of the first team-up. The larger cast didn’t seriously compete with the core group for screen time.

That changed in Phase Three. Captain America: Civil War often feels like an Avengers movie because it brought together the core group (minus Hulk & Thor), the Ultron additions (Scarlett Witch & Vision) the supporting casts of previous solo films (War Machine, Falcon, Bucky), along with Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and Black Panther, whose niches in the MCU are not as intrinsically linked to the Avengers as the first group, who were brought together by Nick Fury. Throw in Doctor Strange & The Guardians of the Galaxy and you wind up with the dynamic that Infinity War has to deal with.

It’s a balance that Ultron seemed pretty aware of, keeping War Machine and Falcon at an arm’s length until the end of the movie, even though both had skills that could’ve been valuable throughout the whole movie. Infinity War brings together basically every superhero from the MCU films, a juggling act that seems almost impossible to pull off within a single movie. Just as the Russo brothers pulled off Civil War’s large ambitions, Infinity War is a testament to their pacing prowess.

Infinity War is a very fun movie that rarely stops to take a breath. As the nineteenth installment of a franchise meant to be the culmination of every previous film, it manages to reward those who followed the Infinity Stones without ever punishing causal viewers for forgetting when they last saw an obscure character from an earlier entry. It gives the major players their fair share of screen time without wasting any scenes on superfluous interaction. The specific pair ups are clever, and the film has plenty of comedy to help offset the dire stakes at hand.

My only real point of contention with the movie lies with the handling of a certain character. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the issue brings to light the unique position that Infinity War finds itself in as a film meant to be the beginning of the end for many of the original Avengers. Characters make decisions ostensibly to keep the drama flowing to warrant another movie, but those actions have consequences that might not be limited to just the narrative. You’ve got to wonder how future movies will be impacted if the audience loses faith in one of the stars.

I would note that the movie does not spend much time wrapping up loose plot points from previous entries. It doesn’t have time to, but those viewers desperate for answers for lingering questions from entries like Civil War or Thor: Ragnarok are probably going to be disappointed. Essentially, if you’re one of those people who was bothered by Ragnarok’s unceremonious ending for the Warriors Three (not sure how many of these people there are out there, but I’ve seen a few on the internet), Infinity War will have more mundane things for you to be annoyed about. That’s not a terribly big concern, but not necessarily illegitimate from a narrative standpoint.

It is hard to write a review for a movie that will be officially concluded in a year’s time. I suspect most people know that going in, so I don’t see the point in knocking some late-inning plot twists that are already controversial. Infinity War seems to be a movie that will be judged by its legacy less than its immediate reception.

But for now, I had a good time. This was a movie with seemingly impossible expectations that offered a thrilling experience. There are lingering questions, particularly around the ending, that next year’s untitled Avengers movie will have to address. Infinity War set the stage for the finale of this era of the MCU quite well without crippling under the weight of its large cast of characters.

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April 2018

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Homeland and The Joys of Habitual Viewing

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A couple weeks ago my partner was deciding when to head back to her place on a Sunday evening. I said she was welcome to stay as long as she liked (naturally), but that Homeland was coming on and I needed to watch it because my grandfather and I usually discuss the episode the next day. This notion was particularly important because in previous seasons my grandfather would e-mail or text his thoughts before checking if I’d seen it, which had revealed some spoilers (this has not happened this year), which is a reflection of the fact that until relatively recently, that was what people did.

Nowadays, it’s far less certain when people will get to their shows. DVRs have tons of space, and every premium channel has a streaming app for those who don’t have cable. The necessity to physically be in front of the TV when a show comes on just isn’t there anymore. The shows that carry a high risk of social media spoilers, like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Westworld tend to fall into this new category of “event viewing” which has essentially replaced the concept of the water cooler show in the American lexicon. Gone are the days where a program like ER could capture the attention of an entire office for twenty-two weeks out of the year.

Homeland is not a worldwide phenomenon watched by over a hundred million people. It has respectable ratings for a show in its seventh season and remains a perennial awards show presence even though it’s been years since it won a major trophy. It is past its prime, but still entertaining to watch, beyond the joys I get from discussing it with my grandfather.

As someone who writes about TV, I watch a fair amount of shows on a week-to-week basis, but there are very few I feel compelled to consume the same night they air. I almost never watch shows that air during the 10:00 pm hour live, though that’s reflective of the fact that I now live on the West Coast, where the premium channels air their content at the same time as the East Coast. Being able to watch Game of Thrones at six in the evening is the kind of luxury that doesn’t make you want to stay up late to watch it live, especially when you have a TV in your bedroom (though that only a Roku).

The streaming era has dulled the sense of urgency to watch a show when it’s on, just as binge-watching has normalized the concept of a backlogged DVR full of stuff to pick from. The sheer number of quality shows out there is pretty intimidating even for a pop culture fanatic, but I can certainly remember growing up having to pick between a Boy Meets World rerun, a Hey Arnold rerun, or a Johnny Bravo rerun if I wanted to watch something. Having full autonomy over one’s remote does represent an underrated achievement of the modern era. We’ve cured boredom.

There’s still a part of me that takes a simple pleasure in sitting down to watch a show at a certain time, romanticizing the notion of curation. Tony Kornheiser used to close out Pardon the Interruption by asking Michael Wilbon variations of “give the people something to watch tonight.” I almost never listened to his suggestions, but I always liked hearing what he looked forward to watching.

Goodnight Canada

It’s a stupid thing to care about, but as a devoted fan of SiriusXM (particularly 1st Wave), I like the idea of a human being showing me things that I might be interested in, something to look forward to at the end of the day. You get to feel as if you’re part of something bigger, even it’s an hour of dragons or CIA agents foiling terrorist plots. In a world full of seemingly endless options, it’s nice to have a few picked out for you.

 

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April 2018

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Far Cry 5 Is (Unsurprisingly) Not a Political Game

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Politics is everywhere in American culture nowadays. It feels like forever since we lived in a time when major news organizations didn’t dedicate significant coverage to the social media habits of tweeter-in-chief. Far Cry 4 came out two years before Donald Trump’s inauguration, and only a few months before his final season hosting Celebrity Apprentice. It seems rather natural Far Cry 5, with its Montana setting and fanatical religious zealots, would draw comparisons to the Trump presidency, especially as it is the first game in the series to have a domestic setting. Numerous articles have popped up over the past few weeks noting this phenomenon, many suggesting a deliberate association between crazed cultists and the man who once implored his Twitter followers to check out a sex tape in the middle of the night.

Having played Far Cry 5, I can’t really say there’s much more evidence to further the theory that the game is meant to be a commentary on Trump. I don’t think the game has much to say about cults either, except for the fact that they are bad. The game has a hallucinogenic drug called Bliss, clearly inspired by the opioid crisis, but the big takeaway from its inclusion is also fairly rudimentary. Drugs are bad.

Far Cry 5 is not a complex game. You liberate a county in Montana from a cult leader by going around and shooting things. You can customize your character with various perks, but those processes are far less complex than something out of Fallout 4 or Skyrim. Essentially, the game is a cross between Grand Theft Auto V and Assassin’s Creed: Origins. There is no real point where the character stops to examine the morality of their situations or the broader ramifications for a country that allows religious zealots complete autonomy over full counties.  For many, that’s not surprising.

What might be surprising to people is that Far Cry 5 was made in Canada, a joint venture between Ubisoft’s studios in Toronto and Montreal. Ubisoft itself is a French company. While these facts certainly don’t disqualify them from being able, or wanting to create a narrative that offers complex commentary on the current state of American politics, it is not insignificant to note that the people developing this game do not necessarily live in an environment where everything revolves around Trump. It is possible that they just wanted to make a video game.

A not surprising notion is that a major company would not want to potentially alienate, or anger, much of America by turning a video game into a political referendum. That dilemma cuts both ways, potentially pissing off the Trumpkins as well as those who would rather just blow things up than consider what the narrative says about society as a whole. Politics often bleeds into entertainment, but video games tend to skirt the association. Far Cry 5’s $310 million dollar opening week probably best explains why.

Far Cry 5 clearly did not want to explore the nuances of the deplorables. Its main villain Joseph often sounds like a cross between Matthew McConaughey and Albert Wesker in the final battle of Resident Evil 5, offering extremely lame lines that rarely evoke feelings that hardly suggest there’s something philosophical underneath the layers of generic evil. I could see him as a radical televangelist appearing on a Hannity segment, but not as anything resembling an intellectual.

Ironically, Far Cry 5 has received criticism for being too apolitical, or bland, which is where I see the danger in associating everything with Trump. The game drew fire in 2017 for its perceived attacks on Christians, and then got slammed for avoiding that subject. Neither of these positions reflect the actual substance of the game, which does carry a certain sense of blandness in its repetitive gameplay and uninspired villain.

The reviews for Far Cry 5 have mostly skewed positive in spite of those criticisms, earning a B- score if you average the Metacritic scores across PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. From my own experience, that’s a fair rating. It’s a fun game, but a flawed one.

I can’t shake the idea that the whole Trump controversy made it so that the B- ratings essentially represented the ceiling for the game. The gameplay might be a bit bland, but the story was essentially destined for that label by token of not containing the politics that people assumed would be there a year before the game came out. Far Cry 5 can’t be evaluated solely on its own merits because of a media “controversy” that it never really deserved.

You could apply the same standard to any game. I could write an article on how the Nintendo 64 game Yoshi’s Story, which was released in North America in 1998, was meant to be a commentary on the rising obesity epidemic using the game’s Fruit Frame plot device as the basis for the argument that the game is subtly trying to get kids to eat healthier. That theory might sound ridiculous, but if something had raised that point before the game came out, some of the reviews would naturally address whether or not the cute dinosaur had ulterior motives for his adventures.

Is there an ulterior motive for all these healthy foods?

Is that fair? No, but that doesn’t mean a compelling case couldn’t be made, especially before the game’s release. Just like that, the story structure of an entire team of developers that took years to create could be undermined by a think piece that draws lines between things that don’t necessarily need to be related.

Far Cry 5 was probably inevitably going to draw comparisons to Trump, which is unfortunate. It shouldn’t have to be viewed through the lens of a political scope just because someone can do that. Anyone can do that for any game. The fact that this one had a Montana setting and bunch of religious loons might make it easier for someone to write an article connecting the two together, but that doesn’t mean it was deserved. The kind of logic is lazy, and gave a bland game a predetermined aura of blandness that seems like the only possible outcome.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of Far Cry 5 for my review. I’ve had Yoshi’s Story since I was seven and still play it often.

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April 2018

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Renly Baratheon: Queer Icon

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Power is a dangerous thing to assign motive toward. Its allure is so strong that it tends to skirt the good/bad spectrum in weird ways, as the seemingly noble can turn out to be completely full of it. People, just or evil, often find themselves drawn to power for the very same reasons.

As someone who’s championed the #StandWithStannis movement from the moment D&D committed character assassination against the One True King, I’m never been a huge fan of Renly Baratheon. He’s a terrible brother. He’s the kind of guy you might have fun with at a rave, but you probably wouldn’t count on him to show up to help you move apartments. Donal Noye’s observation that, “Renly, that one, he’s copper, bright and shiny, pretty to look at but not worth all that much at the end of the day” (ACOK: Jon 1) pretty much tells you all you need to know about the man.

Except one big detail. Renly is gay. I could say that fact doesn’t matter, or affect any of his decisions, but of course it does. LGBT people don’t live in a world where that fact doesn’t affect the macro order of things, especially one’s employment.

Renly challenged the status quo, not as the rightful claimant, but as the most desirable one. He was not the grumpy choice, the sadistic child option, or one that would split apart the Seven Kingdoms. He didn’t have a great claim, but he had a big army.  Under the old way of thinking, that wouldn’t have been enough, but gay people are used to encountering that kind of mindset that tries to keep a hold on the future. Renly wasn’t about to let the dated patriarchal structure dictate his ambitions.

Those who deny the existence of privilege often do so by pointing to a lack perceived “added bonus” for being white or male, ignoring the institutional benefits that stem from a system controlled in perpetuity by the patriarchy, a concept that occasionally manifests itself through the term, “boy’s club.” That concept has altered my approach to career opportunities since I came out, giving the stakes a heightened sense of importance each time one comes around. I am aware that there are plenty people out there who will never give me serious consideration strictly on the basis of my gender identity. Plenty of politicians want to make it so companies can legally discriminate against LGBT people. The playing field has never been fair.

The Westerosi power dynamic shares a similar fondness for nepotism. Kings are born, not chosen. Robert’s Rebellion changed that to some extent, but it wasn’t really until the legitimacy of his offspring came into question that the subject of the line of secession became a point that could be debated. Suddenly an opportunity presented itself.

Enter Renly.

Stannis & Joffrey claimed the Iron Throne by right of birth. Robb & Balon took a more isolationist, regional approach based off theory that King’s Landing was too much of a mess to properly govern over their regions. As for Renly, well, he just kind of wanted it. He said some stuff about how he’d be the best king and all, which probably wasn’t true, but that’s not really that important. What matters is that someone, namely House Tyrell, gave Renly a chance. LGBT people don’t get that many chances.

Can we fault Renly for seizing the greatest opportunity of his life? Some might point to the mess he made, costing Stannis the throne, or how he probably wouldn’t have made a very good king. The fact that Stannis was more qualified to rule Westeros is not that important when you consider that the throne is not decided on merit. The sole consistent qualifier is that the person should be the eldest male heir. Once that certainty was tossed out the window, there really weren’t any merits from which that question should be decided. That’s why war started.

People point to Renly as selfish, ignoring that being king is selfish. Selfish people rule Westeros just as they rule every institution of power. By comparison, queer people don’t rule over all that much. Renly tried to change to that.

There is a counterargument in the sense that as Lord of Storm’s End, Renly was already in a position of power, but this is not particularly relevant. Complacency is the enemy of activism. Few in the LGBT community are interested in settling for the victory of Obergefell v. Hodges when there’s so much progress left to be made. We don’t want to be told to be satisfied. Renly didn’t either.

Renly would not be my choice to rule Westeros, but I admire his drive. He saw something he wanted, went for it, and likely would have succeeded if he hadn’t been executed by a shadow baby. As a fellow member of the LGBT community, I admire his drive. It’s tough to throw yourself out there, knowing some people will laugh and think of you as a fool just because of who you are.

I don’t love Renly, but I’m glad Westeros’ most prominent gay character made a play for the Iron Throne. Life is about opportunities, including the ones you create on your own. Renly knew a thing or two about taking what he wanted, even he’d rather play at tournament than lead men into battle. At least that was his choice to make.

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